Anti-lockdown protesters show how the idea of "freedom" has degenerated

How a reductive, anti-social conception of liberty became mainstream

Published May 31, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

People walk past a sign advising about social distancing on the boardwalk during the Memorial Day holiday weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 23, 2020 in Ocean City, Maryland. (ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
People walk past a sign advising about social distancing on the boardwalk during the Memorial Day holiday weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 23, 2020 in Ocean City, Maryland. (ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A hair salon owner in Dallas, Texas; then, armed protestors in Michigan and other states; recently, images of packed boardwalks and swimming pools; and now the "mass debate" urging parishioners to attend regular religious services.

All of this in the face of dire consequences for public health amid an unrelenting global pandemic. These events are a mere smattering of a series of protests throughout the country that seek to resist the "tyranny" of state governors who have imposed lockdown restrictions in their states. These protests took what has now become a far too familiar form in American politics, connecting extremists waving Confederate "battle flags" and brandishing assault weapons to people demanding a right to shop without taking health precautions.

As Republican lawmakers assert that the "cure can't be worse than the disease" and the need to reopen the economy, they extol a neo–Social Darwinist worldview that privileges a survival of the fittest – or, at least, those who are wealthy enough and have the health insurance to cloister themselves for the duration.

To some, this problem may seem to pose a genuine paradox: on the one hand, the rights of the individual and individual choice (liberty) and the restriction of that liberty in the face of government actions to protect public health. But this is no paradox at all – in fact, it reflects a deeper degeneracy of the concept of freedom in contemporary American politics and culture. The cracks and fissures in American society that we have seen opening during this pandemic are rooted in a broader change in Americans' understanding of the concept of freedom and the ways that this has been exploited and manipulated by the powerful. Understanding this requires some sense of where the modern idea of freedom came from and how it was defended.  

The birth of modern political philosophy had at its core a crucial idea about what political freedom actually meant. According to many early modern political theorists, the concept of liberty denoted the capacity to follow rules and norms that one was able to accept based on one's conscience.  Laws, norms and institutions were not to be arbitrarily enforced upon individuals – i.e., according to the whim or interest of some powerful agent – but, rather, were to be ratified by one's own reason and reflection. Liberty was a freedom from dependence and control as well as a freedom to create and follow laws that had the common interest as the foundation of their legitimacy.

This idea of liberty as freedom from the domination of others as well as a freedom to create laws and impose them upon one's own actions in accordance with the common good and interest was worked out by thinkers such as Machiavelli and Spinoza no less than Locke and Jefferson, among others. It was weaponized during the age of democratic revolutions in Britain, the United States, France, and Haiti and formed the basis for a modern view of politics and human freedom.  

But defenders of monarchy and feudal hierarchy, status and privilege demonized the concept of liberty, likening it to a devolution of order and the slide into chaos. Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Robert Filmer and others saw any notion of liberty as essentially linked to a decay of social order. Hobbes saw liberty as a cause of chaos and a state of nature where each did as he pleased. And as Filmer famously put the matter in the opening chapter of his "Patriarcha" (1680) that it was a new and "dangerous opinion" where liberty was essentially the power of each to act without the guidance of a sovereign.  

Locke pointed out that these thinkers confused liberty with license, and later philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would argue that our freedom as persons was dependent on our ability to think in terms of a "general will," or in the common interest, even as Immanuel Kant would later make the concept of autonomy the cornerstone to any modern notion of freedom. All agreed, in the end, that liberty was the capacity for one to make laws of action for oneself according to reason, and this reason was one that was anchored in the common, universal parameters of our living in a social world with and among others.  All agreed that freedom required responsibility: that to be free meant to take on the burden of self-legislation as a member of a free community. Only in this way could the principle of self-determination and self-rule be secured.  Without the ethos of social responsibility, freedom would devolve back into tyranny and dominance: if you could not govern yourself as a member of the community, then others would step in to govern for you.  

Much of American political history took a similar course with respect to the idea of liberty. Initially concerned with the conscience of the individual and the ability to protect property, the concept of liberty gradually matured into one where the freedom of each was interdependent on the freedom of others.  After the Civil War and the emergence of the Gilded Age, the Progressive movement began to rework the concept of liberty more extensively.  Thinkers such as George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley and John Dewey reworked liberalism into a doctrine that held that the freedom of the individual was not a matter of removing their constraints to accumulate property or do as they pleased, but one that was a function of the extent to which each could partake in the highest caliber of public goods. The expansion of intelligence, the enrichment of one's capacity to make choices, deliberate about the problems of their community, were all dependent upon this new concept of the individual. Castigating the persistence of the older, individualistic conception of liberty, Dewey argued in 1935: "It is absurd to conceive liberty as that of the business entrepreneur and ignore the immense regimentation to which workers are subjected. . . . [F]ull freedom of the human spirit and of individuality can be achieved only as there is effective opportunity to share in the cultural resources of civilization." 

The cultivation of this kind of freedom required a rich nexus of public goods and regulation. Dewey and other progressives rightly saw that modern technological society needed this sense of responsibility even more to guarantee individual freedom. The New Deal and the social democratic welfare state of post-World War II America can be seen as an application of this reworked theory of liberty. But today this has degenerated as we see a reprise of the very narrow conception of liberty that Dewey and his contemporaries attacked as outmoded and out of step with the modern world. Neoliberalism has pushed this reductive, anti-social form of liberty against the social liberalism of the preceding decades. In many ways, the presence of a pathological understanding of freedom has its foundations in the very ways we conducted our pre-pandemic lives. Over the last four decades, neoliberal policies have chipped away at our public institutions, drained state budgets, marginalized public goods like education, and de-regulated our economy. Public life has shriveled as a consequence. Privatization has only reinforced our separateness from the public realm. Ideas about freedom have therefore been retuned to a condition not unlike a Hobbes' state of nature where a war of all against all prevails. 

The ideological project of neoliberalism has been to re-appropriate the concept of liberty and circumscribe it to the narrow realm of property, privacy and economic interest. What use are common goods when each lives according to one's own efforts? Liberty now is the absence of restraint, the elimination of any kind of direction over your life and your choices. The political right has made much of this simplistic philosophy: they convinced many citizens to sign on to a corporate agenda that has been able to undo the reforms made throughout much of the twentieth century in economic and social policy.  The backlash against technical experts, unions, a robust social safety net, and other struts of an enlightened, socialized democracy is only gaining in momentum.  

But there are other forces sustaining this culture of degenerate liberty. Alongside the undermining of the public institutions and spaces that interconnect us, neoliberalism has fostered a hyper consumerist culture. We are a nation of frantic consumers. Those individuals who, in highly publicized instances, stockpiled urgently needed medical supplies were trained by a culture that eagerly awaits Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. Freedom is the freedom to violently consume. Deprived of the addiction to consumption or confronted by the idea that someone else might need something more urgently than you, it is easy to see why the closure of the economy might inspire rage. Entangled with the false conception of freedom is a false conception of human needs and human dignity.

And so, when we consider again the protests against instructions to stay at home or consider the well-being of fellow citizens by social distancing or wearing masks, we should be aware that these behaviors are the product of the long cultivation of a particularly malign understanding of freedom – one forged to legitimate a public philosophy of anomic individualism that could justify neoliberalism and that is now quite literally making our republic sick. Freedom without responsibility no longer is freedom, it is a kind of licentiousness that is socially as well as personally damaging. Neoliberalism helped rot out the ethos of social responsibility that accompanied modern norms of freedom. The paranoia that accompanies relentless economic competitiveness and social inequality, extended working hours, a culture of senseless consumption and hedonism – all have contributed to the sense that one is in this alone for one's own benefit. Indeed, it is no accident that the largest percentage of victims of this pandemic have been essential workers deprived of the right unionize, elderly residents of for-profit nursing homes with little regulation, and people of color whose communities have been marginalized by austerity budgets. 

In many respects, what Bernie Sanders calls democratic socialism owes far more to the brand of liberalism advocated by Dewey and other philosophers of the Progressive and New Deal eras than to any socialist thinker. Indeed, Sanders has been right that this tradition of thought is more authentically American than the more recent short-sighted and acquisitively individualistic public philosophy nurtured by neoliberalism. In planning its strategy to combat the pandemic, the Biden campaign will also have to confront the pathological conception of freedom that has made the United States one of the worst victims of this pandemic. It will have to show that an orientation toward the common good is requisite for any vital sense of individual liberty. For now we are once again facing the prospect that an unmanaged form of license, masquerading as liberty, will force us to accept more coercive forms of political life.  

And as Americans reflect on what the COVID-19 crisis means for the future of American politics and culture, they may want to reflect anew on the ways our ideas about freedom have devolved and instead seek to retrieve once more a sense of social purpose to our degenerated culture of freedom. As Democrats suit up for their match with Donald Trump, this renewed sense of freedom should be the cornerstone for a new public philosophy: one that has democratic purpose, common interest and individual liberty together at its center. To lose this fight will give aid to the enemies of human progress and the culture of freedom that many fought and died for over the course of centuries. 

By Michael J. Thompson

Michael J. Thompson is professor of political theory in the department of political science at William Paterson University. He is the founding editor of "Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture"; the author of four books, including "The Domestication of Critical Theory" and "The Politics of Inequality"; and the editor of eight previous books, including "The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory." He and Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker are the editors of "An Inheritance for Our Times: Principles and Politics of Democratic Socialism"; a percentage of sales of that book go to support National Nurses United until the end of June 2020. 

MORE FROM Michael J. Thompson

By Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker

Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the managing editor of Logos and the editor of "The Political Thought of African Independence"; "Strangers to Nature: Animal Lives and Human Ethics"; and "Radical Intellectuals and the Subversion of Progressive Politics" (with Michael J. Thompson). He and Michael J. Thompson are the editors of "An Inheritance for Our Times: Principles and Politics of Democratic Socialism"; a percentage of sales of that book go to support National Nurses United until the end of June 2020. 

MORE FROM Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker

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Capitalism Commentary Economy Freedom Liberty Neoliberalism