The only thing to be done when we see anti-social acts committed in the name of liberty of the individual, is to repudiate the principle of “each for himself and God for all,” and to have the courage to say aloud in any one’s presence what we think of such acts. This can perhaps bring about a conflict; but conflict is life itself. [i]

Peter Kropotkin

What does it mean to be free? The question of freedom, both in speech and action, is one of the burning social questions of our age. Perhaps it’s the defining question of our time, for our answer to this question carries a significance that goes well beyond mere intellectual curiosity. I believe that how we answer (or at least approach) the question of freedom has much to say about who we are and the social values that we share with one another. Moreover, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the defining characteristic of humanity in all its social, cultural, and political implications. Freedom isn’t a question that we can answer without the utmost seriousness. Meaning that the question of freedom is instrumental for understanding ourselves both socially and individually. Freedom isn’t an individual question, it’s a social one. Thus, freedom remains ambiguous and incomplete until we answer this question socially.

Recently, I’ve found clarity on this question from those who arguably value freedom, so much so as to extend it beyond the bounds of conventional philosophical/theological thought. Admittedly, anarchism is an unlikely source for theological reflection—at least traditionally. Indeed, there are some who might suggest that it’s incompatible with Christianity. I don’t believe that, in fact, there are some aspects of anarchism (emphasis on community, free exchange, worker owned industry) that perhaps fit more neatly into Christian theology and thought than capitalism does. Of course, this is a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) and other anarchist writers offer an interesting perspective on many social, political, and economic issues. In many ways, the critiques of Kropotkin and other anarchist philosophers/activists are remarkably contemporary.

Returning to Kropotkin, he suggests that there are limits to how far we can extend freedom. Free acts carry the risk of abuse. Meaning that freedom naturally carries an inherent danger that may manifest itself into violent and disgusting actions. Given the risks, such danger can lead one to wonder if the cost of freedom is too high. In answering the question as to whether we should fear liberty, Kropotkin argues, “We need not fear the dangers and ‘abuses’ of liberty. It is only those who do nothing who make no mistakes” [ii]. For Kropotkin, freedom isn’t something bestowed upon people by governments, institutions, or even corporations. Instead, freedom originates from below—among those without power. Indeed, Kropotkin implies that the greatest danger isn’t freedom, but the idea of bounding freedom to an institution. The question we must ask ourselves isn’t about more-or-less freedom, but rather who is responsible for our freedom: the community or the institution?

Thus, Kropotkin suggests that freedom is a social responsibility. Freedom without social responsibility invites abuse, danger, and ultimately violence. Moreover, allowing the state to act as the lone safeguard of our freedom creates within us a sentiment that is passive and apathetic. Why should I speak if freedom isn’t my social responsibility? Consequently, should I act if someone commits a violent or hateful act in the name of “freedom of speech”? If freedom is the responsibility of the state to safeguard and manage then the answer is “No.” However, if freedom is our responsibility, both individually and communally, then our answer must be “Yes.” According to Kropotkin, “The ideal of liberty of the individual—if it is incorrectly understood owing to surroundings where the notion of solidarity is insufficiently accentuated by institutions—can certainly lead isolated men to acts that are repugnant to the social sentiments of humanity. [iii]” Freedom, when solely entrusted to an institution, is a breeding ground for despicable actions.

As such, freedom is our responsibility to maintain and uphold, particularly against those who would choose to abuse the freedom we so dearly value. For Kropotkin, freedom requires that we act with the courage to challenge those who commit “anti-social acts.” It is the duty of society, not the state or some other powerful institution, to act as a check against those who twist and manipulate freedom into a justification to hate. Such a social check runs the risk of conflict, but it’s a risk one must take in the name of freedom. To tolerate hate and hateful actions isn’t an appreciation of freedom, it’s running away from our social responsibility.

Anarchist writer, Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958), echoes this sentiment of freedom as social responsibility. Rocker maintains that freedom, when treated as an abstract and absolute philosophical ideal, loses it practical implications. Without any social checks, absolute freedom invites brutal abuses by those in power. Rocker writes:

Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the Anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. [iv]

Freedom, as far as Rocker is concerned, is a work-in-progress. It’s neither perfect nor complete but is instead pragmatic and transitional. Thus, our definition of freedom often reflects the current age and culture. For Rocker, our experience of freedom is tied to the question of power. Who has power and how is that power used to enforce freedom? Freedom, when wedded to the power of the state or institution, becomes an instrument of the powerful. And the state wields this freedom as an absolute, arbitrarily determining who may enjoy the “freedom” it so graciously gives.

In the United States for example, our freedom is provided for in the Bill of Rights and declared for in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, historically speaking, freedom better resembled a sliding scale rather than a fixed value. The freedom of United States allowed for institutional slavery, and later segregation, under the absolute concept that “All men are created equal.” This contradiction (abstract freedom vs. actual freedom) demonstrates the danger of entrusting our guarantee of freedom to the state. Freedom becomes an absolute guaranteed by the state, and the degree of that freedom depends on how the state interprets that freedom. And more often than not, the state will interpret that freedom in ways that benefit its own institutional power. Absolute freedom and absolute power are bound to one another. Rocker describes the danger of such power:

Power operates only destructively, bent always on forcing every manifestation of life into the straitjacket of its laws. Its intellectual form of expression is dead dogma, its physical form brute force. And this unintelligence of its objectives sets its stamp on its supporters also and renders them stupid and brutal, even when they were originally endowed with the best of talents. One who is constantly striving to force everything into a mechanical order at last becomes a machine himself and loses all human feeling. [v]

Today we see worrying signs of this mechanical order in our own society. We’re a witness to the means by which the powerful determine freedom. And unsurprisingly, it’s the powerful, the rule-makers and elites, who most enjoy the freedoms supposedly meant for all. The powerful, and those who follow and admire power, rule by fear; for the powerful praise absolute freedom for all, but in truth, they are fearful of those they have marginalized. True freedom of speech and action requires an extension and sharing of power, which few with power are willing to give up. So much so, that they’re even willing to extend that freedom to the morally reprehensible. What does it say about a society that works so hard to ensure that Nazis have freedom of speech? I believe it’s no mistake that we’re witnessing a worrying rise of neo-Nazi, alt-right, and other hate groups. These groups are keenly aware of the freedoms that have been extended to them. They thrive in the absolute freedom guaranteed by the powerful, the institutions, and the elites. Today such groups speak and act publicly without fear. Why? Because while morally reprehensible, Nazis understand the mechanical order—the order of privilege (particularly white privilege)—by which our government operates. Hate loves the absolute freedom of institutions.

The freedom of the powerful is the freedom of privilege, which prefers the voices of the powerful over the weak. Privilege questions, and is suspicious of those, who would exercise their freedom to speak against the powerful, sometimes violently so as we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings. Some people’s freedom appear to outweigh others. Why else would so many come to the defense of Alex Jones’ right to speak while subsequently ignoring those without a voice—the immigrant, marginalized, poor, etc.? Where are those fighting for their right to speak? Why are we so obsessed with providing a platform for hate? It’s what happens when absolute freedom is entrusted to governments and institutions (even corporations, e.g. YouTube) at the expense of communal social responsibility. The freedom of the state is the freedom of power and privilege.

The state is capable only of protecting old privileges and creating new ones; in that its whole significance is exhausted. [vi]

In contrast, Kropotkin and Rocker consider freedom a social responsibility. It’s freedom for rather than to. Meaning that we must abandon freedom in terms of what I can do, exchanging it for the freedom of what I can do for others. This, which I consider radical freedom (drawing upon the radicalness of the gospels), is the choice to work so that all may enjoy what privileges and opportunities our society has to offer. What I call radical freedom, indirectly relates to what philosopher Gianni Vattimo (1936-) describes as “projectuality.” While not discussing freedom per se, Vattimo uses the term projectuality as a way of describing our social responsibility toward one another. Vattimo flips responsibility away from absolute norms and laws (freedom as an absolute—i.e. metaphysical law) and redirects responsibility back to the individual. Our duty isn’t to carry out freedom as a law of the state, institution, or church, it’s to live that freedom individually and socially. Moreover, our responsibility is to each other, not to an absolute ideal.

If the ‘ultimate’ source of equality is projectuality, recognized as everyone’s right and duty, then it becomes perfectly clear that this is not true equality unless all people have the chance to alter their own situations in the world through projects that will need consensus and collaboration if they are to be effectively realized. [vii]

I believe this connects into something fundamentally important concerning freedom. Freedom isn’t about the individual alone. Freedom shouldn’t isolate but instead connect us to one another. How we act and treat one another, how we support and love others, affects the quality of our freedom; our actions shape freedom into either something destructive or uplifting. Our freedom should contribute to the overall work for equality and opportunity for all. As such, freedom is the continual work for the freedom of all. Our projectuality is thus our “right and duty” to use our freedom responsibly—freedom works for the freedom of all.

Rather than perpetuating the mechanical order, a world of absolutes and unquestioning laws, Vattimo redirects our attention toward the social situation. Freedom, if it’s indeed something we value, originates in the social situation and not in an institution. Therefore, freedom originates and is perpetuated in our ongoing efforts to remedy and improve the systemic structures of inequality within our own society. Simply put, freedom isn’t possible when large portions of our society are unable to feed, clothe, or improve their lives. The responsible society, the free society, is the one that makes the reduction of inequality its guiding principle. The free society doesn’t just selfishly enjoy freedom, rather the free society endeavors to extend that freedom—manifested as opportunity and equality—for all. The free projectuality Vattimo describes is a social guarantee that strikes at the heart of inequality, asking what can be done so others can enjoy the full extent of freedom. Vattimo writes,

What it comes down to is applying the law in such a way as to correct the ‘natural’ inequalities into which we are born, whether physical ‘deformity’ or the uneven distribution of the good of ‘fortune,’ while never losing sight of the overriding value—the freedom to project oneself. This will mean concentrating on the circumstances in which individuals start life, not the outcomes, and the correction of inequality might have to be carried out in successive stages. . . [viii]

Vattimo frames his conception of free projectuality through the lenses of the state. I instead (without discounting the responsibility of the state) would envision projectuality primarily through the community. Freedom begins and ends in the community, while also incorporating the efforts of socially responsible individuals working for the good of the community. Moreover, combating hate, inequality, injustice, and marginalization depends upon a free society, one that isn’t just free, but radically so. As alluded to earlier, radical freedom isn’t the selfish absolute freedom of states or institutions. Radical freedom is that which unselfishly extends, and if necessary, sacrifices personal freedom for the betterment of the most vulnerable—a free society isn’t necessarily the freest society. Moreover, radical freedom is the defense of those who have no voice, it’s the freedom to say and combat that which isn’t right. It’s the willingness to have the courage to stand against those who commit antisocial acts (as Kropotkin and Rocker alluded to) through public protest, as toleration of hate is socially irresponsible.

In part II, I’ll continue this exploration through theological lenses. Using what has been done in part I, the follow up will incorporate insights from Fromm, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich, as well as social theory.

Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

[i] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal, Kindle Edition (Anarcho-communist institute, 2013), Kindle Locations 789-791.

[ii] Kropotkin. Anarchism, Kindle Locations 781-782.

[iii] Kropotkin. Anarchism, Kindle Locations 784-786.

[iv] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Kindle Edition (ChristieBooks, 2017), Kindle Locations 678-681.

[v] Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, Kindle Locations 704-708.

[vi] Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, Kindle Locations 612-614.

[vii] Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, & Law (Columbia University Press, 2003), 103.

[viii] Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation, 107.

One thought on “Freedom as Social Responsibility, Part I

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