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Review Essay: Freedom for Whom?

“One of the most acute paradoxes present in the history of Western society,” wrote Angela Davis in her “First Lecture on Liberation,” “is that while on a philosophical plane freedom has been delineated in the most lofty and sublime fashion, concrete reality has always been permeated with the most brutal forms of unfreedom, of enslavement.”1 Here, Davis gives us the key contradiction in the history of the idea of freedom in Western political thought. As opposites, freedom and slavery frame our way of thinking about what is possible, what is necessary, what must be done.

However, the antipathy between freedom and slavery may also be one between theory and practice. Davis is right to note the “paradox” that freedom has often been theorized as essential to being human, and yet who is considered human is often viciously demarcated. Later in her lecture, Davis writes, “If the theory of freedom remains isolated from the practice of freedom or rather is contradicted in reality, then this means that something must be wrong with the concept.”2 To put it simply, what right does a society have to extoll freedom as its highest virtue if that same society is dependent on the unfreedom of others?

To challenge our understanding of the idea of freedom is the goal of two new books, Tyler Stovall’s White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea and Annelien de Dijn’s Freedom: An Unruly History. And both enact this challenge in order to better align our understanding of the concept with its realities. De Dijn, for example, works through the intellectual history of the idea of freedom from antiquity to the present and puts those ideas in their political and historical context to show how the idea of freedom was used. While the book calls for an “unruly” and democratic freedom, she shows how, in the wake of the French Revolution, conservative voices have sought to conceptualize freedom as freedom from governmental interference rather than the freedom to choose one’s own government.

Stovall, on the other hand, uses history to show how freedom has often been envisaged as an exclusive realm, dependent on the unfreedom and enslavement of others. For Stovall, the key is not only the undemocratic response to an unruly mass, but the way in which many who have praised the importance of freedom have fought to keep it from others. The persistence and even intensification of slavery and colonialism under purportedly republican and liberal regimes, such as the United States and France, become exemplary of this.

This raises what is perhaps the most difficult question both of these books ask: What good is liberal democracy? If the roots of liberal democracy are, as De Dijn shows, undemocratic and, as Stovall shows, racist, is another, more radical system necessary? Would another system avoid the pitfalls of the past? Neither book attempts to say, although it is clear that De Dijn at least has high hopes for a more directly democratic way of being. For Stovall, too, there is hope that we will “find a way to free our societies from the need for whiteness,” but he is well aware that such hopes are often thwarted.

Still, hope can be a necessary spur for change, and both of these books do make it clear that change is necessary. Freedom is too powerful a concept to leave uncontested, to leave as a code word for the right only. Perhaps by reexamining its history we can find a way to forge a better future.

Read entire article at Public Books