Capitalism’s Existential Crisis: Producing Existential Freedom

  • Peter Bloom


This chapter will show that the 2008 financial crises more than challenged the faith in the free market; it represented a collective existential crisis where people questioned whether capitalist society and life had meaning. Inspired by Sartre’s later work “Search of a Method”, it will examine the evolution of freedoms from an empowering philosophy for remaking the world to a stifling discourse limiting such existential agency. It will then reveal the insights Marxism provides in terms of the socio-material production of freedom and the reframing of history as the revolutionary reproduction of progressive human freedoms. The near-global financial meltdown thus posed the possibility for not only reforming or even radical transforming the free market but also breaking free from the “fundamentalism” that posited capitalism as the only possible option.

In 2008, the world almost came crashing down. The once sacred belief in the power of finance was close to being overturned in a matter of months. Major banking institutions fell overnight and the certainty of financial progress seem to have reached a dead end. And sunny in a sweet historical irony, it was the hated big government that was suddenly expected to come to the rescue. More than just an economic downturn it is a complete crisis of confidence in the financial system itself.

A decade following the crises much has changed and much as stayed the same. Far from giving birth to a total economic transformation, the financial sector has perhaps remained as powerful and dominant as ever. Predictably inequality continues to be chronic and economic insecurity rampant. However, there are clear signs of change on the horizon. Anti-establishment fuelled populism is upending politics globally. Established democracies appear under threat by virulent far-right nationalism. Ideologically, socialism has sparked to life again from the ash heap of history. The victory of capitalism in the free market was no longer obvious or secure.

An increasing number of people were looking for radical economic alternatives. Socialism stood as an attractive option to a generation of voters plagued by a lifetime of chronic unemployment, entrenched elitism, an ineffective public sector, and an uncertain future. “Socialism is back”, reported social commentator John Quiggin (2017: N.P.),

much to the chagrin of those who declared it dead and buried at the “end of history” in the 1990s. When the New Republic, long the house organ of American neoliberalism, runs an article on The Socialism America Needs Now, it’s clear that something has fundamentally changed. The soft neoliberalism represented by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Paul Keating has exhausted its appeal, and not just in the English-speaking world. Throughout Europe, new movements of the left have emerged to challenge or displace social democratic parties discredited by the austerity politics of the last decade.

Reflected was a profound existential crisis to capitalism. It represented much more than a simple ideological struggle or a temporary economic downturn. Indeed

The really bad news is that there is no structural or fundamental change to the fourth epoch global capitalism on the horizon that will be positioned to change the situation and become its success or replacement. It is an existential crisis. (Savall et al. 2017: xiv)

It was a serious question of whether humans can still save their collective destiny, where they stuck with a present that would stretch onward into an exploitive and unchanging forever. Was the current system permanent regardless of its efficacy or continued desirability? The objective laws supposedly underpinning the free market were progressively shown to be false.

At stake, therefore, was more than simply an economic challenge. Knowledge and meaning themselves were up for grabs. The previously unquestionable had turned in front of the world’s eyes to be built upon very shaky truths indeed. According to economist Christian Arnsperger (2010),

When I talk about an existential crisis, I mean that, in fact , the roots of this crisis are existential and found in each one of us. So we could talk about an anthropological crisis … one cannot do without the economy, but one can and one will have to do without capitalism. This existential crisis of the economy is a truly essential crisis of capitalism, the symptom of a profound malaise. The existential crisis of the economy we are participating in today rests primarily on a crisis of confidence. People consume less, have a tendency to slow down accumulation and investment. But what stands out from my research work in philosophy of the economy is that capitalist consumption, investment and accumulation are themselves a symptom of the lack of fundamental confidence in life and in the future.

What has thus emerged following the crash was a decade-long loss of faith in the sacred tenants of financial capitalism and the free market.

Nevertheless it also opened up new social possibilities . More precisely it created the very conditions for humanities existential freedom to once again arose from its dogmatic slumber. This chapter will explore the existential crisis following the 2008 financial crash—specifically the feelings of alienation that rose up in its wake and the resurgence of anti-capitalist perspectives such as Marxism. It will use this analysis to critically interrogate what freedom is actually produced by the free market and how this reflects a broader dialectic of existential freedom historically.

Capitalism in Crisis

The financial crisis was a potential paradigm changer. It threatened the entire status quo and its capitalist religion of the free market and financialization. Quoting renowned progressive financier George Soros (2008: N.P.) in none other than the Financial Times

We need new thinking, not a reshuffling of regulatory agencies … For the past 25 years or so the financial authorities and institutions they regulate have been guided by market fundamentalism: the belief that markets tend towards equilibrium and that deviations from it occur in a random manner…. Regulators ought to have known better because it was their intervention that prevented the financial system from unravelling on several occasions. Their success has reinforced the misconception that markets are self-correcting.

In the intervening years such change has thus far largely failed to materialize. Rather there has been a renewed embrace of the free market and the continued necessity of capitalism as an economic system. This is the age of austerity not revolution.

Much of this reaction can be explained by the strategic manoeuvring of elites to popularly legitimize the entrenched order that they literally and figuratively profit from. Critically and persuasively economist Phillip Mirowski reveals exactly this in his aptly titled book Never Let a Serious Crises Go to Waste. He speaks almost apocalyptically, in this respect, asking us to

conjure, if you will, a primal sequence encountered in B-Grade horror films where the celluloid protagonist suffers a terrifying encounter with doom yet on the cusp of disaster abruptly awakes to a different world which initially seems normal but eventually revealed to be a second nightmare more ghastly than the first. Something like that has become manifest in real life since the onset of the crises which started in 2007. (Mirowski 2013: 1)

He then critically and with prescient insight showed how the crisis has failed to produce any serious fundamental economic rethinking or transformation.

While profoundly valuable this analysis perhaps too readily overlooks the deep structural and affective attachment individuals have to this exploitive system. The free market for all its obvious flaws still remained to many the only alternative available. Its fall from grace represented a deep fear that their very material prosperity and even survival were now at risk. This reflects a crucial paradox of capitalism first gestured to by Marx . A continual issue confronting those who would like to challenge or even wholesale change a market economy is why people continue to invest their time, money, and energy into its preservation. If the entire system is in the short-term exploitive and in the long-term ruinous for everyone, why remain so attached to its reproduction?

While the answer to these questions exceeds the scope of any one single analysis, a key factor is that capitalism is deemed central to people’s well-being and sense of freedom. The may not like working or their working conditions but it’s far better than the alternative of being hungry, homeless, or unemployed. Moreover, it is truly hard to imagine alternative ways besides those offered by the free market of actively improving our condition and to an extent controlling our personal historical destiny.

If there is such a thing as “false consciousness” as suggested by Marxism surely it is found in this transformation of this material system into a perceived social and psychic need. Using other language, one’s entire sense of self is wrapped up in their job, career, and personal opportunities to provide. Without the benefit of the market, there simply is no chance for the society to function or for the people to feel empowered.

The financial crisis put into jeopardy both this sense of socio-economic security and the prevailing sense of agency that accompanied it. Cast in this light, it is understandable why the immediate post-crisis discourse of recovery was and to some extent remains so appealing. In this context what was being salvaged was not so much a broken system but a guaranteed future of individual and collective prosperity now placed at risk.

The economic insecurity so pervasive in this era, hence, is so much more comprehensive than the material lack of food or shelter (though these should not be overlooked). It is a profound insecurity in respect to one’s identity and place in the world. Reality, quite literally at times, stops making sense without the market to sustain it. As such shared narrative of progress become devalued so do the personal journeys of those who populate it.

At stake is a deeper existential anxiety—a confrontation with the world devoid of any inherent meaning or order. The influential twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1996) describes the anxiety as an encroaching feeling of “foreignness”, of no longer being at home in the world. It is to suddenly be a stranger in a strange country. Whereas previously the long hours, the chronic fear of losing your job, the thrill of getting a new one, the inevitable disappointment after this initial jubilance, the banal, everyday realities of organizational injustice—these were familiar and comfortable even in their exploitation. Now we wake up to a world that no longer seems so sturdy or so comfortable. In the words of modern critical philosopher Simon Critchley (2009: N.P.) ,

What is first glimpsed in anxiety is the authentic self. As the world slips away, we obtrude. I like to think about this in maritime terms. Inauthentic life in the world is completely bound up with things and other people in a kind of “groundless floating”—the phrase is Heidegger’s . Everyday life in the world is like being immersed in the sea and drowned by the world’s suffocating banality. Anxiety is the experience of the tide going out, the seawater draining away, revealing a self stranded on the strand, as it were. Anxiety is that basic mood when the self first distinguishes itself from the world and becomes self-aware.

It is utterly and tragically predictable then that in the wake of this crisis, in the midst of such pervasive economic and social insecurity, there would be fears that the “old ways” were slipping away. It is indeed reminiscent of existential anguish. It is a terrifying recognition that reality can change overnight, meaning can become meaningless even more quickly, and that just as certainly we have little or no chance to prevent these once considered sacred truths from disappearing. The pull of the past for an idealized time when things made sense and everything was in its proper place is strong.

The ultimate reward of the free market—its most true and real utility is found not in its promise of material wealth beyond our wildest imagination. Nor is it linked exclusively to the freedom it supposedly provides. Rather, it is found in the stability it offers as it keeps our existential fears at bay. We accept, in this respect, a pervasive economic insecurity for a precarious existential security. Yet it is precisely such existentially fraught times that are ripe for revolution.

The Search for a Revolutionary Method: Existentialism and Marxism

At the heart of capitalism lies a profound tension—an irony of historic proportions. It asks us to exchange our existential freedom for its more limited market freedom. The reward for such a transaction is that it holds at bay existential anguish, the swindle is that it can only do so for long. It is precisely for this reason why Marxism for all its own historic failings remains so timely and timeless, timely, in that it provides an alternative to a capitalist system in crises, timeless, in that it still holds the promise of existential liberation.

In the opening chapter of his seminal later work “The Search for a Method”, Sartre directly grapples with the fraught relationship between existentialism and freedom. To do so, he sets out an ambitious theoretical course, putting forward an entire conceptual edifice for understanding philosophy, ideology, and history. While obviously a full treatment of this analysis lies far beyond the scope of this book, its main points raise pertinent clues about the fundamental importance of existential freedom and its potential radical contemporary implications. In particular, it sheds light on the tension filled but productive relation of existentialism to Marxism.

Sartre begins by reapproaching what is meant by the concept of philosophy itself. Rather than searching for any singular definition of this term, he argues instead that there are philosophies. Crucially an active philosophy unites existing knowledge together, providing a totalistic framework for viewing and acting within the world. Accordingly,

The philosopher effects the unification of everything that is known, following certain guiding schemata which express the attitudes and techniques of the rising class regarding its own period and the world … These achievements of knowing, after having been first bound together by principles, will in turn-crushed and almost undecipherable-bind together the principles. Reduced to its simplest expression, the philosophical object will remain in “the objective mind” in the form of a regulative Idea, pointing to an infinite task. (Sartre 1963: 4)

Concretely, this all-encompassing basis for thought and action represents the emergence of a “rising class” becoming “conscious of itself”. He notes that

A philosophy is first of all a particular way in which the arising class becomes conscious of itself. This consciousness may be clear or confused, indirect or direct. At the time of the noblesse de robe and of mercantile capitalism, a bourgeoisie of lawyers, merchants, and bankers gained a certain self-awareness through Cartesianism; a century and half later, in the primitive stage of industrialisation, a bourgeoisie of manufacturers, engineers, and scientists dimly discovered itself in the image of universal man which Kantianism offered to it. (Ibid.: 4)

As the above quote shows he charts, in this regard, a modern history of philosophy—starting with the mercantilism underpinning the ideas of Locke and Rousseau, followed by the industrialization informing Kant and Hegel, and culminating in the twentieth century composed of Marxism and the proletariat.

Sartre’s perspective, of course, suffers from a slight case of economic reductionism. A philosophy, in this reading, reflects its economic conditions, granting it a supposed exhaustive social reality. Nevertheless, it gestured to the broader social significance of existentialism generally. He declares,

Thus a philosophy remains efficacious so long as the praxis which has engendered it, which supports it, and which is clarified by it, is still alive. But it is transformed, it loses its uniqueness, it is stripped of its original, dated content to the extent that it gradually impregnates the masses so as to become in and through them a collective instrument of emancipation. (Ibid.: 5)

Notably, in the ways that present-day capitalism has produced its own neoliberal philosophy populated by a growing class of “entrepreneurial consumers”.

Sartre , for this reason, critiques existentialism for never achieving the status of a totalistic social philosophy. Instead it has always remained in his view merely as a form of ideological critiques against such philosophical systems. In all of its previous permutations it existed only in opposition to a more dominant worldview. It also suffered from at points being to inwardly focused, localizing its insights at the level of the individual rather than the mass of society. However, it is precisely as an ideology though that existentialism most critically intervenes and transforms Marxism.

Thus the autonomy of existential studies results necessarily from the negative qualities of Marxists (and not from Marxism itself). So long as the doctrine does not recognize its anemia, so long as it founds its Knowledge upon a dogmatic metaphysics (a dialectic of Nature) instead of seeking its support in the comprehension of the living man, so long as it rejects as irrational those ideologies which wish, as Marx did, to separate being from Knowledge and, in anthropology, to found the knowing of man on human existence, existentialism will follow its own path of study. (Ibid.: 181)

While Marxism had begun as “moment” of freedom in its initial European revolution of 1848 and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, it had decayed by the second half of the twentieth century into a rigid and dogmatic discourse stagnating politics, culture, and even economics. Sartre refers to this philosophical degradation as a type of “idealization ” since it demands that every action, historical event, and social idea conforms to its strict and narrow view of reality. It is from this embrace of orthodoxy that the once vibrant philosophies fall prey to and ultimately become the source of repression.

To contemporary readers, this critique of Marxism sounds obviously all too familiar. There is a tendency, perhaps understandably, for those on the Left to resist this historical judgement, to try to historically salvage really existing socialism from its harsh truth of gulags, man-made famines, and autocratic oppression. However, there is an equal and arguably more ominous danger of exploiting these valid condemnations to champion an equally idealized and destructive modern free market. What Sartre is offering, therefore, is a deeper critical questioning of how much existential freedom there is in any prevailing philosophical system at any given time of its social dominance.

How much existential freedom, therefore, remains left in the free market, if there was any substantially to begin with? More precisely, to what extent does it allow for humans to challenge, reinterpret, change, and transform their existent social conditions? What agency does it provide individuals and communities to question their existence and radically choose new ways of life? Or is the free market merely another repressive status quo who demands that all things fit within its idealized worldview?

Producing Freedom

Marxism almost as a rule has been rather allergic to liberal definitions of intrinsic freedom. For the true believers, it is scoffed at as mere bourgeoisie facades, myths to keep the masses in line and receptive to their own economic exploitation. Indeed, when Marxist freedom is spoken of it is usually referred to in rather oblique terms—as the emancipation from capitalism and despite its non-utopian pretensions as a secular fantasy of a coming Communist society. In practice it’s most vibrant freedom has been found in its possibilities of producing revolution. It is tempting, therefore, to dismiss Marxism on the grounds of freedom alone—and there are certainly historical reasons for doing so. It is perhaps just as tempting to embrace it as the vehicle upon which we still have the freedom to bring about whole-scale revolutionary change to our collective existence. The vaunted third way (see Giddens 1993) is to dream about possibilities of constructively combining the valuable elements of Marxist and capitalism. There is a fourth way, however, which is to understand what freedom capitalism materially manufactures as well as the existential gap it produces.

Central to Marxist theory is the concept of production. While Marx put forward a still valuable labour theory of value, it is fundamentally contained and operating within a historically specific mode of production. He writes that

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production. (Marx 1970: 42)

Marxism, hence, provides posterity with a materialist conception of history based on class struggle. Here economic production is transformed, at least abstractly, into a form of social reproduction and historical overdetermination. Capitalism will invariably create competing classes, pitting the capitalist and the bourgeoisie on the one side and the proletariat and to a lesser extent the peasantry and the underclasses (the so-called lumpenproletariat) on the other. This struggle reaches its inevitable conclusion as the profit drive lead to ever higher unemployment and finally working class revolt followed by the triumph of capitalism over communism. Consequently, Marx declares in the Preface to his first German edition of his grand work Capital (1999):

…here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

Marxism certainly would seem then like a strange place from which to derive a more comprehensive philosophical framework for conceiving and enacting existential freedom. His materialist account leaves little room it would appear for either individual or historical agency. Further, in direct contrast to Sartre , he views consciousness as an outgrowth of its materialist conditions, as the quote above makes abundantly clear. Nevertheless, contained within it is a potential opportunity for reconsidering freedom—one that at once accepts its historical giveness and also highlights its expansive possibilities . In constructing his theory, Marx tellingly posits the social creation of classes and the opportunities these deterministic economic changes have for enlarging the scope of existential freedom. He argues in his unfinished third (and last) volume of Capital (2007) that

Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.

Namely, the rise of the proletariat redefined how freedom was dominantly framed, focusing it on the increase in labour power. By emphasizing the significance of ownership, the power to define and manage organizational relations, and the need to make profit, he offered a new lens for seeing what freedom currently was and what it could eventually become. “There is in every social formation a particular branch of production”, Marx (2005: 146) proclaims, “which determines the position and importance of all the others, and the relations obtaining in this branch accordingly determine the relations of all other branches as well. It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours and modifying their specific features.”

Thus while Marxism is often linked, and rightfully so, to themes of power, it also speaks to the fresh potential capitalism held for reconfiguring and expanding individual and collective agency. Capitalism as with any dominant social system produces a range of specific existential gaps for humans to fill and eventually overcome. He declares, in this regard, that

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. (Marx 2004)

Free market societies are marked by three in particular—the first resides at the individual level found in the ability to personally change one’s circumstances through hard work, tale, and taking advantage of market opportunities. The second is found at the level of organizations, emphasizing the capacity of people to be brought together, incentivized, and managed in such a way to increase economic growth and capitalist innovation. The third, but by no means the least in terms of significance, is the collective agency to alter our shared social conditions, it is always worth remembering that capitalism was born in the ferment of revolution and grew up believing in its own historical task of transforming the world.

The Existential Dialectic of Freedom

Freedom is inexorably linked to economic and social production. The base-superstructure model often attributed to Marx whereby the economy structurally determines the social and political is obviously to crude a formulation to understand the rich and complex contemporary world. Nonetheless, it holds revealing clues about power relations shaping freedom. To this end, the existentialism drives history forward and is as yet also always ultimately contained and defined by it. What is produced, thus, is an ongoing dialectic of freedom.

A central tenet of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, as discussed in the previous chapter. Crucial to this insight is then that freedom necessarily is absolutely formative to essence. Who one is—their very self—is constituted by a fundamental freedom. This basis of freedom is two-fold at once universal and relative to a given time and place. The universal is the shared desires of humans to have some power over their actions and historical destiny—whether individually, collectively, or both. The relative aspect is the historically specific instantiations of this longing—made possible and manifest by a dominant social order. Thus, for example, in considering the growth of democracy, he argues “All forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democracy” (1970: 31).

Thus who one is and who one seeks to be is determined, though never completely so, by the world in which they inhabit. As Marx rightly points out, material reproduction and labour form a key part of this determination. Yet what it also reflects upon is their production of diverse modes of freedom through which this essential self is given form and propelled forward into an active existence. This diversity is perhaps most highlighted within contemporary thought by the ideas of “social reproduction theory”. Drawing on a range of critical perspective, it views material reproduction as the creative basis for a wide range of social identifications and “modes of being” to emerge. Quoting one of its leading thinkers Tithi Bhattacharya (2017: 19)

(social reproduction theory) reveals the essence category of capitalism, its animating force, to be human labour and not commodities. In doing so, it exposes to critical scrutiny the superficiality of what we commonly understand to be “economic” processes and restores to the economic process its messy, sensuous, gendred, race, and unruly component: living human beings, capable of following orders as well as flouting them.

There is therefore a profound dialectic at play between existence and essence, of which existential freedom is always at its centre. In this respect, individuals and events are to use a term first populated by the French Marxist Althusser , that is, “overdetermined”—their origins and development traced back to the social mode of freedom from which they have derived. In particular, it refers to the persistence and relative autonomy of existing “super-structure” forces such as cultural norms and political institutions for impacting, and to an extent possibly deforming, the potential for revolutionary transformation. Consequently,

the overdetermination of any contradiction and of any constitutive element of a society, which means: (1) that a revolution in the structure does not ipso facto modify the existing superstructures and particularly the ideologies at one blow (as it would if the economic was the sole determinant factor), for they have sufficient of their own consistency to survive beyond their immediate life context, even to recreate, to ‘secrete’ substitute conditions of existence temporarily; (2) that the new society produced by the Revolution may itself ensure the survival, that is, the reactivation of older elements through both the forms of its new superstructures and specific (national and international) ‘circumstances’. (Althusser 1969: 115–116)

As such, it is the contradictions themselves, between what exists and concretely the emergence of what could exist, that drive forward history (even if it is always, according to Althusser “in the last instance” reflective of its economic conditions). He observes,

The specific difference of Marxist contradiction is its unevenness, which reflects its conditions of existence, that is the specific structures of unevenness (in dominance) of the ever pre-given whole which is its existence. Thus understood, contradiction is the motor of all development. Displacement and condensation, with their basis in its overdetermination, explain by their dominance the phases (non-antagonistic, antagonistic, and explosive) which constitute the complex process, that is, “of the development of things”. (Ibid.: 217)

Consequently, in the case of the free market, its freedom is to be employable; then existence is directed at gaining new or more skills that at once can be an empowered and free employee. Marx , in this regard, writes of the

…insipidity of the view that free competition is the ultimate development of human freedom; and that the negation of free competition = negation of individual competition and of social production founded on individual freedom. It is nothing more than free development on a limited basis—the basis of the rule of capital. This kind of individual freedom is therefore at the same the most complete suspension of all individual freedom, and the most complete subjugation of all individuality under social conditions which assume the form of objective powers, even of overpowering objects—of things independent of the relations among individuals themselves. (Marx 2005: vi)

Likewise, if democracy is the cornerstone of achieving broad-scale change, then political existence is found in the ideological and electoral struggles of winning sovereign power.

At stake is how freedom is confined to and channelled within overdetermined directions—so that the absolute freedom of action is bound to the specific options one has available to them as well as the perceived dominant means provided for pursuing them. Further, in the constant pursuit of this freedom, the system which it is based comes to be reproduced and even strengthened. Existence, in this regard, becomes ever more crystallized into a perceived inherent essence. However, freedom is never static, and the yet untold possibilities of existence never cease to assert themselves. The success of a status quo is its capacity to maintain its promise that the potential for human life is still limitless within its philosophical horizons. All the while forcing them to conform and restrict their decisions to its narrow limits of Being. As such the free market promises that people can do and achieve anything just so long as it is profitable and fiscally responsible.

There is therefore an always present productive tension—whereby the desire for freedom must contend with the social restrictions placed upon it. Crises occur not only when a market crashes or the economic contradictions of capitalism become more obvious and pressing but also when the longing for existential freedom exceeds the limits of the current system en masse. The Open Marxist describes the development of capitalism, its rise and fall, as a matter of crises management, emphasizing the ability of elites to co-opt popular anger and demands for change to conform to their ideas and practices of a market economy (see especially Bonefeld et al. 1992; Burnham 1994). It reflects, in this respect, the wider array of “relations of production” including the creation of a “radicalized working-class subject” (Bell and Cleaver 1982).

Critical here is the socialized and analogous ways that a crisis becomes an opportunity for those in power to assert the continued potential for experiencing freedom linked to the status quo. Claims for reforms are a clear signal not only that a given order can be improved but that the possibilities for it be changed and for humans to reassert their control over their historic fate has not been extinguished. Importantly

such a political reading of crisis theory eschews reading Marx as philosophy, political economy or simply as a critique. It insists on reading it from a working-class perspective and as a strategic weapon within the class struggle. (Bell and Cleaver 1982: 191)

It is perhaps tempting to think that this occurs completely at the whims of history. That it follows no set pattern—that the course of freedom flowed with no clear rhyme or reason. Yet while by no means historically predetermined it does adhere to a certain regularity. More precisely, it is possible to identify a certain general cycle of freedom, one that echoes the movement from philosophy to idealization introduced earlier by Sartre . What begins as a philosophy—a novel complex system of thought and action for experiencing freedom—becomes over time a sedimented and dogmatic status quo inhibiting new forms of freedom from emerging. Hence, it is in the evolution from existence to essence, possibility to orthodoxy, that this fundamental freedom is diminished and born anew.

This cycle extends far beyond abstract debates over liberty. It reflects an updated version of the materialist dialectic proposed by Marx and expounded by his proponents. As new material practices emerge, they reveal the current concrete limits of existing freedom and the possibilities for their genuine negation and overcoming. In doing so, it reawakens humanity’s existential potential and points the way for new modes of freedom to become real and spread. Marx hints at just such a dynamic relation of dialectical freedom in his discussion of working-class organization linked to their overall politicization and emergent revolutionary “class consciousness”:

When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need—the need for society—and what appears as a means becomes an end. …the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.

These instances, thus, are often at first small but can with time and under the right circumstances come to loom large.

Present is an existential dialectic of freedom. In moments where prevailing freedoms become opposed by new ones, what was once not even dreamed of is transformed into a revolutionary aspiration and then a manifest certainty. Indeed, freedom at its perhaps most fundamental can be understood as the emancipation from a tyrannical essence for the liberty to rediscover the possibilities of existence.

Capitalism’s Existential Crisis

It is widely acknowledged that in the past half-decade the previously unthinkable has occurred. Capitalism is deeply in crisis. Young people in particular in once considered free market strongholds such as the UK and US are turning away from the system and advocating for progressive radical changes. Spotlighted quite naturally are material issues of rising inequality and economic insecurity. These are further exacerbated by the long-standing problems of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. However, buried deep but burning bright is a resurgent demand for existential freedom in an age when the free marketed seems suddenly the furthest thing from freedom. Reflected is the idealization of capitalism, its transformation into a regulative and restrictive social “essence”.

Beginning in the late twentieth century there has been (at least for the privileged global north) a veritable “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005). This rather bold term indicates the shift in the emphasis of capitalist production away from the overly regulated and towards the promotion and harnessing of individual creativity. Represented is a fresh “ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism” (Ibid.: 8). This may seem at odds with the crass materialism of neoliberalism beginning in the 1980s—where wealth was valued for its own sake. However, it crucially channelled this human creativity towards accruing profit and capitalist innovation.

Implicit in this new vision was the creative impulse to go beyond neoliberalism, to experience more than what the free market had to initially offer. It represented the attempted resolution of a crucial capitalist contradiction—a system that is sustained by a rhetoric of freedom and materially by strict regimes of conformity and regulation. Indeed it is a contradiction that has expanded into every corner of our social existence. While neoliberalism is often accused of economizing society, politics, and even our personal life, this creative aspect is too often forgotten. It is about how to innovate one’s very existence using fiscal norms and techniques. Ong (2007: 3) thus refers to neoliberalism as a “mobile technology” observing

the very conditions associated with the neoliberal—extreme dynamism, mobility of practice, responsiveness to contingencies and strategic entanglements with politics—require a nuanced approach, not the blunt instrument of broad categories and predetermined elements and outcomes … Neoliberalism is conceptualized not as a fixed set of attributes with predetermined outcomes, but as a logic of governing that migrates and is selectively taken up in diverse political contexts.

Importantly, this extends to the achievement of traditionally non-market ends—such as personal well-being and social justice. Capitalism is no longer simply interested in profit. Rather it is an expansive system for creatively achieving our dreams, the means to these diverse ends. It offers the promise of achieving “a balanced life” and being able to work “anytime, anywhere”. It promises autonomy, flexibility, and the right to choose how one spends their times. Thus within its own limited ideology, the free market projects an image of itself as limitless in relation to human possibility.

Crucial then to the contemporary free market was a discourse of individual empowerment. It was meant to give people the knowledge, tools, and inspiration to be independent and freely make their own decisions about their existence. Of course such empowerment is easily critiqued as a tool of elites, one whose ultimate purpose is the increasing of efficiency and greater work intensification. It represented a veritable “wellness syndrome” reflecting a neoliberal self

that is often best equipped to meet the contradictory demands of present-day capitalism: to be simultaneously extroverted and introspective, flexible and focused, adaptable and idiosyncratic. In other words, coaching does not just seek to improve people’s wellbeing, or to teach them how to enjoy more. It is a technique aimed at reshaping the self. (Cederström and Spicer 2015: 15)

However, it also gestured towards the enlargement of market freedom, just as significantly, it signalled a profound reversal where people were meant to exploit capitalism and not vice versa. In other words, the goal was not more economic profits (at least in principle) but the use of these profits and economic techniques to serve the existential desires of capitalist subjects.

At stake was the reclassification of freedom, the production of the same system but as supposedly populated by new subjects. The traditional divide between ownership and labour—employer and employees—was gradually shifting within the public consciousness to a divide between empowered elites and the disempowered masses. The suddenly vilified 1% were castigated not only for their obscene wealth and perceived the unseemly use of it but also about their unfair power imbalances. These plutocrats and their elite political supporters could influence policy and pursue their happiness in a way that was simply unimaginable to the average person.

The populist upsurge wracking established democracies across the world is an attempt to countermand this dramatic difference in freedom. In this respect, class struggle is waged around a profound existential gap between social groups. Indeed, these social groups themselves are constituted by the existential freedom they wield and their ability to use existent freedom to their advantage. It was this class conflict that is leading capitalism’s potential demise. Tellingly, elites have consistently referred to this system as a “sick patient” that must be “cured”. Yet there appears to be a growing mass movement committed to euthanizing this patient—gradually and if necessary rapidly letting it out of its misery.

Witnessed, in turn, is the pronounced “Death of Homo-Economicus” as recently foretold by theorist Peter Fleming (2017). It was a demise signified by the desire for an existence that transcended mere profit-making and career advancement—and the anger that these non-market aspirations were the reserve of a privileged elite few. The still appealing dreams of “social entrepreneurship” or “smart solutions” are remnants of this growing battle for existential freedom. It is the latest tactic of a capitalism quickly running out of answers to assure a restless population that its possibilities are still infinite. What is being made starkly clearer though is that such limitless is simply unavailable in the world as brought to us by the free market.

The potential organic crisis of capitalism following the global financial crisis has deepened into what is fast becoming a full-blown existential crisis. The free market was the idealization of contemporary capitalism—its attempt to claim that it was a natural, objective, and permanent feature of human existence. However, its objective laws have been challenged as merely elite-constructed myths. Further there is a desire to break free from this seemingly inescapable neoliberal reality. There is a growing recognition that once sacred market truths are now up for debate and profound reconsideration. These gesture towards a more revolutionary desire to trade in the free market for the purchase of a more radical existential freedom.

The New Struggle for Existential Freedom

Capitalism is now facing one of its greatest historical threats. Its supposed economic laws, once revered in a spirit akin to physics, are now seen by an increasing number of people as closer to being a modern-day form sorcery. The cult of the free market is being exposed, creating an exciting but also fearful future. The resurgent popularity of socialism and to an extent Marxism speaks to this uncertainty. It also reflects renewed possibilities to collectively influence our shared material and social existence. Contained within this crisis are the incipient seeds of novel freedoms waiting to be born. Their sprouting represents signs of a capitalist spring giving life to a new existential struggle for freedom.

Indeed it is important to note that a funny thing happened on the way to a permanent capitalist world now and forever—people began discovering and experimenting with fresh types of social agency. Digital technologies, for instance, were paving the way for cutting-edge organizations and practices. While “platform capitalism” (Srnicek 2016) has been rightly criticized for contributing to an exploitive “gig economy”, it is also linked to the potential for creating alternative and less market-based economic relations. The sharing economy is a prime example of these arising hi-tech possibilities . More broadly, these technologies have been a catalyst for a fundamental economic and social rethinking of sacred capitalist knowledge. A 2017 British Labour Party report hence calls for new hi-tech forms of “alternative ownership”, proclaiming

The economic system in Britain, in its current guise, has a number of fundamental structural flaws that undermine economic strength and societal well-being. The predominance of private property ownership has led to a lack of long-term investment and declining rates of productivity, undermined democracy, left regions of the country economically forgotten, and contributed to increasing levels inequality and financial insecurity. Alternative forms of ownership can fundamentally address these problems. These issues are all the more pronounced given the increasing levels of automation in our economy. Automation has an emancipatory potential for the country’s population, but the liberating possibilities of automation can only be realized—and the threats of increased unemployment and domination of capital over labour only countered—through new models of collective ownership that ensure that the prospective benefits of automation are widely shared and democratically governed.

These new capabilities have contributed to a remaking of existential freedom en masse. The insurgent “radical leftist” movements across the US and Europe are a testimony to this long-dormant desire. While figures such as Corbyn and Sanders may ideologically be quite tame when compared to their supposed revolutionary forefathers, to a large extent their significant is to be found elsewhere in their symbolizing that radical social change is still possible and urgently necessary. It is the opening up of possibility to a brave new future free from capitalist labour. Quoting a recent editorial in The Guardian entitled “Post-Work: The Radical Idea of a World without Jobs”, its author Andy Beckett (2018: N.P.) writes “Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative.”

Interestingly, these advances were tied to a quite profound call for reconsidering established market versions of freedom. Their broadly social democratic agendas reflect the growing recognition that freedom is contingent upon social security. Tellingly, the official linking of these values in the context of the War on Terror evolved into a profound economic critique against the basic tenant of the free market. Just as freedom needed to be secured against terrorism—safety being a fundamental condition of the spread democracy and liberty, at least in rhetoric—so it is understood that precarity and material insecurity inhibit the realization of free existence universally. This has catalysed calls, for instance, for a “universal basic income”—a policy practically unthinkable even a decade ago that is now being tried in a growing number of cities and even countries. While by no means a new idea in and of itself, it points to the articulation of the condition of possibility for the realization freedom more widely. More than simply representing the promotion of a different expression of freedom, it is a claim that to exist in all its rich specificity these underlying universal conditions must first be met.

Significantly, Sartre ultimately reached a similar conclusion, noting that perhaps the most defining feature of Marxism to revolutionary liberation is that for freedom to be fully realized freedom from scarcity is absolutely necessary. He declares

As soon as there will exist for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life, Marxism will have lived out its span; a philosophy of freedom/will take its place. But we have no means, no intellectual instrument, no concrete experience which allows us to conceive of this freedom or of this philosophy. (Sartre 1963: 34)

What Marxism thus produces is a fresh understanding of the conditions of freedom as such. More precisely, it uncovers an existential dialectic of freedom which creates the social-material condition for this fundamental condition to be attained. Thus the transformation away from feudalism was in part a struggle for liberty against arbitrary authority, which revealed consent and self-determination as a universal prerequisite for existential freedom.

Similarly, the contradictions of capitalism exacerbated by the free market show clearly that scarcity makes true freedom impossible. And just as with feudalism and consent, this recognition is fatal to the very basis of capitalism itself and its association of liberty with a competition over resources, wealth, and social status. In this respect, it is a fundamental contradiction in that it reveals that the present and its essentialized form of market freedom are in fact fundamentally incompatible with our existential potential and the possibilities of new more dynamic ideas and practices coming into being.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Bloom
    • 1
  1. 1.Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK

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