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Henry Giroux on Freedom and Agency

April 12, 2010

I came across an essay by Henry Giroux recently entitled Democracy and the Threat of Authoritarianism: Politics Beyond Barack Obama .   A section of the essay deals with freedom and agency that I thought was really pertenient and worth sharing.  The bold text was added by me.  Enjoy.

Depoliticizing Freedom and Agency

Agency is now defined by a market-driven concept of freedom, a notion that is largely organized according to narrow notions of individual self-interest and limited to the freedom from constraints. Central to this concept is the freedom to pursue one’s self-interest independently of larger social concerns. For individuals in a consumer society, this often means the freedom to shop, own guns and define rights without regards to the consequences for others or the larger social order.

When applied to economic institutions, this notion of freedom often translates into a call for removing government regulations over the market and economic institutions. This notion of a deregulated and privatized freedom is decoupled from the common good and any understanding of individual and social responsibility. It is an unlimited notion freedom that both refuses to recognize its social consequences and has no language for an ethic that calls us beyond ourselves, that engages our responsibility to others. Within this discourse of hyper-individualized freedom, individuals are not only “liberated from the constraints imposed by the dense network of social bonds,” but they are also “stripped of the protection which had been matter-of-factly offered in the past by that dense network of social bonds.”[14]

Freedom exclusively tied to personal and political rights without also enabling access to economic resources becomes morally empty and politically dysfunctional. The much heralded notion of choice associated with personal and political freedom is hardly assured when individuals lack the economic resources, knowledge and social supports to make such choices and freedoms operative and meaningful. As Zygmunt Bauman pointed outs, “The right to vote (and so, obliquely and at least in theory, the right to influence the composition of the ruler and the shape of the rules that bind the ruled) could be meaningfully exercised only by those ‘who possess sufficient economic and cultural resources’ to be safe from the voluntary or involuntary servitude that cuts off any possible autonomy of choice (and/or its delegation) at the root…. [Choice] stripped of economic resources and political power hardly assure[s] personal freedoms to the dispossessed, who have no claim on the resources without which personal freedom can neither be won nor in practice enjoyed.”[15] Paul Bigioni has argued that this flawed notion of freedom played a central role in the emerging fascist dictatorships of the early 20th century. He wrote:

It was the liberals of that era who clamored for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammeled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom that is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such “freedom” was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early 20th century. The use of the state to protect such “freedom” was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.[16]

This stripped-down notion of market-based freedom that now dominates American society cancels out any viable notion of individual and social agency. In embracing a passive attitude toward freedom in which power is viewed as a necessary evil, a conservative notion of freedom reduces politics to the empty ritual of voting, and is incapable of understanding freedom as a form of collective, productive power, which enables “a notion of political agency and freedom that affirms the equal opportunity of all to exercise political power in order to participate in shaping the most important decisions affecting their lives.[17]

This merging of the market-based understanding of freedom as the freedom to consume and the conservative-based view of freedom as a restriction from all constraints refuses to recognize that the conditions for substantive freedom do not lie in personal and political rights alone; on the contrary, real choices and freedom include the individual and collective ability to actively intervene in and shape both the nature of politics and the myriad forces bearing down on everyday life – a notion of freedom that can only be viable when social rights and economic resources are available to individuals.

Of course, this notion of freedom and choice is often dismissed either as a vestige of socialism or simply drowned out in a culture that collapses all social considerations and notions of solidarity into the often cruel and swindle-based discourse of instant gratification and individual gain. Under such conditions, democracy is managed through the empty ritual of elections; citizens are largely rendered as passive observers as a result of giving undue influence to corporate power in shaping all of the essential elements of political governance and decision making; and manufactured appeals to fear and personal safety legitimate both the suspension of civil liberties and the expanding powers of an imperial presidency and the policing functions of a militaristic state.

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