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In his book Eurocentrism, Samir Amin writes that modernity “is the claim that human beings, individually and collectively, can and must make their own history” (13). It is this claim that underpins a host of thinkers mainly, but not exclusively, forming the hegemonic core of the liberal tradition, such as Rousseau, Locke, and Kant. The values and presuppositions of this tradition - an abstract and sacrosanct concept of freedom, methodological individualism, white supremacy, patriarchy etc. - remains dominant within Western society, and provides the core doctrines of mainstream librarianship. Intellectual freedom - in the form which has vied with “social responsibility” at least since the 1930s - is part of this hegemonic liberal tradition deriving from the liberal thinkers of the late-17th and 18th centuries. This liberal tradition, up to and including the present moment, is the tradition of modernity (with “postmoderity” considered not as a break, but simply as the latest inflection of the modernist period). Liberal modernity is, of course, the intellectual, cultural, and political project of the male, white, bourgeoisie who used the intellectual tradition to buttress, support, and extend their own political and economic power in the form of capitalism.

Antonio Negri, however, traces a separate genealogy, one which begins with Machiavelli, and can be traced through Spinoza and Marx, and which constitutes an alternative “anti-modernity” in which the absolute freedom of liberalism is exposed as a myth. Spinoza, for example, denies both historical human-centred teleology and insists on a structural determinism deriving from the identity of God with the natural world: “men think themselves free”, he writes in the Ethics, “because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]” (26). The absolute freedom and sovereignty of individual desire is an article of faith for bourgeois liberalism (“the customer is always right”). For Spinoza, however, such freedom is an illusion:

Men are deceived in that they think themselves free (i.e. they think that, of their own free will, they can either do a thing or forbear doing it), an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. This, then, is their idea of freedom - that they do not know any cause of their actions. (53)

For Marx the atheist, of course, God is replaced by history as the structuring and determining agent. In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he writes that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (15). The connection between Spinoza and Marx in challenging the modern liberal idea that ‘men are free to make their own history’ also includes, in Negri’s view, Machiavelli, for whom the agency of virtù must contend with the structure of fortuna. And it connects also with Nietzsche, to whom Spinoza comes very close when he writes that “whatever conduces to health and the worship of God, [men] have called good, but what is contrary to these, evil” (Spinoza, Ethics, 29).

“Intellectual freedom”, then, is firmly embedded within liberal-bourgeois modernity, and the various intellectual freedom statements rest on the various liberal presumptions (absolute freedom, individualism, etc.). What are the consequences for intellectual freedom, then, if we take seriously the anti-modern genealogy, especially the thought of Spinoza, whose determinism is probably the strongest of all the anti-modern thinkers?

First, and this is a very common tenet within #critlib and social justice movements more generally, we have to recognize the power of structure. We are born into a society with a history that predates us, into a culture that is always-already present to us, determining our ideas and our relationships with other people and with power. I was born into the “liberal democratic” constitutional monarchy currently known as Canada - I was not free to do otherwise, nor am I free not to abide by the laws and customs of the country, supported by the power of the state and of social convention respectively, unless I am prepared to take the consequences. I am not free not to sell my labour for a wage, although I have not consented to this exploitative relationship. Such structures are all around us, operating intersectionally to overdetermine the development of what we tend to think of as “the individual”.

In addition to structure, we have to take power seriously. Power in liberal thinking is defused by consent. The social contract renders - in theory - all exercise of power consensual, no matter how cruel. For Hobbes, whose liberal theory persists today in a dark flipside to the openly avowed theory of Locke, every act by the sovereign power is “authored” by subjects, to the extent that even an unjust execution of a subject by a monarch cannot be considered an injury, because the subject is the author of his own execution (here, Hobbes is the forefather of victim-blaming). But in the anti-modern tradition, power is a vital force which plays a huge role in society, ethics, and politics. Machiavelli and Spinoza were derided as evil in the liberal-modern tradition precisely for their avowal of the importance of power. Marx and Engels’ “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” is an open avowal of the role of power in class society. Nietzsche’s Will to Power was twisted and distorted by his sister to provide an intellectual justification for the Third Reich. Liberalism sees power as an Other that must be excluded (repressed in the Freudian sense), just as power’s expression in violence must be either immediately neutralized (when it belongs to marginalized populations), or radically performed (by the police and the military) while at the same time euphemized out of polite discourse (“a man died” somehow…). Indeed “neutrality”, in librarianship and elsewhere, is meant as the neutralization of power itself, a prospect which lies at the heart of liberal modernity but is soundly rejected by the anti-modern tradition. As Nietzsche once wrote, “My formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal” - this is the complete opposite of a purported neutrality.

The dominant idea of “intellectual freedom” refuses to take either structure or power seriously. As the inheritor of the entire liberal-modern tradition, it is incapable of dealing with structure as the counterweight to absolute freedom, or commitment to a cause as a counterweight to neutrality. As a result, intellectual freedom becomes a tool to support the hegemony of liberal-modernity, bourgeois culture, and the capitalist mode of production itself.


Samir Amin, Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion, and Democracy: A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism, 2nd Ed., 2011, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Benedict De Spinoza, Ethics, 1996 [1677], London: Penguin Classics.

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1963 [1852], New York: International Publishers.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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