On the face of it, it’s hard to argue against George Monbiot’s contention that the state is required to curb the excesses of capital, by imposing ‘legal restraints upon freedoms which interfere with other people’s freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.’ Decades of financial deregulation led to a financial crisis to which we are yet to know the full cost; the gap between rich and poor continues to grow; and governments frequently excuse regressive policies against the will of the public on the grounds of ensuring market confidence. In such times, it is understandable that Monbiot defends the role of the state as bulwark against big business, following Henri Lacondaire’s axiom that ‘between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the master and the servant, it’s liberty that oppresses, and the law that liberates’.
But it is a mistake to portray the state as a brake on the rampages of the rich and powerful. Monbiot is right to deplore the misuse of the idea of freedom by the rich and powerful to justify their greed and tyranny. But in positing the state as protector of the poor, he lets it off the hook, when it is in fact the principle enabler of their plunder. The state gives a few crumbs with one hand and with the other wields a cattle-prod to keep the hoi polloi away from the masters’ table.
There is much talk of China’s new hybrid form of statist capitalism. This ignores the statism in our own backyard: all capitalism is impossible without massive state intervention. One man owns a million square acres and has near-absolute control over what is done to it, while a million others do not even have one acre – or they must pay rent to loan a little scrap of land, or a small portion of a building to live in. If I try to start farming on one of those million acres, I’m a trespasser, and it is the state that will punish me. There’s nothing inherently legitimate about that state of affairs; it’s not a state of nature, or even an unjust form of freedom. It is not – as in the liberal formulation – a question of balancing freedoms. One man cannot possibly farm a million acres; it is a nonsense to say that in claiming ownership of them, he is exercising his freedom. All he is doing is denying others the use of the land, except on terms that extracts most of the profit from their work; and, crucially, he couldn’t do that without the sanction of the state. It’s a state-enforced denial of freedom.
The so-called libertarians whom Monbiot describes speak in such dense Orwellian double-speak that their words can’t be taken at face value. When they deplore state intervention, they aren’t talking about grotesque property laws that allow the ridiculous situation in which hundreds or thousands of workers at a fast-food chain have no ownership of the company for which they work, which is ‘owned’ by a few well-fed men who never set food on the shop floor. When they talk about freedom, they mean a state of varying degrees of desperation for the majority of humankind such that the only options are put their labour up for hire, so that they can make enough to get by – if they’re lucky; some freedom. And when they whine about big government, they’re not talking about the highly complex, state-dependent system of institutions, legislation and trade arrangements that ensures that capital flows unimpeded across borders while labour is at the mercy of local conditions, ensuring that products are made with the lowest possible labour costs, even if it means shipping them halfway around the world on fume-spewing jets.
Communist attempts to force people into positive freedom by subsuming the individual to the collective will were a tyrannical disaster, as Monbiot points out. But the fall of the Soviet bloc, little cause though we have to mourn its passing in its own right, has upset the balance that, for a while, forced some degree of social-democratic compromise on capitalism, with at least meagre gestures towards equality. The kind of well-intentioned liberalism that depends on the benevolence of the state can only tinker around the edges of the entrenched edifice of capitalist institutions.
Democracy in government is empty without democracy at the workplace. David Cameron’s flagship Big Society project was touted as a radical devolution of power, in which charities, workers coops and private companies would compete for provision of public services. No prizes for guessing which of the three has taken the lion’s share. His gutting of public funding for charities at the same time as asking them to step up and take over provision of public services expose the cynicism of the move, while his willingness to jettison the UK’s influence in Europe for the sake of the City bankers and traders have shown where his priorities are. In any case, so long as we have a legal framework that allows giant accumulations of wealth to be treated as private property, fine words about cooperatives and mutuals remain just that: words. In Australia, even the Labour government views public services through an ideological prism that favours the private sector.
The state does provide some safeguard against the Randian dystopia of totally unfettered dollar power dreamed of by capitalist libertarians. But the problems facing the 99% are fundamental ones that can’t be solved by regulatory band-aids. It isn’t a question of the state doling out a little less freedom to the few in order to protect the rights of the many. The state’s primary crime is not a sin of omission but of commission: legitimating, and enforcing, the tyranny of the 1%. Let’s reclaim the ideal from the ersatz libertarians. What we want is liberty – liberty for all.