On two different conceptions of liberty
Þessi ritgerð var skrifuð fyrir áfangann Menning og andóf sem haldinn var við Háskóla Íslands vorönnina 2019. Hún er á ensku, eins og sjá má. Ef smellt er hér má hala niður PDF-útgáfu af ritgerðinni með tilheyrandi tilvitnunum í neðanmálsgreinum auk heimildaskrár. Málverkið í haus heitir The Hunter’s Return og er eftir Thomas Cole frá árinu 1845.
Liberty is the perennial political question and as such the concept enjoys deserved year-round attention in political and philosophical discourse—an evergreen talking point, so to speak. However, it is my view that in our contemporary capitalist society, liberty tends to be discussed in a “naïve” way in which the spheres of the political or public and the economic or private are rent asunder. The tendency is to assume that liberty is merely a problem of the public state and not one of private institutions. In a sense, this confinement constitutes a “sanitization” of political economy.
In this paper I’ll compare two distinct concepts of liberty: the liberal and the republican. To begin with, I’ll describe the two aforementioned concepts of liberty. Using these concepts I’ll argue in favor of the hypothesis that our current naïve understanding of liberty ideologically constricts and clouds our judgment when it comes to recognizing domination in the economic sphere. My conclusion is that since liberalism fails to recognize unjust hierarchies outside the public-political sphere, republicanism could very well be the remedy to liberalism’s blind spots.
Let us begin by elucidating the liberal concept of freedom. The liberal concept conceives of freedom almost purely politically and thus only economically in so far as the political state is considered an economic actor. The liberal concept of freedom is first and foremost based on freedom from state interference (as a sidenote, this definition of liberalism might include the so-called „right-libertarian“ concept of freedom in so far it does not distinguish morally-qualitatively between benign or malicious forms of interference). It’s important to emphasize that freedom in this sense is a relation first and foremost between individuals, bearers of rights, and state power, endower and keeper of rights. True violations of freedom, according to the liberal model, can really only occur when the state infringes on the rights of individuals. Interpersonal, private disputes are not truly violations of freedom since in theory each individual’s rights are guaranteed by the state which acts as arbiter and keeper of rights in cases of civilian dispute.
On the other hand, the republican concept of freedom bases itself on the concept of non-domination. An individual is thus free in so far as they are not dominated by another party. Domination is further defined as a hierarchical relation of subordination where the subordinated party is subject to the arbitrary whims of those in command—that is, when the hierarchy in question lacks a “constitutional” character that delineates what counts as acceptable command and what does not. This “constitutional” character furthermore requires that those subordinated have a say in how it is constructed so as to prevent the rulebook being written and rewritten by those in positions of power. Since republicanism is a more general approach to the nature of freedom it allows for a greater quantity of cases to be included, since the concept of domination per se is not restricted to individual-state relations at all, but can in theory be applied to any interpersonal, personal-institutional or interinstitutional relation imaginable.
In light of the above, it should immediately be evident that the each of these definitions in turn produces a drastically different paradigm or interpretation in understanding our current socioeconomic order. The contrast reveals liberalism’s shortcomings: by its very definition of freedom it has cordoned the concept of violation off within the public sphere—in the relation of individual to state. Since liberalism is, in fact, the hegemonic mode of discourse in most western countries, the result is a generalized or popular incapacity to grasp how institutions in the private sphere (e.g. the corporation, the patriarchy) can, and in fact do, subject individuals to what republicanism would call domination. This state of affairs thus entails a general inability to formulate criticisms of these institutions or structures in terms of liberty or the lack thereof.
The question, then, is whether republicanism can play an ameliorative role in restoring an awareness of hierarchical structures and domination to the general public. How such a restoration might proceed practically is not of concern to me at this time, but the question of whether republicanism is a viable alternative approach certainly is, so from now on I will focus on trying to formulate an answer to that question.
But first, let’s examine what is entailed by this idea of a viable alternative apporach. The sole reason we’re even examining these differing conceptions of liberty is because the prevailing method is in some way an inadequate one, as I’ve argued above. However, we’re not so concerned with being able to point to particular infractions committed by particular individuals, but rather with the ways larger structures themselves always already restrict our liberty. Republicanism seems to be able to do just that: it allows us to recognize certain aspects of contemporary liberal capitalism as inherently containing and maintaining forms of domination.
A very pertinent example of such a structure of domination is the corporation, as philosopher Elizabeth S. Anderson (whose influence thoroughly permeates this paper) describes quite eloquently in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk About It). Anderson characterizes the corporation as a private government of sorts in so far as employees are subject to extensive policing at the behest of their employers—one could get fired for many completely arbitrary factors: their politics, their speech, their sexual orientation or their consumption habits to name a few examples. Anderson is correct; there is a hierarchy of domination within the corporation, this hierarchy of domination does restrict people’s freedom, and most importantly, these facts are not recognized by the majority of people. We’re capable of constructing similar or even isomorphic arguments for the existence of patriarchal domination-hierarchies within common households and the way in which they limit a given group’s freedom.
Of course, these conditions seem completely unproblematic within the liberal framework, since they describe contractual dealings between nominally free bearers of rights. However, I believe that these two simple examples suffice for us to be able to draw the conclusion that there are blind spots to the liberal conception of freedom, that these blind spots are in fact the result of the separation between the public-political and the private-economical and lastly that republicanism enables us to remedy these blind spots by defining freedom in terms that unifies both spheres.
It might be productive to note that republicanism is not in any sense antithetical to liberalism, since its definition of freedom as non-domination encompasses what the liberal conception attempts to capture. In fact, republicanism might well be described as constituing a more staunchly democratic version of what liberalism aims for in theory, one that refuses to capitulate to capital’s demand for special treatment but insists rather on the primacy of people’s right to self-determination through democratic checks on hierarchical structures however they might manifest within the social sphere.
Thus my conclusion: the republican concept of freedom can serve as a valuable tool in so far as it is capable of bringing hitherto normalized or naturalized manifestations of unjust hierarchical structures which the liberal concept struggles to even formulate. It’s possible that republicanism can bring about a greater consciousness of democratic ideals and might thus serve as a helpful tool in political struggles.