Freedom’s Just Another Word

Freedom means the state can’t mess with you. Right?

By Aziz HuqAugust 14, 2021

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Freedom: An Unruly History by Annelien de Dijn. Harvard University Press. 432 pages.

ABOUT FOUR miles from where I live in Chicago is a nondescript office building where police take people to be held incommunicado and, according to press reports, tortured. The site is called Homan Square. It has long been notorious among activists and lawyers working on police brutality. It is, they say, a place where they take “black and brown and poor kids who can’t afford to hire private counsel while they’re in custody.”

Homan Square came to national attention in 2015 when journalist Spencer Ackerman of the UK newspaper The Guardian published a detailed story about prolonged detention and violence against suspects at the facility.

Homan Square has since played an ambiguous role in the city’s political life. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement called for its closure. At the same time, its specter likely enervates local democracy. Work by the political scientists Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman has shown that police contact with Black and Latino communities, especially when it involves violence, doesn’t just instill a fear of the state on the street. It also makes people less likely to vote or otherwise participate later in the political process. Homan Square may provoke activism on the street, but its shadow probably also blocks the ballot box.

I find Homan Square a useful place to start thinking about the ambivalent and complex meanings of the word freedom. In part, this is because it’s very literally close to home, but also because it presents a particularly gripping instance of the loss of freedom. Indeed, it seems intuitive to me, and I suspect to many, to say that freedom of an important sort is at stake in Homan Square. But what kind of freedom? And what variety of freedom is needed to resist a powerful and entrenched state institution that uses its powers in a coercive and destructive way? What sort of freedom must be constrained in the process?

The term freedom is the eponymous subject of historian Annelien de Dijn’s new book, Freedom: An Unruly History. Her core point is that concern about freedom against the state — and so the Homan Squares of the world — is both a recent and a disreputable invention. Instead, she maps out a “long tradition” of Western thinking, running back to ancient Greece, that construes freedom in terms of the ability to exercise control over the way you are governed. In this view, a state is free because of the way in which people participate in its rule, and in particular, if and only if they “rule themselves.” This is an idea of freedom partially captured in famous terms, such as the French liberal thinker Benjamin Constant’s “liberty of the ancients” and more ambiguously by Oxford don Isaiah Berlin’s baggy and discordant idea of “positive liberty.”

De Dijn’s story might readily be taken as an imaginative dilation of Constant’s phrase across history. She insists on a singular and linear genealogy. Her understanding of freedom starts from a contrast that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus drew between free Greeks and enslaved Persians. Her freedom then finds footing in the political practices of the Greek city-states, takes wing in the Roman Republic, and is recapitulated by the humanists Petrarch and Machiavelli during the Renaissance. Echoing John Pocock’s well-known account of a “republican” tradition in political thought (no relation to the present political party), her freedom then leaps over the channel to inspire English thinkers like James Harrington and from there somersaults into action through the Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th century.

If you feel slightly breathless after those last few sentences, then you have a pretty good sense of how the book’s narrative feels. Historical figures flash by like sights from the top deck of the Big Apple tour bus. Now it’s Trajan! Eusebius! Augustine! Ambrose! And then Dewey! Roosevelt! Hayek! It is a certain tribute to de Dijn’s command as a writer that the book doesn’t collapse into one-damn-thing-after-another-ism; it’s a close shave. It helps that she tacks sharply every once in a while from the history of ideas to political history. Yet when she does move from text to practice, her grip slips. Lumping together Sparta and Athens into a single category of democratic “self-governing states,” for example, is a touch odd, the kind of simplification only an economist could love. (Sparta, of course, was never really a democracy at all. The historian Xenophon called it a “kingship.” The Spartans themselves called it a eunomia, or a “submission to the right kind of laws.”)

Still, taken as a tour d’horizon of a selective, loosely linked chain of famous European and American thinkers, de Dijn offers good value for your money. All the stars are here, shuffling by to say their piece for or against democracy. Ironically, other recent intellectual histories, such as Margaret Jacob’s The Secular Enlightenment and Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft, make more room for lesser luminaries and ordinary punters. De Dijn is much less demotic, but no more democratic, in her choice of reading. Hers is a great man history with a vengeance.

But at the beginning of the 19th century, a dangerous betrayal awaits. In the wake of the Atlantic Revolutions, a new sense of freedom bursts onto the scene: freedom as a constraint upon the state’s actions. This idea of freedom is, we’re insistently told, but a cynical play by soulless Bourbon counterrevolutionaries and periwigged Regency Tories to hijack the noble idea of freedom. The celebration of this knock-off ideal was a chance to turn the knife back upon new-wrought democracies, still teething in their revolution crib.

For many, de Dijn observes, the Terror that followed the French Revolution was a turning point. The American Noah Webster (of dictionary fame), for example, went from understanding the problem of freedom in terms of “free [i.e., democratic] government” to focusing upon the difficulty of guarding against “uncontrolled power.” His dictionary would, against the historical grain that de Dijn celebrates, go on to define freedom as the right of citizens to go about their business “in peace, security, and without molestation.” Across the Atlantic, the same story unfurled. Mimicking his idol, Constant, the renowned French law professor Édouard de Laboulaye would write books such as The State and its Limits in celebration of the principle of “laissez-faire, laissez-passez.” Not far behind him is Hayek, with other neoliberal ghouls in tow.

Lest the reader feel any uncertainty about where their loyalties should rest, de Dijn makes plain that this later vision of freedom from the state is a disreputable, Johnny-come-lately notion. Pulling no punches, de Dijn calls it a “battering ram” aimed at toppling democracy. On this account, there is at least a whiff of false consciousness in the demands to close Homan Square and to end police brutality in all its sundry forms. Protesting the racist violence of the Chicago police, in this view, has nothing to do with “freedom.”

The main arc of de Dijn’s story is familiar not only because the thread from Athens to Florence to Philadelphia has already been drawn by Pocock (brilliantly) and many others (with more middling results). More importantly, her story is also familiar because it is, of all things, redolent of Star Wars: the old, good Republic, which endures for so long, comes a cropper because of the sinister, antidemocratic machinations of dark-hooded imperial types. It is a story of good, undone by a sinister evil along the way.

As much as I like Star Wars, it’s too pat a narrative arc. As de Dijn’s elision of Sparta into the celebratory story of Greek (really, mostly Athenian) democracy suggests, the amount of compression required to tell a story spanning centuries allows for dubious jump cuts. Concision demands choice, but she does not always give a candid explanation of why those choices were made. To construct her “long tradition,” de Dijn dwells on a couple of intervals in a handful of the Classical Greek polities. She has to cabin Socratic, Platonic, and Neoplatonic thought. And then she must leap to an idolization of the Roman Republic, before pole-vaulting over most of the Christian tradition to the Renaissance (1,000 years in a blink!). She then attends unctuously to Machiavelli’s admiration of the Roman Republic — less so to his musky locker-room glee in the machismo of the armed civilian as the republic’s bastion. De Dijn’s is assuredly an imagined, actively constructed tradition. It is pieced together from fragments found hither and yon to serve a plainly presentist end.

Indeed, de Dijn’s book is very much of the moment. Casting stones on the idea of freedom against the state, and slighting Berlin’s negative rights, is much in vogue these days. Its maestro is Samuel Moyn, who has catalyzed a veritable cottage industry of attacks upon negative human rights. Helena Rosenblatt’s more subtle retelling of the liberal story also offers a fascinating juxtaposition of democracy and liberalism that de Dijn echoes in some of her chapters.

It is not just that one has to squint hard to see de Dijn’s “long tradition.” It is that when it comes into focus, it doesn’t really seem like a single thing. What it meant for a Mediterranean city-state in 400 BCE to govern itself is very different from what self-government is in, say, post-Revolutionary France or the United States. The forms and constitutional mechanisms needed for effective self-government have changed radically as scale and technology mutate. As the polity scales up, shedding the Attic polities’ distaste for foreigners (“metics”) and slaves, new problems of managing difference arise. The Attic fondness for ostracizing citizens deemed errant — voting them into 20-year exile — isn’t appetizing today. For good reason, the first democratic constitutions written at the end of the 18th century look nothing like democratic constitutions drafted at the end of the 20th century. The meaning of “ruling oneself” — a phrase that de Dijn takes as self-evident — thus has had radically different institutional implications as time has passed. A historical account of democratic freedom that suppresses all that variation is one with much to hide.

In her acknowledgments, de Dijn explains that the idea for the book was born while she was a postdoc at Berkeley in 2009. She had run into a bunch of protestors denouncing Barack Obama as on par with Hitler for his support of the Affordable Care Act. Reasonably enough, this struck her as ludicrous. Her account of freedom is an effort to redeem the word from idiots such as Samuel Fisher, one of the January 6 rioters who stormed the capitol building. The soi-disant dating coach posted a photo of himself, a rifle, and a shotgun with the caption, “Can’t wait to bring a liberal back to this freedom palace.”

Of course, this is piffle. But that doesn’t mean that every counterargument to it is correct. The tradition of freedom that de Dijn favors also has its fair share of meretricious rot. Take the Facebook group “Stop the Steal,” which became an early hub for President Trump’s efforts to delegitimate the November 6 election. Stop the Steal took the idea of the people’s freedom to rule themselves and weaponized it against democracy. The enemies of self-rule do not come, as de Dijn seems to think, handily labeled as such. There are far better ways than hers to defend an understanding of freedom refracted through European traditions of social democracy against freedom’s upstart American varietal.

Despite a summer of protests under the BLM banner, the Homan Square facility hums along. Protest has done tragically little. But little more has been achieved by the ordinary exercise of what de Dijn would call democratic freedom via the election of a new mayor trailing promises of reform. This should not be a surprise. Writing at the dawn of what de Dijn calls “modern liberty,” Constant suggested that the liberties of the ancients and the moderns should not be opposed; he urged his readers “to learn to combine the two together.” A history of the freedom that teaches us how to do that, against the riptide of a growing carceral state and powerful private capital that encases democratic bodies, would be something truly worthwhile. Alas, de Dijn’s book isn’t it.


Aziz Huq teaches law at the University of Chicago. His book The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies will be published in December.

LARB Contributor

Aziz Huq teaches law at the University of Chicago. His book The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies will be published in December.


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