Constraints and Capacities: On Liberty in Social Movements

by Shaun Terry

Sacrifice — to make sacred.

I haven’t read Klein’s entire book, so I can’t be sure as to what it’s all about. That said, if the point is that there are small, subaltern movements that opt out from a problematic system, then it seems to me that maybe we still need No more than we need Yes. If her point is that we are on our way to achieving more than that, I’m skeptical, but maybe.

It appears to me that so many of the world’s problems require coordination. This may be the biggest challenge facing the kinds of social changes that appear necessary in contemporary society. It seems to me that this all rests on a problem that’s been there since the start of the Enlightenment, at least. If acquisition, production, and dissemination of knowledge are all always already about exploitation, then perhaps all of our modern assumptions would be inflected by the notion, if not that exploitation was to be celebrated, that it was not to be avoided. To be clear, what it seems to me is that all discovery requires the making of a useful other. If someone discovers a new element, then that element’s newness and/or elementalness becomes useful to the discoverer. If someone discovers a new plant, the plant is then the botanist’s object. The discovery of the Americas made a whole hemisphere into the voyager’s playground. Knowledge acquisition exploits, even if that exploitation might initially appear to be in a relatively innocuous form. Production of knowledge similarly requires a form of privilege that legitimates the claims of the knowledge producers. This then gives license to the ends desired by that knowledge producer. Dissemination of knowledge requires a similar kind of privilege.

My reason for bringing this up is that it helps to show an important ideological aspect of modernity. If ideology appears as the pervasive, viscous primordial element that determines the overwhelming majority of social relations, then the thing at the heart of that ideology seems to be very important. Here, I’m asserting that perhaps what’s at the heart of this ideology is what is sometimes called positive freedom. Positive freedom is positive because it is about a kind of freedom by addition: freedom to do things, i.e. capacities. Negative freedom, then, would be freedom from impediments, i.e. freedom from obstructions to what’s needed. To put this all another way, what appears since the Enlightenment is the idea that some people are entitled to having what they want at the expense of what other people need. It’s no wonder, then, that what we call “libertarians” in the US—the contemporaneous heart of many forms of modernisms—seems to completely ignore concerns over negative liberties at the expense of concerns over liberty’s positive forms.

Why is this especially relevant to social movements? While the concerns expressed by Klein, on p. 243—“generosity, hospitality, warmth, and wisdom”—I’m afraid that these don’t go far enough. While the Occupy Boston example given in the Juris reading can be an exemplar, I think that I can do a better job of explaining what I mean by looking back at the social movements of the especially active 1960s. Feminism gained major ground during and following the 1960s, in part because leftist movements failed. What became clear in the many leftist movements around 1968 was that leftists were often just as guilty of exploiting women, as were the guilty (in so many other ways, too) elements of the status quo. Leftist movements were clearly aimed at giving greater capacities to white men of a certain ideological leaning, at the expense of what was needed by women, among others. Enough women recognized the need for their own movement that would address their needs in ways that leftist movements couldn’t, and significant progresses were made (with still more progress needed, even today, to be sure). But, these women’s movements often failed other communities: non-whites, non-cisgender women, non-heterosexual women, and others. Mostly white women tried to get what they need, but with little regard to people who had less privilege than they did. Similarly, the Juris essay points out how race and class were axes on which problems arose within the Occupy Boston movement. Problems of difference, exploitation, and privilege manifest in many of the same ways that they did in the 1960s movements. While, today, there’s often greater consciousness of these issues than there was back then, the problems still persist, even if sometimes to a lesser degree.

It seems to me that what’s at the heart of what I’ve heard described as “the Fordism of social movements” is born of the persistence of preference for positive liberty over negative liberty. And, as Graeber points out, this is a worldwide phenomenon. There’s no separating a small commune any more than there is separating a mostly-forgotten nation-state. When it comes to the social and economic preconditions for these societies to operate as they do, no one appears to be exempt from the bombardment of cultural output that requires us to buy into these ideas. China and the former USSR can attest to that. And, especially when it comes to climate change, we’re in this together. Again, in Klein’s analysis, her hypothesis that climate change was supposed to have made a difference because it’s nature’s way of constraining our behaviors presupposes that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about trying to have as much as we possibly can. That’s to say that the upper limit proposed by climate change, then, only serves to say something like, You can have as much as you want, but only to here. Joanne Barker helps to bring to light this problem, as she demonstrates that the US’s social and economic activities always have the pursuit of more—especially by a privileged few—in mind. Anyone who can find a way to get the rest of the world to stop consuming can then spend as much as they want, at least up until the point that nature decides. The problem of liberty remains.

What seems to be required might be something like what Graeber calls a “revolution of common sense”—in other words, an ideological revolution. It occurs to me that a culture that constrained people’s actions according to what was best for others wouldn’t be one in which exploitation could occur so easily. Michel Foucault once said, “I do not know whether it must be said today that the critical task still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.” This “patient labor” could be that which asks us to not move ahead so quickly to gain new capacities, in favor of first filling out the contours of what actions we can justify by recognizing the needs of others.

It seems possible to me that Klein’s yesses might not mean very much until we can find a way to somehow produce an ideological shift that puts negative liberty at the heart of what we do, replacing the continuous impatient grasping for new capacities. There are hints that she might even agree to something like that, even if what we read seemed focused on other aspects of social change.

A theme that appeared in some of the readings was one that seemed to say that many of us are already engaged in lots of acts and social formations subaltern to the predominant modernistic model, so achieving something better shouldn’t seem so difficult to imagine. Without a fundamental change in how most people view their relationships to one another, I’m not so sure that the thesis holds up.

Barker, Joanne. “The Corporation and the Tribe.” American Indian Quarterly. 39. 3. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2015. 243-70.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Graeber, David. “Breaking the Spell.” The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau. 2013.

Juris, Jeffery; Ronayne, Michelle; Shokooh-Valle, Firuzeh; and Wengronowitz, Robert. “Negotiating Power and Difference within the 99%.” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest. London: Routledge. 2012. 1-7.

Klein, Naomi. No is Not Enough. Chicago: Haymarket Books. 2017. 222-56.