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Freedom. It is the opening word of the last chapter of Assata Shakur’s autobiography. To learn something about the life of this former member of the Black Panther movement, one could start with one of two things: read the most lengthy wikipedia article I’ve ever read (the one about her), or read her own book. This will have a very different outcome. The writers of the article have gone out of their way to avoid taking sides on the facts of the life of this ‘controversial’ woman, now sixty-six, called a ‘most wanted terrorist’ by the FBI, and a political refugee by her sympathizers. Her own book provides a quite different read. My most important impression of it was: if she did not have a ghostwriter, she is an outstanding writer – telling her life in a manner that one wants to read on and on. I did so after I started, wanting to learn more on this period in history, and finished it in just a few days. Admiring how she found the right words to describe happy childhood days at the beach restaurant of her grandparents as well as her mood during her nearly two years of solitary confinement.

I will not discuss the events that led to her imprisonment in 1973, nor her later escape and asylum in Cuba. It has all been discussed extensively in other places by persons who are in a better position to have an opinion on this. What caught my attention though in reading was this one thing – her account of freedom. As a word it features there where she talks about the ending of her life in prison – as an experience it summarizes the entire book. She has described her life as a continuing search for freedom – not only politically, but also and perhaps more importantly, emotionally and spiritually. She describes those lessons of her educators, most importantly her grandparents, that learned her to have inner freedom over against others, a thing which is also called dignity. Later she mentions how revolutionaries from another party taught her to stop smoking weed, to be free for ‘the real high’ – that of facing your life and trying to change what is wrong. And how she gained more spiritual strength – also a form of freedom – over against the hardships of prison after a friend made her accept an islamic way of living.

Freedom would have been the subject for my subsidiary thesis when I was studying, but it never got written as I sped up finishing my studies when they threatened to drag on too long. Some years ago it featured in a research plan, with the working title ‘Freedom, Identity and Responsibility’, which I tried to get funding for, in vain. It has been a postponed subject for very long now. What interested me especially philosophically was freedom of the imagination as a possibility condition for moral agency – giving a person the chance to find an identity (‘this is who I am, these are the values I stand for’), and to experience responsibility (only when one can imagine consequences one can see that one’s choice makes a difference). I have read widely on the subject through the years, ranging from works in critical theory to those of phenomenologists and pragmatists, so why did I not yet find the focus to write my own study of it? I think because one thing was never clear to me – how to understand the changing face of the concept of freedom in so many different contexts and discourses. Politically it is used by conservatives as well as by revolutionaries. And then it is used in spiritual and moral discourses, in therapeutical discourses, in the discourse of the law.

Reading that book, Assata, I was reminded that freedom is not just about having rights, although they are of course of great importance. The freedom that Assata according to her book seemed to have found goes beyond that – one feels its presence in her descriptions of the joys of human relations – with her friends and family. Freedom is being free, being able to be oneself, to speak one’s mind without anxiety, or be silent in peace with others. This reminded me of the work of this other woman that was drawn to the revolutionary life, philosopher Simone Weil – in her work she criticized the focus in moral philosophy on rights, and argued that true humanity can only be found when we learn these two things: real attention to others, and awareness of our obligations to them. Rights of course cannot give you anything when the corresponding obligations are not respected. But more so, when all your rights are recognized, the most important thing might still be missing, according to Weil: attention. On that account freedom (to be oneself) can only be enjoyed in the space that is created by real relationships. I wonder if that aspect of the revolutionary spirit has been recognized enough. It is not primarily interested in alternative systems and regulations, but in something beyond them. It must feel constrained therefore in any system.

I discussed the autobiography of Assata Shakur (1947- ), simply called Assata, which was published in 1987 by Zed Books.

Simone Weil lived from 1909 untill 1943. Her writings were mostly only published after she died. I read L’enracinement (translated as The Need for Roots) and La personne et le sacré (of which I think no separate edition exists in English).

There is justified grief, and anger, among many U.S. citizens, about the way in which the recent Zimmerman case has been handled. Although I am not American, and no expert in the law, I would like to add to the perception of what is going on here by trying some philosophical reflection. As I understand it, the problematic aspect of the stand-your-ground law, which aquitted George Zimmerman, who shot 17 year old Trayvon Martin when he walked home at night, is that it blurrs to an unbearable extent the line between defense and attack. I will not go into the question of racist motives in U.S. courts, or in the general public – one can simply acknowledge that they are there, and it should make one sad and angry. But, suppose that both actors in that drama had the same skin colour, only one was very paranoia about defending himself and people’s property – and he could legally carry a gun. And could suppose that when he used it against a person which he thought was threatening the law would protect him… in other words, I would like to try to show what this law as such expresses about being human in our time.

Originally, as I understand it, the stand-your-ground law was designed to exonerate persons who defended their property, their home, their own safe place to live, to intruders (for my Dutch readers, we are having a discussion to alter the law in this direction in recent years, think ‘Teeven’). But what does it say about being a person – in relation to property, that one would rather kill another human being than try to run first and call the police? It happened that I was reading just now in the early writings of Marx, where he discusses the ideas of Hegel on the state and property. Where a certain class of property-owners, land owners in the case discussed, are allowed special political representation, as in the House of Lords in England, this is not in the interest of individual property-owners, Marx notices, but in the interest of property itself. This has to do with ancient European customs related to succession. It provides, Marx notices, a possibility to buy rights for ‘younger sons’, who do not inherit the land of their fathers (along with the race question, I will also leave out the feminist question here).

Marx criticizes Hegels idea that property is something one can dispose of (‘meines Eigentums kann ich mich entäussern’), since it would be mine only because I can do with it what I want, and is as such external to my personality. To Hegel property is not substantial to a person, as are his free will, his morality and religion – those would make up a persons self-awareness. Marx points to the fact that certain historical social arrangements (and their legal articulations) make property undisposable (‘unveräusserlich’). Although he speaks of the special political representation mentioned above, I would suggest one reads his words as applicable to discussions as the one excited by the stand-your-ground law: ‘Property is becoming a good one cannot dispose of, a substantial destination, which makes up the very person, the general essence of self awareness […], personality as such, its general freedom of will, morality, religion.’

These are harsh words, and to my view they describe without mercy the situation of present society. They apply not just to Florida, but also to Bangladesh (to remember those workers who died in the collapsing factory where they were slaving), to the Netherlands, to anywhere. Marx continues: ‘property is not any more ‘because I can do with it what I want’, but my will is ‘because of my property’. My will does not posess, but is posessed.’ Modern humanity has accepted to let itself be defined by property, as something which one cannot dispose of, and traded it for the disposability of human beings, not only those considered a threat to it, but also those who as workers without rights have to keep the stream of goods to be posessed flowing. In the process we have traded in something essential, I think.

Karl Marx lived from 1818-1883. I translated freely from Die Frühschriften (the early works), in the edition of Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1971. The passages cited are on page 120.

One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and  while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of  freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.

This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?

We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?

And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…

When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.

Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).