Freedom, wealth, power; three sounds, three combinations of letters, which are vague illustrations of the same thing. They differ in usage and the feelings they inspire in people, but the essence of the thing remains the same. If one were to draw a picture of the entire human experience and then circle small areas of that picture and claim this represents freedom, but this over here represents wealth and this represents power, that would be similar to what we try to do with words. In this imaginary picture these three words would be grouped closely together; inseparable.
Freedom is one of those political words that has been used positively by both the “right” and the “left. Generally the left has used it in a social context, especially during the civil rights movement; “Freedom Rides” “Freedom Train”, “Freedom Summer”, etc. The left wants the freedom to live how they want; gay marriage, no marriage, mixed race marriage. They want the freedom to make their own medical decisions; contraception, abortion, end-of-life, use of recreational drugs, etc. They want to be free of poverty and needs. The “right” generally use it in a more militaristic sense; “Freedom-fighters”, “Freedom isn’t free”, meaning our country’s military dominance of other countries isn’t cheap. Or the freedom of individuals to arm themselves with weapons. Or in a more social context, the “right” use freedom to mean freedom from communal contracts; such as taxes and regulations. Such social contracts become a hindrance to the wealthy but offer security to the poor.
For both the “right” and the “left”, “freedom” seems to mean the same thing as the more archaic “Liberty”. Often the word “right” or “rights” is used similarly; the right to bear arms, Human Rights, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In general most of these rights are viewed as freedoms that should be guaranteed by society. We don’t take these rights for granted because the are very hard to come by, especially by certain groups of people. The French combination of the three words; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity probably says it the best. Liberty and Equality are in fact oppositional concepts when put into practice. Liberty tends to drive out Equality by its very nature. When individuals are completely free to do as they please we inevitably see those who prepare for war, enslavement, rape, pillage, consolidation of wealth, genocide and all those other lovely things the human race is know for. Complete equality on the other hand puts a damper on freedom. Rigid Communism is probably the best example we have of complete equality (though the party elite had a different experience, very similar to the wealthy elite of capitalism). It becomes a kind of muzzle on people’s’ self-expression. A police state is created in order to control art, speech, writing and even thought. Uniformity of thought and expression becomes the most important thing.
Even though Liberty and Equality are generally oppositional in practice they are both still strongly held instincts which seem to be at the core of human nature. It would seem to set society up on a paradoxical quest. That is where Fraternity (or brotherhood, community, government, tribe, nation etc.) finds its use. It is our sense of community which helps us find the balance in our paradoxical pursuit of both “freedom” and “Equality”.
It is a very basic instinct inside all of us; that drive for “freedom” is essentially that same drive for animal survival. It can be traced to that urge within all of us which says, “I will live.” And that works… until we eventually die. But it grows out of what is essentially our selfish evolutionary trait. That trait which we share with all the animals, that instinct to survive.
So while the desire for “freedom” arises out of our selfish nature. The struggle for “freedom” is not always a selfish endeavor. It can be a great unifying force, a source of empathy among people of differing levels of “freedom”. It can also be a unifying factor creating a sense of tribalism. It is a mistake to label such fights for “freedom” as either good or bad. Because these fights for “freedom” are actually struggles for power. Those with little freedom often portray themselves as victims in order to justify their struggle. It may seem just, when those with little “freedom” struggle hard and suffer greatly in the process, but do gain a degree of “freedom”. Examples of this in the US might include the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Gay rights movement or Cesar Chavez’s Farm Workers Union.
However sometimes these struggles for “freedom” are undertaken by groups which already possess a large measure of power or by groups which use their power to victimize other groups. This is why the word “nigger” is such a vile word when used by one group of people, referring to another group of people, but an expression of camaraderie when used by Americans with long ago African ancestry about themselves. It matters within our society which groups are seeking more “freedom” and which groups have experienced a long pattern of victimization. In the US, people of European ancestry can not collectively consider themselves to be victims, because that is certainly not to historic pattern. Individually maybe, because everybody has a different life experience. But when you start to hear code words and winks which imply that collectively European Americans are somehow getting the short end of the stick in our system of government, then it is time to be very cautious and watchful of who these people are who make such insinuations.
I think if you examine the rise of the powerful which preceded many of the purges, the genocides, the political killings, the police states etc, etc. you will find they fit a pattern. One group portrays themselves as victims and another group as the enemy, the group which portrayed themselves as victims actually is not so powerless, and gains even more power by portraying themselves as victims. Once the “victims” have gained even greater power they proceed to exact revenge on their “enemy”. This pattern can be witnessed in the Armenian genocide, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, the Khmer Rouge, the rise of Stalin, the Rwandan genocide, the war in Bosnia, and probably every period of killing in history. This is the dark side of “freedom”. It is the dark side of every revolution where a degree of freedom has been gained.
The kind of “freedom” we mostly like to think of, is a healthy kind of “freedom”, one that is not so closely associated with wealth and power. One that is balanced with equality. Though it is a difficult balancing act. It is the kind of “freedom” represented by Lady Justice holding the scales. The blindfold signifies objectivity but not lack of empathy, it removes her own self interest from her thoughts but not a sense of higher justice. Freedom requires resources; time, space, material goods, food, health, a healthy environment, good will etc. We do not live in a vacuum. Every struggle for our own freedoms effects someone else’s freedom, not always, but sometimes negatively. So “freedom” isn’t free. In this sense “freedom” is wealth and power. A person dropped in the middle of a desert is completely free in the sense she suffers no regulations, no police abuse, no taxes, no social expectations. Yet this can hardly be considered “freedom” because she has none of the resources she needs to maintain life. She needs clean water, healthy food, safe shelter, family and friends, and an occupation. Without these things she can not have “freedom”.
This is the big hole in Libertarian political thinking. It is not lack of government which brings us a healthy degree of “freedom”, it is lack of want. Somewhere deep in our American psyche we still carry some remnants of the conquering of the American West. It is the underlying assumption that resources and opportunities are abundant and easily available to everyone. I think of it as; “The Little House on the Prairie” syndrome. That wholesome story of homesteading in the American West. The self-reliant family which is good at heart. They are distrustful of government and they defend their property with their own guns. Of course this American nostalgia leaves out some important things. First; the living conditions of these homesteaders was tenuous at best. It was a harsh life and most died young. Not the type of thing I see any modern middle class family trading their current circumstances for. Secondly: most of the “freedom” these homesteaders, ranchers, farmers, and miners enjoyed was based on the land they were given by the Federal Government.
Of course this was all land which was forcefully taken from its previous inhabitants, the Native Americans. They were driven out in many variety of ways; by vigilantism, by disease, by invading troops, by starvation and simply by a massive flood of population. Stalin used starvation to kill off large portions of his politic opposition and Hitler planned on depopulating the cities of Russia using starvation and then moving Germans into those cities. Long before Hitler and Stalin, early Americans killed off the buffalo in a strategy to intentionally starve the Plains Indians off their ancestral lands. European diseases such as Smallpox were introduced, some claim intentionally. The “freedom” of the homesteaders, the westward movement and even the initial Eastern settlement, came at the expense of the “freedom” of various Peoples who had occupied the same land for thousands and thousands of years. Here lies the truth of the “freedom isn’t free” bumper stickers. freedom is a limited resource.
Freedom is essentially; dominance over ones environment. Which is also a pretty good description of “wealth” though “wealth” has a more social connotation. In an unequal society, those with the most wealth have the most freedom and those with the least wealth have the least freedom. It is naïve to think any system of justice could do anything but favor wealth.
I first heard of the “Four Freedoms” from a Norman Rockwell painting. Apparently he was inspired by a speech by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Roosevelt listed these Four Freedoms as; the Freedom of speech, the Freedom of worship, the Freedom from want, and the Freedom from fear. It is a pretty good baseline for any community to set as a baseline for all of its citizens. Not every one can be equally wealthy, talented, good-looking, smart, etc. but at least a community can provide this basic level of Freedoms to all its citizens.
How much freedom is allotted to each individual in any given community is dependent on the attitudes of that particular community and to the attitudes of that individual. A highly prejudiced community will always have classes of people who are allotted lesser degrees of freedom. Certain individuals break through the social barriers to gain more freedom but they are only the exception, not the rule. Sometimes these exceptions are even used to justified continued prejudiced sentiment. “If they can do it, why can’t you.” or so the thinking goes.
Freedom of Speech, though often referred to in a black or white manner (either you have it or you don’t) is allotted in degrees by a community. It is a limited resource because there is only so much the human mind can digest. What is Free Speech without an audience, an audience takes money to maintain, otherwise you are just talking to yourself. In these times, it is billionaires and millionaires who have a large degree of Free Speech because they control the means of broadcasting; TV, Internet, Movies, Print etc. By occupying and setting the priorities for people thoughts, the people who control these medias dominate Free Speech, making everyone’s else speech a mere whisper.
What is Freedom of Worship when a small group of fundamentalist Christians pulls the strings of government making laws based on their own beliefs. This group of people tells us; the original founders of this country really intended our government to be based on a literal (and also very selective) interpretation of the King James Bible. They are a powerful part of our government at the moment, mainly because they have formed a political alliance with the very wealthy. There can be no Freedom of Worship when laws are made which favor one form of worship over another.
What is Freedom from Want when “want” is used to drive people to work harder for less pay. It is the very basis of the harsh capitalist system that was so well entrenched in our country before “entitlements” provided a degree of security. The large wealth disparity we see in our country threatens to re-animate those times today, just as we can observe the feudal social structure in other countries with large wealth disparities. It takes a sophisticated democratic dialogue within a community (read: nation) to maintain some semblance of egalitarianism (read: equality). The Natural Economy (read: Laissez-faire, or Libertarian) is skewed toward consolidation of resources. The old canard that “The rich get richer” is very true. When the wealthy begin to have enough power to influence how laws are written and how they are interpreted, they start making sure new ones are written that favor themselves, and the old ones are interpreted to favor them as well. Then of course they also possess the natural advantage of prioritizing their economic resources, because we have entrusted the communities’ economic resources to their guidance by choosing Laissez-faire Capitalism. What will they decide is important for us; military build up, prison building and reliance on fossil fuels all get high priority. Spending on education, poverty-reducing programs and maintaining national infrastructure all get low priority. This is what they have decided for us, these past few decades and it continues to be their recurring mantra.
What is Freedom from Fear, when fear becomes a tool used to perpetuate militarization overkill and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Do these things protect us from fear or are they a symptoms of our fear? Where is the balance point between reasonable and excessive? As an observer of our political dialogue it seems clear to me that our citizens purchase military style weaponry for their own homes not because it makes them free from fear but because they possess an irrational fear. Perhaps it does make them less fearful to be owning a weapon, regardless of statistical evidence showing they are actually putting themselves and their family in more danger by possessing a weapon. Certainly there are those who know of an actual specific threat, that a gun might help protect them from, but I’m guessing that is a small minority of all the gun owners in our country. It is an irrational fear that seems to arise out of a desire to control our own circumstances, like many of us who have a fear of flying. We might fear that sense of lifting off and soaring thousands of feet in the air, stuck inside a heavy, fragile metal tube. But we will drive long distances in our own cars not caring that, statistically driving is actually more dangerous then flying. The fear comes not from the act itself, the fear comes from, not being in control of the circumstances. And this is also true of our country’s militaristic overkill. Our country’s leaders preach the need for us to control the destiny and choices of other countries because we fear their choices, we feel a need to control their choices. Fear is an odd thing; the more weapons and defenses we have against small countries and even small groups within small countries (Al Qaeda for example) the more we seem to fear. Is it because our militarization overkill makes us a target? Just as the person pointing a gun in a crowd becomes a target.
The freedom each individual experiences within a given social community more often depends on the community itself rather than the individual. Though an individual can make some changes which help her or him assimilate more easily, there are limits. A highly prejudicial community will always have large classes of people with lesser degrees of freedom (poverty that is). Freedom is a limited resource shared by the community at large. How a society decides to apportion its Freedoms depends on several factors; a person’s ethnic background, the nature of their personality, their political leanings, their beliefs concerning the nature of existence, their attractiveness, their talents, their friends and family, their past misdeeds, and much more. Wealth is probably one of the best indicators of the degree of freedom an individual has been allocated. Not to be confused with fame or infamy which can both limit and expand one’s Freedoms. A highly prejudicial community apportions this freedom unevenly, while a less prejudicial community strives to seek a more balanced allotment of Freedoms.
Even Franklin Roosevelt’s vision and work toward a more egalitarian community left many classes of people with small portions of freedom: Black Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans. Racial barriers were just too big of a hurdle to overcome in his time. In fact it could have been these very racial barriers that helped cement a stronger sense of community among white Americans. Fortunately our national community has changed a great deal since then. Tribalism based on the vague concept of race is no longer discussed openly. But this breaking down of barriers might be making the sense of Fraternity much harder to create. Now, while purely racial barriers seem less important, much of the cultural history of certain “races” remains very much frowned upon. Assimilated minorities are rewarded (think; Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas) but minorities that hold on to their cultural roots, those who are unwilling or unable to break away from the pockets of poverty created by the larger community or even those with attachments that are at odds with the larger community’s practices, are allotted fewer Freedoms. I think this explains why there are many small pockets of poverty which become reviled and exploited by the larger community. People with a conscience, people with human attachments, people with dreams of glory, people who find their escape in alcohol and drugs, people who are sensitive to the world of nature, people who are guided by their own internal visions, people who are sensitive to insensitivity, all these groups of people find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when struggling to grab hold of what little Freedoms they are offered.
Freedom is an easy word to speak, but much more difficult to put into practice. It is not some shiny gold prize which can be fought for and possessed. A revolution or a war might bring more freedom to one class of people, but it rarely creates a more equitable community. A revolution is merely a reshuffling of the deck. Remember, in feudal society those at the top of the food chain had plenty of freedom. Wide-spread freedom is a process; a communal process, a political process, a negotiation, a compromise, it is something which takes time and a willingness to understand, it is certainly not something that is won in a battle. Rather it is an ongoing balancing act, and one that will never end.
Without a sense of empathy (fraternity/brotherhood) for all its members, a community will become fractured and prone to strife. A stoking of petty resentments is the first sign a community is experiencing this fracturing. By “stoking of petty resentments”, I mean negative stereotyping of those minorities with little media voice: poor people from all races, people without mainstream sexual tendencies, women or those whose priorities fall in the area of nurturing rather than making money, people who are prone to addiction, people with mental health difficulties, people with physical disabilities, etc. (minorities with right-wing religious ideas and senior citizens are almost never negatively stereotyped because those minorities are needed as part of the unspoken media alliance). We see much of this negative stereotyping going on in our national community today. It is no coincidence that many of those who already possess the most freedom are those most eagerly stoking those petty resentments. Of course it is all aimed at vilifying society’s foundational community services (otherwise referred to as welfare, entitlements, social programs), so that those who already have the most freedom can gain more. Shifting the money in their direction, so that people will be more desperate more willing to work for a lower wage. Not to vilify the wealthy, they only fulfill the expectations of human nature, not what one exceptional person might do, but what any group of people acting in a kind of rough chaotic consensus might do. Anyone one who already possesses a great deal of freedom/wealth/power (because the three words mean essentially the same thing.) would be expected to strive for more “freedom” not less.
In our country we appear to be witnessing a retrenchment of wealth inequality. One large segment of people; the middle class, which has serve our national community well as a conduit of both economic wealth and emotional empathy between segments of society, finds itself shrinking and losing its Freedoms. I’m not so sure it is a permanent trend or even a problem that needs to be solved. Contrived solutions such as; Communism, Socialism, Libertarianism, Fascism, Zionism, Apartheid, Capitalism or Marxism have not proven to be solutions at all but rather masks attempting to cover the underlying nature of humanity. The underlying shape of human nature always ends up showing through and distorting the theories.
As a country we also seem to be tiring of our experiment with anti-tax, anti-regulation Capitalism. In practice it has thinned out our middle class, and I don’t think those at the top of the food chain would be considered more deserving or more helpful to society at large than the average person. Of course, those at the top of the food chain will continue to spend their money trying to maintain the anti-tax, anti-regulation sentiment because they see that as their priority. It is their tribe they look after, and it is those sentiments which help maintain their tribe. But my guess is; we will see a larger trend back in the direction of egalitarianism because it is human nature to strive for balance when things get to far out of balance. While selfishness is a driving force underlying all our human interactions, empathy is equally as strong.