Fight Over Freedoms (excerpt)

The post-WWII Anglosphere, to which so many migrated, was full of the notion that whatever redistribution was going on after all that sturm und drang, it must mean an increase in unfreedom, servitude.

We cherish that criticism. Some of those Austrian Empire diaspora thinkers’ ideas were the product of conservative resolve, cast in the cauldron of European class conflict. Others, including Frankfurt School exponents, were moving out of a Marxist background. As Polanyi pointed out in “On Freedom,” “Marx saw still something more, and this constitutes his historic greatness. He understood that capitalist society is not just unjust but also un-free.”
Counter to Marx’s perception of unfreedom in capitalism, the shared conservative conceptualization of freedom arrived again on Anglo-American shores and integrated into the 20th century heart of capitalism, reinforcing slavers’ institutions and culture. Conservatism has always argued that true freedom is absolute sovereignty, based on exceptional masters wrestling for dominance atop a society of bent and broken slaves. The democratic Enlightenment exponents, by stark contrast, pursued materialist philosophy’s ancient insistence that freedom is egaliberte, requiring strong education and other associational institutions socializing citizens –including newcomers, both youth and immigrants–into exchanging ideas, information, and grievances for democratic development.


Democratic Enlightenment exponents argued that it would be possible to build egaliberte, as an inclusive, developmental human freedom distinct from both conservative Herrenvolk freedom and the transitory revolutionary moment of universal absolute sovereignty. But the undertaking would always suffer heavy opposition. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) rightly worried that in the context of the complex society, the democratic alternative to the imperial Hobbesian protection racket would not work if collective action capacity were distributed unevenly, as it is systematically in capitalism, nor if external organizations—such as contemporary trade agreements–could eviscerate the legally-institutionalized decisions arrived at through the democratic General Will.  Adam Smith (1776) recognized that capitalism and capitalists’ states would always excessively organize capitalists’ collective action capacity, and disorganize workers, requiring a welfare state ballast to maintain productive capitalism. Charles Fourier (1808) argued that societies need to replace private property law with law recognizing capitalists as conditional trustees of the social wealth, while Friedrich Hegel (1820) dared to argue briefly for the Right of the Starving Man as a state-protected corrective to private property right in an already-owned world. In the late 19th century, Marx and Engels launched from Hegel, philosophical materialism, and Smith to analyze how capitalism’s hysterical, incomplete recognition of working classes’ human capacities and contributions leads to characteristic economic-incentive breakdown, capitalist crises; they further analyzed how capitalist collective action capacity redirected and extended those crises.  Viriginia Woolf’s private, clandestine, “anonymous and secret Society of Outsiders” formulation (1938) of what egaliberte could look like proposed a cleft habitus of entitlement and feminized dehumanization. Social reproduction feminists, starting with Alexandra Kollontai (1915), pushed states to increasingly protect “social” citizenship rights to balance private property right and might, in an attempt to distribute sovereign agency and supervene the probationary status capitalism had tentatively allowed workers.

Today the post-WWII conservative hybrid reformulation of the egaliberte approach still resonates when we reify revolution, as if wildfire mass organization were pure and final and tending toward freedom, and when we deny all the ways–including their constraints and limitations–that people in different times and places have organized and fought to not just capture but broaden the distribution of recognition, wealth and power, though their victories could be swamped and redirected, more or less aborted.

Revolution is precious and necessary, no doubt. Not just as youthful consumers, we yearn for successful wildfire re-organization, for the overdue break with unfree delegated agency, and for the universal, decisionist assumption of sovereign agency that we assume can, in superhuman speed, break the bulwarks of inegalitarian surveillance, policing, comms, and institutionalized and network-secured compliance incentives. Such revolutions spread the contagion of hope, as Kant observed and Nietzsche condemned. In his 1798 Conflict of the Faculties, Kant argued that the virtue of revolution lies in inducing global recognition that we are all human, and that sovereign agency can be shared. Yet for all the blinding light they emit—universal decisionism!, revolutions do not solve our inherited anxiety over the distribution of sovereignty, nor elite entitlement to exclusive sovereignty and absolute power. Neither can mass killing.  As with Kurtz in the Congo, we carry those problems with us conceptually and emotionally.

Our inherited aestheticization and attachment to the divine moment of absolute decisionism—whether universal as in revolution, or, as in conservatism, sociologically rare and exclusive, has too often convinced us to discount and dismiss the conceptual and materialized footholds, not just the identified traps, aborted egaliberte organization has built. Our societies have started to construct, but we have not usually prioritized or sustained, the institutions and associations required for democratic development. We haven’t been able to. As conservative-liberal thinkers back to Hobbes and Burke have recognized, capitalism, with its vacillating, degenerating recognition of the contribution of labor, is a property structure of elite hyper-capacitation and vast delegated agency, a Shock and Awe organizational machine for dominating and replicating a Hobbesian world.  It proliferates the antithesis of human development.

So revolution and mass killing have not yet proven effective means of durably overcoming elite entitlement and reinforced collective action capacity. Revolution is but a countervailing shocking moment of universal decisionism & sovereign agency. As much as revolution–breaking out of mass delegated agency—has a moderating function and is overdue, the even tougher social change question will continue to be the democratic Enlightenment one: How do people organize away from our habituated conceptualization of freedom as exclusive sovereign agency and decisionism, toward a broadly-distributed sovereign agency and capacity to exchange ideas, information, grievances, and upon that basis rebuild toward universal human development in ecological context?

Our contribution to knowledge of what happened to class, institutions, and politics in the US, from the exceptional era of social liberalism to neoliberalization, the conservative-liberal restoration, will be undergirded by our analysis of the contentious politics of freedom across social fields. Which kind of unfreedom are Americans haunted by, the conservative or the democratic? Is their vision of this unfreedom based on conservative or democratic assumptions, including conservative or democratic distributions of misanthropy and anthrophilia? What role do the knowledge techniques of democratic scientific knowledge v. elitist scientism and decisionist logical abstraction have to play in supporting Americans’ impactful moral economy of freedom?


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