Thursday, June 25, 2009

Question to Leftists: Do you care about freedom?

The travesties in Iran over the past couple weeks, and then today's Supreme Court ruling that said a school-ordered strip search of a 13 year girl suspected of having ibuprofen in her underwear was a violation of power (thank God), have got me thinking a lot about rights. In our discourse we talk about them as rights. The right to reasonable treatment from law enforcement and schools. The right to free speech. The right to assembly. The right to a free press. And I know it's not effective from a leftist perspective to talk about them as rights. But whatever they are, I happen to like 'em a whole lot.

Do you, as a leftist, care as much about these kinds of freedoms as I do? I often get the impression in the leftist blogosphere (sorry, this is really my only contact with leftists), that many leftists do not. It's not that anyone has ever said outright that they don't care about a free press or free speech or freedom of assembly, it's just that the way certain issues are discussed betray a flippant attitude about those freedoms that belies indifference at best (various posts about Iran, for instance).

I know, the concept of freedom has been co-opted as a ridiculous justification for imperialism, as a justification of exploitation, and the list of right-wing abuses of the word freedom goes on and on. But come on, as Wendy Brown argues (and I had to revisit Brown when thinking about these recent events), that doesn't mean the Left should just hand over the freedom rhetoric to the Right entirely. Just because it's been abused and misshaped, doesn't mean freedom itself isn't a principle the left should have an interest in.

I still think the types of freedoms I listed above (and I'd love to add to those, in the spirit of Brown, the freedom to live a healthy and happy life without needing protection from the state) are as essential to me as any economic justice could be.

Let me put it this way (and I'm only putting it in such simplistic terms to gauge how others feel about freedom compared to how I do): If tomorrow you could join in a revolution that was guaranteed to lead to economic equality, educational equality, communal production and an even distribution of resources, but it required curtailing others' freedoms (suppression of free speech, significant propaganda efforts, the shutting down of communication mechanisms to impede resistance) in order to establish this state of the world, would you join in?

I wouldn't. I can't decide if it's because I really care so much about protecting freedoms or I really can't see how any revolution like that could actually be successful if it were put into action without popular support...


Elizabeth said...

I'm going to sound like the cranky, old 42-year-old woman I am, but I don't want it to take away from how much I admire you for bringing up this topic!

When Bush II was ruining our rights under the so-called "Patriot Act," I saw many left-leaning politicians speak out. I also saw leftist discussion boards rail against the changes that allowed eavesdropping and other illegal collecting of personal conversations and information. Librarians stood up against requests to seize books.

However, I did not see any young people speak up. It seemed that older people were more concerned with freedom and privacy issues than young people. I wonder if new media plays a role; many may believe that they have nothing to hide-- nothing until they threaten consumer culture. As long as they pose suggestively, share pictures while they are out at bars or on the beach, and discuss buying stuff and looking good, they can go on and on without a problem. If they start campaigns to challenge capitalism, it is another story.

A good example is Abbie Hoffman. He was a harmless kid until he started to say things that were anti-capitalist, and then the FBI was trying to plant drugs on him and tailing him.

Many of us do not know how un-free we are. Consumer culture does a wonderful job of erasing the radical past.

Also, the idea of a "free press" means that the private individual who owns the media is free to publish whatever he wants. In this way, new media is a good counter measure, and people like you all at pink scare deserve our thanks!

T said...

Your point is well taken. Sometimes leftists eschew the language of rights, and the result is often confusing.

I have qualms about speaking too broadly about "Leftists" for the same reason that I cringe when I read about what a "good feminist" is on Feministing.

There are some on the Left, e.g. some folks at MRZine, some in the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and some people here and there -who take the position that any resistance to Imperialism is worthy of solidarity. There's also the crowd on the Left (those who inherited the legacy of Stalinism (e.g. see the PCF in France, CPUSA, some Maoist groups though not all)) who took a particular position on the Soviet Union. We have to recall that there was immense debate on the Left in the early and middle 20th century about how to react to the Soviet Union. Social Democrats became virulent anti-Communists and sided with Cold Warriors on the Right. Trotskyists claimed that the Revolution was betrayed, and that the Soviet Union under Stalin was either a 'deformed worker's state' at best, a bureaucratic nightmare, or in fact another repressive class society of its own kind (e.g. 'State Capitalist').

Stalinists defended the Soviet Union almost unconditionally, even though many either didn't know the extent of the atrocities being committed. There are still folks on the Left of this ilk today although they are fringe. These are the people who defend China, Cuba, Vietnam and even North Korea insofar as they 'officially' claim to be trying to break with capitalism. No matter their problems, these people argue, they are worthy of solidarity because they are trying, however badly, to create a better society than capitalism.

I happen to think that is complete crap. I think the Trot line that China has "nothing to do with socialism" and that it is a repressive police state is basically correct.

But as far as freedom is concerned, it seems to me that emancipation is the central aim of Leftist politics. In other words, the thought is that Capitalism is exploitative, inhumane, oppressive and unfree. Human needs are subordinated to market relations and profit, relations of solidarity are corroded by callous market competition, and creative development/autonomy is obliterated by mass industrial processes which threaten to colonize nearly all features of social and private life. So as i understand it, some conception of freedom is central.

As Trotsky put it, in order to make the individual sacred, we must destroy the social order which sacrifices her.

The critique of the "Rights of Man" in Marx's "On the Jewish Question" is a fecund text for a Left critique of rights. The argument isn't that rights are just 'ideology' or somehow only an illusion of capitalism. Nor is the argument that rights are bad. Rather, it is that rights, as they function under certain institutions in capitalist society, are insufficient to emancipate humanity. We must remember that Marx/Engels praise Bourgeois Revolutions for tearing asunder Feudal social relations and beginning the process of *political* emancipation, but their view is that it did not go far enough. The problems of contemporary capitalist societies, they think, cannot be solved within the apparatus of the liberal state; political emancipation is not tantamount to human emancipation. Human emancipation cannot be accomplished by conferring certain immunities onto individuals by a State; it would have something to do with radically rethinking the way that society is ordered, the ways that the major institutions of society structure social interactions, the way that we produce and consume, the ways that major decisions are made, the way that the social surplus is produced and distributed.

Anyway this is sketchy, but I'd like to return to this and think about your post more.

T said...

Okay one more sketchy comment-

Try this out. A central problem with capitalism is that the relations of production (e.g. capitalist vs worker) are asymmetrical in terms of power. This central problem here isn't that the worker lacks certain rights qua worker (although this is true... witness that workers are prevented, often through legal means, from even forming unions in the US!). The problem is the relations of production themselves. Production needs to be radically altered and made democratic and free. Marx thinks this is only possible via the self-emancipation of the worker, or rather, the self-abolishment of the worker qua worker. In short, its possible only by changing the fundamental social organization of capitalism.

Rights aren't therefore bad, they're just not up to this job. I'd argue that they are necessary, but not sufficient for emancipation.

Elizabeth said...

I love the last (thick) paragraph of your first post, which is elaborated upon in the follow-up post.

You hit the nail on the head, T.

Arvilla said...

Thank you for both of your comments, Elizabeth and T. I feel like I'm beginning to wrap my head around an issue that at first was just a hunch and a feeling.

I think this point in Elizabeth's post gets at where I'm landing here:
"Also, the idea of a "free press" means that the private individual who owns the media is free to publish whatever he wants. In this way, new media is a good counter measure"

So, I can agree with every radical critique of our usual rights discourse. It isn't enough because even these rights are socially constructed and involve grave imbalances of power. Like, as Elizabeth mentions, the "free" media. But what I notice sometimes is that in pursuit of a better more comprehensive and emancipatory approach than the rights discourse, we obscure what was fundamentally important about the right we eschewed in the first place.

I guess I'd just like to see a lot more talk about freedom out there. And yes, I agree with T, it's crude to just start labeling everyone a leftist and then critiquing everyone and anyone I don't like as if they're a collective brain making one argument. I guess my complaint is just not hearing emancipatory economic arguments from people who are also vocally stressing the importance of maintaining other freedoms along that road.

And then the history of those out-liers T mentioned, the Stalinists, or those who defend Castro 'til his dying breath. It's a reactionary thing to just associate everyone who thinks Marx was a guy worth listening to with those people. And yet, for the purposes of our development of theory and of realizing an actual revolution, it seems necessary to envision how all these freedoms should be working together, and indeed, that they need to be.

This, from T's last post, is great and I'm relieved to see it fits right with my conception of emancipation: Human emancipation cannot be accomplished by conferring certain immunities onto individuals by a State; it would have something to do with radically rethinking the way that society is ordered, the ways that the major institutions of society structure social interactions, the way that we produce and consume, the ways that major decisions are made, the way that the social surplus is produced and distributed.

Emancipation truly is at the heart of a leftist vision of the world. It is. It's a difficult thing to envision what that entirely different social structure would be like (that's what's so impressive about liberal capitalism I guess). But whatever it is, I don't think that violating rights, even if we don't see them as truly emancipatory concepts, can be a part of it.

I also think that from a mainstream political point of view, we'd all be a lot better off if we talked about emancipation and freedom as much as we talk about justice. It is at the core of Marxism. It's what separates Marxism from modern welfare statism. I just can't see emancipation being achieved with coercion.

Oh the rambling...

Elizabeth said...

One thing that I love about marxist discourse is how it encourages us not just to look at the way that freedoms are denied for one class and given freely to another but also how it inspires us to imagine what freedom means when it is not defined by the ruling class.

Personally, I have no problem talking about being a leftist, because it is so degraded in recent years that I am happy when anyone identifies as one. It would change for me, if historical circumstances were as they were, say, in the 1960s, when the style and substance blended to a point where to be cool meant to be left. People on the left suffer from discrimination. I've seen it where I teach; I'm sure that it is worse in a corporate environment. So, when I hear the label, I am heartened, but that could just be my age speaking. I understand your sense of taking better care, however, T and Arvilla.

I like thinking a lot about what freedom could mean, what our lives would look like if, say, we viewed work as something that we give to ourselves and each other rather than something that we do for someone who does not work. It would kind of be like life in Yellow Springs, Ohio, I imagine, home of the radical Antioch College.

Ah, rambling, marxists do that so well-- the joy of conversation and connecting with other people. Now, that might be a nice foundation for a social system.