Marx's Capital: “Freedom” Inverted: It’s Really Powerlessness

4.4.2) “Freedom” Inverted: It’s Really Powerlessness: Capitalists and their ideologists write about how everybody is “free” in a capitalist economy: slavery and serfdom have both been abolished, so that workers can go where they want, take the jobs they want, and so raise society’s productivity. Marx reacts with very heavy-handed snark.

The serf was not free: he was tied to the land, and had to stay there and present his lord with the customary feudal rents specified under that form of land tenure. The coming of capitalism frees the serf: he is no longer required to stay on his inherited piece of land, and farm it.

But the coming of capitalism “frees” the serf in another sense as well: he is “freed” from his connection with the land, which now belongs to the landlord. And he can do what he used to do—farm the land—only if he can strike a bargain and rent it from the landlord. He is, in the words of Milton and Rose Director Friedman, “free to choose”. But he is also free to lose. And—if he cannot strike a bargain to rent the land and then cannot strike a bargain to work as an employee—free to starve.

Yes, he is no longer constrained by the web of obligations that constrained him under the feudal or the petty-bourgeois mode of production. But by the same token that freedom from social position and social ties may well reduce his bargaining power when he goes to the labor market. Constraints can keep you from doing better, but they can also keep you fro being forced to do worse.

Moreover, that bargaining-power reduction is essential for the system’s operation, at least in Marx’s view. Capitalism can only form if there are a lot of workers who have lost their feudal status as serfs who are both owned by and own the land, and lost their petty-bourgeois status as artisans or merchants who own their tools and their businesses. Only if there is a proletariat—a large group of workers who must find a capitalist employer, and must do so under conditions in which workers have very little bargaining power:

The starting point of the development that gave rise to the wage labourer as well as to the capitalist, was the servitude of the labourer. The advance consisted in a change of form of this servitude, in the transformation of feudal exploitation into capitalist exploitation.… Revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capital class in course of formation; but, above all, those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market…

Here the full files are—unfinished:

And the course slides:

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