16 May 2011

The 'Politics of Freedom' Reconsidered

The May 23 issue of The Nation features a number of reader responses to Corey Robin's April 25 piece on the left's need to claim (or reclaim) the "politics of freedom." In simple terms, Robin's hope is that Americans can be convinced to identify freedom with democracy rather than the market, or at least to understand that a citizen isn't truly free so long as an employer has as much control over his life as many now enjoy. Robin has a philosophical point to make, but his argument is mainly in favor of a rhetorical strategy. But reader Roger Carasso from Los Angeles questions Robin's insistence that progressives must emphasize freedom over equality, denying the writer's assumption that the two priorities contradict one another. Carasso notes that "the leftists ... have consistently viewed equality as a requirement of liberty," while "the rightists ... see freedom as requiring inequality."

Two other readers, however, confirm Robin's feeling that progressives approach "freedom" with trepidation if not distrust. Gene Giannotta of Schaumburg IL writes that "Democrats don't need to talk more about 'freedom;' they need to talk about doing what is right." He would rather see liberals "find religion -- not a church but the source of their own deeply held convictions -- and connect through that." But since Giannotta can't find a useful word to define his proposed secular church of convictions, his comment isn't of much help to Robin.

Dan Coleman of Carrboro NC attempts to fill in the blank but overdoes it, insisting on three buzzwords instead of one. "Here in Carrboro we prefer 'stewardship, caring and community," he writes, noting that "'freedom' has little to say to our day-to-day concerns." Coleman describes Carrboro as a progressive oasis, complete with a gay mayor, a surging, welcomed immigrant population, and five locally-owned coffee shops. But tailoring the liberal/progressive/Democratic appeal to Carrboro's apparently enlightened sensibility misses the point of Robin's article, which stressed the need to win over people for whom "freedom" still seems relevant to daily concerns. "Stewardship, Caring and Community" isn't going to carry a swing state. It lacks the force of, say, "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood," and manages to sound patronizing and slightly infantilizing at the same time.

The problem with "freedom" is that, while it sounds simple and straightforward at first hearing, it isn't simple at all. Robin wants to contest the meaning of the word with conservatives (not to mention libertarians), and its meaning is eminently contestable. The right and left really do mean different things when they use the same word. For the left, I'd argue, freedom is understood in relation to necessity. A body isn't free if it labors under necessity, or if it lacks what's necessary for its survival. Freedom, for at least some leftists, is a liberation from necessity, from having to do things for survival's sake or lacking what one needs for survival. Many non-leftists, be they conservatives, reactionaries or libertarians, accept that freedom is conditioned by necessity. For them, freedom is the ability to do what you have to do to survive, within moral bounds, without arbitrary restraint from individuals or institutions. What these groups accept as freedom, leftists may not, while the state those leftists might call freedom would look to others like dependence -- to some the opposite of freedom -- depending on the circumstances. Arguably unrelated to this question is the issue of civil freedom -- the traditional First Amendment rights related to individuals' freedom to participate in government and civil society. Those freedoms have seemingly little to do with materialist considerations, though the commodification of politics definitely complicates things. Some people are satisfied that they're free as long as they can complain about anything they want, but others aren't as easily satisfied. Should they be? For some people freedom is a state of life under law; for others it's an unattainable idea but a usable standard for judging law. For some, freedom is our state before society, politics or civilization; for others, those alone bring freedom into being. It may be impossible to arrive at universal agreement, or even a workable consensus, on what freedom means -- especially when everyone is free to disagree. That doesn't mean that a "politics of freedom" for the left is pointless, but it does mean that its rhetorical or emotional effectiveness is bound to be limited, and that a more effective rhetoric for rallying people to the left might yet be found. I'd be interested in seeing Robin actually try his approach, but I wouldn't stake everything on it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When people talk about freedom, what they are really talking about is a lack of limitations. Whether that be limitations to behavior, dress, profit-making, etc.

True freedom - that is, lack of any limitations, doesn't exist. The closest you can get to it is living in a state of nature with no rules or laws; ie. anarchy.

The most we can aim for is true equality - that is, no one person or group of persons is allowed special dispensations or privileges that the rest of us aren't.

When the average leftist argues with the average rightist over "freedom", what they really are arguing over is who gets to impose what limitations on who.

The Constitution guarantees all American citizens certain basic "freedoms" - of speech, of religion and of peaceable assembly. Of course, there are then limitations put on those freedoms at times.