How does one know if they are free? Most people in the US would probably respond that freedom is when you are able to do what you want. After all, Thomas Jefferson, one of our Founding Fathers, said that Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But how is this freedom of choice conceived? Usually, it is considered to be a freedom to do what one wants, as long as one doesn’t harm others. This is a textbook liberal idea, being Article 4 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man from the French Revolution. It is, however, a very individualistic, isolated conception of freedom.
In this sense of freedom, one is only free as far as one is separate from others. One might act in a group, but not truly become an integrated part of it. The right of choice is seen as one which is exercised against society, one which must be protected from others. Others are conceived as constricting on the ability of one to exercise their freedom. This is not to say those with this liberal concept of freedom refuse to associate with others, but that they approach community and society with the idea that people must “stay in their lanes.” It is the idea that a group consciously altering an individual’s behavior or suggesting that some choices are harmful to the individual is inherently bad, restrictive, or evil.
While this is a basic concept common to all of American society, it differs in degrees. The more radically oriented liberals of this country are on average staunchly committed to this maxim. In their eyes, a liberated society is one where people are free to exercise their desires without the infringement of society or other people. Liberation is the liberation of desire. Interestingly, this directly reflects the classical liberal idea that freedom is the freedom of people to invest in what they want and purchase what they want. It is the freedom of the market extended to individual desires.
Here we reach a problem: modern desires are, in many ways, consumer desires. The desires of people do not come from nowhere. The material which our minds work with to form worldviews, opinions, desires, and so on is material from our daily lives. Our daily lives are particular to our place in history, in the world. A Mayan peasant in the 14th century Yucatán Peninsula would have no desire for a sugary, carbonated drink, much less a concept of it, but her descendants might now be part of many Mexican towns who drink Coca-Cola instead of unclean tap water.
Our desires, like our identities, are socially and historically specific. That means, because our daily lives change with history, and change with where we are in the world, that the material which makes up our worldviews and desires are specific to our time and place. The concepts and ideas our minds work with don’t fall from the sky. Although humans have imaginations, our sense of the world comes from our interactions with it.
The concepts we use to work with the world come originally from what our minds take in from that world. Our language itself, through which we formulate ideas, comes from society and history. It marks ideas in a social and historical way, such as in the way grammatical gender naturalizes the idea of a gender binary. Therefore, the desires formulated through that language and those concepts can’t be separated from the ensemble of social relations.
In the United States especially, where the advertising industry rakes in billions upon billions of dollars to alter people’s habits and shape their desires, it is hard to believe that anyone’s desires could be truly “authentic,” or separate from social and historical factors. In fact, advertisers have begun to perfect the art of social engineering, effectively hiding their advertisements and deceiving people into believing they independently come to desiring and thinking what they do.
When we live in a society where big capitalists pump billions into perfecting the art of manipulating desire, how can acting on our desires necessarily be liberating? In the past, consumers of cigarettes certainly believed advertisers when they said tobacco wasn’t so bad for one’s health. Further, because our desires work with the social and historical material of our lives, doesn’t that mean that oppressive social relations shape desires?
Let’s use sexual desires as an example. BDSM, sexual practices involving various dynamics revolving around control, domination, and the roleplay of master-slave dynamics, is an especially clear example. Why might such a fetish be popular in a society with a long history of slavery, genocide, and exploitation? How about in a patriarchal society, where there are clear implications for men desiring to play out a scenario of control over women? Why is our society so fixated on sexualized simulations of violence against women?
I am not suggesting that we ought to punish people for their desires. In fact, I think such an approach is harmful, and does not address the root of the matter. My point is that the politics of desire, of doing what one wants, is not inherently liberating. It can be incidentally liberating in certain conditions, such as when woman use the idea to attack the patriarchal restriction of them to the home, under the control of a man. However, it is very limited in this regard.
Because desire is social, doing what one wants can often reproduce the oppressive relations of society. The politics of desire are not a transformative politics. They are not revolutionary. They are merely a demand to be part of whatever consumer identity you want, to purchase whatever brands you want. That does not fundamentally challenge capitalism, patriarchy, or white supremacy, because it does not grasp at the core of our modern social system.
Desire is not separate from society, it is not separate from others. It does not spontaneously emanate from one’s heart, but moves from society through the individual, like a leaf growing from a tree branch. Just as desire is social, just as it is not separate from anyone, so freedom cannot be. We are not free by being separate from each other. We are already linked through being part of a common society. Freedom must be a recognition of this collective life and acting on it in order to achieve social ends.
This means that freedom must be critical and social in orientation in order to be transformative. If we wish to revolutionize social relations, we must also be critical of the desires those social relations produce. Merely unleashing the manifestations of a consciousness that is a product of an oppressive society is not freedom. Instead, freedom is the reorganization of society into a system that works for the masses rather than for the few.