In my last article for Jacobin, I praised “the republican theory of freedom” — the idea that the most important kind of freedom is freedom from domination.
Some might wonder why I think it’s important for the Left talk about freedom in the first place. We see “freedom” invoked to defend everything from the right of corner gun shops to sell AR-15s without background checks to the right of chemical plants to dump toxic waste in rivers. Shouldn’t we instead ground our politics in alternative values like equality or the alleviation of suffering?
These other values are important. Equality matters both in itself and because genuine freedom is impossible amid massive inequality. Reducing suffering is a valiant aim too. But it would be a huge mistake to cede “freedom” to the defenders of the capitalist status quo.
The drive to overcome unjust relations of domination has always been at the center of the Left’s project.
Conservatives, Libertarians, and Freedom
Conservatives love to talk about freedom. Donald Trump just announced a proposal to charter “freedom cities” on federally owned land. His likely rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, recently published a book called The Courage to Be Free.
Progressives pushing back against this rhetoric often point to the Right’s inconsistencies and hypocrisies. What about the freedom of pregnant women to decide what happens in their own bodies? What about the freedoms of gay and trans people?
This is all true and important. But none of it quite reaches the nub of the issue.
After all, if the only problem with mainstream conservatives’ invocation of freedom is that it’s full of blind spots, what should we say about those few relatively principled libertarians who do come down on the right side of many of these battles? While some libertarians are antiabortion, for example, the ones who aren’t describe their worldview as “pro-choice on everything.”
The libertarian conception of freedom is “noninterference” — an idea pithily summarized in the title of Matt Kibbe’s 2014 “libertarian manifesto” Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff. When DeSantis wants to lock up a Floridian who smokes a joint in her backyard, he’s going against the first half of that title. And when leftists advocate nationalizing private corporations — or even raising taxes to pay for Medicare for All — they’re going against the second half.
One easy way to rebut the Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff worldview is simply to emphasize the importance of competing values. If you think that people struggling with suicidal depression or addiction to hard drugs sometimes need to be saved from themselves, for instance, or that mass shootings are an unacceptable price to pay for “gun freedom,” you’re going to reject at least the most extreme form of libertarianism. But that’s consistent with thinking freedom is very important — and that “freedom” means what libertarians think it means. So even if you support gun control or want the legal system to push heroin addicts into rehab, you might value “freedom” too much to want to take away Amazon from Jeff Bezos and run it as a public utility.
A deeper problem with freedom as noninterference — or at least with the claim that economic redistribution violates this view of freedom — is that every time you recognize a property right to “stuff,” you’re actually carving out an exception to the “don’t hurt people” part. If you don’t believe me, try to board a privately owned train without a ticket and see what happens.
Libertarians sometimes attempt to get around this problem by appealing to the “non-aggression principle,” which says that hurting people or taking their stuff is only bad if you’re the one initiating the use of force. It’s fine to defend people or their property with the use of force.
But the problem here is with the concept of “your” property. Does this mean the property that’s legally yours? If so, taxation and even nationalization of private companies is just fine! If Congress passes a law to nationalize Amazon, then the company is no longer legally Bezos’s property. On the other hand, if “your” property means the property you’re morally entitled to, then objecting to ethical arguments for redistribution on the grounds that it undercuts your freedom against interference with “your” property is just arguing in a circle.
Whether we’re talking about socialist proposals like nationalizing Amazon or daily capitalist realities like a landlord calling the police to kick squatters out of an unoccupied building, all possible distributions of scarce resources are enforced by some sort of coercion. The question in dispute is never coercion versus no coercion. It is, always and everywhere, which distribution to coercively enforce.
Negative Freedom, Positive Freedom, and Freedom From Domination
If you were nodding along to that last argument, you might think “freedom” can’t tell us much about how resources should be distributed. And it can’t — if freedom means noninterference. But is that the only important kind of freedom, or even the kind that matters most?
One way of pushing back against an excessive emphasis on “negative” liberty is to play up “positive” liberty. Maybe a drug addict, for example, isn’t truly free — you can’t be the master of your own destiny if you’re enslaved to your addiction.
The classic objection to this idea comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who conceded that coercing someone for their own good might in some cases be justified, but who still thought it was absurd to say that
if it is my good, then I am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or “truly” free) even when my poor earthly body and foolish mind bitterly reject it, and struggle against those who seek however benevolently to impose it.
Fair enough. But the dichotomy between “negative” freedom from interference and “positive” freedom to act on your “real” underlying interests doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. “Republican” theorists — as in ancient Greek and Roman republics — emphasized freedom from domination, and argued that this was a more fundamental kind of freedom than freedom from interference.
Think about the most extreme form of nonfreedom, slavery. A slave who’s whipped every day is certainly less lucky than one whose master hardly ever strikes him. His body is interfered with less. But is he more free? Proponents of republicanism would say no, because in each case the slave is at the mercy of the master and the same underlying relationship of domination persists.
Of course, ancient republican philosophers had no objection to slavery. They just wanted a class of citizens to be free from the whims of any emperor or oligarch. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, abolitionists, labor organizers, and socialists advocated a society in which everyone would be robustly free from domination. Even the elimination of extreme unfreedom through the Union’s victory in the Civil War wasn’t enough to satisfy these radicals, who saw disturbing patterns of domination in Northern industrial capitalism: “Emancipation may have eliminated chattel slavery, but, as eight-hour campaigner Ira Steward once put it, the creation of this new form of economic dependence meant ‘something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.’”
Under capitalism, the vast majority of people who are directly involved in the economy don’t own what Marxists call “the means of production.” They don’t own factories, for example, or book-packaging warehouses or grocery stores, and they can’t afford to buy any of these things. So they have no realistic option except to rent themselves out for eight hours a day — and it’s only eight hours due to the efforts of people like Steward — to people who do own them.
There’s a profound power imbalance in this relationship. Many workplaces are run as petty dictatorships where the boss can tell workers when they have to smile, when they are or aren’t allowed to talk to each other, and when they can and can’t go to the bathroom. In the vast majority of cases — exceptions include workers with rare and highly valued skills, and periods of especially low unemployment — it’s much easier for a company to replace a worker than for the worker to replace her livelihood. She has to fret about her boss’s opinion of her in a way that he doesn’t. Even if he is a benevolent boss, she is still subject to his whims.
To be sure, there’s a sense in which absolute nondomination is impossible. Humans are socially interconnected, and therefore inescapably dependent on each other’s whims to some extent. We rely on each other to meet our most basic needs — very few of us, for instance, are in a position to grow all our own food. And while human institutions can provide an important degree of stability, legal and political institutions rise and fall over the course of history. Any rights that you have in a given system could be taken away in some unlikely but theoretically possible scenario in the future. We could achieve workers’ control of the means of production and then lose it in a counterrevolution.
But arguing that this means spreading economic power far more evenly wouldn’t be a deeply meaningful extension of freedom from domination is a little bit like saying that someone who lives in a compound surrounded by a high wall and armed guards doesn’t count as “really” safe because they could be taken out by assassins with sufficiently advanced military hardware. Absolute freedom, like absolute safety, is impossible — but that doesn’t make humanly achievable degrees of freedom or safety unimportant.
Non-Domination and the Project of the Socialist Left
Even mild social-democratic reforms chip away at capitalism’s power disparities and increase the freedom of ordinary people. A Canadian who luridly criticizes the head administrator of his province’s healthcare system to his face won’t get booted from receiving treatment, for example, because access to healthcare is a legal right. Try doing that to Jeff Bezos if you’re an Amazon union organizer.
And that’s Canada — a country where the welfare state is only a bit more robust than in the US. In journalist Anu Partanen’s fascinating book The Nordic Way of Everything, she describes moving to the United States and being shocked by what she thought of as pre-modern relations of dependency in workplaces and families. People stayed in jobs or even marriages they hated out of fear of losing their private health insurance. Adult children worried that their parents would stop footing the bill for their college tuition. What makes the book especially striking is that Partanen isn’t any sort of radical socialist. She just grew up in Finland.
Since I am a radical, I want the means of production to be in the hands of workers and communities instead of private capitalists. That’s a goal that you could care about for purely utilitarian reasons. You could limit yourself to saying capitalist property relations produce worse outcomes in this or that area than available alternatives. But I see no reason to cut the beating heart out of the Left’s historic project by ceding talk of “freedom” to the Right.
The men and women who built the trade union movement and fought to end child labor and institute an eight-hour day understood they were fighting for a profoundly important kind of human freedom. Let’s not lose sight of that now.