Freedom Through Participation in Collective Action

Here’s a second post inspired by Dustin Howes’ Freedom without Violence.

War has often been seen as a contest, a way of testing men both against themselves (i.e. can they overcome their fear to act bravely) and against others (who will prove the superior in combat?).  This competition has proved undeniably attractive for some men throughout history—and can be tied to freedom, if freedom is considered the ability to control oneself, the ability to master one’s fear or other contrary emotions/desires on the way to doing something that is difficult.  Foucault in his final books was interested in exploring this idea of freedom as self-control or self-mastery.

But the paradox, of course, is that soldiers are in many ways the least free beings we can imagine.  They are bound to obey—or die.  Robert E. Lee was executing deserters up to five days before his surrender at Appomattox.  A great mystery to me is how “boot camp” tactics manage to create fierce loyalty to the organization among those who have been systematically abused and humiliated.  There seems to be only two plausible answers: 1. A pride in having survived the worst that could be dished out. 2. The complete break-down of the prior self and its sense of dignity/worth—and then a reconstitution of that self as only having an identity within the organization.  If some version of the second is true, then complete subservience to and dependence on the social body (the army) underlies the hyper-masculinity of war.  There appears to be a deep masochism at the heart of masculinity, a desire to submit to power within contexts that glorify the possession of power (including the power to kill) through the establishment and maintenance of a strict hierarchy.  (See Dan Duffy’s comment on the previous post for an argument–which I agree with–that the army aims to undermine any self-sufficiency, that it wants to create complete dependence of the individual on the unit.  My discussion here is meant to consider how this acceptance of deep dependence is squared with heightened notions of masculinity–and how the soldier’s hyper-dependency is compensated for by his participation in extreme power.)

Howes several times references Gandhi’s belief “that freedom means doing one’s moral duty” (189).  Kant holds a similar view—and links it with a fierce insistence on individual autonomy.  The self must determine its own duty, must follow its own conscience.  Where duty is dictated to the self by a collective body, the result is not freedom, but at best passive obedience, at worst full-scale tyranny.  Yet collective action appears to require the merger of selves into some kind of purpose that transcends the self.  Charismatic figures are often as central to progressive social movements as inspirational leaders are to an army.

Furthermore, it seems indisputably true that people often find their lives most meaningful when devoted to a cause that transcends them.  Soldiers put their lives on the line—and are nostalgic ever afterwards about their war-time experiences.  This suggests that “freedom” is not the only political or personal good.  There are other goods people seek, other considerations that motivate them.  I would say that people want to be needed, to have their contribution solicited and valued, want to make a difference through their participation.  It is not that such desires are necessarily incompatible with freedom, but I think (along with Isaiah Berlin, whom Howes discusses) that it is a mistake to twist definitions of freedom around in order to say that immersion of one’s self in a larger enterprise is “true” freedom or a species of freedom.  It makes more sense to retain the word freedom for the ability to choose one’s own course of action and for possession of the capabilities to act on those choices.  Participation in a larger enterprise often means doing things one would rather not do but does undertake for various reasons, ranging from fear of punishment (from ostracism to physical punishment) to willingness to not make waves in the name of group harmony.

Hannah Arendt gets at some of these issues in her discussion of “superfluousness.”  Arendt sees the ills of unemployment in the 1930s as having generated large numbers of people who feel their existence is pointless.  They may be free but they have no role to play in the world, no enterprise that wants their contribution.  The Nazis come along and offer a collective vision, a full-scale social mobilization.  People are given something to do—and a purpose: the glorification of the nation.  And it turns out people are capable of amazing sacrifices and of horrible crimes in support of that purpose.  It is that capacity in people that I am trying to describe in this post, that I am saying is activated by armies when creating their loyal cadres.

Here’s the connection to my previous post: if violence is sometimes a way to remove obstacles to one’s self-sufficiency (and, thus, as Arendt surmises, always linked to impotence, to the lack of power over one’s environment and over others), then selves can find very attractive the surrender of self-sufficiency to participate in a collective fantasy of group-level sufficiency, a fantasy called the nation and linked to notions of sovereignty. (I am inspired here by Howes’ meditations on sovereignty.) Identification with the strong leader or with the nation provides access to a kind of power the isolated self does not possess.  But the goal remains the same: achievement of non-dependence, of complete self-sufficiency.  And this collective enterprise remains as enchanted by punishment, by the lashing out at those who would threaten the integrity and independence of the nation.  Someone must be to blame for the fact of failure, for the fact of continued vulnerability, and that someone must be punished.

Finally, Arendt’s reading of why Naziism was so attractive to the unemployed masses puts a different gloss on the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that hung over the entrance to Auschwitz.  (Howes is fascinated by this sign and discusses its possible significance several times in his book.)  The notion that “work makes freedom” can be seen as referring to the Nazis, not to the camp’s inmates.  The Nazis have provided work, have provided a social role, to the German people—and have, as Berlin worries, twisted the notion of freedom to claim that participation in that collective work is what makes one free.  In addition, we should note that “macht” is the German word for “power.”  If we take “macht” as a noun, not a verb, the sign reads: “Work, Power, Freedom.”  The Nazis are promising their followers not just freedom and work, but also power.  And surely that dream of participating and sharing in power—after the self-destroying and humiliating impotence of unemployment with its revelation of how dependent I am to having society give me something to do—is central to the Nazis’ appeal.

All this makes the notion of “collective self-rule,” a notion crucial to Howes, problematic.  That’s what I will discuss in my next post.

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