This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. This article is the third of four perspectives on the political relevance of anarchy and the prospects for liberty in the world today.
Freedom, that most familiar of concepts in political theory, strikes us today as ever-more ambiguous and opaque.
While freedom has long been the ideological emblem of the liberal capitalist West, it seems increasingly difficult to identify with any real clarity or certainty. Its meaning has been contorted by the rationality of neoliberalism, which offers us only a very narrow notion of freedom through the market while, as Foucault would put it, governing us through our own liberty.
The supposedly free individual is required to conform to certain norms and codes of behaviour, which coincide with the dictates of the market. Thus the individual, in the name of freedom, is pushed back upon himself and becomes solely responsible for his own economic destiny. This inculcates within him an eternal sense of guilt when he fails to live up to prescribed standards of success or “resilience”.
Furthermore, freedom has become absolutely hinged to the ideology of security that is now omnipresent in liberal societies.
We might add to this a consideration of the innumerable daily instances where, in liberal states (I now use this term advisedly), freedom is constrained and curtailed – by, for instance, over-zealous lawmakers, judiciaries, police and other state institutions and private corporations – not to mention the lack of economic “liberty” experienced by the majority of the dispossessed around the world.
We are tempted to say that the concept of freedom finds itself in a dead-end. When we talk about freedom today, we literally don’t know what we’re talking about.
Stirner on freedom from within
In the mid-19th century, the little-known German Young Hegelian philosopher Max Stirner was already arguing that the discourse of freedom was exhausted.
The problem with the standard notions of freedom was that they were dependent on certain external conditions and institutions, like the liberal state, or on the fulfilment of some promise of revolutionary emancipation. They thus reduced freedom to a kind of spectral ideal that always concealed new forms of domination.
If freedom is associated with a certain regime of law or type of community, or is aligned with a higher rational and moral ideal, this in effect alienates the individual’s freedom.
If freedom is associated with a form of state, then one allows the state to determine the limits of freedom.
If freedom is seen as an ideal to be achieved within a higher rational and moral community, then one either pursues an impossible dream, or allows freedom to be determined by a revolutionary vanguard seeking to impose its own vision on society.
In other words, according to Stirner, if external conditions and standards are seen to prescribe and determine the extent of freedom, one ends up disempowering individuals and robbing them of their own capacities for freedom. Such were the limits of freedom that Stirner proposed an alternative notion of ownness, by which he intended a more radical understanding of self-ownership.
What is ownness? Unlike the mystification of freedom, the pursuit of which has become a hollow game (the same could be said about democracy), ownness is a much more tangible experience. I understand it as ontological freedom: the freedom one always already has.
What does this mean? First, it is a singular form of freedom, which is left to individuals to create for themselves, rather than conforming to any universalised or institutionally defined ideal.
Nor is it a question of emancipation, as this simply risks another form of domination – we have seen this in many revolutions aimed at “freeing” a subjugated people. Rather, it is up to the individuals themselves, affirming themselves and their own indifference to all forms of power.
While this might sound like a form of wishful thinking – this was Marx and Engels’ claim against Stirner – it alerts us to what La Boétie saw as the voluntary servitude and wilful obedience that underpinned all forms of domination. The flipside of this was a wilful disobedience and a reclamation of one’s own power.
Perhaps we can say that ownness is the experience of self-affirmation and empowerment that ontologically precedes all acts of liberation. Let’s take Stirner’s example of the slave. While the slave has little or no freedom in his chains, he nevertheless has ownness, a sense of self-possession. It is the one thing his master cannot take from him:
That I then become free from him and his whip is only the consequence of my antecedent egoism.
In this situation, freedom, whether liberal or republican, whether understood as non-interference or non-domination, simply cannot account for the slave’s sense of autonomy, his understanding of himself as his own property and not anyone else’s.
Lessons for today
What lessons does this have for us today? In recent years we have witnessed an unprecedented breakdown and crisis of legitimacy in our representative political institutions.
In the hands of our political elites, all these high-minded ideals of liberty, rights and democracy no longer signify anything; they have come to be associated with the worst hypocrisies and abuses.
At the same time, we have learnt – rightly – to be wary of revolutionary promises of liberation and alternative forms of social order as an antidote to the current situation. The question of freedom today is located in this gap between crumbling institutions and the eclipse of utopian horizons.
In response to this deadlock we have seen new forms of political experimentation, in which people seek to define their own lives and their relations with others in ways that are autonomous from dominant modes of political and economic organisation.
Institutions are not destroyed – for what would this lead to but simply a new kind of institutionalisation? Rather they are profaned; used without identifying with or investing in them.
We start to think and act as though power no longer existed. This is not the freedom of the neoliberal subject, sacrificing himself to the God of the Market, but the self-determination of owners invested in themselves and, through themselves, in others.
You can read other articles in the series here.