What about our freedom? The NSA and the public sphere

“Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.”

– John F. Kennedy

When you read the news, the word ‘PRISM’ no longer denotes a transparent optical element. Almost every day for the last few months journalists reported on the spying of the NSA, computer security breaches in the Belgian government and Belgacom, Edward Snowden, etc. Only recently David Miranda, one of the journalists who helped disclose the PRISM-scandal, was detained in a British airport. The British police used the UK Terrorism Act to seize the electronic equipment of someone who obviously was not a terrorist. When the government can arbitrarily arrest someone for no particular reason, we know we are in trouble. When Middle Eastern countries detain Western tourists for laughable reasons, Western government react abhorred. When the latter do exactly the same to their own citizens, everyone is expected to keep silent.

nsa-logoOf course, at the very moment when everyone should be silent, objections could not be louder. As a result, the newspapers are filled with the PRISM-story for months. However, the same criticism seems to pop up ever and ever again. Almost all journalists claim that PRISM is an attack on the private sphere of individuals and on their liberties. Our freedom is under siege in the sense that Big Brother is watching our private lives. The state interferes in a realm where it does not belong. The good reader of George Orwell knows however that the intrusion of the private sphere is only half of the story. The main horror of Oceania is not that the secret police can enter your house and observe your life, it is that you are locked up in your house in the first place. The elimination of the private sphere is only the last blow in a movement of control. First the public sphere needs to be annihilated. Orwell defined freedom as “the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” The important word here is ‘say’. You should not just be able to think privately that two plus two makes four, you should be able to say it in public. The Ministry of Truth can only succeed in telling people that two plus two equals five when the public no longer talks. When people no longer speak to each other, the government becomes the only source of information.

This explains for example a peculiar phenomenon in the Soviet Union. When Stalin rewrote the history books, which he did rather frequently when former ‘heroes of the revolution’ became ‘enemies of the proletariat’, the government would just send the corrections to all owners of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. Everyone should then erase the former book entries and replace them with the new ones. Why would the Russians do that? Weren’t they sceptical when the state kept rewriting its own history? The answer is that the private thoughts of the people did not matter. What mattered was the erasure of a public sphere where ideas and history could be debated. The state monopolized information and public conversation. If you were discussing Trotsky with a friend, your only ‘reliable’ reference-work was this encyclopedia.

In the same way we should be suspicious about the private-liberties-argument in the NSA-discussion. When we frame our freedom as something privately owned, we encourage the practice that makes public discussion superfluous and reduces the people to a mass of individuals. If everyone defends his own particular liberties and disregards the love for a community in which those liberties would make any sense, then we lose both. Private liberty is a weapon of mass destruction for the public sphere. To understand why the privatization of liberty is a wrong way to frame the protest against PRISM, we should first investigate the history of the notion of ‘freedom’. This will lead us to two possible meanings of the term, one of which will be a more authentic kind of freedom, a freedom on which we can build a democratic society.

The politics behind the unpolitical: the liberal conception of freedom

Freedom as something privately owned is typical of liberal political thought. A quote from arch-liberal Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of nations’ is highly illuminating:” Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society.” Adam Smith wanted to react against the tendency of kings and governments to interfere with the market. The state is incapable of regulating the market, because it can never obtain enough information to steer the economy in the public interest. Instead the sovereign should know that the market is a natural place of exchange. Whenever there are people, there is trade, and as long as everyone follows his own private interests, the public interest is secure. The invisible hand of the market guides society to greater prosperity just like God’s Divine Providence used to do before. If this discourse is right, then it logically follows that state intervention is both unnatural and harmful to the public interest. The state should therefore leave its citizens alone to conduct their private interests. As a guarantee the public constructs a list of private liberties the state should keep away from. Hence the economy can be free from politics as a bunch of legal restrictions. The only thing the state should be concerned about is to ensure a framework in which natural markets and private liberties can flourish.

In ‘What is freedom?’ Hannah Arendt suggests that this idea of freedom is not at all restricted to economists as Smith. We must remember that in those days Adam Smith was regarded as a philosopher, so the private notion of freedom was an elaboration of modern philosophy. Philosophers call this liberum arbitrium, or free will. Freedom belongs to the domain of inner psychology. Being a free individual means having a will that can decide things on its own behalf, without this will being caused by something else. The opposite of this freedom is then determinism. In a determinist universe I have no free will, but all my private choices are pre-determined by brain states, class positions, unconscious desires, etc.

But if freedom belongs to the interiority of the individual who can choose and pursue his private interests on the market, then why is there a state? Why do we need an institution that by definition leads to coercion and limitation? Thomas Hobbes argues that if our community would remain a stateless collection of individuals, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Essentially freedom is power and this power of the will can be used for good or for bad. If I am only pursuing my own self-interest, there is nothing to prevent me from using violence to get it. To attain security and avoid the brutal state of nature, we have to sign a social contract in which we agree not to use force against each other. In order to ensure our mutual agreement is kept, we should install one individual as a sovereign. This sovereign has the monopoly over violence and can legally punish anyone who uses force illegally. The sovereign controls the state apparatus and makes sure everyone keeps his promises on the economic market so everyone pursues their self-interest peacefully. As a result, the highest goal of politics is the security of life. Life should be protected against the menaces of a cruel death and the state is the institution that protects us. The goal of the political is the unpolitical private sphere.

Liberalism: freedom for sale

This liberal point of view seems watertight. There is however a problem: the meaning of the term ‘freedom’ does not seem to be exhausted by liberum arbitrium. Arendt writes:” Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life, but the world is at stake.” She uses ‘freedom’ in another sense, but we seem to be able to understand her. When in political struggles the oppressed demand freedom, they are not talking about security for their lives or ‘being able to do whatever they want’. Not life, but the world is at stake. Martin Luther King did not march on Washington because the lives of African Americans were in danger. They were exactly in danger because he marched on Washington. His reason was that African Americans were not recognized as full members of US society. Even more, when we would travel back in time and converse with the ancient Greeks they would not understand us. For the Greeks freedom was not something you naturally possessed, but something you became through political practice and exercise.

There is thus a curious side-phenomenon of freedom that cannot be explained by the liberal conception. Freedom as a political practice where the world is at stake seems very different from freedom as an inner apolitical disposition to discern private interests. Yet both the ancient Greeks and Romans adhered to the first kind. The anthropologist David Graeber has examined the history of the Latin term ‘libertas’ to see how the two meanings are connected.

Originally libertas simply meant not being a slave. Whoever was not a slave, was free. Freedom was thus a juridical status. This however changed around the second century AD when freedom became indistinguishable from another juridical term, namely dominium. In the ‘Digesta’, one of the major texts in Roman law, freedom is defined as follows:” Freedom, from which men are called free, is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law: slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature subjecting one man to the dominion (dominium) of another.” The first sentence is an obvious prefiguration of Smith’s ideas. Just like in liberalism, all men are born free and slavery is unnatural. Freedom is to do whatever one wants within the limits of the law, which guarantees the security of all. The question is what ‘dominion’ meant. Dominium originally referred to the power of the head of the family to do as he pleased with all members of his family. This especially applied to slaves. The latter were regarded as objects owned by the father of the family and he could even legally execute them if he wanted to. So freedom as ‘doing what one pleases’ has some obvious parallels with the master’s power over his slaves.

There seems however to be a major difference. Freedom is private, while dominion is a relation. For the latter you need at least two persons, a master and a slave. Graeber argues is that in private freedom the individual both becomes his own master and his own slave. Just like the modern philosophers of free will divided the subject into an autonomous will or soul and a governed body, liberalism divides the subject into an owner of rights and the body where those rights reside. When liberals say they have rights, we enter an apparent paradox. The right to own things like property or free speech is itself owned. There is a libertas to dominium and this freedom is itself a dominion. Why would Roman law create such an enigmatic construction? The historian Richard Tuck wrote that this composition allowed for the legalization of slavery. Slavery was deemed unnatural and yet it was one of the cornerstones of Roman economy. If freedom was made a possession, it could become a commodity sold on the market. When a Roman was, for instance, in great debt, he could sell himself to his creditor. This was only possible when the natural state of freedom could naturally be turned in the unnatural state of slavery. Viewing freedom as a commodity solved this practical problem.

This is not so strange or alien as it looks. Still today we see freedom both as our natural ability for free choice and our ability to sell this free choice. Whenever we sign a contract with an employer we are renting our freedom for a few hours a day. Romans were for sale, we are for hire. Even Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty is explained now. In the state of nature everyone is free to do as he pleases, but everyone agrees to give up some of that freedom and ‘sell’ it to a sovereign to protect the social contract.

The freedom of not being slaves, or why was Rosa Parks important?

What we are left with now is a depressing story about liberal freedom being a kind of slavery. This does not however explain what Martin Luther King or the ancient Greeks meant by ‘freedom’. We should return to the time libertas was not equated with dominion. What did it mean to be free in those days?

David Graeber wrote that libertas originally meant not being a slave. This definition seems rather dull. It is like defining ‘white’ by saying that it is not black. Graeber is however more specific. What is distinctive about slavery is that men can only be reduced to property or things when they are cut out off their social and moral context. To be a human being means to be connected to other people and the reduction of slavery can only be the result of a violence that desocializes a person and degrades him into a solitary object. Things do not relate to the world, people do and slavery is built on prohibiting people all possible relations.

RosaparksEven with this further elaboration, Graeber’s account remains rather vague. The aforementioned essay of Hannah Arendt is however very explicit about this. She describes a socially connected life through her theory of action. The latter is first distinguished from labour and work. Labour is the activity that provides us with our basic needs for survival: cooking, looking for water, sleeping, etc. Work is the goal-oriented activity specific for the market. It is the realm of liberal freedom. When I want to buy furniture I go to a shop, compare prices and eventually buy whatever I deem to be the best furniture for the best price. Actions like the march on Washington by the Civil Rights Movement however cannot be explained through these activities. Marching to Washington is not a survival technique nor a business transaction. Arendt defines four characteristics of action.

1) Action presupposes an intersubjective realm. To perform an action there needs to be at least two persons and the meaning of the action is determined by their relation, not by either one of them. What it means to march on Washington is not delineated by Martin Luther King nor by any other American. The American public determines it as a whole. This is done in a public sphere where Americans discuss actions. It is not even sure in advance whether something will turn out to be an action or not. When Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on the bus, she could not know her deed would go into history as the action that commenced the Civil Rights Movement. This is similar to what makes a good film or work of art. The director or artist cannot determine this on beforehand. It is the result of a multiplicity of relations to a public that is out every individual’s control. That is why even the most highly promoted films can flop and low-budget films can become classics.

2) Action is creative in the sense that every action can be seen as a new beginning. If the meaning of an action is constituted by public conversation, then the outcome of this debate transcends every particular individual in the conversation. The meaning of Rosa Parks’s refusal is something like a new beginning. Every act takes place in a certain historical context that predetermines what can be said and what cannot be said. Action however is characterized by transcending this historical horizon. “Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a ‘miracle’ – that is, something which could not be expected.”

3) Actions find their meaning in themselves and not in their end product. The Greeks differentiate between two words to designate ‘action’, namely ‘archein’ and ‘prattein’.  The latter referred to an activity with a determinable product, for instance a table or a chair. The first is connected to the Greek word for beginning (archè) in the sense that action is its own beginning and does not find its origin in its actor. The meaning of an action is not determined by however performs it. As a result, the end product is not important in itself. The action cannot derive its meaning from that. When a melancholic revolutionary asks what all his futile protests were worth, the answer is not that their worth should be measured against the concrete results they achieved. The Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw in 1943 did not stop Nazism or the Shoah and yet it is not meaningless.

4) Then where does meaning come from? Actions are not characterized by goals, but by principles. The French revolution was fought in the name of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. These are not fixed policy agendas, but ideas that move the heart of men. They are the ideas that constitute a public sphere where their concrete meaning is determined.

Das Leben der Unseren: the capital vice of PRISM

Let us now return to the NSA-debate. We said earlier that there is a problem with the main criticism against PRISM. Most journalists claim that PRISM is an infringement on our privacy and private rights. They view freedom as something privately owned. We know now that this conception also leads to the conclusion that freedom is something privately sold or rented. Even worse, it is exactly by individualizing society that the government receives the right to protect homeland security even against our own free rights. When rights are a kind of property that can be sold, rented or delegated to a sovereign, then the state can alos disown you of those rights. Liberalism has split the human subject in two, namely an owner of rights and the body where those rights reside, but the result is that this ownership is fragile. Hobbes’s sovereign has absolute dominion over us, since we gave it to him through a social contract. The destruction of the private sphere is then only the last demolition work in a whole range of devastations.

The real threat is the elimination of a public sphere where freedom is realized through the intersubjective creation and recreation of political principles. When we are under permanent surveillance and are no longer free to speak our mind, then the public sphere fades away. If freedom is the possibility to say that two plus two equals four and the government only allows us to say what is pre-approved by the Ministry of Truth, then our freedom is in great danger. As Tacitus once wrote:” Such being the happiness of the times, that you may think as you wish, and speak as you think.”

Further reading

George Orwell, 1984.

Adam Smith, The wealth of nations.

David Graeber, Debt: the first 5,000 years.

Hannah Arendt, “What is freedom?” in Between past and future.


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