I just finished Peter Singer’s Book on Marx. I thought it was well-written and Singer does an excellent job of explaining Marx’s position and his overall philosophy. In the end, Singer gives an evaluation of Marx and explains Marx’s critique of the liberal notion of freedom. It’s something I’ve never really thought about, but it something that Singer says that whether you agree with him or not, it’s still a major contribution to political philosophy and it’s something that every political thinker needs to face. So what’s the critique? I’ll summarize Singer:
- Let’s start with the liberal notion of freedom. According to this idea of freedom, I’m free if I don’t have any interference from other people.
- Now, I do have limits to this freedom. The government can interfere if I infringe on my neighbor’s freedom, for example. In that sense, my freedom can be restricted.
- With this, freedom is at it’s maximum where each individual can do what s/he pleases as long as there’s no interference onto others.
- Ok, so this seems like it fits into capitalism. Let’s say that an employer offers a job with a wage of $10/hr. for forty hrs. a week. Under the liberal notion of freedom, anyone can choose, without interference from others, to accept or reject this offer.
- If you accept this offer, then the employer will use your labor to make a widget and he offers these widgets for sale at a certain price, and again anyone can freely choose whether or not to buy them at this price.
- And anyone who can do better is free to set up their own business to make a better or cheaper widget.
- So, no one is forced to work for or buy from this business or any individual.
Now comes Marx. He has a huge objection to this. To explain this, I’ll switch to a more current example:
Suppose that we all live in the suburbs and in order to come to work or go to school in the city, we either have to drive here or take the bus. I, personally, don’t want to wait for a bus, so I’ll take my car. Most of you, I would assume, don’t want to wait for a bus so you’ll drive too. In fact, thousands of other people will probably be thinking the same thing. Now because of that, the roads are much more clogged with cars. And because of that, it takes each of us an hour to travel 10 miles. Ok, now in the liberal notion of freedom, we have all chosen freely. No one deliberately interfered with our choices. However, notice that the outcome is something that none of us want. If we all went by bus, the roads would be empty and we could cover this distance in 15 minutes. Even if there was the inconvenience of a bus stop, we’d all want that. Now we are free to alter our choice of transportation, but what can we do? A lot of cars also slows the bus down, so why should any individual choose differently? Thus, there’s a paradox in the liberal notion of freedom: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one’s interest. It’s individual rationality, but collective irrationality. So what’s the solution? We should all come together and make a collective decision. Individually, we can’t bring about a situation that we desire. Together, we can achieve what we want. Marx saw capitalism forming a collective irrationality. We assume that that we can choose what we want and where to work under capitalism. But we don’t even have control over our own lives. This isn’t because people choose badly. It’s because all of these individual choices results in a society where no one has chosen that result. So where the liberal conception of freedom says that we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says that we aren’t free because we don’t even control our own society. Remember, economic conditions not only determines our wages, but it also determines our politics, religion, and our ideas (the substructure forms and creates the superstructure).
Any sort of rationally organized industrialization should make us enjoy an abundance of material goods with a minimum effort. Under capitalism, however, these advances actually reduces the value of the commodity produced, which means that the worker must work just as long for the same wage. With this, if there is no overall planning or direction in the economy, it leads to a crisis of over- or underproduction which is itself a crisis which signifies an irrational system. Recessions happen through this “free” economy where neither the workers nor the capitalists want. Economic value now has a life of its own. Money takes on a life of its own it has more value than the worker does. Yet these economic relations are our own unwitting creations. Now they’re not deliberately chosen but nevertheless the outcome of our own individual choices and thus potentially subject to our will. So we’re not truly free until, instead of letting our creations control us, we collectively take control of them. Thus, a free market is actually a contradiction in terms for Marx. A free market means that the market, the economy controls you. Rather, we should control the market. We should control our economy. And this means we need a planned economy. Any unplanned economy makes human beings subservient to the economy. A planned economy, however, is reasserting a human sovereignty and it’s an essential step towards true human freedom.
It’s an interesting argument. I know that when you hear the word “Marx” there’s an automatic reaction. But just for a brief second, pretend that it’s someone else making this argument. It seems to hold. What do you think?