Self-Sufficiency (by Dustin Ells Howes)




Here’s is Dustin Howes’s first response to my thoughts on his book.  More to come, as I will also continue my posts on the book–and will respond to his comments when I feel moved to do so. (Dustin’s comments here connect to the post: Freedom without Violence). This first response seems to me not to call for any comments from me; it very clearly lays out a key argument of Dustin’s book and what is at stake:


The two figures I draw upon to understand the roots of the idea that violence expresses freedom are Pericles and Aristotle. Pericles argues in his famous funeral oration that Athenians are distinguished from others by their capacity for politics. The fact that they decide together what to do and know how to rule themselves makes Athenian men free. The highest expression of this freedom is the courage they display in warfare. When the Athenians lost the Peloponessian war, philosophers and women called the connection between freedom and violence into question. Aristotle is a nuanced reactionary to these critics, who attempts to resuscitate the freedom violence connection without celebrating empire for its own sake.

What I had not realized until John raised the issue is how this is baked into Aristotle’s definition of the polis. Aristotle says that what distinguishes a city-state from a family or a village is a word usually translated as self-sufficiency. To be clear, the “self” here cannot refer to the individual. Indeed, one way to interpret his argument is that freedom is only possible with the company of a certain number of people. Freedom and politics proper are collective. The only way to be free of dependency is to come together with others to exercise our uniquely human capacity for talking about and ruling with justice. This is contrasted with and requires the dependency of slaves and women, who are ruled by free men. The horizontal relationship  among a collective of equals is founded upon a vertical relationship between the free and enslaved largely defined by violence. As John mentions, most slaves were women and most were acquired in warfare.

Democratic freedom as collective self-sufficiency underwritten by violence that subdues the unfree is both familiar and unfamiliar in our time and the past century. Nationalism and socialism both assert a brand of collective freedom often expressed through violence. Independence and secessionist insurgencies all over the world assert that collective freedom requires a particular collective be unhampered by association with others.

Yet in the Anglo-American context, the idea of collective freedom is complicated by an individualistic understanding of self-sufficiency. In the book, I place the liberal individual squarely within a tradition that claims violence is only legitimate in the defense of freedom. Every individual has the ability to enforce the natural law, which reason tells us demands the preservation of life and liberty. The dynamic John describes where individuals find the actions of others frustrating and the potential for eliminating or dominating them liberating, is one liberals reject in theory. For thinkers like Locke for instance, any reasonable person will recognize the rights of others. However, not everyone is reasonable, some will take license (Locke refuses to call it liberty) and this is when violence becomes necessary. We might say that liberal individuals must defend liberty from those who mistakenly believe it can be expressed through violence.

But in practice, the figure of the self-sufficient individual is so wedded to his enforcement powers, that it is hard to imagine his identity without them. The sources informing the figure I have in mind are many, it may not even be one figure, and is almost exclusively masculine. The individual in the state of nature cultivating and defending his property, the republican militia man defending his free state, the frontiersman who survives with his wits and his musket, the cowboy who draws fast but only when needed, the cop who is tough but fair, the homeowner who stands ready to defend his family. The line between violence as expressing freedom and violence as defending freedom is blurry in these archetypes. Some also blur the line between individual and collective self-sufficiency. The militia man is part of a militia, the cop represents the state. In just war theory, states themselves become liberal individuals in relation to other states. Historically, certainly in the American context, rugged individualism and the free state have been set against the dependency and unreasonableness of savages, women, slaves and foreigners. So self-sufficiency does a tremendous amount of work here.

Our first response from the perspective of nonviolence might be to challenge the very notion of self-sufficiency and point to the undeniable interdependence of human beings. The purveyors of violence may wish to stand alone but they will need the help of others, and in particular, find that how others respond to their violence will largely determine its impact. This holds true for the violence of peoples or individuals.

But even while emphasizing our interdependence, advocates of nonviolence are keen to offer a quite different vision of self-sufficiency. Gandhi in particular argues that every single individual is capable of creative nonviolence and self-rule. Self-sufficiency and swaraj involve confronting violence and having the discipline to refrain from violence but encompass a great deal more as well. The spinning wheel as the symbol of independence and the centrality of home spun cloth to the movement are the most prominent examples but the entire system of cottage industries Gandhi sought to promote was inflected with the idea that individuals, villages, and nations ought to be self-sufficient.

Gandhi challenges the presumption that human need stands opposed to freedom. The labors of the ashram could be performed in conjunction with politics. He would sometimes spin while hosting prominent dignitaries. His public experiments with the mortification of his body and his glorification of self-sacrifice  stand in a complicated relationship to socialism and feminism. But on this particular issue of self-sufficiency, he shares much in common with certain versions of both. He collapses public and private, individual and collective self-rule, and the labor of the household and political action. Self-sufficiency stands in stark contrast with Aristotelian patriarchy and liberal individualism. He offers a vision of freedom where interdependence is acknowledged and valued while the capacity of individuals to provide for themselves is emphasized equally. This raises issues of political organization that I will address in other responses.  (BY Dustin Ells Howes)

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