Ever since taking an interest in politics, I have been concerned about one issue in particular: freedom. Having grown up in a conservative and highly repressive religious environment where Church elders decided everything from what you were allowed to wear and what movies you could watch to who you were allowed to marry, I had never known what it was like to be my own individual. From a young age I have to been conditioned to ignore all personal wishes and dreams and to submit entirely to my religious leaders’ wills. Now that I was free, I promised myself that I would never let anyone rule over me like that again.
Because of my experiences, I had an almost visceral reaction to words like “group” or “collective”. Even the term “solidarity” made me cringe because of how I had heard it being used growing up. To name one example, the notion of “solidarity among God’s people” was used as an argument to justify covering up sexual abuse of minors within the church.
The idea, which I would hear from time to time from leftist friends, that certain types of collectivism could be liberating to the individual sounded to me like the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I’ve since changed my mind on that issue. But more on that later.
The political ideologies which I was first drawn to were strongly individualistic. Right-wing Libertarianism, Objectivism and even anarcho-capitalism all captured my interest because they focused primarily on self-determination, something I had been denied most of my life. I became a die-hard individualist who believed that the best thing one could do was to focus on one’s own goals and not worry about trying to make the world a better place. I also wholeheartedly embraced capitalism, which for all its destructive aspects I couldn’t imagine could ever possibly be worse than a system where the group was placed above the individual.
Liked many people, I assumed that the notion that there is a fundamental conflict between the individual’s longing for freedom and the well-being of society as a whole was true. But after pondering about it I realized that not only does this not make sense but that the one cannot truly exist without the other. How can an individual be happy if the society around them is turning to shits (unless maybe they’re a sociopath)? Likewise, how can a group thrive if the individuals that make it up are not happy?
I witnessed first-hand an example of the later in the church I grew up in. We were often told that our congregation was made up of “the happiest people in the world” but the broken dreams and repression of individual wills made us miserable. Alcoholism, mental health issues, spousal abuse and suicide was rampant. We lived only for the church, the collective, but the collective felt like a prison.
Getting out of that environment was incredibly liberating and I have been passionate about freedom ever since.
I considered myself an individualistic, pro-capitalist libertarian for a long time because I genuinely believed it was the best system for liberty. But some things made me reconsider my position.
The first was the fact that freedom is far from accessible to all under capitalism. As a working-class person, it became increasingly clear to me. I realised that what I had loved all along about capitalism was that it gave the possibility of liberty. Because under this system you can have an incredible level of freedom – if you can find a way to amass enough capital. Freedom then becomes a prize you have to prove yourself worthy of, it’s the carrot dangling in front of the donkey to urge him to keep running. Most people, the working-class, are never allowed to catch that prize.
If I truly love freedom as much as I claim, I asked myself, why do I support a system that denies it to the majority of the world? But on the other hand, what would even be an alternative? Centralizing everything and letting the state redistribute the resources in a way some self-proclaimed Benevolent Overlords deem just? That has been tried before and it always ends in tyranny. Socialism then was not an option, I concluded.
But that was because I had a fundamental as well as common misunderstanding about politics: that it’s all about centralised socialism/communism vs. decentralised capitalism. Discovering thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and other left-wing anarchists and libertarians opened my eyes to another option: voluntary socialism. That is: people of their own free will joining forces in a decentralised fashion to gain freedom from the shackles of the corporations as well as of the state, both which struggle for ownership of the people.
Voluntary solidarity among workers has already achieved a lot. Without workers’ unions, for example, child labour would still be common. So would 14 hours work days and workers having no paid vacations or even days off. Worker cooperatives are another example of how workers can help liberate each other.
Of course, raising solidarity among the oppressed takes a hell of a lot more time than some violent revolution to overthrow the current system. But if the culture does not change first, can the change brought on by a revolution persist?
Today I believe free, voluntary cooperation between workers is the greatest way we can liberate ourselves. Since becoming involved in workers’ rights activism, I witness every day both big and small ways people help each other out. Whether it’s holding demonstrations, starting co-ops together and just lending emotional support. There is so much we can do without having to ask for permission from the state or private exploiters.
I will be writing more on this in the future but for today I would like to end this post with a slogan we shouted at the syndicalist manifestation I attended yesterday (translated from Swedish):
We free the people and the people are us!