FREEDOM WITHOUT EQUALITY IS ONLY HALF-FREEDOM
Much freedom for some and little freedom for the others. Equality means everyone has the freedom to make something of their life
By Robert Misik
[This article published in the Swiss journal WoZ Nr. 37, 9/13/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.misik.at/halbe-freiheit/das-laue-freiheitsgelaber-der-rechten.php
Conservatives and neoliberals act the big shot, ruffle their feathers and stylize themselves as the “power of freedom.” That is absurd. The left should win back the freedom term.
One of the most peculiar oddities of our world not poor in oddities is that conservatives and neoliberals brag about being the “power of freedom” while hammering leftists and progressives for manipulation, leading by the nose and limiting the freedom of individuals. Perhaps even more remarkably, the left hardly opposed this for decades. “Freedom” became a propaganda term of the right – “economic freedom!” – while progressives represented themselves as a power of justice. The freedom term was left to conservatives and neoliberals practically without a fight.
This is bizarre because leftists and progressive liberals stood up for freedom, civil rights and equal rights for all in the history of ideas and the political history of the West in most countries of the continent. In Germany and Austria, social democrats opposed censorship, implemented freedom of assembly and gained the universal franchise and democracy by fighting. Conservatives cried for the police and military when anyone uttered the watchword “freedom” too loudly. This is bizarre because nearly all freedom rights were gained in history by progressives. Conservatives and neoliberals who appeal in seductive word flourishes to “economic freedom” and the “freedom of individuals” and to their right to be unmolested by the “bureaucratic Moloch state” have no great problems with blatant limitations of freedom. At the same time, they are proud of being “tough on crime” and advocate dubious data memory storage, exhaustive surveillance withy video cameras, expedited court proceedings against troublemakers and emergency legal measures against terrorists… They decide almost instinctively for business interests and against freedom where the freedom of individuals comes into conflict with “economic freedom” – that is, with the business interests of powerful economic actors as in legal copyright questions.
Knowledge is privatized and thereby withdrawn from free appropriation and utilization. The same ones who yak about “Switzerland in the World of Freedom” in fancy speeches support massive tightening of police laws on weekdays and have no problems in sanctioning the most trifling divergent conduct. Soon anyone who hangs around in public spaces, opens a beer can or begs will have to reckon with police “monitoring” or worse.
For many of these preachers, “economic freedom” in practice amounts to plundering the economy, society and the state. Not much is left of freedom of speech when powerful actors take the freedom to buy up media- and opinion cartels.
In short, this neoliberal capitalism is not only a threat to justice norms because it supplies individuals with enormous wealth and power connected with wealth. It also undermines freedom. Progressives should not only criticize this contemporary deregulated capitalism that a) produces unfair results and vastly intensifies social inequalities and b) doesn’t function economically as we know since the beginning of the financial crisis… It is time for a new progressive freedom movement against all those unfreedoms that the predatory neoliberal capitalism has normalized.
One must listen attentively to the hot air of conservative and neoliberal phrase-mongers. Then one notices immediately that something is not right with their terms in that their talk about “personal responsibility” and “independence” of free individuals sounds peculiarly esoteric. In the world that they paint, power, market failure and elite failure are made invisible. There are no status differences that give freedom to some and trample on others. Capitalist market economies generate inequalities that give some freedom while restricting those who are less wealthy. Therefore freedom is unimaginable without equality. While small-time conservative and neoliberal theoreticians constantly try to prove that freedom and equality cannot be realized simultaneously (since more equality can only be reached through a redistribution that intrudes in the freedom of individuals). The opposite is true: freedom without equality is only half freedom – much freedom for some and little freedom for the others. Equality means everyone has the “freedom” to make something of their life. Inequality has freedom-limiting effects for the less wealthy since manifest shortage goes along with a striking lack of options.
Social security guaranteed by welfare state institutions provides security and freedom. Security is one of those resources that guarantee autonomy. Whoever can lead his life free from anxiety is freer. He has the autonomy to make self-determined decisions. Conversely, whoever is terrorized by existential anxiety is unfree and often warped and commanded. He will also avoid risky decisions that could open up new exciting ways through life and give possibilities for developing his/her talents.
Material privileges lead to a privileged access to power, not only to a greater freedom to develop talents and conduct a self-determined life. Wealthy lobbies can buy laws today and exert influence while normal citizens feel they have no voice and are heard by no one. The ideal of democratic equality erodes when citizens turn away frustrated from political life, even if democratic institutions remain formally intact. An elitist oligarchy arises. All this leads to a freedom that is practically dead though it exists theoretically.
THE PATHOLOGY OF FREEDOM IN OUR TIME
This is the pathology of freedom in our time: that we live in the most liberal systems of all time with freedom of the press, democratic institutions, separation of powers and with many cultural freedoms (convention and conformity pressure hinder people much less than in the [past to live life “as they wish.” Still many people feel that this freedom is hollow, that they have no choice, that their options are restricted and that no realistic way exists for changing anything.
Freedom must be protected from institutions and the rightwing. However reducing it to that protection does not do justice to what vibrates in the term “freedom.” Freedom has much to do with feelings and feelings are not satisfied with formalism. Whoever formally has a choice but never has the actual experience of choosing is mentally unfree while formally free. Whoever must knuckle under in the job from a young age and becomes accustomed to being commanded has an unreal freedom. When imagination withers, one cannot imagine acting differently than one customarily acts. All this has to do with experiences that people make. Whoever has freedom experiences often tells of the “euphoric feeling” of these experiences. Whoever regards something as unjust without rebelling against it senses his or her powerlessness. Whoever tries withy others to change what is disconcerting makes freedom experiences even if success is still in the future. The rebel may have the edifying feeling of at least making the attempt or sensing that success will come the next time. Whoever makes experiences of unfreedom with all the incident humiliations “learns” to be unfree so to speak. This experience is registered in his mentality. On the other hand, whoever makes freedom experiences learn to be free.
Free subjects cannot thrive in a neoliberal capitalism that plants fear in human minds. In any case, they will have a hard time making experiences of self-determination.
Economic freedom (in the sense of choosing a job one wants, founding an enterprise when one has a good idea etc) is one among several freedom rights and should not be despised. A few earlier varieties of leftists did not think very highly of this freedom right. Understood this way, “economic freedom” makes the world multicolored, encourages creativity and spurs people to maximum efforts. This supports a free enterprise system. But new freedom-threats start from this system. In the long run, the right of the stronger will destroy the freedom of the weaker.
In the past years and decades, new subtle freedom-threats arose that were often not rightly understood. A highly complex global market economy establishes a silent pressure. Suddenly citizens may not make decisions that could alarm “the markets,” frighten the “timid deer” capital and so forth. Whoever only proposes decisions that someone in the name of anonymous markets claims was irresponsible is immediately stylized as a dangerous bloke and his proposals are banished from the start from the horizon of potential democratic decisions. Only harmonizing what capital wants is allowed. Then bankers talk fast about “economic freedom” that may not be encroached and imagine that a democratic citizenry has no freedom to touch the particular interests of the super-rich.
There are other more subtle restrictions on freedom. Total commercialization reduces the possibility of making necessary freedom experiences. History has shown freedom-experiences need free spaces that are free from conformity pressure where the new can be tested. Youth cultural movements have always used such free spaces provoking the establishment to denounce them as young radicals, lunatics and ready to resort to violence – and yet soon recognized these movements make societies freer. However such free spaces are rare when every millimeter of our cities is commercialized and every conceivable enterprise is immediately under a profitability-pressure… The “freedom” of international investors to commodify real estate assets cannot be questioned. Commercialized cities appear as neoliberals and conservatives imagine “freedom” as scrubbed and germ-free, without disturbance and irritation, as a shopping zone from which the unexpected and chaotic of life is eliminated.
How can all these freedom-threats be harmonized with a world where many freedoms are realized? Freedom is also “positive freedom,” not only “negative freedom” in the sense of the absence of pressure, censorship and regimentation… However this separation is not as clear as people commonly think. “Negative freedom” always threatens as long as “positive freedom” is hardly realized. The manifest freedom-threats of the last years with their “Punish!,” “Prohibited!,” “Lock up!,” and “Too far!” appear in the midst of societies where many freedoms are realized, many rights secured and a liberality often prevails that approaches a cultural “Anything goes.”
Do we know what positive freedom is or could be: the freedom of a self-confident citizenry who seriously and decisively take their own matters in hand? Do we know the freedom of an energetic youth that tears down the old and struggles against immaterial and sometimes real barricades? One cannot even speak of this since it sounds out of touch with reality.
Is the heyday of freedom over? The heyday is probably over insofar as the struggles of the great freedom-movements over freedom crashed against the great forces of unfreedom and won. In our latitudes, in any case, today’s freedom fighters are not in the underground and their opponents are not dictators. This theater closed on account of lasting success. But that was not a brilliant victory. It was a “won somehow.” The freedom movements failed successfully or they triumphed ruinously. In any case, they triumphed so their watchwords and slogans sound today a little like yesterday while their goals cannot be realized.
Nevertheless there are revolts among us, mostly freedom revolts even if they were provoked by other practical questions. When people are outraged against begging prohibitions in our downtown city centers, it is because they were scandalized about the authoritarian spirit and the harassing prohibitions, not only because the poorest are prohibited from gainful activity.
In a certain sense, freedom has an easy position. It has the most beautiful sex appeal and is of beguiling force when it gains acceptance against authoritarian repression… What does freedom mean in this case? Each and everyone should be able to develop his or her talents… Everyone should have the freedom to live as he or she wants. Everyone should receive the presuppositions for exercising this freedom. The state that is no longer an enemy of freedom must become the great beneficiary of freedom by respecting that everyone has the resources without which freedom cannot thrive. Bureaucracies that incline to idling and always develop a life of their own and tend to end must be transformed to open systems. In the words of Karl Polanyi, “iron rules” must protect society from misuse by the bureaucracy y so the right to non-conformism remains non-appealable.
THE PROBLEMS OF THE LEFT
The conservative rightwing speaks of “elective freedom.” That is often only elective freedom of the well-to-do middle class. The authoritarian variety of the left of earlier days emphasized equality and created unfreedom. While honoring freedom, the democratic left points out that the privileged minority has always enjoyed elective freedom and that this freedom should be “expanded to the majority of the population” (Olaf Palme). Still it should not be denied that this democratic left had its problems with the “autonomy of the individual.” Its goal was independent and equal citizens. However its collectivist ideal was not always easily harmonized with the autonomy of individuals and the right to realize that autonomy. The stubbornness of individuals is manifest here. All persons living egocentrically as atomized individuals are by no means the ideal that leftists have of a good society. Ideas of a “good society” can easily lead to others prescribing how life should be organized. The democratic left was not always free from such paternalistic temptations.
This ambivalence is already implicit in the term freedom itself. Freedom is a social relation, a principle for organizing human interactions – without pressure, with respect that everyone has a voice and should be given consideration. Every citizen should be able to develop according to his or her preferences. Speaking about freedom only makes sense with view to organizing life with others. “Robinson Crusoe was not free until Friday arrived; he was merely unencumbered by others,” Dietmar Dath writes.
Conservatives and neoliberals have nothing to say on the threats to freedom in our time and all real restrictions on the freedom of individuals and nevertheless describe themselves as the great champions of freedom. Progressives have left the term freedom to them without a fight. It is time to win back this term. Progressives are the real forces of freedom because their idea of freedom is comprehensive. They are not only against authoritarian pressure, censorship and for freedom of speech. They are also against conformity pressure, that “tyranny of the majority” about which John Stuart Mill wrote and for the freedom “that different persons can lead different lives” (Mill). They have a keen sense for the freedom-limiting effects of brutal material inequality, that material inequality de facto denies a self-determined life to the underprivileged. Progressives have awareness for the losses of freedom causing the feeling of estrangement in modern society. Whoever feels he or she is only a little executing wheel in an impersonal abstract machine, whoever has the feeling he is only the object of “professional politics” in the political system and cannot really influence decisions, whoever feels his options are restricted senses losses of freedom and doesn’t only feel treated “unequally.” In a word, he is whittled down in the possibilities of forming life according to personal preferences.
Progressives should take up all these traces and no longer allow conservatives and neoliberals to get away with the abstruse claim of being “forces of freedom.”