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Don't fight for freedom - 5/26/18
Corey Robin suggests that "freedom should be the central organizing idea of the left":
I mention this because as we see the policy debate move forward on the left—the jobs guarantee, single-payer, etc.—it becomes clearer and clearer that we lack an organizing synthesis, an ideology, story, and narrative, that brings together, that makes meaning of, these various policies and proposals. In the coming years, there is going to be more and more need for this kind of thinking about a central organizing idea for the left, I'm quite confident. This is an opportunity for all of you to be thinking about what that ideological motif is going to look like... 
The left needs a freedom program, among other reasons, because we need to start talking about how people must act to win their emancipation, collectively, for themselves. That is a critical part of the freedom program—not just freedom from systemic and personal domination and arbitrary power, not just the freedom of our leisure time, but also the freedom to act, collectively, on our own behalf, to win the world back for ourselves rather than to be protected from that world.
I am in full agreement with Robin that the left ought to center its messaging around some core idea or value - but I do not think that "freedom" is the way to go. And while I don't have time at the moment to flesh out my objections, some preliminary thoughts:


1. Freedom is the brand  of the right. This does not mean that the right actually values freedom in any meaningful sense. What it means is that the right has spent quite a long time and (particularly in recent decades) invested an incredible amount of resources into branding its politics as the politics of Freedom™. And the left, of course, has often accepted this framing instead of contesting it - agreeing that the right is indeed the movement of freedom, and simply insisting that freedom can be problematic (see left critiques of free speech, freedom of contract, etcetera). As a result, everything about our political discourse today is articulated so as to accommodate this uncontroversial and deeply entrenched equivalence between right-wing politics and freedom; it is what Lacan called a point de capiton, a part of our language that is ideologically fixed so as to give the rest of our language meaning.
What this means, practically speaking, is that "freedom" loses a lot of the political value that we were supposed to gain by rallying around a central message. Instead of giving the public an intuitive essentialization of left politics, we have given them a word laden with right-wing meaning, and are asking them to use it counterintuitively. As a matter of political marketing, this is like trying to come up with a brand for your new line of nutritious organic vegetable juice - and settling on "Coke."
It's worth adding, by the way, that the liberal-left has tried this before. As recently as 2006, George Lakoff's Whose Freedom proposed that we should "take back the progressive view of freedom," and laid out an elaborate, detailed messaging plan for doing so. But as Steven Pinker (of all people) noted at the time, Lakoff's proposal crashed against the rocks of popular intuitions about what freedom "actually" means:
It consists of appending the words "freedom to" in front of every item in a Berkeley-leftist wish list: freedom to live in a country with affirmative action, "ethical businesses," speech codes, not too many rich people, and pay in proportion to contributions to society. The list runs from the very specific—the freedom to eat "food that is pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, free of genetically modified ingredients, healthy, and uncontaminated," to the very general, namely "the freedom to live in a country and a community governed by the traditional progressive values of empathy and responsibility."
I am absolutely certain that Robin could make a much more sophisticated and rigorous case for a socialist vision of "freedom" than what we see in Lakoff's slogans about pesticides - but the very fact that he would need to make that case demonstrates the problem here. What good is "freedom" as our political brand if we can only justify it, and take it back from the right, using all kinds of sophisticated argumentation? Lakoff's slogans are not substantively wrong, after all; they're just counterintuitive, which is another way of saying that they are, as slogans, useless.

2. Left arguments for freedom are really just left arguments for equality. As far as I can tell, any left argument for freedom is going to have to go something like this:
The right claims to value freedom, but clearly, it really just values freedom for the powerful. The powerless are not free, and in fact it is precisely those positions and policies we have advanced in the name of freedom that have made them less free. The principle of equality tells us that both the powerful and the powerless are equally entitled to freedom - therefore, for the sake of equality, we need to extend more freedom to the powerless.
Ultimately, the left would have to make an argument like this if it wanted to "take back" freedom - and the right, correctly, would point out that the left is really just back to making its usual argument for equality. From here, I think, the left has two choices: it can engage in a complicated meta-argument that freedom is indeed more important than equality, but that its call for equality is in fact a call for more freedom, while the right's call for freedom (because it ignores equality) is in fact a call for less freedom - *phew* - or it can simply say that yes, equality is more important than freedom for the powerful.
To echo a point already made: I do not think that "freedom" is a particularly good brand if we can only use it by upshifting three levels of abstraction into a remote philosophical argument over who gets the intellectual property rights. This is particularly true if we are doing all of this just to get around owning "equality," which is a perfectly good principle on its own terms, and which is what everyone will suspect that we are talking about anyway.