Convergence / International / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 1

Fabulous Freedom and the Needful Now

Fabulous Freedom And The Needful Now

Image Credit: Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., 1859.

Humans live by and through stories, those told to them and those they tell themselves and others. As one such type of story, the fable is of particular importance in shaping consciousness insofar as its intent is to impart moral guidance for living in the world, often conveyed into the present from a primordial time in which animals and humans shared a common speech. Yet, along with this culture-building aspect, the word “fable” also carries associations with mendacity: a narrative clung to in the face of even the most striking evidence to the contrary, battening on routinized fear and insecurity instead of stimulating reflective thought.

Perhaps no concept has occasioned more fables, instructive or deceptive, than “freedom.” In the United States specifically, an entire exceptionalist mythology has been nurtured by the incessant invocation of “freedom” as the supposed fount of national life. However, as Orlando Patterson has noted, freedom as a philosophical category and mode of being has, since ancient Greece, been predicated on the existence of a class of the unfree. Anticipating the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned his celebrated aphorism, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau 165). But for those whose chains were literal, not metaphorical – the enslaved toilers in the New World – as for the sans-culottes of France, freedom became more felt need and lived striving than abstract concept. As the Jacobin revolutionary Saint-Just remarked: “Liberty must not be within a book, but within the people, and set down in practice” (Saint-Just 40). Indeed, those most deprived (and deemed inherently unworthy by their masters) of liberty were those who fought most fiercely for its realization and were most unswerving in its defense, notably in Haiti, giving substance to and transcending the purely ideological universalism of the philosophers. Hegel’s master-slave/lord-bondsman dialectic eloquently set forth the inherently limited, hence false, freedom of those with absolute domination over others and the more authentic, encompassing freedom carried by the dominated when they challenge that rule.

Cloaking themselves in the mantle of the Enlightenment and propagating its fables of a rights-based freedom, even as the transatlantic slave trade intensified, the Confounding Fathers (Patterson’s apt designation) of the United States proclaimed the reign of liberty while solidifying the material bases of thoroughgoing unfreedom in the form of chattel slavery. This fundamental contradiction, never fully surmounted even after a bloody civil war, has haunted the Republic despite its fabulists’ persistent efforts to downplay it, ignore it, rationalize it, or consign it to an ever-receding past. It has come to the point where the very word “freedom” seems irreparably tainted, so hypocritical and pharisaical has been its deployment as a cover for oppression at home and abroad. With the colonization of the planet by the global capitalist economy, and the fostering and manipulation of racist and xenophobic violence of all sorts, it has become clearer than ever that, in a final triumph of reification, things enjoy more freedom, are more welcome and desired, than people. The walls erected against outsiders, refugees, and other fellow humans disappear when money, commodities, and social-media-powered advertisements are involved.

However heinous the crimes committed in the name of a pseudo-freedom based on exploitation and justified no longer with reference to a higher law, but with the impoverished tautology “it is what it is,” the dream of a liberty “which implies the full development of all the material, intellectual, and moral capacities latent in every one of us” continues to inspire new empowering fables and revivify enduring ones (Bakunin 261). At the same time, the obstructive power of what Martin Luther King characterized as “the fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions”– today’s isolated, screen-narcotized minimal selves – cannot be underestimated (King 199). Pamela Sneed’s pointed comment “Imagine being more afraid of freedom than slavery” serves as a reminder that precisely because it is so difficult to conceive the contours and content of a free life, and perilous to embark upon its construction (for it demands everything from us, including the willingness to risk one’s own safety), we often retreat to the delusory consolation of what William Blake called the “mind-forg’d manacles” (Blake 27).

The task before us is simultaneously to confront and transcend the lies of an unfree social order, to view freedom not as an end but as a constant struggle, an arduous, often painful process battling for space to grow and develop into what Robert Hayden saw as “…this beautiful / and terrible thing, needful to man as air, / usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all” (Hayden 62). In this regard, the inescapable phenomenon of capitalism-induced climate change has brought home with terrifying force the link between freedom and necessity – without a redeemed earth and breathable air, the longed-for beloved community will remain a chimera.

Times of crisis demand concrete utopian thinking. And lest this be seen as an oxymoron, it is worth recalling that “Freedom Now!”, the seemingly “unrealistic” watchword of the civil-rights movement, took on actuality precisely in the moment of its enunciation. Think also of Walter Benjamin’s “time filled with the presence of the Now” which characterizes revolutionary movements’ rupture with the “homogenous, empty time of History” (Benjamin 261). Amidst the developing worldwide anti-colonial revolution, Frantz Fanon felt the need to “constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence” and demanded of himself: “Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?” (Fanon 232). And Martin Luther King, before his murder, declared: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now” (King 222). In taking up the challenge of inventing and transforming the now – what James Baldwin described as “the charged, the dangerous moment, when everything must be reexamined, must be made new, when nothing at all can be taken for granted” – we may draw inspiration from Gwendolyn Brooks’s exhortation: “Live not for battles won. / Live not for the end of the song. / Live in the along” (Baldwin 674; Brooks 497). For ultimately, it is about choosing planetary life over globalized thanatocracy.

Works Cited

Bakunin, Mikhail. “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State.” Bakunin on Anarchy. Ed. and intro. Sam Dolgoff. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Baldwin, James. “Notes on the House of Bondage.” The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt; trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Blake, William. “London,” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: U. of California Press, 2008.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Speech to the Young, Speech to the Progress Toward.” Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1992.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1994.

Hayden, Robert. “Frederick Douglass.” Collected Poems. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. New York: Liveright, 2013.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?. New York: Bantam, 1968.

Patterson, Orlando. Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right.” The Social Contract & Discourses. Trans. and intro. G.D.H. Cole. New York: Dutton/Everyman, 1973.

Saint-Just, Louis Antoine de. Oeuvres choisies. Ed. Dionys Mascolo. Paris: Gallimard. 1968.

Sneed, Pamela. Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

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