The Myth of “The Free Market” is like the collective agreement on the internet that Kanye West’s Yeezus and Grimes’ Visions are good albums. There’s rarely room for debate or disagreement, because, well, that’s just how it is in our society. Herd life can be boring at its best, dangerous at its worst. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t read some kind of middle-class capitalist rhetoric stating that “if only the market was completely free from government distortions, then…”. You can fill the rest in with whatever economic or social policy needs to be saved from the state if you’d like, but then you would become something that even Karl Marx abhorred. A utopian.
The utopian dream of the free market is nothing but the sigh of the petite bourgeois after coming home from work, sitting on the couch, and turning the television on to such channels that glorify haute bourgeois status. Of course, as with statistical analysis, there is some measure of error. I’m well aware that not everyone will fall into this niche, but hear me out anyway.
In Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism he writes:
The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to defend the market from politically motivated interference by the government is false. Government is always involved and those free-marketeers are as politically motivated as anyone.
Take, for example, a committee formed by the American Medical Association called the Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee. RUC for short. This cartel of doctors sets the price of every single medical practice and procedure you can think of from a basic wellness visit to a cardiac stint. The prices are then used to determine what government services like Medicare and Medicaid can be billed for which is a big determining factor on what health insurance policy owners will pay as well. “Special Deal” is a piece in Washington Monthly in which some light is shed on to the mostly unknown cabal of primary and specialty care doctors jockeying for position to get a bigger piece of the tax-payer money pie. They are, in other words, setting their own salary. So if you wonder like I do why health insurance costs so much here in the US this is a good place to start.
If this sounds familiar it is, it’s what worker’s unions do. They negotiate their wages and benefits collectively while management sits on the other side of the table trying their best not to cede too much power. Every day I read something new online about union bashing; how unions are the root cause of so much middle-class labor woes, though this Marxist doth protest. People on the right, whether they be Republican or Libertarian-Populists, are fighting the wrong kind of battle if all they’re arguing about is how unions take jobs away from people. No, they don’t. In fact states with Right To Work laws have lower wages and benefits and have . This right-wing plank has been used to chip away at worker’s rights for 30 years and has led us to the point we are now at in our economy. But, if you take them at their word that unions are a market distortion then surely you can’t be serious when looking at the bigger picture. There are problems at hand that class/political divisions must come together to solve.
We will never have a completely free market. The market system itself constantly needs governments to prop it up. For that reason, as a Marxist, I am very critical of capitalism. I will end with this quote by David Graeber from his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years:
This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today.
A small caveat before I begin. I am well aware that this piece conjures feelings of Marx being anti-Semitic. However, as with most texts, some words or phrases could be interpreted in a different way. I saw Marx’s critique on Bauer’s original text as being not anti-Jewish, but anti-liberal, or in some ways anti-capitalist. It could be said that Marx saw the Jews as being the embodiment of capitalism, and therefore equating or blaming a race for a specific economic and political system (whether egregious or not) is, in my view, quite racist. Therefore, I approached this assignment very carefully to analyze the text outside a religious standpoint and only one of politics and economics.
Bauer and Marx: The Religious Man vs. The Citizen
According to Bauer and Marx there exists a conflict between a man trying to do good by his religion versus trying to good by his state, or rather his duties as a citizen of the state. The actions taken as a religious man are not in direct connection to that of someone being a citizen, which is to say one philosophy contradicts the other. As one follows a religion he or she is bound by a certain set of rules or common laws set by that religion that may supersede the ones set by a state and its people. This statement of course could be reversed to say that the Jewish and Christian man may gain some certain kind of additional freedom by the state that the typical citizen may not be able eligible to participate if he or she is not a part of that religion. This is the question which Bauer and Marx aim to answer: How can a man be faithful to his fellow man in his plight for equal rights among all men if he is only fighting for his rights as a member of a specific religion? Bauer took issue with this, his end goal or answer being from an atheistic position to abolish all religion from society. What would be left is a state in which the common man or worker is not tied to a deity, but to his duties as a citizen of that state.
In his aim to answer the question, Marx thought that religion was so engrained into society already that it would take some kind “human emancipation” and not simply “political emancipation” for everyone to experience a full and true freedom. Marx wasn’t completely against political emancipation when he said it “certainly represents a great progress”(35), even he thought it was important to some extent, but even secular societies like the United States were not completely separated from religion in society. However, political emancipation still meant that the people were not truly free from the philosophical bonds of a religion. It seems as if Marx was not against religion itself but only the political isolation it created among man. Civil society still harbored inequalities that were in no direct connection to one’s religious affiliation. It was for this reason that Marx advocated for the human emancipation to eliminate the contradiction between a worker and his state, or a private individual and the rest of society.
Marx had seen that the laws, which gave freedoms to the citizens of the state, only included those that may lead to liberty and property and caused man to be “withdrawn into himself…his private interest…acting in accordance with his private caprice.”(43) It was because of this egoistic type of society that Marx concluded that the rights of man rest not in terms of ones own private interests, but the interests of the whole human species. Man had disconnected himself from his work treating it as if some means to an end instead of an end unto itself. The shopkeeper, the day-laborer, and the living individual all share the same motive to work within the political state which is given to them by the laws of the state. Instead of freeing the citizens from religion and property liberalized states sought to instead separate man from political society and in turn his fellow species-being. Relationships within the human species became nothing more than the exchange of goods, communal religious piety, and the need to protect oneself from another who seeks to do harm. These actions “no longer constituted the general relation between the individual and the state as a whole”(45) they became private matters and therefore separated man from man, man from himself, and man from politics.
Marx concluded that the only type of emancipation that mattered was human emancipation, the emancipation of the species-being. Since man was the only animal conscious of ones own species it seemed only natural to Marx that human society, and all that lay within it, must be freed through the coming together of all parts of human life – personal and political. This joining of the private citizen back to his political roots would give him enough pause to engage with his political surroundings and thus gives him the ability to criticize that which he finds wrong. It could be said that this is the problem we currently have within our current political landscape. For even now we are subjected to the Washington consensus and whatever that may mean at a certain hour, day, or election cycle. We’ve become so engrossed in our own work that we have forgotten the importance of equality, liberty, property, and security in relation to our species as opposed to just our own personal wants and needs. The alienation from our work that we endure as a society is the same alienation Marx sought to make known in his writings during the 19th century. We will not be satisfied until we have made the transition out of our egoistic tendencies and into ones suited to advance human society as an entire species and not simply the individual.