11. Compatibilism, Marxism, and Democracy

The aim of this essay is to think about how the ‘compatibilist’ thesis in arguments about ‘free will’, or sometimes freedom of action (cf. Schlick, Problems of Ethics, 1939), and determination, appears when set alongside political economy and its critics rather than purely as a metaphysical debate. Preliminary remarks:

(a) As in Essay 6, I propose to use the term ‘determination’ here in an attempt to avoid confusion between those who hold that the world is in some way determinative (determinists) and the condition they describe, a confusion which may arise from the customary usage of ‘determinism’ in relation to the issue of freedom. Ted Warfield (‘Compatibilism and Incompatibilism’, Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, 2003) has defined determination: ‘Determinism[ation] is true in a world if and only if, at every time in the history of the world, the complete state of the world at that time conjoined with the world’s laws of nature necessitates all future truths of the world.’
(b) Those who take the opposite position that free will is real and undetermined are called libertarians – a usage not to be confused with others including free market libertarians or cultural libertarians.1 Theopedia defines libertarianism as follows: ‘Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God…Libertarian freedom is freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires.’ Notice these are both very strong definitions.
(c) Freedom and determination themselves have been considered and debated in relation to society, economy, and politics at least from the seventeenth century onward, but not so the relation of freedom to determination which has been essentially left in the realm of metaphysics. Accordingly, whilst the family of arguments used to support the idea that freedom and determination can be seen as compatible one with the other if they are understood soundly is a very old one going back at least to the Stoics, it has not regularly been debated with the social and political dimension that the idea of freedom itself has always carried.

  • (d) In social argument ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ remain roughly interchangeable terms, even if the latter now has a slightly quaint, old-fashioned, ring to it and in fact may still be a little more in use by ‘right-wing’ writers such as Hayek. Both terms carry an old sense of specific ‘freedoms’ or ‘liberties’, which conveyed that those holding them were not slaves or serfs. Frequently such freedoms or liberties were reserved rights of burghers, barons, guilds, and so on (nowadays ‘rights’ or ‘privileges’ are the terms which would normally be used for cases of that kind). That sense of freedom or liberty has become largely honorary (as with freedom of a city), and therefore the more general, abstract sense of these terms is the one which now prevails.  That abstract sense includes the generally accepted belief that freedom, or liberty, entails moral responsibility, following the legal principle that guilt or responsibility does not attach to actions taken under duress or compulsion.
    (e) A further common, but not universally accepted notion, sometimes called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) holds that an agent is free, and therefore morally responsible for what she does, only if she could do otherwise in the relevant situation. As will be discussed later, Harry Frankfurt (1969) has taken issue with that criterion for freedom. However, it may already be noted that for purposes of political applications, especially in regard to democracy, the PAP idea is routinely employed for judging the reality of free citizenship and political freedom.

    None of this should be taken to imply that thinkers who have advanced ‘compatibilist’ views in regard to freedom and determination have not been interested in matters of political economy. Quite the contrary; the philosophies of the British empiricists, notably Hume, Mill, and Ayer, were suffused with conceptions of freedom (or liberty) they held to be untroubled by causal determination. Theirs were examples of what is sometimes called ‘classical’ compatibilism which can be traced back to Hobbes and even St Augustine, where the argument was developed in relation to freedom of the will by making a sharp distinction between causation and compulsion, the former being held to be compatible with freedom but the latter not. Ayer was in no sense a political or economic theorist, but Hume and Mill are central figures in the history of political economy itself. Hume’s definition of liberty (freedom) as: ‘a power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will’ (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) indicates, first, that provided the agent is following what she wants to do (her will), then whatever causal determinants there might be of that will, such as heredity or cultural background, are not to be taken as detracting from the agent’s freedom. Secondly, Hume’s definition brings out a notion apparent in some later compatibilist thinking, namely, that an agent’s wishes and action based on those wishes may itself enter a causal chain.2 That in its turn opens up a further issue linked to Hume’s contention that, when opposed to (causal) necessity rather than constraint, freedom is no different from chance. This view has been characteristic of most compatibilist thought. It follows a traditional theme going back to antiquity that freedom depends strongly on  rationality as a mark of personal control of one’s situation (including self-control) and deliberate decision making. But in the philosophical tradition rationality (or reason) was itself interpreted as stable and predictable, while irrational behaviour is wild and random, and Hume followed that tradition. It should be noticed here that development of  modern psychology and social science from the late nineteenth century to date has introduced a sharp break with that philosophical tradition, by recognising that irrationality can often be very predictable and unchanging.3 The opposite perspective has also changed from the Newtonian picture of the universe which Hume knew, as more recent analysis from Poincare onward has shown that even determinative systems can contain unpredictability within them. Goldman (Freedom of the Will?, 1970) has recently put the case that physical phenomena and human activities can be determined without us being able to predict them. However, classical political economy was developed within the older tradition of thinking about rationality and predictability or reliability, which in itself marks it off from some forms of the contemporary critique of political economy. The old understanding of rationality and rational choice simplified the distinction Hume made between causal necessity and compulsion, whether the latter came from direct physical force or by legal regulation. The partial change in understanding during the past century and more (not adequately recognised by philosophers, and in any event more directly related to irrationality than rationality per se) may undermine any compatibilist case about freedom and determination.

    Mill treated liberty (freedom) basically in a similar way to Hume, but his interpretation does introduce significant changes. He says in the very opening sentence of On Liberty that he is not concerned with ‘so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty’. Again, this principle of freedom boils down to being able to do as you wish without being concerned with or compromised by any causal determinants of your wishes in the first place. As Mill was expressly stating a (moral) value, he spelt out the circumstances in which he thought public authority – the state – is justified in restricting freedom. According to Mill that arises only when restriction is required to prevent a free citizen from harming others. Thus far Mill’s position scarcely departs from his predecessors, including Hume and Bentham. However, Mill takes one very important step in a direction which critique of political economy and much of modern social science generally, would take far further. He was very clearly objecting to constraints on freedom from social convention as well as from the state and its legislation or regulations. Thus he extended the idea of constraint or compulsion from the narrow, but easily recognised and understood, idea already in place in the past. That change becomes all the more extensive once critics of political economy and its social, as well as philosophical, presumptions took the stage.

    The issue can be illustrated simply by thinking in terms of specific things that an agent might want to do, and would have to be able to do in order to be ‘free’ as classical compatibilists themselves understand that. Suppose X wants a job but turns out to live in a poor shanty town in Africa where the only jobs available are in diamond mining, and he or she needs the job to feed self and family. Now, it has always been a familiar Marxian objection to classical political economy in its eighteenth and nineteenth century forms that in such a case it is fundamentally wrong to describe X as ‘free’ or as entering into a free contract with the mining company because he or she is effectively being forced to take the job.

    Such a simple illustration brings out the fact that Marxism, like most contemporary cultural sociology, is a set of ideas which sits in a grey area between being a theory of causation and a theory of coercion. One way of viewing that where Marxism is concerned might be to ask whether it is a ‘scientific’ analysis of capitalism and its future or whether it is a revolutionary political theory demanding the overthrow of capitalism or the state. In terms of compatibilism and classical economics, an economic system and people’s economic choices would appear as essentially a matter of causative agency, while the state appears as coercive.

    Most often Marxism also treats the state as coercive although there is the controversial willingness of Marx and Engels to admit an occasional independence of the state in cases where class conflicts were finely balanced (illustrations given by Marx himself include Bonapartism in nineteenth century France or by implication the history of the English Factory Acts after 1840). The issue of determination remained complex within Marxism itself, as shown by the way from the 1930s onward efforts were made to reinterpret Marx in more humanist form (and more in terms of freedom) through discovery of his earlier writings in the 1840s particularly; whilst Desai (Marx’s Revenge, 2000) has attempted a more indeterminist reading of Capital itself through Marx’s theory of the rate of profit. But those issues affect Marx’s status as a theorist of causation as well as of coercion. Moreover, I have suggested in my online essay ‘Freedom, Free Will, and Technology’ (Essay 6) that both Hegel and Marx might be considered as compatibilists themselves, although in a quite different way from others. Hegel and Marx in particular, and to some extent Political economy generally, introduced the idea that freedom develops historically and culturally. This yields the result that determination might be held true for history, but not once its conclusion has been reached. Notably, Marx’s hints about communism being characterised by allocation according to need rather than desert, and merging of working and leisure time, imply the existence of a libertarian agency in that final stage which Marx was only too anxious to deny existed beforehand. If we are left having to accept that Marxian – and Hegelian – promises failed, that possible route for compatibilists is closed.

    More recent formulations of compatibilist argument, including those of Strawson or Frankfurt, appear to shift the issue away from simple coercive force (which is traditionally held to deny both freedom and moral responsibility, although not necessarily shame) and shift the argument onto motivation for one’s actions and our normal response to people’s good or bad conduct. But, disturbingly for anyone trying to protect moral responsibility, Marxism and critical theory can follow this move via the idea of ideology, which, together with psychoanalysis and recent developments in neuroscience4, allows the question to arise whether people are ‘free’ to decide their motives or psychological states. For instance, Strawson (1950) identified moral responsibility, which follows on from freedom, as an expression of our sense of revulsion from evil. Strawson maintained that this sense of revulsion is so basic to what human beings are and how they live that it would not be possible to consider doing without it, whether it is determined in any way or not. As a psychological statement Strawson’s view is probably correct for many people, but that does not protect it from being undermined as a grounding for ethics by either, or both, variety between and within cultures as to what revolts people (or wins their admiration) and the closely related problem of links between objects of revulsion and the hate figures so often characteristic of ideological propaganda. Naturally, perception of such links compromises trust in the revulsion itself. By a different route a similar danger awaits the argument of Harry Frankfurt (1969) in his essay ‘Alternative Possibilities and Moral Philosophy’. In an effort to detach freedom, and therefore moral responsibility, from the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), Frankfurt argued that what matters for freedom is what the agent intends to do, regardless of whether an alternative course of action is in fact available to the agent or not. Once again, we see ‘freedom’ being identified (apparently simply) with whatever a person who is free wishes to do, without concern for how the wishes themselves come about. But once again, the psychological element in the concept of ideology points to the seemingly simple interpretation of freedom being more problematic than it appears.

    Part of the problem emerges at once with the way Marxism turned the notion of ideology from a simple sense of ‘science of ideas’ (as originally coined by the enlightenment writer Destutt de Tracy) into a term with a strongly combative sense. Ideology became defined as those values and practices which justify the hegemony5 of a ruling class or those opposing values and practices linked to a subordinate class. Unless the Marxian promise of an ‘abolition’ of class conflicts could ever be realised, there would be no chance of an ethic and then sense of moral responsibility applicable to everyone rather than merely to certain groups whose values others might despise. That is to say, an agent’s wishes or will must be expected to be subject to determination, not just from natural ways of living as Strawson imagined but from ideological factors which are themselves subject to suspicion and hostility. Subsequent treatment of ideology in sociology and critical theory has taken the issue still further by giving the notion of ideology a still wider sense than Marx and Engels had done. Very often in recent thought ‘ideology’ becomes almost indistinguishable from culture and upbringing generally. For example, the analysis by Thompson (Beliefs and Ideology, 1986) is a gentle one which does not highlight combative aspects of ideology. But characterisation in terms of social cement and social control gives the concept of ideology a very wide sweep, including much of the role allocated to religion in sociological thought from Durkheim onward. It should also be recognised that the very notion of ‘control’ implies direction by an external agency, probably going beyond cause and effect relations in the natural world (although ‘control’ and ‘controlling’ may be evoked as a metaphor in such cases6) and suggesting at least partly conscious direction. There can be little doubt that the Foucauldian analysis of power would include social control in a wide sense. Moreover conservative and nationalist thought, coming from almost the polar opposite direction to writers placed under the label ‘critical theory’, has regularly emphasised that people do not choose their inheritances, such as their language and social mores. It is true that thinkers in the tradition traceable to Burke or Herder would not have been inclined to refer to these attributes of a community as ‘ideology’, the sheer fact that many others in recent times have done exactly that means that such elements as education, family upbringing and custom are often seen as included under the rubric of ideology. Yet none of this development in thought has removed the combative or partisan implication in that concept dating back to its Marxian application. Quite the contrary, the suspicion that culture, including moral values, is not to be seen as any sort of impartial court of appeal in deciding, for instance, moral responsibility is a widespread phenomenon. The very insistence across ideological boundaries of ‘left’ or ‘right’ in social thought that culture is not, or not usually, a matter of free choice – often taken to be a mark of its stability – can increase that kind of suspicion. Then the implication results  that means a moral community is not reliable for deciding questions of moral responsibility because its values are, or can be, linked with ideological, i.e., partisan or sectarian, claims.

    The problem of ideology raises a further problem for anyone attempting to make the case that freedom is, in principle, compatible with determination. In any of the arguments referred to above the idea of coercion or compulsion has been implicitly (or sometimes explicitly if we are referring to notions of power or control) extended from straight physical force to include various forms of mental control ranging all the way from direct indoctrination or ‘brainwashing’ to subtle forms of socialisation or character formation (French formation) often thought essential to moral education. As we have seen, a first sign of that sort of extension was already apparent in the thought of Mill; that is, within political economy itself without the further influence of ‘critique’ of political economy in the form of Marxism and theories of ideology generally. The theme of ideology as a partisan or combative force, i.e., the opposite of cohesive or unifying, combines with an extended and diffuse idea of compulsion (extending constraint on freedom from what the classical compatibilist would recognise) to leave our ‘moral’ responses to people’s actions and indeed motives as unreliable in precisely a moral sense. There is no reliable confirmation that ordinary upbringing, education, custom and so on, is to be treated as merely causative of particular persons’ behaviour rather than also compulsive or coercive in some sense. The extreme vagueness of the concepts in this case (there is no clear formulation of where extended compulsion may end, if it ends at all) further highlights the point that the supposed departure in compatibilist thinking that Strawson and Frankfurt were supposed to have achieved may not have been achieved after all.

    Moreover, when attention shifts from the intellectual argument about freedom and determination to democracy in contemporary politics, free choice between alternatives is accepted as an essential prerequisite for democracy to be a reality. For the action of (say) a single party or military dictatorship to have popular acceptance or even approval is not in itself taken as sufficient for democracy or even political freedom to prevail, Frankfurt’s argument notwithstanding. Accordingly, if a Marxist were to argue that the ‘neo-liberal’ consensus in political economy is not subject to a free choice, whether for individuals in seeking a career for example or for electorates facing the question of how to decide on political approaches to (say) the current economic difficulties, that would amount to an argument that democracy does not hold. Such an argument could arise from either a causative or coercive view of ideology, and Marxist interpretations have inclined toward each in different contexts. But an orthodox Marxist position is in no way necessary for such an argument to appear on the political or intellectual scene; as with the following current examples: (a) Liam Fox has said publicly that governments have ‘no choice’ (his words) about adopting policies to promote capitalist growth and maintain profitability. (b) Karen Soldatic of Curtin University, Sydney, (recently working with the Centre for Disability Research at Lancaster University) argues that neo-liberal welfare reform in Australia, the UK, Canada, and elsewhere is designed to tie the disabled into the appointment time frame of contemporary capitalism. In such cases, bearing in mind Marx’s concept of labour time as the measure of labour power and therefore surplus value as extracted from labour, both of the cases put here appear to support a quite deterministic and coercive version of a Marxian critique of current political economy. When put in terms of necessity, the case seems to open the way for a Marxist interpretation in terms of a ruling ideology. However, economists and politicians are likely to disagree about, or be uncertain as to, the nature of that necessity, i.e., whether ‘necessary’ policies are to be understood as being the only ones which, for instance, financial markets would accept or as being the only ones which could be expected to contribute to general (most commonly national) prosperity. Each of these possibilities can be interpreted in either causative or coercive terms. It hardly needs to be said that which way they are understood is of huge importance for democratic theory.

    The aspect of national prosperity sharply illustrates the question of ideology and democracy in relation to patriotism, both at a national and more local level. Does that then turn into a case of determination? The strongly anti-Marxist historian Niall Ferguson plumps, apparently, for an indeterministic view of history (Civilisation, the West and the Rest). He tells us: ‘A civilisation is by definition a highly complex system…civilisations of all shapes and sizes exhibit many of the characteristics of complex systems in the natural world – including the tendency to move quite suddenly from stability to instability.’

    Yet even – or perhaps especially – with Ferguson’s political economy based conception of civilisation it might be impossible to avoid determination creeping back in through patriotism, itself a major theme in the writings of Hegel as well as, for instance, Adam Smith. Perhaps it is too easy to make a case for patriotism being part of something like a ruling class ideology, for instance, by reference to integration between corporations and the state. Examples from 17th century Holland and England to the contemporary scene might be offered in support of the contention that patriotism amounts to an ideology in a fairly coercive sense. Also the kind of evidence Ralph Miliband (The State in Capitalist Society) or the power elite theorists C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite, 1956) and Thomas Dye since 1972 would put forward about social and political networks within political systems identified as democratic might provide additional support. In this sense the ‘neo-liberal’ movement from the 1970s onward appears to have made no difference from the earlier post World War II period when power elite theorists from the 1950s had characterised the elite’s ideological commitments as property, business success, and patriotism, or the political connections between major institutions from politics to academia.

    Strangely, the argument for a coercive interpretation in relation to patriotism becomes suspect with increasing use of private security operators, not only in external military operations as in Afghanistan but also for domestic security purposes. It is here that an orthodox Marxian treatment of the patriotic imperative – as would be invoked in analysis of Fox’s case that the (say) British government must (a factual necessity ‘must’ being claimed here) follow policies favourable to commercial growth – runs into difficulties, which are also difficulties for capitalist market policy. For the use of private security operators, who are in effect mercenaries and convert regular soldiers into mercenaries if they are given command of them, would have been considered dangerous by theorists of patriotism such as Machiavelli or the Jacobins just because mercenaries are less attached to the state or city employing them than a citizen army and therefore less reliable.  (They could cite the G4S affair as a case in point.)

    Now, it has become clear since the Second World War that the sheer destructiveness of modern weapons has placed a premium on adopting economic competition (and sport) as the focus for patriotic pride and loyalty, and that focus actually emphasises the point that patriotic loyalty need not and does not apply only to the state at national or international level but also to localities such as cities and towns, counties, or even neighbourhoods. Indeed, it can even apply to corporations, although patriotism, as the word implies, is typically territorial in nature. Any Marxist standpoint needs to confront here the way patriotism has traditionally been regarded as actually a part of the ‘commons’; that is, those resources available to an entire community which may be both material and immaterial. Of course, the Marxist may challenge that patriotism is or has been appropriated in an exploitative way, but the tradition for seeing patriotism as a grounding for democracy is a long and still active one. Although contemporary conservatives would be happier citing Adam Smith or Burke than Rousseau in support of their endorsement of patriotism, the latter was as readily part of a radical tradition (excluding Marx and most critical theory but including many socialists) which was patriotic in nature and also often received popular endorsement.

    Therefore the question arises as to whether a modernised version of the old idea of the free city or community sustained by patriotic loyalty and pride can be held to be available as a free choice of the people, at least in a compatibilist sense of that term. That is to say, would the people still support policies justifiable by patriotism without any sort of coercion or ideological exclusion of certain choices? This question is perhaps the fundamental one for the relation between freedom or free will and political economy. In the contemporary context it breaks down into three: (i) The question whether a patriot can accept that being tied in to a neo-liberal economy is a price worth paying for patriotic loyalty without subverting that loyalty itself; or (ii) whether there is any viable alternative form of political economy available to the patriot; and, closely related to each of the above, (iii) whether a range of problems including such as people trafficking or global warming as well as more specifically economic issues like inequality or food production will have to be dealt with on a global scale and leave nations or smaller communities in a subordinate role. I would suggest that the answers to these questions would be crucial for the viability of compatibilism as an approach to the free will and determination issue itself.


    1. Although the use of ‘libertarian’ to refer to someone who holds that (complete or liberatarian) free will and freedom does exist should not be confused with other usages of the term, specifically, advocates of free enterprise and free markets in political economy and advocates of free thinking and expression in culture, there is a strong common theme to all the usages. That is insistence that constraints on people’s values and projects are wrong and/or non-existent when properly understood.

    2. The ability of a person (moral agent) to enter a causal chain by her actions may count as a separate argument for compatibilism as well as being linked with insistence that indeterminism does not imply freedom, because it does not provide the control required for freedom.

    3. The change in thinking, particularly about irrationality and lack of discipline, predictability and insecurity, can be traced back to ideas about the unconscious in early psychology and psychoanalysis which appeared in the late nineteenth century. Although writers like Gustave Le Bon and Sigmund Freud still accepted much of the traditional view about irrational behaviour, they also maintained that it is frequently highly predictable and can be a proper subject for scientific study. Freud himself extended the point to include mass responses to leadership, in which the irrational behaviour may be actually highly disciplined. More recently, the behaviourist movement maintained the change of thought, for instance with Skinner’s Predictable Irrationality, and behavioural economics including Dan Ariely has done likewise. At least implicitly, social science generally takes a view of the irrational which runs contrary to traditional philosophical (and religious) thought.

    4. Recent experimental work on the brain’s ‘readiness potential’ (Libet, ‘Readiness potentials…’ 1983-5, 1992) has often been interpreted as disproving any idea of free will, although not so by Libet himself. That is because the brains of subjects were found to show certain changes before the subjects themselves were aware of making a choice. However, the results do not indicate that this ‘readiness potential’ includes a specific instruction to choose X rather than Y, which is what would normally be taken as crucial for freedom or free will. Further, a sheer decision to take part in the experiments would already alert the brain that the extra effort required to make a choice of some kind would be required.

    5. In ordinary use the term ‘hegemony’ is typically a synonym for ‘dominance’, but some writers – notably Antonio Gramsci – have used it to mean something which might be better expressed as ‘leadership of ideas’.

    6. It is true that the word ‘control’ is used to express ordinary cause and effect relations in the natural universe, as when we might refer to the sun’s gravity as ‘controlling’ the movements of the planets in the Solar System, but in human affairs the idea of control normally suggests some kind of conscious direction, as when driving a vehicle.


    1. Desai,  Meghnad, (2002), Marx’s Revenge, Verso, London.

    2. Dye, Thomas, Politics in America,
    —-The Irony of Democracy,
    —-Understanding Public Policy.

    3. Ferguson, Niall, (2011), Civilisation, The West and the Rest, Allen Lane.

    4. Frankfurt, Harry, (1969), ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Philosophy’, Journal of Philosophy, Vol 66,  No. 23, 829-839. Frankfurt has subsequently outlined a theory of ‘bullshit’ and falsehood, thence moving onto truth, a concept not so obvious in his opinion as some might expect.

    5. Goldman, (1970), Freedom of the Will, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

    6. Hume, David, (1748), Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sect. VIII, Part I.

    7. Marx, Karl, (1968 [1852]), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart.

    8. Miliband, Ralph, (2009), The State in Capitalist Society, Merlin Press.

    9. Mill, John Stuart, (1961[1859]), H. B. Acton (ed.), On Liberty, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

    10. Mills, C. Wright, (1956), The Power Elite, Oxford Press.

    11. Soldatic, Karen, Cf. Disability Directory, http://www.net.au.

    12. Strawson, (2008), Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, Taylor and Francis.

    13. Theopedia, An Encyclopedia of Christianity, http://www.theopedia.com.

    14. Thompson (1986), Beliefs and Ideology, Tavistock, New York, London.

    15. Warfield, Ted, (2005),‘Compatibilism and Incompatibilism’, The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Michael J. Loux & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.).

  • Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s