Freedom without Violence

I am going to take some time (and several posts) to respond to Dustin Ells Howes’ remarkable book, Freedom without Violence: Resisting the Western Political Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2016).  My posts are going to be more a report of thoughts inspired by his work than a direct engagement with his specific arguments.  In short, I have found the book inspiring—and want to get down on paper (or in cyberspace) what it has inspired me to ponder.

Howes’ resistance to the tradition of political thought in the West focuses on contesting two assumptions found in much of that tradition: 1. that violence is an expression of freedom; and 2. that violence is necessary for the defense of freedom.  I will attend to the first issue today, reserving discussion of the second for subsequent posts.

At first glance, we might be tempted to say that #1 (violence as an exercise or expression of freedom) is “ancient,” and #2 (violence as a regrettable necessity to ward off threats to freedom) is “modern.”  Just think about the re-christening in the United States of the Department of War as the Department of Defense.  We collectively seem much less willing today to think of war as heroic, as a cure for creeping effeminacy, or a joyous (Nietzschean) expression of virile, vital, noble energies.  Such associations surface from time to time among our more enthusiastically militaristic neo-cons, but are rarely official discourse.  Since World War I, at least (or so the story we most often tell ourselves goes), the idea that war is heroic has been put to rest.  Instead, war is a grim necessity, one to which we only resort reluctantly.  And we don’t expect it to bolster the national character.  Rather, it’s a dirty job that soils all it touches, but that someone has to do (the necessity argument).

Howes does a very good job of showing that, official pieties aside, violence as an expression of freedom has not really disappeared.  But he is not arguing about some kind of self-delusion or hypocrisy.  Yes, of course, notions of honor and manliness are deployed—especially by the Marine Corps—in the contemporary US.  Such misplaced and pathological (to my mind) associations are not Howes’ subject.  Rather, he is interested in what might be called the “deep logic” of how we understand freedom—and the link between that understanding and violence.

The key to this logic, it seems to me, is the notion of self-sufficiency.  An individual—or a nation on the collective scale—is free when it does not need to rely on anyone else to achieve its willed aims.  In other words, I am less free insofar as I am dependent on another to successfully do what I want to do.  That dependence gives them power over me, gives them a way to limit what I can do—and any such limitation is a lessening of my freedom.  We can heighten this sense of dependence on –or vulnerability vis a vis—others when we say that one of the things I most desire is to be admired and/or respected and/or loved by others.  I cannot command the admiration/respect/love of others. I am always subject to the judgment of others.  They will think of me what they will.  And this fact is maddening.

So here’s the logic: if freedom is understood as self-sufficiency, as having utter control over all the factors that might stand between me and the achievement of my desires, then freedom is, in fact, unattainable.  Those utterly wedded to that unattainable notion of freedom will be drawn to (not inevitably, but surely often) an attempt to eliminate the perceived obstacles to freedom.  That attempt will underwrite violence.

That such violence will not be effective, will not achieve self-sufficiency, does not seem to sink in. Humans keep relying on this failed strategy.  Why?  Does violence provide some kind of satisfaction of frustration, even when it doesn’t truly remove the source of the frustration? (That is, violence might remove the proximate cause of frustration, the person currently standing in my way.  But it cannot remove the ultimate cause: my non-self-sufficiency.)  Does this proximate/ultimate distinction suggest a time delay: i.e. violence momentarily provides some kind of self-sufficiency even though it cannot permanently alleviate our dependence on others?  Howes does not ask these kinds of questions, but I would like to be able to think about ways violence “feels good” or situations in which it seems effective.  I think such satisfactions are also deeply implicated in questions about punishment, in the moral indignation that inflicts harm on those who “deserve it.”  Even if I can’t get what I want, I can make the others who are frustrating me pay a steep price.

In addition to dependency leading to frustration, being unfree—and being perceived as such by others—is shameful.  Howes documents how Greek notions of freedom were very dependent on the alter-image of the “slave” as the opposite of freedom.  Being a slave is the worst fate a man could suffer, even worse than death.  Maybe that’s why Greek men are killed following their defeat in battle, while their wives are carted off as slaves.  It was the height of un-heroism, of dishonor, to accept slavery over death.  This leads us all the way to Hegel’s understanding of the master/slave dialectic, where it becomes a choice of kill or be killed in order to avoid being a slave.  So here’s the second way violence is baked into the zero-sum game that views any dependence on another as tantamount to unfreedom, to slavery.

Undoubtedly, such notions are deeply implicated in ideals of masculinity.  Dependence is not usually seen as a disaster for women—and women are historically much less prone to violence than men.  What Howes shows us is that freedom has been linked to a certain understanding of power—defined as the capacity to achieve one’s ends without relying on the help or permission of others—that has been with us for a very long time.  And he shows us that violence, while not an absolutely necessary concomitant of that understanding of freedom/power, is an unsurprising companion of it.

4 thoughts on “Freedom without Violence

  1. From Dan Duffy: Looking forward to the rest. Hey, as to the USMC. It seems to me that you refer to their public relations. Their internal joke that the Corps is an advertising agency with an infantry arm. Within that infantry arm the dependance of the individual on the group is the focus of training. They were the first of our services to extend that concept to foreign partisans in what are now familiar as special operations. Meanwhile the exoteric doctrine you see on the billboards is a consequence of the Corps’ dependence on democratic support. When they started recruiting non-professionals they began with live-fire demonstrations at night with tracers to show families how their sons worked together to stay alive. Among my old-time settler white people at least the USMC is a civilizing influence, diminishing rather than increasing personal violence. There is an ethnographic and historic tradition to this effect.


  2. I’m interested in many of the ideas you explore but must complain that you’ve dismissed all of feminism in less than a full sentence. Of course dependence is viewed as a disaster for women. Of course it is. This is one of the core issues faced by women in patriarchy–the extent to which women are dis-empowered by their dependence on men. I’m forced to ask who it is who doesn’t see women’s dependence (and concomitantly, their frustration) as disastrous. Men?

    I’m referring to this:

    “Dependence is not usually seen as a disaster for women—and women are historically much less prone to violence than men.”

    The notion that “women are historically much less prone to violence than men” is nearly as equally problematic. Which women? When? Where? Women like HRC, advocating hawkishly for the war in Iraq?

    But I am interested in this notion that violence is an expression of freedom.


  3. To elaborate on Randi’s comment above: feminist theorists have long criticized the idea of the normative individual being self-sufficient and independent. These notions are implicated in masculinity, to be sure — but more precisely, they are an ideological construct of patriarchal power. As such, they are used to mark out other groups as lesser because dependent. Perhaps this is just to say that freedom can’t be thought through without also thinking about equality.

    “Much less prone” to violence is unfortunate phrasing, because it makes it seem like violence is a natural urge. But I think it is fair to say that in contemporary Western societies, women are not regarded as — or encouraged to be — legitimate users of violence (as Sharon Marcus said in a long ago article on the grammar of rape).


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