This will be a series of discussions of freedom and inequality, based on works by Elizabeth Anderson, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan. I first heard about Anderson in this New Yorker article by Nathan Heller. Anderson explores the meaning of freedom and equality, especially in the context of work, the economy and the politics of both. Until recently, the dominant ideas were those of conservatives and libertarians, people like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and neoliberals of both parties.
The New Yorker article says that historically everyone thought that freedom and equality are at odds: exercise of freedom would naturally lead to increasing inequality. Political domination is a natural consequence of increasing inequality. If that is true, how can democracy survive? Anderson questions the view that freedom and equality are in conflict. The relevance of this idea to our current political environment is obvious. Republicans champion inequality as an exercise of freedom, and neoliberal democrats agree, but argue that some restraints on freedom must exist to prevent too much inequality. We need a new structure to step outside this duality and protect our democracy.
Again historically, people thought of freedom in two ways: negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, the range of options available to people. Anderson adds a third idea, freedom from domination. As we saw in the series on Ellen Meiksins Wood, one major Marxist criticism of capitalism is domination of the worker by the capitalist, aided by the state.* We saw in Pierre Bourdieu a detailed study of the way dominance is embedded in social relations.** We have also seen Michel Foucault’s view of power, an idea closely related to domination. I’ll discuss the concept of freedom from domination in this series.
From the New Yorker article:
As the students listened, [Anderson] sketched out the entry-level idea that one basic way to expand equality is by expanding the range of valued fields within a society. Unlike a hardscrabble peasant community of yore in which the only skill that anyone cared about might be agricultural prowess, a society with many valued arenas lets individuals who are good at art or storytelling or sports or making people laugh receive a bit of love.
I’m particularly fond of this idea. I made a living practicing law, and on the side, I did a lot of chorus singing, mostly classical and opera. I made room in my life for voice lessons and the unending rehearsals and performances that dominate the life of the singer. I used to say that among lawyers I was one of the best singers, which seems to me to be what this quote is saying.
The New Yorker article says that one of the major influences for Anderson is pragmatism, the distinctly American philosophy, generated by Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William James. It’s leading exponent in the 20th Century was John Dewey.*** A central idea of pragmatism is the definition of “truth”:
To a pragmatist, “truth” is an instrumental and contingent state; a claim is true for now if, by all tests, it works for now.
Ideas are tools, and the truth value of a tool is related to its usefulness. This description of truth throws off centuries of effort to find a fixed point of certainty in the world. It opens the possibility of finding our way through social and individual problems not by reference to some prior version of the truth, but by our own best understandings of our own social reality. I do not currently plan on a formal discussion of this description of truth, and will content myself with pointing it out in passing. But I share that view, and I think it is apparent in much of my thinking and writing.
Reading philosophy papers is difficult for a lay reader like me. Most are presented as arguments with one or more other philosophers. This is not necessarily a good way for a layman to get a positive statement of the views of the author, especially when there are many papers and many arguments. The New Yorker article seems to be a good introduction to the themes Anderson addresses.
Finding these academic papers online is harder than finding the books I’ve been writing about. I am fortunate to have access to a university’s online library, and I can’t find all of Anderson’s work there; I have no idea if readers can find the material I’m reading through their own public libraries, though I hope so. I’ll be giving the best links I can find, for what that’s worth. And as always, I’ll try to separate Anderson’s thinking and that of the authors she discusses separate from my own views.
I’ll update this post with links to all the posts in this series. Thanks for reading.
** See for example this post.
*** Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is an engaging account of the first three and their friends. Here’s a good introduction to the thought of John Dewey. Richard Rorty considered himself an heir to Dewey. For a fascinating discussion of the nature of truth in pragmatist thought, see Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty, Ch. 2. It’s worth the effort.