Freedom, equality, justice and class

This is an essay I wrote for my Political Theory class. The exposition of anarchist theory is pretty basic due to space requirements (1,000 words is a ridiculously short essay). Also the centralisation of class here is not really in line with my current theoretical position, but again space requirements prevented any real discussion of intersectionalism beyond a fly-by citation. I think the interesting/useful part is the critique of Rawls and Nozick, who appear to be the boring utopians du jour of university politics departments. 

In what ways, if any, do freedom and equality conflict?

Virtually all political ideologies claim to protect or promote freedom and equality in some form, even if they may appear to others to embody the precise opposite. For example, the War on Terror, which has involved the military invasion and domination of Afghanistan and Iraq, the creation of an underground extralegal prison network, the normalisation of torture and extrajudicial execution, the indefinite suspension of a wide range of civil liberties, and the use of racial profiling, is fought in the name of “freedom”. (Agamben, 2005) Clearly, then, there can be no universal definition of freedom or equality that is prior to politics; the concepts are always already embedded in a political discourse. This essay will oppose understandings (specifically those of Rawls and Nozick) of freedom and equality that presuppose the state and capitalism, and which efface or misunderstand class relations, noting the conflicts between the two concepts that arise within the capitalist paradigm, and argue for an anarchist vision in which freedom and equality need not conflict.

Both Nozick (1975) and Rawls (1999) comment on the relationship between freedom and equality within the context of a capitalist paradigm. For Nozick, property rights are natural rights that form the basis for all other rights. Consequently, freedom is understood in market terms as the freedom to acquire, exchange and make use of property without restriction. Formal legal equality – the equal right of all to such freedoms – is the only form of equality to be enforced by the state or any other actor; either equality of access to goods or equality of opportunity are ruled out, as both necessarily require the violation of property rights. For Rawls, on the other hand, inequality can only be justified if that inequality is in the interest of everyone in society. Distributive inequality is understood as limiting the freedom of those who have less as they have fewer choices and a lesser ability to determine the course of their lives. Rawls therefore advocates redistribution (via a welfare state) to address inequality.

Both theorists, in problematising distribution rather than production, obscure class division within society. As such, both start with the presupposition of ontological monism: that is, that the social sphere is a single undivided sphere within which universal principles of justice (be they liberal or libertarian) can be derived (the moralist psuedo-Marxism of G.A. Cohen (1995) also takes this position) and enshrined in law by the state. This starting point produces an endlessly circulating discourse regarding which particular (and possibly arbitrary) set of abstract rights to elevate to the universal. The perspective of class, on the other hand, acknowledges that the social sphere is fundamentally divided. While under capitalism we are formally free and equal before the law (there is no group of people legally constituted as serfs or slaves), the discourse of legal rights is, as Foucault (2003, pp. 34-40) argues, wholly inadequate for understanding power relations under capitalist society. The emergence of capitalism was also the emergence of new techniques of power (Foucault, 2008, p.317) and a new form of exploitation: the wage-labour relation which, in separating the producer from the product of her labour, constitutes the proletariat as a class. (Holloway, 2010b, pp. 109-14; Bowman, 2012; Marx & Engels, 1994) This fracturing of the social sphere does not merely produce a simplistic binary opposition of two classes, rather it produces “a multiplicity of antagonisms, a great heterogeneity of conflict,” (Holloway, 2010a, pp. 38-42) including fractures along lines of gender and race, which mutually inflect one another. (Rowe, 2013) Thus there can be no general interest on which to base a universalist theory of justice: the interests of those who control the means of production and live off the exploited labour of the majority are irreconcilable with the interests of that majority. (Bowman, 2012) The freedom of the capitalist to accumulate capital, which is predicated on the monopoly of the capitalist class over the means of production (i.e. on an inequality), is necessarily opposed to that of the worker (Marx & Engels, 1994) which can only be fully realised by “wiping out the… socio-political role and function” of the capitalist. (Žižek, 2012, pp. 33-4) Thus, as Lenin (1965) argues “until classes are abolished, all arguments about freedom and equality should be accompanied by the questions: freedom for which class, and for what purpose; equality between which classes, and in what respect? Any… evasion of these questions inevitably turns into a defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie.”

The ontology of political space presented above is not inevitable nor transhistorical, but historically-specific to capitalism. The engagement between Rawls (1999) and Nozick (1975) (which, for illustrative purposes, are taken here as opposing poles of possibility within the statist/capitalist paradigm) illustrates the contradictions between differing forms or conceptions of freedom, equality and “the good” which are produced by the historically-specific contradictions of capitalist society. We should not limit our vision to what is possible within the context of capitalism, which implies an uncritical acceptance of the tyranny of the real over the possible. The reality of capitalism (and by implication the impossibility of universal freedom and equality) exists always, dialectically, in tension with the possibility of a radically different society. (Holloway, 2010a, pp. 6-8)

The anarchist vision of an alternative to capitalism can perhaps best be summarised by the aphorism “liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice… socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” (Bakunin, 1973, p.127) That is, freedom must be both individual and collective and equally available to all: one is only free among others who are equally free. (Ibid., p 76.) Equality and freedom are thus understood as necessary conditions for one another. The existence of private property (Proudhon, 1876) and the private ownership of the means of production (Kropotkin, 1906, p.15) are inconsistent with either freedom or equality; freedom and equality are only possible with the abolition of capitalism (and of social classes) and the collective and directly democratic ownership of the means of production. (, 2010a) This necessarily means the abolition, rather than the capture, of state power, as state socialism inevitably reproduces the domination of capitalist society in the power of the state over the population. (Bakunin, 1990, p.178;, 2010b; Holloway, 2010a, pp.11-8)

In conclusion, as I have argued, particular conceptions of both freedom and equality are always already situated within a political discourse. There is no a priori definition of either freedom or equality that can be universal to a society in which social classes exist. Such classes always exist antagonistically to one another: the freedom of the capitalist is predicated on domination and exploitation. Thus to speak in the abstract of freedom or equality is, covertly, to speak in the interests of a particular class, and to elevate those interests to the status of universal moral principles. It is only with the abolition of class society (of capitalism and the state) that universal freedom and equality become possible.


Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception. US: University of Chicago Press.

Bakunin, M. (1973) Bakunin on Anarchy, ed. Dolgoff, S. UK: Allen & Unwin.

Bakunin, M. (1990) Statism & Anarchy. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bowman, P. (2012) “Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower”in Irish Anarchist Review, 6 (Winter), pp. 3-7.

Cohen, G.A. (1995) Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. (2003) Society Must Be Defended. UK: Pearson.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Holloway, J. (2010a) Change The World Without Taking Power. UK: Pluto Press.

Holloway, J. (2010b) Crack Capitalism. UK: Pluto Press. (2010a) “What could the economic structure of anarchy look like?”. Available at: (Accessed:18 April 2013) (2010b) “Why do anarchists oppose state socialism?”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2013)

Kropotkin, P. (1906) The Conquest of Bread. London: Chapman & Hall.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1994) ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in Simon, L.H. ed. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. US: Hackett.

Lenin, V.I. (1965) “On the Struggle of the Italian Socialist Party” in Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Nozick, R. (1975) Anarchy, State and Utopia. UK: Blackwell.

Proudhon, P.J. (1876) What Is Property? An inquiry into the principle of right and of government. US: Benjamin R. Tucker.

Rawls, J. (1999) A Theory of Justice. UK: Oxford University Press

Rowe, A. (2013) “The Politics of Voices: Notes on Gender, Race & Class” in Irish Anarchist Review, 7 (Spring), pp. 23-5.

Žižek, S. (2012) The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso.


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