Freedom, Responsibility, and Alienation

By Collective 20

[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different  places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]

Once upon a time there was a magnet, and in its close neighborhood lived some steel filings. One day two or three filings felt a sudden desire to go and visit the magnet, and they began to talk of what a pleasant thing it would be to do. Other filings nearby overheard their conversation, and they, too, became infected with the same desire. Still others joined them, till at last all the filings began to discuss the matter, and more and more their vague desire grew into an impulse. “Why not go today?” said some of them; but others were of the opinion that it would be better to wait until tomorrow. Meanwhile, without their having noticed it, they had been involuntarily moving nearer to the magnet, which lay there quite still, apparently taking no heed of them. And so they went on discussing, all the time insensibly drawing nearer to their neighbor; and the more they talked, the more they felt the impulse growing stronger, till the more impatient ones declared that they would go that day, whatever the rest did. Some were heard to say that it was their duty to visit the magnet, and that they ought to have gone long ago. And, while they talked, they moved always nearer and nearer, without realizing they had moved. Then, at last, the impatient ones prevailed, and, with one irresistible impulse, the whole body cried out, “There is no use waiting. We will go today. We will go now. We will go at once.” And then in one unanimous mass they swept along, and in another moment were clinging fast to the magnet on every side. Then the magnet smiled—for the steel filings had no doubt at all but that they were paying that visit on their own free will.

-Oscar  Wilde

While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

-Eugene Debs

What is freedom? We all speak of it. We all want it. We all celebrate it. But what, really, is it? Not some deep hieroglyphic, academic definition, but what is freedom as we do or don’t live it in our daily lives?

Perhaps the easiest way to comprehend any complicated concept is to note where we can easily agree about it and then refine onward from there. Consider what we tend to agree violates freedom.

We agree that when factors other than ourselves block our aspirations, they violate our freedom. Yet when gravity, a hurricane, or a pandemic block our aspirations we hurt, but we are not unfree. So we know society, not nature, determines freedom and its absence. Social laws, norms, requirements, pressures, manipulations, violent intrusions, and subtle channeling can violate freedom. Not earthquakes.

When we are not free we can’t pursue what our inner assessments would, untrammeled, pursue. When we are not free we get only what is socially made available, what is socially made necessary, or what is socially forced on us, despite being far from our unimpinged wants.

But what about legitimate limits? Are there any? Perhaps we should look at freedom from a slightly shifted direction. Perhaps we should not only consider what socially prevents freedom, but also what socially characterizes it, and, after that, what socially produces it.

When free we are willful agents. We pursue or at least try to pursue aims of our own choosing. We are subjects of our own lives. When not free we suffer limits. We are objects rather than subjects. Even if what is forced on us is tasty and fun, if it is forced we may be satisfied but we are unfree. Yet if limits are legitimate, can’t we still be free?

Consider living units that care for those who suffer physical or mental limitations. Prisons that house those we deem unfit for free society. Workplaces that produce everyone’s means to live. Schools that teach us to fit and navigate society. Even families that birth, nurture and protect us to live our lives.

In each case, albeit to different degrees and with different dynamics, factors other than residents/prisoners/workers/students/children set agendas for them. Factors other than those affected delimit their circumstances. Factors other than those affected predetermine their available options so they at best choose among offerings that they must accept if they are to receive anything.

Meals are determined and scheduled. Entertainment is delimited. Access to other people is restricted. Non-compliant preferences are ignored, dismissed or, if they persist, medicated or punished into disappearing. Tasks are defined and scheduled, doors are locked. Incomes are set, tasks determined, communications constrained, bathroom breaks regulated. Curricula are imposed, seats set, absence and inattention punished, times for play and for meals prescribed, topics for attention permitted or forbidden.

What stands out, for me, seeing things this way, is that despite their many important differences, the involved structures of elderly homes, prisons, workplaces, schools, and even families – and of so many other institutions we could list from sports teams to churches and from armies to agencies – treat those they impact more or less as objects that need to move and act in highly prescribed patterns according to externally determined schedules and norms. More, when we don’t behave as intended, we are deemed belligerent, ornery, unresponsive, incapable, and then urged or forced to comply. Our being treated like objects not only reveals our unfreedom, it also molds our acclimation to it. And, remarkably, it all happens beyond or sometimes even against the stated intents of most or even all involved, including ourselves. Whether caretakers are caring or not, and guards, managers, teachers, and parents are enlightened and empathetic or are ignorant and perverse certainly affects us tremendously, but it doesn’t make unfreedom into freedom.

Ultimately, in this very broad sense, despite making our lives better or worse, the involved parties’ personal feelings don’t matter. If the norms and methods of the institutions make each and every soul involved an object and not subject, then even if we dictate and certainly if we are dictated to, we are all unfree. Both the sick and those who tend them, the incarcerated and those who regiment them, the workers and those who boss them, the students and those who teach them, and the families and those who head them, all are unfree.

If all were free, “how is Lydia the resident or Sam who brings her food or Danielle who runs the facility, Ruby the prisoner or Sarah her guard or Manfred the warden, Julio the worker or Calvin his manager, or Jeff the owner, Cathy the student or Veronica her teacher or Sammy the Superintendent, Eddie the brother, Anita the sister, Pearl the mother, or Melvin the father doing” – would never yield the all too common answer he/she is not good because I can see that he/she rejects the schedules, agendas, meals, assignments, tasks, and what all else preset for him/her to fit into.

So what is full and real freedom? Other than for narcissists it can’t be “anything goes” – because my anything, overtly or implicitly, could curtail your anything. Freedom for all is collective, social, and universal, or it isn’t freedom. Freedom for all must include that we each are in position, prepared, and have means and inclination to discover and develop our own desires and to pursue them limited only by the requirement that we not impinge on others doing likewise.

The golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, fits nicely. And therein we come to the issue of responsibility. To be free responsibly entails that we respect that others must be equally free. To be free responsibly, my freedom must be a condition for your freedom, and your freedom must be a condition for mine. To be responsible, then, is to act on that mutual dependence freely, from within, and not due to pressure from without.

Okay, so what does all this say about society writ large? We know social continuity and achievement and even social survival, require collective action based on lasting shared ends and means. Societies can’t exist and persist without shared norms and requirements. Social norms and requirements are unavoidable and yet to foster freedom, society must not restrict or restrain our free selves. It sounds like a contradiction, yet there is a way out. To function with norms and aims and simultaneously produce and sustain freedom, society must compatibly provide us all the room and wherewithal to be ourselves. The logic and flow of all society’s sinews must serve the human fulfillment and development of all society’s members. To act in accord with society’s norms has to mean to act in accord with our own and everyone else’s freedom. For society’s limits to not limit freedom, society’s limits have to facilitate human well being and free development for all.

And so we come to another slippery concept that, I think, can reveal and explicate much about modern life – alienation. The way this concept usually arises is with the word alienation highlighting people’s feelings. We are alienated, in this familiar way of using the term, when we feel distraught from our situations. We are alienated when we feel bent out of shape by society’s pliers. Alienation is in this view a discord in our minds and feelings. This accounting of alienation sometimes reveals much but it also tends to cause us to see alienation as mainly a product of our responses, as mainly a phenomenon owing to our choices, as mainly something under our own dominion, as mainly something caused by us. We are alienated, so we need to get ourselves together. We should like to propose a different vantage point.

A policy, relation, outcome, path, product, or whatever, is alienated whenever its logic of existence, its reason for being, and especially its aim is something other than human well being and development for all. If health care, imprisonment, work, schooling, and even family life – or anything else – seeks firstly something other than the well being and development of all involved, then to that degree it is alienated. And the same holds for products ranging from medicine to household aids and from guns to bread. If their primary aim is, for example, profit or the elevation of some at the expense of others, they are alienated.

We first encountered this formulation by way of the work of Bertell Ollman, a political scientist, due to my reading a book he wrote titled Alienation, about five decades ago. The analysis stayed with me and continues to make sense to me. Ollman, for me, intentionally moved the locus of alienation from individuals who feel alienated to social relations responsible for their situation. This viewing angle keeps activist eyes most effectively focused.

A home for the elderly and indeed any agency of health care including hospitals, research institutes, or producers or distributors of medicine; a prison and indeed any institution of jurisprudence including a court or law firm or producer or enforcer of laws; a factory for workers and indeed any means for economic engagement including workplaces for production, sites for consumption, and tools for allocation; a school for young students and indeed any institution for learning including schools, colleges, universities, or training programs; a family and indeed any living unit of any type; and, in fact, any institution, product, tool, policy or what have you from a lawn mower to a law, from a division of labor to a marriage vow, from a violin to an apartment complex, from a bicycle to a super highway, from an oil well to a football team is alienated if it is primarily oriented to something other than the human well being and development of everyone it affects while simultaneously consistent with the human well being and development of everyone else, as well. Thought about this way, alienation arises from social relations, breeds unfreedom, and curbs responsibility.

Does all this matter? On the one hand, it gives what are ultimately obvious specific labels to help scholars study the phenomena. In that respect, one might say, it serves academia. On the other hand, it gives familiar things specific labels to help activists attend to them. In that respect, it can serve seeking change.

A society and everything in it, if it is to permit and promote freedom, if it is to allow and facilitate responsibility, must have its sinews and structures oriented to the human well being and development of all affected. And, if we take just a small step further from that observation, we arrive at the advisory that seekers of freedom should create movements and organizations which, at every level, and in every respect, and thus in their structure, norms, policies, demands, and tactics, seek to be unalienated, seek to be responsible, and seek to produce freedom for those within and for those outside their purview.

This claim provides an overarching advisory that rejects some behaviors and urges others. If the straightforward observations that have preceded the claim are correct, then we may have arrived at a very general and even archetype advisory about how to seek freedom and avoid unfreedom.

Translated to the realm of race, gender, sexuality, class, and power, the advisory, if its reasoning is sound, can help inform building a truly free and freedom-seeking movement. Carried into the realm not only of what we want, but also of how we get it, it can inform our aims and methods.

Let’s return to the institutions we began considering. What implications does our admittedly very brief foray into the meaning of freedom, responsibility, and alienation have for what we might seek for each such institution? What might it look like to make demands that pursue additional freedom, that reduce alienation, and that inspire responsibility in each case and simultaneously in our own efforts and organizations?

For an old folks home, perhaps we demand a role for residents and their families in conceiving and settling on policies, schedules, entertainment, supplies, and menus. Perhaps we demand room privacy and also privacy in connections to the outside. Perhaps we demand that help for dressing, for washing, and for medicating is provided in ways that address residents’ own wishes rather than imposing general patterns. Perhaps we demand equitable and as far as possible self managing roles for employees so they are all empowered and have sufficient number and means to aid residents in the most humane ways while enjoying security and influence themselves, as well. And perhaps we demand restrictions on operations, fees, and all policy seeking to increase prioritization of human well being and to reduce prioritization of profit making.

For a prison, perhaps we demand a role for prisoners and their families in conceiving and settling on policies, schedules, available entertainment, available books, instruction, supplies, and menus. Perhaps we demand cell privacy and privacy in connections to the outside, and that meaningful work be provided in ways that address wishes and capacities rather than imposing general patterns and seeking profits. Perhaps we demand training to be free, not to violate other’s freedom. Perhaps we demand equitable and as possible self managing roles for employees so they are secure, fulfilled, and comprehending of and sympathetic toward each other and toward prisoners. And perhaps we demand restrictions on operations, fees, and all policies seeking to increase prioritization of human well being and to reduce prioritization of profit making or bureaucratic politics.

For a workplace perhaps we demand a role for workers in conceiving and settling on work hours, schedules, supplies, products, prices, advertising, and neighborhood relations. Perhaps we demand open books, accountability, and support for worker meetings and organizing. Perhaps we demand equitable and as possible self managing roles for all employees and restrictions on operations, fees, and all operations seeking to increase prioritization of consumer and producer well being and to reduce prioritization of profit making.

For a school perhaps we demand a role for students and their families in conceiving and settling on policies, schedules, curricula, books, modes of instruction and recreation. Perhaps we demand after school programs for adults and community access, and help provided to students in ways that address their wishes rather than imposing general patterns. Perhaps we demand equitable and as possible self managing roles for teachers and other employees and restrictions on operations, fees, and business in general seeking to increase prioritization of human well being and to reduce prioritization of profit making or bureaucratic politics. Perhaps we demand education that helps students to become what they want, not to become what society’s current roles require.

For a family, perhaps we demand a role for children in conceiving and settling on schedules, entertainment, books, instruction, supplies, and menus. Perhaps we demand room for childhood privacy in connections to the outside, and help provided in ways that address children’s wishes rather than imposing general patterns. Perhaps we demand equitable and as much as possible self managing roles for all family members to increase prioritization of human well being and to reduce prioritization of replicating sexist and other oppressive structures society still embodies.

For ourselves seeking the above sorts of change, perhaps we demand that our movements and organizations plant the seeds of a future we freely dåesire. Perhaps we conceive and pursue our aims in ways that elevate our best selves now as well as preparing the way for everyone’s best selves to emerge in the future.

Perhaps, in short, we steadfastly, consistently, and sustainably seek freedom, grasp responsibility, and vanquish alienation to find and forge a path out of the insanely unfree, irresponsible, and alienated world that we suffer into another, better world that we can enjoy.

[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Michael Albert | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Elena Herrada, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Paul Ortiz, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]