Posts Tagged ‘Freedom’

“Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal. And unless there is equality (and by equality I mean equal chances for every one to make the most of himself). unless, I say, these equal chances exist, freedom, either of thought, speech, or action, is equally a mockery.”

–Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman and Expropriation


AMERICANISM, n. 1) The desire to purge America of all those qualities that make it a more or less tolerable place in which to live; 2) The ability to simultaneously kiss ass, pay taxes, follow your boss’s orders, swallow a pay cut, piss in a cup, cower in fear of job loss, and brag about your freedom.

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–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary, the best modern successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front coverAmbrose

For once, a Trump Administration official has sad something that’s easy to believe, and that is backed by over a century of abundant evidence:

“Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated—those are our values. Those are not our policies.” 

–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressing State Department employees on 5-3-17

Ambrose BierceFREEDOM, n. Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint’s infinite multitude of methods. A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly.

Liberty. The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.

–Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

FREE, adj. In advertising, anything bearing a hidden cost, as in “two free dinners with purchase of . . . “; 2) A descriptive term often used by subjects of repressive governments to describe themselves and their nations, as in the oft-heard oxymoronic assertion, “this is a free country”; 3) n., A self-identifying label commonly used by these same individuals, as in “the land of the free,” or, more simply, “the free.” When used in this manner, an acceptable synonym is “gang of slaves.”

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–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary, the best modern successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary




There is no god but man.

Man has the right to live by his own law–to live in the way that he wills to do: to work as he will: to play as he will: to rest as he will: to die when and how he will.

Man has the right to eat what he will: to drink what he will: to dwell where he will: to move as he will on the face of the earth.

Man has the right to think what he will: to speak what he will: to write what he will: to draw, paint, carve, etch, mold, build as he will: to dress as he will.

Man has the right to love as he will.

Man has the right to kill those who thwart these rights.

–Aleister Crowley, “The Righst of Man”  (Liber AL XVII)

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)


Politicians, the corporate media, and the miseducation system routinely present voting as the only legitimate route to political and social change.

But is it? Because of if its very nature, voting cannot lead to fundamental change. No matter who you elect, no matter if you elect “better people,” there will still be some giving orders and others forced to take them, because of the threat, and often the application, of institutionalized violence (police, prisons, the military). When you vote, all you’re doing is choosing who’s in charge of the inherently repressive state apparatus. If your goal is a noncoercive, free and equal society, you cannot get from here to there; you cannot get there through voting.

A brief glance at the Western democracies confirms this. No one in his or her right mind would contend that centuries of electoral politics have brought anything approaching full freedom and equality to the US or the UK. The best that voting seems capable of producing is the social-democratic systems of the Scandinavian countries. But even there, you still have government (organized coercion) and capitalism–an ecocidal system of economic inequality, with some giving orders and others forced to take them–overlaid by a veneer of social welfare measures.

Of course, this veneer matters. It reduces–but doesn’t come close to eliminating–the economic inequality inherent to capitalism. Publicly funded healthcare, education, childcare, food assistance, public transit, unemployment benefits, and retirement benefits all make the day-to-day lives of poor and working people in capitalist countries much more bearable than they would otherwise be. But at the same time, such social welfare measures are almost certainly at the outer limit of what electoral politics can deliver. Centuries of cumulative experience in dozens of electoral democracies strongly suggest this is so.

If you’re content with that, fine. But don’t pretend that that’s freedom and equality. Even in the best social-democratic system, you’ll still have a relatively small number of politicians, bureaucrats, and capitalists giving orders and the vast majority of people forced to take them. In other words, you’ll still have ruling elites.

Given this, is voting a useless or worse-than-useless activity? No. It’s silly to pretend that it is. The social welfare programs mentioned above are worthwhile, and were achieved in good part through the electoral process. As well, initiatives and referendums–for example, on marijuana legalization–can clearly be of public benefit. One might also ask, if voting is useless, why are theofascist Republicans so intent on denying black people, latinos, the poor, and young people the right to vote?

At the same time, belief that voting is the sole legitimate means of social change is harmful. It induces many idealistic young people to waste huge amounts of time on political campaigns. A great many, probably most, eventually recognize the ultimate futility of electoral politics and burn out. Believing that there are no other means to social change, they lapse into cynicism and inactivity. This cycle repeats decade after decade after decade.

But that’s not to say voting is entirely useless. It can produce limited reforms. Recognizing its marginal utility, Howard Zinn once remarked that voting takes five minutes, so why not?

Just don’t waste much time on it, and don’t expect it to fundamentally change anything.

Rudolf Rocker“He who declares the common will to be the absolute sovereign and yields to it unlimited power over all members of the community, sees in freedom nothing more than the duty to obey the law and to submit to the common will. For him the thought of dictatorship has lost its terror.”

–Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture

You Call This Freedom? coverby Chaz Bufe


Positive Freedom

Leaving this dismal situation behind for a moment, let’s consider a very important aspect of freedom that is virtually never mentioned in the United States: what Emma Goldman called “the freedom to,” that is, the access to the resources necessary to making the “negative” freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of travel, etc.) meaningful—to put this another way, access to the means necessary to the freedom to act.

Without this “positive” freedom, freedom from restraint becomes nearly meaningless. As an extreme example, freedom of the press is a mockery to someone who is starving to death. But let’s consider a less extreme example: the situation of the majority in the present-day United States. The top 1% of the population owns considerably more of the national wealth (40%) than the bottom 90% of the population combined (30%, with most of that concentrated toward the top); the top 10% own more than twice as much as the bottom 90% (70% versus 30%); and the bottom 50% own almost nothing—under 10% of the wealth, with almost all of it concentrated in static assets such as cars and heavily mortgaged houses.

As should be blindingly obvious, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are much more real for the rich than for the rest of us. If the rich have something to say and want to make use of freedom of the press, they can simply go out and buy newspapers, publishing companies, radio stations, TV stations, even TV networks and cable and satellite providers. The rest of us, if we have something to say, are reduced to publishing xeroxed ‘zines and pamphlets, putting low-wattage “pirate” radio stations on the air (while running the risk of being fined, having our equipment confiscated, and just possibly going to jail), putting up blogs and web sites, producing cable-access TV shows seen by a minuscule number of viewers, and, if we’re willing to make major economic sacrifices, publishing small amounts of paperback books which we’ll have trouble distributing. (Small publishers are at a huge competitive disadvantage vis a vis the few huge corporations that dominate the publishing field.)

Then, if the corporate elite feel the slightest bit threatened, they’ll have no compunction about suppressing the independent press—and, indeed, anyone who dares to publicly disagree with the elite’s political agenda—via their bought-and-paid-for government. And, to add insult to injury, the corporate mass media will be howling for the blood of the accursed dissenters, blathering tired non sequiturs about “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” and the like to stampede the herd.

To put this another way, lack of positive freedom, lack of equal access to resources, makes a mockery of all of the freedoms from restraint—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of travel, etc.—because unequal access to resources is itself a tremendous restraint. If freedom is to be real, equal freedom—in both its positive (access to resources) and negative (freedom from restraint) aspects—is mandatory. Absolute freedom is impossible (though the rich enjoy something close to it, at everyone else’s expense); the best that we can hope for is equal freedom.

The Freedom of The Rich

The foregoing applies to the “pursuit of happiness” as well. The rich are much freer than the rest of us in that area, too; in fact they’re freer in virtually all areas of life. They’re far freer not only to exercise their civil liberties, but to travel, to send their kids to the best schools, to live where and how they choose, buy any consumer goods they want, eat the best, most expensive foods, etc., etc. And they have much more time to do all these things than the rest of us, because they do not have to work. Some do, but it’s a matter of choice for them.

The rich are also very nearly free to flout the law. William F. Buckley provided a flamboyant example of this a number of years ago when he sailed his yacht outside U.S. territorial waters so that he could smoke pot without fear of the authorities, and then bragged about it on his TV show.

In day-to-day life, the rich are much less likely than the rest of us ever to be bothered by the police, as cops are always much more reluctant to kick in the doors of the wealthy than they are the doors of those who do useful work. And, in those rare instances in which the rich are charged with crimes, they can hire “expert witnesses” and private investigators, and they can hire the best defense lawyers to get them off, sometimes on what seem like open-and-shut murder charges. (In contrast, the poor often have to rely on overworked public defenders who normally plea bargain cases9; as a result, a large number of poor people are convicted of, or plead guilty to, crimes of which they’re innocent.)

The rich enjoy an extraordinary degree of freedom at everyone else’s expense. There is no way around this, given that freedom depends on access to resources, that the world has finite resources, and that, though these resources are great, they’re almost entirely in the hands of the rich.

The “Freedom” of Those Who Work

For the rest of us, things are very different than for the rich. Most of us have very little control over our daily lives. We’re forced to work long, numbing hours, often at jobs we hate, just to pay the bills. With the real unemployment rate around 15% (counting “discouraged workers”—those who, often after months or years, have given up trying to find work—and the “underemployed”), those of us who work for a living have a powerful incentive to continue working, even at jobs we despise. The fear of homelessness and destitution is ever lurking in the background, with millions upon millions of us one paycheck away from being out on the street.

At work, we have virtually no control over our lives—freedom is almost totally absent from a good third of our waking hours on work days. On the job, we’re often subject to a myriad of idiotic rules (even as to when and how often we can go to the restroom); we usually have no say in the decisions about what we produce; we usually have no say, either, on how we produce things; we have very little control over our pay, and because of the fear of unemployment and the pathetic state of the U.S. unions we often have to take insultingly low wages; we’re often forced to work overtime (and sometimes cheated of overtime pay); and we’re often subjected to humiliating intrusions into our private lives (especially drug tests and, sometimes, forced participation in 12-step religious-indoctrination programs under the guise of “treatment”).

The near-total lack of control of most Americans over their work lives can be seen in the fact that productivity has been steadily rising since World War II (1% to 3% per year, according to Juliet Schor’s excellent book, The Overworked American), while the average number of hours worked per year in the U.S. is among the highest in the industrialized world, and median wages (in constant dollars) have actually fallen approximately 12% since 2001.

To make matters worse, taxes fall most heavily on those who work for a living. Average taxpayers now pay over one-third of their wages as taxes, while many of the rich pay far lower taxes or, in some cases, no taxes at all thanks to their ability to take advantage of loopholes and dodges (overseas accounts, the very low taxes on capital gains income, etc.). The end result is that there is a steadily widening gap between the rich and the rest of us,10 and that the day to day lives of a good majority of Americans are becoming less and less free: our time is being eaten up by one of the industrialized world’s longest work weeks (when we’re fortunate enough to have jobs); we have fewer and fewer resources with which to exercise our scant “negative” freedoms; and, indeed, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to make choices in any aspect of our lives.

To reiterate: lack of resources is making us less and less free. If we had even the most minimal control of our work lives and the products of our labor, there’s no way that we would put up with such appalling realities.11

Corporate Justifications

There’s no lack of bought-and-paid-for intellectuals and pundits to justify this state of affairs, and to a great extent they’ve succeeded in doing so. They’ve even (with plentiful help from the miseducation system, corporate media, and patriarchal religions) managed to convince a good majority of Americans that the status quo is “freedom.”

One of their main, and particularly grotesque, arguments is that private property in general and capitalism in particular (and the extreme inequality in access to resources that comes with it) are necessary to freedom. We’ve already seen that unequal access to resources (that is, lack of positive freedom) makes a mockery of civil liberties and that it destroys freedom in day to day life. But let’s take a closer look at private property and capitalism.

In the first place, private property consists largely of land and natural resources. Who created these? No one. So why should only a few benefit from them? The other part of what makes up private property is primarily the product of the collective labor of hundreds of generations: houses, factories, workshops, mines, mills, machines, railways, airports, dams, power plants—in sum, everything produced by the members of dead-and-gone generations. Again, why should only a few—especially a few who by and large do no useful work—be the primary beneficiaries of this massive amount of collective labor?

To say that they inherited their wealth and that it’s therefore rightfully theirs is to say no more than that the sons and daughters of those who have unfairly benefitted should also unfairly benefit. And that original unfair benefit was based on land grabs, violence, the enslavement of others, the swindling of others, the suppression of competition, and other forms of low cunning and thuggery. Should such behaviors be rewarded in perpetuity?

But what of “self-made men”? In the first place, a majority of wealth is inherited rather than “made.” In the second place, “self-made men” benefitted tremendously from the labor of past generations. And third, if you look closely you’ll find that most “self-made men” had a head start on the rest of us—they came from the upper income strata. And fourth, most of these individuals’ success comes not from innovative genius and hard work (though some of the rich are innovative and do work hard), but from taking advantage of the work of others. Bill Gates, the richest man on Earth, is a good example of this. Gates succeeded largely by recognizing and buying the intellectual products of others on the cheap (e.g., DOS), and through monopolistic practices, exploitation of labor (e.g., the “permatemps” who often work for years at Microsoft, but with no job security and no benefits), and the ruthless suppression of competition (e.g., Netscape).12 Linus Torvald, the inventor of Linux, has arguably made a greater contribution to computing than Gates, but we all know which of the two is incredibly wealthy. Gates aim was always to make money; Torvalds made Linux a public domain operating system. (Today it’s a backbone of the Internet; most servers run Linux.)

In the end, “self-made men” not only normally have an economic head start on the rest of us, but they also normally make their money by taking advantage of the work and talents of others; and so they’re no more deserving of great wealth than the parasites (such as the Koch brothers) who inherit it.

Advocates of Freedom

Many groups and political tendencies are concerned with civil liberties, with freedom from restraint. The most prominent are left liberals (social democrats) and the so-called libertarians. Both have the same defect: their vision of liberty is incomplete. Liberals are often at least dimly aware of the necessity of resources to the achievement of freedom, but they do not draw the logical conclusions from this. Instead of attempting to rid the world of undeserved privilege, they simply seek to mitigate the worst abuses of capitalism via governmental means. Even at best, as in the Scandinavian countries, such an approach leaves a large majority of the people with limited access to resources (in comparison with the rich) and saddles them with an intrusive government bureaucracy.

The other group concerned with civil liberties, the so-called libertarians, are entirely blind to the relationship of resources to freedom. In fact, they glorify the mechanism that denies equal positive freedom to all: capitalism. (The stilted, bloated novels by the literarily challenged cult figure Ayn Rand provide good examples of this.) In recent years, this group’s political party has even retreated from its earlier calls for the abolition of the state (so as to bring on the “paradise” of unfettered, cutthroat capitalism), and now wants to retain the police and military functions of the state, while eliminating its social welfare functions (further widening the already huge gap between the freedoms of the rich and the poor). This is in apparent recognition of the fact that capitalism requires institutionalized violence to maintain itself,13 that the state is a convenient form of such violence, and that the state has historically been a faithful servant of the rich. In sum, the “libertarians” are not concerned about (and in fact are antagonistic to) the freedom of the vast majority; the only freedom they’re interested in is that of capitalists. They confuse freedom of capital with human freedom, and if push ever comes to shove, one knows in advance which side they’ll come down on—they’ll fight to the death to preserve capitalism and to prevent real, full freedom from ever taking root.

But what about equal freedom? What about positive freedom (equal access to resources)? Doesn’t anyone advocate these things?

Only two political tendencies are concerned with achievement of equal positive freedom. The first is marxism. However, for the most part marxists conceive of freedom only as positive freedom, that is, only as access to resources, and, routinely violated paper guarantees aside, they’re by and large indifferent or actively hostile (invariably so once in power) to the negative freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. To make matters worse, once in power marxists don’t even deliver on the promise of positive freedom (just as their capitalist counterparts don’t deliver on the promise of the negative freedoms). Instead, they become, to use Milovan Djilas’s term, “the new class,” that is, the new privileged class. So, under marxism freedom in both its negative and positive senses is illusory.

Anarchists14 alone insist on both equal positive and equal negative freedom, that is equal access to resources and equal freedom from restraint, limited only by the similar freedom of others. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to consider this matter in any detail, but it’s well worth noting that anarchists have considered these things at length and have written a number of very useful books on how to achieve real freedom.17


For the vast majority of us, American “freedom” consists of unremitting regimentation at school and work; unremitting indoctrination from the miseducation system, corporate media, and authoritarian religions; working at jobs we often loathe; having no control over our work lives (our pay, work hours, working conditions, what we produce, how we produce it); stress from being overworked, underpaid, and in constant fear of job loss and homelessness; humiliating intrusions into our private lives by employers and the government (goaded on by religious zealots); lack of the time necessary to taking real advantage of the “negative” freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc.); and lack of the resources necessary to making real choices in virtually all other areas of life (schools, housing, transportation, travel . . . ).

And, in compensation for all this, we have the “freedom” to enter the voting booth every two years to vote for the millionaires who will become our new masters.


9. A common, sleazy prosecutorial practice is to pile baseless or nearly baseless charges on a defendant (who doesn’t have the resources to fight all the charges) to coerce the defendant into pleading guilty to one or two of the charges. As a result many innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

10. At the time Ronald Reagan took office, the top 1% of the population owned approximately 30% of the national wealth. Since then there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom and middle to the top economic strata, with the wealth of the top 1% increasing over the past quarter century by more than the combined worth of the bottom 50%. To put this another way, the extremely wealthy are becoming far wealthier, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, and the already wretched condition of the poor is becoming ever worse.

11. Self-employment is a largely illusory alternative. Most self-employment attempts fail, due in large part to inadequate capitalization (that is, lack of economic resources); the self-employed often work more hours than those employed by others; they often work seven days a week; and cash flow (that is, lack of steady income) is a constant nightmare for many, probably most, self-employed people.

12. Microsoft attempted to destroy Netscape by integrating Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, into the Windows operating system. (At the time, Netscape’s flagship product was its web browser.) There was no logical reason to do this, unless one counts attempting to destroy a rival as “logical.”

13. Earlier “Libertarian” theorists, such as Murray Rothbard, were well aware of capitalism’s need for institutionalized violence. Rothbard’s solution, in the absence of the state, was the creation of private police forces and private prisons. 14. “Anarchists” refers to those who understand the theory and work to make it real, and not to those foolish souls who are attracted to the type of “anarchism” portrayed in the corporate media, an “anarchism” that equals chaos and amoral egotism.

14. “Anarchists” refers to those who understand the theory and work to make it real, and not to those foolish souls who are attracted to the type of “anarchism” portrayed in the corporate media, an “anarchism” that equals chaos and amoral egotism.

15. To list only a few: Looking Forward, by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel; Moving Forward, by Michael Albert; What Is Anarchism?, by Alexander Berkman; Remaking Society, by Murray Bookchin; Redefining Revolution, by Cornelius Castoriadis; The Anarchist Collectives, by Sam Dolgoff; Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow, by Peter Kropotkin; Workers’ Councils, by Anton Pannekoek; Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, by José Peirats; Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, by Rudolf Rocker; Anarchy in Action, by Colin Ward.

You Call This Freedom? coverby Chaz Bufe

One hears, sees, or reads it every day. Often several times a day. It’s inescapable. And it’s an almost unquestioned article of faith: the United States is a free country. But is it really?

Civil Liberties—Freedom from Restraint

The more enlightened part of the American public (perhaps as much as 15% or 20% of the whole) regards freedom in purely negative terms, as freedom from restraint, intrusion, and compulsion—such things as freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association. In short, the freedom to do or say anything that one wishes as long as one does not directly harm or intrude on others.

Many who believe in freedom in this sense find it very troubling that the government routinely violates supposedly guaranteed individual freedoms whenever it feels threatened, or even at its whim. Examples of such violations abound in U.S. history, from the first days of the republic to the present day. To cite but a few: under John Adams, congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave the government license to arrest and jail those who criticized it. It wasn’t the courts that saved Americans from these totalitarian laws; rather, they expired, due to a built-in time limit, while Thomas Jefferson, who had opposed their passage, was president.

Another example is the Espionage Act of 1917. Under it, criticism of the government was again declared illegal, and the victims of this law numbered in the thousands, many of whom were imprisoned for lengthy terms for exercising the supposedly guaranteed right of free speech. Victims included innumerable members of the Industrial Workers of the World, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and the great Mexican anarchist and revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón.

Shortly after World War I, many states passed “criminal syndicalism” laws prohibiting unions and their members from advocating and organizing for worker management of the economy and dissolution of government. (The states permitted only AFL-type business unions, which accepted and supported capitalism.) Again, these laws and their application constituted a gross violation of the rights of free speech and free assembly; and thousands of IWW members were jailed under these laws throughout the land, often for lengthy terms.

Still another example, this time aimed at freedom of movement and freedom of association, was FDR’s executive order mandating the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Of course, the courts found that this was perfectly legal.

During the Vietnam War, the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign did its best to silence dissent through the use of wiretapping, blackmail (of, for instance, Martin Luther King), use of agents provocateur, framing activists (such as Black Panther Geronimo Pratt and American Indian Movement [AIM] leader Leonard Peltier), and on more than one occasion murdering activists (including Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, murdered by Chicago police in an FBI-planned raid, and dozens of AIM members murdered on the Lakota reservation during early 1970s by goon squads operating with FBI help). Because these violations of individual rights were carried out secretly, none of the agents responsible for these violations were ever brought to justice.

At present, we’re seeing a renewal of COINTELPRO-type FBI activities directed against peace and political activists, notably the Occupy and Anonymous movements. In an eerie echo of WWI-era hysteria and its “espionage” act (virtually none of whose victims were engaging in espionage), this time the excuse is “terrorism,” even though the government must be well aware that peace and left-wing political activists pose absolutely no “terrorist” threat, and that the only “terrorist” acts which have resulted in bodily injury or death that have taken place in this country for the last four decades have all, with the sole exception of the “Unabomber” attacks, been carried out either by the extreme racist right (for example, the murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg by The Order, and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing), right-wing “right to life” religious fanatics (numerous bombings of abortion clinics and shootings of abortion providers), and, in the most spectacular acts, by right-wing Muslim religious extremists.

More routinely, day in and day out, the government violates the individual right to be free from intrusion, the right to be left alone as long as one is not harming or intruding on anyone else. These violations of individual rights are codified in the laws against victimless or consensual “crimes,” most prominently the laws against drug use and possession, prostitution, gambling, and, until recently, “sodomy.” The oft-times extreme penalties for violating these laws have ruined literally millions of lives, with many of those who violated such laws serving far longer terms than rapists and murderers.

As well, the government still jealously guards its “right” to press its citizens into involuntary military service via conscription. The fact that this is an obvious violation of the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of “involuntary servitude,” and that the courts have repeatedly ruled that this form of involuntary servitude is not, somehow, involuntary servitude, serves to point out the weakness of the supposed guardians of individual rights: written constitutional guarantees and the courts that interpret those guarantees.

Occasionally, as in the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down the sodomy laws, the courts will uphold individual rights. But the courts tend to do this only when public opinion has shifted powerfully against the laws in question, and the government feels no compelling need to maintain them in force. (The Supreme Court upheld the sodomy laws as recently as 1986; since then public opinion has shifted strongly against such laws.) In most other cases, the courts feel no compunction in declaring that black is white and that written constitutional guarantees do not mean what they plainly state. To cite a few additional examples showing how near-useless the courts are as guardians of our rights, one might consider the numerous decisions upholding the government’s “right” to intrude into the private lives of individuals via laws outlawing private drug use, consensual sex acts between adults (such as prostitution), and gambling.
The courts and paper promises are not in any real sense guarantees of individual rights; and federal, state, and local governments continue to routinely violate our most basic rights, especially the right to be left alone so long as one is not intruding on or harming someone else.

How did this sorry state of affairs come to be? How could gross violations of individual liberty be so common in a country whose citizens supposedly value freedom? The answer is simple: a large majority of Americans passively accept this state of affairs in sheep-like silence, and at least a sizable minority actively support the government’s violations of individual rights. The few who have the courage to stand up against these violations, and the authoritarian herd supporting them, are often crushed like bugs.

The government’s treatment of author Peter McWilliams, civil libertarian and author of Ain’t Nobody’s Business, is a tragic example. McWilliams, who was diagnosed in 1996 with AIDS and cancer, began using medical marijuana to combat the nausea caused by his AIDS drugs. Due to his high-profile status as a defender of individual liberties and medical marijuana use, he was targeted by the DEA, which invaded his home, trashed it (a very common practice), and arrested him on marijuana cultivation charges. At his 1998 trial, the judge refused to allow a “medical necessity” defense, and thus refused to hear both scientific evidence of marijuana’s efficacy in combatting nausea and any mention of California’s 1996 law permitting the use of medical marijuana. McWilliams was convicted, and after his family put up their houses to raise his bail ($250,000—higher than for most rapists and armed robbers), he was released on bail, but on the condition that he not use medical marijuana to combat his nausea. In 2000, while his case was still on appeal and he was still under the restriction prohibiting his nausea medication, he died as a result of choking on his own vomit.

The “Freedom” of Voting

Again, how could such a horrible thing come to pass? How did our fellow citizens become so degraded as to support such horrendous misuse of government power? How is it that so many Americans have so little understanding of and so little concern about their own freedoms and those of their fellows?

A good part of the answer lies in what they consider freedom to be. It seems that a great many, probably a good majority, of our fellow Americans do not consider freedom from restraint and freedom from intrusion as fundamental. No. What they see as fundamental to freedom—and many seem to regard this as freedom’s only component—is the right to vote. Numerous consequences flow from this.

The primary result of believing that freedom consists only of voting, of choosing one’s rulers, is the belief that anything the government does is okay as long as the government is elected and enacts its decisions into law.1 In individual behavior, this attitude manifests itself as passive acceptance of intrusive, authoritarian government violations of individual rights, or in many cases goose-stepping enthusiasm for those violations (in cases in which the goose-steppers dislike those targeted by the government). This hypnotic fixation on voting is so strong that most people don’t even notice glaring contradictions, such as “making the world safe for democracy” (during World War I) while suppressing free speech and free association, and the intermittent practice of forcing multitudes into involuntary servitude in the armed forces to keep our country “free.”

Institutional Support for Voting

The reasons for this hypnotic fixation on voting are not difficult to see. The first, though not necessarily the most important, is the miseducation system in the United States. Its backbone is a system of rigid routine cued by bells and buzzers, inculcation of competition (for grades1 and teachers’ favor) rather than cooperation, participation in mandatory rituals of subordination (e.g., the Pledge of Allegiance), endless indoctrination that the U.S. is a free country (with heavy emphasis on the right to vote), and mindless rote memorization.2 Add to this that critical thinking and skepticism are often discouraged—it’s no accident that year after year U.S. students score badly in science compared with students in other countries—and one can only conclude that the U.S. miseducation system is succeeding very well in its mission: production of automatons who do not think for themselves, who are barely even capable of thinking for themselves, who submissively accept humiliating government intrusions into their lives (e.g., urine tests), and who accept hierarchy, gross economic inequality, an artificially low standard of living, a huge, parasitic military sucking the economic life from the country, and their own subordinate places in a rigidifying class structure as normal, natural, and indeed inevitable—and, most amazing of all, who consider themselves “free” (because of the right to vote).

The second important factor in the fixation upon voting as “freedom” is the corporate media, which also presents hierarchy, gross economic inequality, a highly intrusive government, militarism, religious irrationality, and a class structure (though never identified as such) as normal, natural, and inevitable. Again, as in the miseducation system, one finds a focus on “great men” (especially, as in CNN’s coverage of the Iraq invasions, military men). Again, one finds in the corporate media drumbeat repetition of the claim that the U.S. is a “free” country. From this flows the (generally unstated) conclusion that present social, political, and economic conditions constitute freedom.3 Then, there’s the day-in-day-out obsessive coverage of elected officials and elections. This, combined with the constant repetition that the U.S. is a “free” country (and respectful coverage of the courts as freedom’s arbiters and guarantors), provides powerful reinforcement of the belief that elections in and of themselves constitute freedom and that freedom is something delivered by the state.

One might add that the corporate media almost invariably present all radical alternatives to the present socioeconomic system as threatening to “our freedom,” and the advocates of such alternatives as being dangerous and/or crazy.4 A good example of this is the corporate media’s treatment of anarchism. There is a near-total media blackout of anarchism’s most respected spokesman, the renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky. Instead, the corporate media focuses on fringe figures such as the murderous schizophrenic, Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”), and advocates of the ridiculous, such as primitivists, and presents them to the public (with generally not even barely concealed ridicule) as the face of anarchism.

Religion, more especially authoritarian, patriarchal religion, is the third primary component in the machine which churns out the indoctrinated automatons who equate voting with freedom. Patriarchal religions, such as Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, Catholicism, and Mormonism are extremely hierarchical and authoritarian in nature. In these religions, God, in almost military manner, gives orders and his lieutenants convey them down the chain of command to the laity. (That’s the theory; somehow, one suspects that the orders don’t originate with God.) In all of these religions, the role of the laity is to obey, period.

The Catholic Church is perhaps the clearest example of hierarchical structure and the dominant/submissive relationship between clergy and laity. Here, “God’s” orders are relayed first to the “infallible” pope, and then down the chain of command: cardinals, archbishops, bishops, monsignors, priests—and then to the laity.

It’s also important to note that all of these patriarchal religions are virulently anti-intellectual (notwithstanding the Catholic Church’s intellectual pretensions), and all systematically discourage rational inquiry and skepticism. All too often, this “discouragement” has taken physical form, such as the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno and other heretics, the Index of Prohibited Books, etc.
In all of these religions, great emphasis is placed on blind acceptance of the words of “holy” men and “holy” books. In all of them, blind faith—that is, not using one’s ability to think, not using one’s ability to reason—is presented as a virtue. Martin Luther stated the matter quite plainly in his Table Talk: “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.”

Then add in the fact that all of these religions teach that it’s the duty of their respective flocks to impose their beliefs (their “morality”) on others, either directly through violence or through the threat of violence embodied in the law and the governments that enforce it, and it’s little wonder that the members of these religions have, overall, so little respect for freedom and so little understanding of it.

One can begin to appreciate how abysmally these religious folk misunderstand the nature of freedom by listening to their near-interminable whining about how their freedoms are being violated. When one gets to the bottom of these sniveling complaints, one almost always finds that their “freedom” is being “violated” by nonintrusive individuals who are committing private, consensual acts condemned by religious “morality.” A good contemporary example of this is the current bleating about gays (who make up perhaps 5% of the population) attempting to “force” the “homosexual agenda” upon poor, god-fearing Christians (who make up a mere 75% to 80% of the population). When one looks at this even briefly, it becomes immediately obvious that all that gays want are the same very limited legal rights (against employment and housing discrimination, etc.) as everyone else. For fundamentalist Christians, Mormons, and conservative Catholics, this granting of equal rights is a “violation” of their (the religious believers’) “freedom.” One might also mention the unceasing attempts of Christian true believers to use taxpayer dollars to have their creation myths taught as “science” in the public schools. (Of course, the creation myths of other religions are simply silly superstitions and not “science.”)

All of this quite clearly reveals the religious concept of “freedom.” For religious fanatics, “freedom” consists of the “right” to intrude into the private lives and private activities of others, to use public monies for religious indoctrination, and to force others, either through direct or institutional violence (the law), to live their lives in accord with the dictates of religious “morality.” In other words, “freedom” for religious true believers consists of their “right” to intrude and impose.5

Examples of religious “moral” intrusion into our private lives (via the state) abound. To cite two additional examples, the Catholic Church managed to keep birth control devices illegal until well into the twentieth century in many parts of the U.S. (until the 1960s in heavily Catholic Con-necticut), and many courageous advocates of reproductive choice were sent to prison as a result. Having lost that battle—though it’s now clamoring for the “right” of religious employers to deny contraception coverage in health plans for their employees—the Catholic Church is now attempting to impose its “moral” views on the rest of us through its attempts to outlaw abortion. If these attempts would succeed, those who view freedom as simply the right to vote for one’s rulers would see no contradiction between these intrusions and the assertion that the U.S. is a “free country.”

In fact, many religious folk have an even more restricted concept of freedom than that of its simply being their “right” to choose rulers to impose their “morality” on others.6 Many (such as the Christian “reconstructionists”) would actually prefer a theocracy or some other form of dictatorship. For these folk, “freedom” consists solely of obeying (and imposing on others) the dictates handed down by their “holy” men and “holy” books. In other words, for these religious believers, abandonment (voluntary or forced) of self-direction is “freedom.” To put the matter baldly, for them slavery is freedom. A huge painted (and oft-defaced) slogan on the side of a former local mosque nicely distills this Orwellian concept: “Freedom is submission to the will of God.”
In sum, it’s fair to say that to the extent that they take their religion seriously—that is, to the extent that they follow the dictates of their sects’ “holy” books and “holy” men—members of patriarchal religions cannot be good citizens, even in the common, very restrictive sense of that term.7 Through their belief in and support of authoritarian hierarchies, and through their unrelenting attempts to impose their “morality” on the rest of us, they are in fact deadly enemies of individual freedom.

What Voting Delivers

Getting back to the common belief that freedom consists of voting to choose masters who can, and often try to, control every aspect of life in accord (the voters hope) with the voters’ wishes, it’s obvious that the present system doesn’t deliver the promised goods—even for the authoritarian individuals who want to impose their twisted morals on the rest of us. In the first place, there’s no guarantee that elected officials will act in accord with voters’ wishes. In fact, once they’re in office, there are very few checks upon their actions, and they very often act in the arrogant manner befitting what they really are: the masters of those they “serve.”

In the second place, those with unpopular views are sometimes denied their elected positions. A good example is Victor Berger, a member of the Socialist Party who was elected to the U.S. house of representatives in a landslide in 1918, but was denied his seat in 1919 because he was a Socialist who had opposed World War I. A more recent example is Julian Bond, who was denied his seat in the Georgia state assembly in 1965 due to his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

In the third place, the U.S. electoral system is by far the most undemocratic of any in the western democracies. It’s set up, from the local to federal levels, as a winner-take-all system which by its very nature has cemented the two-party system in place and which has systematically prevented those holding minority views from having any share of power, no matter how minor. (In contrast, European democracies feature proportional representation, which guarantees legislative seats to all but the smallest political parties.) Further, the electoral college is a national embarrassment which has led on more than one occasion to the presidential candidate who garnered the most votes “losing” the election. And the U.S. senate is elected on the basis of geographic areas (the states) that vary wildly in size and population. This results in extreme inequities, such as Wyoming, with a population of half a million, having the same number of senators as California, with a population of 38 million.

In the fourth place, participation in electoral politics is far from an equal-opportunity affair. With the costs of even county supervisor races often running above $100,000 and the costs of U.S. house and senate races often costing well up into the millions, even tens of millions, electoral politics, above low-level local races, is a game only for the rich. At present, over half of the members of Congress are millionaires, and virtually all of the rest are far above the median in both wealth and income.8

Thus the vast majority of those who support the electoral process not only have no control over their rulers, but they’re effectively barred, because of their economic status, from becoming one of those rulers. Instead, they’re reduced to trudging to a voting booth every two years—and because of this “privilege,” they consider themselves “free.”


1. This is a powerful, near-continual inducement to seeing others as rivals and to seeing their bad fortune (poor grades) as one’s good fortune.

2. This last is perhaps most pronounced in history classes, which rarely consist of anything more than memorization of dates and the names of “great men,” in conjunction with a carefully sanitized version of U.S. and world history focusing on the deeds of the “great men.”

3. This conclusion was presented in bare-faced form, and heavily promoted, as the (now nearly forgotten) “end of history” conjecture in the 1990s; this conjecture stated that the late phase capitalism under which we live is as near to utopia as we’ll ever get. That this absurd thesis received considerable, respectful coverage is a good indication of the subservience of the media to the socio-political agenda of its corporate owners.

4. Formerly, the primary tactic (which is still occasionally employed) was to present the false dichotomy of “free enterprise” vs. Soviet-style “communism,” as if no other alternatives were possible.

5. A quick, dirty means of determining who in fact is being oppressed in most situations is to look at who wants to regulate the private conduct of others, and who wants to use the law to throw others in jail.

6. The deceased “father of Christian reconstructionism,” the unapologetic racist R.J. Rushdoony, wanted to install a theocracy that would pass laws mandating the death penalty for, among other things, homosexuality, adultery, heresy, blasphemy, and atheism. Rushdoony wanted the victims of these laws to be stoned to death.

7. A reasonable common usage definition of “good citizen” might run as follows: someone who follows the law, takes part in the electoral process, and respects its results. Religious zealots cannot be “good citizens” under this definition, because they place “God’s law” above all else, and they’ll violate “man-made law” if the two are in conflict. (The murder of abortion providers by “right to life” zealots is a good example of this.)

8. Some of the above-listed defects in the American electoral system have been recognized as serious problems since the 19th century. That nothing has been done about them speaks volumes in itself about the undemocratic nature of the American “democratic” process.


English: Peter Kropotkin, russian anarchist.

English: Peter Kropotkin, russian anarchist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



“America is just the country that shows how all the written guarantees in the world for freedom are no protection against tyranny and oppression of the worst kind.”

–Peter Kropotkin, Speech 1891

Quoted in The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations

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