Politics, Freedom ~ Lessons from OWS
“Hence, in spite of the great influence that the concept of an inner, nonpolitical freedom has exerted upon the tradition of thought, it seems safe to say that man would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not first experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible reality. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves. Before it became an attribute of thought or a quality of the will, freedom was understood as a free man’s status, which enabled him to move, to get away from home, to go out into the world and meet other people in deed and word. This freedom clearly was preceded by liberation: in order to be free, man must have liberated himself from the necessities of life. But the status of freedom did not follow automatically upon the act of liberation. Freedom needed, in addition to mere liberation, the company of other men who were in the same state, and it needed a common public space to meet them – a politically organized world, in other words, into which each of the free men could insert himself by word and deed.”
A few days ago I posted on a brief essay Todd Gitlin had written for The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding the hollowing out of the (allegedly) constitutionally protected right to assemble. It turns out that that essay simply reprinted the final pages of his recent book Occupy Nation*, a sympathetic, albeit not blindly uncritical, assessment of Occupy Wall Street. The book is a reasonably quick read and a fair treatment. It includes a bunch of terrific photos by Victoria Schultz - one of which I've lifted above.
Among the salutary aspects of Gitlin's book is the extended attention he pays to the question of where we might go from here, the we being those progressives for whom the Occupy challenge to political-economic inequality resonates deeply. And it seems to me that the image I've borrowed from Schultz points the way; from Occupy to a push for the extension and protection of political rights - by means of constitutional politics if need be. There is, after all, no affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution - a weakness underscored by Republican sponsored voter suppression laws (e.g., voter ID requirements, etc.). And, as Gitlin points out, the actual constitutional freedom to assemble in public has been more or less thoroughly whittled away. It seems to me that organizing and mobilizing to redress those problems is a pressing matter and might help reconstruct the platform from which to upend political-economic injustices.
Freedom, as Arendt argues, presupposes public space and access to it. If they did nothing else, the Occupy activists, underscored just how tenuous our putative freedoms otherwise are.
* Todd Gitlin. Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. !tbooks/Harper Collins, 2012.