Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Answering the question “What is freedom?” with four quotations

A few years back I and a few of my colleagues tried to figure out what Bush Jr. could have meant when he said that freedom wasn’t the United States’ gift to Iraq but God’s gift to humanity. None of us could come up with a good answer, so we started to recall other quotes on freedom just for the fun of it. One of us quoted Janis Joplin: “Freedom’s just another word for having nothing to lose”. I agreed, recalling Laurie Anderson’s: “I got all I ever wanted. Now I can’t give it up. It’s a trap”. Immediately, another joined in by quoting Dylan’s "Ballad in Plain D":
My friends from the prison, they ask onto me
How good, how good does it feel to be free?
And I answer them most mysteriously
Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?
Here I wish I had filled in with the following fine quote from John Cage's Indeterminacies, but I missed the opportunity:
Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression “free as a bird”, Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.”
As can be seen in these quotes, the only thing that seems more or less certain about freedom is that it’s not necessarily much of a gift.

The quotes also show something else, which I think touches on something fundamental with what we call freedom. It shows, I think, that apart from the dominant, lets call it “Nietzschean” view of freedom as power or ability, there is also a minor but nevertheless important alternative concept of freedom, which perhaps we could call Taoist.

It’s a common opinion that freedom increases with might, that to be free, we need to have the means, the resources, the power to realize the goals we set to ourselves. There is much to support this view. Sure, you’re not free if you have to fight over food, just as you’re not free to move if you can’t get a visa or pay for your ticket. It’s also a view which is useful in preventing rosy idealizations of freedom: to demand freedom may sound prettier than to demand power. To counter such idealizations, it’s good to remind oneself that freedom is not merely a negative absence of obstacles but often also depends on access to power.

However, as Laurie and Janis remind us, power and freedom are not really synonyms. In fact, their quotations show us a way of thinking about freedom which sees it as a radical form of absence of means. Freedom doesn’t come only from collecting and accumulating things, but also from losing them. Means can turn into fetters. As both Marx and Weber show, modern capitalism is born out of a reversal of means and ends, with our supposed servants – money, technology and bureaucratic rationality – subjecting us to the absurd demands of its accumulation, its necessities and its imperatives. It’s not just a problem of modernity. It has much to do with the ebb and flow of energy: the heavy tools we acquire when we feel strong often turn out to be too heavy for us to lift later when we feel weak. The problem with thinking about freedom as premised on access to means is that such freedom, paradoxically, is possible only through our making ourselves dependent. The freer we make ourselves, the more dependent we become on the presumed means.

All this is put very nicely by Ogawa Kyohe in his defense of what he calls "No money life". So here's a fifth quote:
"No Money Life" doesn't mean poverty, but rather freedom.
Free means that you don't need money.
I used to think a lot about freedom in high school. Those days I thought that freedom was an illusion.
But as as things diminish your freedom increases.
You may object that lack of money makes you unfree. You are of course right. But the freedom implied when you say ”unfree” is the freedom of having, not the freedom of not having.
I dislike the freedom of having.Since you ”have”, you want more.
Surely, that is power rather than freedom. (Ogawa Kyohe, Mo Money Life)
How do we make sense of the freedom Janis and Laurie and Kyohe talk about - the freedom that arises when we no longer have anything to lose? The freedom that stems from losing may sound as an unworldly freedom, an ascetic, spiritual freedom along the lines of Buddhist liberation from desire. This is not necessarily wrong. But it risks making us feel that such freedom is of very little concern to those who want to stay in this world and live here. However, Buddhism – especially in Mahayana schools that deny the dichotomy of nirvana and samsara – is very much a religion for the living, for living here and now, actually for living all the fuller for the lack of attachments. To find a way to conceptualize the freedom of loss, we can also turn to Taoism. Chaung-tzu describes this freedom not in negative but in positive terms as the ability to “ride the six elements”, meaning that freedom depends on nothing but what naturally offers itself and makes itself available. Such freedom is absolute, not relative – i.e. not dependent on any particular conditions. The free person is infinitely mobile, untied by identity, never dependent on anything but what is freely available. What is always freely available: the air, the water, the waste, knowledge, words. It is the world of the commons, the world of no-man’s-land.

Try imagining Bill Gates standing by the sea shore and throwing his money into the waves. Not giving it to charity. Just down into the waves. The Situationists knew that this too was a kind of freedom: ”People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities” (“The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”). In some sense, destruction is liberation. Possessions grant you freedom but only on condition that you sacrifice them. Freedom is to liberate things. Money is freedom, but only to the extent that it is released back to the sea, to no-man’s-land. Think also of Der Verschollene – Kafka’s as well as the old guy riding away on the ox – who must be thought of as happy.

There’s a very practical, politically useful flipside to this freedom of not having which makes it easier to understand. It is expressed by a Spanish colonial administrator in the Philippines: “Nothing is more difficult than to conquer a people who have no needs” (quoted in Jim Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, 2009:165). Even today one finds conquerors who are equally eloquent. Here is a police intendent in Chhattisgarh interviewed by Arundhati Roy (in a fine article on the Naxalite/Maoist rebellion in India):
See Ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy, there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out. (quoted in Roy, "Walking with the Comrades", Outlook India, 29 March, 2010)
The more needs people have, the easier they are to subjugate. Unfortunately, this insight hasn’t been lost on elites, who often pacify opponents by giving them something to lose. Conversely, the worst thing they could do, if they want the conflict to end, is to use their superiority to deprive their opponents of things to lose. This may sound self-evident, yet again and again we see states and governments bent to trying to break their opponents by impoverishing them, by smashing their cities, homes and roads, by killing their families, laying their economies in ruins, by depriving them of hope in anything but continued fight or continued opposition. By doing so they encourage people to make use of their freedom. The freedom you gain by being deprived of things, the freedom of not-having, is not necessarily a quietist freedom to withdraw or escape. It is also, just as often, a freedom to fight.

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