Why "It's About Freedom!" and Why We Must Not Relent


The labor protests spreading throughout the Great Lakes states have energized the left.  Not only have hundreds of thousands come together to protect the dignity of working people, but they have realized an important truth about their organizing.  Those rallying have realized that their pay, benefits and work itself are a result of their having the freedom to exercise self-determination through their unions.

When public employees organized by AFSCME hold high their signs that exclaim "It's About Freedom!" this is what they are expressing.  The refrain among the multitude of people and groups demonstrating is that unions give workers a say, a voice that matches the volume of that of the corporate board.  Many speakers in Wisconsin's Capitol rotunda have repeatedly stated that the ability of workers to stand in solidarity with one another and collectively bargain is one of the hallmarks of democracy.

This is an important development in the way the left in the United States frames justice, and it is has the ability to change the way others think about freedom.

Rather than pointing to a specific theory of Rights to justify their fight, workers marching for the freedom to form unions have emphasized unions' power to increase their liberty in their fight-back.

The type of freedom being fought for in the recent demonstrations is not often acknowledged in the U.S.  The left has long emphasized equality primarily for the reason that it alleviates unjust poverty, while the right is often seen as champions of freedom.  This is because most people think of freedom as having "freedom from" something, which is what political theorists call "negative liberty".

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution represents negative liberty.  It legally guarantees freedom from censorship and is meant to prevent the government from favoring one religion over another.

What today's labor movement is fighting for is the "freedom to" join a union and the "freedom to" make decisions about what one's work entails.  This is "positive liberty".

Positive liberty exists in many other places in the U.S., with little recognition.

Pell grants represent the idea of positive liberty because they provide low-income college applicants with resources which allow them to pursue degrees they would not be able to if the grants were not available.

The feminist movement often stands for positive liberty.  For example, their promotion of comprehensive daycare programs recognizes that jobs can often be inflexible and a parent gains more economic freedom if they can be sure their children will get the care they need when they need it.

This definition of two freedoms is often credited with the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  However, if we look beyond the official historical narrative promoted by the dominant ideology, which credits Berlin, we find that the distinction is more accurately traced back to a book titled Escape From Freedom, which was published in 1941 by Marxist philosopher Erich Fromm.

What Fromm observes in his work is incredibly important in the contemporary struggle of the progressive movement.

What Escape From Freedom seeks to explain is the dialectical nature of the expansion of freedom.  It praises the expansion of negative freedom, which lead to modern society, but also points to the fact that real increases in inequality have subordinated many people to the power of wealthy capitalists and their corporations in ways that begin to contradict the ability for many to fully enjoy negative freedom.  The individual person increasingly loses his or her power to be self-determining as they become more and more dependent on late-stage capitalism's large, privately controlled corporations for work, goods, information, and even recreation.

Suddenly, many find that negative freedom alone isolates and weakens them.  While a few individuals remain quite free and become very powerful commanding others about in large economic organizations, the worker feels subject to gigantic forces beyond his or her control.

"....Freedom has a twofold meaning for modern man:  he has been freed from traditional authorities and has become an 'individual,' but at the same time he has become isolated, powerless, and an instrument of purposes outside himself, alienated from himself and others...." wrote Fromm.

The only way society can preserve freedom in general is by recognizing the need for positive freedom.  The problem of the modern person being rooted in the complexity of social and economic forces, Fromm wrote that increasing freedom requires society "replace manipulation of men by active and intelligent cooperation, and expand the principle of government of the people, by the people, for the people, from the formal political sphere to the economic sphere."

This position is based on a critical observation of the organization of the capitalist economy.  In late-stage capitalism, capital accumulates quite densely in the coffers of very small a percentage of the population.  In the United States at the end of 2001, 10% of the population owned 71% of the wealth and the top 1% owned 38%. On the other hand, the bottom 40% owned less than 1% of the nation's wealth.

This wealth of resources is used by the individuals who have it to employ others in their exercise of negative freedoms matching their goals.  Media apparatuses are bought or created.  Political foundations are formed to manipulate public opinion and lobby government.  People are barraged by constant advertisement.  And this manipulation is all regarded as business as usual.

Consider who has the most ability to actually use the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  We may all have the theoretical ability to enjoy this negative liberty, yet it is global news corporations, radio conglomerates, corporate advertisers, and the recording industry, acting on the behalf of their wealthy investors, which are most able to make real use of it.  The result is that most people experience freedom of speech passively, and those who do not become frustrated when they have to constantly engage a deceptively "common" message which does not reflect their lived experience.

Those standing for worker's rights in Wisconsin know this experience quite well.  They are constantly disparaged by Fox News as thugs while their pro-capitalist Tea Party counterparts are championed by the news network.  Recently, the most prominant Sunday news shows had to be pushed to include representatives from the organizations who supported the demonstrators after it was revealed three anti-union members of the GOP were invited to comment.  In fact, very little on the issue which resulted in the workers' demonstrations considered newsworthy at all until tens of thousands of people rallied and a spectacle was created which could attract viewers (and result in profit).

The left has long used rules and regulations to stymie this trend, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for these policies to bring about equity.  In fact, many of these regulations are being repealed.  With the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United ruling, the capitalist class used the concept of negative freedom to flood the electoral process with money and sway the 2010 election.  MoveOn's petition to build interest in repealing the ruling that corporations have the same rights as individuals is a right-minded response to the Court's decision, but it takes little foresight to see that corporate board members themselves would simply have to seek a repeal on individual political contributions and pour their own money into the political process if this proposal manages to survive the battle to implement it.

Further, regulations themselves are antithetical to freedom.  They may be justified by necessity when inequality is so prominent and the state of self-determination is so precarious that their implementation would create an overall increase in total freedom.  However, the level of control the government would need to solve the issues found in an economy as complex as that found in the U.S. is not only unlikely to develop out of the situation present in U.S. politics, but it is also quite likely to create precedents dangerous to freedom in general.

The ability of the right-wing to frame debate concerning this issue by contrasting regulations with freedom further complicates this matter.

The progressive movement can solve this problem by concerning itself with promoting the idea of positive freedom and the self-determination it entails.  Until progressives create grassroots, organic institutions based on democratic principles in the place of the top-down corporate model, it will be in constant struggle corporate interests.

This is where we stand now.  The protests in the mid-west United States are incredible, but we must remember we are attempting to defend what little amount of positive freedom we have in our workplaces.  We must advance, because the fight promises to never end unless we do.  In another year, work to elect progressive candidates in what should be free elections will again be undermined by corporate news, ads and funding for right-wing grassroots organizations.  Considering the trend, we may even see another war in a decade's time.

We must take the initiative.  It is imperative we build structures of positive liberty where self-determination has stagnated and private ownership is characterized by the tyranny we sought to end by recognizing negative liberties.  The will of the people could then cease to be a euphemism spouted by opportunists and instead be directly demonstrated through debate and vote.  Democratic methods of economic organization would assist all progressive groups struggling against the dominant class and those whom it represents.  The unions have the experience necessary to pursue such a goal.

It should be done, in the name of freedom.

Photo: Thousands rally in Indianapolis against Republican anti-worker bills. (by Wilson E. Allen)

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