A radical sense of a non-radical self

If we can never be free from constraint, if even freedom is a give and take with external constraints, a process of mutual re-creation — then we are not radical individuals. We are mostly determined by external forces — nature, culture, social relationships, our own past — with only a degree of agency in how we relate to those forces. We are not superior to nature, but dependent on it. We are not separate from other people, but constituted by them. We are even constrained by our own characters, much as we would like to change.

But some change is possible, little by little, as degrees of freedom from external constraints, through an iterative process of critique and creation. We are not radical individuals, but we are unique creative nexuses of external forces. We are artists, taking what the world gives us and rearranging it to create something new.

Harmony in discord

Sitting on the deck in the dappled shade of a lilac bush, dog at my feet. A beautiful spring day has improbably aligned with an hour of free time. And the dog is tired enough from our walk in the sun to ignore the passersby. I begin to write.

The key is to neither dominate nor be dominated; rather, sustain and create. You can 

The ignition of a lawnmower engine interrupts me from the yard next to mine. I try to ignore it and turn back to my notebook.

You can never be free from nature, from determinants, but you can exercise some agency in the way you are determined by them, as well as the way you determine them (for nature is never free of you

Another lawnmower starts. I peer across the street; it’s the kind you ride like a tractor, overkill in a city neighborhood. Now I’m annoyed. Noise pollution interfering with my precious moment! But I have a realization and write it down:

Pollution is an incursion on freedom. Depending on the type of pollution, it determines what you breathe, drink, eat, see, hear. Pollution is not just an agent of global warming or ecosystem contamination but also, and primarily, an immediate constraint on the freedom to meet basic needs, even on the capacity to think or rest.

So what to do? The world is full of constraints, consists entirely of them. I have been writing about freedom not as escaping or conquering constraints, but as exercising creativity in one’s relationship to them, creating a sustainable harmony with them.

I begin to hum deeply, matching the tone of one lawn mower, then the next, then alternating between them. I literally harmonize with them, and no longer find the noise pollution I’m subjected to so obnoxious. The tone of my throat-song softens the sharpness of their blaring motors. I resume writing.

Freedom is always an interplay, a dance. Because we always have an effect on nature, we cannot preserve it as is. Nature must be impacted by culture, and thus become culture. Just as nature subsumes culture because culture is part of nature, culture subsumes all parts of nature it touches.

Of course, not all constraints can be so easily turned around. There is no way to harmonize with lead-poisoned water. And the responsibility to deal with pollution should not primarily fall on its victims. Public housing projects should not be built next to airports. Industry should not be allowed to pollute our air and water. Lights should be directed at us, not the stars. Mountains and other shared landscapes should not be marred with houses and towers. Noise ordinances should be enforced. And so on. But even in a well regulated society, we will impose constraints on each other. And nature always constrains us.

We are never free from determination, but we can exercise more or less agency in how we relate to determinants. Exercising this agency requires critique and creativity, so we can see beyond the way things are and imagine a different future, but one in harmony with the way things are so it can be created and sustained without the cycle of domination. Not to evade, destroy, or control constraints, but to engage in a creative interplay with them, to let them create you but also to re-create them — that is freedom.

Nature and freedom

I have described the negative relationship between power and nature: exploitation of people is made possible by control over access to natural resources. But this implies a positive relationship between freedom and nature, too: we can become free through a sustainable, harmonious relationship with nature. To be free, we must be secure in meeting our basic material needs with natural resources. But dominating and exploiting nature in search of this security is a false sense of freedom; it requires us to continually fight against nature and exhaust its resources, then move on to repeat the process, ultimately requiring us to find new regions, new continents, new worlds to conquer and pillage. This appetitive relationship to nature is a cycle in which we are determined by nature even as we believe ourselves to be superior to it. Instead, if we learn to meet our needs with natural resources in a sustainable way, we can live harmoniously with nature and create lives and communities of our own choosing, free from the continual imperative to search and destroy.

This is not a “back to nature” primitivist approach. It likely involves the application of advanced technical practices — all the more advanced because they must meet our needs while also preserving the ecosystem.

Elusive freedom

Freedom is creating our own future. It is a matter of degree, because there will always be external constraints determining our future. The key is to work with these constraints, to bring them together into a harmony.

The fundamental constraint is nature. For example, we need food, water, clean air, sleep, health care, a habitable climate. The less assured we are of meeting any of these needs, the more determined we are by our physical limits, because the more we must focus our energy on meeting basic material needs. But the more secure we are in meeting these needs, the more we can choose how to spend our energy — the more we can, rather than react to nature, create our own future. For example, rather than spend much time and creativity finding or making food, we can spend more of it finding and making community, knowledge, beauty, joy.

But when we exercise this freedom to create our future, we necessarily change our world. We rearrange nature to some extent — creating culture. Like its parent, culture also determines us. And so, to be free, we must develop a creative, not merely reactive, relationship to culture.

Freedom within culture is more analytically complex than freedom within nature. But it, too, means getting to choose how to spend our energy. If culture prescribes where and how we direct our productive energy, then we cannot create our own future. And culture has more subtle means than nature with which to constrain us, such as beliefs and values, and more advanced means to control access to the resources on which we depend to meet our physical needs, i.e., politics and economics.

Thus, our ability to attain some freedom from nature also amplifies the potential for nature to be used to determine us: people can use their freedom to manipulate others’ ability to meet basic physical needs. This is one of the many contradictions of capitalism: having attained the state of technology with which we could liberate humanity, we use it instead to dominate each other.

Subjection

We tend to assume the validity of our system for “earning a living,” i.e., being able to meet our basic material needs only by doing others’ bidding for most of our lives. Even the few people who are “their own boss” must produce what other people will pay for — and what people will pay for is severely constrained by what they can pay for, i.e., by how little discretionary spending the system permits them. Our system may be described as a “free market,” but it requires that we contort ourselves according to the dictates of those who control access to the resources on which we all depend.

The alternative, of course, is to guarantee the ability to meet basic material needs. With meeting those needs secure, we have the opportunity to build lives of our own choosing — in a word, freedom.

Many people equate freedom with the ability to choose among employment options for the chance to make enough money to raise a family with a decent standard of living. There may be some fortunate people for whom the dictates of our market are a happy match with their own values. And there are some people escaping such grinding poverty or political oppression that the more mediated privation and constraint of our system offers a major expansion of freedom.

But for most people this equation of freedom with participation in the market is the most insidious form of the contortion required to succeed in our system. The dictates of the market come to determine our very identity — our goals, values, personality. This psychological contortion is the process of becoming a subject. It is partly inculcated in us by our upbringing and education, is partly an adaptation we deliberately develop to succeed in the market, and partly a self-protective bubble within which we enclose ourselves to maintain the illusion of freedom. If we fail or refuse to perform this contortion, we become painfully aware of our subjectification to power.

Frustrating as this awareness is, there is solace in knowing we have not completely surrendered our freedom.