It is always dangerous to act in the name of a concept without questioning both its meaning and its function, and liberty is no exception. The history of ideas shows that notions of liberty have varied over time and place, and today’s ideology of autonomy, efficiency and self-realisation has inflected the concept in a way that clashes with many of its previous senses. What was once often described as a property of human subjectivity has now become, in much of Western popular discourse, less a parameter of action than an imperative entirely compatible with the commodification of human life that characterises late capitalism.
As Michel Foucault predicted, the twentieth century would see a movement from governing people despite their freedom to governing people through their freedom. Today, liberty becomes increasingly equated with freedom of choice, which means in most cases a choice of services and products in the marketplace. Even electoral choice is now merely a part of a larger continuum of voting practices, from reality shows to talent contests. Failure and breakdown are ascribed to problems of individual choice rather than to the socio-economic structures that frame them. If giving people choice can be seen as the ultimate act of liberating, in many cases the question of political choice is constructed on the consumer model rather than vice-versa.
At the same time, the conflict that traditionally characterised the concept of self is replaced with new and conflict-free vector: we are not divided between contradictory impulses but strive instead for the one-dimensional goals of wealth, success and happiness. Life becomes a project of self-realisation, and this introduces what we could call the paradox of the new imperative to be free. Popular culture can give us plenty of examples here. In Disney’s ‘Brave’, a Scottish queen pressures her daughter Princess Merida to marry against her will to cement the relations between clans. In retaliation, Merida manages to have her mother turned into a bear, and much of the film concerns her efforts to change her back.
And now the central scene of the film, when Merida must confront both angry clans and persuade them to rethink their views on forced betrothal. It polarises two opposed discourses: that of tradition and law and that of human freedom and subjectivity. But what happens in this scene? Of course, the discourse of freedom wins the day. She convinces the assembled clans with great eloquence that each person must be free to make their own decisions, cannot be slave to the will of others, of unjust laws, especially in the field of love. And yet, as the daughter voices this speech, it is her mother who, in the shadows at the back of the hall, is silently indicating to her exactly what to say. The ultimate act of defiant freedom is essentially an act of ventriloquism.
It is in this most intimate moment of freedom that she is really most enslaved to the Other. Being free is an imperative here, and we see the same paradox in the most recent version of the Superman franchise ‘Man of Steel’. The infant Superman, we learn is born on a planet where every single being has their life mapped out for them: their social role, their function, their future. Superman’s parents resist this monstrous regimenting of subjectivity, and we hear his father deliver a great speech on why his son is different: he was born not to be like the others, not to have his life mapped out for him, to be the one exception…in fact, all the properties of someone who, precisely, has their life mapped out for them. The zenith of liberty here is to have one’s life entirely determined by someone else.
This paradox of freedom can be expressed succinctly, as it has been by contemporary philosophers: we are compelled to be free by the very agencies that render this freedom impossible. Many people today are told that they have a voice, yet this voice is there to be recorded, registered, listened to but not heard. Perhaps more than ever before, we witness a split between listening and hearing. As Slavoj Zizek observed, aggrieved people are encouraged to complain so that their complaints become ever more fine-tuned and specific: the exact problem can then be identified and treated. This may involve benefits, but ultimately it is a depoliticisation, in that the grievance, in becoming more and more concrete, loses any value as a metaphor of political antagonism. We see this in the fact that many of the main British charities today – unlike ‘Liberty’ – have simply become instruments of government policy.
And this brings us to another question. Can we speak of freedom in the case of the little boy who beats his drum one last time when told to stop drumming? His act is certainly one of resistance, of self-determination, yet it is dependent on the prior injunction. His freedom is relative, yet isn’t this the most authentic kind? Not the freedom demanded by popular ideology, as we see in ‘Brave’ and ‘Man of Steel’, which simply masks an alienation, but that of pure negation, a rejection of the interpellation that we receive from those around us, from the social order, from our parents, from our peers. Just as the forms of this interpellation will change over time and in different cultures - from an emphasis on moral duties to today’s imperatives of autonomy, rational choice and self-determination – so the forms of refusal will also change – from medieval acedia to the nineteenth century theatre of hysteria to today’s so-called depressive illnesses.
Once we distinguish the self – construed as the locus of social imperatives and ideals – and the subject – defined as the point of refusal of interpellation – we have two different notions of liberty, one a commodity which perpetuates a fiction and one an act or set of acts which collapses fiction. And doesn’t this mean that, as philosophers perhaps recognised many centuries ago and writers still do, the latter notion of liberty will always be closer to death than to life?
Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst working in London and a founder member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. He is President of The College of Psychoanalysts-UK and Visiting Professor at the School of Human and Life Sciences, Roehampton University. He is the author of several books including: 'Introducing Lacan'; 'Why do women write more letters than they post?'; 'Freud's Footnotes'; 'Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing'; 'Why do people get ill?' (with David Corfield) Penguin, 2007 and 'The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression’, Hamish Hamilton, 2008 and ‘What is Madness?' in 2011. His most recent book, ‘Strictly Bipolar’ is published by Hamish Hamilton, 2013.