-=[ Freedom & its Discontents ]=-

By Edward-Yemil Rosario

The upcoming midterm elections are really about the issue of freedom. How we choose to define freedom and the role of government is what is at stake. This election will go a long way to answering the question: whose freedom? I believe that these elections will determine the nature of freedom and shape the way our society operates. As you will see, I believe the freedom advocated by the fringe right is not in actuality freedom, but a downsized version of it.

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The history of the last 1000 years, indeed the history of humankind, has been, in a very real way, the history of the struggle to define “freedom.”

Throughout much of history, in civilizations across the world, people have been ruled by the strong and lorded over by those simply born into power and privilege. Up until relatively recently few even questioned the divine right of rulers. Fewer still challenged the idea that it was the place of the people to obey. Yet throughout history, the great thinkers had contemplated humankind’s ugly tendency to give in to its worst impulses of greed, fear, violence, and lust for power, and by the 1700s, this intellectual tradition had left its mark on the Western world.

Furthermore, advances in science and mathematics were changing the way educated people perceived the universe and were shepherding in a new understanding and respect for the laws of nature and the power of human reason. Centuries of political and religious turmoil in Europe inspired new ideas about the best ways for human beings to live together in peace, in the process rejecting the now antiquated notion that an invisible old and angry white dude with a beard preordained civilization and its structures.

I’ve just described about 600 years of the evolution of the definition of freedom in two paragraphs (not really, but close!). Missing from this all too brief description are some important points and nuances. One point in particular needs a little more elaboration. In the 1200s, some powerful gang leaders (actually, “feudal lords” but same shit) confronted King John of England. They owned much of the economic wealth and basically told the king that if he wanted to continue to acting like a king he would have to sign a document they had drawn up called the Magna Carta. It guaranteed that before the king could imprison one of gang members he would have to show probable cause, attested to by witnesses, and sworn testimony, that the person had committed a crime (we’ve all watched  Law & Order, right?). This is a right known as habeas corpus.

For four hundred years, the right of habeas corpus extended only to the British nobility, but shit started hitting the fan in the 1600s and it was then extended to other gang members such as the more “commoner” knights and to a few others. Otherwise, you were shit out of luck — no habeas corpus for the rabble.

However, the Enlightenment Era brought about a new concept of freedom that took root. John Locke, for example, held that all men (with the exception of people of color) are created equal, with natural born rights to life, liberty, and property, and that these rights are always in jeopardy unless people compromise their absolute freedom and form law-abiding governments under which to live. Government, it follows, is legitimate only if it is by the consent of the majority of the people, and its power must not be absolute. Government must be limited to powers that the people have given it and that serve the public good.

We take these concepts for granted these days but at that time, Locke’s ideas were considered so radical that Locke, fearing for his life, never admitted he was their author until shortly before his death. In the American colonies, his ideas helped start a revolution…

With its opening phrase, “We the people… ”, our Constitution boldly proclaimed that the source of all government is from the people, and only the people Actually, it was really some people, but that’s another discussion altogether, and I’ve taken up a large part of this post already.) The definition of “freedom” evolved between the 13th and 20th centuries, but it was mostly grounded in the notion that much of freedom had to do with individuals being free from harassment or imprisonment by government, or by exploitation by powerful groups or individuals. With the large-scale industrialization of the 19th century, another form of freedom took hold. Historically, a minority held wealth and one dimension of freedom was at least the ideal of protection of the average person from exploitation by those of great wealth.

However, with the 20th century came the development of some rather peculiar concepts of freedom. One such aberration, fascism, arose in Spain, Germany, and Italy in the early 1930s. In a fascist state, the right of property was absolute. While fascism was active in providing for the needs of the people, the reins of government was controlled by economic elites. Fascism has been defined as “A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism.” Fascism promised freedom through a strong control of the average person, with a core governing concept that the business elite of a nation was far more qualified to run the country than were mere “people.”

Benito Mussolini, for example, spelled all this out in his treatise titled, “The Doctrine of Fascism.” He plotted out a government, not by and of the people, but a government for the most powerful corporate interests in the nation.

In 1938, Mussolini manifested his vision of fascism when he dissolved Parliament and replaced it with the Camera dei Fasci e delle Corporazoni — the Chamber of Fascist Corporations. Corporations were still privately owned, but now instead of having to sneak their money to politicians on the sly, they were openly in charge of government and could write their own legislation.

By now, I realize that you, my intrepid reader, are probably asking, “What the fuck does all this have to do with Kansas, Eddie?” Bear with me…

Growing up, reading Alisa Zino’yevna (aka Ayn Rand) was something of a family tradition. It was required reading in our household. My father would often give each one of us something to read and then we would have to discuss it critically. He also encouraged me to read Walt Whitman and other American transcendentalists — which was probably the antithesis of Rand’s “objectivism.” Looking back, I realize my father was trying to show me how to think critically; how to hold two opposing ideas at once and come away with something of value and perhaps original.

I think Rand appeals to young people because it is a morally stunted and self-contradictory philosophy. I have previously written refutations of Rand’s “philosophy.” Her epistemology has been taken apart by others, no need to revisit that here. I mention Rand here because there is a connection to humankind’s struggle to define freedom.

By the 1950s, fascism and its antithesis, communism, had redefined freedom, but largely failed to deliver anything resembling freedom when implemented by the likes of Stalin and Mussolini. A ramped up Cold War with the Soviet Union was being waged and the biggest thing then was the Red Scare and the threat of nuclear war. Unbelievably, people were actually buying “bunkers” to protect themselves from radioactive fallout in those days.

At that time, both Rand and Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek proposed a new vision of freedom. Their freedom was more a negative type freedom. They asserted that self-interest controlled all human behavior, and the only true measure of what was best for individuals was their belongings or what they were attempting to accumulate. This “market” of getting and hoarding, acted out simultaneously by millions of people in a society as complex and huge as the United States, for example, produced hundreds of millions of individual “decisions” every moment. Hayek suggested there existed a force of nature, the product and consequences of all these individual buying and selling behaviors, which he called the “free market.” At the same time, Ayn Rand’s hugely popular novels, The Fountainhead and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, championed a philosophy of an enlightened self-interest similar to von Hayek’s. Freedom was being redefined.

Instead of being a collaborative effort, the result of society working together to provide for the basic needs of the individual, the family, and society, freedom was now being refashioned as the individual’s ability and right to act in his or her total freedom for selfish self fulfillment, regardless of the consequences to others (within certain limitations). Freedom was a negative force in the worldview of von Hayek, his student Milton Friedman (father of the Chicago School of libertarian economics), and Ayn Rand’s objectivism. This freedom was more of a freedom “from” rather than a than a freedom “to.” This version of freedom was a freedom from social obligation, freedom from taxation; freedom from government assistance or protection (now perceived as “interference” or oppression). It was a freedom to consider one’s needs and wants, because if each individual followed his selfish desires, the mass of individuals acting in concert in a “free market,” would result in a utopia.

Yes! The world is flat, burn the fuckin’ olive tree and hock the Lexus!

This vision of freedom claims to be the true vision of a free world. Its apostles maintained that a world where government limited nothing but violence and wherein all markets were free — market here meaning the behavior of individuals or collectives of individuals (corporations) — had never before been attempted. Their opponents, progressives and liberals, pointed out that their system had in fact been attempted many times throughout history, and was the history of every civilization of the most chaotic eras. Lacking a true social contract and interdependence, these societies were characterized by physical and economic violence. In this social schematic, those most willing and able to plunder would rise to the top of the economic heap. In the past, they were rightfully called robber barons.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, think tanks funded by wealthy individuals and multinational corporations, joined forces with subservient politicians to win the “battle of ideas.” Greed, combined with a blind belief in free markets, was their dogma. This movement brought into power both the feeble-minded Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Reagan would oversee the greatest redistribution of wealth and the destruction of labor. Both Thatcher and Reagan would turn government into a force against labor, both busting powerful unions in their respective countries. Both “freed” markets by dropping tariffs and undoing regulations. In both instances, industry fled both countries, to wherever labor was cheapest, and the middle class was fucked without so much as a kiss.

This new economic dogma would be used in Chile with disastrous results. Poverty and wealth gaps would increase dramatically and the privatization of the social security system threw even more people into abject poverty. Of course, a few bankers, industrialists, and politicians became wealthy.

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys,” not satisfied with their failures their in Chile, would apply this system with equally disastrous results in Russia. Undaunted and in need of a new country to experiment on, they found an ally with George W. Bush, whose entire cabinet was made up of people who shared the von Hayek/ Rand worldview. The result, as we all have seen, has been a failure of historic proportions. Well-paying jobs were replaced with jobs that demanded workers ask the question, “Do you want fries with that?” and social mobility dropping as wealth gaps increased to levels not seen for over a hundred years.

This is where we are living today and there are people still demanding we continue on this road. the response to the first African American president, a politician who at best is a corporate-friendly center/ right politician, has been a call for more of the same policies that will drive us back onto the Stone Age. I certainly hope you vote, but that you vote fully aware of what hangs in the balance: freedom.