What is the vision of freedom we want?
There’s a much-watched clip of interview footage from 1968 in which Nina Simone is posed with the question: what does freedom mean to you? She defensively evades the question and turns it over for a moment. “It’s a feeling,” she resolves. She has felt it during performance. “No fear.” Later that year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be murdered. Riots, mourning and grave uncertainty swept across the United States in the wake.
What freedom means to us is an important idea. Personal and political converge there. Relationships, rules, society and the State all afford and restrict freedom to individuals and communities. New fears jeopardise our freedom. Fear of scarcity has been the symptom of late capitalism and the cause of hoarding and deepening economic inequality. Climate crisis looms heavily in our consciousness, if little elsewhere. In the new paradigm, leaving your home brings danger, as does living in close proximity with others, or just trying to do your job. As with everything, the risks apparent in each don’t fall evenly.
In a recent piece for the Intercept, Naomi Klein endorsed a quote from Miltan Freidman, the right wing free marketeer economist: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Their unanimity across the ideological divide makes this statement attractive. So, with freedoms in peril and inequality pervading, let’s ask: what’s lying around?
Two Concepts of Liberty, neither everything
There’s a philosophical distinction between positive and negative liberty or freedom. This was set out by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, delivered in his inaugural lecture at the University of Oxford in 1958, titled Two Concepts of Liberty. Negative liberty is to be ‘free from’. To have negative freedom is to be free from restraint, barriers or obligations: no law prevents doing as we want; we act without fear of sanction; no one threatens or coerces us; no deadline must be met. The person leaving prison has their negative freedom restored. The enterprise or inventor unleashing their novel service into the unregulated market is free.
When I was 14, my parents caught me skipping school and left it to me to hand myself in. The Christian Brothers’ school I attended had no chill. There was a hotly enforced code on hairstyles included in our student journal. Instead of roaming the halls moving between classes, pressurised rooms of twenty to thirty teenage boys boiled in chaos for the five minutes between bells waiting for their next teacher to arrive. Suspensions were commonplace and expulsion was most certainly a thing. A culture of favouritism was blatant too, mostly predicated on sport and academic ability. The vice principal who I confessed to seemed to operate on the harsh-but-fair spectrum. Earlier that week some lads left the grounds during lunch to go to the local Supervalu, a privilege reserved for senior students. She handed down a series of suspensions. Harsh, but precedented, therefore fair. When I explained to her what I’d done, she took a moment and replied quietly that I was going to have detention that Friday, and to not mention it to anyone. Why she offered clemency I can only guess: she probably liked and pitied me. I was academic and effeminate. I had pals but didn’t fit in, and often had more craic with teachers than with my classmates. I think this gets to a predicament about negative freedom, something I can’t square: With my decidedly lesser sanction of detention, was I comparatively free, in the negative sense, or not? It would seem so. But does it not irk that people can enjoy freedoms and suffer constraints unequally or based on arbitrary preference? Is anyone free in a system where rules are evenly applicable but enforced otherwise?
To have positive freedom is to be free to do something, to make choices for ourselves. This idea encompasses being in control of our own fate, as much as possible, free from forces of influence. Berlin described it: “the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s acts of will.” Its self-mastery and self-realisation.
The closing track on Joni Mitchell’s debut album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull, is the wistful, weird Cactus Tree. It’s melancholic and meandering yet fun and lyrically resembles an epic poem for all the worlds and moments it conjures. It traces a series of men, all fallen for a woman, hoping to share their worlds with her: a sailor, a man in a forest, a man who writes letters. Their attractions dazzle, and each tries to tempt her to remain, while, as the song’s refrain explains: “she’s busy being free.” I think Mitchell was cleaving closely to the idea of positive freedom in this song. While the woman loves these men, their company, or what they’ve shown her, “she fears that one will ask her for eternity”, a life of coupling requiring compromise or containment. In a 2017 New Yorker profile, the author writes that Mitchell herself possesses an “impulse toward flight”, and her “essence was non-compliance”. Looking at this through the lens of positive freedom, I wonder whether Mitchell or Cactus Tree’s heroine is really free at all. Is she rather unfree, constrained by her need to resist, her rigorous independence and restlessness? Can we ever truly know the state of another’s self-mastery?
Berlin was wary of being preoccupied with the positive freedom of others. He saw a slippery slope in making value judgments on how free of unworthy influence or unreasoned another’s choice is. If one was in power, this could be ripe for abuse. A political regime could predetermine goals for citizens, for example good public health, or the effective use of land. To arrive at these, certain personal decisions are undoubtedly more effective than others. The Duracell Bunny Minister for Health instructs the nation: go for daily runs. It will make you healthier and will prevent our health system from clogging up with the treatment of illnesses associated with lifetimes of poor fitness. The Freemarketeer Minister for Housing tells Carl Fredricksen, Up’s elderly protagonist, sell your house: it will free up prime land for commercial development which will benefit the economy; its outsized monetary value will benefit you in retirement. Nostalgia and sentiment aren’t helpful influences Carl, for you or for society. The Ministers see that these personal choices benefit the citizens more: If they applied reason, free of unhelpful influences, they would come to the same conclusion, best serving their positive freedom. If a State in exasperation begins to enforce these correct decisions, such paternalism begins to look like authoritarianism. That said, a State cannot avoid affecting positive freedom either. People need to be equipped with the tools of reason, experience and perspective if they’re to make informed choices. Public education, what it contains and the values that underpin it, has been a quiet battleground in the culture war between the forces of conservatism and liberalism. We see it today in the ongoing debate on what should be included in Relationships and Sexuality Education.
One of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga in 1909. He witnessed the Russian Revolution as a boy in Leningrad before moving with his family to England. In a documentary produced by the BBC, Michael Ignatieff plotted an origin story of the philosopher: “his experience of the 1917 revolution and hardship which followed under the Bolsheviks inoculated him forever against the Soviet system. All of his writing can be read as a defence of the individual against the violence of the crowd and the dogma of the party line.” Berlin had been distressed by the way positive freedom had been ceased and distorted by the totalitarian dictators of the Soviet Union. By promoting and ensuring their particular version of self-realization, they claimed to be the true champions of freedom. This leads to a fundamental problem with positive freedom: There was nothing to prevent the enslaved or oppressed from being positively free. They can use their reasoning and value to make logical choices for themselves, once their chosen option is available in the system of oppression. Does this not flout all we believe freedom should be?
Frantz Fanon was a Martinique-born Afro-french philosopher and revolutionary. Having grown up in a colonised community, he challenged the racist assumption that underpinned it, that those oppressed were inferior to those in power, along with their cultures and norms. In his work The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre, 1961) he melds the philosophical and psychological as he charts the effect of colonisation on those oppressed. The understandings of freedoms he provided extended past what he saw as the Western values of individual freedoms, inculcated in colonised communities.
“The colonialist had hammered into the colonised person’s mind the idea of a society of individuals where each person shuts himself up in his own subjectivity, and whose only wealth is individual thought. Now the colonised person, who has the opportunity to return to the people during the struggle for freedom will discover the falseness of this theory.”
Rather than rebuking Berlin’s concept of positive freedom, he says that the context in which a person endeavours for self-mastery is important. Each society, and access to its idiosyncracies, knowledge and values, are prerequisites. Individual freedom is entwined with that of the community.
“[They] … discover the substance of village assemblies, the cohesion of people’s committees, and the fruitfulness of local meetings. Henceforward, the interests of one will be the interests of all. For in concrete fact, everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred — or everyone will be saved.”
Fanon’s argument is that individual freedom isn’t complete. It’s flawed to consider freedom in a way which focuses on an individual autonomous agent, ignoring the ways in which we are embedded and interdependent. His work has many legacies and remains relevant. While those empires are now mostly gone, subgroups still exist in democracies: the disempowered, a minority being outvoted or subject to a legacy of historical injustice, and inequalities in wealth, education, cultural influence or power. Fanon’s two worlds, the colonist and colonised, still exist today.
Freedom as Democratic Equality
Equality is often thought as the counterbalance of individual freedoms. Conservatives say, if individuals exercise freedom, inequalities result. Those on the left agree, and argue for constraints on personal freedom in order to counter these. Anti-discrimination laws preclude an employer’s freedom to refuse to hire someone on account of certain characteristics. Minimum wage laws mean they are not free to pay whatever sum an employee might agree to work for, no matter how measly. Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life”. Society is destined to negotiate a balance between the two.
In 1999, American philosopher Elizabeth Anderson published an article “What Is the Point of Equality?” in which she sought to tear this axiom apart. From her perspective, contemporary philosophy had grown fixated on distribution: moving resources from haves to have-nots. Modern egalitarians saw markets as the forums of freedom, and the welfare state as the sole tool of equality. Anderson argues against this prevailing concept of equality. She coined it “luck egalitarianism”, where the aim of justice is to compensate for the bad luck that befalls people and creates unequals: disadvantages arising from what family, body, skin or gender you started out with, or the unfortunate mishap that injures your position. In the luck egalitarian ideal, there are no inequalities except those that arise as a result of an individual’s poor choice or bad conduct, for which they can be held responsible. It’s a zero-sum game: “people should be compensated for undeserved misfortunes and that the compensation should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.”
Problems arise from the mechanism of justice in this system. Paternalistic systems are put in place to protect people from their own imprudent choices. Pity and condescension are inherent, as those who have to take from the system are deemed inferior. Tongue-in-cheekily, she drafts letters to accompanying social welfare cheques: “To the stupid and untalented: Unfortunately, other people don’t value what little you have to offer in the system of production… Because of the misfortune that you were born so poorly endowed with talents, we productive ones will make it up to you.” The system stigmatises the less fortunate. While levelling out inequalities, it affirms their validity.
Anderson’s alternative, she calls democratic equality. Instead of countering injustices created by fate or natural order, she should eliminate social oppressions, recognising they’re all man made. In her democractic equality, she says “the social conditions of everyone’s freedom are secured, each stands to every other in a relationship of fundamental equality, including equal respect, and all have real freedom to participate in democratic self-government.”
Anderson works eclectically: with historical and empirical methods, she observes problems and solutions in the real world. Looking at the connectedness of freedom and equality at the core of her work, Anderson observed the relationship between the two during abolitionism in the United States. Slavery is both a condition of unfreedom and status degradation, a state of being unequal. American Revolutionary War-era lawyer St George Tucker offered different ideas of slavery: Political, having no right of voice in how laws are made; Domestic, a person being someone else’s property; civil, subjugation in society and deprivation of equal rights. Anderson illustrates the last with the life of Oloudah Equiano a man, who after attaining freedom, was subject to abuse at hands of whites: theft, fraud, violence and attempted re-enslavement. He was helpless in all of this, as emancipation denied former slaves legal standing to seek justice against whites. Do we consider someone so unequal truly free? Brutality and the over-policing of ethnic minorities and other communities today begs the same question.
Equality is a social relationship, not redistribution. People are not equal because they possess the same amounts of resources or opportunities. Rather, as Anderson puts it, people are equal when “each accepts the obligation to justify their actions by principles acceptable to the other”. These principles with how people treat one another scale from the small and personal to the political. Applying this approach of mutual respect, in smaller spaces all the way up to the institutions through which we govern, ensures everyone is equally free.
The 2018 referendum repealing the eight amendment of the Constitution of Ireland to allow for broader access to abortion might be viewed as an exercise in democratic equality. The issue was framed as a differentiation between categories of citizens. Cooperatively, it was our decision as to a legal framework that might permit or prevent the choices we could make. It was a matter of equality, but not of the redistributive ilk. It was a moment of collective self-governance. We agreed the principles that we thought were acceptable to all in our society, here in matters of reproductive rights: dignity, autonomy, trust. There was dialogue and appeals to one another’s empathy. Over decades, this took place in forums both personal and public. This was the obligation to justify our actions: engaging in difficult even painful conversations, expressing our concerns and being open to changing our minds. We have created a situation whereby I am oppressed. My opportunities and choices are not the same as yours, but we have the ability to alter that. We came to an understanding and expressed it in the polling booth.
We’re lucky to have gone through this recently and with such collective dignity. Its success came on the back of others, occasions where we accepted we’re only as free as one another. Our capacity to thrive depends on our ability to respect each other as equals and find means to afford what the other needs. Further challenges are upon us. Knowing this we may just be able to face them down.
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