Morbid Symptoms

"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." – Gramsci

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Notes on Synthetic Freedom


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.

Reassembling Autonomy

Hegel claims that the path of philosophy is not the “common way a man can take in his dressing-gown.” Instead, “[t]rue thoughts and scientific insight can only be won by the labour of the concept [Arbeit des Begriffes].” Concepts, so characterised, are both material and tools: philosophy brings concepts to bear on concepts, tracing their logical structure, interconnections and development. Thus, philosophy can be depicted as conceptual labour. But concepts themselves can also be understood as a kind of labourer [Arbeiter]. Like other workers, concepts do not come ready-made — they must be reproduced and sustained within a suitable environment, and they are only likely to thrive when they stand in fruitful relationships with others in their community. So too, as with other workers, they can become overworked and enervated as a result of the jobs they perform, as well as diseased from noxious working conditions or pestilent co-workers.

Autonomy is in danger of becoming such a fatigued and sickly concept. For one, it is required to do work of Stakhanovite proportions. Even when restricted to personal autonomy, the term has countless meanings — everything from liberty, moral responsibility, self-legislation, non-fungibility, reasons-responsiveness and mental capacity, to name only a handful. This semantic plasticity means that virtually any action, thought, person or social formation can be lauded as autonomous or condemned as heteronomous, thereby making precise analysis very difficult without a continual revalidation or recalibration of the meaning of terms. Like a precarious worker at a temp agency, the concept of autonomy finds itself deployed in all sorts of heterogeneous settings, with little ability to shape the jobs it is tasked with performing, and the expectation that it will not bring any potentially disruptive history or politics with it from its previous workplaces. Indeed, autonomy as an ideal is so frictionless that whatever your cause — radical social justice or tax cuts; national liberation struggles or imperialist military intervention; survivors of psychiatry and disability movements or conservative social policy — then some autonomist justification can be confected for it. But if your rallying cry strikes fear in no-one’s hearts, then it’s worse than useless.

The deeper problem, however, is not merely formal — that autonomy can be co-opted by almost anyone — but that it has been co-opted by some pernicious political and philosophical forces. In short, autonomy’s neighbourhood has been gentrified and most of its friends are complacent liberals. Mired in talk of abstract rights, authenticity, choice and decision-making, it is hard to locate any genuine critical or elucidatory potentiality in the concept. If anything, its predominant philosophical deployments now do little more than reinforce a narcissistic form of individualism. You need only look to the soporific preoccupations of its champions: the merits of ‘life-planning’; how lowly drug addicts are; oppressive communalist tendencies within Islam; the opprobrium that lack of restraint at the dinner table deserves; and so on. Telegraph-fodder, basically.

What then is to be done? The concept of autonomy, or merely the term ‘autonomy’, could simply be abandoned. Similar temptations arise with notions like democracy that have been subject to conceptual capture by forces of reaction, despite the latent radicalism and unadorned beauty of the idea. Autonomy might be jettisoned for being equally tainted and functioning as a dampener rather than a catalyst of thought. But that would be to relinquish important logical and linguistic territory. Losing battles over contested concepts such as freedom is part of the reason why, for instance, markets that immiserate millions of people in underdeveloped economies can so seamlessly acquire honorifics like ‘free’; at the very least, this ground ought not simply be ceded without a fight. Moreover, concern for autonomy already saturates philosophy, medicine, psychiatry, social care, law and political economy, and so can be seen a beachhead as much as a quagmire. In sum, the concept of autonomy ought be revitalised rather than repudiated.

First, and negatively, the elements of authenticity and decision-making capacity that loom so large in its contemporary usage should be offset. The tacit metaethics underlying this usage is one which invariably crowns individual desires and choices as sovereign, such that autonomy becomes a psychological capacity to enact plans for preference-maximisation — which is, in turn, understood as the only thing we could ever have a reason to do. Whilst the struggle for human autonomy should ultimately be oriented by the prospect of achieving a non-alienated affective and volitional relationship to ourselves, establishing this as the primary criterion of autonomy feeds a myopic and conceited individualism which suppresses the possibility that freedom requires a radical change or reassembly of our present self. Autonomy can be neither an affable psychological equilibrium nor cod-existentialist anomic willing nor the pop-therapeutic idiocy of a quest for our ‘real selves’.

Second, and more positively, the concept of autonomy needs to be yoked to more apposite kinds of human independence than those that currently trouble most philosophers, lawyers and psychologists. For Kant, it was ossified institutions like those of traditional religious life which impeded the kind of self-determination that the public use of reason can win for us. Lacking the courage to use one’s own understanding meant relying on a ‘private’ use of reason: one bounded by the parochial assumptions of such an institution. However, in reanimating a concern with the place of the free, rational individual within contemporary social formations, we must look to other structural forces. Most obviously for anyone on the left today, there has to be a recognition of those threats to self-determination that come from outside of the comfortable circle of bourgeois consensus: tyrannous concentrations of capital and the neo-liberal states that are subjugated by them, which together dominate the economic and social landscape; limpened forms of political governance, compounded by structurally typhlotic news media, which are incapable of drawing out and enacting the popular will and interests; and the assault upon the welfare state, including education and basic welfare payments alongside psychiatric, medical and social care provision that foster the capabilities and opportunities that individual self-determination depends upon. Clearly, these are first and foremost political harms, which you do not need a philosophical analysis of autonomy to identify. Yet, these threats should orient a conception of autonomy, which ultimately may be able to sharpen an understanding of what would, concretely, be needed for free human agency to be realised. If the concept of autonomy is rehabilitated in this fashion, then it may once again return to the most useful kind of work.

Morbid Symptoms

“All beginnings are involuntary.”
— Fernando Pessoa, O Conde D. Henrique

I plan to write here about philosophy, politics and psychiatry — especially their intersections.

You may have come across my previous blog, Grundlegung, which I used when I was a graduate student in philosophy working on autonomy and normativity. Currently, I’m part of the Essex Autonomy Project, an interdisciplinary project on self-determination, which has increasingly focused on mental capacity and mental health law. Whilst my doctoral research was pitched at a relatively abstract or even metaetheoretical level, much of my EAP work has been intensely practical: sifting through law reports, social history, policy documents, talking to social workers and psychiatrists, and so on. One of the effects of this has been to catalyse my interest in mental disorder, particularly its social etiology and relation to the emotional and evaluative structures engendered by capitalism. I’m also beginning to learn how to weaponize philosophy more effectively — figuring out how to write about social and political topics with philosophical tools, yet avoiding the intellectual wasteland that most often passes for ‘applied philosophy’. A new blog seems like the best place to do more of this.

These are febrile times, in every sense, yet it’s ever-harder to cognise them. The most vital and effective writing from the radical left at the moment is that which is anatomising the political, economic and psychological architecture of society. At any rate, it is this kind of work that I cannot stop reading. What I hope to do on the blog is to find a way to start writing it.