Capitalism and Freedom


It has always been a joke to suggest that capitalism is based on freedom. The fact is its defining feature is wage labour, better called wage slavery. How else to describe situation where workers sell their liberty to a boss for a given set of hours and in return the boss tells them what to do and keeps the product of their labour?

The standard capitalist response to this is simple. No one forces the worker to do this, it is argued. It is a free choice and, consequently, capitalism is freedom. The obvious objection to this is that most people have little choice in joining the labour market due to (state enforced) private property and past and current state action to skew that market in favour of the bosses. As such, a combination of economic and political power ensures that in the market the bosses make the demands and the workers supply their obedience. When the latter fails to happen, the full might of the state is used to protect the freedom of the boss to tell others what to do.

While, sadly, most people think that being bossed about in work is part of life, most think that this should not apply outside of it. Think again. Without (and, often, even with) unfair dismissal laws, bosses can fire you if they discover you attend the wrong meetings, read the wrong books, have the wrong friends -- whatever. In America, as elsewhere, bosses are expanding their power. On June 7th, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has confirmed that workers' activities outside of work are now fair game for their bosses to control. They did so by upholding the legality of a regulation for uniformed employees at Guardsmark, a security guard company, that reads, "you must NOT . . . fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees."

Unsurprisingly, it was the three Republican appointees of the five member board who made the decision. Dissenting board member Wilma Liebman argued that the rule plainly specifies both dating and fraternising, meaning that it can be applied to any gathering of workers like, say, a union meeting. This was why a San Francisco security guard branch of the Service Employees International Union brought the case to the NLRB in the first place. They, rightly, saw that the rule would be used to stop guards meeting to form a union or even to talk about work-related issues. As bosses know, isolated workers are easier to control.

It is an obvious fact that certain, presumably basic, human rights (such as freedom of speech and assembly) do not apply when you enter a workplace. There you go back in time and return to autocracy. While the extensions of that autocracy outside the workplace have always existed, the NLRB has made it official -- bosses are entitled to determine what you do outside of working hours. And if workers cannot even talk to their co-workers outside of work, what next? Determining what other people they can meet? What they can eat? What they can read?

Such possibilities are not impossible. Henry Ford employed his own private spies and army to keep unions out of his workplaces. While he was free, his employees were not -- in work or outside it. Which shows the validity of the anarchist critique of liberalism -- freedom is a product of interaction, not isolation. The way a group is organised and, consequently, what kinds of relationships we create with others determine our freedoms not merely the ability to join or leave an organisation. Being able to join and leave an autocratic organisation, therefore, is not enough to ensure freedom, as capitalism shows beyond doubt.


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