The Freedom We (Should) Mean

(Bild: torange.com)

In this still young 21st century we find ourselves in a fix – also in terms of ideology. Our discourse is determined by two great systems of faith, or better: fetish systems, which at first glance seem to complement each other. The first system is market liberalism, the belief in the beneficial power of individual consumer decisions, in the sanctity of private property, in the reprehensibility of state intervention and collective mandates. The second is digitalization, a technologically driven change in the spheres of production, administration and reproduction that has largely occupied and thus blocked all visions and hopes of progress over the past 30 years.

The Market Fetish

Market liberalism is having a bit of a rough time at the moment. The climate and corona crises and the absurd accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few super-rich have led people to no longer really believe in the ‘invisible hand’ of the market doing the best for everyone. But the fetish of the free market still defines the faith system of most decision makers and experts, and as long as power is in the hands of those who benefit from the belief in unregulated market transactions, there is no improvement in sight.

Digitalization, with its potential for new services and a global demand, has provided (think Silicon Valley) or facilitated (think financial markets) many of the last growth spurts for ‘the markets’. What is often overlooked, however, is that – for example, after the bursting of the dotcom bubble at the start of the millennium – it destroyed assets just as quickly as they had appeared to have been created. Critical voices like the British economist and publicist Paul Mason therefore see digitalization rather as the gravedigger of capitalism. They argue that products and services with marginal costs tending towards zero cannot achieve traditional growth targets in the long run, that consumers will ultimately turn away from commercial providers and prefer new forms of collective economic activity, such as those already to be seen in the ‘sharing economy’.

Tom Slee, also an opponent of ‘market think’, is extremely critical of precisely this sharing economy. In a belligerent book titled “What’s Yours Is Mine”, the Canadian writer scourges the exploitative business models of providers such as Airbnb or Uber, who are pushing economization to the last areas of life still untouched by the market, without any consideration for the social security of employees (e.g. with Uber) or negative side effects (e.g. with Airbnb the housing situation in the cities).

In a less noticed earlier book with the somewhat awkward title “Nobody Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart”, Tom Slee discusses many (fictional) examples using the tools of game theory to explain why the core element of market fetishism, individualism, is misguided. It may be, for example, that it is easier, cheaper, faster for me as an individual to order my books, my clothes, even my food from Amazon. But in the long run I will regret the loss of the small shops in my neighbourhood and, as part of my community, I will effectively lose freedom and quality of life, both of which I meant to improve with my ‘rational’ decision for Amazon.

In the world according to MarketThink, the combination of choice and the market is a mechanism for solving problems and improving outcomes in areas as diverse as education, city growth and culture.

(Tom Slee, Nobody Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart)

The belief that the interplay of rational, individually optimised decisions by individual market participants leads to the best results for society as a whole is shaky in many ways. In his plea against this mistaken belief, Tom Slee uses a set of instruments familiar from critical economics. He explains asymmetric information, negative externalities, herd phenomena, the free-rider problem and other arguments brought up against the classic neoliberal economic paradigm, in an easily comprehensible way.

The lesson to be learned from these arguments is that in order to have a better, ‘post-capitalist’ future, we must overcome our individualism and return to insights that were more widespread in earlier stages of capitalism. The insight, for example, that in social as well as economic conflicts collective negotiating mandates (e.g. in parties, trade unions, cooperatives) are advantageous and necessary. And this not only to compensate for asymmetries of existing power, but also to overcome individualistic consumerism, which, as Tom Slee and game theory show, can drastically worsen our quality of life in the medium and long term.

In general, following such considerations we leave behind the idea of a dominating market and emphasize the primacy of the political. It is no longer the ‘invisible hand’ that should determine what happens in our society, but a discourse that raises rationality from an individual and personal to a communal level and aims at negotiating jointly and publicly how to deal with social problems. The path to a better future does not only lead to a ‘sharing economy’, but also – and Paul Mason would not dispute this – to a massive politicization of our social self-understanding and interaction with one another.

But before we pursue this path any further, let’s take another look at the other fetish system, digitalization as a promise of progress.

The Digitalization Fetish

Digitization – it is worth remembering this briefly – once meant little more than the transition from analog to digitally coded electronic and other media. Digitization, that was the step from vinyl records to CDs, from 35mm cameras to digiCams with digital image sensors and storage media. In the field of information transfer, of observation and control systems, the change described by this term, initially purely technological, also took place.

How books are digitized at the University Library of Basel
(Photo: Hadi / Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays we’ve upgraded the word by a syllable and mean much more with the resulting concept of digitalization: the use of computer-supported, data-based and networked processes in all areas and at all levels of social value creation. The fact that digital media and processes are fast, efficient and cheap to produce and implement has led to the emergence of completely new product and service markets, which have brought about massive and lasting changes in business and society.

Thus, a narrative of progress has developed around digitalization that is hardly ever questioned. The promises are enormous and range from a flexibilisation and acceleration of all areas of life and work to a more intelligent automation of tiresome production routines. There is talk of learning systems that could increasingly relieve us even of cognitive duties and in the long term lead to an almost complete liberation from unwanted work.

The real benefits of digitalization undoubtedly include easier communication as well as better accessibility of information – any Google or Wikipedia user will immediately admit to this. Whether, on the other hand, under the conditions of capitalism the promised increase in efficiency and reduced workload really mean or could mean social progress is debatable. Not to mention blessings of digitalization such as the Chinese surveillance and facial recognition systems, which are now being sold to all authoritarian systems of the world, or the huge computer parks in China’s north-west provinces, where bitcoin mining is carried out with the energy consumption of smaller states.

Server farm for the mining of crypto currencies in Iceland
(Photo: Marco Krohn / Wikimedia Commons)

The digital wishful thinking also produces other strange blossoms. In his book “To Save Everything, Click Here”, the Belarusian-American media scientist Evgeny Morozov addresses a faith that he calls solutionism. He refers primarily to the Internet and the mobile media connected to it. According to the believers (and the marketers of related products and services) these have created a kind of digital heaven on earth. In this electronic wonderland, every problem finds a solution via app. I am dissatisfied with myself and my life? The right app allows me to precisely log and optimize my weight, my mood, my diet and my work efforts, even the quality time with my family and friends. I see my self-fulfillment also as a spiritual task? The Headspace app ensures that from now on I will never forget my meditation exercises. Also on a social level, solutionism promises remedy for all major problems. Questions of mobility? Use car-sharing or Uber by smartphone. Loneliness? The neighbourhood app never leaves you alone again, with Tinder you will also find the right sexual partner for every inclination.

The mobile-extended Internet is seen as a disruptive, revolutionary mega-technology, as a largely homogeneous system sui generis: progress has brought us the Internet, but there will be no progress beyond the Internet, any further progress takes place within the Internet. This system of thought has also immunized itself against any criticism from outside: only geeks really understand the meaning of the Internet, and they would never question it. Karl Popper would have his fun: Now, after the past centuries with their Marxism and Psychoanalysis, the 21st century also has its totalitarian ideology, which, however, does not come along as a ‘pseudo-science’, but in the form of a worldwide marketing claim.

Morozov rightly points out that problems are part of an unfolding life in an open society and should not be pasted up with premature product promises. If we conceive the space for solving our problems only from the perspective of existing or imminently accessible technologies, we limit our range of possible solutions and thus our ability to act. According to Morozov, the Internet is not without history, and it is certainly not the end of history. Internet-based technologies are diverse and heterogeneous. They need to be considered, evaluated and, if necessary, regulated in a differentiated manner.

The Invisible Hands

Just as market fetishism believes in a benevolent, invisible hand of the market, so also with the digitalization fetish there is an impersonal, quasi-divine authority that benevolently guides our destinies into the future: it is technological progress, the Internet and the digital platforms and technologies themselves that change everything for the better, that bring every problem to a solution.

For the core of this faith system, you don’t have to look for the advertising messages from the Silicon Valleys and Alleys of this world. The idea that technologies themselves are proper agents of social change is, as a spawn of post-humanist thinking, also to be found in contemporary science. In the Actor-Network-Theory of the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, who is currently very popular among intellectuals, gadgets, applications and technologies are themselves actors who influence our lives on a more or less equal footing with human actors.

Latour is by no means an enthusiastic advocate of solutionist pipe dreams, he deliberately advocates a more sustainable economy, fights against climate change and – himself a constructivist – takes a stand against social constructivist attempts to relativize scientific insights. His theory, however, in one crucial point is itself a building block of the digitalization fetish .

To explain this, I need to mobilise a little philosophically-backed common sense. Our everyday language makes a difference between a person’s behaviour and their actions. The first term is broader than the second: when I sneeze or startle from sleep, I behave. But there is more to an action. It is based on considerations, wishes, intentions, decisions. With the concept of action we enter the field of psychology, or – more precisely – of what, in the tradition of the Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano, is called intentionality. We regard the organisms or systems described as actors as persons.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave? Dave, I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question.” (HAL 9000)

Where the boundaries of intentionality are to be drawn, which living beings or systems we may regard as thinking, acting persons, is a still an unsettled (and perhaps unanswerable) question. The hubris of our species has long led us – as the crown of creation – to grant this privilege of having intentionality, barring divine entities, only to the human species. This has now been successfully called into question not only by the findings of behavioural biology on the intelligence of bonobos, dolphins or crows, but also by the hypotheticals of science fiction: the HAL 9000 on-board computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” would certainly have had a right to be seen as a person before it was switched off; anything else would be “speciesism”.

Behavior and Action

As early as 1971, the US-American philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his extremely influential essay “Intentional Systems”, described three strategies for explaining the behaviour of a system, following the lead of Franz Brentano. He does this using the example of a chess computer.

  • According to Dennett, the first level is the ‘physical stance’. We explain the behaviour by referring to the laws of physics, by describing the flow of electrical impulses through the computer’s circuits according to the principles of natural science triggering certain outcomes on the display.
  • Dennett calls the second level ‘design stance’. Here we explain the behaviour of the chess computer by how it is programmed. The program code regularly prescribes certain behaviour patterns to the machine as reactions to certain situations. It is interesting that at this stance we leave behind the purely descriptive explanations of the physical setting and explain the system in terms of a ‘shall’, i.e. normatively, or, as we may also say, functionally. And something can go wrong here. A flyspeck on the circuit board, and the machine may no longer do what it is supposed to do, our functional explanation fails, and we have to go back to the physical strategy to explain the malfunction.
  • Finally, on the third level, we explain the behaviour of the system in an ‘intentional stance’, i.e. by recourse to concepts such as beliefs, knowledge, wishes, intentions, decisions. We say, for example, that the computer saw that you pulled the queen into a position where she threatened his knight. To avert the impending loss, it moved the knight aside. Only on this last level do we regard the computer – in this limited field of action – as one of our own, as a person.

The choice of example is significant. Is a chess computer a person or not? Dennett deliberately leaves open whether there is a factual difference between thinking and non-thinking systems. Prima facie this makes sense, because in principle I can also explain the (non-)behaviour of a piece of stone as intentional: I attribute to it the desire to be in the most comfortable place in the world, and the conviction that the place where it lies is the most comfortable place in the world. Ergo it decides to stay lying down.

The chess turk
(Picture: Joseph Racknitz, Public Domain)

However, I think we should be a bit stricter with the attribution of personality. The chess computer is again a good example: it seems intelligent, but the field of action in which we can successfully attribute to it a certain degree of thinking is extremely limited. Even if it were able to learn, like modern AI systems in this field, it would still be far from being able to justify the claim to personality.

And the more complex and diverse a system is in its behaviour, the more levels it interacts with us, the more informative and helpful our intentional explanations become, and the more error-prone and falsifiable they become on the other hand. Just as the explanation of the chess computer under recourse to its programming can fail if a physical defect interferes, so can intentional explanations fail if the ascribed thoughts do not exist or are very different from what we thought. There may be grey areas and vagueness, but drawing a line between thinking and intelligent beings and those who are not makes sense.

Against this background, we should therefore consider whether we really think it makes sense to ascribe the capacity to act, and thus ascribe personality, to operating systems, network technologies or weapon systems. The question is whether we might not thereby be promoting a kind of techno-animism that would make people stare in reverence and awe at these systems instead of simply seeing them for what they really are: tools that we have created, ideally to make us more comfortable in the world. Tools can serve their purpose better or worse, and people can make better or worse use of them. We should not shirk the responsibility to analyze and evaluate this on a case-by-case basis and draw our own conclusions.

In this sense I would like to continue with three theses that summarize the course of my argument so far:

(Thesis 1) Markets or technologies are not actors, people are actors and must be ready to take responsibility for their actions.

(Thesis 2) Technologies, like economic and financial systems, are social artifacts. They should be at the service of human beings in the context of their natural habitat.

(Thesis 3) We must regain political autonomy of action with regard to both the fetish system of market/growth and the fetish system of technology.

It is therefore a matter of reopening a political space in which deliberate, responsible action determines our dealings with each other and with the world, in which conflicts and goals are publicly negotiated, and in which people can and may freely unite to pursue their interests together.

(Neo-)Republicanism

With these goals, we are pursuing one of the oldest ideas that have shaped our modern understanding of state and society: the idea of a republic. The concept cannot be clearly defined as a form of state. Sometimes it is simply used as the opposite concept to monarchy, sometimes it is linked more to the concept of the common good, or associated with the concept of popular sovereignty. Despite or precisely because of these uncertainties, the term is proving to be quite fruitful in modern contexts and is currently being discussed again by philosophers and philosophical historians.

After forerunners in Greek political theory such as Plato and Aristotle, the Roman lawyer, statesman and publicist Cicero is probably the first true theorist of the Republic. In his writing “De re publica” he writes:

“[A] republic is the property of the public. But a public is not every kind of human gathering, congregating in any manner, but a numerous gathering brought together by legal consent and community of interest.”

(Cicero, De Re Publica, 1.40)

The Republic is therefore a voluntary association of persons who become citizens by joining together for the common good (community of interest) and deciding on public matters according to common rules (legal consent).

Working for the common good
(Picture: Public Domain)

With its orientation towards the common good, this form of republicanism differs at a crucial point from modern market liberalism. For the latter, the state is above all seen as a nuisance, because it’s a limiter of freedom. For republicanism proper, on the other hand, the state is essential as a guarantor of freedom.

In order to be able to focus this difference more clearly, we need to take a brief look at the foundations of the modern concept of freedom. The Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin drew attention to an ambiguity in this concept in the middle of the 20th century. He distinguishes between a negative concept of freedom (freedom FROM restrictive conditions) and a positive concept of freedom (freedom TO realize one’s own destiny, etc.). In the further discussion, the positive concept of freedom was often seen as unclear and problematic and I also do not want to pursue it any further.

The negative concept of freedom, however, is interesting for us. Modern political and philosophical liberalism deduces from it above all a principle of non-interference with regard to governance: The state is best kept out of everything, each person should be free to do what he or she wants as far as possible.

Not only chains restrict freedom
(Picture: Public Domain)

Now, modern theorists of republicanism, such as the historian of philosophy Quentin Skinner and the philosopher Philip Pettit, have recently identified in historical literature a different, republican concept of freedom, which differs in subtle but important ways from this liberal concept of freedom as non-interference. In the republican tradition, which is rooted in Roman antiquity, freedom is in fact understood more as non-domination. According to this view, not only manifest interventions into the actions of persons limit their freedom, but also imbalances in property and power, which result in a difference in the potential scope for action. In a poignant example: If A is the slaveholder of B, then freedom from B is not only limited if there are real chains. Even if A is the most benevolent and accommodating of all slaveholders and imposes no restrictions whatsoever on B, the circumstances are such that the scope for action of A and B differ massively.

Égaliberté

According to the republican understanding, freedom means not allowing such a situation to arise. In a good republic, the community ensures that such imbalances of wealth and power, which would enable domination and threaten the freedom of citizens, are excluded by sovereign self-restraint. This could be provided through fair tax policies and strictly controlled civil rights.

The French philosopher Étienne Balibar coined the term Égaliberté, or equaliberty. According to him, the enabling conditions of freedom are the same as those of equality. He thus contradicts the naïve basic understanding that freedom and equality are in an irreconcilable conflict of values. In better times even the German FDP knew that in the interest of a communal life it is rather a matter of balancing the two values. In 1971 the then Secretary General of the party, Karl-Hermann Flach, wrote a treatise with the title “Noch eine Chance für die Liberalen” (Another Chance for the Liberals), which reads in part like a manifesto of neo-republicanism, as the following quotation shows:

“The uncorrected free competition of private producers and traders constantly increases the inequality in the distribution of wealth, because according to the mysterious principle of capitalism, wealth always continues to accumulate predominantly where there is already some. […] Because this kind of freedom produces total inequality, it also produces a system of unfreedom for the majority.

Karl-Hermann Flach: Noch eine Chance für die Liberalen

So if we part with the fetish systems of the market and of digitalization and their supposed ‘invisible hands’ by reopening and actively occupying the political space, we should do so inspired by a fresh breeze of the republican concept of freedom, which can revive the old vessel of our democratic constitutional state in the spirit of great traditions. We should strive for conditions in which the greatest possible personal fulfilment is achieved within the framework of a sovereign commitment to the common good. That would then be a society in which the maximum of the freedom we mean would be possible.

And since so far I have only let men have their say in this long line of argument, I would now like to conclude with a small feminist footnote by introducing three women who are already working or have worked in this direction:

  • The European visionary Ulrike Guérot has been advocating a European Republic for years, and in doing so she also makes reference to the neo-republicans Skinner and Pettit, and to Étienne Balibar. My text owes her many essential suggestions. Guérot calls the way to a “RePublic of Europe” a “3-stage rocket”:
    • Civil equality (equality before the law / equal rights for all)
    • common political rights (equal universal suffrage)
    • social participation rights (social security, equal opportunities and education)
  • The charismatic Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzuccato, who now advises governments and political parties worldwide, calls for a redefinition of the concept of economic (added) value. In her opinion, states should become strategic investors who pursue a mission-driven investment policy for innovations in accordance with socially accepted objectives.
  • Finally, Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Laureate for Economics (2009), who died in 2012, did a lot of empirical research on the successful collaborative management of shared natural resources. She summarizes her refutation of classical economic theory in one wonderful sentence (Ostroms Law):

“What works in practice must also be possible in theory.”

Elinor Ostrom

This English translation of my essay has been done with the significant support of the gorgeous DeepL translation engine. The original German version is published on our group blog bruchstücke.