Freedom is Slavery.
One of the most pernicious assaults on rights and liberty is to put the concepts of rights and liberty themselves in the hands of the anti-perfectionist corporatist political right, who model all rights on liberty, and all liberties on freedom of private ownership. This doesn’t just threaten rights and freedoms: it bleeds all meaning from them, and makes their realisation impossible.
A liberal, libertarian or neo-liberal theory is perfectionist if it takes sides about the nature of human flourishing, anti-perfectionist if it does not. Compare, for example, Mill and Rawls. Mill held that there were better ways for human beings to live and associate, even if he, from his individual outlook and historical position, could not exhaustively characterise what that was. This idea, based on bringing about a better world through individual and social moral progress, was the cornerstone of his liberalism, which he took to be compatible with socialism. Rawls, by contrast, aimed to create a political theory which eschewed any fundamental role for an account of human flourishing – all conceptions of the good (at least, those that could be held within broadly liberal western democracies) were to be taken as equally valid in the construction of his political theory, with none privileged above any other.
The problem with the latter type of theory is that it takes itself to be essentially above and independent of particular individuals’ notions of the good. It is purportedly value neutral, in that it claims to take no value as more significant than any other. This is a little like a mid to late twentieth-century trend in ethics, which held that moral philosophers themselves made no moral judgements, but instead merely described the structures and forms of moral judgement itself. When an anti-perfectionist liberal theory is combined with a notion of choice that is modelled on consumer choice arbitrated by the ‘invisible hand’, this undermines any notion of meaningful or valuable choice, and hence of liberty itself.
Any dissenting voice, any attempt to live life differently, is cast as just another instance of consumer choice, reduced to nothing more than its exchange value. Of course, such a translation is possible, and according to the rules of translation applied, it is not false. However, what it does is strip all the meaning from the original. Once dissent is understood in such terms, we are told nothing about the nature of the dissent, only something about the logic of capitalism.
No way of living can be better than any other: revolt is just the selection of an alternative brand, no more meaningful than picking one kind of margarine over another. It is no threat to the system, because it is transposed into just another non-distinctive mode of existing within it – a different colour, rather than a different form.
On the rare occasions that the almost-silenced voices are genuinely and correctly heard, the call for freedom is recast as an assault on freedom, and the demand for rights as a violation of rights.
Rights and liberty have not, historically speaking, always belonged to capitalists. Nor have ‘liberty’ and ‘socialism’ generally been viewed as contradictory. Rights and liberties have been appropriated and distorted. It is important then that we do not take an anti-capitalist position to be a position that is critical of rights and liberties, but rather one that makes them mean something beyond the capacity of the powerful to exploit the vulnerable.