Sunday, 26 September 2010

“Anarchists stole my toothbrush!” or “WHAT IS FREEDOM?”

No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law. How can it be within the law? The law is stationary. The law is fixed. The law is a chariot wheel which binds us all regardless of conditions or place or time.
Emma Goldman.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

I was recently asked by an American friend what my definition of freedom was, she having quite rightly noticed that I use it a lot in my serious writings. This particular friend was nostalgic for her time spent in Europe, and for the freedom she enjoyed there to discuss leftist politics, which for one reason or another she does not enjoy at home in the USA. This present blog is the result, and it has not been easy to construct. If it appears to offer a critique specifically of an American view of freedom, it is because the original question came from that direction.

The problem with freedom is that it is a word which is appropriated by groups of all shades of opinion and defined according to their own bias. Think, for example, of the Scottish National Party for whom it means little more than independence from the United Kingdom; of the right-wing Freedom Party in Austria for whom it means an idealistic view of the nationalistic “freedom values” of the 1848 revolts against the Hapsburg Empire, and in particular now opposition to the accession of Turkey to the European Union. Consider the analysis I made in my blog about gun control, about the different concepts of freedom, as I saw them, in the USA and the UK. Google, if you will, for quotations about freedom, and you will find everyone from Ronald Reagan to V I Lenin, everyone from fascists to anarchists, everyone from poets to statesmen to rock stars. Even though many of the quotations sound remarkably similar, and are in some cases little more than empty rhetoric from people whose actions and policies belie the sentiments expressed, it seems almost as though there are as many concepts of freedom as there are individuals using the word.

I could, if I wished, drill down further than mundane definitions and look at the whole subject of perceptions, consciousness, etc., but that opens up a further field of intellectual enquiry which could fill several books before the concept of freedom is even touched upon. Instead I shall have to accept a whole raft of givens.

I noted with interest that a blog I read regularly (on the subject of ethnomusicology) recently linked to a timeline related to that subject as a field of study. The timeline began with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. There is a coincidence here inasmuch as I have been looking recently at the work of the anarchist theorist Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, whose most famous scientific work is Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in which he explored the widespread use of cooperation as opposed to competition as a survival mechanism in human societies. The latter is a theory, or rather an interpretation of observations about human evolution and sociology, which I have constantly drawn to friends’ and others’ attention for about as long as I can remember. I have done so because I am very aware of the linguistic nonsense which has been made out of the phrase “survival of the fittest”, from which people wrest an interpretation which echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson’s line “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam A H H, Canto 56). The nonsense is the interpretation of “fittest” as “strongest” instead of “best able”; the best able might, in some circumstances, indeed be the biggest, strongest, fastest, but there will be other circumstances where the best able will be the most adaptable, the most gently resilient, or indeed the most cooperative. If all that happened in nature was that dog fought dog, then they would fight to the last dog and die out. The competitive theory of evolutionary survival and development is one which appears to me to have fuelled the concept and conviction that there is some kind of “natural order” in capitalism to the level of a religious or mystical belief, and is seen by many in America as going hand-in-hand with the American concept of freedom.

Within a few hours one way or another of thinking about Kropotkin and seeing the ethnomusicology timeline, I watched an episode of the US television show NCIS (yes, I confess I am a fan), in which a member of the cast who was born an Israeli citizen becomes a citizen of the United States by the recitation of the oath of citizenship:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Despite the fact that the words of the Oath may be modified on certain grounds of conscience[*] (to take account, for example, those forbidden by belief from taking anything termed an oath, or from bearing arms, or from mentioning the name of God), it is a declaration which, even if I wanted to live and work in the USA, my own conscience could never allow me to make. Why? Because it would oblige me to give my allegiance to not my fellow-humans but to a state[**]
[*] I see nothing ironic in quoting here one of the founders of the USA, Thomas Jefferson: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” In fact I intend to quote widely from him as this blog progresses.
[**] By “state” I do not here mean one of the constituent states of the USA, but what one would usually call a “country”; and I use the term throughout this blog with such a meaning. I do so in particular because I speak of the concept of “statism” as defined by Mikhail Bakinin, and including both despotism and exploitation. To me any allegiance, coerced or voluntary, to a state is an acceptance of despotism. “Exploitation” I take to have its common meaning, and in the context of this blog I use it with particular reference to capitalist exploitation.

I would have particular objection to swearing allegiance to a constitution, for a constitution, no matter how noble in concept and utopian in ideal it might once have been, will become the Law of the Medes and the Persians in effect (see Esther 1:9, Daniel 6:8,12, and 15). It will become an enshrining of conservatism and a stumbling block to progress even as it seeks to maintain liberty, and therefore it will quickly defeat its own purpose. It will do nothing more efficiently than set the state in stone; and as Emma Goldman says - “The State is the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice.” This is especially true in a case where an individual is bound to defend such a state and/or its constitution against those it perceives to be its enemies.

I defend the likening of it to the Law of the Medes and the Persians. One only has to look at the struggles (not over yet, by far) of African-Americans simply to be included in that which should have included them from the beginning! I acknowledge that the US Constitution has been amended, and that its amendments have had important results, but it remains a monolith and a servant of (small “c”) conservatism rather than of progress.

I acknowledge I have been spending a lot of time in defining what I believe freedom is not. I will need to spend more such time, if I am to put in context what I believe it is.

Freedom is in no one else’s gift. Our autonomy is ours, no one else’s. If we find we do not have it, even if we have in our ignorance given it away, then those who keep it from us or to whom we gave it have no right to look hurt if we take it back.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Martin Luther King Jr
(Cf James Arthur Baldwin, Franklin D Roosevelt, Malcolm X, and others)

“Freedom” which depends on ignorance is not freedom. It is not enough to demand open government when the lies and secrets of corporations remain unchallenged and concealed.

Freedom of speech can never be the freedom to lie. Untruth binds us to untruth, and untruth is slavery of the mind[*]. To put this again in an American context one should be free to say: “For this reason or that I do not like President Obama and I do not like his policies”. One should not be free to say “Obama is a communist” – that is not fact, and it is not even opinion based on fact, because in no public or private conversation, as far as we know, has that man said he believes in state control of the means of production – quite the reverse in fact – and the “worst” charge that can be leveled against him is a small number of broadly utilitarianist policies. One should not be free to say “Obama is a Muslim” – that is not fact, and it is not even an opinion based on fact because although he might believe in God he has never expressed belief that Mohammed is God’s last prophet, has no declared intention of visiting Mecca, does eat and drink during daylight hours during Ramadan, and does not pray five times a day facing Mecca. One should not be free to say “Obama is a monkey” for obvious reasons. I cite these things because these are current expressions of “freedom of speech” in the mouths of certain vociferous protesters currently in the USA.
[*] Personal interpretation of the facts is not at issue here; disagreement is never untruth – the worst it can possibly be is intellectual myopia.

While I am on this particular tack let me again quote Thomas Jefferson, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect: “A government afraid of its citizens is a Democracy. Citizens afraid of government is tyranny” (and in passing let me say what remarkable similarity there is in wording and concept between that statement and the declaration of the Zapatistas in the part of Mexico that they hold[*]: “Aqui manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece”.) I believe it is demonstrable that what the Tea Party and the demagogues that inflame them are suffering at the moment is not fear of a tyrannical government but actual paranoia. Paranoia is not a legitimate factor in either side of Thomas Jefferson’s equation. It is a disorder. Communism, Islam, and monkeys in this context are chimeras of their own making rather than real terrors and enemies. The effect of the success of their campaigning would be to neuter the government rather than to make it function as it ought under the system that they have. Their hysteria will carry and elevate the demagogues that feed their paranoia to positions of undue influence, and the mainstream politicians who overtly or covertly endorse them to such positions of political power as there are in a country enslaved by the unaccountable, unelected, undemocratic power of corporations. Again I quote Jefferson: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country”, and “Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.”
[*] Personally I might say “… that they have liberated”.

Freedom is never an easy option, because if you fail to exercise it you lose it; if you turn over your autonomy to anyone else, you lose it; if you accept any authority or structure over which you have no control, you lose it. Thus it is never going to something you can simply sit back and enjoy, never something in which you can allow others to make decisions in a matter in which you should be involved. It is not something that can be imposed, defined, or worked for by someone else; if you don’t work for your own liberation you won’t achieve it. It is something you won’t have if someone else doesn’t have it also, because it is not partial in any sense of the word. It is not something you can impose on anyone else by invading their country, or by any other form of coercion, and by setting up something which conforms to your own concept of liberty. Yet it is something with universal standards nonetheless; it exists if no one is disadvantaged, no one is oppressed, no one is exploited. It is curtailed, denied, destroyed, annihilated by the search for private wealth, by corporatism, by the supremacy of the state, by self-interest, by capitalism, by institutional religion, by bourgeois democracy, by hierarchies, and wherever any individual or group is unaccountable. It is created, upheld, nurtured, and defended wherever there is the flattest possible structure, where there is no domination by corporation, by party, by political class, or by state, where mutual aid is practiced, where cooperation is practiced, where equality is realized. It is democracy without the machinery of bureaucracy and power, it is communism without the monoliths of state and party, it is libertarianism without greed. It is, above all, NOT an easy option nor a handy slogan!

To achieve it there needs to be a mass awakening, a realization that the things we have defined as freedom up to now have been little more than a cheap trick to conceal our slavery. When this awakening happens and people begin to act on it then the oppressors will reveal their hand even more strongly than they do now. Capital and self-interest will flood the media with denunciations; states will send in their gendarmes, their National Guard; fascists will appear, with the national flag over their shoulders, the Bible (or the Quran, or the Torah) in one hand and an apple pie in the other. The political class and their appointees will howl that the supremacy of this law or that constitution is being overturned. Things will get bloody hot! I’m not saying that they should or that they ought to, I am saying that it can’t be avoided, and that it will be the forces of oppression who will attack those awakened to freedom. Jefferson again: “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.” It is for the people themselves to decide how to meet that attack – there are good examples of both armed resistance (the EZLN, the Black Army of the Ukraine) and passive resistance (Mohandas K Gandhi, the Civil Rights movement in the USA). I am not here to advocate either. As Errico Malatesta said: We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves.” (L’Agitazione, 18th June 1897)

That is about it. Do not object that I have used quotations by Thomas Jefferson (a plantation owner who also “owned” six hundred slaves, and one of the fathers of an inherently conservative country and system) seemingly to justify anarchism. Bourgeois theorist he may be to me, nevertheless I respect him as a profound thinker on the subject of liberty and as a necessary source for anyone who considers the subject. Unashamedly I admit that I have used his quotations to show that there is a concept of freedom within American thought which might not conform to the current and common conceit. I think that is a legitimate use, and I defend it.

I am aware that a critic from the right will say, “Yes, all very good in theory, but it won’t work. Human Nature will soon take over.” The argument is familiar, and I have mentioned it above. I will however cite examples from the past and present which have incorporated some elements of the principles I have given. Amongst them are failures, and not necessarily failures of the principle – some were obliterated by the force majeure of other interested parties, others failed because they never managed to expand their base, or because disillusioned members gave up, or for other reasons – but amongst them are some which continued with the experiment. Where such things fail we should remember Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  • The early Christian Church in Jerusalem
  • The Diggers in 17c England
  • The participatory democracy of the Six Iroquois Nations
  • The Paris Commune
  • Pre-Bolshevik Ukraine
  • The Kibbutzim of Israel
  • Revolutionary Catalonia in 1936
  • Hutterite colonies
  • Hippie “communes”
  • The EZLN-controlled areas of Chiapas, Mexico
  • Las Abejas
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities in the USA
  • Zendik Farm
  • other egalitarian and communitarian groups...


  1. It's not that I lack the *freedom* to discuss "leftist politics" (it's much more than that); the opportunities are just fewer in number.

    When I asked you about your definition of freedom, I was thinking more on the philosophical level than the political one. (No, I didn't specify this.) Nonetheless, the paragraph beginning with "Freedom is never an easy option ..." best answers my question. Thank you.

  2. I was being a little impish when I said you lacked the freedom, but on the other hand consider the breadth of the definitions of freedom - if you don't have the opportunity, what price the "freedom"?

    I wonder at what point political freedom can be separated from the philosophical concept of freedom? Someone's "politikos" depends so much on their "idiotikos", and it is at that point that the idiotikos is tested in a person's interaction with others. All philosophy is ethical philosophy for the simple reason that it affects (dictates? limits?) how we behave.

    I have often wondered in the past if absolute freedom is possible. No matter how far my imagination flies I am unable to flap my ams and take to the air. I believe I have freedom of thought, but how far am I constrained by my intellectual capacity, by my socialisation, by my mental health. I believe I have freedom of expression, but how far am I constrained by language (perhaps that is why I am a poet?).

    These questions and more are within the ambit of the philosophical consideration of freedom. If you would like me to pursue this just ask. I hoped you would have some challenging questions for me anyway and I'm a tiny bit disappointed that you didn't.