Friday, August 6, 2010

More on Freedom

Those on the Right are promiscuous in their use of the language of freedom. This is not a new trend. Bourgeois revolutionaries intent on overturning feudalism in order to expand the power of industrialists and merchants made frequent use of it as well. But though the elites professed to struggle on behalf of liberty against the ossified hierarchies of feudal societies, there was always a vast gap between their rhetoric and the reality they defended. This gap did not go unnoticed by the oppressed and the poor.

Take the English Revolution. It's a popularly held, but false and ideologically distorted, view that the English Revolution was waged on the basis of broad agreement among a mass of "people" who all shared the goal of smashing feudalism and replacing it with a regime of liberty. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Christopher Hill makes extremely clear in his wonderful, politically sharp The World Turned Upside Down, the reasons that the poorest and most oppressed members of English society had for revolting were far different from those of Bourgeois leaders who wanted to establish capitalism. Hill writes:
Within the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century which resulted in the triumph of the Protestant Ethic -the ideology of the propertied class- there threatened another, quite different, revolution. Its success 'might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic.
Political formations among oppressed classes, such as the Levellers, the Ranters, etc. were inspired to revolt on the basis of resistance to both the aristocracy and the emerging capitalist class. They threatened to carry the ideas (freedom, equality, democracy) through to their full realization, which would've meant all of the things Hill mentions above: rejecting the elite rule of capitalists, smashing private ownership of major productive assets, establishing wide participatory democracy over against the top-down structure of industrial capitalism, etc.

This is just to say, even during the paradigmatic Bourgeois revolutions in Europe, the supposed birth place of the values often abused in the defense of capitalism, we find that there were large swaths of people who took the idea of freedom seriously, but did not think for a moment that this idea could be realized under capitalism. On the contrary, they took themselves to be struggling against ruling classes as such, whether they be the old Aristocracy or the new capitalist class.

There are plenty of other examples: anti-colonial struggles in the 20th century, the black liberation movements of the 1960s in the US, the New Left student movements that rocked the world in 1968, the womens' liberation movement, Stonewall and the movement to smash glbt oppression, etc. All of these movements, in one way or another, took the idea of emancipation, of freedom, quite seriously. They thought it actually meant something more than the ability to choose between Wheaties and Cheerios; they were all inspired by the goal of smashing certain social relations of domination. They were interested in freedom from the weight of oppressive institutions, social norms, dominant groups, etc.

With such a politically rich history, it's frustrating that the neoliberal Right has attained a near monopoly on the language of freedom. We can't allow them to get away with this. We can't allow neoliberal ideology to distort the way we think about freedom, nor can we retreat and concede the concept to right-wingers. In truth, neoliberals ("libertarians", capitalist-apologists, whatever) have no ground to stand on when they talk about freedom. Their view is riddled with contradictions, it is self-undermining. You can't say you stand for "individual freedom", as "libertarians" say they do, and propose a social order that subordinates all individuals to the alienating machinery of profit and growth for growth's sake. You can't say you stand for individual liberty and defend a social order that leaves the vast majority of people in chains. The fact that the Right can speak the language of freedom and keep a straight face is remarkable. This needs to be challenged.

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