Negative and Positive Freedom

Some of the Director’s readers must be puzzled by his terms negative and positive freedom, especially if they know what they mean. Negative freedom is “liberty from,” positive freedom is “a fleshed-out concept of freedom for.” Bookchin does not define these opaque expressions, he simply assigns them as gang colors. Lifestyle Anarchists “celebrate” negative freedom – also known as autonomy – in keeping with their bourgeois individualist liberal heritage. Social Anarchism, in contrast, “espouses a substantive ‘freedom to.’” It “seeks to create a free society, in which humanity as a whole – and hence the individual as well – enjoys the advantages of free political and economic institutions.” The Director has made a category mistake. What a conception of freedom means and what kind of society would realize it are questions of a different order. And these particular formulations are also empirically false in obvious ways. The celebration of individual freedom is not the definition of Lifestyle Anarchism, for liberals and laissez-faire libertarians also celebrate individual freedom, but they are not anarchists. The quest for a free society cannot define Social Anarchism, for, as Bookchin says, “many lifestyle anarchists eagerly plunge into direct actions that are ostensibly intended to achieve socialistic goals.” Social Anarchists may be right and Lifestyle Anarchists may be wrong, but not by definition, especially in the absence of definitions.

Although he never explains what these phrases mean, the Director does say where he got them: Sir Isaiah Berlin’s well-known essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Although this forceful polemic was at one time much discussed by philosophers, it never quite made the distinction clear. Generally, negative freedom means freedom from prevention of action, from interference, or as John P. Clark says, “freedom from coercion.” Positive freedom is the freedom – I think “capability” or “power” is the better word – to accomplish one’s purposes. The reader who finds this confusing or hair-splitting has my sympathy. How real is freedom of choice with nothing worth choosing? How is the power to act possible without some protection from interference? I am persuaded by Gerald C. MacCallum’s argument “to regard freedom as always one and the same triadic relation, but recognize that various contending parties disagree with each other in what they understand to be the ranges of the term variables.” Freedom is a relationship among an agent, “’preventing conditions’ [such] as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers,” and “actions or conditions of character or circumstance.”

What Sir Isaiah did make quite clear was his judgment as to the political implications of the two concepts. He was writing during the Cold War and he was strongly committed to the West. Negative freedom implies limits on state action, but positive freedom is totalitarian in tendency. At least since Rousseau, many theorists of positive freedom have, like Bookchin, equated freedom with identification with the general will. Real freedom consists, not in unconstrained individual indulgence, but in fulfilling one’s – or everyone’s – true nature. In the case of humans, rising above their animal origins, self-realization occurs in and through the social whole. As Bookchin has approvingly written, “Bakunin emphatically prioritized the social over the individual.” It can happen that the individual, as Rousseau put it, can and should be forced to be free. I do not care for the prospect of society prioritizing me. Negative freedom is not necessarily anarchist – Berlin is no anarchist – but positive freedom, he thinks, is necessarily authoritarian. This of course is diametrically opposed to Bookchin’s use of the distinction, which explains why Bookchin keeps the specifics of Berlin’s argument out of his own.

Berlin’s own census of major philosophers of freedom shows that his distinction is no predictor of their politics. Adherents of negative freedom include Occam, Erasmus, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Constant, J.S. Mill, Tocqueville, Jefferson, Burke, and Paine. Adherents of positive freedom include Plato, Epictetus, St. Ambrose, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Kant, Herder, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Bukharin, Comte, Carlyle, T.H. Green, Bradley, and Bosanquet. Bookchin has accused Lifestyle Anarchists of perpetuating the pernicious German philosophical tradition which led from Fichte and Kant through Stirner to Heidegger and Hitler. (For obviously self-serving reasons he skips over Hegel and Marx, and does not remind the reader of his former admiration for “Fichte’s stirring prose.”) All these gentlemen adhered, as does Bookchin, to the positive concept of freedom.

For Bookchin, of all the malignant influences on Lifestyle Anarchism, Max Stirner seems to be the worst. Stirner with his individualist, arational, amoral egoism epitomizes more of what Bookchin loathes than any other classical anarchist thinker. In 1976, the Director’s disciple John Clark devoted an entire book to refuting Stirner’s heresies, which had not received so much hostile attention since Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology 130 years before. Stirner, then, should be an exponent, maybe the ultimate exponent of negative freedom. Rather he is the ultimate exponent of positive freedom: “Who is it that is to become free? You, I, we. I, therefore, am the kernel that is to be delivered from all wrappings and – freed from all cramping shells. What is left when I have been freed from everything that is not I? Only I; nothing but I. But freedom has nothing further to offer to this I himself. As to what is now to happen further after I have become free, freedom is silent – as our governments, when the prisoner’s time is up, merely let him go, thrusting him out into abandonment.” For Stirner as for Bookchin, negative freedom is insufficient at best, a formalistic mockery at worst. What Bookchin calls positive freedom, Stirner calls “ownness” (die Eigenheit): “I have no objection to freedom, but I wish more than freedom for you: you should not merely be rid of what you do not want; you should not only be a ‘freeman,’ you should be an ‘owner [Eigner]’ too.”

Even if it has some utility in other contexts, the distinction between positive and negative freedom does nothing to differentiate Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism. On the contrary, as John Clark says, “anarchism is the one major political theory which has attempted to synthesise the values of negative and positive freedom into a single, more comprehensive view of human liberty.” Bookchin has never demonstrated that any Lifestyle Anarchist espouses negative freedom to the exclusion of positive freedom. His misappropriates the distinction to try to infuse some content into his own incoherent dichotomy between Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism, but the infusion does not relieve the confusion. The semi-literate Director is, as so often, showing off by pretending to be more knowing than he really is.