Marx’s Critique of the Liberal Notion of Freedom

https://i0.wp.com/www.donalforeman.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Marx.jpgI 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:

  1. 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.
    1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. And anyone who can do better is free to set up their own business to make a better or cheaper widget.
    3. 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?

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
This entry was posted in Capitalism, Economics, Marx, Paper Topic, Peter Singer. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Marx’s Critique of the Liberal Notion of Freedom

  1. thekillerj says:

    How can there be a collective choice? You aren’t going to get a consensus on what the best “planned economy” is going to be, therefore, you’ll be restricting the choices of those that don’t like the plan.

    • shaunmiller says:

      Good move! I actually don’t have the answer. It seems that with collective choice, you’re forcing people to do something that they don’t want to do. Of course, Marx would say that that would never happen because with the abolition of Capitalism, everyone will start thinking collectively instead individually. I agree with your skepticism. I think individual thinking will still be there no matter what economic system one is in. Singer also brings up that Marx’s notion of the superstructure coming from the substructure may hold except for our human nature. He talks about how there were studies where in a society that wasn’t capitalist, people still thought of individuality. Not to the extent of a capitalistic economy, but there were still notions of “me” and “mine.” So it’s a good point that you make.

  2. John says:

    Shaun,
    Interesting blog post. However, there are a few answers to Marx that I think Singer underestimates -consider the empirical experiments that have been preformed about collectivist decision making on economic grounds, namely, China. China was the epitome of Marx’s system/ideology; it was a command economy that was collectively ran and very much centralized all corresponding to basic Marx economics. However, as we all know, it failed. During the Great Leap Forward over 25 million Chinese citizens died, on farms, from starvation. The total economic output of China had fallen bellow many African nations and production was of low quality and very inefficient -thus, the development of the Economic Free-Rider problem. Marxist thought generates incredible inefficiently and low productivity in general; I mean, sure, it sounds nice to “collectively” coordinate together, but all the studies that we have have shown a mass failure for this type of thought (John Nash and the Nash Equilibrium is a good example of this). The other answer stems from John Lewis and his conceptions of convention and game theory, individual actors that possess certain values, when presented with conflict, turn toward innovation to alleviate suffering -thus, capitalism, allows for more technological innovation and progress the centralized convention.

    Marx was brilliant, but he missed the boat. Like Keynes said, “the ideas of political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood…” Marx was wrong, but hey who can say what is right -I guess.

  3. John,

    I think while on the surface China looked like a Marxist paradise, it is as corrupt as the USSR.

    Marx only works when people are upright, good, and incorruptible. Of course that’s also what’s necessary for democracy and any form of government to work.

    I would argue that the Great Leap forward was more of a tyrannical move to eliminate “dissidents” than it was a Marxist experiment.

    Shaun, to engage your post of Marx:

    From a human development standpoint, having a few negative experiences makes an individual a more well rounded person. Discipline and punishment, while personally negative, make for a better human being. Erikson even states that each of his development stages require negative experiences. Too much positive makes a naive, selfish and unempathetic human being. AKA spoiled brat!

    So in that sense, we often need to be forced to do something we don’t want to do. For the betterment of society, ourselves, and everyone else.

  4. john says:

    Matthew,
    I suppose you could categorize the Great Leap Forward as that, so let me re-position my point. First, let us just look at the general economic structure of China before 1978. It was largely built upon a Marxian conception of exchange and production factors (Centralized economic decision making, combined with collective local governments), still my point remains -it failed. Following 1978, China began to radically move toward less economic decision making by beginning a march toward capitalism -and look at how far they have come!

    I agree, Matthew, with your point regarding corruption. This is another objection that I failed to raise against Marx -his theory ignores human action and motivation. He fails to understand that the free market has a very good mechanism of removing corruption (I think Adam Smith rightly points this out in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”), however, strong governments combined with their involvement in the factors of production usually do not root out corruption proficiently; the end result being that the people suffer. Also, this dove-tails nicely with the stuff I touch on about convention… under a Marx system you would have a drop (as is with all command systems) in general innovation and problem solving.

    I don’t get you line “So in that sense, we often need to be forced to do something we don’t want to do. For the betterment of society, ourselves, and everyone else.”, are you arguing that it is good that we act collectively, and maybe, necessary? If so, I disagree. First, you are going to have to assert that there is a government that can take up a paternalist stance with regards to some action X, but then, what is to stop the government extending power to things beyond X? Once you begin to remove personal responsibility and the variable of time that corresponds to correct solidification of conventions, you make a nanny state that aims to speed the process up via central planning -which is always, in the long run, going to have more negative consequences than the short term individualist systems.

    F.A. Hayek points this out when arguing for Libertarianism, “no matter how proficient your planners, no matter how good your economists, scientist or politicians you never will keep up with free-market innovation and in the competitive nature of species, you either will compete or die”.

    • Handsome Matt says:

      John; I apologize for responding so late to your post.

      You are correct about a government taking up action X, and then moving beyond action X. However, when a democracy or republic is working on all levels (accurate representation, a well educated and moral population, proper checks and balances) the stoppage of a government extending its power is the actual governed peoples. The citizens give the power to rule to the government, and they can take it away.

      But there are instances where a certain amount of self-sacrifice is necessary.

      We have to find a balance between short term gratification and long-term planning. Our economies function best when focused on the long-term return. Companies that sacrifice short-term profit for long-term growth eventually dominate the market. Compare GM to BMW.

      Let me expand on that further. Look at Porsche, Ferrari, and Audi. Three companies that for the most part, resisted short term fads and motions. And who now (and continually has) builds some of the best and most innovative cars on the market? Porsche, Ferrari, and Audi!

      Even Adam Smith argues for a dose of prudence. While I like libertarianism, there are moments where I need to put aside my personal wants and feelings in order to better society as a whole.

  5. Pingback: From A Philosophical Discussion « Social, Economic, Environmental Responsibility

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