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Political freedom (also known as political autonomy or political agency) is a central concept in Western history and political thought and one of the most important (real or ideal) features of democratic societies.1 It has been described as a relationship free of oppression2 or coercion;3 the absence of disabling conditions for an individual and the fulfillment of enabling conditions;4 or the absence of lived conditions of compulsion, e.g. economic compulsion, in a society.5 Although political freedom is often interpreted negatively as the freedom from unreasonable external constraints on action,6 it can also refer to the positive exercise of rights, capacities and possibilities for action, and the exercise of social or group rights.7 The concept can also include freedom from "internal" constraints on political action or speech (e.g. social conformity, consistency, or "inauthentic" behaviour.)8 The concept of political freedom is closely connected with the concepts of civil liberties and human rights, which in democratic societies are usually afforded legal protection from the state.
Various groups along the political spectrum naturally differ on what they believe constitutes "true" political freedom.
Left wing political philosophy generally couples the notion of freedom with that of positive liberty, or the enabling of a group or individual to determine their own life or realize their own potential. Freedom, in this sense, may include freedom from poverty, starvation, treatable disease, and oppression, as well as freedom from force and coercion, from whomever they may issue.
[T]he use of "liberty" to describe the physical "ability to do what I want", the power to satisfy our wishes, or the extent of the choice of alternatives open to us ... has been deliberately fostered as part of the socialist argument ... the notion of collective power over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty.9
According to political philosopher Nikolas Kompridis, the pursuit of freedom in the modern era can be broadly divided into two motivating ideals: freedom as autonomy or independence; and freedom as the ability to cooperatively initiate a new beginning.12
Political freedom has also been theorized in its opposition to (and a condition of) "power relations", or the power of "action upon actions," by Michel Foucault.13 It has also been closely identified with certain kinds of artistic and cultural practice by Cornelius Castoriadis, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Ranciere, and Theodor Adorno.
Environmentalists often argue that political freedoms should include some constraint on use of ecosystems. They maintain there is no such thing, for instance, as "freedom to pollute" or "freedom to deforest" given that such activities create negative externalities. The popularity of SUVs, golf, and urban sprawl has been used as evidence that some ideas of freedom and ecological conservation can clash. This leads at times to serious confrontations and clashes of values reflected in advertising campaigns, e.g. that of PETA regarding fur.
Hannah Arendt traces the origins of the concept of freedom to the practice of politics in ancient Greece. According to her study, the concept of freedom was historically inseparable from political action. Politics could only be practiced by those who had freed themselves from the necessities of life, so that they could attend to the realm of political affairs. According to Arendt, the concept of freedom became associated with the Christian notion of freedom of the will, or inner freedom, around the 5th century C.E. and since then, freedom as a form of political action has been neglected, even though, as she says, freedom is "the raison d'être of politics."15
Arendt says that political freedom is historically opposed to sovereignty or will-power, since in ancient Greece and Rome, the concept of freedom was inseparable from performance, and did not arise as a conflict between the "will" and the "self." Similarly, the idea of freedom as freedom from politics is a notion that developed in modern times. This is opposed to the idea of freedom as the capacity to "begin anew," which Arendt sees as a corollary to the innate human condition of natality, or our nature as "new beginnings and hence beginners."
In Arendt's view, political action is an interruption of automatic process, either natural or historical. The freedom to begin anew is thus an extension of "the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known."
- Hannah Arendt, "What is Freedom?", Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, (New York: Penguin, 1993).
- Iris Marion Young, "Five Faces of Oppression", Justice and the Politics of Difference" (Princeton University press, 1990), 39-65.
- Michael Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).
- Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Anchor Books, 2000).
- Karl Marx, "Alienated Labour" in Early Writings.
- Isaiah Berlin, Liberty (Oxford 2004).
- Charles Taylor, "What's Wrong With Negative Liberty?", Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge, 1985), 211-29.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"; Nikolas Kompridis, "Struggling Over the Meaning of Recognition: A Matter of Identity, Justice or Freedom?" in European Journal of Political Theory July 2007 vol. 6 no. 3 277-289.
- Friedrich August von Hayek, ‘Freedom and Coercion’ in David Miller (ed), Liberty (1991) pp. 80, 85-86
- Anarchism FAQ
- Alasdair MacIntyre, "The Virtues of Acknowledged Dependence", Rational Dependent Animals: Why Humans Need the Virtues (Open Court, 2001).
- Nikolas Kompridis, "The Idea of a New Beginning: A Romantic Source of Normativity and Freedom" in Philosophical Romanticism (New York: Routledge, 2007), 32-59.
- Michel Foucault, "The Subject and Power" in Paul Rabinow and Nikolas S. Rose, eds., The Essential Foucault.
- Acton, John D. (1907). The History of Freedom and Other Essays. London: Macmillan. p. 4.
- Hannah Arendt, "What is Freedom?", Between Past and Future: Eight exercises in political thought (New York: Penguin, 1993).
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