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NOTE: What follows are a few notes on one aspect of the current ALA debacle. April Hathcock and Carrie Wade have both written more important and significant contributions, which you should read before (or instead of) mine.

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper… The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond [the sphere of necessity], though it can only fourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.

Marx, Capital, Volume 3: 958-9.

From a Marxist perspective, freedom is impossible as long as we live in an unfree world. But Marx’s concept of “unfreedom” is more nuanced than at first appears. The world is unfree not only because of the existence of ICE, the monstrous separation of children and families in what has looked like a police state since at least Ferguson, the draconian race-based travel restrictions, or the active and passive censorship conducted by government agencies. It is unfree because the material foundation of society is built on coercion, exploitation, and oppression. The history of colonialism and imperialism, the effects of both on Indigenous people and transported slaves, are moments of primitive accumulation that allowed capitalism to become the self-reproducing socio-economic system we see today. But primitive accumulation, as Silvia Federici reminds us, is not in the past. Unpaid internships, zero-hour contracts, housework, etc, are all elements of a continuing process of uncompensated labour, not to mention slavery itself. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (and others’) arguments in favour of reparations for slavery, like the “Wages for Housework” movement itself, is most significant in the way it brings this primitive accumulation out of the shadows where capitalism has consigned it.

Apart from primitive accumulation we still live in a society of compelled labour. As workers we have no choice but to sell our labour-power in order to survive. In what sense can any kind of freedom, including intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, be said to exist? In no meaningful sense.

Then there is the social aspect of intellectual freedom. Historical materialism argues that social institutions, norms, cultural expressions, “structures of feeling” and “forms of life” arise from the material - primarily economic - basis of society. As long as we live in what might be called “pre-post-scarcity” world, our thoughts, our speech, our expressions are in no sense “free”, unencumbered, unconstrained.

It seems to me that the peculiar attachment many American have to this idea of “freedom” stems from the concept’s place in their national myth (and it is a myth). The freedom of the American republic (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”) is predicated on the inequality of some men and of most women. The “freedom” of the republic has always been limited; an unlimited, absolute freedom has only ever been at best a rhetorical move. In other parts of the world we are less likely to evoke “freedom” as any kind of absolute value or justification. There is also something here of the “return of the repressed”, in that American freedom still today relies on less freedom for some, from slavery, through Jim Crow, to Ferguson, and beyond. “All men are created equal,” as Orwell wrote, “but some are more equal than others”.

So it is hard to see the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom hiding behind this absolutist sense of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech without thinking that they must not be as sure of their position as they would like us to believe. Why was the wording of the amendment seemingly rushed through? Why do so many ALA councillors feel that they have been misled? The charitable view is that this was simply a mistake, an inability to “read the room”, compounded by an inability to acknowledge the mistake and make it right. But it’s also possible that the absolutist view of intellectual freedom really does hold sway within the OIF.

This too, could be a mistake, but it could also be an expression of something altogether more troublesome: the weaponization of intellectual freedom to protect a status quo that the defenders of the amendment are perfectly comfortable with. I’ve written about the “aristocracy of labour”, but I want, this time, to refer to a perhaps surprising source.

In “Marxism and the Negro Problem”(1933), W.E.B. Du Bois writes about the distinction between the Black and White proletariat:

This black proletariat is not a part of the white proletariat. Black and white work together in many cases, and influence each other’s rates of wages. They have similar complaints against capitalists, save that the grievances of the Negro worker are more fundamental and indefensible, ranging as they do, since the day of Karl Marx, from chattel slavery, to the worst paid, serated, mobbed, and cheated labor in any civilized land.

But this division amongs the working class is what contributes to the worst condition of the Black proletariat:

The lowest and most fatal degree of its suffering comes not from the capitalists but from fellow white laborers. It is white labor that deprives the Negro of his right to vote, denies him education, denies him affiliation with trade unions, expels him from decent houses and neighbourhoods, and heaps upon him the insults of open color discrimination.

The amendment to the Bill of Rights interpretation is yet another example of this - expanded, in this case, to any group that serves as the target for one hate group or another. But equal opportunity to be harassed, attacked, and discriminated against isn’t “equality” or “freedom” either.

Du Bois’ prognosis is not positive; he sees no change in the condition of the Black proletariat coming from socialism:

The reformist program of Socialism meets no response from the white proletariat because it offers no escape to wealth and no effective bar to black labor, and a mud-sill of black labor is essential to white labor’s standard of living.

My own hope is that this division, too, is the product of economic necessity and exploitation, and that it may be overcome with the achievement of a new society. But the prospects are not heartening.

To be a white librarian arguing for an intellectual freedom that only existed to serve white people; an intellectual freedom that never existed outside the ideology of the white ruling class; an intellectual freedom now weaponized for the benefit of those who would drive us further away from what little freedom has been won over the generations, is unconscionable.

Give up the fig-leaf of “absolute freedom”, look to other countries as examples of how hate speech can be handled without calling down unlimited government censorship, listen to what others are telling you about their experience as people who have never been able to assume or rely on freedom, intellectual or otherwise. Or, as someone else put it on the OIF blog, get out of the way. Because if “intellectual freedom” does not really exist, then what matters is to fight for something else.


ALA OIF Responds to Library Bill of Rights Meeting Room Interpretation update

Letter to ALA OIF by Katie Elson Anderson

The American Library Association: Neutrality, Civility, and What Comes Next

UPDATE: I focused here on the question of race, as that seems to me the clearest historical example of the fallacy of “freedom” in a “free republic”, but I should make it clear that the hate groups in question are not only racist, but sexist, anti-semitic, homophobic, and in general against anything that marks people as different.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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