What is freedom? The typical perspective today would see freedom as freedom from, focusing on legal or economic freedoms. For example, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, freedom from invasion of privacy, freedom from theft, freedom from state censorship, and so on. Often, people focus on the aforementioned economic freedom, labelling more regulatory policies as decreasing individual freedom and more laissez-faire policies as increasing individual freedom. But these sorts of definitions of freedom aren’t necessarily true for everyone. Where do the dominant definitions of freedom come from, how are these definitions applied, are these definitions helpful, can freedom even be defined, and if so, how can we create a more free society?
Freedom has historically been defined according to the interests of the ruling class in society. As Karl Marx stated in The German Ideology, “The dominant ideology is the ideology of the dominant class”. The interests of the dominated class may peek through in the dominant ideology, more or less depending on how powerful or weak said class is respectively. Regardless, the prevailing ideology, when taken as a whole, will reflect the interests of the ruling class. In feudal society, this ruling class was the aristocracy. The dominant ideology of the time stressed the divinity of the Church, an institution which lent legitimacy to the monarchy (through the concept of the Divine Right of Kings), and by extension the aristocracy. While some Christian concepts of charity peeked through, reflecting minor concessions to the oppressed peasantry, they were recuperated by the feudal system to maintain complacency in it. In modern capitalist society, the bourgeoisie, those who own the means of production; those whose incomes come from profit, interest, and rent rather than the sale of their labor, are the ruling class. Thus, the dominant ideology reflects their interests. While certain ideas, such as voluntary community service, reflect something of concessions to proletarian needs, they are recuperated by capitalist society, just as charity was recuperated by the feudal system. Since the dominant ideology of today is the ideology of the bourgeoisie, the manner in which today’s society defines freedom reflects bourgeois definitions of freedom: freedom from excess regulation, freedom of consumer choice, freedom from “unfair” economic developments (perhaps in the form of the organized proletariat!).
Historically, the definitions which liberal bourgeois philosophers and political figures have given for freedom reflect these interests. From those representing the ideology of social liberalism, to those representing neo-conservatism, the definitions of freedom hold commonalities reflecting the influence of this bourgeois system. John Locke, the dominant ideologue for all of liberalism, defined the fundamental freedoms in terms of the protection of property. He even went as far as to say that “[g]overnment has no other end but the preservation of property” in the Second Treatise of Civil Government, an identical position to the progenitor of modern capitalist political economy, Adam Smith. Locke further believed that freedom essentially came from laws, and that government was created to protect these freedoms, a view he expresses in the aforementioned Two Treatises of Government when saying that “[w]herever law ends, Tyranny begins”. Having noted that he defines the purpose of government, and by extension law, to be the preservation of property, it’s clear that Locke sees the ultimate form of freedom in the protection of private property. This idea didn’t come from nowhere, it has very real roots in the basis of capitalism: primitive accumulation. This is the process by which capitalists privatize land, dispossessing formerly independent peoples who could live off their own labor through common or individually owned land, and by extension, forcing said people to either starve or to work for them as exploited laborers. It’s clear that this value of private property is at the basis of all bourgeois definitions of freedom, and the capitalist system itself.
However, the ownership of private property (i.e. the means of production or especially land) does not appear so justified by its own logic when examined closer. Why is someone entitled to the ownership of, say, land, which they did not create, and which was often shaped by centuries of social cultivation? Further, why would someone be entitled to the ownership of, say, a factory, and the profits which are reaped from its production, when they themselves do not create that value, but rather the collective labor of their hired workers did? Obviously the capitalist secures this right through organized force in the form of the state or a semi-state entity, usually in the form of police, but to say “this is my property because there are mechanisms of force in place which enforce my ownership of it” doesn’t seem to explain it. So, they rely on the logic of natural rights, which is incredibly flimsy and arbitrary. John Locke himself expressed support for this concept, as does the entirety of liberalism. What determines a natural right? Usually these Liberals say natural rights are Life, Liberty, and either Property or the Pursuit of Happiness, but the only reason they see those as legitimate is because John Locke and his followers defined those as such. Right-wingers find glee in mocking social-democratic reformists for saying, for example, that healthcare is a right, but what makes their definition of natural rights any less arbitrary? These rights do not arise from the idea that they are rights, the ideas that they are rights arise from them being defended as such. The bourgeois idea of natural rights arose to justify their ownership of private property.
Bourgeois ideologues also tend to define freedom in terms of negative rights generally, especially with regards to individual personal rights. The social liberal John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, said that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. This idea, in and of itself, does not necessarily seem to be particularly harmful. Yes, to allow people to do what they will, as long as they do not encroach on the freedom of others, is a step toward a healthy society. But, taken on its own, it creates a very anti-social and individualistic perception of freedom. To one who only adopts this idea alone, as right-libertarians tend to do, freedom is freedom from society, freedom from the community. This definition, alone, serves to turn the individual into an antagonistic atom in opposition to the community. It rejects the collective in favor of the individual. It is also meaningless when the vast majority of people lack the basic means of survival, and have no ability to even exercise their freedom. Mill himself acknowledged this issue, and advocated for social welfare measure to reconcile it. However, capitalism’s base contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation ensures that such reform is doomed to fail, therefore rendering his principle unworkable in bourgeois society. Further, modern liberals and right-libertarians who follow this principle tend to ignore the need of this principle for a social base in order for it to hold any relevance to the vast majority of people. Due to liberalism’s tendency to analyze all situations on the basis of individual choice, failing to consider social factors in people’s preferences, actions, or the consequences of either, an application of these which only considers the individual is bound to end up harmful. For example, most liberals do not care that the bourgeoisie must necessarily extract surplus-value, value a proletarian creates beyond the value of their wages, in order to have an income or to increase their capital. They do not see this as violating the freedom of another. Or, take the liberal tendency of assuming that allowing violent, misogynistic pornography to be sold is harmless, because it does not lead to any immediate harm to an individual, ignores that it proliferates violent patriarchal ideology and normalizes, even fetishizes, behavior and views which are harmful to women. Liberals often see accepting violent fetishes as necessary for a free society, while failing to question whether patriarchal fantasies may contribute to their development, and may be perpetuated by them. In yet another common example, liberal strains of feminism often approach the question of women from an individual freedom standpoint, interpreting feminism as seeking for women to do anything they want within liberal capitalist society, including simply adhering to patriarchal norms. Liberal feminists will express their support for women making an “individual choice” to become housewives, to make themselves attractive in accordance to patriarchal beauty standards, without asking why they may feel a desire for that, or more accurately, why they may feel uncomfortable refusing to conform to those standards. Why doesn’t the liberal feminist ask why women feel uncomfortable leaving the house, or even relaxing within their own home, without wearing makeup, and instead speak of it in terms of individual choice? The liberal, entrenched in individual analysis, will fail to apply this definition of freedom effectively. It has potential, but must be supplemented with more.
Many definitions or applications of freedom are nebulous, arbitrary, subjective, or entirely abstract. Bourgeois freedom perceives law as the basis of freedom, and thinks anything legislated must necessarily be made instantly true. They fail to see how their definitions of freedom fail. How does so-called “economic freedom” pertain to the interests of the proletariat, whose wage growth is stagnating, who are increasingly joining precarious occupations in the gig economy, and whose unemployment has only decreased this year due to an increase in both people dropping out of the labor force and taking on insecure temporary or part-time occupations. Even freedom of speech, of the press, fails to benefit the proletariat in this bourgeois society. Major media outlets dominate information which the public consumes, and are owned by the bourgeoisie. While they may have some official degree, greater or less, of editorial freedom, they are still limited by a need to keep their content appealing to advertisers. If they anger advertisers, they lose the revenue which keeps their industry running. Yes, with the modern day internet its easier for the average person to voice their views and proliferate information on a public medium, but the bourgeoisie holds a monopoly on public platform. While freedom of speech and the press is legislated, it almost entirely benefits the bourgeoisie, not the proletariat, in capitalist society.
Even with property and tax requirements to vote or hold office removed in Western liberal democracies, this legislation of freedom does not effect actual trends. Involved voters still tend to be those who are financially better off, due to, among other factors, voter registration laws which require identification that most poor people lack. The candidates whom these voters elect, further, tend to be bourgeois or backed by the bourgeoisie. Campaigns are extremely expensive operations under capitalism, and so require either personal wealth, which only a capitalist would have, or policies which appeal to those with such wealth, to gain their financial backing, for them to be successful on a wide scale. While the right to vote and run for office is legally universal, it is not materially accessible to everyone, mostly to the bourgeoisie. Even the very concept of legal equality fails when it isn’t supplemented with each having their material needs met. What does it matter that we all have the same rights when there is such extreme wealth inequality? How can someone who struggles everyday with basic survival, with living paycheck to paycheck, exercise their freedom and rights to the same extent as a wealthy person with little to no financial worries? Can you call someone who lives under the yolk of imperialism free? A woman who lives in miserable conditions working in a maquiladora, a woman who slaves away in a sweatshop, is she free? What relevance does legal equality have when such disparate material conditions exist?
We socialists follow a much more complete, material definition of freedom. We see that freedom cannot exist unless the needs of all are met. When that task is taken up, the free development of the individual is secured. The liberal definition of freedom as the freedom of the individual to do whatever does not encroach on the freedom of others is meaningless when applied individualistically. It fails to account for the social consequences of actions, only accounting for immediate individual consequences, and it does not consider whether the freedom of the individual can even be practiced without the needs of the individual having been met in the first place. Karl Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, described the goal of proletarian freedom as establishing “In [the] place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms… an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. This is true freedom. This definition of freedom leaves room for subjectivity, for each to define their own free development according to their preferences. One may define it as developing their artistic talent, another as inventing new technologies, another as programming new games, and so on. This definition of freedom succeeds where the others fails, addresses what the others ignored. Without an application of this definition of freedom, laws attempting to legislate freedom will be nothing but dead letters, and they already are. Capitalism can never truly apply this definition of freedom. The contradiction between socialized production, the spread of the process of production and the reliance upon it to all of society’s needs upon it, and the private appropriation of the spoils of said production, in the form of capitalist private property and the accumulation of wealth from profit, interest, and rent ensure that. Capitalism cannot reform this fundamental contradiction out of itself. Only socialism, which resolves socialized production with socialized appropriation, can properly apply this definition of freedom. Marxism, as a method, is not utopian. It does not create ideals and measure reality according to them, then try to work to those ideals. Marxism examines objective, material reality and conditions, then produces theory and practice from that investigation. It is not born out of ideals, but material analysis. Marx did not come to his definition of freedom from his personal feelings or interests like John Locke, but from an analysis of historical trends, material reality, and class interests. The socialist definition of freedom, proletarian freedom, will prevail. Why? Because the contradictions of capitalism, their socialized character, provide the seed of the future socialist society. When the proletariat becomes the dominant class in the place of the bourgeoisie, the proletarian definition of freedom, the definition which truly succeeds in application, will become the dominant idea.