Freedom is the most abused word in the English language

“Freedom” naturally means different things to different people, but we’ve gone far down a slippery slope when it is reduced to the right to exploit others to the maximum extent.

Humans exploiting other humans is hardly a new phenomenon, but seldom has it ever been elevated to a “democratic” principle in the way it has in recent decades. This is because freedom is morphing from something intrinsic to people to a right embedded in money. Those who have the capital are free to wield it in any way that earns themselves more capital, regardless of harm to others.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

The class interest of industrialists and financiers is presented as all of society’s interest. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.

Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

When the means of collective defense have been sufficiently eroded, material standards of living are bought at higher personal prices — longer working hours, greater workloads, ever-present insecurity from the fear of being sent to the unemployment line and fear for the future because of the lack of a secure pension. That material standard can be taken away at any moment, and for many is taken away in an era of outsourcing, corporate globalization and attacks on unions and solidarity.

Even the consumer goodies constantly dangled in front of us are a source of anxiety — commodities must be designed to lead to further consumption rather than satisfy desire so as to prop up the economy, and that wages are insufficient to buy what is produced leads to reliance on credit. The imposition of debt as a means of fattening wallets is not merely a process of saddling unsustainable levels of debt on students, retirees and everybody in between, it ensnares entire countries.

Governments borrow money from the ultra-wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them, then have to pay higher interest rates on those borrowings because the ultra-wealthy and the corporations complain that too much is being borrowed. In exchange for continuing to buy government debt, financial institutions demand that governments cut social services, lay off workers, sell assets and impose other austerity measures.

As a result of the austerity, governments take in less revenue, so they have to borrow more from the super-wealthy and corporations, who have hoarded the country’s wealth. Governmental central banks continue to keep the interest rates at which they loan money to big banks close to zero to ensure that the banks will continue to loan money, without which capitalist economies can not function. The banks in turn loan money at much higher rates, profiting from the creation of debt.

The capital wielded in exploitative ways itself comes from exploitation — profits are accumulated on the backs of employees through paying them far less than the value of what they produce, and when there is more surplus than can be usefully invested or shoveled into luxury consumption, it goes to speculation, further destabilizing living standards when the bubble inevitably bursts.

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Fables are concocted to “explain” this “freedom.” The United States declared itself to be the freest society on Earth while enshrining enslavement in its constitution. Revolutionary French leaders swore to establish “liberty, equality, fraternity” while mercilessly putting down slave rebellions in the Caribbean. Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

The U.S. maintained slavery until the mid-nineteenth century, enabling the plantation aristocracy to accumulate enormous wealth on the backs of its slaves, then allowed servile relations such as sharecropping, and systematic state-backed violence, to maintain African-Americans’ subjugation for another century. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.” Is this not preposterous?

Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United equating money with speech are but a logical outgrowth of pernicious ideology masquerading as “freedom.” So pervasive is this ideology that, as Fredric Jameson famously wrote, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s true: Hollywood movies invariably depict the breakdown of society or the aftermath of a major disaster as a brutal war of all against all as if the very concept of the survivors cooperating to ensure their survival were beyond the ability to conceptualize.

The current globalized race to decide who dies with the most toys can only lead to the death of civilization.

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25 comments on “Freedom is the most abused word in the English language

  1. Alcuin says:

    I started reading Polanyi’s The Great Transformation yesterday and then stopped, because it appeared to me that there were many similarities between Polanyi and Marx. I did some research and discovered that my hunch was correct – Rhoda Halperin states that Polanyi, because he was writing in the Red Scare era, had to use code words to convey the same message that Marx had tried to convey 80 years earlier. I posted an entry on my blog to that effect.

    I commented earlier, in a response to Jeanne Stuart Bramhall, that I was reading Jason W. Moore’s work. In a lot of respects, it seems like he might be part of the same school as van der Pijl and William I. Robinson. Moore speaks of something he calls “world-ecology”, in which he shows how capitalism represents the rupture between the human species and the rest of nature. I find his work fascinating, though he didn’t appreciate a comment I left on his blog because he deleted it. The comment pointed out how Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity was a walking advertisement for what Cory Morningstar writes about on her blog, The Wrong Kind of Green.

    What you’ve written about in this post, Systemic, goes way, way back in history. Much further back than the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. If you have time, download Moore’s Ph.D thesis and read the first few pages and let me know what you think.

    • I did read the beginning of Jason Moore’s Ph.D. thesis and it is highly interesting. He writes in his introduction:

      “The origin of our ecological crisis finds its taproot in the transition to capitalism and Europe’s overseas expansion during the long sixteenth century (c. 1450-1640). The scale and speed of the environmental transformations that ensued was entirely without precedent relative to medieval Europe in its heyday, and also relative to all previous golden ages enjoyed by the mighty civilizations fortunate to get face-time in our textbooks, the Greeks, Rome, Persia, China.”

      An excellent starting point. The beginnings of capitalism, it can argued, occurred during the early 16th century when the English enclosure movement gathered steam, throwing peasants off the land and closing off the commons (meadows for sheep grazing and forests for foraging), forcing them into working in factories under pain of draconian punishments. There was no precedence for this, on such a scale, in previous human history. He writes in his next paragraph:

      “[M]y intent has been to organize a radical departure from conventional renderings of the ecological crisis narrative, based either in a misreading of history (for instance, industrialization and the industrial society as ecological bogeyman), or worse, in the erasure of history altogether (as the neo-Malthusians would have it). … [I]n arguing that the origins of our ecological crisis may be found in the long sixteenth century, my intention is to establish a distinctive world-historical frame through which to comprehend the environmental history of capitalist origins.”

      A most worthy project! He intends to demonstrate that the problem isn’t industrialization per se, but rather to look at the systemic nature of the environmental crisis. Monthly Review has been doing good work in this area, also. We can’t have infinite expansion on a finite planet with finite resources.

  2. For me, the basic question is whether ruling elites have the “freedom” to monopolize the commons – be it land, air, water, forests, or other natural resources. Prior to the 18th century Enclosure Acts, land was considered part of the commons. Even the lowliest peasant was guaranteed access to communal lands to raise crops for his family and to graze sheep.

    Funny how much of the thinking that went into the Declaration of Independence and Constitution was drawn from John Locke’s writing about democracy and the freedom of the individual. Locke clearly stated that all men are born with an equal right to life, liberty, and LAND. The wealthy slaveholders and merchant bankers who wrote our founding documents were pretty quick to change this to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    • Great point, Stuart.

      And terrific article. You write about the system with such clarity and insight. I learn a lot here. Thank you.

    • John Locke certainly was influential. He was a critical developer of the labor theory of value, on which Karl Marx built. Locke’s inconvenient ideas have been filtered out, thus the nebulous “pursuit of happiness” is inserted. For the slaveholders and merchant bankers of those days, as with the captains of industry and financiers of today, the amassing of wealth is what gives them happiness, and what right does a grandmother thrown out of her home have to disrupt a Wall Streeter’s pursuit of happiness?

    • That is a very interesting observation about Locke. However, I think we (and I include myself in this admonition) have to be careful about regarding the framers as monolithic.

      The development of the party system in the 1790s highlighted competing visions for the manner in which the new nation should evolve. Hamilton’s financial plan represented the views of the “merchant bankers,” seeking to tie the fortunes of the government to those of the financial sector and the emerging possibilities of industry. Jefferson and Madison saw this vision as antithetical to the maintenance of equality demanded by republican theory. In their view, which remains strikingly apposite today, concentrated ownership meant concentrated power, and that in turn spelled the death of republicanism.

      While there was obviously a certain hypocrisy in slaveholders worrying about equality, especially when Madison had gone to such great lengths to ensure that the common people would be ruled by their betters, the fact remains that the Jeffersonian philosophy emphasized broad land ownership and agrarianism. After the election of 1800, Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase held out the prospect of realizing this vision on a vast scale. What the Native Americans thought about that vision was as relevant as the fate of human chattel. Nonetheless, one could argue that the Lockean ideal to which you refer was being presented with an opportunity in the New World that had long been buried in the Old World.

      With a population well over 300 million and a concentration of wealth that would make Madison’s head explode, the modern United States represents Hamilton’s ultimate victory. Jefferson’s vision, like Locke’s ideal, is dead. But let’s at least give a little credit where credit is due.

  3. […] on Οκτωβρίου 24, 2013 by eniaiometopopaideias Oct23 by Systemic […]

  4. Jeff Nguyen says:

    One of the brilliant myths that behavioral scientists at Langley and Madison Ave. have accomplished besides convincing us that “diamonds are forever” and Pepsi is “the choice of a new generation” is to condition us to believe that our captors have our best interests in mind. In public schools, we revere and esteem slave holders, robber barons and titans of industry while relegating those who served the public good to captions and sidebars, mere footnotes to history.

    As the middle class in America grew and became increasingly urbanized and educated it was important to convince them that with just a little more Protestant work ethic and “pull yourselves up by your bootstrap” rugged individualism, that they too could be like the elite. As long as the middle and working classes turned their faces in fealty to the upper class, their backs were by necessity turned on the lower classes. This could only take them so far before the people started to catch on they were on a hamster wheel built by the capitalists. So, enemies were needed, foreigners, immigrants, terrorists, Muslims, Japs, blacks, whatever, it wasn’t really the color that mattered, although the darker the better. Everyone gets a turn at the whipping post.

    Now we have gay rights and gun rights to add to the mix, stir and the melting point is once again brought to a boil. As a fellow blogger stated, “Human rights are not ours to give away.” It looks like, in the words of Adele, we’re all now “rolling in the deep.”

    Stockholm syndrome is a bitch and I’m not about blaming the victim. But there’s plenty of time to blame gays, immigrants and any other straw man that fits the narrative. It’s time to make time. I want people to be free, from the physical manifestations of oppression, sure. But I’m more interested in mental emancipation. I just wan to live my live too, my wife has a chronic illness and my son has special needs. I’ve been poor and I’ve been not as poor. My freedom is no longer dependent on my income, social class or status. Because I sympathize with the struggle it is for so many people to live and make ends meet, I at least want the attention focused where it belongs, as I believe you do. As fascism has risen in Europe and people look for someone, anyone, to blame, the only way we will make it is together. But that won’t happen if we continue to allow ourselves to be divided much less conquered.

    Great analysis and insights on an important topic. Sorry for the rant…

    • Alcuin says:

      Thought you’d like this, Jeff:

      “The fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie. The latter has been entirely ruined by big capital. There is no way out for it in the present social order, but it knows of no other. Its dissatisfaction, indignation, and despair are diverted by the fascists away from big capital and against the workers. It may be said that fascism is the act of placing the petty bourgeoisie at the disposal of its most bitter enemies. In this way, big capital ruins the middle classes and then, with the help of hired fascist demagogues, incites the despairing petty bourgeoisie against the worker. The bourgeois regime can be preserved only by such murderous means as these.”

      – Leon Troksky

      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        I’m embarrassed to admit I have read little on Marxism. Perhaps, it’s time to start. I look more to Paulo Freire as a primary influence. Freire recognized decades ago that neoliberalism would subvert public education. He has been a source of inspiration for me as a teacher and human being and helped me to go a long way towards shedding the colonized mindset and learning that I don’t need to look to my captors for validation.

        • Alcuin says:

          I only started investigating Marxism 6 months ago and I’m a lot older than you! No need to be embarrassed – I’d be willing to bet that 90% of so-called “leftists” haven’t read much or any of Marx and 100% of “progressives/liberals” haven’t. Systemic is the one, who, because of his penetrating essays, convinced me that I needed to read Marx. If you decide to do so, I hope that you have access to a university library – you’ll need it.

        • I’m flattered by the high-level discussion the two of you are having on this blog. Thank you both for your ongoing contributions.

          Here’s a quote I like from Marx, from Volume I of Capital:

          “[P]rimitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people: one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal élite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tell us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childness is every day preached to us in the defense of property.”

          (“Property” refers to the means of production, not personal possessions.) Sums it up well, yes? What a contrast to Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic.” Weber argued that Protestant sects discouraged spending on luxuries, thereby giving rise to the investment pools necessary for capitalism to develop. Childish, indeed — all we have to do is look at extreme violence that has accompanied capitalism, from the closing of the commons to the armies that shoot down strikers to the repeated invasions and colonizations of the age of imperialism, to grasp what Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital.”

          If you don’t have a university library handy, I would recommend the web site Marxist Archives. An incredible wealth of writings is to be found there, and I have found it invaluable in my own research.

        • Jeff Nguyen says:

          I appreciate the intelligence and concern for our fellow man that you both bring to the (virtual) table. I can see my journey on Marxism is just beginning, it’s always amazing to be reminded there’s nothing new under the sun. Actually, I’m finally taking the plunge on Zinn’s “A People’s History…”, it’s been long on my to-read list. Curious on your takes on Zinn…I know he was a historian whereas Marx was a philosopher and theorist.

        • Alcuin says:

          Howard Zinn was one of the earlier authors of books on history with a “bottom’s up” perspective. C.L.R. James, W.E.B. Dubois, and E.P. Thompson were some of Zinn’s inspirations, no doubt. Zinn is something of a god on the Left, and rightfully so. I highly recommend that you read him. But, and here is my qualification: don’t lose sight of the big picture. It is very easy to get lost clambering amongst the branches of the infinite number of trees of oppression – an activity that all too many on the Left engage in and which prevents us from stepping back to see the forest. Hierarchy and war have been around for as long as humanity has existed, at least according to those who don’t believe in Gimbutas and Eisler. Capitalism, as defined by Marx, has been around since at least 1450, but it is but one of many methods of extracting surplus wealth. By all means, read Zinn: he shines bright lights into dark corners – corners that few Americans know exist. If you are interested in learning more about how capitalism actually works, read Marx. Before reading Marx, though, I’d recommend that you read an introduction to political economy so that you can situate Marx properly. If you want to back up yet another step, read Immanuel Wallerstein, André Gunder Frank and the world-system theorists.

        • I would encourage everybody to read Howard Zinn’s People’s History. I’ll also second the encouragement to read world-systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi. They take a very long-term approach to the capitalist system, and, as the theory’s name implies, analyzes capitalism in its totality.

  5. I used to be a Marxist, but I converted to Georgism. I think everyone should read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty written in 1879. It’s all about the loss of the commons during the 18th century enclosure acts. Everyone says the Declaration of Independence is based on John Locke. Locke said all men are born with an equal right to life, liberty and LAND. Funny how that last bit got changed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    • Alcuin says:

      One of the many reasons I love this blog is because participants in it stimulate me to consider ideas that I’ve never considered before. I’m certainly familiar with the name Henry George, but I’ve never really considered reading him, so your comment is most interesting. How would you respond to Michael Hudson’s critique of Henry George?

      “Twelve political criticisms of George were paramount after he formed his own political party in 1887:

      (1) his refusal to join with other reformers to link his proposals with theirs, or to absorb theirs into his own campaign;
      (2) his singular focus on ground rent to the exclusion of other forms of monopoly income, such as that of the railroads, oil and mining trusts;
      (3) his almost unconditional support of capital, even against labor;
      (4) his economic individualism rejecting a strong role for government;
      (5) his opposition to public ownership or subsidy of basic infrastructure;
      (6) his refusal to acknowledge interest-bearing debt as the twin form of rentier income alongside ground rent;
      (7) the scant emphasis he placed on urban land and owner-occupied land;
      (8) his endorsement of the Democratic Party’s free-trade platform;
      (9) his rejection of an academic platform to elaborate rent theory;
      (10) the narrowness of his theorizing beyond the land question;
      (11) the alliance of his followers with the right wing of the political spectrum; and
      (12) the hope that full taxation of ground rent could be achieved gradually rather than requiring a radical confrontation involving a struggle over control of government.”

      I’m no fan of Michael Hudson as it seems to me that he is firmly in the apologists-for-capital camp. Judging by his criticisms of George’s platform, Hudson doesn’t think George was a socialist. And neither did Karl Marx, who has been quoted as writing that George’s teachings were “capitalism’s last ditch”. My assessment, based on limited knowledge, is that Karl Marx was a fierce critic of capitalism and Henry George was a reformer of capitalism.

      I would note that the enclosure of the commons started much earlier than the 18th century. That process actually began as early as the 14th century.

      I haven’t read John Locke, but since he was an Enlightenment philosopher known as the father of Classical Liberalism (and Milton Friedman was a classical liberal), I would hazard a guess that what he meant by “life, liberty, and land” was intended for his class, not the working class, which was certainly proven by the Founding Fathers, among them the authors of the Declaration of Independence.

      • George proposed a single Land Value Tax (to cover resources as well as land) that started off low and eventually increased to 100% of the land values. So in contrast to land confiscation, you leave the landowner with the right of tenure, but all land essentially belongs to the government and is leased to tenants. This is how land tenure operated when New Zealand was first settled, and believe me it sure looks, feels, and smells like socialism.

        It’s true that Marx attacked Progress and Poverty when he first read it. However he later admitted, in the 3rd volume of Das Kapital, that he had erred. Marx’s error was to categorize land as just another form of capital, which is a repudiation of Ricardo’s Law of Rents. Marx always prided himself, as George did, on arguing from first principles. I have reprinted Marx’s review of Progress and Poverty in the comments section at http://open.salon.com/blog/stuartbramhall/2013/08/11/karl_marx_vs_henry_george – as well as my response.

        Unfortunately a number of Hudson’s assertions simply aren’t true – so I would highly recommend you investigate for yourself by reading Progress and Poverty, as well as Sharing the Earth by Martin Adams, The Traumatised Society by Fred Harrison, and Re-Solving the Economic Puzzle by Walter Rybeck.

        1. George openly supported the greenbackers and their call to revoke the right of private banks to issue money – he agreed with Andrew Jackson and LIncoln that this power should be restored to government. He argued that so long as the ruling elite had monopoly control over the money supply and land, they would always use this power to undo any other reforms that were enacted. Sadly he proved to be right in this regard.

        2. George proposed to deal with the power of the railroad, oil and monopoly trusts through a resource rental tax that would gradually increase to 100% of the value of the resource. He didn’t believe regulation was an effective way to control these monopolies – it’s not because the companies write the regulatory legislation.

        Number 3 is nonsense. All George’s writing is from the perspective of ending the structural causes of poverty. George argued that the major cause of poverty and wealth inequality is unrestrained rent-seeking on the part of land speculators – not the 5% return an investor earns for loaning out capital for a productive enterprise. George came from a solid working class background (he never finished high school) and was entirely self-taught. It sounds to me like Hudson hasn’t read what Joseph Stiglitz has to say about this. Stiglitz, who is the most famous contemporary Georgist, referred to Land Value Tax in his Nobel Prize speech. It was Stiglitz who coined the terms “rent seeking” and “rent seeker.”

        4. ??? George did advocate for public ownership of both land and resources, to be accomplished through a 100% land/resource tax.

        5. ??? George does advocate de facto government ownership of land and resources via a 100% land/resource taxes.

        6. This is just muddy thinking. When you can see land values quadruple and quintuple in a decade, it makes little sense to compare them to 4.3% interest on a mortgage loan.

        7. ??? Makes you wonder if Hudson has even read Progress and Poverty – George addresses both at length.

        8. This is true – George agreed with Adam Smith that robust international trade helped curb select businesses from developing too much power and control over government.

        9. This isn’t exactly true, either. Mason Gaffney writes at length about how Rockefeller, Cornell, and the railroad barons tried to shut down the Georgist movement by establishing the science of neoclassical economics at major US universities: http://masongaffney.org/blog/index.php/2007/04/neo-classical-economics-as-a-stratagem-against-henry-george/

        10. His basic platform was to restore the commons to public ownership, not just land, but forests, oil, minerals, lakes, rivers – I’m not sure why Hudson views such radical reforms as “narrow.”

        11. It seems a little unfair to blame it on George that the right wing populist movement took up his agenda. He certainly didn’t see his views as right wing. At the present time, he enjoys much more support from progressives, especially people in Occupy London and the Transition Town movement in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

        12. Well, it’s hard to know what George would have said about violent revolution, as Marx’s work had yet to be translated into English in 1789.

        Regarding the enclosure acts, more than 160,000 freehold farming families in England alone were thrown off their land between 1700 and 1812. It created major social dislocation – Fred Harrison refers to it as European cultural genocide in The Traumatised Society. I have read Locke, and I honestly believe he felt all human beings had a right to access land to feed themselves.

        • Having read Locke myself, I would agree we needn’t be too hard on him. He did, after all, play a critical role in the development of the labor theory of value, which was developed further by Marx and incorporated into his critiques of capitalism. Locke believed land, and the rewards deriving from it, belong to those who worked it. Regardless of Locke’s intentions, I would hesitate to blame him for the U.S. Constitution’s significant flaws; the gentry that wrote it were quite clear in their class interests, regardless of what philosopher of the past did or did not influence their thinking.

          In regards to the closing of the commons, I should point out there were two discrete episodes. The first raged across the sixteenth century in England, and the second during the Industrial Revolution of the latter half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

          Finally, as to Marx’s view of George, the index of my copy of Capital Volume III does not list him, and a search of the Marxist Archives web site, which has Marx’s complete works, indicates Marx did not directly mention George in any of his writings. So I am in no position to offer an opinion, but it is an interesting question.

          So, turning to your Salon blog, you write:

          “America’s enormous concentration of wealth has always depended on the inherent right of the wealthy elite to seize and monopolize vast quantities of land and natural resources (oil, gas, forests, water, minerals, etc) for personal profit. Adopting [a land value tax], which is far easier than launching a violent revolution, would essentially negate that right.”

          A problem here is that the wealthy — more specifically, the bourgeoisie, if we want to use the technical term — aren’t going to sit back and allow themselves to be taxed out of existence. The problem with evolutionary strategies — and, here, German social democracy in the decades leading up to World War I is instructive — is that they are predicated on a given country’s economic elite acquiescing to their abolishment. Alas, no group of capitalists has ever done this.

          The German social democratic idea, first articulated in a coherent, organized manner by Eduard Bernstein in 1899, was that the Social Democratic Party could steadily win more seats in the parliament, workers would wrest more control in the factories, until they had gained sufficient control that, violà, socialism would arrive. It is not necessary for me to point out how well that worked out. I’m afraid there is no alternative to massive organizing and struggle. I would as much as anybody like it to be free of violence and bloodshed, but that is up to those who would be unseated from power, not those struggling for a better world.

          When there was a “velvet revolution” in Czechoslovakia in 1991, it was not because Civil Forum and Public Against Violence were peaceful and non-violent — although they certainly were — it was because the communists peacefully handed over power. Those who are in power generally resort to force to retain their power and privileges, the reason for political violence. It was those “bloodthirsty Reds” who peacefully left power, while no capitalist ever has. When we see the brutal violence that has always accompanied capitalism, it is no surprise.

          I would also argue that surplus value accounts for more wealth than holding land or natural resources. Two of the world’s most profitable corporations are Apple and Wal-Mart; the former has no land and the latter’s land holdings under their stores is immaterial to their ruthless extraction of profit. Services are a huge and growing part of any advanced capitalist country’s economy, and those profits are not based on land or natural resources, although of course the exploitation of land or natural resources figures into many a finance house’s profits. But most of the money played with in the financial sector is a sharing of the surplus value extracted at the places of production.

          The capitalist pays the employee much less than the value or what he or she produces — without tackling this fundamental relation, we fail to reach the roots.

        • Interesting discussion. I am inclined to agree that historically capitalists haven’t agreed to be taxed out of existence. However I’m willing to entertain the possibility that faced with imminent ecological collapse, some of them might be willing to accept a land value tax as a compromise.

          I thought you might be interested in some of the analyses that view Apple’s obscene profits as a consequence of rent-seeking, rather than surplus value extraction:

          http://boingboing.net/2010/10/29/rent-seeking-in-the.html

          http://mises.org/daily/6010/

          http://www.subfurther.com/blog/2011/02/01/in-app-purchase-and-rent-seeking/

          http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/it-opinion/why-apple-and-google-are-killing-innovation-20130716-hv0td.html

          http://www.theoligarch.com/rent_seeking_laissez_faire_state_capitalism.htm

        • Completely unconvincing, I’m afraid. Boing Boing is not a serious publication and although Mises Daily surely is serious, it’s name alone broadcasts its Far Right perspective. Ludwig von Mises was a leading figure of the Austrian School of economics, the precursor to the Chicago School. The Austrian and Chicago Schools are the wellspring for the harsh neoliberalism and austerity the world is enduring.

          I’ll spare other readers the Right-wing blather on those two sites, except for briefly noting two sentences that sum up the Mises Daily article linked:

          Battalions of intellectual-property (IP) lawyers keep constant watch over the government-erected barriers and monopoly privileges that lock up ideas and create corporate value out of thin air.

          What were once great companies furiously innovating to generate returns have become rent seekers collecting war chests of state privilege to compete in the court room rather than in the marketplace.

          Very much nonsense. Microsoft and Apple in a technical sense do enjoy excess profits in the narrow sense that their competitors have lower margins and Microsoft does leverage its monopoly in personal-computer operating systems. But Microsoft’s edge is eroding with the rise of alternative platforms. Apple holds no monopoly, it out-competes its competitors. Moreover, patents are the products of innovation, a byproduct of competition. So, in actuality, there is no “rent seeking” in the macro-economic sense of the term here.

          They, like so many other companies, seek to cut costs as much as possible (i.e., scour the globe for the lowest wages) and mark up retail prices as much as the market will bear. There is nothing going on here other than standard capitalist competition. The capitalist system is propped up by government through subsidies, violence, debt and imperialism, but the idea that specific company’s profits are is a libertarian fantasy. No government can pick winners in an intensely competitive industry such as high technology; in fact, we should recall that the Clinton administration tried to break up the Microsoft monopoly.

          I strongly recommend reading Monthly Review to get a true understanding of global capitalist dynamics. Two articles, both of which were reprinted as chapters in the book The Endless Crisis by John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney are especially instructive:

          The Global Reserve Army of Labor and the New Imperialism

          The Global Stagnation and China

          For a shortcut, you may wish to read my review of The Endless Crisis here.

          I think we are better off by studying economics systematically, not by focusing on this or that corporation or personality. The libertarian paradise that von Mises’ followers agitate for would be a world without effective government, in which the biggest and wealthiest corporations would have carte blanche to run roughshod over the rest of humanity. I don’t think that’s what we want.

        • Alcuin says:

          You didn’t indicate whether you had read Hudson’s article or not. Based on your answers, I’m inclined to think that you haven’t. If you had, I believe that you would agree that not only has Hudson read George, but that he presents quite a detailed explanation to support each of his points.

          In one of your links (I’m not sure which one), it occurred to me that you might not understand that rent is but one part of surplus value. Marx addressed this, in a speech to the First International Working Men’s Association in June, 1865. From the speech (in Chapter 11):

          “Rent, interest, and industrial profit are only different names for different parts of the surplus value of the commodity, or the unpaid labour enclosed in it, and they are equally derived from this source and from this source alone. They are not derived from land as such or from capital as such, but land and capital enable their owners to get their respective shares out of the surplus value extracted by the employing capitalist from the labourer. For the labourer himself it is a matter of subordinate importance whether that surplus value, the result of his surplus labour, or unpaid labour, is altogether pocketed by the employing capitalist, or whether the latter is obliged to pay portions of it, under the name of rent and interest, away to third parties. Suppose the employing capitalist to use only is own capital and to be his own landlord, then the whole surplus value would go into his pocket.”

          According to Wikipedia, Anne Kreuger coined the term “rent seeking”, not Joseph Stiglitz.

          I appreciate your introducing me to the ideas of George, but I believe that I will pass in favor of reading Locke and Ricardo instead.

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