Thursday, October 09, 2008

The end of freedom

The spectacle of right-wing commentators lamenting the end of the free market and the imposition of tyrannical state socialism is ridiculous and, in its way, pathetic. It reminds one of those apologists for Southern slavery who deride Lincoln as an agent of communism on the basis of what Marx said of the Civil War. Yet, in a way, I sympathise. The feeling of one's ideological universe imploding cannot be pleasant, and must be disorienting. For what is actually happening here? In a way, bail-outs under neoliberalism are nothing new. And even as the British government moved to partially nationalise the banking system, Brown was very clear to state that the individual entities will remain private, while Darling insisted that such entities as were wholly nationalised would repay the amount spent on them in full and would be restored to the private sector. It is pitched as a pragmatic effort to stabilise the system within the terms of neoliberalism, not as a significant parting from it. But those for whom the ideologeme of the 'free market' was a living reality don't believe them and, while their distress might provide momentary amusement, there is an important sense in which they understand very well what is taking place.

A few weeks back I was at a talk by Dan Hind at the very glamorous offices of the IPPR just off the Strand. (Actually, they were rather drab and inconspicuous offices, although I hesitate to extend the same description to its permanent inhabitants - I will have a book to promote myself, you know). It was, as you would expect, about his book on The Threat to Reason, which holds that there are more dangerous forms of irrationality than spiritualism, snake oil salesmen, cults, religion and 'postmodernism'. One of which, as he pointed out, happens to be the claim that 'free markets' are hardwired into 'human nature'. Some version of this claim has implicitly underwritten the programmes of successful political parties in much of Europe and the United States for three decades - this is not to say that majorities actually believe such zaniness, but it is to point to the hegemonic status of these ideas. It is not just the pseudo-pragmatic claim that 'markets work', are the most effective delivery system for goods and services, and are superior in most respects to the state or any other conceivable collective form in which production, distribution and exchange could take place. It is much deeper than that: it is the ideological claim that human beings are naturally inclined to truck, barter and trade, and that freedom consists precisely in allowing this deep urge to be fulfilled. In some right-wing sociology, this is indeed all that human beings ever do, whether in regard to commerce, love or friendship. Unfreedom consists in every form of public life that restricts or regulates such activities, and so there must be a balance between such cessions of authority to non-market institutions (regulators, tax collectors, policemen) as are deemed necessary for markets to work and the need to obsessively contain such authority. Further to that, obstacles to that natural propensity are posed not only by monopolists but especially by trade unions and the kinds of radical anticapitalist political parties that encourage secession from the 'free market'. These are implicitly 'totalitarian' threats, and a good liberal state is one that is capable of responding effectively to them, curbing their power, and - if the threat becomes too extreme - destroying them. This is how Milton Friedman and his students became collaborators with the Pinochet regime. And it is how Friedman himself came to defend child participation in waged labour as a necessary step on the road to freedom.

The longevity of this silly and sinister dogma is not for want of effective criticism. It was skewered long ago by Karl Polanyi, who pointed out that markets in the modern, capitalist sense - so far from being the result of a natural human propensity - were created by violent government intervention. Moreover, he argued that freedom was not best protected in it, but rather that the passing of the market economy "can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom", since "regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all". Freedom for the few entailed the freedom to exploit, to make gains radically incommensurate with one's contribution to society, to hold back innovations and prevent their being used for the wider good (such as HIV drugs). Such freedom can only be sustained in the long run by force and violence, and ultimately fascism. Liberty for the many involved limiting those freedoms claimed by the few as the only freedom worth having. It was true that such freedom as had been claimed for the market was cognate with other freedoms championed by liberalism: freedom of expression, of conscience, of association, and - of course - free labour. However, the capitalist market would leave neither of these freedoms intact were it not humanised, disciplined and regulated, and ultimately suppressed. So Naomi Klein, though brilliant, is not original in asserting that 'free markets' have an elective affinity with coercion, violence and dictatorship. Corey Robin draws on a long tradition of left-wing and progressive thought when he points out that, contrary to the common bromides of neoliberalism and 'antitotalitarianism', states are often the repositories of freedom while civil society and the market is often its enemy. And the unwillingness of so many millions of human beings to pursue their purportedly innate disposition, their curious and sometimes powerful reservations about it, has been a permanent aporia of this kind of liberalism.

But then why should such implausible doctrines not only have survived the Keynesian/state capitalist interregnum but actually come to thrive again? How could it be that a sizeable number of people have appeared to acquiesce in its basic assumptions? This reminds us that ideology is not merely (mis)reportage: if I say that the Queen is a symbol of the glorious traditions of a Christian nation, I am making an ideological claim; but if I say that the Queen is a particularly large fifth moon orbiting Omicron Persei 8, I am not. It is difficult to understand why this is if you consider a claim just in relation to its truth value. In order to understand the ideological representation of markets, one has to understand something about how markets function. One cannot neatly seperate a pro-market discourse from what it is discoursing about. This is what is important in Marx's 'ideology criticism' - far from upholding a banal dichotomy between 'essence' and 'appearance', Marx collapsed the distance between the two. They are not identical, but nor are they autonomous. As he argued in the Grundrisse, against Proudhon and his followers, social equality is precisely not just a false claim made for markets. Rather, individuals are "stipulated for each other", in the context of an exchange of equivalents, as free and equal agents. Market transactions do not express themselves as involuntary expropriation, even where that is in fact what is happening, but as voluntary engagements.

That explains the context in which the ideas of neoliberalism could even be comprehensible; the historic collapse of the postwar social democratic compromise provided the occasion for their aggressive relaunch; and the liberalisation of the stock exchange announced their hegemony. The true believers really do see the broad historical shift that is taking place. The financialisation of the economy and aggressive deregulation that neoliberalism championed is drawing to a close. This doesn't mean that such regulatory models as are introduced are likely to be to the general benefit of the population. We are not, short of a sudden upsurge in American radicalism backed up by organisational regroupment, about to see the New Deal restored. Nor does it mean that the reconstitution of class power that is about to take place will diminish finance capital as such - rather, it is likely to concentrate its power, and integrate it more closely with the state. And in fact, unless there is resistance, it is likely to be a much more authoritarian state. But for neoliberals, state intervention into the economy in itself constitutes a net contraction of the total available freedom. And this is what they think they mean by communism, or socialism, or - as in Naomi Wolf's histrionical audit of the Bush administration's recent actions - a fascist coup. These people have spent a great percentage of their adult lives believing that the alternative to a perpetual liberalisation of the markets was the restoration of serfdom. Capital and its managers were always more pragmatic: their aim was to hegemonise the state, to make it a powerful instrument of their interests, not to diminish it.