Freedom, revolution and ethics

This is the introduction to a longer work I’m writing

“How is that the greatest yelps for liberty are heard from the drivers of Negroes?”


There’s nothing very particular about the circumstances of Johnson’s quote. Before the early capitalist period in which he wrote there was feudalism, when lords and barons, owners of serfs, complained loudly and long about their relative freedom. Now in our late capitalist period it is precisely those, marshalling their wage slaves and counting their powers, who complain most forcefully about their liberty.

The engines driving this hypocrisy are pretty visible. Freedom has been conceptualised as the freedom to exercise power, where power is understood as power over others. The freedom of the rich is indispensable to them. The freedom of the popular classes is either non-existent or by its essence worthless.

There have always been other ideas of freedom though. During revolutionary situations, freedom’s banner is always raised.

The classical dialectic in philosophy is between negative liberty understood as the absence of constraint, and positive liberty understood as self mastery. The proponent of negative liberty is accused of peddling an asocial and nastily formal concept. The proponent of positive liberty (beloved of a certain type of cultural conservative) is accused of defining liberty as doing what he would you to do.

Both concepts have always seemed to me to be pretty clearly two faces of capitalist ideology. Negative liberty is capitalism in its liberal mood; positive liberty is capitalism in its conservative mood. In extremis, one is the conception of the imaginary wild, lasseiz faire market and the other is the conception of the fascist imaginary.

Freedom is a pretty indispensable notion in much contemporary left theorising, but you might wonder whether the notion of freedom would even make sense under communism. Addressing these points is beyond the scope of what I’m concerned with here; I want to know whether there is a concept of freedom that captures what is so attractive about the idea and what’s so fundamentally unattractive about capitalist notions of freedom.

You might also wonder why I’m bothering with moral theorising in the context of far left theorising at all. I think the far left has been a much poorer intellectual tradition for its positivist prejudice against considering rights and wrongs. If nothing else it has been hypocritical, it has worn disguises that fool no one. It is difficult to understand why. The initial reasoning was that Marxism (and related traditions) were scientific, and science had no need of values, but this was abandoned a long time ago.

What I want to suggest is that the most revolutionary notion of freedom identifies it with capacity, or what has been called power to, or the power to act in a variety of ways, and live a variety of lives. Not only is this conception potentially revolutionary, it is attractive independently. I believe this concept steers between the paternalism of positive liberty theories, and the inhuman formalism of negative liberty theories. It provides a conception of liberty which is surely appealing.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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