Freedom, Capitalism, and Work: A Humanist Perspective

“The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” -Hegel

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” -Goethe

The Universal Call of Liberty

Freedom is a value held dear by people throughout history, across all cultures. Governments of all varieties promise it to their citizens, regardless of the actual policies they support. Men have died by the millions believing that they were struggling for it. In nations around the world, great and small, flags are lifted and voices raised in tribute to it. Freedom has been described as the universal desire of the human spirit.

But if freedom is so dear to the mind of man, we must expect that those among us who wish to dominate others for their own ends will be well aware of this. Rhetoric promising freedom and our almost instinctive tendency to respond to it have been always been a powerful tool used by tyrants and despots. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao spoke of freedom. In fact, even the gates of Auschwitz promised freedom, proclaiming “Work will set you free.” It is this aspect of the issue which my essay will focus on.

The Master/Slave Dialectic

Drawing on diverse influences including the ancient Greek thinkers Heraclitus and Socrates, nineteenth-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel popularized his concept of dialectics, which held that ideas and phenomena are inherently bound up with their opposites in such a way that the resolution of contradictions leads to continual qualitative progression. One of the dialectics which Hegel chose to place significant emphasis on was the master/slave relationship, which he saw as a significant challenge to the advancement of freedom.

Had Hegel lived another 40 years, we can presume he would have been pleased to see the end of chattel slavery in America, the largest remaining slave-holding nation in the world at that time. It is not likely, however, that Hegel would have considered this the end of the master/slave dialectic’s relevance. In fact, Hegel’s most famous student, Karl Marx, would go on to develop a broad philosophical and political framework based largely on the idea that the great majority of men were exploited by the rich capitalist class, which he saw as the new slave masters. For Marx, history was a long, gradual climb up from explicitly slave-based societies and their feudal offspring, through capitalism, to socialism, and ultimately to a classless society in which all forms of exploitation from the grossest (chattel slavery) to the subtlest (private property) would be abolished.

While few modern philosophers would agree with Marx’s more extreme prescriptions (such as the abolition of all private property), there is a general sense in intellectual circles that much of his social criticism remains valid. In that spirit, I will attempt to argue that in the contemporary culture of capitalism, the master/slave dialectic remains discernible.

Capitalism and Employment

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” -George Orwell

The idea that people should work for a living is very nearly universal in its acceptance. We grow up with this idea, seeing it reinforced in our homes, churches, media, and peer groups from a very early age. The belief that “decent people” are to have jobs or own businesses is almost sacrosanct – it is rarely questioned, and when it is, the questioners are usually censured or ostracized in various ways. It is clear that as a society, we are convinced of the merit in the message on the gates of Auschwitz – but it is not so clear why this should be so.

The most common answer, that “people need to earn a living,” is obviously tautologous. It is simply an undisguised value judgment which does not even attempt to address the issue of why people “need” to earn a living in a world of increasing material abundance. Despite its philosophical vacuity, the ubiquitous statement is usually delivered with a granite-like sense of finality, as if it were the sort of truth that is simply unimpeachable, to be challenged only by fools and madmen. But why should people need to earn a living?

Arguments in favor of work’s value usually boil down to the question of obligation. We are to work because “the world does not owe us a living.” But why doesn’t it? After all, we did not choose to be born. To say that we have any obligation in a transaction we did not choose smacks of coercion and even enslavement, but those who point out the fact that no one chooses to be born are customarily dismissed as “childish,” “unrealistic,” etc. And yet, if I were to give you a candy bar which you never asked for and wait until after you had eaten part of it to inform you that I expected payment, how would you think of me?

Pointing to the inherent unfairness of imposing a sense of obligation on individuals for taking part in a life they never chose is not a denial of life’s value, as some may suppose. The aim is not to complain about being alive, but to question the assumption that life is something we have to “earn.” It is common to hear life described as a “gift,” but what kind of gift comes with an obligation? If supporters of the capitalist “work ethic” were consistent, they would describe life as a “sale.” We are sold the right to live in exchange for a lifetime of labor. There is clearly no “gift” element to be found in this – at least not once we leave the shelter of childhood and enter the adult world, where we are expected to begin discharging our debt to the world – and insisting that those who question this “need to grow up” simply dodges the whole issue.

A better argument in favor of work centers around the actual benefits we are provided as members of a civilized society. In developed nations, most of us have access to clean water, safe food supplies, public roads, free primary education, etc. Perhaps it is fair to suggest that we have some obligation in reciprocating for these provisions and privileges. And yet, it remains hard to see how this translates to a requirement of “gainful employment.” There are any number of alternative ways to contribute to one’s society. By writing this essay, I am humbly attempting to pursue one such method of contribution. Most of us engage in much more significant non-economic tasks each day – child-rearing, community participation, self-improvement, etc. These activities constitute a great deal of our individual contribution to the world, and yet, they carry little weight in the public eye if we are not willing to participate economically. In capitalism, “the economy” always comes first.

But what is the economy? It is generally discussed as if it were some force of nature, a separate entity with an identity all its own. However, this is an erroneous conception, at least within the framework of capitalism. Without socialism, “the economy” is nothing more than the sum of financial transactions between individuals. The economy – when we participate in it by buying, selling, working, or receiving unearned benefits – is you, me, and the man next door. It is all of us, and ideally, its overall function should be to serve our interests as fairly and effectively as possible. But capitalism does not go this far. It stops at the idea that the economy consists of many diverse transactions, adding no overall “economic morality” except to assert that everyone’s self-interested transactions somehow serve the best interest of everyone else.

Clearly, there is a fundamental deception at work here. In our capitalist societies, the economy is described as if it were something created to serve the common interest, but this is not the case. In reality, capitalist economies are never “created” at all, except by accident. It is against the basic principles of capitalism to plan an economy. It must simply be allowed to take its natural course. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the United Stated and other major capitalist nations long ago realized the absurdity and unworkability of this and (grudgingly) instituted a number of economic regulations, I will focus on the fact that the essence of capitalist theory remains widely embraced, and that it explicitly encourages the formation of master/slave relationships.

Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, famously described the natural condition of man in the absence of civilization as “nasty and brutish” (among other unfortunate qualities). Hobbes held that our default state is “a war of every man against every other man.” Pioneers of capitalism, such as Adam Smith and John Locke, must have thought little of Hobbes’ conclusion when they formulated a system in which the common good is left to be worked out entirely by nature’s “invisible hand,” which they supposed would ensure that everyone else’s interests would be served if we all served our own interests first.

It is hard to understand how these philosophers could have looked at the eternal struggle and competition evidenced in nature (an extension of Hobbes’ “war of all against all”) and conclude that man would behave any differently. Perhaps it helped that these capitalist pioneers believed that we were beings created in the divine image of God – but without this belief, modern thinkers should be skeptical of an economic theory which leaves the establishment of the common good to the same natural motivations which govern a pack of wild hyenas fighting over a scrap of food. If some hyenas are routinely out-competed by their fellows, no “invisible hand” ensures their survival. Nature is indifferent, and men not created in God’s image have natural motivations. Under naturalism, whatever sparse moral basis capitalism might claim simply falls apart.

Some would insist that capitalism has never claimed to be moral (outside the claims of Ayn Rand and certain conservative political movements), but this assertion does not survive even a superficial analysis. The concept of the “invisible hand” is clearly an ethically-motivated one – we are to rest assured that capitalism is a “good” system because it not only provides economic freedom but also ensures the common welfare. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” we are told – but in reality, this is only true as long as we make an unspoken pact to ignore the sinking ships.

Nature is creative but unforgiving. In an economic system based on leaving the common good to be established by natural principles, it should be clear that only the strong are equipped to experience the good. How then, does capitalism address the problem of the common good with a straight face? I would submit that it does so by tautologically redefining the commonality to include only those well-equipped to do well. Those who are physically, mentally, or temperamentally ill-suited to economic activity are simply ostracized, considered irrelevant, or otherwise removed from society’s consideration. The common good no longer applies to them, so there is no problem. Those who can do well are are doing well, and everything is alright.

But even for those who are “making it” under capitalism, a deeper problem remains. In the animal kingdom, the role of individuals is governed by “dominance hierarchies,” and in capitalism, which uses the natural order as its economic theory, the situation is no different. Consider for a moment a typical day in the life of a “free citizen” in the capitalist world…

Early in the morning, he is awakened against his will by the blaring of an alarm clock. In the space of an hour or less, he must shower, dress, and cram down some kind of breakfast. Next, he begins his lengthy daily commute, which he despises. He arrives at the workplace and is reprimanded by an authority figure for being five minutes late (or some other petty concern). He spends the next 8 hours doing exactly what he is told the way he is told to do it, all the while being expected to maintain a compliant “team player” attitude out of gratitude to the employer for giving him the job (and out of fear of losing it). When quitting time arrives, he repeats the morning commute in reverse and arrives home, where he has perhaps a few hours under his own control before he must go to bed and get ready to do it all again the next day.

Where is the freedom in this? The simple fact is that we are economically compelled to sell most of our waking lives to the highest bidder, surrendering our individual autonomy to our employers or our businesses (should we happen to be “self-employed”). What, then, is the difference between this “economic slavery” and traditional chattel slavery? I would submit that it lies in the control mechanisms used.

A universal method of manipulating human behavior involves the metaphor known as “the carrot and the stick.” The carrot, of course, is a perceived reward, while the stick is a perceived punishment. If the stick is big enough, as in chattel slavery, no carrot is required. Chattel slaves can be abused or killed at will, making fear of punishment sufficient to ensure compliance. But the civilized world no longer tolerates chattel slavery, so in addition to the stick, economic slavery must rely on some kind of carrot. Today, that carrot is consumerism.

Slaves exist to profit their masters. Employees exist to profit their employers. Here, there is no difference. The exploited party is used to enrich the exploiter. In order to keep people from realizing this and to ensure that they continue to show up for work willingly and cheerfully, some method of convincing them that the transaction is of benefit to them must be devised. This is where consumerism comes in. By promoting the idea that personal status and worth are determined by the ownership of property, the capitalist masters can ensure a sufficient supply of willing workers.

The media is the tool of consumerist indoctrination. Through a constant stream of television programming and other media content, advertisers are free to promote the idea that the more we consume, the more we are worth as human beings. We are continually exposed to glorified images of wealth and glamor intended to provoke imitative reactions. Every little girl wants to be like the latest millionaire pop star. Every little boy wants to be like the latest millionaire athlete. Every grown woman wants to be like the latest millionaire “career woman.” Every grown man wants to be like the latest captain of industry. And to get there, we are told, all we need to do is work hard.

What we are not told, of course, is that like an illegal “pyramid scheme,” capitalist economic theory requires a much greater supply of “losers” than “winners.” In order to get rich, every Donald Trump relies on a host of supporting workers, whose level of financial success is inversely proportional to the number of people employed in his capacity. The typical rich capitalist employs a few wealthy executives, a few more comfortably affluent managers, a greater number of middle-class office professionals, and a great many comparatively low-paid production workers. Whether this “production work” is done on an assembly line or a cubicle is immaterial – in fact, more and more “white collar” companies are explicitly referring to their large low-paid departments as “production.”

But it is not enough to say that capitalism resembles a pyramid scheme. The reality is much worse – it is also an enormous “birth lottery.” Successful capitalists like to promote the idea that their success is due to some personal triumph creditable only to them as individuals, but in reality, our fitness to compete economically is largely determined by factors outside our control, such as genetics, upbringing, environmental influences on childhood development, etc. We are not to know this, however, for the obvious reason that it undermines the consumerist message – “just work hard and you can have it all, too. Bill Gates did it, and so can you!”

The simple fact that we are not all Bill Gates is never mentioned. Capitalist societies praise individualism everywhere except in the economic realm. Economically, we are all supposed to be identical – at is as if we are to believe that we all grew up in the same household, with the same parents, the same genes, the same childhood influences, etc. As absurd as this assertion may seem it first glance, it is clearly supported by the very basis of the “work and consume” message – the idea that anyone can do it. Somehow, we are supposed to believe the plainly absurd idea that any of us can be the next Bill Gates, no matter how different our own circumstances may be from his. It is a form of magical thinking – encouraging us to believe that the laws of nature can somehow be disregarded. The fact that capitalism, which is explicitly based on a natural approach, promotes this abandonment of naturalism can only be a calculated deception – but it is a deception we tend to willingly embrace.

We embrace the lie because we want to believe. We see images of wealth and glamor, and we want to think that we can attain them as well. We do not want to envision ourselves as limited, conditioned beings. Instead, we are all inherently omnipotent – able to transcend any circumstance and achieve the same results as the wealthy people we are shown. The economic masters know that we want to believe this, and they use our willful gullibility as a control mechanism. “Success is just around the corner, so keep your nose to the grindstone!” The promise of unlimited opportunity for everyone is the carrot dangled in front of us at all times, always just out of reach.

And behind the carrot, there is always the stick. The penalties for economic non-compliance are substantial – social ostracism, poverty, homelessness, denial of health care, and possibly even death. There is a common perception that these issues are not adequately addressed in capitalist society simply because the wealthy tend to be heartless and greedy. While this is often true, it overlooks another critical factor – the fact that in order to maintain profitability, the economic masters must ensure that there is a credible threat of punishment for work-refusal. If society were more humane, the “brutish” natural condition of man as described by Hobbes would be less effective in motivating people to be economically productive.

In summary, it is my contention that capitalism is an economic system with inherently Orwellian properties. It purports to advance the common good while disregarding the common man. It celebrates individuality while demanding conformity. It promises freedom and delivers chains. By willingly participating in our own pro-work consumerist indoctrination, we sell our freedom to the merchants of greed and avarice, who are betting their own self-interested enrichment on our willingness to make the transaction. In most cases, it may be impractical to “opt-out” and totally reject employment for the sake of principle. But, if nothing else, we can at least be aware of the real reasons why we work, the real nature of freedom, and the contradiction between the two.

In a post-Marxist world looking for deliverance, is there a better way? As nations such as Sweden prove, there is. I call their approach “economic humanism.” It is not a precise term or a well-defined system, but instead a broad vision of an economy that serves the population instead of a population which serves the economy. It is essentially a pragmatic approach – where markets work, markets are used, and where social approaches work, socialism is used. The overall motto is “opportunity for all, poverty for none.” It is a system in which those well-suited to employment can pursue and benefit from it, while those not suited to economic work are not enslaved by it. It is the reconciliation of the wealth-producing power of capitalism with the humanity of socialism.

And, finally, it is the resolution of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. If history is indeed “the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” the transition from traditional capitalism to economic humanism will be a great step forward.

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