In the name of freedom the USA has invaded or dominated dozens of countries and regions including Vietnam, Nicaragua and Iraq. In the defence of freedom, Britain has imposed martial law on Northern Ireland. Freedom for Hitler meant exterminating Jews; for Stalin it required the invasion of eastern Europe. Everyone today seems to want freedom.
But freedom for capitalist states, corporations and parties surely cannot be the same as freedom for anti?capitalists. As these examples show, there appears to be no one acceptable definition of ‘freedom’. Has freedom any real value, except as a propaganda weapon to justify self-interest?
Anarchists take it for granted that freedom is vital to humanity. Yet others fear freedom, preferring security to the responsibilities that freedom gives. Under capitalism most citizens see freedom as the ability to buy the latest smartphone or a new pair of shoes – is freedom really about acquiring consumer goods? One of the oldest ideas about freedom is that it means being left alone to get on with life without interference.
Now this is all very well in a general sense, no one likes to be constrained or hindered. But within the context of class societies, this demand serves as camouflage to justify inequality. So?called ‘negative freedom’ (the absence of constraining laws) much loved by libertarian and capitalist parties is supposed to benefit everyone. In practice this freedom is the freedom of the rich to plunder the poor, of freedom for businessmen to exploit their workforce, for advertisers to humiliate women and so on.
Such freedoms to exploit and mistreat are often protected by laws passed by the powerful to protect their privileges. Where there are gross inequalities of power, freedom only maintains inequality at the expense of the great mass of the population.
Anarchists argue that wherever there are coercive or bureaucratic institutions freedom will be affected. In human relationships, the hierarchical family is usually a patriarchal and adult-dominated institution. So called democratic organisations that institutionalise power and authority become oligarchic, either openly through the degeneration of internal structures or covertly via informal leaderships.
On a grander scale, the state curtails freedom (to benefit the ruling class) by means of the legal, bureaucratic and military systems it maintains. In contemporary society there is a working alliance between all types of coercive institutions to maintain order, from the family upwards.
Freedom involves the destruction of externally imposed order. To achieve freedom, government from without must be replaced by voluntary cooperation within society. Anarchists envisage a society in which individual freedom is maximised while preserving the freedom of others. Anarchists argue that individuals should act as they feel fit, so long as they do not interfere to an intolerable degree with the freedom of others. Put differently, freedom has limits, the limit being arrived at when others are exploited, dominated or in some other way harmed.
Since humans are naturally social animals, for freedom to accord with our nature, it must be in a societal context.
In respect to social freedoms anarchist-communists see them as being integrated within community. Freedom is unimaginable outside of community. In contemporary society, community – in the sense of meaningful social solidarity – has been largely destroyed class domination. One of the key tasks of post?capitalist society will be to recreate community to promote personal and social development.
There may arise, however, contradictions between individual and societal goals which anarchist-communists argue can to a large degree he overcome through a system of federation. Individuals, local and larger groups of people agree to act in unison so long as it is advantageous. From the individual’s point of view, the advantages of voluntarily joining with others are those of communal living e.g. friendships, sexual relationships, support, availability of goods and services. So long as the individual gains more from participating in society it will be advantageous.
When the disadvantages become intolerable, the individual has the option of ‘dropping out’. From the community’s point of view, it has the ‘right’ to defend its collective freedom from individual saboteurs and can seek recourse in expulsion of the anti?social individual. Given that the vast majority of us will want the benefits social life and society bring, it is important we begin to work out and act out the balance between the individual and community, in both thought and action.
Freedom in the real world of capitalism and the state is an illusion. In an anarchist-communist society, with its social equality and solidarity, it at last becomes possible.