Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 15 August 2020



Our series of contributions that began with the title From Logos to Freedom has now reached a stage of complexity of themes where it is wise to attempt a summary of the conclusions implicit in our analysis and presentation. It may seem strange that our discussion of the concept and domain of freedom should have involved in large part some of the greatest female thinkers of the last hundred years, namely, Hannah Arendt (political theory), Simone Weil (social philosophy), Rosa Luxembourg (Marxist critique) and Joan Robinson (economic theory). Is it perhaps because “the second sex” (as Simone de Beauvoir labelled women) has been so constrained by masculine domination throughout the ages, especially in the political sphere, that its constant quest for emancipation has led it to ponder more closely the nature, content and domain of freedom?

We begin our summary here with Arendt’s proposition that “the opposite of freedom is coercion, not necessity”. This may be a negative definition of freedom, one that will need to be supported with positive illustrations, but it is enlightening because it clearly draws the inextricable and exclusive link between freedom and politics. There are certainly physical or natural and biological restraints on the exercise of our will, but the scope of our will is only a larger receptacle from which freedom as political action springs. It may very well be, as philosophers from Spinoza to Schopenhauer and lately Cacciari have contended, that even our will may be conditioned by causal chains outside of our conscious ability to detect them (one may think of Freudian psychoanalysis, for instance). The mistake this position incurs is that the ultimate causal determination of the will is simply irrelevant to how we determine the scope of our freedom, which must by definition exclude that “necessity” that is necessarily beyond the scope of our free choice! We cannot know what we cannot know, what is inscrutable – the “ultimate causes” of our actions; but we do know that we make choices that affect the sphere of action of other human beings – their “interests”, from the Latin phrase “inter homines esse”, which illuminatingly refers to the ambit of “being among humans”. Freedom is therefore, again with Arendt, the scope of action unaffected by human coercion – an exquisitely political notion that bears no relation to “scientific necessity” so long as “science” is not utilised as a tool to justify or (as Weber put it) to rationalise the exercise of coercion on some human beings by other human beings.

It may come as a surprise to the proponents of “liberal democracy” that in fact liberalism is one of the most potent ideologies – one invented and elaborated by the capitalist bourgeoisie from Hobbes to Locke and beyond (cf. C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism) – utilised by the bourgeoisie to confine the scope of freedom, and thereby of democracy, to the realm of “public opinion” by means of the “scientific” separation of politics from the realm of “necessity”, that is, economics. The whole enterprise of “political economy” since Adam Smith to Stanley Jevons and Leon Walras was precisely to separate “the dismal science” dealing with “the rational allocation of scarce resources” from the ambit of political choice or “the public sphere” where isolated self-interested individuals were “free” to indulge their “opinions” – once again, so long as they did not interfere with the scientific administration of the economy. Clearly then, the aim of liberal ideology was always to remove the economic sphere – the one where the class antagonistically opposed to the ruling bourgeoisie, the working class, was principally and most existentially concerned in terms of “earning a livelihood” – from precisely that “administration” or governance that is, by definition, an ineluctable aspect of all “economic” decisions in terms of the allocation of social resources. By naming economics “the science of choice”, Lionel Robbins unwittingly and foolishly drew attention to the evident oxymoron of liberal ideology: - that either economics was a “science”, in which case “choice” was inapplicable, or else it was a “choice”, in which case it could not be deemed to be a “science”! Alternatively, of course, the forceful separation of workers from political activity, reflected in their expropriation from both means of production and from the product of their living labour, was justified by one of liberalism’s greatest apologists, Benjamin Constant, as the harmless effect of the unwillingness of “the public” to meddle in serious matters of political governance due to the complexity of “modern society”. Whence, according to Constant, the overriding abandonment of the “ancient freedom” of the Greek polis by modern publics in favour of the “guaranteed liberties” proffered by parliamentary representative governments based on universal suffrage.

Every attempt to derive the concept of freedom from experiences in the political realm sounds strange and startling because all our theories in these matters are dominated by the notion that freedom is an attribute of will and thought much rather than of action. And this priority is not merely derived from the notion that every act must psychologically be preceded by a cognitive act of the intellect and a command of the will to carry out its decision, but also, and perhaps even primarily, because it is held that "perfect liberty is incompatible with the existence of society," that it can be tolerated in its perfection only outside the realm of human affairs. This current argument does not hold what perhaps is true that it is in the nature of thought to need more freedom than does any other activity of men, but rather that thinking in itself is not dangerous, so that only action needs to be restrained: "No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions." This, of course, belongs among the fundamental tenets of liberalism, which, its name notwithstanding, has done its share to banish the notion of liberty from the political realm. For politics, according to the same philosophy, must be concerned almost exclusively with the maintenance of life and the safeguarding of its interests. Now, where life is at stake all action is by definition under the sway of necessity, and the proper realm to take care of life's necessities is the gigantic and still increasing sphere of social and economic life whose administration has overshadowed the political realm ever since the beginning of the modern age. (H. Arendt p.155, “What Is Freedom?”  in Between Past and Future.)

The essence of liberalism is, on one side, to reduce the sphere of the Political to the purely Personal, to the world of individual opinions and beliefs (doxa), and on the other side, to turn the Economic into a “scientific” sphere to be safeguarded from and rendered immune to all political interference. This was always the aim of Political Economy, Classical and Neoclassical. Indeed, the most trenchant criticism moved against Marx’s own “critique of political economy” is precisely that, first, it sought to subordinate the question of freedom to the narrower “social question” (as Arendt calls it in On Revolution), to the production and distribution of wealth in capitalist society; and second, that by so doing, perhaps against his own inclination or intention, Marx reduced the entire scope of human existence to the sphere of production, to the historical struggle between “economic” classes, and therefore the entirety of human social interaction to that of instrumental labour (cf. J. Habermas, “Labor and Interaction”, in Theory and Practice) - with the nefarious  outcome that his homo sapiens was reduced to the animal laborans (this is the central thesis of H. Arendt in The Human Condition).

For Marx, then, the social question – the production and distribution of “value” in capitalist industry and society – took precedence in the guise of “the forces of production” over anything related to “the social relations of production” which, to him, constituted a transient, superfluous politico-ideological “superstructure” entirely determined by the “economic base”. Far from realising that in reality capitalist society would never have come into existence without, and indeed is analytically wholly reducible to, those political “social relations” that he so brilliantly and sharply excoriated, Marx could even auspicate the eventual “withering away of the State” and (in Engels’s words) reduce all of politics to “the administration of things”! Of course, this Marxian “Darwinian scientism” was never consistent with the broader concept of freedom and human needs that is implicit throughout his monumentally genial and piercing critique; but once again it is a powerful sober reminder of the consequences of mistaking freedom as the opposite of necessity rather than coercion.

But the narrow focus of Marx’s critique – strictly, “of political economy” – explains also the inadequacy of the notions of “separation” and “alienation”, and “theft of labour time”, meaning ownership of product – a legal standard, not directly germane to freedom – on which it was essentially founded. As we have argued earlier, all of these notions improperly narrow down the entire critique of the capitalist mode of production and of capitalist society as a whole to the restricted and restricting sphere of the Personal – the workers’ experience of their labouring activity and the moral-legal condemnation of the “theft” of “their” product, whether taken individually or indeed as a class. The Marxian critique fails most delusively in the one field of opposition to capitalist industry and society that can most justifiably and politically be raised as its most immediate threat, not to this or that “social class”, but rather to the whole of humanity:- its threat to the very survival of humanity on earth and of the earthly ecosphere itself! This is a threat that can no longer be limited to the relations of human beings inter se, as individuals or even as antagonistic social classes, in terms of ethical or moral or legal claims of “alienation” or “exploitation”. The environmental threat is one that is exquisitely and exclusively Political because it concerns the interests of humanity as a whole and the very survival of the earthly ecosphere.

Of course, and inevitably, this novel environmental critique of capitalism – based on the concepts of overpopulation and overconsumption – will remain political and partisan so long as our social system remains antagonistic. But unlike the previous Marxian critique it has distinct advantages in that it addresses the insuperable “contradictions” of capitalism in terms of its ultimate un-viability and un-sustainability rather than on claims of “exploitation” of one class by another. Indeed, one of the most brilliant insights expounded by both Simone Weil (Reflexions sur la Liberte’) and Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition) is that, given his reduction of all human activity to the material production of the animal laborans, Marx even failed to see that the supposed life of leisure of a future communist society would become as arduous and wasteful as the one under capitalism in that it would be devoted entirely to the exhausting and exhaustive immediate production and fast consumption of products! Earlier, we highlighted how the concept of overconsumption under capitalism must include the “distorted needs” that enslave workers to “necessary labour” because of the “artificiality” of those needs. Arendt, in particular, places due emphasis on the “durability” of “work” by homo faber as against the “fast consumption” of the animal laborans whose only reason to exist has become “labour” itself – that is to say, “labour” intended as the division of homogenized social labour whereby the worker is reduced to the animal laborans as against the “specialized work” of homo faber.

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