Violence and Freedom

“Live free or Die.” Or so reads the motto of New Hampshire, adopted, appropriately enough, in 1945, when something very much like freedom was at stake. The motto is intended to draw a thread from 1776, through 1945, to the present. Since 1945, however, the motto has undergone serious modification, if not in fact, then in meaning, so that today it might better read “Live free through Death” or “Live free through Killing.” The thread connecting 1776, 1945, and 2018, however, is not so tenuous as many might think.

This intimate connection between 1776 and the present was brought home once again to me as I reread sections of my Max Weber and the Persistence of Religion (London: Routledge 2009). I think it still holds together. Prior to 1324, everywhere, freedom meant only substantive, material freedom. Even among so-called “idealists” (i.e., Platonists), the notion of a vacuum was deemed “horrific.” For the rest, freedom entailed the kinds of things — food, warmth, health, pleasure, friendship, song, wonder — that make sense for people who live in their bodies.

Yet, around 1324, the category “value” began to pull free from the bodies that for 2.4M years it had occupied. It did so when the first clocks were installed in workhouses in the textile producing region of northwestern Europe. The clocks were installed to determine how much time textile workers were working. This length of time was translated into the abstract value of both the labor expended and the item, cloth, produced. Clearly, however, the same would hold true for any article: cloth, shoes, buckles, pottery. Each could now be equated with each other through the abstract time and abstract value that each “contained.”

What has this to do with freedom? Think of it this way: the value of the cloth, the shoes, the buckles, or the pottery; is this value constrained or limited by the objects on which it happens to rest? No. It migrates freely among these objects. Indeed, it transcends them.

The objects themselves, by contrast, are limited and constrained on all sides. Indeed, it is precisely their constrained character that will render them perfect specimens for scientific observation; while their value — their transcendental value — will, by definition, defy scientific observation. Freedom in this newly constructed world is synonymous to the absence of constraint: it is synonymous with the absence of a body.

That much is clear. But this also means that if I harm the body, I take nothing from its freedom. Its freedom remains completely intact. Translated into the new language of human rights, freshly minted in the seventeenth century, these rights are inalienable. They cannot be taken away or sold. Human beings are not free in some instances and unfree in others. All human beings are by nature free. We can become slaves; we do become slaves when we prize life higher than freedom. (This point was eloquently made by GWF Hegel in 1804; and more recently, but less eloquently, by Francis Fukuyama.)

The body, around which freedom once circled, had, by the 18th century, become freedom’s enemy. “Live free or die.” In other words, “I will die for freedom.” This relationship between freedom and death is far from accidental. Indeed, it is now necessary; so that when anyone so much as hints that freedom might be about bodies and care for bodies they are immediately subject to universal approbation. The poor must enjoy the freedom to be poor; the naked must enjoy the freedom to be naked; the hungry the freedom to be hungry, and so on. To deprive them of these freedoms is to condemn them to spiritual death. “Live free or die.”

I suspect that it is for this reason that conservative Evangelical Christians are compelled to do such violence to their own Scripture; but also why so many good liberals also scratch their heads in profound disbelief at how anyone in their right minds could embrace the stories told in the Hebrew and Christian sacred texts; and why the Holy Koran is such a profound mystery not least to practicing Muslims. In a world where bodies do, in fact, matter and where abstract freedom still lies several centuries in the future, it matters very much whether you give a man a loaf of bread or a stone, as Jesus put it so eloquently in the parable. Bodies matter. “Live free or die”? On what planet do you live, man?

But this also helps to explain why notions of “liberty” and “freedom” live so comfortably today and fall so easily from the mouths of persons who make violence their business. The two are not opposites. They compliment one another. Freedom and violence. Live free and die.

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