Capitalism’s illusory freedom

We are meant to be free. So why do we feel like prisoners? Daniel Taylor explains.

World capitalism is a mess. Racked by political crises, teetering on the brink of economic crash or war, every year reaching new heights of economic inequality so extreme as to be almost unimaginable: the system seems to offer no hope for the future.

We live in a period with no governing principle besides the accumulation of profit, run by con men who thrive on violence, racist scapegoating, bluster and hypocrisy: an age perfectly embodied in the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.

The human disasters caused by capitalism can seem distant from Australia, which has avoided its worst effects for some years. But we, too, make up a part of the “free world”, organised by the same logic and led by the same criminals, and the same horrors exist here – perhaps a little concealed for now, but more evident every day.

Here also there are terrifying, and growing, levels of inequality. Violence and discrimination against migrants are justified with paranoid racist rhetoric that permeates every media outlet and political platform. We share the sense of impending catastrophe: economic, military or environmental.

Not many openly celebrate the inequality, the violence, the waste or the pollution. But we are encouraged to celebrate the society that gave birth to them: a society based on what the Australian government describes as “respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual”. We may not have much, but at least we have freedom: freedom to speak, to vote, to buy and sell, and to live according to the dictates of our conscience. But what does freedom really amount to under capitalism?

Police and prison bars

Let’s start by investigating society’s dungeons – and the cops who are paid to lock people inside them.

Australia is world famous for its prisons. Our government’s offshore camps for refugees are so sadistic that they drive people to suicide, and so inhumane that reporters are banned and whistleblowers face prosecution – because to reveal the deliberate torture taking place there would reveal too much about the cruelty of our rulers.

Those who seek freedom in Australia languish for years in these hellholes, and to reveal the truth of what happens is forbidden by law. In the system of global capitalism, every nation is surrounded by a border that exists to deprive human beings of their freedom, and those borders are increasingly fortified with razor wire, military patrols and walls.

In the “land of the free”, militarised police SWAT teams conduct 50,000 raids a year. An astonishing 7 million US citizens are in prison, on probation or on parole – living under the control of the state. Australia’s own police forces – now equipped with Bushmaster and Bearcat armoured cars and MP4 assault rifles alongside their truncheons, pepper spray and tasers – stand ready to repress any resistance to the system; in the meantime, empowered by “paperless arrest” laws, they can imprison any of us on a whim, especially if our skin colour is not to their liking.

Each new fearmongering campaign means the state has more “freedom” to exercise violence and coercion against us. With each new scare, from boat people to the “Apex gang” via the war on terror, the state accumulates more power to spy, raid, imprison and torture without accountability, until we take it for granted that our freedom means living under the shadow of constant surveillance, our streets patrolled by gun-toting cops and our borders ringed by concentration camps.

A society based on profit making is inevitably a society safeguarded by violence. Most of us play by the rules, most of the time, in part because we know that if we don’t subordinate ourselves to the system, we face a tremendous power of violence ranged against us. Freedom in capitalism ultimately means freedom to find a boss and do as you’re told, and the gun on the hip of the cop on the street serves as a reminder of the alternative.

Freedom for those who can afford it

The eight richest individuals in the world own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion. That level of inequality was impossible in previous periods of history. In the last year, 3 million children died of starvation, while the world’s richest 500 people grew their fortunes by $300 billion.

What does this mean for the notion of freedom? Because food, housing, clothing, medicine and work are mostly allocated by the free market, they are freely sold only where they make the most profits for the capitalists who own them. And because of that, 3 million children every year are denied their freedom to live, to learn, to become part of society, to develop their human potential: they die as children, because their survival wouldn’t make anyone any money.

Inequality isn’t just a mathematical problem. Economic deprivation means a lack of freedom. Most working class people do not face starvation, but we are robbed of the freedom to live our lives in the way we choose, to develop our talents as far as we like, to live with the freedom that is the birthright of the minority of billionaires. We must learn in overcrowded schools, live in substandard housing, work for whoever is hiring, move for work with the ups and downs of the market and accept that the forces of the capitalist economy may break up our families, ruin our ambitions and injure or kill us. None of this is an accident, nor is it natural.

Profit requires poverty. To make profits, capitalists need workers; that means the mass of the population must be deprived of the freedom to live, unless we agree to find a boss and work for them. Workers are forced to sell their lives to survive, and that means capitalism is based on force. For most of us – although we are free to make trivial decisions around the edges – fundamentally, the way we live our lives is out of our control.

Division and social control

To justify the system’s injustices, and to distract from them, endless new miseries are added. Muslims are denied the basic freedom to practise their religion without intimidation; African migrants are made into public villains and persecuted by police; the press campaigns against the threat of minority sexualities corrupting our children.

Our beliefs, our skin colour and our sexuality are subject to the approval of the powerful: those who own the newspapers and TV channels, those who control the police, those who determine foreign policy – the ruling class.

A society based on economic inequality is a society that needs social division, dehumanisation and control. Division to turn the oppressed against each other and distract them from their real enemies; dehumanisation to justify the violence and brutality of an inhuman system; and control to ensure that workers grow up intimidated, obedient and trained to comply with orders from above.

The freedom to make your boss rich

The nature of work under capitalism determines the lack of freedom felt throughout society.

We can work only if we find a boss; bosses hire only in the interest of profit. That means that every element of life is utterly subordinated to the profit motive. Food, housing, art and ideas are produced only if they make a profit; as workers, almost our entire waking life is devoted to making profits for someone else.

Profit is the fundamental law of society. You may think you enjoy constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of political assembly and any number of other freedoms. But when you are at work, those freedoms vanish, superseded by one rule: you must do what will make profits for your boss.

You cannot say what will be done with the vast material wealth of society: you have no freedom to determine whether the press will tell the truth or tell lies, whether the factories will dump pollution into rivers, whether we will make missiles or medicine. The freedom to decide such matters is restricted to those few who own the whole world. For the rest of us, we enjoy only the freedom to beg them for a job.

As long as society is divided into bosses and workers, into rulers and ruled, the majority will have no authentic freedom. We will live in a world of chaos, inequality and violence, justified with prejudice and hypocrisy.

For anyone to be free, we must all be made free: we must create a society ordered in a new way, one that doesn’t need bosses, borders, cops or concentration camps, and which requires honesty and decency rather than deception and prejudice. We must take the resources of the world out of the hands of the billionaires and use them for ourselves, to create a world in which, as Karl Marx put it, “the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all”.