Understanding Freedom: Freedom & Power

© Robert Orwell Hand – (Reprinted with Permission) https://understandingthings.net/2019/07/04/understanding-freedom-part-1-freedom-and-power/

Americans like to say, “It’s a free country,” especially when someone expresses a desire to do something that might be frowned upon. The reality, however, is that freedom in America, or anywhere else, belongs only to those with the power to enjoy it.

When I was a college English composition professor, I sometimes assigned my students to write on the topic of freedom (arguably the supreme value in the hierarchy of values that we call “American”). We would begin with definitions, their most common: “being able to do whatever you want.” In that most were recent high-school graduates, their impatience with parental supervision made that definition especially understandable. And most Americans probably share that basic notion of freedom.

However, defining freedom as being able to do whatever misconstrues freedom as the presence of something, specifically, as an ability of some kind. Freedom is not, however, a human ability, nor is it the presence of anything at all. Freedom is, in fact, the absence of something, specifically, the absence of external restraints on a pre-existing ability. It may be the absence of parental supervision over what children are able to do, or, in the political and constitutional sense, the absence of governmental prohibitions of citizens’ ability, for example, to express dissent or to assemble in public. In other words, freedom means there is no one with recognized authority saying, “You can’t do that,” when you wish to do whatever it is you wish, and already have the ability, to do.

Another word for that ability to act according to your wishes is power.

So, rather than freedom being the ability to do whatever, freedom is being allowed to do whatever, assuming you already have the power to do it. The idea of freedom, then, also assumes the existence of a higher power that has the authority to either permit or prohibit whatever you have both the will and the power to do. If there were no higher powers—parental, governmental, or other—to potentially prohibit action, we would all naturally do, for better or for worse, whatever we had the will and the power to do, and the idea of freedom would be unnecessary and superfluous. But of course, the reality is that higher powers have always existed to thwart the lower, and lesser, powers—like yours and mine—that might otherwise threaten their monopoly on power. Which is why freedom became a thing in the first place.

Since, then, it is the absence of external restraints on your power to act, freedom assumes the presence of that power, removing whatever external force may otherwise restrain your power to do what you wish. Apart from the presence of power, then, freedom—the absence of external restraints—is useless, of no consequence, at best an empty slogan, a chimera that conjures up unrealizable hopes.

In short, you must have power for freedom to be relevant to your life.

So, for example, what use is freedom of speech if you lack the power of speech, or to otherwise communicate your thoughts and feelings? What use is freedom of thought if you lack the power to think. The totalitarian “Party” of George Orwell’s 1984 allowed all those outside the Party to have intellectual “freedom” only because it had already robbed them of intellect, by depriving them of education, even banning books as a means of self-education. Additionally, what use is freedom of choice if you lack the power to select among options—purchasing options, for instance, few or none of which you can afford? Ultimately, what use is any kind of freedom if you lack the power to ensure your probable future survival in the event of nuclear war or climate disaster?

Consequently, the experience of freedom is always the unrestrained exercise of power, that is, power unhindered by external forms of restraint. America is a “free country,” then, only for those with the power to experience America’s freedom. For those without at least viable access to power, “freedom” is a lie.

The powerful of the world (monarchs and masters and those who comprise “the ruling classes”) have always been free to act in their own interests, the only restraint being some competing force of relatively equal or greater power. In their given realms, rulers have always enjoyed the experience of freedom until they are overpowered and replaced by rivals, either from within their realms or from neighboring realms. And rather than freedom, the people under their rule experience the external restraints (military and economic and social) imposed on them by their rulers, so that their rulers can go on experiencing their own freedom to exercise their own power.

This freedom of rulers, however, isn’t typically called “freedom” because it isn’t a conscious thing at all; it is taken for granted if no external authority—no higher power—exists that can restrain the power of rulers. Their freedom is invisible, like the air we breathe, a matter of the way things are.

And the way things are has always been orchestrated by the powers that be.

Or maybe not. The earliest peoples of the world—organized in hunter-gatherer tribal societies—seem to have been characterized by a social egalitarianism that consisted more of power-sharing than of power-seeking, as much or more of cooperation than of competition; their primary external restraints were imposed on them by the natural world, which—by its threats of inclement weather, wild predators, and seasonal scarcity of food sources—limited their ability to survive on a daily basis. This is not to say that power was not exercised one over another but, rather, that power was not concentrated in the hands of a few; instead, power shifted from one to another according to situational contingencies that required a variety of abilities and skills.

Freedom could become a thing only after the emergence of social hierarchies, the result of the historical transition from hunter-gatherer societies to larger farming and herding societies and then to huge manufacturing societies, which concentrated power in the hands of a few, whose overruling power seemed necessary to maintain the increasingly complex structures and systems that provided for the survival of all. This development made survival more feasible for the people of the world, but it also made them the servants—more or less, the property—of the powerful.

It was only then that freedom could become a thing because those on the losing end of power relations could, and eventually would, somehow figure out that the way things are is not inevitable or irreversible—a matter, for example, of “the divine right of kings” or of “irresistible market forces”—but, instead, is the design of the (quite earthly and mortal) powers that be. The realization slowly dawned that power did not have to be the exclusive property of the few but could be divided among the many. And this distribution of power, to whatever degree it has been practiced, has been identified with the freedom to exercise it.

And once freedom became a thing, it could somehow eventually, at least in the human imagination, become the quintessential experience that constitutes human existence, defining human progress as progress toward the goal of freedom for all. This definition of human progress necessarily calls for the gradual lessening of the invisible, unspoken freedom—that is, the gradual reduction of the power—of the powers that be. Which is to say that only as restraints are imposed on the rulers of the world are restraints then lifted—if ever so gradually, in fits and starts—from the people of the world.

Freedom for all, then, must be the socio-economic-and-political meaning of equality: the evening out of power relations, the redistribution of socio-economic-and-political power among the people of the world.

Which is to say that freedom and equality are not—contrary to ideologies that seek to preserve the status quo of power relations—somehow opposed to one another, as if the more of one means, necessarily, the less of the other. (In the alleged sentiment of the early Virginia congressman John Randolph: “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.”)

In fact, freedom without equality can only mean the ruthless oppression of the powerless by the powerful, the devastating and demoralizing exercise of whose power has simply been, at most times and places throughout human history, a matter of the way things are. Consequently, freedom and equality, in any kind of human terms that matter for everyday people, cannot exist except as two sides to the same coin.

Political “freedom” (Greek, eleutheria) emerged in ancient Greece during those on-and-off periods of “democracy” (or people-power: demos, lit., people; kratos, lit., power) in Athens from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C.E. However, the birth of “freedom and democracy” was not, even ideally, a matter of freedom for all. In fact (as Hannah Arendt pointed out), Athenian “freedom” depended on slavery for its very existence because the primary obstacle to human freedom was understood to be necessity, specifically, the necessity of labor to secure one’s survival. The necessity of work was viewed as such a huge external restraint on a human being’s power that it made the “freedom” of any an impossibility without the slavery of many. Working to provide life’s necessities left no time for politics or philosophy or art or other pursuits that defined what it meant to be human in the Greek polis. Consequently, slaves were necessary to perform the productive labor that left men (though not women) free to conduct the affairs of state, and otherwise exercise the powers of their humanity. The necessity of female labor in childbirth was thought to exclude Greek women from the full possibilities of “freedom,” confining them, with few exceptions, to the private realm of household affairs.

Aristotle defined democracy as government by the poor—the vast majority of the people (Greek, demos) being poor—as opposed to oligarchy: government by the rich few. Yet even during the democratic periods of Athens, those who were most fully relieved of the necessity of labor by the larger number of their slaves and who could best afford a private education in rhetoric (originally, the political art of public speaking)—in short, the freest of the free—were the ones who exercised most of the power. These, of course, were the wealthiest citizens of Athens.

In the Western world (and as far as the labor of whites was concerned), slavery gradually and partially gave way to feudalism in the Middle Ages, masters becoming lords and slaves becoming serfs, virtually all governments being monarchies. The power of the lords was restrained primarily by the edicts of their kings, who often considered it their divine right to impose whatever their will might be on the nobility.

A limited freedom began to reemerge with the signing—under duress—of the Magna Carta (in 1215 C.E.), the primary purpose of which was to limit the power of King John over the barons of England, guaranteeing them certain forms of legal due process, thereby increasing their relative freedom from kingly oppression. Another kind of freedom was granted even the serfs in the form of “the commons”: land that was designated as public property, for the enjoyment and enhancement of all.

When democracy reemerged philosophically in Europe and then politically in America with its revolution, the idea of freedom for all began to be conceived as a God-given right, though the all still excluded non-whites and women. New, however, was—with the advent of the Industrial Revolution—the inclusion of workers, the necessity of labor somehow, at least theoretically, no longer a disqualifying factor in regard to their “freedom.” This inclusion of workers in the expanding circle of who qualified for freedom was necessitated by the Industrial Revolution, whose factories needed an ever-increasing supply of “free” labor and whose factory owners—via their influence over government policies regarding land and other natural resources—made sure that most alternative means of survival gradually became untenable and obsolete.

The end of the gradual economic transformation of masters (i.e., owners of people) into lords (i.e., owners of land) into employers (i.e., owners of companies/corporations) required the masses of people to willingly submit themselves to becoming employees, subject to the impersonalized and institutionalized working conditions of factories and, subsequently, other technology-driven enterprises. Workers had to be persuaded that they were freely choosing to do this in exchange for a wage. They were “free,” then, to work or not to work (in which case, to starve), and “free” to work for this, that or the other employer (all of whom exercised virtually limitless power over them in exchange for their strictly limited wages).

So (as progressive economist Richard Wolff points out), the economic transformation of slaves (who were the property of their masters) into serfs (who worked land that was the property of their lords) into employees (whose labor and its fruits, in exchange for a wage, are the property of their employers) is supposed to have completed the movement from slavery to freedom for all. In reality, however, calling the powerful “employers” rather than “masters” or “lords,” and calling the powerless “employees,” rather than “slaves” or “serfs,” doesn’t change the fundamental power relations between the powerful and the powerless, who continue to suffer the way things are as arranged by the powers that be.

In effect, the ancient Greek dependence of “freedom” on slavery has reemerged as the newest version of the way things are: if business owners are truly to experience freedom—now called “free enterprise”—a new form of slavery is required: what the owners call “free labor” has been called “wage slavery” by those who have continued to uphold and pursue the ideal of freedom for all.

Employment is called “wage slavery” because workers are required to surrender their labor and its fruits—which, for all intents and purposes, means their lives—to their owners. The terms “employer” and “employee” disguise the power relations between owning class and working-class: If the employer is the owner of the company and the employer of the employees who form the productive apparatus of the company, is he (or she) not also the owner of the workers?

Of course, this is the case only while workers are “on the job.” They go home as free men and women. But time spent “on the job” has always amounted to the vast majority of the waking hours of workers (even after labor unions forced owners to adopt the eight-hour workday). And workers are forced to do their jobs in exchange for a wage over which they have (especially in the absence of labor unions) little or no say, that is to say, no power. Well, not technically forced, of course, in that they are otherwise “free” to starve.

In the southern United States, chattel slavery continued for nearly a century—from the founding of the nation until the Civil War—because the “freedom” of the plantation owners to maintain their aristocratic status quo depended on it. And even with the abolition of slavery, the lords of the South engineered ways—most notably, the prison system, which was constitutionally authorized by the 14thAmendment to treat prisoners as slaves by requiring them to work without wages—to perpetuate slavery, by either falsely accusing, prosecuting and convicting African Americans of criminal offenses or inventing crimes (like “loitering”) for which to incarcerate them, on a widespread basis. (A common alternative, for those who were not imprisoned, was lynching.)

And poor southern whites—counterparts of the northern factory workers who were forced to sell their labor so cheaply—continued as virtual serfs, placated by the belief (fed them by their land-owning lords) that their whiteness granted them human dignity, despite their poverty, that black people necessarily lacked.

Every step of progress in the so-called “civilized world” toward the still unrealized goal of freedom for all has amounted to the forcible reduction of the invisible freedom of the powers that be, who rarely if ever voluntarily relinquish an ounce of their power. Their universal purpose has always been and, presumably, will always be, instead, to consolidate and expand their power (along with the wealth that power brings and that inevitably brings more power). In the words of Adam Smith (in The Wealth of Nations, 1776): “All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” As history shows, as long as the powerful few remain powerful, they will use their freedom to maintain and increase their power, allowing others only the relative freedom/power necessary to continue the process.

In the familiar words of the British political philosopher Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power, on one hand, is necessary for people to satisfy their individual and collective needs and to gratify their individual and collective desires; on the other hand, when power is concentrated in the hands of a few, corruption is inevitable: the powerless many suffer at the hands and in the interests of the powerful few.

Accordingly, the more widely and broadly power is distributed, the less corrupting it will be. The invisible freedom of the powerful inevitably results, again and again, in the oppression of the powerless, regardless of whether or not the powerless are told that they are “free.” The power of the few, therefore, must be diffused, redistributed among the many, in the interest of freedom for all. And this, not to make the powerful few powerless but, instead, to allow them no more power than anyone else. Which is called equality.

(Next: Understanding and Freedom: Freedom and Government-Part 1)

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Freedom: Freedom & Power

  1. Now we’re at war with Iran, and we will be in the Mideast for decades more. Power and war go together like mayonnaise and tuna fish.

  2. Brooks, you can’t imagine how blissfully breathtaking a sentiment that includes power, war, mayonnaise, and tuna fish is at 0600 in the morning. Brilliance! Nice metaphor!! In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an atheist and a socialist. Often times I have prefaced an argument with farmers have ruined the world—tongue in cheek of course. I offer this sentiment because as soon as anyone has had the opportunity to preserve a resource, another will have the desire to acquire it—in whatever fashion. As noted, I have no faith…but I did study with a Buddhist for well over a year while drafting an ethnography, and was introduced to some abstract concepts. During my tenure, I learned that freedom is (to quote an overused phrase), “a state of mind”.

    Arguably, freedom is an existential concept, and lies outside of the physical realm—I am not making an argument for metaphysics, it is B.S. Now back to farmers. Resources spawn greed, greed spawn’s wealth, and wealth spawns power—and who doesn’t want power? Power preserves resources and ensures survival—and it’s always in fashion—we are biologically predisposed to it by nature. However, unregulated, unyielding power corrupts. Don’t take my word, just flip through any history book…to save time, glance at our current administration. To quote an intellectual hero of mine, Eugene Debs, “While there is a lower class, I’m in it, while there is a criminal element, I’m of it, and while the is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

    Though freedom may be a great unfathomable abyss (Russell), it is only attainable in an existential form, to the best of my knowledge—but I could be wrong, and hope that I am, but I doubt it sincerely. As long as the human form has an expiration date and at some point can “cease to be” (Monty Python), then there is no freedom, and we are kidding ourselves. I view this notion as un-fixable, but dammit, can’t we just give it the ole’ college try?

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