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Freedom Is Not the Opposite of Constraint

February 23, 2009

Freedom is not the opposite of constraint—constraints are the conditions of possibilities of freedoms.

Louis Althusser argues (I apologize for the use of male pronouns in the following):

althu[E]ach class has its own individuals, fashioned in their individuality by their conditions of life, of work, of exploitation and of struggle—by the relations of the class struggle. In their mass, real men are what class conditions make of them. These conditions do not depend on bourgeois “human nature”: liberty. On the contrary: the liberties of men, including the forms and limits of these liberties, and including their will to struggle, depend on these conditions (bold emphases are my own).

Michel Foucault argues:

foucault[W]e could not understand the establishment of liberal ideologies and a liberal politics in the eighteenth century without keeping in mind that the same eighteenth century, which made such a strong demand for freedoms, had all the same ballasted these freedoms with a disciplinary technique that, taking children, soldiers, and workers where they were, considerably restricted freedom and provided, as it were, guarantees for the exercise of this freedom. Well, I think I was wrong. I was not completely wrong, of course, but, in short, it was not exactly this. I think something completely different is at stake. This is that this freedom, both ideology and technique of government, should in fact be understood within the mutations and transformations of technologies of power. More precisely and particularly, freedom is nothing else but the correlative of the deployment of apparatuses of security.

Nikolas Rose argues:

rose[A]gency is an effect, a distributed outcome of particular technologies of subjectification that invoke human beings as subjects of a certain type of freedom and supply the norms and techniques by which that freedom is to be recognized, assembled, and played out in specific domains.

The problem, for me, is that many people read Foucault, agree that there is power at work constraining our lives, and then come to the conclusion that we should use Foucault’s research to identify and then abolish all restrictions on individual liberty. Some Foucauldians, at bottom, seem to be nothing other than libertarians: if you find power constraining people you should work to remove that constraint.

But if Althusser, Foucault, and Rose are correct, this conclusion is a non sequitur. According to them, you can’t remove constraints—and even if you could you wouldn’t want to, since constraints produce freedoms in the first place!

By contrast, I try to resist the libertarian impulse and go with Gramsci: the idea is not to remove constraints or destroy social structures—the idea is to change them:

gramsciStructure ceases to be an external force which crushes man, assimilates him to itself and makes him passive, [… when that structure] is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create a new ethico-political form and a source of new initiatives.

Or, as Althusser argues, the point is not to remove all state restrictions on individual behavior, but to change the state:

For class struggle is not an individual struggle, but an organized mass struggle for the conquest and revolutionary transformation of state power and social relations.


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