The Nightmare of Freedom: The Foundations of “Western Values” and the Helplessness of Critique (2005)

Robert Kurz

It is well known that the concepts of freedom and equality form the central keywords of the Enlightenment. Liberalism has certainly not been the sole trafficker of these ideals. Paradoxically, they play just as big a part in Marxism and anarchism. They also play an important ideological role in contemporary social movements. The Left stares at the idols of freedom and equality like the rabbit stares at the snake. To avoid being blinded by the splendor of these idols, it is advisable to look for their social foundations. Marx already uncovered these foundations more than 100 years ago: the sphere of the market, capitalist circulation, commodity exchange, and universal buying and selling.

In this sphere, a fully determined sort of freedom and equality prevails, which refers solely to selling what one wants to sell — as long as a buyer is found — and buying what one wants to buy — as long as one can pay. And only in this sense does equality also prevail — the equality of money and commodity owners. Their equality has nothing to do with quantity, but only with the social form common to both. The same cannot be bought for a cent as for a dollar; but no matter whether it’s a penny or a dollar, in qualitative terms the equality of the money form prevails. In buying and selling there are no masters or slaves, and nobody commands or obeys; there are only free and equal people in law. Whether man, woman, child, white, black, or brown: the customer is welcome under any circumstances. The sphere of commodity exchange is the sphere of mutual respect. Where an exchange of a commodity and money takes place, there is no violence. The bourgeois smile is always that of a salesman.

Marx’s sarcasm is related to the fact that this market sphere makes up only a small fraction of modern social life. Commodity exchange or circulation has as its precondition an entirely different sphere: namely, capitalist production, the functional space of business administration and what Marx calls “abstract labor.” Here, laws entirely different from those of commodity circulation apply. Here, the salesman’s smile freezes into the cynical grimace of the slave driver or prison guard. When working, wrote the young Marx, the worker “isn’t himself, but outside himself.” The freedom in commodity production is so small that the content, sense, and purpose of what is produced there cannot be determined. Neither do the owners of capital or managers have this freedom, because they are under the pressure of competition. Production, therefore, entirely follows the principles of command and obedience. Where the business administration regime is especially efficient, workers are sometimes not even allowed the right to defecate in private. Neoliberalism, in particular, loves this wholly extraordinary productive strictness.

The freedom and equality of circulation and the dictatorship of business-administered production only appear to contradict each other. Purely formally, workers are unfree in production precisely because they exercised their freedom beforehand as commodity owners on the market. That is, they sold their labor power. Naturally, this freedom to sell one’s own labor power is itself owed to compulsion and unfreedom: modernization created historical circumstances under which there is no other possibility of sustaining one’s life. One must either buy labor power and employ it for the end-in-itself of capitalist valorization, or sell one’s own labor power and let it be employed for this end-in-itself. As long as there were independent producers (farmers and artisans) there was no universal market. Rather, the greater part of social relations played themselves out in other forms. The rise of the universal market proceeded alongside the fall of independent producers. All other goods come to be traded as commodities only because there is a labor market, and because human labor power has also assumed the commodity form. The sphere of freedom and equality in circulation exists only because the sphere of unfreedom has developed out of production. Universal freedom thus also takes place in the form of universal competition.

This problem persists in the area of personal reproduction or private life, where commodities are consumed and intimate social relations have their place. Here there are many activities and moments of life that are not fulfilled in commodity production (such as housekeeping, raising children, or love). In the process of modernization, women were made materially, socio-psychically, and cultural-symbolically responsible for these aspects, and they were devalued for that very reason: no “money value” is transacted in these moments of social life; thus, in the sense of capitalist valorization, they are inferior. This dissociation (in the sense of Roswitha Scholz’s concept of value dissociation) is not confined to a definable secondary sphere, but seeps through the entire ensemble of social life processes. Thus, within commodity production, women are as a rule worse-paid and reach leadership positions relatively infrequently. In personal relationships there is a determinate gender code that implies for women a structurally subordinate relation, even when it is sometimes broken or modified in postmodernity. Likewise, the non-white and non-Western part of humanity was already abandoned by the philosophy of the Enlightenment to a structural subordination.

The abolition of relations of “dominion of man over man” appears solely in the sphere of circulation and the market. That hypocritical sphere of freedom and equality is not, however, based merely on structures of dependence; in an immediate sense, it is constituted as a naked function of the end-in-itself of capitalist valorization. In crass opposition to the exchange of independent products, the universal market does not serve the reciprocal satisfaction of needs. Rather, it is only a regime of accumulation or transitional stage belonging to capital itself. When sold, abstract value “realizes” itself as money, and the function of apparently free trade consists precisely in that. Original monetary capital, transformed via production into commodities, turns back into its money form multiplied by profit. The nature of capital is expressed precisely therein as an end in itself, that is, to turn money into more money with the consequent accumulation of what Marx calls “abstract wealth” in an endless process. Thus, by exercising their liberty and equality in the sphere of circulation, people achieve nothing but capital’s self-mediation. That is, they transform the surplus value or profit created from the commodity form back to the money form. Therefore, the freedom and equality of circulation are nothing but a mechanism for capital’s goal of realization. Each act of freedom requires the performance of an act of pump-priming that transforms capital from its commodity state into its money state.

Modern bourgeois freedom possesses a peculiar character: it is identical to a higher, abstract, and anonymous form of servitude. Social emancipation would be liberation from this kind of freedom rather than its realization. Things look no better for the concept of equality, which openly implies the threat of forcing individuals into a single form. Modernization, in a manner of speaking, sewed humanity into the uniform of monetary subjects. But relations of structural dependency are hidden beneath it. In reality, the needs, the tastes, the cultural interests, and the personal objectives of individuals are never equal; they are only subjected to the equality of the commodity form. Therefore, as Adorno said, it would be emancipatory to be able to be “unequal in peace.”

Since the Enlightenment, equality has retained its false aura via the argumentative sleight of hand of bourgeois ideologues. The meaning of the concept of inequality was shifted from the simple variety of individuals to the subordination of one individual to another. That which in itself is the mere expression of individual characteristics, namely inequality, suddenly appears as the expression of domination. And vice versa: that which in itself is the expression of uniform compulsion, namely equality, suddenly appears as the expression of freedom from domination. Here, in modern ideology, we must deal with a case of Orwellian language. In reality, inequality has nothing to do with domination, and equality has nothing to do with self-determination. Rather the opposite: in modernity equality itself is a relation of domination.

The result is a permanent contradiction in modern ideology. On one side, the sphere of circulation becomes separated from the entire context of capitalist reproduction and elevated as an ideal. On the other side, the de facto dictatorship of production and of the structural devaluation of the feminine are declared unbreakable objective laws of nature. Each side must be played constantly against the other; for this reason these social relations after a certain period of time enter the realm of common sense. Freedom and equality represent exactly what Adorno called the “context of blindness.” And the Left inherited this blindness along with the Enlightenment’s conceptual apparatus. In particular, utopian, democratic, and libertarian socialists, anarchists, and dissidents in state socialist countries all appealed to the ideals of freedom and liberty, without recognizing that they are restricted to the sphere of circulation and without seeing through to the inner link of freedom and unfreedom in modernity.

Today, social critics fall back more than ever into the ideals of circulation. This has structural causes. The global crisis caused by the third industrial revolution drives an increasing number of people out of real production and forcibly converts them into agents of circulation. As cheap labor in the service industry, as salespeople, street dealers, or even beggars, they themselves now experience, paradoxically, the sphere of freedom and equality as the yoke of a secondary job; the dictatorship of production is extended to more and more activities of circulation, finally reaching the entrepreneurs of poverty. Freedom and unfreedom immediately coincide here; but, ideologically, that paradox is once again assimilated in terms of the ideals of circulation. Inasmuch as individuals experience themselves increasingly via their own petty-bourgeois self-conception as widely circulating “human capital,” a neo-petty-bourgeois version of the utopianism of commodity exchange comes back around after the demise of labor socialism. In a society in which everyone constantly attempts to sell something to someone, and in which social relations dissolve into a universal bazaar, the growing signs of crisis are perceived through the grid of circulation. In a veritably compulsory manner, an intelligentsia of self-salespeople interprets the problems of the third industrial revolution along the lines of relations of circulation: one commodity owner meets another. Even the overcoming of commodity production is imagined according to the categories of eternal exchange.

Individuals, who do not as a rule reflect critically on their social constitution and who only seem to be independent of each other in the sphere of circulation, are asked periodically to appreciate the other’s good fortune and extend goodwill instead of competing with each other; all of this is to treat the problem as if it were to be found not in social production and ways of living, but rather in an individually representable pathology that could be cured by pedagogical and therapeutic measures. The salesman’s smile is interpreted as the idealism of amiable social relations that are no longer minted in competition, as if social transformation were possible via the utopian construct of personal conduct, outside the substantial mode of production and life. These utopian beliefs are rooted in the idealized sphere of circulation — where the neo-petty-bourgeois utopians appoint themselves the bedside doctors of the subject.

The ideology of circles of exchange that is propagated in many countries fails, in practice, to represent anything but a hobby economy; where it has been attempted on a large scale, as in the recent Argentine crisis, it has failed massively. The attempt (supported by the research of French ethnographer Marcel Mauss, especially in his major work, The Gift) to redeem “eternal exchange” from competition by using the model of so-called archaic societies and transforming it into a reciprocal exchange of gifts — that is, into a kind of permanent Christmas — seems even more insufficient. The idea of an “economy of the gift” cannot, by its essence, extend beyond immediate personal relationships; hence it ignores the scale of social productive forces and highly organized social contexts. It would be absurd for one individual to say to another: “give me a kidney transplant and, if you’re very good, I’ll give you a combine harvester.” The problem is not how individuals might mutually “grant” each other something, but to apply our social forces (infrastructures, systems of education and science, systems of industrial and immaterial production) sensibly, not destructively.

On the contrary, utopias of circulation always look for a solution primarily on the plane of individual modes of behavior. Yet that’s putting the cart before the horse. Instead of making commodity circulation and its accompanying market competition superfluous through a social revolution of production and of our way of life, such a backwards approach asks the isolated subject of circulation to realize the ontological pretension of exchange in a reformed, whitewashed form. The aim is an ethical canceling-out of competition. Social emancipation then appears as the mere consequence of a utopia consisting of the freedom and equality of the subject of circulation, supposedly realized in small groups. The matter of practical solidarity in social contexts is ideologized and made into a mendacious, pedagogical, and often psychotherapeutic idealism which can simply turn into the terror of kindness and reciprocal social control (for example, along the lines of religious sects). This neo-petty-bourgeois utopianism of human capital in circulation is, just like all earlier utopias, condemned to failure.