Jefferson Cowie, Vanderbilt University historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Freedom’s Dominion (2022), recently sat down with Boston College legal scholar Aziz Rana to discuss his argument in Boston Review’s recent forum, “A Different Freedom.” In his essay, Rana sketches the path to a different politics of freedom—one that captures the meaning associated with a long line of liberation struggles to which the left has been historically committed. Cowie is skeptical the language of freedom can be so easily reclaimed from its “sordid history” in the United States.

This event was part of our virtual event series cohosted with The Philosopher. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which was moderated by Philosopher editor Anthony Morgan and has been edited for concision and clarity. Learn more about our event series here, and find recordings of all our virtual events by subscribing to our YouTube account here.

Jefferson Cowie: When it comes to the big idea of freedom, I want to ask you about the American context in particular. We have a fairly interesting set of circumstances: settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and an immigrant society, and all based on republican values. So I wonder how, given these material and ideological circumstances, you think about American freedom vis-à-vis other nations’ ideas of freedom.


Aziz Rana: I think the particularities of the American project, how the United States is located in global dynamics of empire, produce distinctive developments within the family of global politics about freedom. Part of the impulse behind the Boston Review issue and my own piece in it was that many folks that think of themselves as part of the left, especially people that are a little bit older, grew up thinking, well, freedom is a left language. And there’s something really strange about the idea that actually, not only are the folks that talk about freedom in the United States today largely on the right, but freedom has also become an incredibly powerful language for xenophobia, military belligerence, us-versus-them thinking, the politics of white nationalism, an extreme version of the market.

How is this the case? There are no doubt reasons why around the world the right has increasingly appropriated freedom talk, tied in the last half-century to economic shifts, neoliberalism, and the politics of nationalism. In the United States, though, freedom has always had this kind of protean quality precisely because of its settler roots. One way to think about it is through somebody like Andrew Jackson. If you abstract Jackson’s politics, it can be difficult to locate him on a traditional left versus right binary. Jackson is the person that backs the so-called “common man,” supports universal white manhood suffrage, is committed to economic populism. And yet at the same time, he is also the central figure of ethnic cleansing, Native dispossession, the defense of slavery, an extreme version of both ethnoracial democracy, white democracy, as well as a language of equal rights for all and special privileges for none, a suspicion of various kinds of government power, a dread of state authority, and a view that when government authority intervenes, it is something that’s supposed to be a sword against racial outsiders, not ever something that’s supposed to intrude within the society.

This complex stitching, which is also the stuff you’ve been exploring in your work, is particular to the American context because of the way, broadly speaking, that the story of settlement and expansion brought together an account of internal freedom with a politics of both land expropriation and coerced use of labor. It tied these things together by effectively transforming the dominant discourse of American politics for large chunks of its history into a combination of what looks like economic populism with white nationalism in ways that end up pinging between two different poles. George Wallace, who you’ve written on, is a perfect example of this.

“I worry that giving up entirely on ‘freedom’ means giving up on the language communities use to make sense of their circumstances.”

One pole is that a free society is one in which “people like us,” often understood in racial terms, collectively make decisions. This means a strong commitment to small scale democracy, to economic populism, but that’s tied to control of outsiders. Yet whenever it’s the case that we’re no longer the ones making decisions, then all the rules should be rejected and I should be subject to no imposition and enjoy something like an extreme form of antistatism that, of course, goes hand in hand with an extreme form of the use of the state to coerce and suppress others. Law and order means I enjoy essentially a liberated position in the market—this is how American libertarianism often isn’t really libertarian. Because at the same time, I enjoy the ability to use the police or the security personnel to violently oppress outsiders. And that pinging between what seems like economic populism and what seems like an extreme version of antistatism is really deeply rooted in the politics and structure of American institutions and practice.


JC: At the end of the forum, in your summary response to everybody’s pieces, you do a great job of bundling the questions raised into two areas, and I want to open both of those up for discussion. The first one is that so many contributors, including you and me, had the view that what we really need to think about is institution building. Institution building is sort of the bulwark against the pinging between populism and antistatism you mention. The second question is, given this sordid history that we just walked through, is “freedom” the language and the route to institution building?


AR: I think it’s worth starting by teasing these two questions apart. First, the defense of the turn to institutions was motivated by a kind of concern, one carried across a number of pieces in the forum, with Democratic Party messaging, which is that on freedom, there’s a way in which the story that you get from the Democratic Party is “the reason why some of our arguments don’t quite hit is that we haven’t come up with the right language to use, and we haven’t figured out the right kind of charismatic vehicle. If we do some kind of dance around marketing and narrative, we’ll be able to convince folks.” This is a politics built on the idea that if we can just say these words in the most charismatic way, somehow we’d have consensus despite really profound differences that underlie society.

I think the call to institution building is a way of saying: yes, narrative is incredibly important, whether or not we’re talking about freedom or the word that you emphasize in your piece, democracy, but for any of these arguments to be compelling and convincing, they have to feel organically rooted in people’s lives. We have to actually pay attention to what Brandon Terry, in a conversation we had recently, called the “structure of experience.” In other words, what are the types of neighborhoods, schools, parties, churches, workplaces, that people reside in? Those shaping institutions have profound effects on which arguments seem totally intuitive, organically connected to their experience, and which arguments feel out of step.

A deep problem in American life today that is a function, effectively, of Cold War transformations and the neoliberal transformations since the 1970s, is that there are vanishingly few spaces where the left politics of freedom, one that connects freedom and self-rule to an interdependent and collective story of both solidarity and democracy, is real. There are very few workplaces that are organized that way. There are very few party experiences and electoral experiences that are organized that way. There are very few experiences, generally. So the first effort of being able to rebuild a left politics of freedom is to reconstruct institutions affecting elections, affecting the family, affecting workplaces, so that the ideas feel like they have organic teeth.

This gets to your second question, which asks if reclaiming the language of freedom specifically feels quixotic. And this might be a point of disagreement, so I’d love to hear your responses to this. My own view, which we can see today in the context of Israel–Palestine and various efforts by Palestinians to talk about their own aspirations for self-determination and freedom, is that freedom is one of the sustained and perennial languages that a variety of communities, at home and abroad, have used to make sense of their own condition and to articulate their own deepest commitments. And I worry that giving up on freedom as a language means giving up on the very words that people, that communities have actually used to express, to themselves and to others, both their actual lived experiences and, perhaps above all, their profoundest hopes.

This is an issue that I’ve struggled with in lots of different contexts. You probably got a sense from my second book that I’m a real critic of the U.S. Constitution. But it’s also the case that people believe deeply in the document; they believe deeply in the language of rights. So you have to tease out when and under what circumstances these discourses are important. I’d say, going back to the point about the structural context in which narrative arguments are made, we live in a moment where even right-wing accounts of freedom, like freedom through an individualized story about the market, of being free on your own that’s tied to domination, is today providing less and less benefit for insiders. This means that for all of the nightmares thrown up by the fracturing of our moment, this fracturing also opens space to think of a left vision of freedom as something that we can collectively engage in. In a sense, the politics of our moment makes it especially incumbent on us not to abandon the languages that have shaped how communities have long contested forms of exploitation and marginalization, or to abandon their potential now to express both lived experiences and horizons of aspiration.


JC: So you’re arguing that it’s not that there’s something innate or inherent in whatever freedom might be, but that it resonates, that it has a connection and a history that works. It’s a sort of a pragmatic argument, based on lived history and situation, if you will, about the nature of freedom.


AR: I have two related arguments, that in their way are both pragmatic and philosophical. First, I believe in a dialectical account of the relationship between freedom and domination. I see all societies, including American society, as marked by various forms of hierarchy and domination. This means that on the ground people pursuing change engage in resistance to specific, lived forms of domination. And they turn to freedom as a language for expressing the overcoming of that specific, lived domination. At the same time, these efforts often lead reformers to extend the idea of freedom beyond just opposition to everyday hierarchy. Freedom itself transforms into a powerful language for articulating a horizon of possibility well beyond the limitations of the present. This is utopian in the best sense. To me the centrality of freedom as a language, both in how people concretely resist conditions in the here and now and in how they expand their collective political imagination, underscores why we should be hesitant to jettison it.

There’s also a further argument for me that folks might disagree with, which is that I’m committed personally to a particular politics of democratic socialism. And I see a rich vein of that in the United States through radicalized versions of the republican tradition that were taken up by irruptive social formations over the course of American life, from labor radicals to feminist socialists to Black internationalists, that took this strain of argument about freedom as economic independence, or about political participation, and transformed it into something vital and new. It became the American language for engaging with what Martin Luther King, in the 1960s, called the “giant triplets” that compromised American possibility: racism, materialism, and militarism.

And for that reason, I think of freedom as a persistent tradition, not in a nationalist sense but in a sense of a tradition rooted in our own collective experience as Americans, even if I personally am an antinationalist and many of these folks were internationalists that saw attachments to fellow workers or fellow colonized peoples as more significant than national attachments. I should add that I view the long history of the Cold War as in part a project to contain the variety and depth of this tradition.

There are people that I’m aligned with on practical political projects that may not see themselves in that tradition, and that’s perfectly fine. I think that we can make common cause regardless of what you think about democratic socialism or the radical tradition of equal and effective freedom in the United States carried on by various people. You can be more grounded in left-liberalism or more inclined to anarchism and thus more suspicious of the state. But I still think reformers and groups with these various, competing orientations can find common cause through a concrete rejection of existing forms of oppression. For me, the imperative is above all to build shared projects and political agendas.

So stitching together these two arguments, I suppose I view reclaiming freedom through a focus on institution building and on creating greater organic experiences for left values as serving dual roles. It offers a coalitional politics on behalf of reform, regardless of whether you may support something like democratic socialism or be interested in freedom at all. But at the same time, it also builds more broadly the type of cultural and political world in which a vision of equal and effective freedom for all can flourish.


“Freedom is kind of a burned-over district: it’s owned by people I don’t want to fight with.”

JC: But I wonder if this doesn’t put the left in a position of constantly fighting back on definitional terms: “When we say freedom, we mean this,” or “when they say freedom they mean that.” The struggle becomes about defining yourself in opposition to the secessionist version of freedom that’s really about the fear of the state interfering with one’s capacity to dominate others. I am concerned that then the project becomes saving “freedom,” not saving the program of freedom. I think the vast majority of contributors to this volume believed we should save freedom as an idea—but I didn’t. My argument is, let’s get on with it and do other things. Freedom is kind of a burned-over district and it’s owned by people I don’t want to fight with and am against. It just seems to put us in a bit of a defensive crouch the whole time, trying to figure out what we mean by this term, when we could be talking about the redistribution of wealth, democracy, health care: things people need to make their lives better, rather than dealing around in unsatisfying abstractions that are owned by people with opposing values.


AR: I think that’s powerfully stated. But I suppose my resistance again is that I don’t think it’s an either-or choice between reclaiming language and doing the programmatic political work. This is, in a way, reiterating our point about institutions. Certainly, one problem with saying, “we need to reclaim freedom” is then to say, well, that means we have to focus on narrative. We need to figure out a message and then can we get somebody like Obama, but even more charismatic, to relay the message. Like I said earlier, I think that approach is flawed. Instead, I believe a genuinely effective project committed to reclaiming freedom would necessarily proceed by reconstructing people’s lived experiences and the types of institutional worlds they inhabit. That effort is grounded in hard and programmatic political work, which is coalitional and incorporates people that might have wildly different views about the definitions of freedom or might, like you, reject the utility of the word at all.

And in fact, I’d say that this is of a piece with how majorities should be built generally, by focusing on stitching together coalitions rather than starting with first-order narrative or philosophical debates. Those first order debates could be “should we use freedom?” They could be “is the principal category race or class?” They could be about the question of American nationalism: do you believe in the creed and the story of the United States as a redemptive nation, or do you hold firm to an account of left internationalism that’s suspicious of nationalist stories? At the end of the day, I think rather than having those conversations, it’s much more important to focus on finding the concrete sites of exploitation that communities actually experience, and asking how we can make common cause around shared material and ethical concerns.

So in short, I think the turn to institutions and the structure of people’s lived experience is a way of taking on board your critique. But maybe my other resistance to your point, and I’m curious what you think about this, is that I don’t know that there’s any linguistic end run around the problem that you articulate. Any language you substitute for freedom, say, for instance, democracy, will raise the same conceptual complexity.

For example, I also very deeply believe in a project of democracy. My account of democracy is infused with that idea of equal and effective freedom that I see as essential. Like freedom, democracy is critical to my vision of an emancipatory future, but it’s also the case that democracy is the term that is used by Andrew Jackson and those around him: they used it for their party, “the Democracy.” The language of democracy historically has been a language too of ethnonationalism. Today, there’s ways it is an essential language for the left, but it’s also, like we’re seeing right now in the United States, the principal language used to defend closed borders, nativism, the stringent enforcement of a deeply racist politics around who can be properly American, as well as an argument about why the United States is facing perennial threats that require a kind of belligerence toward the world.

So the conceptual puzzles around these terms are persistent features of any of these linguistic choices that we might want to pursue. You can jump from one to the other term and you’ll have effectively the same problems. But that doesn’t mean that you abandon them. It means that you focus on altering the organic experiences that people have that then affect which variations of these terms are actually compelling as lived responses to their own experience.


JC: I think we share this idea—we’re on the same ground on that. I’m just suspicious that the work involved in the particular case of “freedom” is worth it in that process.


AR: It’s interesting. I suppose I think it really matters what moment you’re in and where you’re located. If you’re thinking, as your work does, about the story of a place like Alabama across time, then there are probably historical moments where the opening for the version of freedom that I find most compelling is more closed. But I think there are other moments where they’re more open. This means that thinking seriously about the potential for real agency and change requires locating change against the backdrop of structural constraint, and working through what conditions promote greater agency.So assessing the linguistic terms we use to articulate oppression and emancipation is deeply bound up with an analysis of specific historical moments and the constraints and possibilities they embody.


JC: I agree. There’s a lot of organizing pragmatism at work here that you’re putting forth that I find quite refreshing. And I think we could have a whole other discussion about the utility of the nation-state, which I think might be interesting, about the possibility of a republican-based social patriotism being an idea of similar utility to freedom—but maybe this is a discussion for a different time.

I want to move to the other question that you raise in your conclusion to the forum: what do we make of the persistent exclusivities of freedom? Let’s say we’re going to forget about my argument and run with freedom. My suggestion is that, bare minimum, you can’t do freedom without a modifier—it has to be a democratic freedom or social democratic freedom or something like that. But I think that the exclusivities in freedom are hard-baked—that it’s not escapable. You say that freedom has two faces; I say it’s all one thing. I see the long history of freedom as one of domination and exploitation.

You talk about the liberatory twentieth century, and you’re interested in the Populists and the Wobblies and the Debsian Socialists and other groups. But I just wonder if the legacy of those movements of the left is really fully contained within the values of freedom—perhaps republicanism, but I don’t know about freedom.


AR: The first thing I want to say is that I would be remiss if I went through the hour without mentioning that my initial essay and response is a rebuttal to the idea that we can think of freedom as a purely internal conversation that we have within the United States without conceiving of the global context for American power abroad. Any rich left account that you’d want to reclaim has to definitionally be anti-imperial and that you cannot separate the foreign and the domestic. You can’t have a rich account of what it would mean to overcome various kinds of exclusivities, whether racism, patriarchy, or nativism, that doesn’t itself fully reckon with the ways that the American security state, abroad or at the border, often feed precisely the exclusivities that you’d want to reject. The Cold War civil rights story of being able to grant rights internally, precisely through the promotion of a shared security project, ultimately ended up constraining profoundly the rights that were provided within the country, and it also promoted various forms of violence.

“The conceptual puzzles around these terms is a persistent feature of any word that we might want to pursue.”

And is response to your question, how pragmatically to struggle with persistent exclusivities is always a perennial question. I view the experience of being a person on the left as simply the fact that we live in societies—it could be 2024; it could be 1924; it could be 1824—that are marked by such exclusivities. Being a person that rejects these exclusivities, as well as the profound forms of hierarchy and oppression, is to always find yourself in a context in which the political rules of the game are stacked against you, and the obstacles are significant, and the forces of authority that sustain a status quo are the ones that are dominant. And that’s an unavoidable feature of a struggle to imagine a world in which everybody can enjoy something like liberation.

It happens to be the case that the language of liberation has been a really powerful way for folks to imagine change, to imagine the benefits of a world wholly different than our own, but rooted in the experiences of this one. What I think you’re putting your finger on is the fact that in order to contest power, activists and reformers simply have to recognize these persistent obstacles.They have to coldly, realistically assess them. There is no alternative language or reform silver bullet that gets around that dilemma. It just has to be faced forthrightly.


JC: We agree on far much far more than we disagree on, Aziz, as usual. Do we want to turn to questions from the audience?


Anthony Morgan: One audience question asks: are there any forms of authority that are compatible with freedom as you both conceive it?


AR: I think this is one place where we’re both really aligned, which is that I’m very suspicious of accounts of freedom that imagine freedom as thoroughgoing independence and self-mastery. Freedom is something that inherently has to engage with the realities of interdependence: we can only be actually free together, and the efforts to imagine freedom without solidarity or freedom with a solidarity that’s built around racial, gender, or other forms of exclusivity ultimately end up replicating domination.


JC: I’ve spent way too much time thinking about freedom in one of the most oppressive states in the country: Alabama. I walk away with what I call a Hamiltonian version of democracy, which is an aggressive institutional structure that backs democracy and democratic rights. And democracy requires, dare I say, a coercive state: a version of authority that uses its police powers to ensure that everybody has democratic and economic rights, I think, is absolutely crucial. It is a check against the coercive, dominating version of freedom that Aziz so eloquently sets out.


AM: Another audience question: Does the left also need to reclaim equality and fraternity? And if so, how would that link to freedom as you conceptualize it?


AR: This is related to my point that much of the contemporary language of how to think of self-rule, to the extent that freedom as self-rule is something that that’s articulated at the present, comes from the right. And the right’s idea is that one is free when one is not subject to any kinds of external sanctions: that we should enjoy a kind of individual mastery. For that approach, if freedom means anything concretely, it’s often either the choice that you make in the market or it’s a freedom to dominate—control that you assert over others which shows your own capacity for mastery. I think this is a deeply destructive way of organizing any kind of community: the only way that you can have meaningful freedom is one that takes égalité seriously.

The language that I use is a language of solidarity and democracy. It’s thinking of democracy as the central principle of a collective project of freedom, and as undergirded by the organic structures of experience that we’ve been talking about. The everyday ethical experience that shapes what it means to be free in a democratic society is a basic principle of solidarity, so that if democracy is the practical politics, solidarity is the ethical underpinning.


JC: I agree with that—but I just don’t understand why it needs to end in a defense of freedom. Do you need égalité in between? Absolutely, yes. The problem is, where is that in the American context? If you ask, what’s the American creed? It’s freedom. It’s not Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; it’s just one of the triad. And so the question becomes, how do we build the rest of the triad? I think it’s done by de-emphasizing freedom and working toward the other dimensions of that trilogy. I actually think that far too much of the freedom to dominate is not checked: there’s no counterbalance with the other ideas in the American context. I find there’s a very specific history here that is particularly problematic about the way U.S. political development happened absent égalité and solidarity. The real problem is not, do we want these or not? The problem is, why are they not part of our discourse, our vernacular?


AM: Excellent. We’re pretty much at time here. Aziz, do you have any final words?


AR: I feel like we’re living during a moment that is deeply unsettled, and it’s one in which, in many ways, a lot of our ideas of what the country is, which effectively were a contingent product of what Jeff refers to as the Great Exception, ideas built between the 1930s and the 1970s, are breaking down. As a result, we’re essentially returning to a direct engagement with the perennial structural problems that have shaped American life since what amount to the earliest days of colonization. And that’s something that is scary politically. It brings back to the fore some of the great nightmares that we’d imagined that we’d contained.

But I think it also makes it incumbent on us to really take seriously the richness of the collective traditions in the United States and the traditions of those subject to American power, both within the territorial United States and outside of it. The aim is to construct a movement for liberation from what amounts to the heart of empire and to realize that whatever terms that we privilege—whether it’s freedom, whether it’s democracy, whether it’s solidarity—this is a project that we can’t turn back from. Because it’s the one that has been placed upon us. We have no choice but to address our moment with all the seriousness and commitment we can bring to bear.


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