Freedom stops when work starts

Dmitri Sotnikov
Dmitri Sotnikov

Dmitri Sotnikov is a software developer with an interest in progressive politics. Dmitri believes that we must strive for a world with justice and equality for all.

Freedom can be seen as the measure of personal agency an individual enjoys within society. At first glance, it would appear that Canadians enjoy a high degree of personal freedom since we place very few restrictions on individual rights. However, it is important to distinguish between having theoretical freedoms and being able to exercise these freedoms in practice. After all, abstract freedoms have little meaning unless we have the time to enjoy them.

One way to measure how free Canadians are is to examine the amount of time that must be allocated towards meeting basic needs. A forty-hour week being the expected standard translates into the majority of time spent working. This leaves only a small amount of time for personal interests. This is true regardless of the quality of work or the level of education the person can obtain. Meanwhile for most, the income earned from a typical job is roughly equivalent to living costs spent on food, housing, and other necessities. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly half of Canadians are 200 dollars or less away from not being able to pay their bills.

man standing near fire
Photo by Kateryna Babaieva

There is an obvious contradiction between work and freedom. The more time a person is expected to spend working the less time they have to exercise their freedoms. Therefore, a society that expects people to forfeit the majority of their time working for a boss to meet their needs cannot be said to offer any great freedom to the majority.

To understand how we ended up in this situation we must consider where jobs come from and what purpose they serve. Most jobs in Canada are offered by the private sector and exist for the sole purpose of generating wealth for those who are already wealthy. The goal of businesses is to generate profit for the owners. This creates an incentive to extract maximum work at a minimum cost. Some of the wealth generated through the labour of the workers is appropriated by the business owners while workers are paid a portion of the wealth they produce in the form of wages.

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Related: Workers deserve a 32 hour work week with no loss of pay

One might ask what stops an ethical business owner from paying high wages to their employees. The answer lies in the Darwinian competition inherent in the capitalist system. Businesses must generate optimal profits to outcompete others or risk going bankrupt. Wages are one of the biggest operating costs. Since employees must be paid hourly for their work their wages must be kept low for profits to stay high.

Two primary factors determine wages and working conditions. The first is the robustness of the social safety net. Working conditions only need to be preferable to those of being unemployed. The second is the ratio of supply and demand. The pay rate is determined by what the most desperate worker is willing to accept. The bigger the pool of available workers, the lower the pay due to competition among them.

woman in orange jacket holding a paper
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Canada has a limited social safety net, and losing one’s job often means starving on the street. Thus, the majority of the population lives their lives in constant fear of becoming unemployed. A person who lives their life in fear is hardly free.

It’s easy to see how this system resulted in wealth concentration where a mere hundred families own more wealth than the bottom six million families combined. These are the Canadians who are truly free, and their freedom is built on the exploitation of the working class.

In times of crisis, such as the current pandemic, the situation of the workers becomes even worse. High unemployment leads to higher competition for the remaining jobs. Large businesses are now able to make record profits while the workers risk their lives on the front lines. As a concrete example, we can see that Loblaws is raising shareholders’ dividends while dropping ‘hero pay’ for their workers.

Workers are left with a simple choice of either risking their lives to put food on the table for a minimum wage or being left without the means to sustain themselves. There’s not much freedom to be found in this situation.

A person who lives their life in fear is hardly free.

As we can see, the capitalist economic model is in direct contradiction with having a free and egalitarian society. The working majority is expected to spend their lives toiling for the benefit of a capital-owning minority. If we truly care about individual freedoms, then we must strive to build a society where work is directed towards the benefit of all and minimized as much as possible.

We should be aiming to maximize free time for every individual in order to amplify their personal freedoms. Unfortunately, this is not possible as long as affluent individuals are in charge of handing out jobs with the intent of increasing their own personal wealth.

No one should be required to work for the sole purpose of making someone else rich. No one should be forced to risk their life in order not to starve. A better world is possible, but only if we’re willing to fight for it.

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