The Politics of Freedom

“There can and there must be a ‘political hegemony’ even before assuming government power, and in order to exercise political leadership or hegemony one must not count solely on the power and material force that is given by government.”

–Antonio Gramsci

“I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure.  I think part of what’s different are the times.”

–Barack Obama

Less than a month from now the nation and the world will witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States.  This quadrennial political ritual is an eagerly anticipated event not only because it represents the inauguration of the first person of color to lead the American nation-state, but also because it symbolizes the opening of a new chapter in the evolution of the American experiment with democracy.

Along with the heightened anticipation and expectation surrounding the presidency of Barack Obama come a daunting number of political obstacles that will, to put it mildly, challenge the incoming administration.

With a deepening and ever widening crisis in global capitalism eroding the life savings and life chances of millions of Americans – not to mention increasing levels of global inequality, poverty, and marginalization – coupled with a foreign and domestic policy agenda that have more needs than resources (and political will) to meet them, the Obama-Biden administration will inherit the reins of a political system that is perilously close to a legitimation crisis.

The current configuration of political power and economic and public policy impossibility is due in no small part to the financialization of capitalism – where all that is solid truly melts into air – America’s perennial wars of containment/security, and the rise of a professional political class that has colonized the very discourse and practice of public policy and politics.  Of course one would be remiss (if not outright irresponsible) not to mention the rogue regime of Bush-Cheney that has intensified and exacerbated these tendencies over the last eight years.

But every presidential inauguration presents the occasion to change the political discourse and refashion a political agenda to respond to the needs of “the people” as expressed and interpreted by the election results.  In this regards, the upcoming presidential inauguration represents another such occasion with the potential for an (in)finite difference.

Indeed, political commentators from the hesitant progressive left to those from the dedicated left have called for the organization and mobilization of a nation-wide grassroots effort to hold the new administration’s “feet to the fire” in developing public policies that are aimed at meeting the most pressing needs for those on the underside of American democracy.  While these efforts are admirable and well intentioned, grassroots movements are not immaculately conceived and do not just miraculously materialize out of thin air.

One of the tragic flaws that these calls exhibit is an almost mystical faith in the power of organizations and associations that operate within the realm of civil society.  The broad left often fails to realize that civil society is, as Gramsci reminds us, a “dialectical unity” with political society.  That is, political actors and organizations in civil society do not operate absolutely outside of the social, economic, and ideological dictates of political society.  Is there any reason why over the last three decades we have witnessed the delegitimation of the state as well as state initiatives by those forces on the left in concert with the rise of the conservative assault on a nominal American welfare state?

To call for a grassroots movement whose political agenda is set by the machinations of formal electoral politics is to miss the explosive potential of a motley crew of community, human rights, labor, and social service organizations in challenging the agenda of political elites and inaugurating a new political agenda in the interests of those who fall outside of the symbolic imaginary of “the people.”  This is one of the major arguments of my new book, A Noble Fight:  African American Freemasonry and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which analyzes the ways in which African Americans used the language, symbols, and institution of freemasonry in advancing an alternative conception of American democracy.  Instead of serving as a vehicle purely for incorporation into a flawed political experiment, African Americans pressed this voluntary association into service in contesting the very grounds of what constitutes the political in American society.

In his acceptance speech, President-elect Obama stated, “But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you.”  If we accept the proposition that the election represents a victory for those not only assembled in Grant Park or in front of their television screens on that November night, but all the people, then the upcoming inauguration represents the occasion for the instantiation of a politics of a different order.

To be sure, such a politics necessarily escapes the calculus of the ritual life that governs politics proper.  Thus, it eschews a liberal nationalism that reinforces the myths that sustain American empire in its desire to usurp and (re)direct the martial nationalism of the recent past.  It does not prioritize process over substance while neglecting principled theory in favor of pragmatic tactics.

If we were to name such a politics, it would travel under the banner of the politics of freedom.  The politics of freedom enacts the very real conditions of possibility for transcending the constraints and limitations of dominant forms, frames, and ideas of politics.  It radicalizes the panoply of already existing progressive coalitions and organizations in leveraging their collective power in inaugurating a people’s agenda for change.

Such an agenda includes not only the basic necessities for life such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s project for a guaranteed living income, but also free basic health care, affordable housing, and a robust social service public infrastructure empowered to satisfy the needs of all Americans.  Moreover, a people’s agenda for change catalyzed by the politics of freedom recognizes that US domestic policy cannot undergo a revolutionary transformation without an end to the policies and practices of American empire abroad.  Such a political transvaluation is not effected by renewed calls for “American leadership” – a convenient euphemism for the continuation of American dominance – but by a new vision of an interrelated world community that prioritizes the lives of people over power based on the principle of cooperation and not competition.

In the March 5, 1865 edition of the New York Herald, a writer covering the second inaugural of President Lincoln observed “A lodge of colored Freemasons was noticed among the Masonic and Odd Fellows’ lodges in the procession.”  As a cold and steady rain soaked the crowds assembled to witness this political ritual in a still divided nation, these Freemasons embodied the politics of freedom as they announced a radical reconfiguration of the American polity and a new meaning of democracy in America.

While their attempts were stymied by the betrayals of Reconstruction, January 20, 2009 marks a new opportunity to take up the politics of freedom in our time and inaugurate a truly radical democratic society of the people, by the people, and, most importantly, for the people.

COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight:  African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America.