When the people on the streets in Iran use the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” the freedom they refer to is freedom from domination. Iranians are living under a regime that limits what they can say, how they dress, and how they may gather and organize. Their government is imprisoning, torturing, and killing people who are challenging domination and demanding freedom.

Woman, Life, Freedom” resonates with the slogan of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” In that context, “liberty” also meant freedom from domination: domination by the church, domination by the rich, domination by the monarchy.

And yet in the present context, the idea of freedom is often used in ways that are anything but a call to challenge domination. In a second sense, freedom means “I should be able to dominate others.”

This mixing of ideas leads to the current morass where Kyle Rittenhouse’s freedom to walk into a crowd with a loaded assault rifle conflicted with his victims’ freedom to demonstrate peaceably. My freedom from threats to my health may not be compatible with your freedom to not get a vaccine.

In a Twitter thread in June 2022, Ethan Grey wrote:

You’ve watched the Republican Party champion the idea of “freedom” while you have also watched the same party openly assault various freedoms, like the freedom to vote, freedom to choose, freedom to marry who you want, and so on. If this has been a source of confusion, then your assessments of what Republicans mean by “freedom” were likely too generous. Here’s what they mean: 1. The freedom to tell people what to do. 2. Freedom from being told what to do. When Republicans talk about valuing “freedom,” they’re speaking of it in the sense that only people like them should ultimately possess it.

Or, as Frank Wilhoit put it, “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

And of course, white people are the “in-group” Wilhoit refers to and they are Grey’s “people like them.” In his book White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea, Tyler Stovall does a deep dive into the ways that freedom in the U.S. context has always largely meant freedom for white people to do what they like to people of color, especially to Black people. Stoval argues that historically, “belief in one’s entitlement to freedom was a key component of white supremacy.” He quotes Isaiah Berlin as reminding us that “freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”

Freedom as white freedom, and an entitlement to oppress others, goes back to the early days of capitalism. In Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cedric Robinson argued that capitalism has always been racial capitalism. One of the core ways those favoring capitalism have justified the dehumanization, brutalization, and exploitation of human beings, was by putting them outside the circle of those who deserved freedom.

John Locke’s 1689 book Two Treatises of Government is a foundational text here. Locke asks us to imagine a world where we are all totally independent of one another and where we make decisions about what kind of relationships we would “freely” agree to. He argues that of course rational people would choose a society based on private property and high levels of production, because that is just “rational.”

While he was helping create the founding ideas of freedom in the West, Locke was also invested in the slave trade and wrote the constitution for the Carolinas in the U.S. which included slavery. For many years philosophers looking at Locke have wished away those nasty parts of his biography. But in fact, they were the whole point. Locke was crafting a notion of freedom that would make the domination of others seem virtuous.

For him, land in the Americas belonged to white settlers, because Native people did not make it productive as God intended. Black people could be enslaved because, just as you should not wait for a wild beast like a lion to attack you when you can know that it does not follow the light of reason and so can’t be expected to respect natural laws, similarly the people of Africa can be enslaved because they can’t be expected to act rationally. By “freedom” he meant the ability of those “rational” people to do as they pleased.

Locke starts his analysis by asking readers to forget about the fabric of social relationships that we are always enmeshed in, and he asks them to wish away history. If I am an autonomous rational individual who needs nothing from anyone, then the idea that I can use my stuff as I wish sort of makes sense. But once we get back to reality, and realize that we are born totally dependent on other human beings for our survival and that our survival requires cooperation in creating and fostering the health of the fabric of our shared reality, then it becomes clear that the notion of freedom as “no one gets to tell me what to do” does not help foster a just society.

This Lockean idea of freedom was given a boost by mid-20th century pro-capitalist thinkers Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. They cemented for the public the idea that freedom for markets is somehow equivalent to human freedom. They argued that the freedom of those with money to do what they want with their money was the most important meaning of freedom.

This way of understanding freedom can be seen in the libertarian rantings of some of the worst of the current crop of billionaire robber barons. When the state of California required Tesla to protect its workers from Covid-19 by enacting some basic health measures, its CEO whined that the government was being fascist and imposing on his freedom.

In a 2009 article for the libertarian Cato Institute, PayPal founder and funder of Republican supporters of the Big Lie, Peter Thiel, argued for an “escape from politics” into a world where he hopes for a “single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.” In the same article, Thiel bemoaned women having the vote since he argued that they tend to vote in ways that restrict the freedom of people like himself.

Those on the side of white supremacy and racial capitalism are continuing to insist on their right to act without regard for others and to cast people of color outside the realm of those deserving freedom, legal protections, or consideration.

Freedom meaning “my right to do whatever I want” gains some of its rhetorical force from the fact that the same word is also used to fight against domination. It is noble to work to end domination. It is whiny and selfish to want to live in a world where one doesn’t need to take into account the needs of others. The astroturf “Tea Party” movement said that regulations on the kind of light bulbs that can be sold, in order to help save our planet from destruction, were an infringement on freedom. That absurd claim had cultural resonance because the word freedom carries a noble charge and because we have been trained to not see the fabric of relationships that connect us.

In the middle of the 20th century, authoritarian socialism provided a good foil for those wanting to make capitalism and freedom into synonyms. Lea Ypi spends the first part of her beautiful memoir of life growing up in Albania, Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, exploring the lack of freedom that came from living under an authoritarian government that imprisoned people who disagreed with government decisions, and that did not allow for freedom of speech, assembly, or travel.

In the second half of her memoir she explores how, after the end of the country’s dictatorship, Albania ended up under the authoritarian rule of “market freedom.” Ypi’s family found itself enslaved and impoverished by its new master, the free market, which transformed many Albanians into economic refugees.

Commenting on the hollowness of the West’s claims about freedom, Ypi writes: “The West had spent decades criticizing the East for borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.” Ypi defends the socialist ideal that freedom should be grounded in the possibility of living well, free from domination. And she offers a searing critique of the idea that in capitalism money can cross borders freely, but billions of people cannot.

In How We Win the Civil War, Steve Phillips argues that the U.S. is living in a later phase of an unfinished civil war and remains divided between those who value white supremacy and those who value democracy. Many white people in the U.S. are entrenched in a fight to protect white supremacy as their old privileges and senses of themselves as being special and normative are being undermined by moves toward racial equality. As an old saying goes, “To those used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Phillips argues that demographic realities make multiracial democracy within reach if we engage in enough of the right kind of organizing.

This fight over the meaning of freedom is part of the present civil war. Those on the side of white supremacy and racial capitalism are continuing to insist on their right to act without regard for others and to cast people of color outside the realm of those deserving freedom, legal protections, or consideration. But that other sense of freedom, as a challenge to domination, continues to have meaning and force in places like the Iranian call for “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

BC Guest Commentator Dr. Cynthia Kaufman, PhD (CynthiaKaufman.net) is the Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action De Anza College where she runs, and teaches in, a community organizer training program. She is the author of five books on social change: Consumerism, Sustainability, and Happiness: How to Build a World Where Everyone has Enough (Routledge 2023), The Sea is Rising and So Are We: A Climate Justice Handbook (PM Press 2021), Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World (Bloomsbury 2020), Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope (Lexington Books 2012), and Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change (2nd Edition PM Press 2016). She has been active in a wide variety of social justice movements including Central American solidarity, union organizing, police accountability, and most recently tenants’ rights, transit justice, and climate change. She received her PhD and MA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her BA in Development Studies from UC Berkeley. She started college at Mira Costa College, a community college in Oceanside, California.

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