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Gaining freedom by escaping the unfreedom of the workplace

August 3, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

University of Chicago Press Journals, American Association for the Advancement of Science EurekAlert!, July 31, 2020

According to recent Gallup polls, socialism is now more popular than capitalism among Democrats and young people, and support for “some form of socialism” among all Americans is at 43% (compared to 25% in 1942). Policies that went unmentioned or were declared out-of-bounds in elections four years ago–a federal jobs guarantee, single-payer health care, free college, massive tax hikes on the rich, and the Green New Deal–are commonplace in Democrats’ 2020 campaigns.

However, in “Freedom Now,” a new paper published by Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin in Polity’s May Symposium on the Challenges Facing Democrats, there is still no clear, unifying idea behind this political shift. “One has not heard anything on the order of Franklin Roosevelt’s Commonwealth Club speech or Reagan’s story of the free market,” the authors write. If these policies are to have a chance of breaking through, they will need a grounding principle, or ideology name the enemy, organize the policies, orient the actions, state the destination, and provide the fuel for the movement.

Gourevitch and Robin propose that that idea is freedom. “While the left once understood freedom as emancipation from the economy, the right spent the twentieth century neutralizing and appropriating the idea of freedom by reinventing the economy as the true site of freedom.”

To reclaim freedom as a value of the left, the authors believe the first place to start is the unfreedom of the workplace. “In nearly every capitalist country, one of the leading elements of the legal definition of employment is subordination to the will of a superior.” That can mean that employees must urinate–or are forbidden to urinate. It can mean that they should be sexually appealing–or must not be sexually appealing. They may be told how to speak, what to say, whom to say it to, where to be, where to go, how to dress, when to eat, and what to read–all in the name of the job. “But isn’t the worker free to leave a bad boss? Formally speaking, yes,” the authors write. “But even if they are free to exit this workplace, they are not free to exit the workplace.”

Reclaiming “freedom” names the problem that an increasing number of people face today: systemic unfreedom in the neoliberal economy. By confronting that unfreedom, the left can do more than identify, in a coherent and cohesive way, the myriad problems that individuals are currently facing. The authors find the seeds of that idea in Bernie Sanders’s rhetoric about being “organizer in chief,” and in proposals from the Warren and Sanders camps that would strengthen workers’ right to strike and organize.

However, they note, “A real politics of freedom posits a belief in the capacity of people to revise the terms of their existence and a commitment to the institutions that make these collective revisions possible.” In other words, freedom is best realized not through tending our own gardens but through disciplined commitment and collective struggle, in activities like mass strikes and party politics. “These democratic struggles are not simply expressions and experiences of freedom, though they are that. They are also the means to the freedoms people deserve.”

https://www.eurekalert.org…


Symposium on the Challenges Facing Democrats: Freedom Now

By Alex Gourevitch, Brown University and Corey Robin, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
University of Chicago Press Journals, Polity, July 2020

Abstract

Left-wing politics is resurgent. Self-proclaimed socialists are unexpectedly popular. Proposals like universal health care are a commonplace of Democratic campaigns. But there is not yet a clear, unifying idea behind this political shift. We propose that that idea is freedom. While the left once understood freedom as emancipation from the economy, the right spent the twentieth century neutralizing and appropriating the idea of freedom by reinventing the economy as the true site of freedom. To reclaim freedom as a value of the left, we have to begin with the daily experience of most people: the unfreedom of the workplace. The authoritarian organization of work is not just an offense against freedom; it also helps us understand how freedom requires emancipation both from the economy and within the economy, and why that emancipation requires mass struggle.

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu…


Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

In simplified terms, “Freedom Now,” by Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin, discusses how the political right captured the rhetorical concept of freedom, but that it can be reclaimed by the left by escaping the unfreedom of the workplace. To try to understand what this means, both the press release and the abstract of the article are reproduced above, since rephrasing helps. Actually, I found that I had to read the full article (available for free at the journals.uchicago.edu link above) – twice.

In my years of advocating for a single payer national health program, I’ve found that it is often difficult to find a common ground of communication with conservatives, libertarians, and even neoliberals. When I extol the virtues of Medicare for All, one common response from the right is that having the government involved takes away your freedom. That response, of course, has become a meme.

But Gourevitch and Robin show us that it is the unfreedom of the workplace from which we need relief. They conclude, “A real politics of freedom posits a belief in the capacity of people to revise the terms of their existence and a commitment to the institutions that make these collective revisions possible. In this instance, that translates into the belief that freedom is best realized not through tending our own gardens but through disciplined commitment and collective struggle, in activities like mass strikes and party politics. These democratic struggles are not simply expressions and experiences of freedom, though they are that. They are also the means to the freedoms people deserve.”

Social programs provided by the government but not dependent on the workplace, such as single payer Medicare for All, Social Security retirement, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, long term care, public education including that beyond the primary and secondary levels that eliminates the bondage of student loans, federal jobs guarantee, food security programs, guaranteed housing, progressive tax policies, and the like – dare we use the term “socialism” – provide freedom by freeing us up from the unfreedom of the workplace advocated by those on the right who support the capitalistic neoliberalism of the marketplace workplace. With appropriate social programs, capitalism, markets and the workplace still work for us, but they don’t take away our freedom.

Read the full article. Twice. Or three times. Freedom belongs to all of us. When we see that this disciplined commitment and collective struggle when acted out are the means to the freedoms people deserve, we will be able to shout out the words promulgated by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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