It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. You were your own property. You could lease yourself to an employer for a limited period, and for a mutually agreed price, but your property rights over yourself could not be bought or sold. Over the past two centuries, this liberal individualist perspective legitimized capitalism as a “natural” system populated by free agents.
A capacity to fence off a part of one’s life, and to remain sovereign and self-driven within those boundaries, was paramount to the liberal conception of the free agent and his or her relationship with the public sphere. To exercise freedom, individuals needed a safe haven within which to develop as genuine persons before relating – and transacting – with others. Once constituted, our personhood was to be enhanced by commerce and industry – networks of collaboration across our personal havens, constructed and revised to satisfy our material and spiritual needs.
But the dividing line between personhood and the external world upon which liberal individualism based its concepts of autonomy, self-ownership, and, ultimately, freedom could not be maintained. The first breach appeared as industrial products became passé and were replaced by brands that captured the public’s attention, admiration, and desire. Before long, branding took a radical new turn, imparting “personality” to objects.
Once brands acquired personalities (boosting consumer loyalty immensely and profits accordingly), individuals felt compelled to re-imagine themselves as brands. And today, with colleagues, employers, clients, detractors, and “friends” constantly surveying our online life, we are under incessant pressure to evolve into a bundle of activities, images, and dispositions that amounts to an attractive, sellable brand. The personal space essential to the autonomous development of an authentic self – the condition that makes inalienable self-ownership possible – is now almost gone. The habitat of liberalism is disappearing.3
That habitat’s clear demarcation of private and public spheres also divided leisure from work. One need not be a radical critic of capitalism to see that the right to a time when one is not for sale is all but gone, too.
Consider young people striking out in the world today. For the most part, those without a trust fund or generous unearned income end up in one of two categories. The many are condemned to labor under zero-hour contracts and wages so low that they must work all available hours to make ends meet, rendering offensive any talk of personal time, space, or freedom.
The rest are told that, to avoid falling into this soul-destroying “precariat,” they must invest in their own brand every waking hour of every day. As if in a Panopticon, they cannot hide from the attention of those who might give them a break (or know others who might). Before posting any tweet, watching any movie, sharing any photograph or chat message, they must remain mindful of the networks they please or alienate.
When lucky enough to be granted a job interview, and land the job, the interviewer alludes immediately to their expendability. “We want you to be true to yourself, to follow your passions, even if this means we must let you go!” they are told. So they redouble their efforts to discover “passions” that future employers may appreciate, and to locate that mythical “true” self that people in positions of power tell them is somewhere inside them.
Their quest knows no bounds and respects no limits. John Maynard Keynes once famously used the example of a beauty contest to explain the impossibility of ever knowing the “true” value of shares. Stock-market participants are uninterested in judging who the prettiest contestant is. Instead, their choice is based on a prediction of who average opinion believes is the prettiest, and what average opinion thinks average opinion is – thus ending up like cats chasing after their own tails.
Keynes’s beauty contest sheds light on the tragedy of many young people today. They try to work out what average opinion among opinion-makers believes is the most attractive of their own potential “true” selves, and simultaneously struggle to manufacture this “true” self online and offline, at work and at home – indeed, everywhere and always. Entire industries of counselors and coaches, and varied ecosystems of substances and self-help, have emerged to guide them on this quest.
The irony is that liberal individualism seems to have been defeated by a totalitarianism that is neither fascist nor communist, but which grew out of its own success at legitimizing the encroachment of branding and commodification into our personal space. To defeat it, and thus rescue the liberal idea of freedom as self-ownership, may require a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly digitized instruments of production, distribution, collaboration, and communication.
Would it not be a splendid paradox if, 200 years after the birth of Karl Marx, we decided that, in order to save liberalism, we must return to the idea that freedom demands the end of unfettered commodification and the socialization of property rights over capital goods?