Freedom, Positive and/or Negative: Contradiction or Synthesis?

“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.” John Stuart Mill On Liberty
“All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the laborer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.”
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Karl Marx The Communist Manifesto


Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between “positive liberty” and “negative liberty” is often taken to refer to the difference between John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of freedom from interference with self-regarding actions and Marx’s call for freedom to control the conditions and products of one’s labor. In our society it would seem that Mill’s concept reigns supreme. Each of us is free to speak our opinion without fear of imprisonment. Each of us can decide how to spend our earnings. Once we are independent adults, we do not have to answer legally to the demands of anyone in terms of career pursuits, intimate relationships, or musical taste.

However, Marx’s famous specter of communism’s class struggle shadows our actions in this post-Cold War world. We know we don’t want to return to the iron hand of centralized planning, however, his description of alienated labor and powerlessness still seem remarkably accurate and persistently undesirable. Yes, we can choose from thousands of beers or car models. If we are fortunate enough to have a well-paying job, we yet have little control over how our work is carried out. Henry Ford’s principle that capitalism must pay people well enough to sustain a market for automobiles (and other products) has grown antiquated in the neoliberal era of the falling rate of profit.

Today’s situation may not have been visible to Marx’s view, but the massive productive capacity of capitalism has not provoked the proletariat towards revolutionary socializing of the rewards of capitalism. Rather, it has provided rapidly diminishing returns on investments that reward an ever-smaller percentage of humanity with fabulous windfalls. Industrial production has in fact made poverty superfluous, but it has not made poverty’s abolition directly attainable. The world has enough farms, schools, hospitals, and factories to feed, educate, heal, and create a humane standard of living for every person now alive. Yet, profit constrains this bounty, forces lay-offs instead of full employment, and favors short-term marketability over long-term sustainability and generous distribution. The world which the workers struggle to win is profusely cluttered with the detritus of glittering trinkets, while great masses of humanity starve.

The widespread rejection of Marxism rests upon its historic betrayal of liberty. The collectivization practiced in nations under Communist rule is rightly charged with severe crimes of political repression. One-party rule brought terror, show-trials, and generally inefficient production. The Communist governments that came toppling down in the early 90s had only managed the class divisions in their societies, not abolished them. Negative freedom was suppressed ostensibly in order to seek positive freedom, but neither was achieved.

Mill writes that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” When applied to behaviors such as smoking or tastes in clothing, certainly our choices do not harm others, however much they may harm a person who indulges them. The battle to lift onerous social standards has been fought repeatedly in our time. In the 1960s, long hair on men or short skirts on women were considered indecent. Today, they are tolerated and rightly so. However, the challenge which Marx poses to Mill’s “liberty” is whether capitalism’s normal operation is inherently harmful.

Perhaps Mill would argue that capitalism is necessary for freedom since it maximizes the ability to start one’s own business. It seems difficult to conceive an alternative to free enterprise that is not premised on central planning. However, as Marx might point out, the entrepreneur does not create a shop in complete isolation. A productive capacity of any scale requires many workers and so immediately the question of how the business rewards its workers arises immediately. A new business assumes and depends upon the availability of workers and other inputs to make production possible and profitable.

For Marx, the harms of capitalism are built into the fabric of the wage system. A worker’s body is deployed along with Mill’s faculty of “ape-like” imitation in order to churn out massive supplies of complex objects. Overproduction is balanced on the backs of dismissed workers, who may never regain their jobs. Automation accelerates this process exponentially, and the wage-system never changes to calibrate to the new decreased demand for human labor.

With hindsight, we know that attempting to control production from on high by cadres of bureaucrats won’t keep production at appropriate levels to sustain both the availability of necessary goods and the appropriate remuneration for labor contributed. Everyone everyday needs adequate nourishment, shelter, clothing, and transportation to simply carry on. A key flaw of capitalism is that in its search for profit, it preferentially creates products for those with disposable incomes to the detriment of adequate levels of necessary goods. Freedom to make a profit means the freedom to not produce necessities.

One alternative decentralized proposal to calibrate production to social necessities is Robin Hahnel & Michael Albert’s “consumer councils.” Each individual or household creates regular (annual or more frequent) reports of the goods it needs to function adequately, which are submitted to a delegated council. These reports are tallied, evaluated, refined, and finally forwarded on to workplace cooperatives in the form of contracts between a municipality’s residents and the appropriate businesses. New businesses may be called into being to cover any necessary production that does not yet exist. Existing companies may be redirected towards new productive priorities. In place of a “free market” that favors immediate profits, the consumer council model elicits cooperative productive priorities that represent a community’s authentic needs.

In this model, freedom exists in the report creation phase. Each person has an input into the overall process and the consideration of whether a person can pay for their necessary consumption is not directly considered. A consumer council may decide to send back consumption expectations that are deemed unrealistic, but if the community continues to demand the unrealistic, then the unrealistic may become possible. Far from a fetter on freedom, this back and forth communication process would hopefully have a constructive effect of greater rationality of production outcomes.

As simple an idea as cooperative planning may seem, it still seems somewhat unattainable in our world. Capitalism and the wage-system are so familiar that any change seems threatening, even to those who suffer under its impoverishing logic. Marx’s proposal was to fashion a “communist party” to concentrate the advanced intelligence of the working-classes into a politically potent force. In practice, these parties distanced themselves from the working-classes and pursued the necessities of the party at the expense of the class struggle for positive freedom.

Freedom, positive or negative, cannot be exercised for someone else. The workers cannot be freed by the actions of an external agency, but rather only by the collaborative development of their shared agency. In this respect, even a system of universally unionized workers could never produce an emancipatory momentum, so long as the profit motive decisively determines society’s economic priorities.

Marx’s demand for positive freedom to control the means of production still rings true in our world of late capitalism. The massive market crashes in this decade are ample evidence of the irrationality of capitalism’s existing priorities. What good is freedom of speech if it is reduced to merely the right to complain? The protest against real distress requires effective means of changing the world, not merely describing it.
None of this denies negative freedom’s enduring necessity. In fact, it demands it. If the way forward requires the cooperative unification of the workers in pursuit of their own authentic priorities, such unification can only be the product of the free convergence of their individual freedom. While we may hold Marx liable for locating the agency of emancipation from capitalism outside the working classes themselves, we can still appreciate his trenchant account of capitalism’s actual operation in our world.

In our society, the viability of a cooperative participatory road beyond capitalism is most suggestively revealed in the general assembly structure that is the hallmark of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. In dozens, perhaps hundreds, of US cities and towns, local activists can gather each evening to create a shared agenda for social action. By adopting a rough class analysis of the 99% vs. the 1%, OWS highlights the truth that positive freedom from economic misery isn’t a relevant matter to only some group of poor people, but rather the visceral imperative of the vast majority. Whether OWS and its satellites can realize its potential remains an open question.


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