So last month I wrote an unsatisfactory post about Milton Friedman’s use of the opposition between freedom and coercion. I said that Friedman imagines the state as always and essentially coercive, and market exchange as always and essentially voluntary; and that this understate the extent to which the relation between citizen and state can be beneficial, and, more importantly, the extent to which market exchange can, and does, involve violence, and the threat of violence, and a host of marginally more subtle but nonetheless just as powerful mechanisms of coercion and control. Well, I didn’t say that, but I should have done. What I actually said was that any exchange or relationship involves an admixture of both freedom and coercion: that even torture leaves a sliver of freedom, and that even the most bilaterally voluntary exchange involves dissymmetries of power.
What was I thinking? In the first place – it’s obvious and sinister nonsense to imply that the self’s freedom can survive any violence inflicted on it. Violence can destroy anything; it’s nothing more than a consoling or self-exculpating fantasy to believe that the true free self is untouchable by the exigencies of physical trauma. Moreover, to phrase the matter in this way – to speak of an admixture of freedom and coercion – is to perpetuate the idea of a fundamental (if you like, metaphysical) opposition between the sovereign self and the world around it. Friedman uses the terms ‘voluntary’, ‘freedom’, ‘coercion’, etc., with an alarming lack of investigation into what they mean. If we take on board Friedman’s uses, and simply argue about the terms’ appropriate fields of application… well, we’ve already fucking lost.
In his 1976 lectures, which I’m reading now, Foucault discusses the concept of sovereignty, which he believes has dominated Western political discourse since the end of the middle ages. (I should have known all this already, of course, but I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up…) Foucault says that all theories of right are based on the attempt to establish a line between legitimate contract and illegitimate oppression. They attempt to establish a space of sovereignty, within which power is exercised legitimately, but beyond which power turns into coercion. And Foucault affiliates himself with (or expresses strong sympathy for) an alternative tradition, for which “the pertinent opposition is not, as in the previous schema, that between the legitimate and the illegitimate, but that between struggle and submission.” (‘Society Must Be Defended’, p. 17).
In other words, Foucault’s trying to do away with the opposition between freedom and coercion as our fundamental tool for political analysis. Power is everywhere; every relationship is a power relationship. The individual who exercises freedom, or is subject to coercion, is already a product of and conduit for power. “The individual is not… power’s opposite number; the individual is one of power’s first effects.” (p. 30). We therefore need to, as it were, strategically suspend the concept of freedom, and instead examine our societies and economies in terms of power relations. “[T]his means that rather than starting with the subject (or even subjects) and elements that exist prior to the relationship and that can be localized, we begin with the power relationship itself, with the actual or effective relationship of domination, and see how that relationship itself determines the elements to which it is applied.” (p. 45).
This is obviously relevant to economics. Rather than seeing the economy in terms of utility-maximising individuals, we should start by examining the power-relations that influence any given exchange – and create the possibility of exchange. “The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary – yet frequently denied – proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.” (Friedman.) This valorisation of individual freedom destroys at its origin any attempt to examine the real power relations behind market transactions; and one of the ways it does so by inventing a fictional, subjective, and thoroughly un-analysable concept of ‘utility’.This means that an alternative economics, which takes power rather than freedom as its starting point, could in fact be more empirical and objective than the mainstream orthodoxy.
All this is probably desperately obvious. More to come as soon as I actually know something about anything.