The Real Culture War III: Freedom Beyond Consumption and Equal Opportunity

19 Dec

Yesterday we argued that the demand to consume more, or the refusal to accommodate our desires to social limits, was the one utopian element of the recent bubble. Predictably, some readers objected that consumerism was itself an instrument of social control, a warping of utopian desires such that they can be satisfied by buying more things, rather than by exercising human potential in some other, more creative way. This is a fair point, though it is easily over-stated. A society in which more people had chances to develop and exercise their powers of creation would be an innovative society, one that produced more interesting things for people to consume.

Moreover, this is not just a consumer society. It also claims to be a meritocracy. As we have noted before, this is a society that celebrates the idea that people with natural abilities should be free to develop and exercise those abilities, and that all of society benefits when the most talented occupy positions of power and status. Both political parties assume that the core goal of the American economy is to give everyone an equal opportunity to compete for those scarce positions. (See also here) If anything, the left should be far more critical of the ideology of equal opportunity than of consumerism. That is because this ideology plays on and distorts even more radical and utopian aspirations.

The problem is not merely that the American economy does not provide the ‘social mobility’ it claims to – that is a familiar, but wholly inadequate, left-liberal criticism. The deeper point is that the equal opportunity ideology plays on two related meanings of opportunity that are, in their historical origin and social significance, extremely different. The prevailing meaning assumes that there are scarce positions of power, privilege, wealth and, more minimally, economic security. As we have argued before, a good first cut is to assume this group compromises about 20% of the economy (not 1%). All the equal opportunity means in this political economy is that somehow we are supposed to give everyone roughly equal chances of competing for one of these positions, but we also know that four out of five will fail. The condition of possibility for equal opportunity is to know that most people will not occupy socially desirable positions. It is structurally impossible. Most will not occupy positions of rule but will instead be ruled. In other words, that most people will not actually have available to them opportunities to develop their abilities or exercise their creative capacities, or even just enjoy some reasonable job security and limited wealth, is fully consistent with dominant view of equal opportunity.

But this vision of equal opportunity piggy-backs on a much more radical conception, one wholly incompatible with the existing economy but more consistent with an attractive view of human freedom. On this view, we have equal opportunity if each person has a real option to exercise powers of rule and creativity in their everyday life. That is to say, the social achievement of one person is not predicated on the failure of about four others. This would be, roughly, an economy in which everyone could exercise some control over productive property and never have to fear poverty, perhaps because guaranteed some kind of basic income (a topic we will return to in a future post – but see here and discussions at Jacobin.). Call this the non-competitive view of opportunity. I have an opportunity when I can actually have something or can refuse to have it, and my ability to accept or reject that thing does not depend on whether others also have it (h/t Gopal Sreenivasan for recent discussions with us on this topic). In this world, one person having the opportunity to develop his or her abilities, exercise some control over his work activity, enjoy job security and a stable income, would be wholly independent of others having that opportunity. There would be as many such desirable positions as there are participants in the economy.

This is not just some philosopher’s idea of equal opportunity. It is well-founded in American history. As we noted before, even Lincoln once argued “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while… [This] is free labor.” Of course, Lincoln’s particular vision presupposed an agrarian economy, with abundant land, conveniently cleared of Native Americans. But the nerve of this way of thinking about equal opportunity is that everyone who wants to should be able to exercise control over his or her daily activity, rather than be subject to someone else’s control. This is what Lincoln calls ‘free labor.’ What this ideal means in our industrial economy is a much more challenging question, but that makes it no less urgent.

The real culture war should be an attempt to reclaim freedom as the universal goal of our economy. Right now, consumerism and equal opportunity establish the contours of the prevailing vision of human freedom. It is one in which most people have some freedom of choice over articles of consumption, little freedom to exercise powers of rule and creativity, and are regularly subject to the rule of others on a daily basis. Surely we can do better.


(to be continued)

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