How We Lost Our “Freedom”

In the wave of protests sparked by Grand Jury acquittals of the policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the word “freedom” is seldom heard.

It was different in the Civil Rights era. Then “freedom” was the watchword of the entire movement.

Meanwhile, in his campaign to retain his Senate seat in Kentucky – and ultimately to become Majority Leader of the Senate – Mitch McConnell’s handlers put out a bumper sticker that read: “Coal. Guns. Freedom. Team Mitch.”

Michael Tomasky, who wrote about this in the New York Review of Books, also pointed out that Team Mitch campaigned tooth and nail against the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.   The local version,“Kynect,” the state exchange established under the Affordable Care Act, has been unusually successful in signing up uninsured Kentuckians, and is widely popular.

Early in the campaign, it looked like McConnell would have a hard time defeating his Democratic rival, Alison Grimes. Grimes was careful to keep Obama at a distance, and she had nothing good to say about Obamacare. But she wasn’t careful enough; McConnell won handily.

In view of Kynect’s popularity, how could Team Mitch have gotten so much mileage out of running against it? The explanation speaks volumes about the Republican base. According to Tomasky, in an NBC News-Marist College poll conducted last spring, only 22% of white Kentuckians said that they opposed Kynect, while 60% said they opposed Obamacare. Shades of the Tea Party demand that the government keep its hands off Medicare!

In making Obamacare repeal their main war cry, was Team Mitch cynically exploiting the ignorance and befuddlement of Republican voters? “You betcha,” as Sarah Palin would say.

On that bumper sticker, where space was a priority, “freedom” functioned, at least in part, as a code word useful for conjuring up that ignorance and befuddlement. The thought, if it can be called that, is that because the Affordable Care Act exacts fines on people who do not purchase health insurance, it makes them less free. In other words, Obamacare commodifies health care, but it doesn’t commodify it quite enough.

So understood (or misunderstood), “freedom” fits nicely with “coal” and “guns,” when they too are used as code words — for the economic and cultural anxieties of the people whose votes McConnell sought.

Bravo for Team Mitch. They came up with a brilliant slogan; brilliantly slick. American political discourse has become so degraded in recent years that “freedom” is now fits in nicely with “coal” (or “drill, baby drill” in oil states) and “guns.” Team Mitch was on top of this development, and took full advantage of it.

It wasn’t always so; “freedom” used to belong to us. It was the watchword of the Civil Rights movement and of the black power (or black liberation) movement that followed.   On the left, “freedom” – or “liberty,” the words are synonymous – was prominently and rightly paired alongside equality and fraternity (solidarity, community).

Opponents of the Vietnam War established a Peace and Freedom Party. [And thanks to the chronic sectarianism of the Left, there was a Freedom and Peace Party as well.]   Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the leading organization of the student left at the time, demanded “a free university, in a free society.” Second-wave feminists fought for “women’s liberation.” The word was linked inextricably to so many good causes.

This seldom happens anymore; now the word belongs to them — to Mitch McConnell and his ilk.

It is a great loss; and not only because words are weapons, and “freedom” is an especially powerful word.

* * *

In Greek and Roman antiquity, “free” denoted a legal status; the opposite of “slave.” Independent political entities were also “free.” This usage never quite dropped away. Irish republicans, seeking independence from Britain, struggled to establish an “Irish free state.”   The national liberation movements of the latter half of the twentieth century shared this understanding.

In time, the underlying idea overflowed its origins. “Free” came to mean “independent” or “undominated,” irrespective of legal status. This was one of the ways it was understood when hundreds of thousands of African Americans and their allies in the Civil Rights movement marched for “freedom.”

Many of the most important political theorists in Europe in the early modern period understood freedom this way too. The strain of political theory they produced is called (small-r) “republican.”

The name is apt because, in addition to supplying its idea of freedom, the Roman republic, along with certain Greek city-states, inspired its leading thinkers’ visions of ideal political arrangements and their understandings of civic virtue. In recent decades, republican political theory has undergone a modest revival.

Meanwhile, along with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society, another – different, but not necessarily incompatible – way of thinking about freedom developed. Also drawing on ancient precedents, seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers came to understand freedom as negative liberty.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) epitomized this way of thinking when he characterized freedom as “the absence of external Impediments.” One is free, Hobbes thought, to the extent that one is free from coercive interferences. The larger the area of non-interference, the freer one is.

Classical (eighteenth and nineteenth century) liberalism, essentially the libertarianism many Republicans nowadays champion, made this understanding its own.

The classical liberals had an austere view of what counts as a liberty-restricting interference. They focused mainly, if not exclusively, on deliberate interferences imposed by political authorities.

Therefore, in their view, institutional impediments are no more liberty restricting than physical inabilities.

Individuals are unable, but not unfree, to do what is physically impossible – to walk through walls, for example.

Thanks to an entire nexus of property rights and related institutional practices, unemployed workers, say, are unable to put themselves back to work by buying their own factories. But, in the classical liberal view, they are free to do so, just as they are free to walk through walls.

For the first liberals, what joins institutionally induced inabilities to pure physical inabilities is the fact that the state plays no direct role in either.

As time went by, classical liberals came to regard non-state societal interferences as liberty restricting too. But, even then, institutional impediments, such as the ones that put buying factories beyond the reach of workers, get a pass because, notwithstanding the fact that they are consequences of the (often deliberate) activities of others, they do not expressly aim to prevent persons from doing what they want.

It should go without saying that, in most times and places, this view of freedom rings hollow.

Negative liberty contrasts with positive liberty – freedom to do what one wants. The connections between these two concepts of liberty vary. Sometimes, the freer one is in the negative sense, the more able one is to do what one wants. Sometimes, the opposite is the case.

There is therefore no reason in principle why restrictions on, for example, what can be bought and sold cannot be freedom enhancing in the positive sense. Libertarians who think that the more we commodify, the freer we are, are either confused or else wedded to an inadequate understanding of what freedom involves.

Americans are said to be “exceptional” for wanting markets to do as much as possible of what states would otherwise do. A predilection for keeping the state small is supposedly built into the national character.

This is certainly true of the self-identified libertarians who populate the Republican base. Somehow, though, this penchant of theirs coexists with an equally prodigious fondness for the military and the police, and tolerance of state surveillance. Evidently, “small” doesn’t always mean small.

Is this hypocrisy or incoherence? Probably a little of both, though it hardly matters. Neither does it matter that even thoughtful libertarians would be hard pressed to say what is so great about freedom from state interference – except insofar as it can be helpful for making individuals freer in the positive sense.

These things hardly matter because most voters who get drawn into the libertarian fold are not concerned with logical consistency or even with making sense.   For them, it is all about identity.

What they care about is projecting know-nothing, “rugged individualist” personae. In their minds, they are the ones who make it on their own, asking nobody, especially not the state, for anything — unlike the welfare queens of Ronald Reagan’s imagination and their predatory teenage sons.

They see themselves as polar opposites of the “effete intellectual snobs” Spiro Agnew used to rail against, and they are proud of it. The more they piss off liberal crybabies, the happier they are.   Philosophy couldn’t be farther from their minds.

Of course, there are also politicians and pundits who are libertarian ideologues, and well-funded libertarian think tanks abound. There are even academic precincts where libertarianism thrives. The libertarian world is not entirely without “sweetness and light.”

Philosophically inclined libertarians can be clever and fun to debate in much the way that theologians are. But, for clarifying what freedom is and what it involves, they have done more harm than good.

Not only have they encouraged the dissociation of positive liberty, freedom to, from negative liberty, freedom from; they have also diminished the latter concept, relegating entire strains of twentieth century liberal theory to the margins of popular consciousness.

The fate of the last two of Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” – freedom from want and freedom from fear (the others are freedom of speech and of worship) – are cases in point.

The thinking behind them owes much to the same early modern conceptions of liberty that libertarians draw on. In their own way, they are negative liberties too.

But the libertarian purchase on negative liberty has crowded them out. This is why they hardly come up nowadays even in contexts where they are plainly applicable – for example, in discussions of austerity politics and the surveillance state.

The negative liberty Team Mitch et. al. esteem has nothing to do with ridding humankind from want or fear. Instead, it has everything to do with Ronald Reagan’s widely quoted dictum: that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

A strong state would be needed to advance FDR’s freedoms. This is the last thing McConnell and others like him want.

They want freedom from government interference for its own sake.

They are not directly concerned with maximizing individuals’ abilities to do the things they want, unless what they want is to engage in capitalist market relations; and, to the extent that they care about making individuals’ lives better, their concerns barely intersect with their dedication to minimizing “External Impediments.”

There are chains of argument that connect positive liberty with autonomy. The gist is that having ends realized (desires satisfied) is morally significant only insofar as those ends are autonomously formed.

By identifying freedom with autonomy, political conceptions of freedom connect to moral philosophical notions of responsibility and to metaphysical and even theological understandings of free will. On the austere libertarian view, these linkages are effectively blocked.

Nevertheless, loftier conceptions of freedom do intersect with libertarian concerns in ways that may not be readily apparent, even to libertarians.   Libertarians free ride off them.

The word is politically charged.

This is why, since even before World War II, American public diplomacy has represented the United States as the “free world’s” indispensable bulwark, and America as the Land of the Free.

On any plausible understanding of “freedom,” except perhaps the libertarian’s, this claim is, at best, an exaggeration. No matter.   By arrogating the word and its positive associations, America gets bragging rights it can put to use at home and abroad.

It is the same for libertarian ideologues intent on mobilizing the hapless souls who find their doctrines appealing.

This partly explains too why the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, among others, wrapped themselves so conspicuously in the idea.

They also had reasons that have more to do with political morality than with public relations.

By using the word as they did, activists made connections evident between, say, freedom riders and freedom summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and so on, on the one hand, and the continuing struggle against slavery and its aftermath, on the other.

Ironically, in helping to move the country forward, they reunited “freedom” with its original meaning.

The wave of protests set off by the decisions of the Ferguson and Staten Island Grand Juries don’t seem, at first glance, to fit into that protracted anti-slavery narrative. This may partly explain why the protestors hardly mention “freedom.”

They do talk a lot about “justice,” instead. They are right to do so, though perhaps not for the reasons they think.

According to most, but not all, important theories of distributive justice, in a society that distributed income and wealth more equally than ours does, the least well off would be better off than they now are, and their situation would be improving rather than deteriorating, as it now is.

This would vastly diminish the likelihood of the kinds of events witnessed in Ferguson and Staten Island. Except in circumstances brought on by acute political or ideological exigencies, police tend to oppress only those who are much worse off materially than average citizens like themselves.

Racial animosities can and do counteract this tendency, but it would be fair to suppose, nevertheless, that were everyone as well-off as justice requires, no one, regardless of race, would endure unremitting police oppression or, be susceptible, for no good reason, to police violence, much less to death at the hands of police. And how likely is it, in those circumstances, that the police would enjoy de facto immunity from criminal prosecution?

Injustice is the root of the problem, but the immediate problem, the problem that has brought the Ferguson and Staten Island protesters into the streets, has more to do with freedom than may appear; not the freedom that Team Mitch promotes, but the freedom that contrasts with slavery.

To be a slave is to be subject to the will of another. Insofar as freedom is autonomy, slavery is freedom’s opposite.

Like inanimate tools, slaves are means for their masters’ ends. This is why, in their masters’ eyes, they are unworthy of respect.   And it is why they get no respect in general inasmuch as the ideas of the rulers are generally the ruling ideas.

The police are not anyone’s masters; they too are agents of their masters’ will.   They are the slaves that keep the other slaves, especially the ones beneath them, in line.

They are therefore feared – not so much by those they really do “protect and serve,” but by those they keep down.   Ultimately, however, they too crave the respect they are not accorded.

Naturally, this has psychological effects. Sometimes these effects are internalized; then the police officer’s humanity suffers.   Sometimes, they are taken out on others — especially those who are below them in the social and economic hierarchy. In societies like ours, where institutional racism keeps African Americans and Hispanics down, and where racist attitudes flare up periodically, it is easy to predict who then will suffer most.

In this sense, the anti-slavery narrative is continued in the Ferguson and Staten Island protests, after all.  Emancipation was a great leap forward, but slavery’s integuments remain.

Martin Luther King famously said: that “the arc of the moral universe … bends towards justice.” Indeed it does – slowly. It is not there yet, however; not by any means.

And so, the struggle that opposition to New World slavery began, a freedom struggle in the truest sense of the word, persists to this day.

The freedom that has yet to be realized has nothing to do with coal or guns or any of the other obsessions of America’s most benighted; and it is certainly not the freedom promoted by the politicians who seek their votes. They have only hijacked the word.

The time is past due to take the word back from the Team Mitches of the world – along with the loftier ideas associated with it.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).