Work or starve. That was the simple message to Ohio workers from their state government already in May.
Reflecting the zeal among the Right and parts of the business class to “re-open” the economy as quickly as possible, Ohio set up a website in early May for companies to report workers who refused to come into work — regardless of whether proper health and safety measures were in place. The program’s explicit aim was to deprive reported workers of unemployment benefits.
The stark choice between work and abject misery is just one of the many dark secrets normally politely hidden in the recesses of unspoken economic common sense dredged up to the surface by the coronavirus pandemic. The basic contradictions of the capitalist economy that we all swim in in normal times are suddenly writhing before us, thrown up on the shores of lockdowns and states of emergency. We see our basic needs confronted with the need for someone to profit, our meager or missing wages confronted with the rent that’s still coming due.
Yet in response to the accelerating global pandemic and its accompanying social and economic misery, it’s the Right that is mobilizing under the banner of freedom across the world. The message from protestors in the United States who demanded their right to Baskin Robbins or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who led mass rallies as infections spiked, was the same as those of anti-mask crusaders today: push all those uncomfortable truths back down out of view.
Styling themselves as defenders of freedom and democracy, the Right’s most ardent representatives in the media and political office bristle at even the impoverished state intervention so far, despite it having little to do with socialism and more with temporary life-support for the existing economic system — all the while kicking and screaming for haircuts and chicken wings.
The freedom the Right demands is not freedom from unpayable rent or dangerous work, but freedom for the rich to compel others to scoop ice creams, to clean their houses, to staff their businesses — regardless of the consequences. This is the true meaning of “open the economy.”
But real freedom is something completely different. Being free is not an individual game of Russian roulette between working and starving, working and staying healthy; being free is a collective project of meeting our needs and expanding our capacities. And that freedom requires deciding about and planning our economic and social life together.
Freedoms to access goods or services that are frivolous in a pandemic require those providing them to go to work. In practice, one person’s freedom to enjoy KFC is a KFC worker’s freedom to starve if they do not want to work. In both cases this is an individual and negative notion of freedom: you’re only free when no one is stopping you from doing something. And it is individual in a deeper sense: only individual choice on the market can determine what is frivolous and what is not. It can’t be democratically decided.
This way of understanding freedom also conveniently ignores the inequalities that determine who gets the short end of a particular stick. In the United States, frontline essential work, primarily in health and other services, is disproportionately done by women as well as black and Latino workers. The workers who have had to keep working through the worst depths of the infection spikes have gone from disposable to being celebrated as essential, now quietly back to disposable again. Remember pandemic pay? Jeff Bezos doesn’t either.
Whether more or less explicit, much of the current concern with freedom is ultimately about freedom for markets, and in particular for the labor market, the age-old demand of capital. What is most galling in this crisis for business is the intrusion of public decision-making into economic life. Who will be paid to stay home from work, which business can open and potentially profit, what we have access to buy and where — all of these things were supposed to only be decided by a tiny handful of capitalists, not the public.
We may produce what we need to live collectively, but for the rich and powerful as well as their proxies protesting masks in the streets, only individuals should decide how we produce and what we do with the proceeds — whether in the toothpaste aisle or the corporate boardroom. The trick is that some individuals, by virtue of their wealth or their connections to it, make much weightier decisions than others.
Nowhere is the appeal to freedom more jarring than in the false dichotomy between health and the economy. Attending to health is not an imposition on the economy but a precondition for having an economy at all. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that no one is safe unless we are all safe. While we are not “all in this together” because rates of death from COVID-19 vary sharply with existing inequalities, we are nevertheless interdependent on one another. Infections raging among meat packing workers can yet end up among plant owners in the Hamptons.
Positive freedoms — freedoms to rather than simply from — are crucial to overcoming this supposed conflict between health and economy. The freedom to health care, to safe working conditions, to housing are all freedoms without which both public health and the economy are at risk. It turns out that economic life is social life — that the economy and health are intimately bound together. And that freedom is in some important sense also collective.
Unfortunately, pervasive unfreedom is the true face of our economic system for the majority of us. So many of us have little say in how we work, where, using what tools, when and why we do things one way rather than another. Freed from the vagaries of the weather, of flood and drought, from the cruelty of agricultural labor and enforced tribute, from mere subsistence, we have been given that peculiar devil’s bargain: work or starve. The trick is that it all happens under the pretense of freedom: no one is forcing anyone to work, but circumstances suggest it is the wise decision.
Planning and Freedom
In secret notebooks kept in the 1970s but published only recently, the dissident Soviet economist Yakov Kronrod wrote, “A free society is the guarantee of the freedom of the individual….Whereas capital is a system of formal freedom and real economic un-freedom of the individual, socialism marks the emergence of the truly free individual.” For Kronrod, a free society is one where ownership is social, reflecting the fact that we produce socially and cooperate on vast scales to do so every day.
A free individual is then not the person who makes decisions between buying Colgate and Aquafresh in the toothpaste aisle, but the person who has input for decisions much earlier — in the workplace and over what the broad outlines of the economy look like. This is very different from the fantasy of endless possibility sold by market evangelists, one that ends up as the reality of the choice between work or destitution enforced by actual markets.
The pandemic is showing that there are social and economic conditions for meaningful freedom. Rather than subsuming individuals into collectives that impose their will — what else is happening at GM factory or an Amazon warehouse, to most of us at work, if not this? — socialism instead means individuals co-create a collective will through expanded democracy across society and economy.
Simply put, democratic planning is freedom. Conscious control over how we organize the economy and social life so that we aren’t forced to choose between work and starvation is freedom. The freedom to refuse to wear a face mask in public spaces is utterly childish compared to the freedom to good health and a functioning economy. The pandemic is demonstrating that collective, public efforts are the real guarantors of freedom, not astro-turf campaigns whose real aim is to get workers back to producing not so much things as simply profits.
In a recent essay, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch argue that retaking the mantle of freedom starts with organizing in the workplace:
Even while the workplace is a site of domination, it is also a classroom of freedom, a space where we learn the political arts of struggle and emancipation. When we work, we cooperate with other people. We subordinate our wills to a common purpose—first and foremost to that of the boss, but en route to fulfilling the boss’s purposes, we learn to coordinate our actions with those of our co-workers.
We cannot let go of the terrain of freedom, the home of the Left for centuries. To really get out of the crisis we need more far-reaching planning, more conscious control over production and distribution — over everything from health care supplies to food and shelter. This pandemic makes it more clear than it was previously, in “normal” times, that planning is freedom.
Planning in Abnormal Times
Real freedom during this pandemic is not worrying where food will come from, how you will pay the rent and whether you will have a roof over your head, whether your family will be safe, whether going to work will end up killing you. And to those ends, there are new well-springs of bottom-up, planned collective action all around us.
Mutual aid groups are showing that people are ready to collectively plan to satisfy basic needs, even if just within the limits of what they can do with their neighbors. And all over the world, people are taking physical distancing very seriously, ready to shift their lives for a common social goal. From the small scale up to the big, there is a focus on human needs that we can’t allow to be forgotten. These are the seeds of real freedom to determine collectively what is necessary and what is superfluous.
At the same time, mutual aid is clearly not enough. We live in complex societies that are so interdependent, not just nationally but globally, that we cannot avoid or escape the hard questions of large-scale planning, both in production and distribution, and democracy, all the way up to that global level.
Even here there are examples: the government in the state of Kerala in India is distributing food on a mass scale through a system of delivery kits with food and other essentials, ration cards, and “fair-price” shops. As K. K. Shailaja, Kerala’s forward-thinking health minister has said, the key is “proper planning.” We should be making even more far-reaching plans, for example about how to socialize the entire food system.
Freedom for billions of people in the Global South would also mean being able to pursue the public health measures suddenly “affordable” in the North without the worry of crushing, incapacitating debt. It would mean technology transfer and vaccines without the expensive shackles of intellectual property rights.
We need to harness the wave of mutual aid and the attention to human need, these glimpses of an alternative amidst a clearly broken system. There are two big questions: how will we build the institutions that will bring about a more democratic economy, and how will we build the institutions of that democratic economy themselves?
Imagine what a rational society run in the common interest would do to get over a pandemic. Our blinkered opposition between public health and economy doesn’t make sense in this context. The question would simply be how to enable the proper physical distancing and other virus suppression measures, while still being able to ensure everyone has the food, the shelter, the power, the water, the internet, and everything else they need for material and social reproduction, and that those supplying these needs were put in the least danger themselves.
There is nothing wrong with putting an economy on pause if that is what is needed for a higher goal. We can democratically deliberate and decide what requires a pause, even if that comes with some shortages. My guess is that getting over a global pandemic and lessening mass death would win that vote. While this scenario seems like something not just from another country but another planet, we do have the tools to do it here.
It may be difficult, but we can imagine this world. To make it a reality, we will also have to reclaim freedom: freedom from the vagaries of the market, from hunger, from false choices like that between working and starving, public health and a functioning economy. This crisis should be an impetus to weaken and displace the role of market relationships, to plan together and to build new forms of collective freedom.