the fullness of freedom

In 1944 Karl Polyani wrote about good and bad freedoms.

He described bad freedom as:

“the freedom to exploit one’s fellows, or the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensurable service to the community, the freedom to keep technological inventions from being used for public benefit, or the freedom to profit from public calamities secretly engineered for private advantage”

And good freedom as:

The market economy under which these freedoms throve also produced freedoms we prize highly:  Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one’s own job.

For Polyani the good freedoms are “by-products of the same economy that was also responsible for the evil freedoms.”

Then he wrote a prescription for a better future; one which is broader, more transparent and inclusive and ultimately more hopeful; one which twins freedom with justice:

The passing of the market economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom.  Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all.  Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself.  Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all.  Such a society can afford to be both just and free.

But this better future is blocked by ‘liberal utopianism,’ which sees freedom as only possible by the narrow definitions used by the market.  This utopian market belief system attacks and silences the social institutions and processes that have been put in place to guard against corruption and to foster opportunity and hope – and indeed freedom – as broadly as possible to all members of society:

Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom.  Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be essentials of freedom.  No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free.  The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery.

The result of this attack by utopian liberalism is what we have today.  He says the idea of freedom:

‘thus degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise … the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property.’

So you have many options in terms of how to react:  to become a market utopianist and embrace the brave new market world;  or to fall into a deep malaise and hope for choice scraps that may or may not trickle from the tables of the leisure classes.  Or I like the third way, Polyani’s prescription for a marriage between market and social freedoms.  Talking about it is important; working to implement it even better.

From A Brief History of Neoliberalism, by David Harvey


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: