The Mutations of Freedom

“Freedom” and “liberty” are the stodgy, dust-covered utterances of academics, fascist patriots, and manipulative dogmatists; or at least they can feel that way. But behind all that cultural baggage is something that reaches deep into our experience and hopes and pulls out a fistful of primal energy and connectivity. This feeling is so intrinsic to our being that it can seem boring when tossed about casually. The experience of freedom, however, is still a powerfully motivating force. Freedom and liberty are the mutant love-children of connection, cultivated in the cauldron of our frustration, passion, pain, and bravery. Freedom is the choices we have and the who and what controls them. It is made up of the little bits of every struggle ever nurtured into reality. Freedom is built of our priorities.

In computer programming, you have something called dependencies, which just means that one program depends on you having one or several other programs installed in order for it to work. The program pulls snippets of code from the repositories of the other programs in order to have a fully functioning code. A similar phenomenon drives the development of complexity in genetic evolution. One little mutation, if widely adopted through reproductive fitness, becomes a dependency, on which increasingly more complex mutations rely. This is how something as complex as the human eye or brain can come about. Freedom too is a web of dependencies. It is a spacious term containing worlds but still, we seem often content to think of it only in terms of the words regularly associated with it, such as “freedom of speech” or other such languid U.S. constitutional references. Freedom is so much bigger than just that.

Each particular freedom (such as freedom of speech) has a set of dependencies without which the code would break. For example, what good is the freedom of speech, if movement is completely barred and the internet regulated? What good is the freedom to move if you’re unable to gain access to land or you’re just going to get killed by some random person (or a cop)? What good is the freedom to assemble if speech is so repressed that no one trusts each other?

Within these interdependencies, we each develop priorities — often chained to the discourse of our political milieu. Every meaningful political goal comes down, in some sense, to freedom in this robust sense. Yet each political movement focuses only on its own prioritized freedoms. For example, a libertarian is likely to focus on “freedom from (negative freedom)” having one’s wealth stolen in the form of taxation or socialized medicine. Across the political spectrum, social anarchists focus on a very similar problem from a different angle, being interested in freedom from the exploitation of “bosses” or the capitalist class. Both are focusing on the exploitation of labor in a sense but with different enemies and goals in mind.

In this example, they’re also both focusing on negative freedoms, or freedoms “from” something they deem bad. The only true form of freedom, however, is positive freedom, or the freedom to do something. The positive freedom inverse of both of the above positions is the freedom to utilize one’s own labor in a way that feels fair. As we develop more and more complete conceptions of this positive freedom, we’re building on previous and incomplete negative conceptions. Every freedom wants to ratchet to a higher level. Every negative freedom seeks a positive freedom. Every positive freedom seeks a higher and more broad positive freedom. These levels of freedoms are dependencies to each other, which means that, we don’t just want bread, we want everything… but we also want bread!

The differing priorities of freedom, as inscribed by our respective ideologies and values, can be good or bad. On the one hand, we all just have differing beliefs on what should come first. Caring about different things creates a diversity of motivation that pushes all of the different shit forward at the same time. It’s like that feeling of relief you can get by thinking of some problem far outside of your means of fixing that you know tons of really smart and invested people are chugging away at. You could support them if you wanted to but also, they’re on it. But at the same time, these differences in priorities can lead to intractable and even violent conflict.

Sometimes people’s ideologically driven priorities are wrong though too. Not all views are created equal. This can cause people to miss obvious dependencies within the web of freedoms and get caught up in defending one narrow application of freedom. From the example above, we can think about healthcare. Meaningful access to healthcare should be considered a very basic freedom and yet many libertarians see the market dynamics of greater competition and lower prices, and their analysis stops there. They only see the negative freedom to not have the profit of their labor “stolen” by the government (or committee) to fund someone else’s access to healthcare. The problem is, without healthcare, no other freedom means anything. If you’re dead, you can’t very well use your freedom to earn, much less your freedom of speech. Meaningful access to food is a very similar example. No matter how we can most ethically distribute access to the basic means of survival without some way to do so, all other freedoms are null.

Looking at freedom through the lens of priorities and dependencies can give way to some ad-reductios that miss that point as well. It can be easy to fall into a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model and just prioritize positive freedoms from there, but oversimplified solutions like this fail wildly.

To see why, we can look at what this one would imply: a strict follower would believe that a person experiencing homelessness wouldn’t prioritize reading (as a form of self-actualization), but books are what made homelessness survivable for me. According to Maslow’s lens, I should have been prioritizing all of my available energy on housing and food when, in reality, I focused the minimum possible effort on rudimentary semi-solutions to food and housing and then put all remaining energy into things like human connections and reading.

The subjectivist economists have always said, not only do we humans have different preferences than each other, we prioritize our preferences with different levels of intensity. We have diverse utility functions. This is what makes getting our preferences to collectively land on a jointly preferable outcome such a messy process.

But this messy optimization process is inherent to the maximization of freedom, as long as one freedom does not come at the cost of another. As positive freedom is increased for one mind, so is it possible for another to access that freedom in a non zero-sum game such as life. Access to freedom is not zero-sum because power-over is not freedom. Freedom increases the choices available. Full stop. Taking away one person’s choices to increase another’s is a reduction of choices. That is power, not freedom. Gillis writes:

When we truly live we are hurricanes of self-reflection, pulling in knowledge and influences from the wider world — the universe wrapping in on itself in a self-awareness that expands the scope of what is possible. To truly be free — liberated of constraints — can only mean to have more options. Not confined within some arbitrary box, but radiating ever outward into the world.

Note that such freedom *isn’t* a zero sum game. Every single person can remake the world. Creation and discovery are not exclusive acts. A society where every person was equally unleashed, to discover titanic insights or create profoundly moving art, would not be a gray world of mediocrity because impact and influence is not a scarce good. We can each be heroes, we can each change everything, we can each bring more options into the world.

But it’s not so simple even as just maximizing the number of choices available. Not only must we have choices, we must also be able to meaningfully sort through them and discard the irrelevant ones. Sure you have the option to make choices based on illusions about the world, but what good is that choice if it will not interact with reality in a way that actualizes your goals? This problem becomes far more apparent  in something like AI research where you quickly realize how many infinities of choice are contained in something as simple as “going to the grocery store.” Should you bring a compass? Walk on your head? What about the roadmap in your head, does it match the street conditions now? Should you wear garments? Of what nature should these garments take? Should you just steal your groceries?  Does your belief in the amount of currency pointed to by your cards match the reality of the bank ledger assigned to you? Will a cop or immigrant-enforcement authority try to assault you after racial profiling you based on their internal map of biases and obligations? Should you get the Winter-fresh or Evergreen toothpaste? Etc. ad-nauseum. We sort through these freedoms with almost no conscious awareness but it’s actually a quite computationally dense optimization problem. Efficiency is, more or less, a sorting problem.

In other words, problems like “over-choice” reveal there are both internal and external throttles on freedom. Our brains can handle a remarkable amount of sorting but reach a structural multiprocessing limit (something like our brain’s RAM) at some point or another. In addition to that, our freedoms can be restricted by external factors such as marginalization or a tree in the road. Additionally, how accurately our multi-leveled internal maps model the external territory of base reality impacts the effectiveness of our choices. What’s more, even our perception of which choices exist changes what we’re capable of. There’s a constant tension between the internal and external loci of freedom with both of their structural and subjective limits.

When none of us see any possibility of change in our miserably exploited lives, the first one to do something previously considered impossible alters the rest of our brains and entire relationship to reality by expanding our grasp of what is possible. “Wait. Wait. Wait. You can just do that??!! You can just go over there??!! But that’s impossible!” Until it’s been done.

When one person leverages a true positive freedom, they are doing so through their interdependence with others and to the benefit of others. This phenomenon of sharing the recognition of liberty entangled with empathy is described by Gillis, who wrote, “Anarchism is the lifting of our eyes beyond our immediate preoccupations and connecting with one another. Seeing the same spark, the same churning hurricane, same explosion of consciousness, within them that resides within us. Anarchism is the recognition that liberty is not kingdoms at war, but a network interwoven and ultimately unbroken — a single expanse of possibility growing every day. Anarchism is the realization that freedom has no owners. It has only fountainheads.”

These fountainheads are consciousness emanating from the currently completely unmappable complexity of a human mind. A single human mind averages around 100 billion neurons, densely interconnected and woven into columns and associations that both control and liberate our choices. Those chaotic and magnificent pools of possibility swimming behind our eyes then defiantly lunge beyond their warm, safe wombs of internal self-connection to traverse the chasm of difference between structurally severed minds experiencing and interpreting reality. We have the sheer, brazen audacity to communicate meaning in an attempt to see and be seen. To change and be changed. To grow and help grow. Amazing as our brains are, they are built by the arbitrary will of evolutionary dependencies. They are not effective self-optimizers and are largely (at least for now) incapable of meta-level optimization.

Our ability to connect with each other is key to overcoming these limits of individual consciousness. We first experience the spark of recognition of something that somehow parallels our experience in the fountainhead of another. From this, a kind of trust can develop to overcome solipsism. Once the self (arbitrary and partially unreal as it is) sees itself reflected in another, connection is possible and through this connection we can expand our freedom together. We rely on each other to help us see beyond what we think we know– to overcome our own limits– and birth freedom into our shared and individual experiences.

This viscerally real and yet mundane miracle exemplifies the type of world anarchists are trying to build. That spark of recognition where we say, “I think, just maybe, we can do this.” is where we embark jointly, fearfully, and vulnerably on a difficult and joyous path to liberation.

That is then multiplied by the hundred billion neurons trying to spark in the 7.6 billion other human minds and countless other sentient animals to create a network so resilient that it has overcome existential threat after existential threat despite the sheer improbability of our even forming complex eukaryotic life in the first place.

This is a raw potential and a kinetic motion of which we all, partially autonomously, operate a very small corner. This small action of recognition and potential emerging into kinetic realization is the building block of freedom. It is the dependency beneath all others. We can all claw and brutalize to survive and fulfill our utility functions or increase our power, but without this piece, we have little hope of transcending the gasping gravity of negative equilibria. This is why freedom is so important. Without it, we are static, and nothing could then matter even if it could exist. From our sentience springs our anarchistic desire for freedom and from that font, our dependencies of liberatory mutations must blossom.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory