Source: Laura Arroyo Gárate. Ser.pe News
One day freedom said to the law: ‘You are in my way’.
The law replied to freedom: ‘I keep you’.
There is a common thread that links cases that seem distant but are not. A common thread from the Congressman of the Republic, Alejandro Cavero, posing with a bag of ‘Chees Tris’ in response to the announcement issued by Indecopi demanding the withdrawal of this product from the market for threatening the health of those who consume them, to the recent controversy over Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis player whose conception of “freedom”, exercised to not vaccinate against covid-19, cost him his participation in the Australian Open in 2022. A common thread that is also a political strategy that, once again, has words as its main battle weapon.
The dispute over the word “freedom” is not a recent one. In recent years we have seen how it has been used by political forces, especially on the extreme right, as part of a discursive strategy that seeks to antagonise “freedom” with everything they ideologically define as negative. This strategy is based on the construction of a whimsical antonymy, the advantage of which is, on the one hand, that it is not necessary to define in any case that which is being pointed out as antagonistic, and, on the other hand, that it does not involve defining what they are really talking about when they use the word “freedom”. In other words, what they use is not the word “freedom”, but its shell. That which we linguists call ‘signifier’.
That is why we can hear and read in the speeches of the self-styled defenders of this false “freedom” that they use it as an opposition to everything you can imagine. Against communism, freedom. Against socialism, freedom. Against the state, freedom. Against laws, freedom. Against terrorism, freedom. Against the Sao Paulo Forum, freedom. And the list could go on and on. As we can see, there is no need to define any of these antonyms, as the strategy does not aim to conceptualise or debate them; on the contrary, it is enough to point out the “threat” to this supposed “freedom” of which they alone are the defenders. The question then becomes clear: is there really a debate about freedom? Or, more importantly, what “freedom” are they talking about?
In “Etymologies for Surviving Chaos”, Italian writer Andrea Marcolongo takes a journey to the origin of 99 words. With precision and care, Marcolongo explores the etymology and also part of the historical transit of these 99 words that are 99 ideas, 99 concepts and, in good measure, 99 encounters between speakers. One of them is “freedom”. The author takes us back to the beginning by reminding us that Libertas (in Latin) and eleutheria (in Greek) are words that derive from an ancient Indo-European root “leudhero-“, meaning “one who has the right to belong to a people 1”.
Indeed, there is no synonymity between “freedom” and “individualism”. In fact, the exercise of freedom is directly related to belonging to “something bigger than ourselves”. As the author points out, thinking about “freedom” also implies immediately asking “what for”. Although freedom consists of an individual exercise of each subject, it is crossed by the consequence of this capacity to choose. A consequence that presupposes an encounter between peers.
Today we see that the use of “freedom” is completely distant from this concept. In fact, there are those who speak of “freedom” to refer to a purely individual, almost solitary self, where the encounter, the collective and the common do not exist. Or, at any rate, it is not important (which is even more worrying).
The pandemic context has allowed this false debate on freedom to go up a few notches. While the strategy of whimsical antonymy still holds, the accent has shifted to this rupture of the collective meaning of the word “freedom” in favour of a concept that suppresses the collectivity of which we are all a part. This desire to redefine “freedom” within these new coordinates, where individual action is the central axis, was not born with the pandemic, although today it is gaining more weight. The anti-vaccine discourse finds here a useful argument for its purpose by focusing on the will of the solitary self instead of that of the collective self, but let us look a little further back for, as I say, this is not entirely new.
This breakdown in the meaning of the word “freedom” explains, for example, why for years people have been advocating in defence of self-regulation (or self-censorship) by agents instead of placing value on laws that regulate for the benefit of all. Let’s think about the “freedom of expression” that every democrat defends, but at the same time the refusal of media powers in Peru to responsibly exercise their duty to inform with the truth. This is not only a moral or ethical issue, but evidence of how a false conception of “freedom” suppresses the responsibilities of each person for the common good and reproduces a false concept of “freedom” of expression. It is this false conception of “freedom” to which some journalists who claim that it is up to us, the viewers, to change the channel, are subscribing. Once again, they place the burden on the individual, as a solitary self, rather than on those who should assume their collective responsibility with professionalism. Likewise, it is this false notion of “freedom” that causes them to throw up their hands in the air when a Media Law is suggested to ensure truthful information, plurality and equal distribution of media space for the good of the collective.
The same can be said of the deification of the “free” market as the only possible model of development, ignoring the fact that it is a “freedom” of the market that is based on a fallacious concept of “freedom”. Once again, “self-regulation” is a word used as a way of guaranteeing the adequacy of this formula when, given the facts, it clearly does not exist. That is why at times of high demand for either paracetamol or antigen testing, as in this third wave for the Omicron variant, prices have escalated to embarrassing levels. This false notion of “freedom” may lead one to believe that this is what happens in a “free” market, but the truth is that this market is not “free”, it is abusive. And “freedom” cannot be anchored in individualism as the norm because, in doing so, it not only undermines its own concept but also directly undermines the common good. In other words, it is this false conception of “freedom” that has established a way not only of doing politics but also of coexisting among citizens: that of “every man for himself”. A phrase that sums up what this false “freedom” stands for.
Words are never accidental. Their use, massification, re-signification, etc. have to do with political and historical moments that make evident the foundations of our societies, which are communities of meaning. That is why it is important to dispute words, as they are what give identity to our spaces of belonging. A few months ago, I commented that after the 2021 election period, we had the task of reconstructing meaning in Peru. Words such as ‘democracy’ have been totally distorted and are in dispute. Likewise, words such as ‘State’ have re-entered the public agenda due to the pandemic that has displaced common meanings, cracking the neoliberal hegemony that prevailed without major obstacle in pre-pandemic Peru. This dispute within what we can call the battle of words undoubtedly includes ‘freedom’, perhaps one of the words that could be most useful to us in terms of the ways out of this crisis derived from the pandemic, which is a much deeper crisis.
The first thing to do, no doubt, is not to allow them to take the term away from us. It is necessary to point out bluntly and forcefully that they are not defenders of “freedom”, but of “individuality”. This cannot become a moral or ethical debate about “freedom” because, as we have seen, there is no such debate. This is not about being in solidarity with my peers and therefore vaccinating myself. This is about understanding that freedom is about a collective self, a people, an encounter. It is in the exercise of our real freedom that we vaccinate ourselves because we are only free in common. Therefore, it is time to unmask their strategy and point out that what they call “freedom” is “individualism” and that, in the end, they defend the solitude of the subjects. A loneliness that we know how harmful it is, because it is not possible to emerge from a crisis alone. It is the common pots that have provided food for thousands of Peruvians during the crisis, it is the chains of solidarity, ranging from initiatives to messages seeking ICU beds or oxygen balloons, that have saved the thousands of Peruvians who fortunately have not died from the pandemic. It is public health that has guaranteed the right to health for those who have been infected, while private capital has indebted thousands of soles to those who desperately came knocking on their doors. Yes, it is the collective, the common and the public that saves us, and this is the new sense of the times that after the pandemic should be the backbone of the construction of the new national consensus that we need.
Perhaps it is time to travel back in time, as Andrea Marcolongo does, to recognise how fundamental a word like “freedom” is to our collective Peruvian identity. It is no coincidence that this concept is present in the first line of our national anthem: “We are free, let us always be free”. We already knew then that one is only free in the plural. It is time to remember this and to recover true freedom.