There Should Be a Jailbreak II: Freedom as a Trap, Research Time, 27/08/2014

Continued from previous. . . . If she was going to stick only to the Nietzschean analysis of our drive to punishment that reveals its underlying desire for revenge, then her ideas would only be that of Nietzsche himself turned activist. The transition to political activism would itself be incomplete if a person stuck only to a Nietzschean framework for thinking. To put radically creative ideas into practice through political organizing, risking the corruption of your ideas in the ongoing whisper game of human society, you need fire.

Emma Goldman’s fire, and that of many other anarchist activists with whom she worked and who she followed, was born in the immense physical poverty of so many people. The state, police, and the classes of elite businessmen (and they were always men) who called the shots of government in her era made sure the mass of America’s population stayed poor, and were unable to lift themselves out of poverty even through starting businesses. And even though their material choices were always heavily constrained by all the circumstances and social frameworks that keep poor people poor, their poverty was always held to be their own responsibility.

This is a moment where metaphysics, which is normally a dry and serene tradition of largely useless contemplation of truths and questions that are taken to be fundamental, gains a ruthless political power. Much of Goldman’s argument in her essay on the injustice of the prison system focusses on how most crimes are crimes of necessity: the paradigm example is someone who is driven to a career as a thief or a drug dealer because no other viable options are available to him in his community, and he can find no employment elsewhere because of stigma about people from his community.

The answer to such crimes is not to punish the individual who commits them, but to ameliorate the economic and social conditions in which the individual lives, so that there are material opportunities for an honest living and an end to the prejudices in wider society that prevents people from disadvantaged communities from fully integrating with the whole country.

Namond Brice was one of the kids on The Wire who faced
a choice without freedom, locked in a community so
damaged that even his mother wanted him to deal drugs for
a living.
Very few people understand this, both in Goldman’s time and today. Instead, too many people see crime as an individual decision. If you’re a drug dealer, then it’s because you chose to be a drug dealer. It’s always your free choice. Goldman correctly identifies this as an ontological point, an idea about the fundamental nature of existence itself, given a horribly destructive political articulation. Each human being has free will: every human action is that individual’s own choice. Because we are all metaphysically free in this sense, each of us is wholly and completely responsible for our actions.

If we understand moral sanction in this way, then poverty and racial or religious discrimination is never a cause of evil activity: only the individual who commits a crime is responsible. Punishment is therefore the response to evil actions. Any recourse to environmental factors like a poverty-stricken lifestyle, discriminatory social norms, a non-existent legitimate economy, are seen as excuses. The free choice is always to do good or evil.

“You sell drugs and rob people for your living. That’s evil! You will be punished!”

“But there’s nothing else for me in my neighbourhood. Everyone I’ve ever known was either a drug dealer or a thief. My teachers never cared about our education and never even disciplined us in class. My father was killed by a police officer when I was five years old. My mother used to spend all the money she got from the government to feed me on drugs for herself. Even the nearest convenience store is two miles from my home. What else could I do but starve?”

“You always have a choice to do good or evil. You have free will. Because you did evil, you should be punished.”

“Should I let myself starve?”

Metaphysical freedom, the ostensible free will of the self-aware person, can’t trump someone’s lack of material freedom. 

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