In Defense of Positive Liberty

Every so-called right today was once in olden times, or perhaps in times not so long ago, nothing more than a privilege for the few, a dream for the many. To say on the one hand “freedom is not free” and to ask on the other hand “who will pay for it?” is an irreconcilable contradiction. History teaches us that rights are not given, they are taken. Freedom is never free. Here the words of Proudhon ring ever true today, “We are convinced that freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”. Liberty and equality do not contradict one another but on the contrary, they complement one another. The contradiction between liberty and equality that has allegedly plagued human society since 1789 is only a contradiction in capitalist society. Rights are not absolute and eternal even if society ought to recognize rights already won as such. Liberty is a dialectical process of constant expansion throughout human history. The privileges, even dreams of today become the rights of tomorrow. No one now has any right to deny this.

Even the American Founding Fathers understood that centralized private property was incompatible with their “vision” of bourgeois democracy. One can of course dream of going back to an “uncorrupted” American democracy rooted in decentralized ownership of private property if one can ignore the slavery, sexism, open racism, and genocide. Or one can naively believe in bourgeois democracy and the “willingness” of the ruling class to work together in the name of class harmony and utilitarianism for the common good. The assuredly revolutionary implications of the only other option available are too dangerous to even contemplate in mainstream politics. In the world where everything is possible; positive liberty, social democracy (in the classical sense of the word), and a fundamental social change that according to most climatologists deem necessary for humanity’s long term survival, is by some alchemy “impossible”.

I have provided a brief explanation of Positive Liberty by the encyclopedia at Marxists.org for those unfamiliar with the term:

“Negative freedom means the lack of forces which prevent an individual from doing whatever they want; Positive freedom is the capacity of a person to determine the best course of action and the existence of opportunities for them to realise their full potential.

The overwhelmingly dominant tendency in the history of bourgeois society has been to open up negative freedom, by removing feudal and other reactionary constraints on freedom of action. Free trade and wage-labour are the most characteristic bourgeois freedoms which have resulted from this history: free trade being the freedom of a capitalist to make a profit without restriction, and wage-labour being the freedom of a worker from any means of livelihood other than being able to sell their labour power to the highest bidder. Thus this negative bourgeois freedom is a kind of freedom which is real only for those who own the means of production.

Positive freedom has been built up almost exclusively as a result of the struggle of the working class: initially the legislation limiting hours of work, child labour and so on, later the creation of free compulsory education, public health systems, right to form trade unions, and so forth, freedoms which explicitly limit the freedom of the capitalists to exploit workers, but give worker the opportunity to develop as human beings.

The freedom people have is determined by the ethical system of the society they are born into, which is fundamentally based on the economic relations that society is based on: for example in capitalistic society a person is free to exploit wage, but labourers are not free to receive things like an education and health care in accordance to what they need; only in accordance to what they have to pay. In socialist society, a person is not free to exploit labourers (i.e. restrict the freedoms of labourers), but are free to own a more or less equal portion of the means of production in accordance to their own need and ability.

In hitherto existing Socialist states, like the Soviet Union and China, “negative freedoms” were severely restricted, while “positive freedoms” were advanced. All people had universal access to health care, full university education, etc, but people could only use those things they had in a particular way – in support of the government. In the most advanced capitalist governments, this relationship is the other way around: “positive freedoms” are restricted or do not exist all together, while “negative freedoms” are more advanced than ever before. A worker in capitalist society has the freedom to say whatever she believes, but she does not have the freedom to live if crippled by a disease regardless of how much money she has. A socialist society that has been established from a capitalist society will strengthen “negative freedoms”, while ushering in real “positive freedoms” across the board, ensuring equal and free access to social services by all.

The fullest development of positive freedom is impossible however without a further development of negative freedom – people cannot be forced to be free”

Entitlement and The myth of the “Self-Made Man”.

One of the staunchest criticisms of positive liberty is that its emergence is but another symptom of a deeply rooted affliction affecting America’s youth: entitlement. Traditional capitalist ethics are of course deeply rooted in the foundational documents and principles of the bourgeois-democratic republic itself. The Constitution with its Bill of Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and so forth are hailed as the highest of ideals. The very notion that we can transcend even them is to many conservatives, offensive, even if they’ll call it by any other name. Historical attempts rooted in the very valid criticism of the limitations of capitalism and bourgeois society have, albeit in extremely backward nations, brought forth extreme forms of despotism that no genuine socialist or libertarian ought to idolize. The memory of Stalinism weighs like a nightmare upon all who dream of a better world. But the conditions of today are not remotely similar to the conditions of pre-revolutionary France or colonial America, nor are they for that matter even remotely similar to the conditions of 1917 Russia. They have transcended their earlier forms of barbarism not in spite of the revolutionaries of 1774 and 1789, but because of them. Their ethical, political, social, and economic system is a product of their own time, of an era rooted not in material abundance, but material scarcity. Today for the first time in human history we find ourselves in a society rooted in material abundance. The contradiction between our hitherto existing ethical, social, political, and economic systems rooted in material scarcity and the world we find ourselves in today, will almost certainly lead to the biggest social revolution in all of human history. It is up to us, the people of the world, to determine what our future will look like and by what means it will be brought forth. It is not only logic, but Liberty herself that demands we take from them that which exists that is good and move beyond that which is not. For Liberty today cannot stagnate, she can either expand or die.

It was as absurd to speak of a right to healthcare in 1774 as it was to speak of a right to a free press in pre-agricultural society. That which society does not have the means to provide cannot be guaranteed to all as a right but on paper, and a society that does not take its proclaimed rights seriously often has none (as we see under Stalinism). But when a society is productive enough to provide something deemed a necessary attribute of social existence by most members of society, to all members of society, it is obligated to do so– not as a privilege, but as a right. Once again it must be stressed that freedoms are not given, they are taken.

It is impractical to speak of any real positive liberty under capitalism. Here we must speak in explicitly class terminology. Bourgeois democracy, insofar as it remains bourgeois, by design can and will in every possible instance, ceaselessly attempt to retract those positive liberties won by the common people precisely because the instruments of power are in the hands of the bourgeoisie. In spite of constant pressure from below to keep what concessions are won, the bourgeoisie will always try to restore society to its “rightful” equilibrium– negative liberty without positive liberty. In the United Kingdom, the wealthy proclaim universal healthcare to be a “total failure” while the poor see it as a blessing. The rich man who pays more taxes to society, who can no longer get better treatment because he can pay more, has every reason to complain. But the poor man who under American-style capitalism could barely afford a mere Doctor’s visit, has little fundamental in regards to healthcare to complain about. He or she who declares universal healthcare, or any positive liberty for that matter, to be a “resounding success” or a “total disaster” without taking into account the class implications misses the mark entirely. This is the essence of positive liberty: it already exists as a privilege to the rich in a society productive enough to provide it to all. As such, it ceases to be a privilege but a right. Reaction to such declarations by those in power, and by those indoctrinated into the prevailing ideology of bourgeois society, is inevitable. It is precisely that reaction which this essay seeks to usurp.

Still people go on about positive liberty being nothing more than “entitlements”, “handouts”! What then is considered a handout? Is the entire existing human species not arrogantly “entitled” to the historical and technological progress earned by the blood of countless generations past? Yet we ourselves shed no blood. What right then do we have? Should we not return to caves so we can through blood and sweat “earn” what we currently enjoy without a second thought? Or is it of the same nature the socialists and left libertarians attribute to the concept of positive liberty— a birthright in any society technologically capable of recognizing it as such?

The question here is not at all an innocent one. Violence, like liberty, comes in many different forms. He who murders his neighbor commits an act of violence just as he who refuses to shelter his neighbor who is freezing to death out in the cold with no place to stay. To quote my fried, comrade, and fellow blogger Christian Chiakulas:

“In a world that produces enough food to feed each and every one of us, starvation is violence.  In a society where vacant houses outnumber homeless people six to one, homelessness is violence.  A country in which health insurance companies rake in billions in profits while leaving nearly thirty million people uninsured and unable to access medical care is a violent society.

This is the everyday violence of capitalism – if it is profitable to let somebody die, or languish in abject poverty, we do so.  That is a violent society.”

unsplash-logoJulius Drost

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