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Janus, the Meaning of Freedom, and Striking West Virginia Teachers and Staff

With the Janus vs. AFSCME case now before the Supreme Court, the deep-pocketed corporate right wing has been pressing its anti-union agenda. One such group raised the argument in a mailing to public sector union members that by abandoning their union “you will have more freedom.” In particular, they added, people not in the union could not be punished for refusing to strike if the union voted to go out.

With the same logic the right wing has argued that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, meaning that non-union members will no longer be required to pay “fair share” fees to the union to cover the costs of representing them in collective bargaining, individuals will have even more freedom. They can choose not to join the union and entirely escape shouldering the burden of union expenses.

But these arguments make only a modicum of sense if the most poverty-stricken conception of freedom is assumed. In fact, when this conception is carried to its logical conclusion, it entangles individuals in a web of contradictions and in the end leaves them with less freedom.

The 17th century European Enlightenment supported the emerging capitalist economy because it promised to produce far more wealth than feudalism. Accordingly, Enlightenment philosophers crafted a worldview that was directly aimed at legitimizing this new economic system, arguing that humans are naturally individualistic and intent on the pursuit of their own private interest. While feudalism stifled these impulses by refusing to allow class mobility, capitalism mirrored this nature with its emphasis on individual competition and self-promotion. As a result, the early Enlightenment defined human freedom as the ability of the individual to pursue self-interest.

But as the Enlightenment progressed into the 18th century, philosophers began to confront the shortcomings of this definition. Simply following one’s individual impulses can result in new forms of slavery where the person feels incapable of resisting base desires. For this reason Rousseau distinguished “civil” or “moral” freedom, based on rationality, from the “natural” freedom of obeying one’s impulses and desires. The former, in Rousseau’s opinion, was far superior:

“We might also add that man acquires with civil society, moral freedom, which alone makes him the master of himself; for to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law that one prescribes to oneself is freedom” (The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter 8).

Rather than yielding to our desire to steal our neighbors’ property, which would condemn us to endless conflicts with one another, we decide that because I would not want my neighbors to steel from me, I will refrain from stealing from them. By agreeing to live according to reasonable precepts, we can harmonize our relations with one another and engage in the individual pursuit of wealth without fear of our property being stolen.

But for Rousseau, in the final analysis reason was a capacity exercised by autonomous, basically isolated individuals.

Hegel took this analysis a step further and argued that reason is inherently social. The isolated individual has no assurance of attaining truth but needs the confirmation of others:

“Since the man of common sense makes his appeal to feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he only has to explain that he has nothing more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself. In other words, he tramples underfoot the roots of humanity. For it is the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds” (Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit).

In other words, we attain rationality by arguing and seeking agreement with one another, not by consulting some inner feeling of certitude within our individual consciousness.

For Hegel, then, freedom is inherently social: “Only in such a manner is true freedom realized; for since this consists in my identity with the other, I am only truly free when the other is also free and is recognized by me as free” (Philosophy of Mind).

Marx adopted Hegel’s rational and social definition of freedom but took it one step further, since Marx was intent on not merely understanding the world but on changing it. The isolated individual is not in a position to alter, let alone revolutionize, the fundamental social relations of the surrounding society. But many individuals can take control of society and steer it in a new direction if they act collectively.

Critical of the type of philosophy based on the fetishism of the individual, Marx argued that with Rousseau and others, “It is a question of the liberty of man as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself… [where] liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself.”

In opposition to this conception Marx insisted, “Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by blind forces of Nature” (Capital, Volume 3).

“Rationally regulating their interchange with Nature” can only mean for Marx that people collectively and rationally discuss their options, debate different points of view, and then democratically decide which direction to take, with the goal of advancing everyone’s interests. Under capitalism, the corporations alone make these decisions with disastrous consequences: they are threatening the welfare of the planet by prioritizing their own profits over the well-being of everyone else.

Returning to the Janus decision, while it might be true that the isolated individual will have the “freedom” not to strike, these people will probably not have the freedom to strike. Lacking membership in the union, they will have lost the opportunity to join union-organized discussions where they could urge their coworkers that a strike is the most sensible option. Moreover, isolated individuals are far more likely to mistake where their true interests lie. They have withdrawn themselves from important sources of information coming from the union and from other union members.

More importantly, the isolated individual is incapable of challenging the social relations in the surrounding society, including relations of domination and discrimination. The civil rights movement was successful because of the hundreds of thousands of people who participated. A lone individual is powerless in this arena. When freedom is defined as the property of an isolated individual, society’s oppressive relations of power remain unchallenged.

Which takes us to West Virginia where real freedom has been exercised. With almost the lowest salaries in the country and ever-rising health care costs, teachers and staff opted to wage an illegal strike rather than accept the status quo. The power they wield is directly proportional to their numbers. This is a strike that was initiated among the rank and file communicating with one another on Facebook and at work. And they are having an impact.

When the governor finally agreed to a 5 percent salary increase, after saying it was impossible, and to the creation of a task force to investigate rising public sector health care costs, the union officials, heralding a victory, announced to their members the strike was over – that teachers and staff would be returning to work. But the members had other ideas. They were angry that nothing was guaranteed. The 5 percent raise had to be approved by the state legislature, but it made no commitment. The creation of a task force offered no guarantees about the outcome.

The members began yelling at the union officials: “We’re not going back for that.” And then the chanting began: “We are the union bosses!” And they complained about the lack of democracy because they were not consulted about the decision to end the strike.

Teachers and staff proceeded to meet in their separate counties to decide whether to return to work or remain on strike. Across the state they were in discussions. And then, one by one, county by county, they voted to continue the strike.

The strikers are collectively deciding their own fate and making history in the process – empowered by their common resolve, their democratic procedures, and their solidarity. No one could convince them for a second that they would be freer with a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Janus where they will have the freedom to act as isolated, disconnected individuals.

The entire union movement would do well to pass resolutions and hold rallies in support of the strikers and send financial contributions. With universal solidarity unions could deal a crippling blow to the Janus supporters.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

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