On freedom

Published online 25 January 2012.

Generally speaking, American political discourse is pervaded by talk about freedom.  Mostly in this era this talk is right-wing talk about freedom, promoted by the Right.  Perhaps this is to be expected — American political history is significantly characterized by its long struggle against “Communism,” an ideology used by nations which largely abolished their political public spheres.  Even more significantly, once upon a time the European-import settlers of this land wiped out the freedoms of the native inhabitants “from sea to shining sea” so that they could impose their own freedoms, dragging a few imported African “slaves” into the business as well.

Freedom is an ambiguous word.  Mostly in the context of American political discussion it means what the elites will let us do, and America is, as is clear from the Federalist Papers, a nation designed to sustain elites within a representative democracy.  Specifically, the elites Hamilton, Madison, and Jay had in mind were the bourgeoisie, the triumphant merchant class which accompanied the rise of the United Kingdom as a world-dominant power in the 18th and 19th centuries.  America is largely an artifact of the expanding capitalist system of that era.

Today, for the most part, American freedom is consumer freedom, the freedom to shop and to pursue leisure activities.  Consumer freedom is also the freedom to realize profit for the entrepreneurs, whose primary freedom is the freedom to pursue sales.  This is the freedom of which George W. Bush reminded us in 2001: having created the Department of Homeland Security, an agency whose ultimate aim is to spy on us while militarizing our lives, he felt obliged to pump up Christmas sales no doubt.  We can also see how this freedom works in its transgression: the Occupy movement, for instance, is typically unfree to occupy public spaces, having been evicted from a significant number of sites, because its idea of freedom is not a consumer freedom; it’s not a freedom to occupy in the way in which shoppers occupy a mall.

The Right in America seizes upon the consumer definition of freedom in order to complain endlessly about taxes, without reference to what our taxes are actually buying.  Perhaps the Right’s implicit reasoning is that every dollar spent upon what the government actually buys is a dollar not spent on leisure, or on increasing one’s net worth, or on conspicuous consumption or something like that.  The end result of all the Right’s complaint about taxes, as promoted by the policies of our ruling elites, is that our taxes now buy war, prisons, and a decaying infrastructure, while college attendance has now become a financial gamble and public services have become agencies of corporate profit.

The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner once complained that freedom was an inappropriate ideal because it was a mechanism by which society permitted its members to behave like damned fools.  Skinner discusses this complaint in his short (1971) book Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  The rationale behind Skinner’s attack on the concept of freedom was based on this idea: instead of analyzing the environmental causes of human behavior, we attribute behavior to the “autonomous individual” (who is “free”) and hold that individual responsible for her behavior.  In reality, Skinner argued (quoting John Stuart Mill), “liberty consists in doing what one desires,” (p. 29) and desire is motivated by environmental stimuli which are reinforcing, that is to say that said stimuli elicit repeat behavioral performances.  The question for Skinner, then, was one of how to structure the environment to shape behavior in desirable ways.  He wanted a good society, not one that was free to be crappy.  Toward this end, he argued that people should be controlled, and so :

the problem is to free men, not from control, but from certain kinds of control, and it can be solved only if our analysis takes all consequences into account. (p. 39)

Now, the Right believes in social control too.  Even folks such as Ron Paul believe in social control; that’s why they’re “libertarians,” and not anarchists.  The Right’s belief in social control follows the general slogan that “Freedom isn’t free,” as a general right-wing voicing of support for the military. But the Right’s idea of social control is wrong because it (in Skinner’s terms) is based on aversive stimuli, which is to say, punishment.  Skinner imagined punishment to be generally ineffective as a mechanism of control; reward, he argued, was much more versatile as a way of getting people to do what you want them to do.  What we can say is that in the Right’s thirty-plus years of power in this country it has created a prison-industrial complex which creates criminal recidivists, and a military-industrial complex which spreads enemies.

Thus we can also say that the Right’s idea of freedom is wrong.  The Right identifies freedom with the “free market,” as connected to the consumer freedom I noted above.  However, the “free market,” like consumerism, is itself another social structure, riddled with agencies of control.  As Hutchinson, Mellor, and Olsen suggest in their book The Politics of Money:

Free markets are, in the words of John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, ‘a product of artifice, design, and political coercion.’ ([p. 90)

Here’s how it works in practice:

In real life, however, no sale ever takes place outside the social framework.  The village auction market, like any market, is a social institution where the process of selling involves specific methods, customs, or routines to reach price agreements.  Publicity, transport, clerical work, and storage are required to be in place before trading can begin.  The marketing process can itself affect outcomes. Furthermore, even the small local market is supported by a legal framework defining ownership and appropriate forms of transfer of ownership of property, backed by the ultimate sanction of force. (p. 91)

It’s important to remember, moreover, that this is the minimum requirement of coercion and control that a “free market” requires, and that with each passing decade, as capitalism evolves, more and more complex regulation is (and will be) required to maintain the illusion of the “free market.”  One thinks, for instance, of the PPACA, with its increasingly punitive attempts to get ordinary people to buy health insurance in order to save the health insurance “market” from the doom predicted of it by John Geyman.

And what about the people who have nothing, no money or desired goods, to trade?  Are they free to starve?  Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”  Thus the overall failure of the American Right to abide by its ideological standard, freedom.  See below for the alternative.

A higher standard of freedom would look to a society that was free from the “free market,” in which people were not obliged to trade the use of their bodies, to “be employed,” for their means of subsistence.  As a great thinker once pointed out in a remark on women’s prostitution, “Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer.”

An immediate attempt at this sort of freedom is the “really really free market.”  With the really really free market, people are free to give and take as they please, without all the rules.  Really really free markets are, as I have experienced them, are utopian, wildcat events.  Their rarity demonstrates like nothing else how limited our freedoms really are.


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