It is an honor to present this interview with Eugene McCarraher, who kindly agreed to respond to three questions about freedom: in relation to political economy, Catholicism, and the recent bishops’ declaration.
The interview adds to the growing grassroots discussion of “freedom” leading up to the Occupy Catholics General Assembly on Freedoms set for this Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. In response to a controversial call by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a ”Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 to July 4, lay Catholics and others are turning to a discussion of the meaning and dimensions of freedom in contemporary society, transcending the narrow confines of the contraception coverage debate and in many cases seeking a more radical (in the sense of “going to the root”) approach to the question of freedom.
Dr. Eugene McCarraher is Associate Professor of History at Villanova University. He is author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse of Modern American Social Thought and has written for Commonweal, The Nation, In These Times, and many other publications. He is currently working on The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.
* * *
ST: When we think of “freedom,” one of the first things that comes to mind is the idea of the “free market.” Is the free market really “free”?
McCarraher: No, the “free market” isn’t really free. Or, to make the point somewhat differently, the freedom of the free market is like someone pointing a gun at your head and offering you the choice of your money or your life. You do have the freedom to choose to get shot.
That’s not an unfair or outlandish analogy. When people use the phrase “free market” (or a kindred term such as “free enterprise” or “economic freedom”) what they really mean is capitalism. Capitalism is one of the most mis-defined words in the language, so it’s crucial to define it correctly in order to explain why the “free market” isn’t free. Let me start by talking about what capitalism isn’t. It’s not the same thing as profit-taking or “the market” — even people on the left often use these terms very sloppily. Profits and markets have been around for at least two millennia, and as David Graeber points out in his invaluable book Debt, the earliest markets were instituted in antiquity by states bent on raising money for military purposes. So the notion that markets emerge “naturally” is just a piece of fiction trotted out by Adam Smith and other economists. (Graeber also does a magnificent job of demolishing the idea that barter characterized the earliest economies. Again, a nice story, but the problem is there isn’t a shred of anthropological or historical evidence.) Capitalism is also not “the accumulation of wealth”: all societies have accumulated wealth beyond the point of subsistence, as will, I think, any imaginable society in the future. Capitalism also isn’t “greed” or “avarice”: yes, it’s fueled by greed or avarice, but greed or avarice have bedeviled us for ages, well before capitalism.
Capitalism is also not just “private property,” and that consideration takes us to the heart of what capitalism is. Capitalism is first, last, and foremost a system of property relations between producers and appropriators. Throughout history, property relations have entailed producers and appropriators, or classes: those who make goods and services and those who control the production and distribution of those goods and services, either by owning the means of production or by enlisting overt means of coercion. Under the property or class relations of pre-capitalist economies, masters or overlords used superior political and military power to force producers to surrender some part of their surplus labor and production. The differences in these forms of coercion mark the differences in economies: in chattel slavery, for instance, producers themselves were owned by masters, while in feudalism, nobles coerced serfs to perform labor on some part of the manor and surrender a portion of their own production. Under capitalist property relations, the dominant form of appropriation is based on legally free producers who are completely dispossessed from the means of production. Slaves were owned; serfs and peasants had direct access to their own means of production (they could walk out the door of the hut and start working any time they wanted, so long as the lord got his due). In capitalism, owners determine access to the means of production; even if they wanted to, workers can’t just stroll in to the factory or the office. Unlike chattel slaves or serfs, producers under capitalism are legally free, and their surplus labor and production is appropriated by the capitalist owner by purely economic means – that is, there’s no overt compulsion in the relationship between producer and appropriator. Because direct producers are propertyless, their only access to the means of production, even to the means of their own labor, is the sale of their capacity to labor to owners in exchange for a wage. The worker has something to sell as dearly as possible, namely his capacity to labor, which the capitalist wants to purchase as cheaply as possible so as to have the maximum left over for investment.
This unique relation between propertyless producers and propertied appropriators is mediated by the market. Capitalism follows certain laws of motion that distinguish it from other forms of economic life: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization; a necessity to reinvest surpluses in production; and a systematic requirement to improve labor productivity and to develop technology. These laws of motion are enforced primarily by the market, which serves a distinctive and historically unprecedented function in capitalism: it mediates access, not only to ordinary goods, but to the means of production themselves. Almost everything in capitalism is produced for the market; both capitalists and laborers are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of life. Workers depend on the market to sell their capacity to labor as a commodity; capitalists depend on the market to buy this capacity to labor, to purchase means of production, and to realize profits by selling the goods or services produced by workers. Thus, capitalism is by nature an inherently unstable, dynamic, and conflictual system; and thus, class struggle is endemic to it, rooted in the very nature and logic of capitalist property. It isn’t some Big Misunderstanding, or the product of envy or resentment on the part of workers. Ask Warren Buffett, who once breezily informed the New York Times that “of course there’s a class struggle, and my side is winning.”
I want to underline two aspects of capitalism here: the coercive nature of its property relations, and the competitive character of the social life it generates. The mythology of capitalism abounds in the language of freedom: we speak of “the free market,” the creation of “opportunity,” the proliferation of “choices,” the “opening” of countries to trade. Yet we also speak of “market forces,” and forces are about compulsion. What I think needs to be clarified is that the distinctive and dominant characteristic of the capitalist market is not opportunity or choice but, on the contrary, compulsion. Despite the appearance of freedom and equality in the wage bargain, for instance – the worker is “free” to choose or reject the terms of employment offered by the owner – the owner’s complete control over access to and use of the means of production puts him at a decisive advantage. Under slavery, your master chose you; under capitalism, you choose your master. (There was a reason why workers in the 19th century referred to wage labor as “wage slavery.” It’s a language we need to speak again.) By the same token, the capitalist imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization mandate that owners acquire and seek to enlarge their control, not only over the means of production, but over workers themselves. No matter how affable or cultivated they are, they must resist or break unions; they must utilize technologies that render workers either obsolete, cheaper, or more pliable; they must oppose any effort on the part of the state to regulate the conditions under which they extract as much surplus as they can out of workers, regardless of how inhumane, socially irresponsible, or ecologically destructive those activities are. The only justice and equity that workers have ever achieved in capitalist nations have been acquired, painfully and often against great violence, through unions, left-wing parties, and a generous welfare state. They have not been granted by tender-hearted capitalists, which is why “socially responsible capitalism” is pure ideological twaddle.
It’s essential to point out that capitalism did not appear in history as the free decision of uncoerced men and women. The history of capitalism is a long and ongoing tale of dispossession and violence, beginning with the confiscation and sale of monasteries in the 16th century; the enclosure of commons, meaning the eviction of peasants from land, in the 17th and 18th centuries; the imperialist invasion and forcible transformation of numerous societies, beginning with Ireland in the 16th century. The creation of American capitalism required the removal and destruction of native American tribes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the trade in African slaves provided considerable start-up capital for North Atlantic manufacturing, and plantation labor serviced the commodity markets in London and Amsterdam.
Understanding capitalism as a system of imperatives also helps explain why, far from being some sort of anomaly or perversion, our current economic turbulence is a textbook case of capitalism being capitalism. The media focus on the Bernie Madoffs and Jamie Dimonds of the world obscures the fact that this is not a “financial” crisis or the result of “bad apples,” but rather a systemic tremor that’s been in the making for the last four decades. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate capital remade the system in a way that landed us in the mess we’re in. Rising energy costs and increased international competition both forced and enabled corporations to do something they’d wanted to do all along: dismantle the New Deal arrangements which had characterized the U. S. economy since 1945, and which had contributed to the longest and most equitable expansion of productivity growth in the history of capitalism. The introduction of computerized production and communication technologies enabled management to accelerate automation and introduced more intensive labor practices. New management and production practices emphasized the “flexibility” of labor – i.e., weaker or non-existent unions. The result? In the 1990s, productivity per worker hour rose four times as fast as the average hourly wage – in manufacturing, twenty times as fast. With weak unions and strong bosses, productivity growth showed up in the pockets of executives, stockholders, and bank creditors. Meanwhile, mutual fund directors and other institutional investors virulently reasserted stockholder claims; mergers and acquisitions put financial over productive prowess; financiers acquired a historically unprecedented role in corporate governance.
So the “free market” is really a latticework of coercions that operate under the name of “freedom.”
ST: Should “freedom” be an important value for Catholics? It seems like an Enlightenment ideal: is that okay?
McCarraher: The fact that “freedom” under capitalism is really about a network of coercions makes the answer to your second question a tricky issue. Yes, freedom should be an important value for Catholics — certainly in the traditional Catholic, Aristotelian sense, which I understand to be the ability to fulfill one’s nature, to pursue one’s telos. I would emphasize that, by that teleological standard, capitalism actually stands in the way of full human flourishing by defining freedom in terms of property ownership and market competition. If our telos involves, as Aquinas understood it, friendship and beatitude, then the imperatives of capitalist property relations are almost perfectly designed to thwart these ends.
If you look at the matter in historical terms, the notion of freedom that we have in liberal capitalist societies derives, in large measure, from Roman law. The English word “free” stems from the Germanic word fremden, or friend. Hence, to be free, in this view, is to be able to make friends and live in community. But the way we understand freedom is more akin to Roman jurisprudential notions of dominium and libertas, both of which entailed the right to do anything with anything that one possessed. Freedom, in this understanding, is simply more or less unfettered power.
All of which is to say that the question of whether or not Catholics — or Christians in general — should seek to value and preserve liberal freedom has to have a complicated, ambivalent answer. Has liberal democracy, for instance, been a great step forward? Obviously yes — when liberalism was born, whole groups of people were excluded from genuine participation in political life. Liberalism has also cultivated respect for individuality and an iconoclastic attitude toward authority, both of which are invaluable and I hope imperishable contributions to human flourishing. So, in my view, Christians need to cherish and affirm many features of liberalism and liberal democracy. I must say that I’m troubled by an increasing tendency among Catholics, especially but not exclusively among our more conservative brethren, to vilify liberalism, the Enlightenment, and modernity as though they were the spawn of Satan. Most Christians who wail and lament about liberalism and modernity have only the most notional and sentimental conceptions of what life was like for most people before modern technology, modern communications, representative democracy, freedom of speech and religion, feminism, etc. — all of those and more, defining features of modernity.
But I also think that we have to see liberal democracy and liberal freedom in historical, contingent terms — in other words, they were necessary moments, but not sufficient for human flourishing. We have to realize that liberal democracy is, in the end, a more or less regulated struggle for power, a contest of wills. In liberal societies, what matters first and foremost is not what you will, but that you will. That’s why the liberal nation-state can’t really claim to be a polis, or a community, or even a democracy. As Chuck Mathewes once pointed out, liberalism is really profoundly anti-political: if you define a political community or polis as a group of people who seek a common good, liberal democracy is by definition not about a common good but about the clash and orchestration of individual goods. (That’s why liberal democracy inevitably tends, I think, to plutocracy. Reform movements such as the New Deal inexorably succumb to the logic of capital and the ideology of the unfettered individual.) Does that mean we should seek something other than liberal democracy? In the end, yes — contrary to what Americans believe, liberal democracy does not exhaust the meaning of democracy. We’re not going to achieve anything approaching a genuinely democratic polis — and therefore achieve the genuine freedom of living among friends in community — until we both nurture a different understanding of “freedom” (one that preserves the best in the liberal tradition) and create a new, post-capitalist economy. As the wonderful Dominican socialist Herbert McCabe once put it, our model for society and freedom should be friendship, not a competitive market.
ST: One thing that struck me about the USCCB statement “Our Most Cherished Liberty” (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm) is that it calls Pope Benedict XVI “a friend of America and an ally in the defense of freedom.” Some might read this statement to be implying that defending America with military force amounts to defending “freedom.” Would that be problematic?
McCarraher: It certainly would be “problematic” — indeed, such an enlistment of the Pope “in defense of freedom” would be insidious.
First, let me just say “Our Most Cherished Liberty” is problematic on a number of levels. First, it’s understanding of religious liberty in America is historically challenged. The common conception of the history of religion in the U. S. is that because we’ve had a legal disestablishment of religion, that therefore religious liberty has reigned. This simply isn’t true. As David Sehat demonstrates in his indispensable book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Christianity has always enjoyed a de facto cultural establishment which has had enormous legal and political implications. All kinds of religious groups have suffered discrimination and violence in this country’s history — I would offer native Americans as an example, but since we have a Mormon running for President, I’ll instance the Latter-Day Saints. There’s no way you can read their history without being struck by the overt and violent attempts of the U. S. government — aided and abetted by ordinary citizens — to repress and destroy the Mormons. You’ll never hear Mitt Romney talk about any of this, of course, because he and most other Mormons embrace the “exceptionalist” nonsense that other Americans believe, including the bishops.
Given all that, I think that “Our Most Cherished Liberty” is, among other things, a cri de coeur from Catholic bishops who, along with other paranoid Christian leaders, are witnessing the slow cultural disestablishment of Christianity. They used to receive the immediate and uncritical deference of their flock and of others, and now they don’t — for a host of reasons, many of them traceable to their own duplicity, authoritarianism, and moral mediocrity.
The mediocrity is evident in the phrase you cite: “friend of America and an ally in the defense of freedom.” Jesus, this is the state of Christian eloquence? They sound like President Obama, delivering yet another one of his sonorous banalities before he orders the next round of drone strikes. Speaking of which, have you heard of any of our courageous shepherds expressing outrage at the practice, or at the revelation that the President has a “kill list”? Of course not, and you won’t at any time in the near future. By and large, the Catholic bishops, like most other religious leaders in this country, have been bought and paid for — they are, as Mike Budde once termed them, the imperial chaplains. They earnestly desire, as they say very clearly in the very first paragraph, to align our identities as Catholics with our identities as Americans. I’m sure that, much of the time, there’s no problem there. But to the extent that “American” means the idealization of liberal capitalism and the sanctioning of military force to “defend” our essentially Roman, capitalist romance of freedom — well then, we do have a problem.