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Freedom From Morality And Obligations Isn’t ‘Freedom’


Life under Communism was peculiar and paradoxical, observes Polish professor and politician Ryszard Legutko in his new book The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols. It was rigid and confined by an “ideological straitjacket.” Yet the abolishing of the old forms and institutions also fostered a “permanent instability,” in which “no principle was secure and ultimate, no law firm and unchallengeable, no promise binding…. What was binding one week might be invalidated the next.”

The architects and engineers of the Soviet Bloc enforced “absurd rules” and ludicrous conduct that penetrated “the inner lives of citizens.” This in turn fostered artificiality in citizens who were coerced to worship false idols and “condemn friends and eulogize enemies.” If that sounds eerily similar to America in 2020, you’re not alone.

Those who lived through communist rule in Eastern Europe have much to teach the West about totalitarianism, both hard and soft, as conservative writer Rod Dreher has noted. Legutko has suffered firsthand not only under oppressive, intolerant socio-political forces in communist Poland, but also in the democratic, liberal West.

During communism, he was an editor of a samizdat, or dissident quarterly in Poland. More recently, in 2019, his lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont was cancelled because of pressure from woke student activists who aimed to silence him. There is indeed much in common between communism and wokeism.

Legutko in the Cunning of Freedom describes three concepts of freedom popular in the contemporary West: negative, positive, and inner. All of them exist for good reason, and all have significant, destructive flaws that have undermined authentic freedom. Yet before we can understand the nature of true liberty and how to restore it, we need to understand where liberalism goes wrong.

The Deceptive Coerciveness of Negative Freedom

Negative freedom is the absence of coercion. Certainly no one likes being coerced, although absolute freedom, explains Legutko, results in a wretched world, because such a thing is only possible in total isolation. If man is a social and political animal, his desire to assert his autonomy will necessarily come into conflict with other persons attempting to do the same thing.

Thus, of course societies must exert some coercion over citizens — preventing actions that will harm the body politic (e.g., murder, theft) and encouraging behaviors that perpetuate it (e.g., industrious labor, stable family relations). Such coercion, however, aims to enable, rather than deter, the polis to survive and better exercise its freedoms of speech, religion, association, etc.

There is however an inescapable tension here, especially for pluralistic societies like our own. Diverse religious, political, and economic commitments like Christianity, Islam, capitalists, socialists, and environmentalists all have their own public manifestations. A devout Christian has certain loyalties that affect how he or she would practice medicine or educate his or her children, actions that bleed into the public square.

Thus in a liberal society, there are two loyalties — one to our personal ideological commitments, and another to our role in the public square. Never are these two in perfect harmony. Now they are increasingly in open conflict.

Part of the problem we increasingly see in liberal democratic societies is that laws that claim to be neutral in permitting certain behaviors are nothing of the sort. Legutko explains:

Once such a law is in force, it not only implies legal admissibility, but also moral acceptance of such practices. After all, one cannot live in a society in which the law allows something that is morally reprehensible. Therefore, soon after such a law is passed, new laws are introduced to make moral opposition to this law more difficult and legally risky. People who opposed these practices on moral grounds are soon qualified as representing a type of backwardness, bigotry, and authoritarianism…

He cites as an example the Canadian government’s declaration that access to abortion is at “the core” of their foreign policy. No-fault divorce laws or discarding porn prohibitions are others.

What is happening, says Legutko, is that certain groups’ freedom is confused with the legal framework of freedom. Identity politics, which interprets politics and society through the lens of race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual identity, is perhaps the best example of this. Although the proponents of identity politics have claimed they promote negative freedom, they aim to restrict free speech, free inquiry, and free thought. Businesses that reject the premises of sexual identity politics are legally punished. Academics are told their research must conform to the tenets of woke ideology. Those who object risk discipline, termination, or cancellation.

As these trends intensify, negative freedom increasingly proves to be a chimera. Our society is dominated by institutions — the state, education, media, entertainment — that exert tremendous cultural and political levers of power, and are not afraid to use them to cow their ideological opponents.  Indeed, in many cases we witness a battle over “fundamental ideas of good and evil, life and death.” Canada and France now penalize those who say things that might be interpreted as opposed to, respectively, gender identity or access to abortion.

Positive Freedoms Hijacked By Leftist Ideology

Positive freedom in turn is a “set of qualities and conditions needed to achieve important aims.” To succeed professionally, artistically, and politically, people need a civilized, organized world. Positive freedom is discriminatory and hierarchical, because some people inevitably have a superior status to others based on a combination of nature and nurture. In the course of Western history, Legutko identifies several different prominent roles that have perpetuated positive freedom, all of which he assesses have been in some way hijacked by leftist ideology.

The first of these is the philosopher, who seeks the conditions to enjoy the contemplative life and truths that are beyond coercion. Such people recognize that true freedom occurs when the soul, not the body, is their master, and when the intellect is cultivated as a good in and of itself. However, recent modern history has vitiated the philosophic life because the university now serves to inculcate expertise, skills, and usefulness rather than consideration of the good and true. Many in academia in turn exploit their positions of power to further leftist political aims.

Entrepreneurs, alternatively, demonstrate their positive freedom by setting various business goals and then exploiting their skills and resources to realize them. Yet in a liberal society where freedom is the greatest good, limitless, hedonistic consumption is commended. Moreover, today’s entrepreneurs are often motivated not by what goods are actually good, but whatever will make consumers temporarily feel good. They thus move agilely from one cultural fad to another, as woke capitalism has so recently demonstrated in its attacks on state governments and sports teams.

The artist too is closely aligned with leftist ideology. Writes Legutko:

Not only do artists readily expound racial and sexual liberation, condemn the discrimination of homosexuals and non-white groups, fight imperialism and patriarchy, unmask new forms of inequality… but they do so with the massive support of their powerful friends and allies.

One need look no further than the entertainment industry to see the effect of this political alliance. The same is the case for the technocratic elites, whom Legutko calls “aristocrats,” who have traded their traditional role of controlling their passions for indulging in sensual pleasures (e.g., sexual novelty, foodieism, luxurious vacations) to which most Americans either have no access, or if they also partake, risk far more disastrous consequences for their misbehavior.

The Paradox of Inner Freedom

Finally, inner freedom is defined as being the author of one’s own actions, and is manifested in such trite maxims as the oft-misinterpreted Hamlet line: “To thine own self be true.” Here Legutko identifies a concerning paradox.

On the one hand, people are supposed to be unique, creative, and non-conformist. Alternatively, we are also called to assimilate ourselves to uniform, collectivist, creativity-stifling identities. We are to be exceptional, but we are also to bow in obeisance to the latest woke cause, our minds captivating to “the same clichés.”

It’s not hard to think of examples of this contradiction. The women’s liberation movement, on its face, calls for the individualism unbound from supposedly oppressive, patriarchal norms. Alternatively, to be a true feminist, one must also embrace leftist sexual ideology, including abortion, state-funded contraception access, and sexual libertinism.

Again, the anti-racist movement of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo is based on a belief that racial inequities stemming from institutional racism must be overcome for the sake of freedom. Yet they demand unqualified conformity from all in order to realize their ideological objectives.

A Truer, More Authentic Freedom

The most wonderful thing about human freedom is not that it allows the opportunity for self-expression, but that it reveals something transcendent about ourselves. Our freedom sets us apart from the rest of the natural order.

As a result, part of the answer to what kind of freedom we should seek to protect and promote must be one that recognizes the transcendent nature of the human self. Moreover, the reason we “long to belong” is because it too is built into our nature. A pure libertarian freedom is wrong because it disables us from being able to unite to collective identities — family, church, civic society — that actually expand our freedoms.

Legutko gives the example of two artists: one over many years develops his craft in light of the very best traditions and skills; another simply follows his personal whims with no respect to a broader tradition or community. The former is more free, because he is capable of bringing forth something beautiful and new that builds upon the brightest lights of the past. The latter, having no well to draw from, gives us only his own underdeveloped, self-congratulatory ego.

Metaphysical inquiry also sets us free, because we perceive that our bodies and souls are meant for more than self-indulgence and self-promotion, but eternity. There is a reason the most inspiring and brilliant writers and artists, people like Dante, Michelangelo, and Bach, were men of faith — their artistic and intellectual horizons were not curtailed by transcendent truth, but expanded. Without metaphysics, we lack a language to describe our highest, most wonderful aspirations, and instead act and speak in the platitudinous jargon of materialist, woke ideology.

Legutko proposes a return to an ancient form of freedom that understands human dignity as more about obligations than rights, more about the teleology of freedom than simply freedom as an end in itself. Certainly there remains room for negative, positive, and inner freedom in Legutko’s socio-political vision.

Yet if the West is to endure, it must be a freedom deeply rooted in our best traditions and social practices, bound to a recognition of virtue and natural law, and, ultimately, oriented towards God. Otherwise, as this hardened veteran of Soviet communist oppression has shown, we will find ourselves subject to totalitarianism both soft and hard.