The Social Anarchist Conception of Freedom

It’s hard to find a single political tradition that doesn’t place “freedom”, of some form or another, at the top of its list of values – from the far left to the far right.

So what is the social anarchist position on freedom? Anarchists are libertarians, a term associated with freedom by its very etymology, but not “libertarians” going by what the word has come to mean in many Anglophone countries since the 1970s – a form of “free market” capitalism and propertarian individualism. Because anarchism also grew out of the wider socialist movements of the 19th century, using the word libertarian for decades before capitalists to refer to anti-authoritarian varieties of socialism, seeing real (libertarian) freedom as being impossible without (socialist) equality. It conceives of libertarianism and egalitarianism not as opposites, but as complementary, with a relative equality of material conditions, equality of autonomy, and equality of power making possible the fullest freedom of the individual in both the personal and social dimensions of life.

After all, if there exists “freedom” in the context of hierarchy, and thus inequality between people, then those at the top of the hierarchy are more free than those at the bottom, meaning their freedom is being limited by the structure they’re in, and is thus a false freedom. At the same time, if there exists “equality” that is forced rather than voluntary, then those charged with enforcing that equality are more free than those subject to the enforcement, meaning it’s not a real equality.

But to clarify what social anarchists, as “libertarian egalitarians”, mean by freedom, let’s look through some of the more familiar understandings of the concept.

Those of a rugged individualist persuasion tend to favour what’s called negative freedom. 

This perspective generally views freedom as the absence of coercion, whether the coercion is overt or just threatened. While a necessary starting point, social anarchists see this concept of freedom as incomplete. After all, if freedom is to mean nothing more than the absence of coercion, then a person with two broken legs is technically “free to walk”, as there’s no one coercing them to stay seated. 

It’s limitations like this which lead many, especially on the political left, to support the alternative concept of positive freedom. 

This defines being free not in terms of a lack of formal restrictions, but in terms of one’s real capabilities to carry out chosen actions and to realise one’s needs and desires. Erich Fromm made one of the more well-known elaborations on positive freedom in Fear of Freedom.

Supporters of positive freedom decry the rugged individualists who only adhere to negative freedom as merely wishing to give justification to the domination of the weak by the strong, rationalising their subjects’ subordination as formally “voluntary” without taking account of the power imbalances which lead people into making “voluntary” agreements out of sheer necessity and the lack of available alternatives. Freedom, in this view, comes not from the absence of coercion, but the presence of enablements – which allow people to fulfil their needs and realise their desires.

This attack on negative freedom from the point-of-view of positive freedom forms a large part of the ethical socialist critique of wage-labour (the boss/worker relationship) and landlordism (the landlord/tenant relationship), deriding the apparent liberty of the parties making “free agreements” as cases of the powerful taking advantage of the disempowered’s lack of capabilities – in not owning private property as they do. Workers need an income to live properly, and as capitalists are the only ones able to provide them with one, in exchange for being subordinated in a workplace, it is not a free choice, in any meaningful sense, but a mere succumbing to necessity. Positive freedom comes from a wish to root a person’s freedoms in justice and equality; the presence of enablement instead of the absence of restrictions.

However, this concept is not without problems of its own. For a start, it has historically been used to justify totalitarianism by statist left regimes and other ideologies of rule. By paternalistically wishing to “take care” of people by “building them up”, it ended up rationalising censorship, denials of free expression, and curbs of free movement; dismissing calls for such basic liberties as “merely formal freedoms”. This was the crux of Isaiah Berlin’s famous argument against it in Two Concepts of Liberty

Just as negative freedom justifies unequal enablements in the defence of non-coercion, positive freedom justifies coercion in the defence of equal enablements.
So given the strengths and weaknesses of both, do social anarchists want an even balance of the two?

Yes, but also something more than that.

An even balance of negative and positive freedom can in fact be supported by many traditions. With most forms of social democracy coming close to this position – while supporting a paternalistic nanny-state. What makes social anarchism unique in this regard is in positing a third concept of freedom which unites and complements the first two: Reciprocal freedom.

This is, as Mikhail Bakunin so eloquently expounded, freedom within the context of the equal freedom of others. Where one’s liberty to realise their needs and desires is bounded only by the same liberty of others to do the same. “My freedom ends where yours begins” is the classic way of putting it.

“The materialistic conception of freedom is therefore a very positive, very complex thing, and above all, eminently social, because it can be realised only in society and by the strictest equality and solidarity among all men. One can distinguish the main elements in the attainment of freedom. The first is eminently social. It is the fullest development of all the faculties and powers of every human being, by education, by scientific training, and by material prosperity; things which can only be provided for every individual by the collective, material, intellectual, manual, and sedentary labor of society in general.

The second element of freedom is negative. It is the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority.”

— Man, Society, and Freedom, 1871

The third concept of freedom goes beyond the rugged individualism of negative freedom alone, and the paternalistic collectivism of positive freedom alone, and comes to a conclusion of communal individuality as the personal and social ideal to strive for.

Politically and economically, it naturally leads to advocacy for a system in which 

  1. All people’s basic needs for survival and a decent standard of living are met as a social guarantee
  2. There exists a relative amount of material equality between individuals, so that some individuals cannot exploit others economically
  3. Each person possesses individual autonomy (self-determination) to act however they wish, provided they do not infringe upon the autonomy of others
  4. Every individual has the enablements and lack of restrictions necessary to pursue self-fulfilment and self-realisation however they so choose, provided they do not restrict anyone else from doing the same

Social anarchists view all three concepts of freedom as necessarily complimentary for a free society, with each being incomplete without the other two. Reciprocal freedom alters the negative dimension to imply not only non-coercion, but non-domination, and alters the positive dimension to imply not only enablement, but self-realisation. 

I should also stress that this understanding of freedom is scalar, not absolute. Meaning that we should think of our struggle for reciprocal freedom not in terms of “free vs unfree”, but “more free vs less free”. It’s something we always tend towards without ever achieving 100%, but the process of approaching it always enhances our well-being while evading it results in the contrary.

So to sum up, social anarchists want:

  • Negative freedom (freedom-from)
  • Positive freedom (freedom-to)
  • Reciprocal freedom (freedom-with)

With each of the above balancing each other out and creating a more complete picture of what personal and social liberation can mean.


7 thoughts on “The Social Anarchist Conception of Freedom

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    1. I have read his book and I wasn’t a fan. I find his dismissal of anarchism’s connection to direct democracy to be dishonest, his ignoring of the significance of social ecology to be unacceptable, and his quasi-primitivism in the chapter on technology to be downright repugnant.


  1. Jeremy Gilbert (who is a libertarian socialist) wrote a good philosophical critique of ontological individualism in his book “Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism”, you should check it out:

    The best critique of individualism that I’ve come across is Karen Barad (physicist turned feminist theorist) in her book “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning”:

    Click to access meeting-the-universe-halfway.pdf

    Beverly Skeggs “Class, Self, Culture” is the best book on class and value theory that I’ve ever read:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Isn’t “my freedom ends where yours begins” tautological? In a monarchy, the serf’s freedom ends where the monarch’s begins, but it’s hardly true that the serf is “free.”

    I think you’d interject here with point number 3 or 4 in your list: that the monarch’s “freedom” improperly interferes with the serf’s autonomy. Fair enough – but then how do you ensure economic equality? By whatever mechanism, each member of a community is not going to achieve (by skill, luck, whatever) the same access to material resources. For points number 1 or number 2 (especially) to hold, you’d have to strip away excess material goods from those members of the community and redistribute them among the remainder of society.

    The question, of course, would be this: what if a member of your society, who has (by skill, luck, whatever) achieved greater material wealth, refuses to share? That seems well within his or her rights due to points 3 or 4: they are not at all interfering with the autonomy of others by simply keeping whatever goods they happen to have for themselves.

    It seems that points 1 and 2 are in natural tension with points 3 and 4, if you assume that distribution of material goods will not always be equal absent state action.

    Thanks for your post! Very interesting stuff.


    1. Thanks for your response.

      To address your first paragraph, you’ll note that in the point just before that sentence it states that this free must be an equal freedom, or else it doesn’t mean much in practice; as clarified near the top of the article in the paragraph about how hierarchies between individuals and groups are freedom-restricting for those on the bottom and freedom-enhancing for those on the top.

      As for economic equality, you’ll note that point 2 in that four-point list only stresses RELATIVE material equality, not absolute equality.

      Though given that this is starting from a number of social anarchist assumptions – such as no private ownership of large-scale productive resources and personal possessions confined to use/occupancy – that relative material equality would result from such an economic framework is more or less a given. It’s pretty much impossible to amass excess material goods (absent use/occupancy) when there’s no state to protect them from being expropriated.


    2. I suggest, Rory Nantes, to read books of anthropology, DEBT: The First 5000 years covers the history of debt in a broader context of a society, not only the definition of debt but what it meant, what were the implications and consequences in society, that includes freedom.

      For instance freedom in the Roman empire meant, not being a slave, and being slave meant 2 things, not being able to make social relationships on your own, and that you were a property of another man. It didn’t mean that you were naturally or divinely or for any other reason inferior to your owner, owners even recognized when their slaves were better than them, cleaner, more articulate, etc.

      Later, around 2bc the definition of freedom changed to meant being able to do what a lord does. And Graber also points out scholars in the 11th century were discussing this, and their conclusion is serfs were not free. In fact, they were the property of the lords, the only free in the terms we mean today were the high-born.

      Graeber also talks about how economies weren’t really based on coins and what we consider money today, that this is something new in the las 400 years, for a long time economies were based on trust, not barter, not buying and selling, but trust.

      And so much more that is very pertinent ton your question, which by the way, they seemed framed under the current concepts and expectations of freedom and property and behavior, and with huge changes in society like this proposed by social anarchists, it also comes a change in the expectations. I learned that from Graber’s book

      Liked by 1 person

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