“One of the most acute paradoxes present in the history of Western society,” wrote Angela Davis in her “First Lecture on Liberation,” “is that while on a philosophical plane freedom has been delineated in the most lofty and sublime fashion, concrete reality has always been permeated with the most brutal forms of unfreedom, of enslavement.”1 Here, Davis gives us the key contradiction in the history of the idea of freedom in Western political thought. As opposites, freedom and slavery frame our way of thinking about what is possible, what is necessary, what must be done.
However, the antipathy between freedom and slavery may also be one between theory and practice. Davis is right to note the “paradox” that freedom has often been theorized as essential to being human, and yet who is considered human is often viciously demarcated. Later in her lecture, Davis writes, “If the theory of freedom remains isolated from the practice of freedom or rather is contradicted in reality, then this means that something must be wrong with the concept.”2 To put it simply, what right does a society have to extoll freedom as its highest virtue if that same society is dependent on the unfreedom of others?
To challenge our understanding of the idea of freedom is the goal of two new books, Tyler Stovall’s White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea and Annelien de Dijn’s Freedom: An Unruly History. And both enact this challenge in order to better align our understanding of the concept with its realities. De Dijn, for example, works through the intellectual history of the idea of freedom from antiquity to the present and puts those ideas in their political and historical context to show how the idea of freedom was used. While the book calls for an “unruly” and democratic freedom, she shows how, in the wake of the French Revolution, conservative voices have sought to conceptualize freedom as freedom from governmental interference rather than the freedom to choose one’s own government.
Stovall, on the other hand, uses history to show how freedom has often been envisaged as an exclusive realm, dependent on the unfreedom and enslavement of others. For Stovall, the key is not only the undemocratic response to an unruly mass, but the way in which many who have praised the importance of freedom have fought to keep it from others. The persistence and even intensification of slavery and colonialism under purportedly republican and liberal regimes, such as the United States and France, become exemplary of this.
This raises what is perhaps the most difficult question both of these books ask: What good is liberal democracy? If the roots of liberal democracy are, as De Dijn shows, undemocratic and, as Stovall shows, racist, is another, more radical system necessary? Would another system avoid the pitfalls of the past? Neither book attempts to say, although it is clear that De Dijn at least has high hopes for a more directly democratic way of being. For Stovall, too, there is hope that we will “find a way to free our societies from the need for whiteness,” but he is well aware that such hopes are often thwarted.
Still, hope can be a necessary spur for change, and both of these books do make it clear that change is necessary. Freedom is too powerful a concept to leave uncontested, to leave as a code word for the right only. Perhaps by reexamining its history we can find a way to forge a better future.
As opposites, freedom and slavery frame our way of thinking about what is possible, what is necessary, what must be done.
Both De Dijn and Stovall discuss, for example, the Statue of Liberty. How they do so reveals much about their individual projects, as well as how tangled the question of freedom really is in our culture.
The image of Liberty, whether it be Libertas, the Roman goddess, the French Marianne, or the great statue in the New York Harbor, has a long history in Western thought. To start with a somewhat modern example, think of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, painted to commemorate the 1830 July Revolution in France. There we see Liberty bare chested, wearing a red Phrygian cap, waving a tricolor and a rifle, leading the people of France into battle. Liberty is among the people, embracing violence, and wearing the symbol of a freed slave (as the Phrygian cap had come to be seen in the 18th and 19th centuries). Compare her to the statue by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, inspired by the legal scholar Édouard René de Laboulaye. Here Liberty holds not a rifle but a lamp and a tablet of laws; instead of the Phrygian cap, she wears a crown; and instead of striding among bodies, she steps forward over broken chains.
Both figures clearly embrace republican ideals, but their differences are telling. Whereas Delacroix’s Liberty is openly revolutionary and embraces struggle, Bartholdi’s is demure and only advances enlightenment. Whereas Delacroix’s Liberty wears a Phrygian cap—invoking freedom from slavery—Bartholdi’s statue places the chains of slavery under Liberty’s foot, out of sight for most spectators. Indeed, whereas Delacroix’s painting was soon “hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary,” Bartholdi’s statue has been embraced by the ruling elites.
According to De Dijn, the statue was meant to “propagate the antidemocratic understanding of freedom held by nineteenth-century liberals.” “This is not liberty with a red bonnet on her head and a pike in her hand who runs over fallen bodies,” wrote Laboulaye.
According to Stovall, meanwhile, the statue matters more in terms of what it is not. “According to a persistent rumor among African Americans,” Stovall tells us, “the sculpture that rises grandly from Liberty Island in New York Harbor is not the original Statue of Liberty. The true original was modeled after a Black woman and had African features. … The statue carried broken chains to symbolize emancipation.”
Now, Stovall makes clear that while there are kernels of truth to this rumor—think of the actual chains depicted in the statue—it is largely unfounded. However, the point is not to focus on people’s gullibility, but instead to make clear the racialized and gendered ways in which our understanding of freedom is formed. The statue, as it stands, is for Stovall “the perfect symbol of white freedom.” By “white freedom,” Stovall means to show that “at its most extreme freedom can be and historically has been a racist ideology.”
The two books, then, are somewhat in tension. If freedom signifies—or should signify, as De Dijn’s narrative argues—political self-determination, what does it mean when that self-determination comes at the expense of others? Even when the books converge on a subject (such as the discussion of the Statue of Liberty), their divergent starting points keep a distance between their conclusions. It is necessary, then, to put the two works into conversation with each other. This is a needed conversation, as each work helps to cover the blind spots of the other.
Stovall’s White Freedom aims to directly confront the antinomy of freedom and unfreedom. It does so by arguing that for much of the modern history of the idea (essentially since the 18th century), there was no real contradiction: freedom for some depended on the unfreedom of others.
Seeking to bring into conversation the history of freedom and the history of race, Stovall writes that “the relationship between liberty and racism is not necessarily contradictory but rather has its own internal consistency … To my mind there is no contradiction. The central theme of this study is that to an important extent … ideas of freedom in the modern world have been racialized.”
In particular, Stovall argues, whiteness is “intrinsic to modern liberty.” Stovall offers a capacious history of Western thought on freedom from the Atlantic revolutions of the late 18th century to the present, always insistent on the tension between who could claim freedom and who could not. This leads to important discussions of how “free” and “republican” states like the United States and France could embark on imperial conquests.
De Dijn traces a similar history, though hers starts in ancient Greece, with Herodotus, and also attempts to shake our understanding of freedom. For De Dijn, however, contemporary understandings of freedom—largely consisting of the negative liberty of freedom from interference from the state—occludes a more radical, or at least more democratic, tradition that sees freedom as self-governance.
This tradition, she argues, continues through the Atlantic revolutions, until it is opposed by a counterrevolutionary argument that, fearful of the threat of the masses and the threat of economic redistribution, seeks to redefine freedom.
If the history of liberal democracy has often been a history of freedom for some, what ought to come next?
De Dijn begins, then, as is befitting for a book with ambitions for “big” history, with the ancient Greeks, and tells the story of Sperthias and Bulis, two Spartan envoys sent to Persia. The Spartans, who had killed a previous Persian envoy who demanded tribute for the empire, were now looking for peace, making this a dangerous mission for the two envoys. Along their way to the Persian capital, the two were received as guests at a Persian general’s home. The general, Hydarnes, advised Sperthias and Bulis that Sparta would do well to submit to Persian rule, as they would avoid war and perhaps even become rulers of Greece by the king’s commission. The two answered that while Hydarnes might well like to live as a slave, “a free man would never consent to be ruled by another human being.”
De Dijn uses the story, or at least Herodotus’s version of it, to illustrate that for the Greeks freedom had become a “political value.” That is, freedom was then a democratic conception of freedom, rather than an antonym of bondage.
The story is telling in at least two ways. First, in invoking the democratic nature of the Greek idea of freedom, De Dijn creates an important counternarrative to contemporary accounts of freedom that view it as freedom from governmental interference. While this point is not original to De Dijn (as the book makes clear), it is nonetheless worth reiterating.
De Dijn tells us that she was inspired to write the book after witnessing the protests against the Affordable Care Act, during which freedom was invoked by those who saw the imposition of health care as an attack on their liberties. This idea of freedom from governmental interference—what Isaiah Berlin would famously call “negative liberty”—is still a dominant force in contemporary political discourse, particularly on the right, and De Dijn’s book is in many ways an effort to reclaim space for the democratic conception of freedom.
The second way the story is telling is less commendable. De Dijn does not hide the fact that ancient Greece was a slave society in which only free men could participate in government and public life (though this of course varied among the Greek city-states—think of the differences between oligarchic Sparta and democratic Athens, to take the most prominent examples). Yet, she does not explore in depth the role of slavery or patriarchy in Greek society—or in Western society in general—as the book continues. Of course, this is understandable, as it might veer the book off course, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to examine the interrelation between our ideas of slavery and self-rule.
Stovall’s book intervenes precisely at this point. Unsurprisingly, given his focus on race, Stovall does not begin with ancient Greece, but instead with the Atlantic revolutions (not including two thematic chapters on piracy and the Statue of Liberty, respectively). And his argument forces the question of why slavery and self-governance (whether democratic or republican) are so often found together.
To take but one example, Stovall notes that France’s Third Republic, which “did more than any other [regime] to make republicanism and liberal democracy the political norm in France[,] also created the greatest empire in the nation’s history.” As the history of the Statue of Liberty shows us, liberal democracy has always promoted itself as a tempered kind of rule. Think of the terrible repression and violence that the Third Republic showed toward the Paris Commune and the Communards themselves, and you can see that liberal democracy has often had little regard for the lives of the people it claimed to represent. Yet, as Stovall makes sure to show us, many of the perpetrators of that violence against Parisians were themselves trained in the use of violence in colonial theaters of war—as Aimé Césaire famously noted about the Holocaust.3
This brings us back to the questions we began with. What should true freedom look like? If, as Stovall demonstrates, freedom of self-governance has been a privileged position dependent on the unfreedom of others, what can we do to bring about freedom without domination? If the definition of freedom has been contested and appropriated by the forces of unfreedom, how do we take it back? Do we want it back at all?
Most importantly, can freedom be institutionalized? If the history of liberal democracy has often been a history of freedom for some, what ought to come next? Both Stovall and De Dijn challenge us to look at our history to better understand our present and to fight for our future.
This article was commissioned by Ivan Ascher.
- Angela Y. Davis, “First Lecture on Liberation,” in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by Angela Y. Davis (City Lights, 2010), p. 45. ↩
- Ibid., p. 46. ↩
- Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, translated from the French by Joan Pinkham (Monthly Review Press, 2001). ↩