Making Sense of Freedom

freedom-sign“Freedom” is a word beloved by Americans, both left and right, liberal and conservative. No one in this country would ever explain their own political philosophy by saying, “basically, I’m against freedom.” Even those who wish to control others always present it as a mode of liberation. Everyone argues that they (and generally, they alone) are struggling against a sea of nefarious opponents to deliver true freedom to the world. But if that’s the case, why are we still struggling? If everyone agrees that freedom is good, the good, why haven’t we achieved it? If everyone is for freedom, then no one can be against it–so why is it always receding off into the distance?

And furthermore, isn’t this a rather strange situation, that everyone would agree–in word word, if rarely in deed–that freedom is the proper goal of all human political and economic activity? How is it that Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Marxists, and even Fascists all alike present their programs as struggles for freedom?

Perhaps this is only branding? That is: perhaps only one of these groups is really fighting for true freedom, but the other groups, having seen how popular it is, chose to parrot this in their PR? Even so, such a universal respect for something that so often seems controversial is still hard to explain. Everyone loves freedom, and everyone presents their opponents as the enemies of freedom. What’s going on here?

Considering how many different political groups all champion freedom, it isn’t surprising to find that they each understand the concept somewhat differently. What is surprising is how much continuity there nonetheless is between these various understandings of human freedom. Such a curious situation demands further attention, yet our enthusiasm for freedom has tended to result in less, not more, intellectual scrutiny towards the concept: when everyone agrees about something, it’s not likely to get discussed much. How often do we ramble on and on about how important breathing is?

The fact that these contradictions about freedom simultaneously sit right at the apex of our political culture and yet are simultaneously almost never explored suggests that ideology is at work here. Though in common English, the word “ideology” is generally synonymous with “a system of political and economic ideas”, in certain corners of the social sciences, the word has taken on a more technical meaning. In this sense, an ideology is an existent social system–that is to say, it’s not just a set of ideas, but is actually the social structure that truly pertains in the present–that actively seeks to obscure itself. Ideologies are social systems that maintain their dominance, at least in part, by hiding from plain view.

This may seem odd, but an example can flesh this out. Perhaps that most obvious and oft-repeated one is the claim by defenders of laissez-faire economics that unfettered capitalism is the natural method of allocating scarce resources. Note that word, “natural”. Using this word makes this particular politico-economic system seem to be the given state of affairs–as if if no one chose it, no one in particular benefits from it, and as if no alternatives are really possible. Presenting the current social structure as “natural” is an effective rhetorical tactic. Anyone who argues against such a structure can easily be denounced as uneducated, unrealistic, or immature. Once a given social system is presented–and received by the public–as “natural”, it becomes much harder to challenge. After all, how many political movements oppose gravity? If a system can present itself as inevitable as gravity, it will be nearly impossible to displace.

This is how ideologies function. They press certain contingent social structures onto populations, and then cover their own tracks, convincing a majority of the people living under them that they are natural, irreversible, absolute. And, of course, it’s not only defenders of capitalism that are guilty of this maneuver. Most Marxists argue that only they have a political program developed from an objective understanding of the science of human history; likewise, many religious institutions try to claim that only their view of spirituality reflects human, natural, and divine realities as they truly are.

But what does any of this have to do with the ubiquity–and simultaneous vagueness–of the word “freedom” in western political discourse?

Broadly speaking, especially in the West, “freedom” always has two aspects: it is freedom of the individual, and it is negative freedom. To say that we westerners celebrate “negative” freedom is just to say that we understand freedom as freedom from other people. Freedom of religion means that others can neither prevent nor require my religious practice. Likewise, freedom of speech means that the state may not prevent me from speaking my mind. And this leads to the other aspect: such freedom is always of the individual: it is the individual who can be free, it is the individual who strives to be free. Individuals strive to be free of the state, of natural events, and of other individuals.

One can characterize this understanding of freedom as ideological because it forecloses on other possible understandings of freedom without ever even alluding to the fact that such alternate view of freedom are even possible. During the Cold War, however, Eastern Bloc states made a point of arguing for a “positive” conception of freedom: freedom to certain things, rather than only freedom from certain people or institutions: freedom to work, freedom to health care, freedom to meaningful social interaction, etc.

This critique of a purely negative conception of freedom is therefore not unheard of, even if it is rare in the west and, indeed, utterly absent in any mainstream political discourse. But the second dimension of the ideology of freedom–that freedom is always freedom of the individual, generally receives less attention. Again, “orthodox” Marxist theory has generally critiqued this assumption as well, though perhaps less consistently, and certainly less successfully. By and large, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, most western Marxists have attempted to cast themselves in language that is more friendly to liberal conceptions of freedom (that is, the one we have been discussing above). In fact, this “softer” Marxism runs back into the pre-World War II days, when some intellectual Marxists attempted to present a more humanistic approach to Marxist theory (e.g. Walter Benjamin).

So even the primary pole of opposition to liberal capitalist hegemony has had a hard time sustaining the idea of freedom outside the confines of the individual. And the fact that this dimension of the ideology of freedom has been harder to name and counter makes a lot of sense–opposing a purely negative conception of freedom is easy to do because modern people understand the need for things like work, medical care, and education, and so the idea that freedom could be “for” as much as “from” is easy to grasp, even if it ends up having little actual political traction. But individualism is a much harder nut to crack. The very way in which most modern people understand themselves is through the lens of individuality. We see ourselves, separate people, as the subjects and agents of existence. This extends well beyond the realm of politics. In our romantic lives, in our spiritual lives, in our day-to-day activities, western culture is, through and through, a culture of individual experience and identity. The watchword of the 21st century is, I think, “authenticity”. Authenticity, not to one’s region, or ethnicity, or history, or religion–but to self.

Political projects are understood to be good or bad to the extent that they maximize the potential for individuals to act authentically. But is this the only way to characterize freedom? Is it possible to have a conception of freedom that is social, rather than individual? Of course, the idea of freedom for certain groups is not new–nationalists constantly decry the restrictions on their nations–but this attitude towards freedom is still fundamentally anti-social; that is to say: zero sum. One nation’s freedom necessarily means the loss of rights, property, or power on the part of some other nation.

A truly social understanding of freedom would seek to create social institutions that free people for one another, not just from one another. Such an understanding of freedom would be much harder to articulate than those who have argued for a positive understanding of freedom alongside the negative, because it would require a completely new mode of subjectivity–we would have to know ourselves, and each other, in a new and different way, because the very way in which we understand self and other today already has inscribed in it the zero sum competition of individual against individual. The possibility of freedom with one another has already been foreclosed upon by the reality of our social relations. Only able to witness, and imagine, freedom from one another, we reproduce these social relations in our constant struggle to achieve more freedom for ourselves at the expense of others. We can’t imagine being anyone other than who we are–even if  who we are now is profoundly unfree.


What exactly this kind of social, rather than individual, freedom could mean is not–and, I think, at this time, cannot–be clear. And this is precisely because any change in the understanding of freedom (since this concept is so essential to the very way we understand ourselves, our identities, and the societies in which we live) would result in a completely different way of thinking. At this stage, I think it is only possible to discuss the limits of the current structure of our subjectivity, to continue to whittle away at its foundations. The answer is still well over the horizon–but we can ask the question today.

An example will be illustrative. When it comes to discussions of racial justice, many on the progressive Left are fond of saying that white supremacy is bad for white people as well as for people of color, and that therefore the struggle for racial justice is something that everyone should be able to get behind. Whatever one thinks about the factuality of this claim, it’s clear that the goal of this kind of rhetoric is to produce and maintain a sense of solidarity–that term so much-beloved (and oft-over-used) by leftists. To the extent, the thinking goes, that we can get white people to believe that anti-racist agitation, legislation, and direct action is good for them as well as for their non-white neighbors, we reduce the obstacles to achieving racial justice.

So far as it goes, of course, this makes sense. But there’s a problem: what if many white people realize that anti-racism won’t always benefit them, or that it will benefit them in some ways while harming them in others? Or that it will benefit them in the long-term, but not in the short-term? The problem is that this claim about the universal benefits of racial justice stumbles over the gritty details of our actual social existence. It would be ridiculous to deny that at least some white people benefit some of the time in concrete ways from white supremacy. Indeed, that’s the whole point of deploying the term “white privilege”: white supremacy gives white people real and desired advantages. So which is it? Is white supremacy ultimately a social structure that gives real, material advantage to white people? Or is it an obstacle to the welfare of all people–including white people–and therefore something that we can easily develop solidarity in resistance to?

Of course, I have oversimplified the reality of white supremacy as an existent social structure. The fact of the matter is that some white people benefit far more from others, and that white people in general both benefit in some ways and pay in others. It’s not possible to easily quantify the cost/benefit impact of white supremacy on white people in general or even on specific white individuals. This is especially true for white working-class people, for whom white supremacy provides both benefits–more likelihood of being hired, generally higher wages, much less chance of violence from police, etc.–but also real costs, since a working class divided by race will generate–and very clearly has generated–lower wages, fewer benefits, and less occupational security for all working people as a whole. And of course, this is the perverse genius of racism’s appeal to white workers in the US: it both acts to discipline and impoverish them while simultaneously drafting them to uphold, through political violence against their fellow workers (of color), the very system that limits their political possibilities.

Considering the complex nature of the situation makes it clear that, whatever we would like to believe, simply stating that racism hurts white people and therefore white people should be eager to combat it is imprecise at best, and disingenuous at worst. A more honest call to racial justice would take a different course, especially if one were speaking to middle-class or upper-class whites, whose benefiting from white supremacy is almost completely unalloyed by class costs: “white supremacy helps you, but you should resist it anyway.”

But there is an obvious question that they would raise here: “why should I?” And here our survey of the concept of freedom above is essential. To the extent that we understood the only proper goal of a socio-political system to increase the autonomy of individuals to act in their own interest–so long as this is what we mean by “freedom”–it’s clearly nonsensical to call on (especially middle- and upper-class)  white people to resist white supremacy. They are clearly, and materially, benefiting from the structures of racism. And it must be noted that while poor and working-class whites may actually be able to benefit more clearly from an end to white supremacy in some ways, many of them nonetheless identify so strongly with the accepted notion of freedom that they will respond to calls for racial justice as if they were solidly middle-class: the American “poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires“.  If politics is nothing more than the competition of individuals to maximize their own autonomy and access to property, why would any white individual choose to dismantle such an effective tool as white supremacy?

It is this question, I think, that can function as  crowbar at the site of the contradictions that must be explored here. Most Americans seem to want to both understand themselves as individual political actors and cherish their individual freedom to live their lives unfettered by others but also want to see themselves as moral beings who act in ethically consistent ways. But these two visions of human life are mutually exclusive. To the extent that one believes individual humans to have an absolute right to individual freedom, one cannot maintain the idea that humans might have an ethical responsibility to care for one another. One could, of course, choose, as an individual, to try and live up to some set of moral standards for a more or less arbitrary reason, but such a moral ethics would have no social, political, or philosophical force behind it. It would be a lifestyle choice, not a call to justice.

So, for progressives, leftists, and radicals, which is it? Do we understand ourselves primarily as individuals seeking unfettered freedom of action? If so, it’s hard to see how we can avoid endorsing a more-or-less libertarian view of government action, even if we adopt socially liberal attitudes towards sexuality, drug use, and entertainment along with our laissez-faire economics. Or, do we find ourselves committed to a set of ethical claims about our responsibility to care for each other? In this case, we have a strong intellectual basis in arguing for a more-or-less socialist mode of government, in which individuals sacrifice some degree of arbitrary autonomy in order to create a more just and more equitable society.

If we choose this latter option, though, we will need to think long and hard about what we mean when we say we are fighting for freedom, since the meaning that that word generally has in most of its contemporary uses will, I hope to have shown above, no longer be consistent with our political vision. This is not to say that Freedom and Justice are somehow mutually exclusive in an absolute sense, but rather that this particular understanding of freedom–which is the dominant and default one–is not consistent with our understanding of, and commitments to, social and economic justice. I think there can be a fruitful and mutually-reinforcing intersection of these two ideas as they inform our political and social vision of the future–but I don’t think we’ve arrived at that intersection yet. Instead, we find often find ourselves trying to talk out of both sides of our mouths, as discussed above in reference to leftist discourse around white supremacy.

If we honestly believe that combating white supremacy will materially harm at least some white people (and indeed, all white people in at least some ways for at least some period of time) we should be honest about this and then still call for whites to fight for justice. But this will involve developing a political discourse that sees freedom as one good among many others, rather than the absolute and only political good. The difficulty is that, as I have suggested throughout this essay, most of the time, American political discourse has functioned according to a freedom-first or indeed freedom-only paradigm. All of this is to say that if we want to organize people around social and economic justice, we cannot simply try to insert our content into the form of political discourse that currently exists. If I may be allowed a short Biblical reference: we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Our politics is not just a variation of liberal democracy. We are not proposing some tweaks of and tinkering to capitalism. We are calling for a radically different mode of social, political, and economic organization. We are calling not just for some new political content, but wholly new forms of political life. For a completely different way for individuals to relate to one another. We cannot pretend that such a radical vision can be communicated with the political terms and assumptions of the very system we find so problematic–and yet, generally speaking, this is what we do.

This means that struggling against capitalism will mean imagining a different way not only of working, voting, and allocating resources, but a different way of thinking and indeed of existing as social creatures. Above all else, we need a completely new discourse, a new set of fundamental political terms to build our discussions on. The trouble is that the left in the US seems, more often than not, to simply try and radicalize the terms and assumptions of centrist liberalism, as if one can accept the need for socialism if one simply reads Paul Krugman, and then multiplies his position by ten. But this just isn’t the case. The very basis for what constitutes good and just governance for liberals is completely different than for socialists.

Part of what this means is that we need to be as focused on “theory” as on “action” (though dividing these two things as if they are not mutually interdependent is itself, I think, a faulty mode of thinking). Imagination must be seen as a critical political tool. We have to be able to imagine different ways of living together before we can be expected to work towards them; we cannot arrive at our destination if we have no idea where we are going. Much of what passes for “radical” thought today is, I think, little more than metastasized liberalism. Calls for “social justice” too often simply mask attempts to gain leverage within the structures of capitalist decision-making, rather than attempts to dismantle this system. We have to recognize the limits not only of the outcomes of the systems we are struggling against, but also the conceptual and linguistic foundations upon which those systems are built.

As I admitted above, I will not pretend to have any idea of exactly what structures of thought can replace those which we are struggling to break free from. Many leftists will attempt to build upon the work of Marxist thought; religious progressives and radicals may prefer to build on their own spiritual traditions for clues on how to build new modes of subjectivity. Anarchists and syndicalists will doubtless offer their own critiques (though the essential dimension of individual freedom for this lineage of radical thought must, I think, be admitted and addressed). I don’t have the answer, but I am convinced that we must incessantly, loudly, and seriously ask these questions about the very foundations of our political ethics if we want to have any idea of how to move forward.


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