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The Economy of Freedom
Why freedom can't be bought
Last week I interviewed economist James Meadway about the eco-fiscal crisis, and the policies we need both to navigate an emergency and transition our society to one which supports life. Towards the end of the interview I asked him: “Is there an economic system that we could envision that moves away from money as the denominator of value?”
“Of course,” he said. “We could make more things free.”
During the episode, we had discussed the obfuscatory nature of economic language: inflation, interest rates, supply side, productive capacity, etc. These ornate and obscure terms reflect a system that seems just as obscure to many of us participating in it, and the language, arguably, serves to create a market of experts who comment, experiment and hypothesise whilst the rest of us exist as merely the instruments of their devices. As soon as James said the word “free” I understood I had fallen prey to that exact ideological prison, rooting around for a complex solution to a simple problem. How do we remove money as the denominator of value? Why, you simply make things free!
Sometimes, big words make you look like an idiot, and the only solution is to laugh at yourself.
Capitalism is often intertwined with personal freedom in ideological arguments, that individuals are freer in a market economy than any other, that each man (and I use that word deliberately) has more right and capacity for self-determination. One merely has to work for it (the joke that keeps on giving). Undermining capital’s grip on the economic system would, therefore, undermine our personal freedoms.
But surely a world in which more things are free would increase our freedom? Certainly, given the only thing citizens have to sell on the labour market is their time, reducing their need to earn money by making more public services would free up more of their time, and more free time means more freedom, at least in one regard. A world of free public transport, free education, free healthcare, free housing would see citizens freer to spend their time as they please, be that working or with loved ones or taking strolls through parks. It would see more time freed up to care for one another, for creative projects, for rest and wellbeing. It would see freedom redefined as a state of being free rather than freedom to possess; purchasing power doesn’t buy even the wealthiest very much time (see Elon Musk bragging about sleeping on Tesla’s factory floor).
Like many words, the etymology of the word free is revealing. It comes from the Old English freo meaning “exempt from; not in bondage, acting of one's own will”, and “noble; joyful”. Free, then, was applied first of all to people, and being a free person, free from being acted upon by another’s will is noble and a cause for joy. Fascinatingly, the Proto-Germanic root friaz means “beloved; not in bondage”. This comes from priy-a- “dear, beloved” which in turn comes from pri-, the Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to love."
This jump from love to one’s own will isn’t random, the trail meanders through many European languages: in Germanic, Gothic frijon "to love;" Old English freod "affection, friendship, peace," friga "love," friðu "peace;" Old Norse friðr "peace, personal security; love, friendship," German Friede "peace;" Old Norse Frigg, name of the wife of Odin, literally "beloved" or "loving”.
Perhaps we can extrapolate that the state of being free is the state of being beloved. Being free does not mean the freedom to act upon the world as one chooses (the definition we have come to accept under capitalist ideology) but being free from those who wish to act upon you. Being free, then, is inherently collective in its nature; not acting upon but acting in accordance with others. It demands a sense of equality, it evokes a sense of community. To be free is to be loved. In a world of the loved, people do not act upon one another to take away their freedoms. In a world of exploitation, people do not love those who take away their freedoms. Who, then, is free under capitalism?
Providing people with free healthcare, education, housing, energy, broadband, food would not solve the ecological crisis overnight, nor would it immediately emancipate people from exploitation. But it would be an act of beloving, and a step towards being free. It would anchor the economy in being of service of people, and remove the dangerous monetary valuation we ascribed to our interactions with ourselves, with one another, with our environment. It would offer more choice than afforded to the majority today, choice to act of one’s own free will, choice to self-determine, choice to be free from bondage. It would provide people with a much needed sense of being cared for and increase our capacity to care for one another. And not through national dictates or coercive policies, but merely by giving back the only thing we all have to trade: time. Without being forced to trade in our time, we will have more to spend on that which matters.
© Rachel Donald
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