Freedom is a Collective Struggle

 /  Feb. 19, 2021, 9:57 a.m.

General Strike in Sao Paulo
A 1917 general strike in São Paulo, Brazil.

Freedom is a collective good. It is not an adjective to describe an individual—“she is free”—but rather a heuristic to guide how groups of people achieve their collective goals. Ensuring freedom means bringing people together around an agenda of collective self-interest, and establishing democracy in the institutions that govern their daily lives. Freedom exists when all people are empowered to control their lives. We must achieve freedom through collective, community organizing, rather than looking for salvation from professional politicians.

A common refrain of the reactionary right is that Democrats are a radical socialist party. The right would have the public believe that Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose voting record against same-sex marriage and immigrant rights is reminiscent of a Republican, fight under the Marxist banner.

In reality, neither Democrats nor Republicans pose a serious threat to status quo institutions. The two parties in America have true, substantive differences, ones to which voters should pay attention. But the two parties converge upon an agenda of what can only be described as modern-day imperialism, while engaging in half-measures to preserve an unequal system at home. The Democratic Party has shown far more allegiance to its donors than to the working class.

Liberals glamorize the procedural elements of American democracy. They excuse the failure of the state to rapidly meet people’s needs with the abstract beauty of liberal democracy. But there is nothing truly democratic about a society in which voters must choose between the lesser evil of two villains. When American democracy is put to the test, it proves ultimately unable to look after its citizens. Most Americans struggle to live and many never achieve financial stability in adulthood.

The violence of Democrat and Republican agendas domestically pales in comparison to the violence of American imperialism. At the most basic level, the West imposes poverty upon the Global South. Through the IMF, Western countries force African, South American, and Asian nations to impose deep cuts to their social safety nets and open themselves to exploitation and resource extraction by Western corporations, lest they face the combined economic power of Western liberal democracies capable of imposing debilitating tariffs and sanctions. Extreme poverty in non-Western countries is not a coincidence, but the result of centuries of economic exploitation.

The United States also exports authoritarianism and causes mass death. We fund authoritarian dictators’ militaries and overthrow democratically-elected leaders. The United States is violently committed to maintaining global hegemony. Since 9/11, America has been responsible for the murders of approximately 800,000 people due to conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and more. While seven thousand of these deaths were US military and approximately 260,000 were opposition fighters, civilians were by far the largest category, accounting for approximately 335,000 deaths. Indirect deaths are estimated to be several times higher, in the millions. On a global scale, the United States maintains injustice and unfreedom.

The American political and economic order is reliant upon this imperial violence. We cannot vote our way into universal freedom, especially not for those in the Global South. Even if voting for Democrats can bring temporary relief to some Americans in need, the act of casting a ballot cannot bring real and authentic freedom in which all people can flourish. This liberating freedom can only come through the difficult, grinding work of collective organization. Therefore, solidarity, in which people come together in common cause and in recognition of common suffering, must be the grounding of a new form of freedom.

Community health is no different from individual health. If one’s community is unfree, no one person in that community can be free. Therefore, community members must fight for each other’s dignity and freedom if they wish to be free. When workers organize a union in their workplace, they declare that an injury to one is an injury to all and that they are entitled to democratic control over the workplace. When a poor Black community faces down police officers who have murdered and beaten their siblings, they shout that violence will not silence them. When people abroad protest against an authoritarian regime imposed by the United States, they make the tragically necessary declaration that they are the masters of their fate, and they will die for the right to govern their own economy and elect their own leaders.

My political orientation has undergone a seismic transformation. I once invested my hope and my energy in savior candidates to bring reforms to a collapsing American dream. I believed that last-minute stopgap efforts could prevent an incoming climate apocalypse, which is now to some degree unavoidable. But now I see that there is no outside force coming to effect miraculous changes through institutions so deeply resistant to movement. Liberal fantasies of structural reforms that enable sweeping policy agendas will not save the day, especially when these fantasies are of solving issues while preserving an unequal economy that stands on the shoulders of poor people throughout the world.

Instead, I have attempted to center my politics in collective action. I no longer listen to podcasts about elections and read tweets about the podcasts about elections. Now, I watch as workers demand the right to band together and unionize. Every day there are workplaces exercising this power, and it shows me the power carried by demands for democracy and dignity in the workplace. Black women are leading the charge in organizing their communities and fighting to abolish systems of policing and incarceration. In doing so, they are building a world that does not produce gender-based violence and practicing systems of justice radically different from the status quo. In Nigeria and Thailand, young students are staring down their own brutal police and military forces to demand a liberated future. And perhaps most amazingly, India has experienced the largest general strike in human history. Two-hundred-fifty million Indian farmers and laborers—three out of 100 humans on the Earth—went on strike to combat the government’s evisceration of their financial safety net.

These movements are an inspiring indication of what can be achieved when people organize. Many in the Democratic and Republican parties dismiss these movements as extremist and/or feeble. But today’s radicals are fighting for a political program far more liberating and practical than the feeble half-measures of the Democratic Party.

We imagine a society in which no human can be threatened with starvation or houselessness because the institutions they engage with take for granted that they should be free from such things. In this society, everyone would be assured a quality of life, regardless of whether they produce profits for plutocrats like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Every person ought to have a basic right to safe housing, healthy food, and clean water. The current economic order only functions because it can inflict the ultimate punishment—premature death. Employers can only force people to labor under poor conditions with poor pay and benefits because if those workers refuse to labor, they will die. There is no level of reform that can change this basic fact: the economic system of our day holds a gun to the heads of working people. Without masses of desperate people who need to afford rent, utilities, and groceries, today’s economic systems cannot function.

This vision is not a pipe dream. Basic policy analysis demonstrates that the planet can comfortably support a substantially higher population than currently exists. A dearth of resources for vast populations of people is therefore not a necessary feature of any society, but a necessary feature of an economy built upon a few elites profiting from the labor of everyone else. This is confirmed by statistics indicating that there are, as of 2011, at least six empty, unused homes to every unhoused person in the United States. Forty percent of all food in the United States is wasted. Clearly, it would not require an increase in labor or an expansion of the state to meet every person’s basic needs with ease. It would only require that the economic institutions that control these goods do not operate to produce profit, but instead to fulfill societal needs. An agricultural organization is much likelier to respect its workers and reduce food waste if it is not operating for the profit of a few shareholders, but for the benefit of the workers and their community. This could effectively be done if these economic institutions were subject to democratic governance.

In addition to meeting basic material needs, the radical imagination of community organizers includes a vision of true workplace democracy. The United States prides itself as a democracy, but employees have no meaningful say in the operation of an economy that they labor to maintain. To remedy this, the workplace should be a site of collective organizing, just as the community is. Working people ought to determine the conditions of their labor. This includes building unions in workplaces to assert the collective power of workers, but much more is needed than a negotiation between employer and employee. The Mondragon Corporation in Spain is one of the country’s largest corporations, but it is composed entirely of smaller cooperatives. Workers decide who their supervisors are, and the wage gap is capped at a 6:1 ratio, compared to the chief executive to worker wage ratio in America, which averages around 320:1. Mondragon has weathered the coronavirus economic crisis extraordinarily well because it centers the needs of employees, instead of handing huge payouts to shareholders. In a shareholder corporation, the employer controls the employee. In a cooperative, the situation is reversed to the benefit of all of the employees.

Liberals who claim to want the same things as the extremists they condemn will argue that radical dreams are not feasible. Self-styled pragmatists assert that genuine liberation for the global working class is not a possibility and that every decision requires compromise. Liberals demand that oppressed peoples wait another day, and then another, for their liberation.

The demand to wait is precisely what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rebuked in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Dr. King understood that the White liberals who demand moderation and caution are crucial in upholding White supremacy and violent oppression, more so than the loud and obnoxious racists of the far right: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Ultimately, Dr. King recognized that the demand to wait is a function of White privilege, and an operation of White power: “Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”

There is no time to wait. Universal prosperity is a real possibility. We cannot be naïve enough to believe that professional politicians will bring about this society. Liberals and Conservatives label themselves as pragmatists. But there is nothing practical or reasonable about a global economic and political order that hinges on the cruel oppression of billions of people. Change must come through mass organizing of working people and oppressed people who embrace a communal definition of freedom. Collective organizing with the clear, unaltered goal of liberation will bring about a society that abolishes injustices, unfreedoms, and the institutions that perpetuate them. Only when this society has been brought about can all people truly be free.

You can find a list of articles and videos recommended by the author for further reading here.

The image featured in this article exists in the public domain. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Daniel Harris


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