The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Movements

Every era of liberatory movements comes with its own terminology, rhetoric, and iconography; largely emerging in response to whatever those movements are busy fighting against and what they want to counterpose to the reigning ideologies and practices of their day.

Perhaps the most common term to see in popular left-wing discourse nowadays is social justice. The term has many uses, but in general it refers to the practice of trying to make society more egalitarian by focusing on the empowerment of disempowered groups of people. I’m sometimes dismayed at how younger people tend to avoid explicitly identifying as leftists, and how they use “social justice” almost like a stand-in for “left-wing”. But hey, better to have the beliefs with a different set of signifiers than to use the same terminology without any of the content. Social justice it is then, at least for now. 

“Social Justice Warrior” (SJW) has even become a childish right-wing/liberal insult directed at the new generation of left activists and theorists, and at just about anyone who voices criticism of the various hierarchies which plague neoliberal society in the 21st century.  

Some would contest that this is what “SJW” means, claiming that it’s reserved exclusively for those who are too overzealous in their social justice rhetoric. To which I would reply, there are literal neo-nazi groups on Tumblr and you’re worried about a few teens being a little overzealous about trying to make the world more equal? In any case, this distinction between “legitimate social justice person” and “social justice warrior” is meaningless in practice; just like the distinction between “feminist” and (gag) “feminazi”. Even if you make such a distinction, every member of the former ends up being tarred as the latter by reactionaries. 

With regard to framing current social struggles in the language of justice, or in other cases equality, this is somewhat in contrast to the wave of social movements which characterised the 1960s and 1970s; from anti-colonialism, to black/Chicano power, to second-wave feminism, to the first gay and ecological movements. The rhetoric of that cycle of struggles tended to focus more on “freedom” and “liberation” rather than justice or equality.  

Why was this? One explanation is that this was natural for a era defined by attempts to throw off colonial dictatorship in the global south, dismantle totalitarianism in the Marxist-Leninist regions, and escape from the smothering bureaucracy of the post-war welfare state in the global north. To some extent, those generations felt like the issues of justice and equality were (sort of) already covered by the mid-century prosperity and grand class compromise which made business and organised labour bedfellows. What they needed now was liberation. 

It’s worth pointing out that the rhetoric of “justice” and “equality” have often been used by the authoritarian left to rationalise restrictions on freedom. Given that social anarchists, as part of the libertarian left, want to create a world defined by freedom at the personal and social levels, should we be cautious at this generation’s emphasis on social justice over social liberation? 

Not quite. 

There’s always a dialectical relationship between the concepts of freedom and justice. Each can feel like the antidote to the other when the other gets co-opted by the dominant powers. 

In places/times where justice (or “order”) is the prized political value, freedom becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around. 

In places/times where freedom (or “individualism”) is the prized political value, justice becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around. 

Because neoliberal societies make pretences to support freedom and the individual – in the form of rugged individualism – it’s not surprising that the liberatory social forces of today (such as Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, and intersectional class politics) focus more on social justice; perhaps viewing “freedom” as an ideological spook used to justify the domination of the disempowered by the powerful. 

It’s an understandable reaction to a society that venerates freedom as an ideal, but doesn’t deliver on anything resembling collective well-being for the majority of the population. 

That’s not to say that current social justice movements aren’t doing anything wrong in venerating justice over freedom. Just as the discourse of freedom in the 1960s ran into excesses – such as advocating sex with children as part of the sexual revolution – the discourse of justice has lead to an atmosphere that’s (at times) moralistic and judgemental, shaming people for making mistakes of language or conduct and treating them like “the enemy”, rather than someone worth educating or simply having a comradely disagreement with. 

“No platform” is a form of proactive boycotting originally devised to deny literal fascists a public forum to covertly incite racist and queerphobic violence, but without getting the state involved – for the reason that statist repression could in turn be used against leftists. It can be necessary in certain dire situations, and I would always defend those who no-platform hateful people from false charges of “censorship”, but we seem to have gotten into the habit of overusing it to deny a public forum to just about anybody. This doesn’t set a good example. Though I should emphasise that this is more because denying authoritarian figures public space can in fact be a less successful tactic than allowing the, to make fools of themselves and correcting their drivel with rational counter-arguments. 

For this reason, it would be a good move for social justice people to amp up the focus on freedom once again, to emphasise that the “liberty” capitalism/neoliberal culture offers is a false liberty; and that real freedom is only possible through conditions of non-hierarchical equality. 

As social anarchists claim, the unity of freedom, equality, and solidarity is the only basis for both free self-development of the individual, and complementarity of the diverse forces in society. 

The empowerment of the disempowered – women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, queer folks, the disabled, the working classes – means a net increase in social freedom, so as long as justice is pursued in a liberationist (as opposed to statist/protectionist) manner. 

The current wave of liberatory movements and the counter-culture of social justice among the young (in colleges and online for example) is a great place to begin creating a new liberated consciousness and commons-based infrastructure. 

Though it needs to be modified with an increased emphasis on class struggle – as in, moves to acquire control of the means of production, distribution, and investment in the economy – creating direct democracy in communities, individual autonomy, and on social freedom as well as social justice. Focusing on the trans-economic oppressions of people as status-groups is important and necessary, regardless of what crusty old Marxists say about “identity politics”, but can devolve into capitalist accommodation unless accompanied by a definite class politics which defies attempts to divorce interpersonal liberation from economic-political liberation from the capitalist state system. Bonding status-group struggles to demands for an economy of the commons, defined by worker self-management and directly-democratic coordination, could be a massive step forward.

Far from having to choose between freedom and justice, what we need is a dialectical synthesis of the two. Start with the drive towards social justice that exists now, and push it in a more freedom-oriented direction.
Make those so-called safe spaces into free spaces – free from the trappings of hierarchical society.


2 thoughts on “The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Movements

Add yours

  1. I hate broccoli and communism. Boiled broccoli tastes bad and communists kill hundreds of million of people. So censoring Broccoli apologists and communists is OK as long as I am not a government official. I get that. How about preventing others from hearing them, the way SJWs do with their liberal use of fire alarms and other creative methods ? How about deplatforming by intimidation or bodily restraint? OK too ? Any other slopes you advocate lubricating?


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