Please excuse the length of this post. I hope it is worth it.
I was listening to the right-wing radio station this morning, as I sometimes do in order to keep a sense of the pulse of the ideological twists and turns of the capitalists, and was amazed once again by the simplicity and, frankly, stupidity of the arguments I found there. They had some guest, another in a long line of such guests, who was chimping for his book about how terrible the welfare state is. And of course, to hide the basic weaknesses in his argument, he applied, as such sophists always do, evocative words that are meant to sway people based upon nothing but rhetoric. This particular sophist was suggesting that we have moved away from a society of “freedom” to, what he called . . . . wait for it. . . . . a “handicapped” model of society. And, predictably, he attacked the Scandinavian model as the ultimate “handicapped” society.
What such people, and I will not call them ‘thinkers’ or ‘theoreticians,’ depend upon is that their evocative rhetoric will be so powerful that it will rob their listeners of their most basic levels of common sense. This is precisely why that great radical Thomas Paine, the first modern radical, by the way, who really hinted at the modern social democratic state, titled his most famous book “Common Sense;” because he saw so little of it in the Tory reaction of his age. Of course one need not be particularly bright or even informed to understand the remarkable absurdity of this bizarre contrast between a model of “freedom” and a model of “handicapped” societies. This is because the so-called “handicapped” societies are, on any international standards, the most prosperous and best ones to live in. Countries like Norway and Sweden have the highest standards of living, the lowest poverty rates, the highest rates of literacy, some of the longest life expectancies, the highest rates of education, etc etc. And the application of more so-called ‘free-market’ standards consistently lowers these living standards whenever they are applied.
But of course we do in fact have a model of freedom that these rhetoric-loving capitalists can point to if they wish. The “freest” society in the world at the moment is Somalia. This East-African nation has no operating government. There are no taxes, no environment or labour laws, in fact, no restrictions on business whatsoever. And, of course, like all countries that have adopted a real model of ‘freedom,’ it is a life of absolute chaos, poverty, and desperation. But these lovers of freedoms, these people who want us to give up all our social system, never talk about such realities of ‘freedom.’ This is indeed their Rubicon.
But if one does engage in an argument with such sophists they will, of course, attempt to get out of their theoretical double-blind by quickly suggesting that the market that they treasure so much does in fact require that the state fulfill one particular function, and this function involves policing, justice, and incarceration. Here is the best irony of all! The first place that their model of freedom breaks down is at its very opposite – incarcerating people who don’t adhere to the proper model of economy. One really has to abandon common sense not to understand that this application of ‘control’ on the ideal ‘freedom’ model is just an arbitrary application meant to maintain the wealth of those who have the most. As Derrida’s great standard of deconstruction demonstrates, the argument quickly falls prey to it very first contra example. If the presence of tens of thousands of police, thousands of judges, and countless prison cells are not a “handicap” on their freedom model, then what is? Well, of course, feeding poor people or preventing mulit-national corporations from putting red-dye five in your food – this is where the handicapping begins in this bizarre model. Because when these people talk about the strong and the weak they don’t really mean it. Their model is not about the strong, it is about the economically privileged.
The truth is, of course, that the entire notion of “freedom” versus “handicapping” is an absurd rhetorical device that has nothing to do with reality. Time and time again, and it is demonstrably simple, what leads to general prosperity are various forms of wealth distribution that ensure high levels of generalized education, access to medical care for everyone, and these are predicated not on freedom but on legislative standards concerning housing, labour, and commodity production and sales.
At a very basic level, capitalists and right-wingers usually misrepresent the very notion of freedom. If freedom was only about ‘doing whatever you want’ it would be a very empty concept indeed. This is because in fact the only possible outcome of such an ideology is chaos and violence. At some level of course, right-wingers know this and so they construct an elaborate defense of what is in fact a tightly controlled system that favors not the ‘strongest’ but the most economically advantaged. The result has nothing to do with generalized freedom or prosperity but is system whereby those who can exercise the greatest degree of control over the monetary unit have the freedom to control others. For the concept of freedom to be meaningful at a social level it must surely be guided by the promotion of ‘the greatest degree of opportunity to be fulfilled for the greatest number of people possible given the social wealth existing at any given time.’ Freedom, in other words, from this perspective is a social concept, because to have real meaning it must have a general application. A system that simply allows the strongest, whether physical or financial, to prevail will inevitably result in the extreme freedom of a few and the general subjugation of the many. This is demonstrably so from its application in 19th century British industrialism and colonialism to the state of Somalia today.
However, the social ideal of freedom is the ideology upon which social democracy was de facto founded. Social democrats didn’t seek to destroy the market per se, but rather to remove market forces from some sectors in order to ensure that, while personal incentives and skills could still have meaning, they would have meaning within a context of the greatest possible degree of generalized opportunity. The result of this ideology is that the absolute freedom to control others wielded by the financially advantaged is reduced in favor of generalized opportunity. The ability for social democracy in Western nations to achieve this goal has been significantly thwarted by globalization and the neo-liberal economic model. But everyone from socialists to social democrats understand that ultimately freedom must be a collective enterprise or it simply will not exist in any meaningful way for the vast majority of people.
The true “handicap” on human society and human endeavor is not social democracy or government welfare programs. Rather it is the power of the economically advantaged to be able to subjugate the majority of the population (at a global level) and, by robbing people of a generalized opportunity, undermine not only freedom but the social and scientific possibilities that would result in increased opportunities for the majority. We are all handicapped by a system that does not ensure opportunities for everyone and thus, in the long run, the greatest freedom for all.