© Robert Orwell Hand – (Reprinted with Permission) https://understandingthings.net/2019/11/01/understanding-freedom-part-v-freedom-and-politics-cont
To believe in the ideal of freedom for all, you must believe, generally speaking, that people can be trusted with power. Not, that is, with power over the lives of others—which invites and, when absolutized, assures corruption—but with power over their own lives, both individually and collectively. Another term for that individual and collective exercise of power is self-government.
This democratic belief in freedom for all cannot confine this self-governing power to just some people. Not just certain kinds of people. It views the power of self-government as the birthright of the people.
This does not require that people be perfect, just that they can (and that many do) learn and grow (which highlights the necessity of public schooling that educates students in American history rather than in American mythology). And it requires that rather than positioning themselves over others, leaders operate among the people. Which is to say that democratic leadership functions by example and persuasion rather than by authority and coercion. (Where coercive authority may be necessary as a last resort, it must always be justified as such in democratic terms). ,
This faith in the people is reinforced by a consideration of the only alternative to people power: allowing power to reside and remain (as it, of course, already does) in the hands of the powerful few. And this is the chief difference between what are, in political terms, alternatively called “the Right” and “the Left,” and why this distinction, properly understood, should and must be preserved.
To be on “the Right” is to believe that people in general cannot be allowed, because they are fundamentally unqualified, to exercise power and, therefore, to be trusted with power over their own lives (in any but a rhetorical sense). Consequently, people need “leaders” who control them—whether kings or lords or masters or bishops or bosses or officials—by making the decisions for them that they cannot be trusted to make for themselves. Thus, the conservative position has always been to defend the monarchy against the republic, the aristocracy against the commoners, the freedom of the powerful few against the freedom of all, so as to uphold the way things are as determined by the powers that be. And so much for democracy.
To be on “the Left,” in contrast, is to believe that people, despite their myriad imperfections and fallibilities, are in a far better position to decide for themselves what they need and want and how to cooperatively go about getting it, both individually and collectively, than any one or any group that would claim the right and, therefore, the freedom/power to rule over them. Which is the essence of democracy.
Your understanding of freedom may, finally, rest on how you interpret Jefferson’s famous assertion that “all men are created equal.” By “men,” did he and the others who signed the Declaration of Independence, refer only to “all” white, land-owning males (who were, after all, the only ones who were originally treated as possessing equal rights)?
If so, those who consciously believe that (or just unconsciously act like) whites are the supreme “race,” that males are superior to females, and/or that the material success of America and its owning/ruling class is a “blessing” bestowed by God on those who deserve it, may perhaps content themselves that they are in line with the “original intent” of the founders: that freedom was intended only for people like themselves (who, if not already there, nurse the hope that they will one day ascend to owning-class status). And that, therefore, talk of the equality of freedom for all is unnatural, running counter to the intended reality of things (which seems, judged by the effects of their rulings, to be the sentiment of the “originalists” who now form the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, the only totally undemocratic—that is, unelected—branch of the U.S. government).
At the end of the 19th century—30-some years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent end of chattel slavery—a great debate ensued in the U.S. Congress regarding whether or not the Declaration’s assertion of the ideal of the equality of all human beings—of freedom for all—realistically applied to the non-white islanders of the Philippines and Puerto Rico and Cuba, and whether or not the Declaration’s demand for self-government necessarily excluded the U.S. from competition with the national powers of Europe for imperial expansion across the globe.
As historian Stephen Kinzer points out, avowed American imperialist and future U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt led the political charge for war with Spain (as well as the cavalry charge up San Juan Hill) to “liberate” Cuba, along with those other Spanish colonies. And, after the American victory over Spain, he led the charge for the U.S. annexation of those same colonies; this had only recently been done with the erstwhile nation of Hawaii (which eventually, of course, became the 50th state).
Anti-imperialists, like Mark Twain, viewed this movement as an unconstitutional betrayal of America’s founding principles, and they issued all-too-prophetic warnings that the path to empire would inevitably lead the U.S. into militarism and oligarchy.
But those eager to expand American territories (and markets) beyond the continental borders of the U.S. made the undeniable argument that U.S. expansion across the North American continent had always consisted of seizing the lands of peoples perceived to be inferior: specifically, American Indians and Mexicans, non-white and, therefore, considered unfit for self-government because, for all intents and purposes, less than fully human. For U.S. imperialists, it was simply a logical extension of the mythical doctrine of Manifest Destiny for the U.S. to accept its God-given role of bringing the American version of “freedom and democracy” to the rest of the world, whether the rest of the world wanted it or not. (After all, George Washington himself had called the newly-formed United States “a nascent empire” and, later, Thomas Jefferson called America “an Empire of Liberty.”)
And so it was that the U.S. launched its capitalist empire overseas, setting the stage for what became known as “the American Century” (and increasingly reducing talk of the U.S. being a “democracy” to merely a rhetorical flourish, necessary to appease and confuse the general population).
Historically, the “freedom and democracy” that the U.S. government has tried to spread, both diplomatically and militarily, throughout the world is the capitalist version thereof. The capitalist version of “freedom” is the unhindered power of capitalists to expropriate resources and exploit labor and expand markets in their own and in whatever other countries they choose. And the capitalist version of “democracy” is a political system legitimized by—and, as far as the people are concerned, virtually reduced to—voting, wherein voters vote for candidates who are allowed (by being financed by the powers that be) to run for office because they represent the interests of the U.S. capitalists and their international allies, the oligarchs who virtually run the governments of their own countries. (The democratic-alternative model of independent, small-donor-financed political campaigns pioneered by Bernie Sanders is—like so much of Sanders’ approach to politics—the exception that proves the rule.)
When relatively progressive leaders manage, against the odds, to ascend to political power in other nations, threatening the interests of capital by moving to use resources and labor and markets, to whatever degree manageable, to build more educated, healthy and prosperous societies, the U.S. government demonizes them (through the mouthpiece of the U.S. corporate media) as “corrupt dictators,” cripples their national economies with sanctions, and when that doesn’t work, directs CIA-engineered military coups to effect “regime change” (20th and 21st century examples having included Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and Honduras, with Venezuela the current target).
And this version of “freedom and democracy” accords perfectly with the view that the “all men [who] are created equal” are the white, big-business-and-land-owning capitalists of America.
If, however, “all men”—as it has progressively been understood throughout American history—is the founders’ archaic, gender-neutral representation of all human beings—not only Americans but all members of the human race—then the way things are as determined by the powers that be is exposed as un-American, at least as far as the nobler instincts of the founding fathers enshrined in the Declaration of Independence are concerned. And this expansive and inclusive sense of “all men” laid the foundation for a radical American progressivism in the interest of freedom for one and all.
So, thinking Americans are faced with a clear choice about how to regard their common history. Perhaps what have been called America’s original sins—African-American slavery and Native-American genocide—were not really sins at all but, to the contrary, part of the working out of a divine plan, or at worst, necessary evils in the building of “America”; in that case, the return to (or the maintenance of) America’s imperial greatness is the right goal.
If, however, American greatness is not a matter of the “freedom” of the world’s only superpower to impose its will (for better or, as has typically been the case, for worse) on the rest of the world, if American greatness is, instead, a matter of progress toward the as-yet-far-from-attained goal of freedom for all in America and in the rest of the world, then a national reassessment of American history is long overdue.
The aftermath of this historical reassessment would unavoidably result in recognizing with deep regret the moral darkness of slavery and genocide out of which “America” emerged. This recognition would, reasonably and appropriately, result in the U.S. government’s investing in the socio-economic-and-political empowerment of the African and Native American communities against whom these national sins were committed (and who continue to suffer under their legacy).
And, as far as African Americans are concerned, this would be part and parcel of the empowerment of American workers in general. As progressive political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., points out, all movement toward the empowerment of American workers would disproportionately benefit African Americans, the vast majority of whom are members of the American working class and make up a sizeable part of it. Only as all members of the U.S. working class—of whatever color or gender—see themselves as aligned not against one another but against the powers that be, will they work together for their own and each other’s empowerment in the interest of freedom for all.
Regarding the American Indian community, the appropriate historical reassessment can only mean the restoration to tribal sovereignty of native nations over their reservation lands and resources, including the economic support necessary to develop their economies and to protect and preserve the water they share with the rest of America. Native communities have led the way in the 21st century in standing against the ongoing environmental assaults perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry, which continues to enjoy the aggressive (as in violent) support of both the U.S. and state governments. Only as an increasing number of Americans in general identify with the struggles of native communities against the powers that be, embracing those struggles as their own, will justice belatedly come to what’s left of native America.
Conservatives, of course, would cry out that the U.S. government cannot possibly afford the necessary funds for working-class and tribal economic empowerment (not to mention reparations of any kind), just as they moan and groan about the unaffordability of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. And this, even as they continually form and pass legislation that spends trillions of taxpayer dollars on American wars all over the planet and on tax cuts for the tiny minority of the wealthiest and most powerful Americans.
The grim reality is that since World War II, the financial priority of the powers that be, represented by their conservative and moderate political proxies, has been the funding of the military-industrial complex (in Eisenhower’s original, unedited formulation: the military-industrial-congressional complex) in the interest of the maintenance and expansion of the American empire.
And in the wake of the 1960s, due to the threat to empire of the civil-rights and anti-war movements (which threatened to redirect significant funding away from “defense” spending to the economic development of the African American community and, subsequently, other minority groups and the poor in general), the powers that be have responded by constructing a prison-industrial complex. The emergence of mass incarceration—the U.S. consisting of 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners—has seen the virtual criminalization of non-whiteness, naturally accompanied by the criminalization of poverty and immigration. And this has set the stage for the increasing criminalization of dissent, targeting any grassroots movements for social and economic and environmental justice that dare to get out on the streets. (Witness the ruthless police repression of, among other examples, the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and of the Standing Rock Lakota and allied opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.)
In sum, the U.S. military-industrial complex represents the assault of the powers that be on the possibilities of freedom in the rest of the world while the U.S. prison-industrial complex—along with increasingly militarized local police departments—represents their assault on the remaining possibilities for the freedom of American citizens themselves. All, of course, in the name of preserving and spreading freedom and democracy.
Only with an honest, sincere, and widespread acknowledgement of the history of unfreedom in America can there emerge a realistic prospect for progress toward freedom for one and all. And that is because only this kind of reassessment of the unfreedom in America’s past will awaken a realization of the alarming degree to which the scales have been so heavily tipped against freedom in America’s present.
But the emergence of a realistic prospect of freedom for all in America will not come without furious resistance on the part of the powers that be.
In 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the disappearance of freedom from the face of the earth (freedom being the first casualty of the war on truth), O’Brien, the grand inquisitor of “the Party,” asks Winston, the now-exposed dissenter, how “one asserts power over another.” Winston replies, “By making him suffer.” O’Brien then explains why this is, indeed, the case: “Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
Through O’Brien, Orwell describes not what power must be but what power must become in a state in which the people become permanently powerless. When power becomes the exclusive and permanent possession of the few over the many, its features are distorted and misshapen in monstrous ways because that is precisely what is necessary to maintain the status quo: the permanent and absolute subservience of the powerless.
O’Brien’s and Winston’s assessment of how one asserts power over another is necessarily the case when the one represents the powerful few whose permanent possession of power depends on the permanent powerlessness of another, that is, the many, who can’t be allowed to obey for any ulterior motives—whether in the hope of eventually ascending to the status of the chosen few, or merely in the hope of being left alone and unmolested—because in either case they remain a potential threat. For the powers that be to secure their hold on all the power, the many must obey because they lack both the power and the will to disobey, and this requires their suffering.
According to Neil Postman (in his 1986 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death), among others, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (written in 1931)—a vision of the future according to which humans give up their freedom for the physical and mental comfort of material affluence and drug-induced euphoria—seemed more prophetic of cultural and political developments in the late 20th century than Orwell’s more darkly and brutally dystopian 1984 (written in 1948). As long as the New Deal and Great Society programs of the mid-to-late twentieth century kept the capitalist beast, at least to some extent, at bay—meaning that the agenda of the powers that be had necessarily to be less obvious, more covert—this seemed an accurate perception. And it certainly continues to be the case that the desire to be perpetually entertained distracts many Americans (at least those whose heads are still economically above water) from concerns about threats (even from the truthlessness of Trump) to their freedom.
In the twenty-first century, though (particularly, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent “War on Terror”), a case for the superior prescience of 1984 seems quite arguable. While Orwell did not foresee the digital revolution and the way it would make information available to the many—even despite the dis-informational agenda of the powers that be (which may nevertheless yet be realized via the state-enforced end of internet neutrality)—he certainly foresaw the war on truth, as well as on privacy by the surveillance state, personified by “Big Brother”; he also foresaw the current reality of endless war, which consumes so many billions of tax-payer dollars that could—but won’t—be spent on the healthcare and housing and education and infrastructure that would speed progress toward the goal of freedom for all.
Orwell apparently believed that as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, technology had advanced to the point that a relatively equal standard of living for all the peoples of the earth was a realizable goal. However, in the internal world of 1984, in the wake of World War II and potential nuclear devastation, the few at the top of the hierarchical organizations of the world’s societies have devised a strategy whereby their power will be permanently preserved via endless war (along with linguistic mind control and mass surveillance).
The totalizing mind-control imposed by “the Party” of 1984 on its members is not as far removed as it may seem from the ongoing project of today’s corporate powers that be: to infuse capitalism’s market values and belief system into people’s everyday thinking via the corporatization of the mainstream media and, increasingly, the internet. The violence perpetrated by “the Party” of 1984 on its members to disable their freedom of thought—that is, people’s ability to think critically and creatively—has been rendered virtually unnecessary by at least two factors: first, the near monopolization and corporatization of communication by Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple; and second, the mind-numbing and consciousness-shrinking effects of standardized testing (by means of its demand for comprehensionless-reading and communicationless-writing) on the public education system.
Nevertheless, the mastery of the powers that be at “tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing” is on display in America today by means of an economic violence (now called “austerity”) that is only somewhat less brutal, in its deprivation of working people’s basic necessities, than the physical violence of 1984. (Witness the passive compliance, and in some cases active complicity, of the growing mass of have-nots with their corporate overlords in the face of income inequality unmatched since just before the Great Depression, though promising signs of grassroots resistance are emerging.)
Clearly, 1984 depicts Orwell’s perception of the communist totalitarianism of mid-20th-century Stalinism, but he was equally as wary of the potential capitalist totalitarianism that has since been emerging in the form of neoliberalism. In a pre-1984 book review of The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek, the influential Austrian pioneer of unregulated capitalism (in which book Hayek sounds the conservative alarm regarding the economics of communist totalitarianism), Orwell suggested that unregulated capitalism would result in “a tyranny probably worse [than communist totalitarianism], because more irresponsible, than that of the State.” More “irresponsible” because its power is directed exclusively toward the priority of profit at the expense of all else, from individual human rights to the planetary survival of the human race.
And this capitalist totalitarianism is currently leaving even the possibility of freedom for any but the powers that be in jeopardy.
Which suggests an answer to 1984’s enduring question as to why the powerful of the world should be so adamantly and unalterably opposed to a human equality that technology has now made theoretically realizable. That answer: As long as even a remote possibility of freedom for all remains—the possibility of an equal distribution of power to the powerless and, thus, the fall of the power elite—then the status quo, the position of the powerful few, will remain uncertain. And concentrated power craves certainty, because the powers that be always feel—albeit often unconsciously—how tentative and contingent their power really is. And not least, how incompetent they are at predicting the future. Consequently, any threat of equality, of people-power—of the possibility of freedom for all—is intolerable and must be ground to dust.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me,” proclaimed the late, great African American singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone: “No fear!”
The effect of all the external restraints on people-power imposed by the powers that be—from school-and-church-and-media indoctrination to voter disenfranchisement, from patriarchy to homophobia, from worker and consumer exploitation to unemployment, imprisonment and execution—is that those external restraints are internalized in the form of fear. Fear itself is the greatest restraint on people power because it starves and strangles the human spirit of resistance.
Freedom, then, is not merely the absence of external restraints after all, but much further and deeper, freedom is the absence of the internalized restraint of fear—fear of some form of punishment for exercising the power to be (which means, by extension, the power to express) yourself, especially in unauthorized and, therefore, unacceptable ways. This is the fear that is bred into the soul by the way things are as orchestrated by the powers that be.
When understood as the unrestrained, unhindered power of all human beings to be themselves, individually and collectively (respecting and protecting that self-governing power for all), freedom reveals itself to be a spiritual thing (which is not to say, a religious thing).
The ideal of freedom for all assumes that below the physical-social-economic-political surface of human existence dwells a human spirit—a mental and moral energy—that unites all human beings in a universal sister-and-brother-and-other-hood. And that in the face of the fear-instilling, fear-inducing external restraints that the powerful impose on the powerless, a human spirit exists within each of us that can resist, that can somehow refuse to allow fear to modify our behavior into compliance with and subservience to the powers that be, and instead, can act in concert with others to transform the way things are.
And if so, freedom is the self-claimed thing that unleashes the power to realize the twin human aspirations to individuality and community: the freedom from fear that releases the power to love both yourself and your neighbor as yourself.
And this neighbor-love that begins with and depends on self-love—even as the words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” have been virtually emasculated by religious and humanitarian rhetoric—is the spiritual power that arms, however haltingly, the one who has tasted and is growing into freedom, and that aims at the goal of freedom for all. This power of neighbor-as-self-love is the spiritual dynamic that energizes the politics of people-power from the inside out, unifying the people—”the 99%”—by disarming our addictions to the tribalism, suspicion, mistrust, rivalry and bigotry—in short, the fear—that divides the human animal into herds, civil society into, at best, peacefully co-existing and, at worst, warring factions.
The absence of progress toward the ideal of freedom for all does not mean that the way things are stays the same, socioeconomically and politically, for the people of the world: great for the powerful few and relatively good for some of the many, while ranging from relatively to thoroughly bad to absolutely horrific for most of them.,
Despite having determined, for all intents and purposes, the shape and color of socio-political-economic-and-environmental reality, the powers that be are never content with the way things are. While accepting temporary setbacks when they must, they are always determined to take full possession of whatever is left, to make full use of the available technology to have it all. As Adam Smith (ironically, one of capitalism’s economic heroes) scornfully wrote of them in 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.” And this, no matter how unsustainable for human existence it may ultimately and finally (and more and more imminently) prove to be.
It may not be too late to reverse the disappearing of freedom from the face of the earth, but only if and as the powers that be are confronted by the power of the people, claiming the human political-and-spiritual right to freedom for one and all—the unhindered, unrestrained power of neighbor-as-self-love—as their own: the freedom from fear to transform the way things are into a human reality that can work for one and all.
1 thought on “Understanding Freedom: Freedom and the Human Spirit (Conclusion)”
“It may not be too late to reverse the disappearing of freedom from the face of the earth”
Not too late.
Your article is good enough so that there’s little to add of any substance concerning freedom. But will write that there’s also the possibility of leaving the Earth; for arandom example, Elon Musk wants to lower the cost of reusable Mars rockets from c $60,000,000 to c $60,000 a launch in perhaps 15 years. Now I’m not going to be cynical and say such is a fatuous prediction, yet it isn’t for a layman to go into.
Off Earth, we would no longer be scorpions in a bottle. In such a hypothetical view, freedom would attain new vistas not relatable to what we are familiar with. At any rate, will ignore Musk’s oligarchic billionaire-libertarian politics from now on.
Oligarchic billionaire-libertarian politics have become too disheartening to even contemplate.