For Yayah and Beth
What is freedom? That seems like an easy question, but it can never be answered without equivocation, the implication of limits to protect some-one or something else. We tend to think of freedom as an absolute, as unconditional liberty, but who would be prepared to grant free choice over life and death, the freedom to harm as well as to help? At the dawn of the Philippine Revolution against Spain a new word entered the Tagalog language to capture this ambivalence, to speak both of liberty and obligation. The word was kalayaan, which implied cooperation for liberty and its rewards.
Freedom is a fundamentally social concept, with tension between the individual and the group, or between the group and yet other groups, always at its core. By their very nature groups contain, condense and consolidate. In doing so they force their members to relinquish something, even those members who have the greatest influence over others. A group needs a focus at best, or an alibi at worst, and not all members are prepared to accept that under all circumstances. Ultimately, some members attempt to negate the compulsion to belong, which is as often born of necessity in one form or another as it is of coercion.
This is also true of relations between groups, which are essentially relations between allied individuals in an encompassing society. There is always a pay-off, somewhere, for shifting or even maintaining allegiance, and groups can pay a heavy price for defining themselves as what others are not. Racism, homophobia, sexism – these are the dire currencies with which freedom is bought. They are, sadly (but historically, because nothing is set in stone, forever), the products of social exchange.
Taking a broader perspective, freedom can be seen as a synonym for, rather than merely a condition of, exchange. So it really shouldn’t be surprising that freedom is a feature of many economic discussions, because exchange without any form of compulsion – whether direct or indirect – is an impossibility. The notion of the ‘free market’ is a useful ideal rather than a feasible model only because it suggests that individuals can, at a base level of cooperation, achieve interdependence without domination. Agreement is the closest we’re ever likely to get to true freedom.
Why, then, does the notion of freedom as an absolute persist? It must be more than a comfort or it would be easily dispelled. My inclination is to suggest that freedom is a function of social discourse – by its very impossibility it reminds us of the tangled webs upon webs of human interaction in which we live.
When the Philippine revolutionaries cried kalayaan! against the Spanish as the nineteen century decayed, they expected a reply in chorus. And that they received, but others were soon receiving the Americans and the first republic fell. “Man is born free”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had written more than a century earlier, “but everywhere he is in chains”. Freedom isn’t revolutionary – it’s just what would happen if we finally accepted our social captivity.
Perhaps we need a new ideal.