The notion of freedom has been a core component of the American mythos and one of the main reasons that both liberals and conservatives cling to the political power structure that has persisted in the United States, despite its obvious failures to deliver upon the promise of freedom as it notionally exists. By interrogating freedom, by looking into its meaning and then applying it to realities on the ground, we see in stark contrast what the political duopoly combined with “free market” capitalism does to shred freedom and destroy lives. Freedom in America today is nothing more than a cruel farce, a shibboleth used to justify the continued existence of an outmoded, imperial regime. The term, “freedom,” has its ambiguities and facets: if it is to have any real meaning, it must encompass economic, political, psychological, and sociological factors, so that it does not become an empty signifier, as I contend that it has become in the United States today.
In a free society, incarceration would be rare to nonexistent, and the justice system would be directed towards restoration of right relationship between the offender and the aggrieved parties wherever possible. The justice system would not be used as a torture mechanism, to force compliance and “good” behavior. A truly just system would not discriminate according to race or ability to pay. Cash bail and for-profit prisons would be illegal, and all defendants would have equal representation. We can see immediately that the U.S. fails these tests, that the rate of incarceration is the highest in human history, and that the criminal “justice” system is heavily skewed against people of color and people without access to capital. This is to say nothing of those detained in Guantanamo Bay, in detention facilities around the U.S., and in unknown and unnumbered “black sites” throughout the world.
In a free society, all women would have access to prenatal care, contraception, and abortion without regard to geographic location, economic status, or race and ethnicity. Access to medical care would be provided to all at clinics available in each neighborhood. Paid parental leave, adoption, and child care would be available to every family, of whatever sexual orientation or gender identity, and be guaranteed and protected by law. People would then be free to choose whether to have children based on non-economic factors and could be free from economic crisis in the event that they decide to have children. Take by contrast, the situation as it exists in the U.S., with high infant mortality and inadequate access to maternal health, contraception, childcare, and abortion are differentiated based on race, geography, and economics.
In a free society, medical care for people of all ages and abilities would similarly be provided to all people throughout their life cycle, from birth to death. People with disabilities and mental illnesses would not be at risk for marginalization because of conditions that that they did not choose for themselves. Those suffering from serious or terminal illnesses would not face crippling debt or bankruptcy due to exorbitant fees in for-profit medicine. Illness of any kind is difficult enough to face without the additional burden of having to navigate byzantine insurance schemes and opaque billing procedures. The U.S. continues to fail at providing healthcare to its “citizens,” because the underlying profit motive (with its attendant political corruption) has not been adequately taken into account. Reformist thinking fails repeatedly at addressing the problems with this system, as it conceives of medical care as a paid service rather than a human right.
In a free society, people would have the freedom to explore avenues of artistic and intellectual expression without fear of economic and political reprisal. One could be an artist, a poet, or an intellectual without fear of crippling debt and penury. Works of art would be supported by the state, and creativity without commercial purpose would be encouraged as a normal part of life in a civilized society. Museums, concerts, and theatrical performances would be both commonplace and freely available to all. The flow of information in physical or electronic form would not be monitored and tracked for either political or economic purposes. Compare that to the situation in the U.S. today, in which only commercial interests can be pursued and every click of the mouse and every movement in physical space is monitored by huge corporations and government agencies prying into personal data.
In a free society, every person has food and shelter, and every person has education to the extent of their ability and not merely to the extent of their ability to pay. A free society must necessarily be an educated society, since ignorance breeds racism, classism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. The demagogue exploits these divisions to maintain capitalist oligarchy, preventing the proletariat from coming into their own as free people worthy of dignity and respect. Work itself is a valuable component of human dignity and identity, but not when it is predicated on wage theft, unpaid overtime, economic insecurity, unsafe working conditions, and crippling debt. The U.S. today upholds a system in which the very few gain at the expense of the many, in which the poor are working harder than ever while the leisure class steals the fruit of their work. Further, it has failed in its obligation to provide education for all and has consigned an entire generation to debt servitude in order to keep the populace demoralized and divided.
In a free society, there is no permanent aristocratic class, handing down wealth and privilege from generation to generation. Each person has the opportunity to pursue a full and complete life, with all of the resources and opportunities that go along with participation in society. No one has an initial leg up or automatic push downward based on the birth lottery. Moneyed interests are kept fully in check, so that the leisure class is prevented from hoarding assets and living on passive income. Every person should take part in labor for the good of all, just as every person should have access to and time for intellectual and creative pursuits. Compare this idea of a free society to the current state of affairs, in which a small percentage of the population owns multiple homes, as well as yachts and airplanes, while earning capital through market manipulation. At the same time, the average worker must toil at multiple jobs while balancing childcare and family, only to earn a pittance relative to the economic elite. The people who actually make society run are devalued when compared to the financiers, who trade in imaginary “assets” while destroying the lives of working people and the environment.
In a free society, people have freedom of movement. Public transport is readily available, and biking, walking, and accessible transport are safe and available. One need not own private conveyance in order to get from point A to point B. Nor does one have to move to find employment or waste time commuting. A food system is seamlessly integrated into transit so that food deserts do not occur; the landscape is made aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound. Each person can live a healthy and active lifestyle without risking loss of employment or career setbacks. Comparatively, car culture in the United States wastes huge amounts of time, productivity, and carbon-based fuel in an antiquated transportation infrastructure that further pollutes the atmosphere. Also consider the knock-on effects of car culture, such as the fast-food diet, which causes tremendous detriment to human health while providing only low-quality and low paying jobs. Consider the inability of capitalism to seriously address climate change by shifting rapidly to mass transit and alternative fuels.
In a free society, political leaders do not profit from their positions, either during or after their terms of service. Political speech and favors are not commodities to be bought and sold. The courts are not political postings used to advance partisan interests, and all public officials are held to the highest standards of integrity in positions that they hold for limited terms. Anyone can participate in politics and everyone is expected to participate; anyone can hold elected office. Wealth will not be either a formal or informal prerequisite for holding office, and members of government will have only such privileges as are necessary for completing their work. Compare this abstraction of freedom to the political system in the U.S., in which political corruption is legalized through campaign donations, super PACS, and influence campaigns. Legislators in the pockets of major corporations will not represent the people, regardless of how well-intentioned they might be. The system is structurally designed to increase the power and wealth of privileged people while undermining the well-being and dignity of ordinary workers.
This examination shows freedom must be more than just waving a flag or thanking the troops for their service. Freedom must be more than an abstraction, in which the populace is “safe” from “those people” over there (this concept is really just a stage-ready prop for the military-industrial complex, with not-so-subtle racist and xenophobic undertones). Freedom must impact the lives of everyday people in a positive way as they go about their lives. They must be able to make decisions without compromising their ideals or going into exploitative servitude. They must be able to sleep at night without worrying about debt or being able to provide for their family. They must not fear that their loved ones will be taken from them by law enforcement or immigration agents. As soon as we see American freedom for the fairy tale that it is, we can begin to imagine what genuine freedom would look like. We see how deep the problems go, and we realize that only revolutionary change can bring about the new society that we seek. As capitalist political oligarchy gradually or suddenly decays, we put into place the socialist vision of freedom that truly speaks to the aspirations of the people.
Devi Dillard-Wright teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She writes about animal ethics and philosophy of mind and is the author of a popular series of meditation books.