The idea that human freedom is just the ability or good fortune to be free from harm, or free from the more blatant abuses the strong may perform upon the weak, is pernicious and absurd. It is an idea of freedom contrived for the weak or the unfree by those who wish to abuse them, intended to make them feel content with the little piece that they have — e.g. their own ‘backyard’. Witness the arguments that say ‘you can do whatever you want in your own backyard’. Freedom is much more than that, and must be considered more deeply, in the manner of some of the Founding Fathers, if this experiment in American democracy is to continue.
Human freedom is an inherently progressive ideal. It’s remarkable that liberals who are obsessed with ‘progress’ and conservatives who are obsessed with ‘freedom’ are unable to recognize that the two cannot be separated in any conception of freedom. Naturally this is the case because so-called conservatives and liberals are more interested in opposing each other than submitting to a greater cause like the common good. This is why we see conservatism and liberalism, when each goes unchecked, drifting toward its true center of gravity: fascism in the case of conservatives, communism in the case of liberals. Conservatives believe one is “free” to the extent that one submits to the established order of traditional social bonds; when one belongs to a political minority or is a social outsider, conservatives feel ultimately that one deserves no rights whatever since “rights” are reserved for those who participate in the system. (Look at the argument about so-called enemy combatants.) Liberals believe one is “free” only to the extent that he participates in and identifies with the social upheavals created by a blind submission to the ideal of “progress”, i.e. of social engineering, of wreaking havoc with traditional social bonds in favor of something completely unknown; liberal “justice” exists only for complete criminals who, not being viewed as human beings by liberals, are only seen in terms of their social causes, and for the movement as a whole, which may produce any number of inequities into human life with the excuse that it is all a part of “progress”. (Look at all the real injustice caused by affirmative action, which no matter how much good it has done, is basically unfair and unconstitutional. Look also at the deep liberal guilt demonstrated by white college professors who want to overthrow the ‘established order’ mainly because they are ashamed of their origins.)
Of course, neither conception of freedom, if they can be called conceptions, really do the job. Nor does the idea that freedom is just the happy circumstance of being unmolested at airports. Nor does the idea that confuses a ‘right’ with a convenience. So what is freedom?
Freedom has what we should call a ‘metaphysical’ basis. The term ‘metaphysical’ refers to those dimensions of experience that have a habit of escaping, of slipping away historically from reach of human beings, such that they must be rediscovered, often after being only dimly perceived or, at worst, only logically inferred. For example, the goodness of human beings may be nowhere in evidence, and yet asserted, because at the level of experience — in the logic of experience — it can be seen on the horizon, an outcome of a finite number of transformations.
The ‘zeroth’ moment, or ground zero of human freedom is in the self-limiting decision of the strong not to abuse the weak. In the vacuum opened up by this act of self-limitation, the hopefulness produced in the weak, the change undergone at the deep level is ultimately a spiritual one: its reflects the whole human future and the whole dimension of possibility introduced (possibility itself). One sees this moment for example in political constitutions which detail the limitations of state power and make them axiomatic; one also sees it when an employer could pay an unfair wage, but doesn’t, and pays a fair one.
The energy and expressiveness produced by the vacuum of power of the zeroth moment, the explosion of hopefulness is the first moment of freedom: freedom as a positive phenomenon. But this moment is fleeting. It requires either greater concession by the existing power (a regression into the zeroth moment) and a subsequent oscillation, or a step into the second moment of freedom, which is very difficult to perform. An example of this first moment might be the explosion of culture that occurred in the U.S. from 1900-1950 which coincided with the new possibilities of technology (recording technology, travel, medicine: burgeoning new experiences and the thought of new possibilities drove the culture).
The second moment of freedom is the positive creation of freedom from outside the purview of the power problem. It is when the weak, the unfree undertake the establishment of freedom through the transformation of freedom itself into a willful phenomenon. “They find their own will.” Finding one’s will is a difficult and painful process, but the only one that truly transforms the underlying spiritual coordinates of human beings. It is a reinforcement from the ground up, the constant sublation of freedom into itself, since without the ‘strong’ the weak are no longer the ‘weak’ but are only oriented on that past trajectory. This second moment is the hardest to find in human history, but it is visible in those rare cases where desperation has made a perfect clarity of circumstances, and a group, perhaps futilely, takes upon itself for perhaps the first time the full-knowing conduct of its affairs.
Human history has proceeded almost entirely by accident — even when it is thought to be willed. But the accidental dimension of human history will cease only when human beings as a whole, as a closed system of Humanity, find their own will and continue, by using that will, to find it again, thereby strengthening it. Accident itself is therefore sublated. Rather than identifying with a collective, which is the error of every Marxism, human beings by accident find themselves all going in the same direction, the journey of discovery into their own will, which is how they ‘become what they are’.