29 April 2022

Democracy's highest (hidden, thingified) value

In the West we are said to live in liberal democracies where we enjoy certain freedoms and in which 'our' values are upheld by our elected governments and judicially protected constitutions. The past two decades or so, however, have seen the erosion of 'our' values, at whose core are the human rights enshrined in the UN charter, through the rise of demagoguery that brazenly challenges constitutionally anchored rights and in-built safeguards to limit government power for nefarious ends. The media speak ever more frequently of the "fragility" of democracy, of the need to defend it, and ask whether it will "survive". Liberal democracy appears to be our highest value with which 'we' identify, even when progressives and conservatives understand different things by 'liberal democracy'.

'Liberal' is the adjective derived from 'liberty' which, in turn, is a synonym for 'freedom'. Conservatives especially are fond of proclaiming that we live in the 'free world', the 'free West' as opposed to the unfree East, notably the repressive regimes ruling with an iron hand in Russia and China, apart from smaller, highly repressive dictatorships. In comparison to these countries, we certainly are freer and are well advised to uphold 'our values', most of which are formulated in political terms, such as constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech or the right to vote, both of which are currently under attack in some societies that are nominally liberal democracies.

At the core of 'our' liberal values is the rule of law, according to which the government protects the many forms of contractual intercourse in civil society with private property of all kinds, including labour power. The freedom to exercise property rights of all kinds enables the freedom of the individual in Western democratic societies, even when the individual freedom may consist of the impoverished freedom to spend a paltry income on the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. In general, there exists in liberal democratic societies under the rule of law a freedom of movement mediated by spending income that is often praised as 'freedom of choice'. Stealing to support one's own life, by contrast, infringes the property rights protected by the rule of law and is therefore outlawed and punished. Others living in liberal democracies have greater freedom of movement by dint of having considerably more income to spend how they want to. The possibility of achieving a higher material standard of living is said to be one of the major attractions in favour of liberal democracies, and the advertising indeed seems to be effective.

The member of civil society, in contradistinction to the political citizen, living in a democratic state enjoys individual freedom only mediated by the various forms of private property, all of which can be identified by the hallmark of having a price on the relevant market. The shareholder in a public company enjoys the individual freedom inherent in owning valuable, dividend-earning shares, whereas a worker enjoys the individual freedom inherent in owning labour power that can be hired out for wage income. This latter includes the individual freedom to band together for the purpose of collective bargaining with employers. Such freedom of association pertains to the idea of democracy even when it is savagely contested by employers and even when the government passes laws to restrict the freedom of workers to unionize in favour of big corporations. 

Likewise, the exercise of private property rights has an inherent limit in the right to life. Accordingly, for example, workers must not be employed in working conditions that demonstrably impair their health. This restriction is inherent in the very idea of a free, democratic society even when it is trampled under foot in fact, and resistance against poor working conditions is undertaken, and is only conceivable, in the light of this idea.

Is the freedom in liberal democracies upholding at their core the rule of law exhausted by the catalogue of political rights and individual property rights enabling an individual to lead his or her life according to his or her individual free will? Is freedom of the individual, willed subject at the core of the freedom of liberal democracies? Is freedom itself synonymous with freedom of the individual willed subject that is free to pursue happiness in a society whose sociation is mediated via private property transactions of all kinds?

Subjectively willed freedom of movement is only possible in a form of society that enables the private-property-owning individual. Within our age's way of thinking 'naturally' in terms of subject and object, the other side to the free, willed, individual subject is the objective, private property of all kinds, all of which are valuable in the sense of commanding a monetary price, the purest form of thingified value. Private property covers a bewildering plenitude of such 'objective', thingified value-forms, starting with the value-form of commodity goods and money, proceeding to money-capital and productive capital, and including the employee's living labour power that is thingified via subsumption under the value-form of wages, alongside the interest that is paid for loan capital and the rent paid for leased land. Employees strive to thingify themselves under the thingified value-form of wages by holding a desirable, or even not so desirable, job. Jobs are highly desirable in liberal democracies. Other private property owners strive to enter into contracts to derive income from their specific form of property, e.g. contracts to supply raw materials or components, or interest-bearing finance capital for a business venture, or land upon which to erect a factory or a shopping mall, etc. All these different kinds of contracts have to dovetail in some kind of profit-earning, productive activity under the direction of an enterprising enterprise of some kind. Although the contracts concluded on the surface of civil society seem to proceed simply from willed subjects coming to an agreement, they cover up underlying transformations of form of thingified value.

The hiddenness of thingified value as such is due to its becoming visible only mediated by its many different forms of appearance. Each value-form as an _eidos_ is a 'look', 'guise', or even 'disguise' of thingified value itself that remains in hiding behind its forms, its guises. Because it hides, its forms of appearance in private property can present themselves deceivingly as the core of the personal freedom of the willed subject, starting with the consumer subject's freedom of choice in spending its income. 

Similarly, it seems that the movement of society itself can be steered by the political instances under the so-called primacy of politics. The political movement of society is mediated by political power struggles of all kinds among the subjective actors as if it were their power struggles in a more or less democratic state that determined the course of movement of social life itself. This is an illusion, however, for the augmentative, accumulative movement of thingified value, that goes under the bland name of the 'economy', has a life of its own that proceeds behind the backs of the willed subjects that imagine that they are the underlying subjects of social movement even though, behind their backs and entirely unbeknowns to them, it is the valorizing movement of thingified value that dictates the direction, thereby subjecting the willed subjects to all sorts of pleasant and unpleasant vicissitudes. The valorization of thingified value is indifferent to content. In particular, it is indifferent to the well-being of humankind and the Earth. It is quantitative, endlessly accumulative, a movement solely for its own sake whilst pretending to be for the benefit of humankind. However, even the desire of the human subjects themselves is moulded and shaped to fit the valorization needs of accumulating thingified value. 

The freedom of movement of thingified value is the hidden highest value of liberal democratic societies. The subjects are all unknowingly merely players, mostly mere, powerless pawns, in the gainful game in which their willed move may or may not come to nought. As liberal democratic subjects, we all swim for our entire lives in the invisible medium of thingified value, to whose sickly sweet scent we are all habituated to the point of insensitivity. The highest value, thingified value, is not enumerated among 'our' values, the values of liberal democracy, and is inconceivable for the liberal-democratic mind-set that is blithely still committed to the subject/object split, as if there were self-evidently a subject of inner consciousness vis-à-vis an external objective world, and as if it would remain that way to the 'end of time'.

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness.