Think of a word: “Freedom!” Look up from the page and think about this word.
What comes into your mind first? What images, feelings, and associations come up for you? Words matter but they are not objective “signs” that denote an unambiguous meaning. Words are freighted with history, embedded in context, informed by time and place.
This little thought experiment might be telling. Maybe you thought of free choice, free markets, free competition — all libertarian mandates that are currently fashionable. Perhaps you did not go that far. But if you are like many people in 2018, the term freedom conjured the issue of personal freedom, the right to do what you want.
That’s fine. No blame. We live in the times we are in and our neoliberal age exerts certain ideological framings for all of us. But I was struck with the evolving connotations of the word freedom while reading At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I was reminded of the implications of the term freedom in the 1960’s, during the great upsurge of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist liberation movements throughout the Third World and in the internal colonies within the US. “Freedom! Freedom Now!” was the cry of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements. While individual democratic rights were part of it, the rights to movement, to eating and sitting and drinking water where one wished, the overall demand was for freedom as a people, for liberation as a community, for a complete break from oppression. The term “freedom” itself has existential resonance, meaning that people were demanding the right and possibility to be fully realized, to live collectively and yet to have deep agency and power, to have not just formal bourgeois democracy but real participatory democracy.
That is a far cry from the individualist freedoms that characterize the gig economy, the Bay Area’s new libertarian tech culture, and even the ultra-right Freedom Caucus in the US House of Representatives.
Now, I’m cautious about overdoing 60’s nostalgia. I don’t mean to be the old man in the corner, shouting, “You young whippersnappers don’t know what it was like.” Far from it. We had our own illusions and our own foolishness. But I do think, as George Lakoff pointed out in Don’t Think of an Elephant, that language is powerful and we must pay attention to how words are deployed.
So what other words have been distorted, coopted, or appropriated by the superstructure of empire, deployed against popular liberation? One that jumps to mind right away is power. In 1966, When Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee went beyond the demand for civil rights to a call for Black Power, they were synthesizing a deep and important ideological framing from Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, and other liberation struggles. They argued that Black people were not a “minority” merely seeking access into America but were part of a world-wide Third World majority struggling for liberation. They weren’t simply demanding entry into a rotten, racist, unjust system, but the creation of a new, liberated society where their humanity was not up for question. They insisted that freedom would not come from changing racist ideas in white people’s heads but from the acquisition of power — political power that meant that it did not matter what a white person thought, they would not have the (state) power to oppress and harm. Power meant power for the community. It was further expressed by the Black Panther Party, whose call for “community control of the police” threatened to completely upend the role of the state, which was to wield a monopoly of violence against poor and oppressed communities.
What happened to the call for power? Very quickly, psychologists and First World activists began to talk about “empowerment.” Empowerment. Get it? It’s an individual accomplishment. One can be empowered under capitalism. It’s akin to self-realization. It makes me think of Herbert Marcuse’s critique of “repressive tolerance,” the ability of capitalism to acquiesce to some demands to hold off revolution. The term empowerment (which of course can be useful in some situations) rips out the collective, political character of the demand for political power. It makes the goal a competition for individual attainment, something that rests comfortably in the neoliberal imaginary.
Sometimes the degradation of language, or rather the domination of language by the ruling class, is not found in reframing the meaning of a single word as much as replacing one core context of meaning with another. Think of the words freedom and power again, with all their subversive resonance. In education, communities from SNCC projects in Mississippi to Summerhill in England built “freedom schools.” Today the operative progressive term in education is “social justice.” Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for social justice and social justice education projects are under sustained attack from the right. But it strikes me that too often social justice implies something carefully envisioned, constructed, and administered by liberal overseers. It is orderly, sober, and reasonable. Sometimes it means getting some marginalized students into college; other times it means a slightly less authoritarian discipline system. But it lacks the wild exuberance of freedom and power. Its limits, its borders, are delineated and safe. And many, most, of my teaching colleagues — who I love dearly — find themselves expending their entire career energy trying to carve out a little social justice from these soul-crushing schools.
Another one: liberation vs. human rights. Again, I’m all for human rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations was a game-changer and the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been a key framing of the debate over education as a right instead of being simply a commodity to be purchased at the marketplace by those who can afford it. But I also remember when Jimmy Carter articulated individual human rights as the cornerstone of his foreign policy. This was 1977, two years after the Vietnamese completed the American war and while national “liberation” was still the rallying cry of social movements.
Carter was quite conscious of changing the terms, the framing, of the narrative about freedom. It was no longer a question of peoples gaining collective freedom. It was now a matter of individual rights, which might be under threat in a capitalist, a socialist, or a neutral country. The problem was individual and the solution would also be individual. While we still struggle for human rights, as well we must, be must be careful about the tendency the Carter framing creates of seeking solutions within imperialism, of seeing individual success as the goal — again that might be college, a job in Silicon Valley, or a BMW. I hold steadfastly to the deeper, more revolutionary meaning the human rights resolution had in 1948.
All of this calls to mind Arundhati Roy’s indictment of “the NGO-ization of resistance,” the process by which liberal foundations professionalized movement work in the 1970’s and after. Where before a community organizer would be unpaid, sustained by the movement, and directing strategy with community input only, the foundations came in and paid social change agents. Now plans for change were shaped by grant proposals, in which the requirements for the statement of the problem and the anticipated results framed the poor as victims, as powerless, while they framed solutions as technocratic. NGOs internationally and non-profits within the US proliferated and the language of individual success, incremental change, and non-threatening visions were mandatory.
Again, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone working for NGOs or non-profits is selling out. Indeed, the work is necessary. But we have to have our eyes open. We have to look critically at our goals, or expectations of what is possible, and our day-to-day actions.
One final observation. Let’s not suggest that the setbacks in liberation struggles have simply been the result of a linguistic sleight-of-hand. The number one tool the empire has is violence, the willingness to deploy brutal and crushing violence. There is a reason the US has the most massive military the world has ever seen and continues to grow it — now moving into a world of drones and robot soldiers. Movements have been harmed, deflected, and set back because of state violence. But the language war, the reframing of words, has been a part of the ideological mopping up, the hegemonic control of our thoughts and the policing of our imaginations.
If the 1950’s through 70’s were a period of national liberation, offering the deepest critique and greatest crisis of imperialism, we are now in the time of neoliberalism in crisis. Make no mistake about it. The empire is under attack, it is perhaps in final decline. But it is also lashing out violently, reverting to desperate fundamentalist idolatry, consuming itself in a decadent lurch for a few more profits.
The empire is ending and our work is to see to it that it happens with the least violence possible, with the possibility of the dawning of a new world in which nations and peoples live in deeper harmony, in which the earth and its wonders are honored instead of gobbled up. For this we need new ideas, new creativity, and new language that is equal to the challenges before us.