The goal of this attempt is to change the perception of freedom. The most popular view considers freedom as a “rare”, rivalrous good, which we have to compete for. If we are able to speak about freedom in the language of the commons, we may see the “freedom-from” as a core resource, that we can sustain and expand in collaboration, while the “freedom-to” as the stream of benefits that we can share according to the commons regime we establish.
Warning! The concept presented here is absolutely scandalous from the scholar’s point of view. The only reason I am trying to elaborate this methodological abomination is the fact, that it can potentially provide an easy and efficient „cognitive pry bar” to open – and change – popular thinking about freedom.
Freedom: negative and positive
“In a famous essay first published in 1958, Isaiah Berlin called these two concepts of liberty negative and positive respectively. The reason for using these labels is that in the first case liberty seems to be a mere absence of something (i.e. of obstacles, barriers, constraints or interference from others), whereas in the second case it seems to require the presence of something (i.e. of control, self-mastery, self-determination or self-realization). In Berlin’s words, we use the negative concept of liberty in attempting to answer the question “What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?”, whereas we use the positive concept in attempting to answer the question “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”
If we look at the freedom concept from the anarcho-positivist perspective, the distinction between freedom-from and freedom-to becomes even more obvious. While freedom-from is the effect of collective effort – very similar to expanding and preserving a turf for all kinds of activity – freedom-to is the effect if individual (mostly inner) work, to establish self-determination and one’s own „life project”. If you look at the picture above, the lady is an avatar of the freedom-from, while the freely flying bird is a symbol of the freedom-to.
Now it is much easier to see the synergy between the individualist and communal threads in the anarchist narrative. It also shows us general weakness of certain anarchist groups, which are so focused on fighting the evil – and expanding the freedom-from – that they lack the idea what to do (freedom-to), when they gain it. It can be levereaged quite easily, if we use the commons as a model.
But before that, we need to deal with the current, libertarian view of the freedom.
Critique of the rivalrous freedom concept
BUT! Such approach puts us in the eternal fight against other pursuers of freedom, being at the same time our oppressors. Naturally, we struggle to enlarge our freedom and remove obstacles by shrinking the freedom of others. Individualistic/rivalrous understanding of freedom puts everyone in an awkward moral situation. To enlarge or at least protect the area of one’s freedom, one has to deprive others.
This is the most alienating and atomizing approach, effectively destroing all basic solidarity and causing Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes.
Individualistic, competitive, vulgarly darvinistic approach reduces us to the pack of rats, killing and eating each other as our freedom-from space shrinks. And it shrinks inevitably, unless we collectively enlarge it.
Thinking of freedom as the commons will greatly help us to change the mindset from the competitive to cooperative one. So, let’s talk about the commons.
The Freedom Commons Governance
This is exactly the thing we need to keep the freedom commons going. Cutting the story short, such regime aims on „spreading” both benefits and burdens, related to the commons, evenly among the participants. The meaning of „evenly” is – of course – defined by the participants themselves.
As the definition of the commons says, it consists of three components:
The core resource (aka the common-pool resource)
The stewarding community (the ownership is actually not required)
The set of rules (the governance regime)
Freedom as a Common-Pool Resource
A common-pool resource typically consists of a core resource (e.g. water or fish), which defines the stock variable, while providing a limited quantity of extractable fringe units, which defines the flow variable.
While the core resource is to be protected or nurtured in order to allow for its continuous exploitation, the fringe units can be harvested or consumed.
Unlike pure public goods, common pool resources face problems of congestion or overuse, because they are subtractable. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common-pool_resource)
This fits nicely into our model of freedom, doesn’t it. If we describe freedom-from as a core resource, and freedom-to as a stream of fringe units distributed among us, it works. Whether our freedom-from is constrained by money, space, institution or anything else, it is always some sort of space, in which we have to fit in with our individual endeavors – our freedom-to. Untill we succeed in enlarging our freedom commons beyond the sum of our needs, we shall always face a problem of relative scarcity. But when we embrace the commons as a model, we see that there is always a way to manage scarcity collectively – and to make a rational decision, whether we want to suffer it, or rather bear cost of enlarging our ‘core resource’.
The new narrative gives us an edge over the old one. It provides moral and cognitive integrity – we no longer need to oppress someone to be less opressed ourselves. It gives us clear reason for adding solidarity and mutual help to our social toolset. It also employs the snowball effect (which is a dropping marginal cost effect in disguise).
It also links the cause of freedom with other commons – the vast social and economical movement, growing as a backslash against failure of the globalised exploitation.
Problem with the concept
Apart from typical problems, that always make introducing new ideas really hard, there are certain issues, quite specific to this one.
Among freedom lovers, especially among anarchists, there are many who are so involved in the fight, that they lack the vision of their own victory. I have interviewed a number of activists, asking them one question: what will you do the day after the revolution prevails? A substantial number of them answered somewhere in a range „I’ll kill myself”, „I will go into the mountains”, „I do not know”. This is quite serious and I believe we really need to develop a positive vision of freedom, to help people gain a „magnetic North” – some sort of an azimuth, showing them the direction. In other words, beyond the evil we fight with, we need also the good we fight for.
This is a quite different story, how to achieve it. But we need it. And badly.