“Yes, freedom! But true freedom, freedom for all”

A recent event in the United States gave a new life to a message contained in a book published in Brussels 180 years earlier. The central question was: can one fight for more equality while making freedom central rather than work?

“Yes, freedom! But true freedom, freedom for all”

Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, 15 May 2023. Thirty-odd scholars, most of them North-Americans, gathered to reflect on how people committed to social justice could “regain freedom” from people like Ron DeSantis.

The putative Republican presidential candidate and governor of Florida (according to him “the freest state in America”) has just published a book titled The Courage to be free and is promoting a “Freedom Agenda”. Are people committed to social justice doomed to defend equality against freedom?

When my turn came to speak, I was only too pleased to be able to start with a quote from a book published in Brussels: “Yes, freedom! That is what must be won; but true freedom, freedom for all, that freedom which one would seek in vain wherever one does not find equality and fraternity, its immortal sisters.”

The book was published in 1845, the same year as Karl Marx settled in Brussels. Its title was Organisation du travail and its author the French revolutionary Louis Blanc, originator of the famous formula “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”, later frequently used to describe what a fully liberated society could write on its banners.

The reason why I am particularly fond of this passage in Louis Blanc’s book is the clarity with which he makes the following distinction: “It is because freedom has been defined by the word "right" that we have come to call free people who are slaves of hunger, slaves of the cold, slaves of ignorance, slaves of uncertainty. Let us say it once and for all: freedom consists, not only in the RIGHT granted, but in the POWER given to man to exercise and develop his faculties, within the bounds of justice and under the protection of the law.

This distinction is crucial for the conception of social justice I developed in a book I published 150 years later under the title Real Freedom for All (Oxford, 1995). Freedom, for me, is not a value that may clash with equality.

Freedom is precisely what justice requires us to equalize, or at least to equalize up to the point from which further equalization would make the worse off even more worse off. But freedom should not be understood as formal freedom, the sheer right to do things. It should be understood as real freedom or, as Blanc puts it, “true freedom”, the power to do things, which requires access to resources of various kinds.

Freedom egalitarians, however, often have a hard time convincing fellow fighters for social justice who insist on giving a central place to work. For these “labourist” egalitarians, work tends to be both the only thing that entitles people to an income and the only thing that gives meaning to people’s lives. For them, the fight against capitalist exploitation is motivated by horror at the capitalist’s real freedom to enjoy life without working more than by a concern for the workers’ real freedom not to have to sell their labour power to a capitalist.

The tension between making work central and making freedom central in an egalitarian project is nowhere as salient as in the debate on the proposal of unconditional basic income. For freedom egalitarians, pleading for its introduction is self-evident. For “labourist” egalitarians, introducing it would be close to a calamity.

The opposition, however, should not be overstated. Freedom egalitarians insist that one should not fetishize paid work, which for many people can be an activity less fulfilling for themselves and less useful to society than what they would do if they had the option of spending less time on paid work. But they do not deny the importance paid work may have for the flourishing of many and the cohesion of society.

Freedom egalitarians also reject the traditional male model of life-long full-time employment as an ideal for all women and men. But they attach no less importance to the real freedom for all to access meaningful employment than to the real freedom for all to turn down or quit lousy jobs.

Moreover, in contrast to “labourists” egalitarians, freedom egalitarians can easily accommodate the importance that needs to be given to other dimensions of life than paid work, such as the quality of public spaces, a healthy environment or the fairness of intra-household arrangements. And they do not feel obliged to align automatically with the objectives and strategies of the organized labour movement, whose membership often consists of workers who are on average more secure, more full-time, more male and more “native” than the working population as a whole.

A fair distribution of real freedom is therefore important to guide the fight for social justice. But it is also important as a prerequisite for what should arguably be our ultimate criterion for a good society. Louis Blanc’s “true freedom” does not have one but two “immortal sisters”: not only equality but also fraternity. Fraternity is about the quality of interaction between people, about what they voluntarily do for each other.

Fraternal relations cannot be coerced into existence, for example through compulsory work. But they can be structurally promoted by a fair distribution of real freedom. If fraternity is to be fostered, “freedom must be won; but true freedom, freedom for all”, as Louis Blanc put it. And what holds for De Santis’s America holds no less for us in Europe, in Belgium and in Brussels.

Copyright © 2023 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.