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  • Johan Söderström

Freedom is not it

Freedom is a crucial element of creating meaning out of existence. But so is also the lack of freedom. We are all tied to our circumstances, or as it is expressed in a famous song, we all gotta serve somebody. Accepting this can create a sense of purpose. But there is a deeper aspect to life that has no counterpart in its opposite. Namely that our life has value. I do not mean a spiritual value rooted in something metaphysical. But a personal and individual worth. Our lives have an intrinsic value to us. The lack of this is a sign of depression. Freedom means nothing without it.


Everything has a price. That is not entirely true, but everything that can be bought has a price. Price is an indicator of the value of things. Not the value it has to the individual, then it would not have been possible to make a bargain in the store, but an average value for a large group of individuals. A market. Labour is a commodity in a market. It has a price that varies both over time and between individuals. Does the price of labour have anything to do with the individual's inherent, intrinsic value? In a Western, liberal, capitalist context, they are seen as two separate entities. In many economies, a minimum wage is set that could possibly be claimed to represent or guarantee this intrinsic value. But most people refrain from connecting these two together. We are entitled to a minimum wage, but that does not mean that those who earn more, also are worth more on a deeper human level. Obviously, they seem to deserve more, fair or unfair, but most people, if asked directly, say that someone with a low salary has the same human value as someone with a huge one. The problem is that, on the whole, our fundamental value as humans has no practical consequences. It is an abstract entity without power, without real substance. We might as well say that mans intrinsic value is worthless. It is not surprising that the symptoms of depression are increasing, both for individuals and for society at large.


What is the problem with pricing labour according to a market logic? The answer is that when we treat work as a commodity, it is always one person who is excluded from the market that sets its price. Namely the one who does the job. A product has no opinion about its own value. It has no intrinsic value. If the market perceives it as too expensive or uninteresting, it is worthless. The supplier offers the market a product, and it responds. Although the supplier, within a capitalist logic, wants a price as high as possible, it is ultimately the market that decides. When labour is treated as a commodity, we are forced to look at ourselves as suppliers of a product. We are forced to make a difference between ourselves and the work we do. The hours we work are somehow separated from ourselves. This is basically what Marx theory of alienation is about. Unlike the producer of an ordinary product, we cannot separate ourselves from what we deliver. If a producer can't sell his product, he has to produce something else or shut down the business. The latter is not possible for those who sell their labour, and this makes a fundamental difference. After all, the producer of goods is not inseparable from his product, but that is precisely what the producer of labour is, i.e. the worker or the employee. We have an opinion about our own value. We have an intrinsic value, and this must be given priority if we are to build a society that is capable of providing a sense of purpose to its citizens in a sustainable way.


How should the intrinsic value be given priority? Should everyone decide for themselves what salary their work should be given? It would be complicated and would require that we also let the producers price their own goods, that is to say, departing from the principle of market logic. This is in part what socialism is trying to do. It has been proved difficult, and most socialist states have introduced limited forms of markets. In other words, they are still capitalist in their basic structure, but their markets are heavily regulated. Socialism has yet failed to create an equitable and viable society based on everyone's equal value, despite its stated ambition. Why? Well, one reason is that it is continuously attacked and thwarted by the neoliberal, capitalist powers. But it may also be due to an inaccurate focus in the socialist analysis of the problem of capitalism. It states that the main problem is the lack of freedom of the worker/employee. The employees are powerless, they have no control over their own time, their work, therefore they feel alienated. The socialist solution is that if the employees owned the means of production, that is, their own workplaces, then it would create an equal society. But it is not the lack of freedom or power that is the problem, it is the exploitation. That is, the surplus-value of their work does not accrue to them themselves, but is confiscated by the owners. It may, at first glance, appear to be a more banal explanation. Still, it actually goes to the heart of the problem, which is the conflictual relationship between intrinsic human self-worth and the external value of their time, the price of labour, i.e. the size of the salary.


There is a simple but radical solution to this problem at the core of capitalism, which is not about regulating it but instead changing it fundamentally. Namely, the proposal of commensalism to lift labour out of the market logic and give it a completely unique position among all other goods. This is achieved by setting a universal price for labour. We have to establish a uniform salary for all types of work, including the task of facilitating labour, creating it and managing it, in short, owning the workplaces. The price of labour will be based on the cumulative value of everyone's work so that the companies' profits are shared equally among everyone who contributed to it.

This relatively concrete but straightforward approach effectively removes the poison from the bite of capitalism. It changes its character from being parasitic to becoming commensal. Meaning, employers and employees do not have to have mutual interests - to benefit each other, but they can co-exist without harming each other. The employees can allow employers to utilize the power of the working human, but without draining it, consuming its resources. By taking the principle of all peoples equal value to its utmost consequence, one can tame capitalism and make it truly sustainable.


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