Friday, June 16, 2017

The Meaning of Freedom (1973)

From the May 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

What is liberation? The words which need most careful use are, usually, those which are thought to be above it. In an essay on George Orwell published in 1948, George Woodcock remarks how Orwell continually talked of brotherhood, justice, decency and so on without ever giving specific meanings: they spoke for themselves. A minute’s thought over the everyday corruptions of those terms will show that they do nothing of the kind. Freedom is another. Assumed to be self-explanatory, it is all things to all men: hope, delusion, inducement, trap. What became of “the Four Freedoms”? Freedom fighters, where are you now?

In fact, freedom by itself is an insignificant word. Its importance comes with its expansion — freedom from what, or to do which. Freedom from may be considerable; its range can cover merciful release from some private burden, to the abolition of a political restraint. Nevertheless, freedom in that sense remains negative and limited to shifting a particular evil. It is, of course, the most popular sense, and the argument is often made that to pile up these removals of restraint (“extending areas of freedom”) must in the end lead to total and therefore positive social liberty.

The Line Drawn
However, the pursuit of the piecemeal does not work like that. The man who has obtained relief from a disability or restriction is simply released into the general slavery of his fellow-men. That is why rulers seldom mind, in the end, giving freedom from: liberation is a means of creating more slaves. The cracker-motto “freedoms” set out by Churchill and Roosevelt in the war were of this kind. Leaving aside that they were part of the sham currency of wartime promises and so unlikely to be taken seriously when the fever was over, it is worth observing that freedom from hunger and insecurity is had, more or less, by people in prison. In the days of mass unemployment, down-and-outs frequently committed minor offences to get regular food and beds for the winter.

Nobody pretends that freedom from privation is worth having on such terms, but the terms accepted in ordinary life are often surprising. The usual paternalistic saying is that society can approve “liberty but not licence”, and it is interesting that “licence” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “excessive liberty”. What is being said, therefore, is that you may have liberty but not too much. The line of excess is drawn, inevitably, by the ruling class; and the liberty thus prescribed is already restricted to the limits of freedom from. Thus, to suppose that slices of freedom can be gained within capitalism and put together to make a free society is naive in the extreme.

Choice and Responsibility
The context in which "freedom” takes on positive meaning is freedom to. Individually, innumerable extensions might be given: what they add up to socially is freedom to choose. This is the all-embracing denial made by the authoritarianism of a class-divided society. Under it, for the ruled, choice is directly refused or made impossible. One’s station and way of life, loyalties, duties, means of expression are selected and hung on one. A free society is definable as such only in this way; in it, individual choice is sovereign.

All sovereignties have boundaries, however. The alternative point of view, the Stirnerite one which disfavours society itself for inhibiting the ego’s absolute demands, is still practised by a number of anarchists whose cult it is never to answer letters, keep appointments etc., as proof that they are free and spontaneous individuals not responsible to anyone. When the doctrine is stated like that, both its absurdity and its perniciousness are plainly visible: this is not freedom at all, because it depends on mutilating someone else’s freedom. Freedom is relative always to the fact that man exists only as a social creature.

In simple everyday experience, every relationship or contract voluntarily made is a limitation on freedom. A person joining a political group or a recreational organization has “tied” him- or herself by the acceptance of obligations, including the recognition of rules and majority decisions. Much has been written recently about growing numbers of couples who set up their homes and raise families without the formalities of marriage. Those who explain their viewpoint always emphasize that, so far from being rejected, the responsibilities and restraints generally are undertaken more deliberately. The fact that this is some people’s preference is not beside the point: it is the point.

The Way to Go
Freedom, then, means a state in which contracts are entered and obligations accepted, but by one’s conscious choice not a predetermined one. The comparison to be made is between a free society and the authoritarian system where the obligations remain while somebody else imposes the choice. What must be recognized, however, is that the obligations are there in both cases. Indeed, freedom implies responsibility where servitude does not; having the choices imposed and the decisions made for one is tolerable to many people because it is easy. Part of the tyranny of capitalism is to make a virtue of that kind of mental laziness and extol bromides like “liberty not licence” to try and keep responsible thought in check. 

Given comprehension of what freedom is, how is the free society obtained? The lack of freedom is not just a question of holding wrong outlooks. It derives from material conditions as much as from legal and moral restraint. The irony of the old saying that everyone is free to dine at the Savoy has innumerable applications. A poor or ill-educated person is not free to choose his work, or where he will live, or even whom he will mix with. Badly-housed people are restricted sexually, intellectually, and in a dozen other ways. Financial worries, insecurities, hostile circumstances of all kinds are obstructions to freedom.

But it does not follow that reforms of circumstances are the answer. That takes us back to the realm of freedom from, where capitalism's nature is to turn apparent gains into equivalent losses; at this, you can’t win. The creation of a free society can be accomplished only by changing the structure of society. The disabilities and oppressions which are everywhere are aspects and consequences of the basic enslavement by capitalism, the class-ownership of the means of living. To replace them with freedom of choice and make responsibility instead of imposition the keystone of social life, common ownership is the pre-requisite.

Socialist Emancipation
This is the failing-point of the various “liberation” movements which are pressing for attention today. The impulse which leads black people, women, homosexuals and other groups to organize in the face of their special problems is understandable, of course. Nevertheless, the belief that those problems can be solved by legislation, or exchanging rule by Them for rule by Us, can lead nowhere except out of one cage and into another. The fact is that we are all caged by capitalism. The indignation and energy now going into those protests should be used fruitfully in the Socialist movement which works for “the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex”.

Freedom is the natural — and immediate — concomitant of the establishment of Socialism. Nor is any abstract judicial freedom meant. The economic condition of Socialism, production for use, means free access by everyone to the material wealth of society. That is emancipation, and from it arises the freedom to choose the sort of life one wants. That is liberation.
Robert Barltrop