Tuesday morning, while drinking my cup of orange juice, I had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing the ‘Free Country’ clothing ad on television. The song was going through my head for an interminable hour afterward… ‘Everyone wants to live in a free country, F.C., free country…’ When I watched the hour of lies that was the State of the Union address later that night, it seemed as if I had come full circle. ‘Free people will determine the course of history’.
This is a sentiment that I espouse in my being everyday. I must confess, the roots of my ethical and political beliefs all rest in people like Kant and Marx. I am a universalist, at least in my imagination. However, I experienced an extreme episode of cognitive dissonance when I witnessed George Bush declaring that ‘free people will determine the course of history’.
It immediately brought me back to the jingle of the morning. Far too many people in this country conflate ‘freedom’, the fundamental philosophical category of humanist thought, with ‘the ability to buy things’. By converse, ‘the ability to buy things’ means one is free. Unfortunately, this demographic not only includes the ‘the many’ residing in the US, but the leadership of our ‘free country’ as well. It begs the question, so often ignored by most of us, “Are ‘we’, the ‘free country’ people, really free?” And the requisite ancillary question, “What is freedom?” The first question can only be answered by the second.
So, what is freedom? Like most concepts governing our lives, there is nothing definitive in the popular lexicon. As we slog our way the through history, the content of the idea of ‘freedom’ continually shifts, often whimsically. Some would trace the origin of the concept to theological musings on the Christian notion of ‘sin’. Augustine comes to mind with his development of the negative idea of ‘free will’ as the capacity to sin. However, if one looks at the concept as it was formalized through the renaissance and modern ages, it is clear to me that its origin actually rests in Protagoras. The famous fragment ‘of that which is, that it ‘is’, humanity is the measure’ is the ground of all later humanism. With these words, Protagoras begins to articulate the ‘modern’ idea of humanity, namely that freedom is the essence of humanity. And what that freedom ‘is’, is precisely the ability to determine the world.
Kant developed this idea even further. As it is the essence of humanity to determine the world, the power of determination, i.e. reason, is therefore universal. If it is universal, it is common to humanity. Thus, when we use our reason to determine political and economic structures – when we determine the world – these structures must meet the demands of universality. These structures must treat each individual as universal. The favoring of one individual or group over another would render our determinations irrational by failing the demand of universality. Knowledge must be common. The earth must be common. Privilege of any sort must be overcome in order to develop rational institutions. Freedom can only be achieved when every individual is able to realize freedom as its own nature.
It is in Marx that we find the most expansive treatment of the idea of freedom. As a universalist, Marx intuitively accepts Kant’s equation of reason and freedom, but as a dialectician he can’t help but notice that reason is an historically imminent phenomenon. It shows itself in a variety of guises throughout history. In fact, history is actually the story of its unveiling. And this unveiling occurs through conflict – most notably the conflict implicit in economy. As various historical ‘relations of production’ rise and fall people become distinctly more aware of reason, freedom as their essence. However, the true impediment to its realization remains latent, that is until the emergence of capitalism. Capitalism reveals freedom as the essence of humanity, but also shows economy itself as the true impediment to freedom’s realization. Within capitalism we have an economy in which we sell our labor. On the one hand, through the selling of labor one realizes the individual as master of its domain. On the other hand, because economy itself demands self-alienation, one comes to the truth that economy prevents the realization of freedom. One understands that economy is hierarchical in its very nature – privilege will always be protected, rational institutions are rendered impossible. And the root of the problem comes to light: scarcity. Through capitalism, humanity understands that until scarcity is conquered, economy will always exist and we will not be able to realize our nature as free.
So what then is freedom? It is our essence, the ability of determination, reason. It is also our goal – something unachieved as long as we live within the confines of economy. But most importantly, it is the process by which we achieve its realization. Freedom is an activity – the activity of its own realization. If then, we are to say that ‘we are free’, we must be engaged in the activity of making freedom possible. We must be seeking the solution to scarcity, not making the problem worse. We must be seeking to undermine privilege, not strengthening its cancerous spread. The last thing we should be is a consumer. Consumerism in both foreign and domestic policy only proliferates structures that prevent freedom’s realization. Consumerism drives economy.
I would like to believe that ‘free people will determine the course of history’. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a free country. And ‘free country’ clothing certainly isn’t helping to make people free.
KURT LEEGE can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org