Notes on Synthetic Freedom

by Tom


Srnicek and Williams introduce the concept of synthetic freedom in their new book Inventing the Future. For them, left modernity should reclaim the value of freedom from the right rather than only fighting its ideological battles on the more familiar territory of equality. However, this does not mean we should acquiesce to dominant liberal understandings of freedom as a negative liberty requiring only a lack of interference from others. Instead, Srnicek and Williams propose a refitted leftist alternative which holds that formal rights do not secure freedom without the material capacities to meaningfully exercise those rights. This freedom is synthetic insofar it must be artificially produced through the provision of the necessary cognitive, institutional, and physical infrastructure, rather than being the natural residue that remains when social interference is eliminated.

This much I agree with. I would add that productive conceptions of freedom — which emphasise its genesis in social co-operation that creates platforms for action — also help to highlight often-invisible social reproduction. Freedom cannot simply be a matter of being left alone to act how one likes because our capacities for action themselves need to be produced and reproduced. At the barest minimum, we required the gestation, care, socialisation, shelter, and food that we were provided with as children. If we refuse to indulge in robinsonade fantasies, then we also need to acknowledge our dependence on the socially reproductive labour of others through education, domestic and service work, healthcare, and emotional relationships of affection, intimacy, and concern. There would be no meaningful capacities for action to bother protecting from interference were it not for this highly gendered and racialised reproductive labour. Furthermore, in its insistence that freedom is an active effect rather than a passive remainder, synthetic freedom does not allow us to take such labour for granted — prompting us to recognise reproductive labour is indispensable to producing the material capacities which underpin such freedom.

Nevertheless, if synthetic freedom is going to be a useful concept for thinking about left modernity, then significant further work needs to be done in order to articulate it in a conceptually coherent and defensible fashion as well as to explore its social and political implications. In the rest of this post, I want to make a few preliminary comments that might be helpful for anyone inclined to take up this project. Apologies for the relatively technical (aka boring) tenor of what follows — I wanted to write this up quickly and so have concentrated on the analysis rather than the presentation.

The first problem with Srnicek and Williams’ account is its conflation of negative liberty with other approaches to freedom. Sometimes negative freedom is characterised as “the absence of interference” and at other times as “freedom of individuals from arbitrary interference” (p. 79). This seemingly minor reformulation in terms of arbitrariness has far-reaching effects. It is the difference between a member of the Boston Tea Party taking themselves to be unfree because they were subject to taxation without representation, and a member of the modern-day Tea Party taking themselves to be unfree because they are subject to the interference of taxation at all.

Another conflation Srnicek and Williams make is between negative liberty as non-interference and the idea of merely formal rights. While some formal rights are rights to non-interference, the problem of possessing formal rights without the effective means to enjoy them has no intrinsic connection to non-interference. For example, I might have a formal right to take my landlord to court for refusing to pay for repairs on my flat, and I can fail to be really or effectively free to do so because I can’t afford a solicitor. In other words, the distinction between negative and non-negative freedoms is orthogonal to the distinction between formal and real freedoms. Liberal legal orders do tend to privilege both negative and formal rights, but Srnicek and Williams are wrong to imply that these are same thing.

The second problem is that Srnicek and Williams fail to sufficiently challenge capitalism’s own self-image as a guarantor of negative freedoms. They do observe that “political freedom from the state” is increasingly diminished by “digital spying and the war on terror” (p. 76). However, the more fundamental threat to negative liberty comes from the nature of capitalist property relations themselves. As G.A. Cohen notes, the regime of private property itself distributes negative unfreedoms to those who lack this property. For example, if whilst in poverty I attempt to use the private property of the rich to meet my basic needs, then I certainly will be deprived of my negative liberties — by a volley of fists, handcuffs, and prison cells. In the rush to a less “emaciated” synthetic freedom, it is still important to challenge capitalism’s own false claims about the kinds of freedom it delivers — especially when immanent critiques of capitalism are much harder for its sympathisers to brush aside than attempts to fundamentally reconceive freedom itself.

The third problem is an inability to identify freedoms which are genuinely valuable. This results from the way that Srnicek and Williams draw heavily on the work of the left-libertarian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs in formulating synthetic freedom — effectively adopting wholesale his claim that “real freedom is not only a matter of having the right to do what one might want to do, but also a matter of having the means for doing it”. Srnicek and Williams also relativise freedom to the rights and capacities required for what we might want rather than what we actually want. They justify this by appeal to Van Parijs’ claim that if freedom were a matter of being able to do what one wanted to do then freedom could be achieved simply by indoctrinating people into desiring only what they can currently achieve.

While the move towards a definition of freedom in terms of the ability to do what we might want to do will avoid the problem of classifying indoctrinated slaves as free, this is not sufficient to justify the new position. Indeed, it seems strange for thinkers like Srnicek and Williams who have some affinity for philosophical rationalism to take desires as a criterion for determining what freedom consists in — albeit potential rather than actual desires. But the more immediately pressing difficulty is that the range of things we might want is extremely large and so a correspondingly large and indiscriminate range of rights and capacities will secure freedom. On this approach, we are no more free when we have the rights and capacities to control our workplace than to control our book club, and we are no less free when the police prevent us from attending an urgent political meeting than when we can’t barge unannounced into someone else’s house on a whim. This makes it difficult to appeal to the concept of synthetic freedom in normative argumentation, since the freedoms it identifies can just as easily be trivial as profound. Thus, when considering the strategic question of which rights and capacities should be prioritised, it will not be much help to say ‘those that most increase synthetic freedom’, since there are a huge number of rights and capacities that would allow us to achieve things we might want and no clear way to decide between them.

The fourth problem arises from a tension between appeals to human “flourishing” (p. 80) and a denial of “authentic human essence” (p. 82). Human flourishing is typically understood as performing the functions that constitute the very kind of human essence that Srnicek and Williams deny. What then do they understand by “the flourishing of all humanity” (p. 80)? This is implicitly identified with maximal synthetic freedom. Thus, the most flourishing are the most free, and the most free are those with the most rights and capacities to do those things that they might want to do.

The resulting account is in some ways similar to the ‘capabilities approach’ developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum — although they would not understand flourishing or freedom in quite this way. Their aim is also to build capacities underpinned by genuine opportunities to use them, whilst also not presupposing a perfectionist account of good functioning which is rooted in an authentic human essence. However, Nussbaum and Sen recognise that political action requires us to prioritise the pursuit of some capabilities over others, where the most central capabilities are to be validated through their achieving wide democratic support in cross-cultural contexts. The capabilities approach thereby provides more immediate normative resources than the appeal to a diffuse synthetic freedom which does not tell us which rights and capacities should have strategic primacy. If the former can be shorn of its liberal shibboleths, then it might prove a more promising basis for a leftist modernism than the left-libertarian conceptual framework that Srnicek and Williams inherit from Van Parijs.

Nevertheless, there may be good reason to resist a more circumscribed account of which capacities to construct — particularly those which emerge from the broadly democratic endorsement of actually-existing human beings already moulded by capitalism. What seems to be attractive to Srnicek and Williams about the idea of expanding those capacities we might want is that it recognises that the future is radically open-ended. We do not know what human beings are or what they might become, and so we should not too readily limit the kinds of capacities that might be made available to them. The danger which they identify for emancipatory politics is becoming too attached to a “parochial image of the human” (p. 83) — one which is often an effect of oppression as much as a counterpoint to it. Thus, Srnicek and Williams recommend a “humanism which is not defined in advance” (p. 82) that allows for experimentation and revision of our understanding of what it means to be human.

I find this open humanism a compelling ideal. It does, however, face the same problem of normative navigation which afflicts the conception of synthetic freedom from which it emerges. While there must be scope to experiment with different ways of being, there must also be political decisions about which experiments to prioritise and how to allocate resources between experimental and non-experimental projects. The latitude provided by not defining humanism in advance appears to come at the cost of leaving us rudderless when thinking about which political goals to set and their relative importance. Both synthetic freedom and open humanism threaten to fall into either anomie or arbitrariness without stronger normative guidance. The task is to show how such guidance does not need to be grounded in either a rigid human essence or in historically contingent commitments shaped by oppression. Thus, I think progress on developing the theoretical foundations of freedom in left modernity would benefit from a convincing critical-historical account of normativity.