Liberalism is Capitalism, or What is Freedom?

The liberal state — the birth of the people, of "freedom," of fraternity — came with the beheading of the king.  And who did this beheading? The bourgeoisie: they wanted a piece of the pie.  So the end of hierarchy which kept wealth for itself came at the hands of the bourgeoisie who wanted some of that wealth.  The liberal revolutions of the 18th century, then, were essentially capitalist revolutions.

Liberalism and capitalism have always been the same thing.  Consider all the so-called liberation movements.  What are they about? They are about creating consumers.

The most devastating fact that I learned in the documentary, The Corporation, was that the rise of corporation came out of the 14th Amendment, which nominally granted citizenship and property rights to blacks.  But the overwhelming majority of cases heard under this 14th Amendment were corporations — previously recognized as persons — arguing for the right to do business, to own property.

Do you understand what I'm saying?  The exact moment of the so-called liberation of slaves is the exact moment of the rise of a new kind of economic slavery.  The Civil War was not about the inhumanity of slavery.  It was about the inefficiency of slavery.  Because a slave, besides costing money to house and feed, is not a consumer.

Now, I do not mean to downplay the cruelty of slavery.  I am, by no means, arguing for slavery.  I am just pointing out that the language of the "humane" happens to coincide, one to one, with the demands of capitalism. 

Take feminism. I know it is a word that means a lot of different things. But I think we can agree: something called feminism argued for, and won, the right for women to work.  Again: the liberal cause of liberation coincides, one to one, with the demands of capitalism — not just for labor but for empowered consumers. Which is to say, women may always have been consumers but now they have their own money to spend even more, consume even more.

Why is it that both sides of the American political spectrum — which is actually quite narrow — celebrated the so-called Arab Spring?  Doesn't that make anyone suspicious?  It's because the liberal cause of liberation and the capitalist demand for more labor and, even more, consumers are exactly the same demands.

Am I saying that I am against such liberation — of slaves, of women, of the Arabic states?  Of course not.  But I am saying: What is liberation?  What do we mean? What do we actually want from this life?  What we call freedom actually means the freedom to consume.  But consumption, today, has come to demand a kind of slavery.

I see all the folks lined up every morning to get on their bus to Google, to Genentech, to Apple, to Yahoo.  They are bussed in, fed, then bussed home to a condo or apartment that eats up most of their salary. The rest of their earnings go towards buying cars and and shopping at Whole Foods.  And then their paychecks run out so they use credit cards.  Which now means they are indebted and must work just to pay off the thugs at Chase. (When the mob does this, it's criminal.)

What makes this new kind of labor so great for capitalism is this infinitely fast circuit of production and consumption: we pay you to buy our shit. Which means we make all our money back and then some.

And you think you're free.


dg said...

I've been a blue collar slave (union,non-union) for 30 years. About five years ago it occurred to me that the New Labor doesn't want freedom. They want to be told where and when to move their bowels. I can feel the fear of independent thought and action in them.

So I wonder. There was a time when a guy confronted a tiger or another bloke(s) with a much bigger stick. He thinks, well I better run, fight back resist somehow or over time in a population no more genes of my type will be around.

There are New Labor mutations, but given the environment...they don't get much traction.

So here we are. Guy-who-resists is going to die working an assembly line or
trying to metabolize carbohydrates, corn syrup, and brown air.

New Labor thrive in this environment. They are invigorated knowing that someone is above them in the hierarchy. Carbs, hormones, and water that smells like paint are fine cause a gal who has read a lot of books with some letters after her name says so. Never mind that I'm 200 pounds overweight and my kids can't concentrate long enough to wipe themselves. They exist to follow.

Capitalism is a symptom not a cause.

Anonymous said...

i watched this & it immediately reminded me of mr. coffeen haha


Seth Mooney said...

"Capitalism is a symptom not a cause."

Liberal/Capital thought have been dominating that vapid thing called "public discourse" for far too long for the above statement to be obviously true. Hell, I don't even think that it's arguably true, given the salience of what's already been offered here in the post. If you're truly 200 pounds overweight, my guess is you're projecting. At the very least you're blaming victims.

I don't mean to suggest that "workers" (Labor, new or otherwise, is a bit of a grandiose abstraction, methinks) don't bear their share of responsibility for making the world the increasingly fucked up thing that it is. But let's not be silly. It's not like workers have even the option of making choices that could change things, past the choices available to them as consumers. And that's a pretty fucking narrow range, despite the number of toothpaste options available, or how organic or free-range your eggs are. The "choices" available through the political process are almost equally restricting.

Daniel's former office mate at writes that, "Freedom is not a matter of making a selection from a menu provided by others." (Number 14 on this list: http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2010/02/dispatches-from-libertopia-anthology-of.html).

I find a lot of overlap between that formulation and the kind of thought I understand you as offering here, Daniel. I am increasingly appreciative of the take you have on things political, as it comes, I think, from your concern with matters of taste. People hung up on politics qua politics tend to be undigestible.

All this comes from someone who gets paid to organize the proletariat.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, in many ways I agree: capitalism is not the cause because capitalism is not something that's external to us. It is who we are and what we do.

But, as I think Mr. Mooney is suggesting, there are structures — legal structures enforced by a powerful police state and corporate run media — that fuck labor, and everyone else, over and over again.

The game is rigged from the get go. Capital flows mostly in one direction — towards senior management of global corporations. And the media, police, and army enforce this flow.

@ Anonymous: the video made me laugh, thanks.

dg said...

Mr. Coffeen

Not sure I see the difference. These structures are who we are and what we do (not what all of us but enough of us). What I was trying to get at in my poorly worded blurb was that what you and I see as fucking everyone and being rigged, the mutation New Labor not only needs but thrives on. They are like the few bees that seal the hive from the outside under predator attack.

Mr. Mooney

I'm not so sure. I live in the country north of Mr. Coffeen. All my working life we've had the choice of a viable socialist political party in every national election. Over those 30 years, the majority of the proletariat has voted for the CEOs of the various conservative flavours. This party still exist but leadership are now corporate consultants, economists, and "green" business types.

I want someone in charge, as long as it's not me.

Don't always understand the blog Mr. C, but love it when I do.

Anonymous said...

Almost a total non sequitur (though I suppose a case of people arguing cause vs effect) but as a San Fransiscan, I wondered if you'd seen The Bridge (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqeoQ-5ot34) and had any thoughts regarding construction of a suicide barrier. Is it a case of throwing money at a problem caused by people who think they can solve problems by throwing money at them? Or a desire to escape an inhospitable world akin to the Frommian notion of freedom:

"There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.... However, if the economic, social and political conditions... do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom." (Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom [N.Y.: Rinehart, 1941], pp. 36–7.

Again, apologies for the slightly off-topic comment, but I'm an avid reader and was curious about your take on things.

drwatson said...

I really enjoyed this. I've been thinking more and more of economics as an ontology, not simply as a political system one adopts. To play with Merleau-Ponty's formulation, I reach for my wallet like I reach for an itch.

Coincidentally, I'm in the middle of showing The Corporation to my Technology and Society class. They were quite disturbed, as I was, about the 14th amendment issue.

drwatson said...

I just posted this on my Facebook - which sounds lame to say outloud, but I've got a good number of really sharp friends who'd love this. I've thought about this post on and off today and it's one of my favorites you've done.

I don't know if this will make any sense, but it reminds me of the way a professor said to me one time: "it's all relative, just not the way they mean." Essentially, saying the cliche, if tilted can be brilliant - and he was invoking spatial/temporal issues to talk about relative.

Anyhow, what this reminded me of is the way the system eats it's subjects but then it feeds it's subjects. It's like The Matrix. So yeah, The Matrix, but not the way most people would ever use that film. I mean at one level it's just Plato, but there's a great connection between The Matrix and what you're describing.

And here's a backhanded compliment: this entry of yours was the most depressing thing I've read in ages. It's not theoretical enough for me to abstract it to death and it's not literal enough for me to locate it in the past. Hats off sir.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@dg: And yet the rich have rigged the system. Of course, we let them. We go to work for endless hours and not enough pay. We vote for the morons. We read the idiotic newspapers that feed us propaganda and we think it's truth. And yet, still, the game is rigged. And with a few nifty moves, we can unrig it. Think of it as an engineering problem: capital flows a certain way. If we re-engineer, we can restructure this flow. Will this rid individuals of their weaknesses, their fears and loathing? No. But it will help.

@Anonymous re: The Bridge. I did see that film. And found it very intense for different reasons. I am quite interested in suicide via my own life via my repeated readings of The Hagakure, the Way of the Samurai. I was particularly fixated on the precise decision making, the kairos of suicide. Watching people pace, sit, then jump left a deep impression on me.

Suicide MUST be on the table as an option. The Samurai say: in a 50-50 life/death experience, always choose immediate death. We need a way out. And yet may commit suicide out of weakness,not strength. And so does the state have an obligation to hedge this weakness? Maybe.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ DrW: This is all new territory for me, revelations that have been coming to me born of my growing understanding of the structure of power and economic flow. And I've been trying to figure out why so much of the rhetoric of change seems wrong to me. And this is what I finally figures out: because, as Foucault shows in D&P and Hist of Sex, the language of freedom feeds the engine of power. Thanks for the feedback....