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Very often in this blog I have attacked the individualist, liberal conception of freedom in general and intellectual freedom in particular. In this post I want to offer an alternative conception of intellectual freedom that might have the potential to avoid some of the absolutist pitfalls that attend the current conception hegemonic within the profession. To begin with, I want to quote from David Harvey’s first political book, Social Justice and the City. There, he defines the difference between the commonly-used definition of ideology and the Marxist understanding of the word:

Marx gives a specific meaning to ideology - he regards it as an unaware expression of the underlying ideas and beliefs which attach to a particular social situation, in contrast to the aware and critical exposition of ideas in their social context which is frequently called ideology in the west.

For Marx, ideologies arise out of the social relationships prevailing in a given society: relationships of power, oppression, exchange, affection, domination, etc. These relationships in turn arise out of the particular economic organization of society: a society in which some people can only live by selling the one commmodity they own - labour power - to the people who own everything else produces particular social relationships and therefore particular ideas and ideologies. Fredric Jameson describes ideology (following Althusser) as the ways in which people make sense of the complex, rich, hidden realities of their social life, especially when those realities run counter to their own values, stories, and images of themselves. In this sense, racist assumptions are an ideological reflection of the realities of colonialism that colonizers and settlers do not want to face up to and are different from an openly adopted racist ideology. The subtle nature of ideologies is why the racist ideology produced in those who benefit from a racist society is so hard to admit when it is pointed out. The liberal ideology that underwrites the dominant conception of intellectual freedom is different from the Liberal political ideology. They both end up at the same place, but one is an openly avowed set of ideas and values, the other is a more-or-less unconscious set of ideas and values instilled in people via the social relationships in which they grow up. You can be a liberal (or a racist) without being a Liberal (or a member of the KKK).

Liberalism tends to deny the first definition of ideology. Liberalism sees ideas, thoughts, and values as a free choice of free individuals. When a person reaches the “age of discretion” then they, as self-determining adults, decide for themselves what they think about things, what they consider important, what their values are. Intellectual freedom is the defense of this freedom, which is the result of a taken-for-granted individual agency (liberty); it is the (presumed) freedom of individuals to intellectually engage with information, thoughts, data, etc, etc.

But non-liberal theories like Marxism, as I’ve written before, argue that such liberty is an illusion. It takes the structuring effects of social relations seriously, and therefore it takes ideology seriously. Our intellectual activity is always already structured by forces and relationships outside ourselves; we are not free in any absolute or unqualified sense. We cannot, for example, choose to have spoken a different language from that spoken in the home we grew up in. Ideology is one outcome of the structuring effect of society; indeed, it is one of the core purposes of society: to pass along values, ideas, and understanding from one generation to the next so that learning is not lost, knowledge condemned to be reacquired with every generation. Ideology is not, in itself, a bad thing.

What this means, though, is that the self-directed intellectual activity of the liberal individual is a myth. It doesn’t exist, it has never existed. Everything librarians think of as “upholding intellectual freedom” only upholds the subtle, unconscious ideology of liberal-capitalism. This is why intellectual freedom and “neutrality” occupy such a central place in the rhetoric and discourse of librarianship: because their function is to enable the ideological reproduction (and thereby the social reproduction more generally) of capitalist society itself. We have to challenge the “neutral”, liberal conception of intellectual freedom not only because we have other values that we also want to uphold (collective values, community values, social justice values), but also because the intellectual freedom that is hegemonic within the profession is there to reproduce the ideologies of capitalism, including its racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia. These ideologies are not accidental, are not simply misunderstandings that can be cleared up through recourse to more information or a better argument. They are reflections of real inequalities and oppressive structures integral to the (by definition exploitative) capitalist mode of production. They can’t be extinguished simply through debate or an exhortation to think differently. They can only be extinguished through a change in the material forces and the social relations of society.

This could be read as an argument for quietism, for inaction, for waiting for the world to change for new values, ideas, etc, to take hold. But that is not what I am arguing, because the relationship of material forces to ideology is not a one-way, simple determinism. Ideas feed back into our collective lives, our collective struggles, into how we relate to the world. What I am arguing for is a conception of intellectual freedom that takes this situation seriously, that recognizes that transphobia is not just ignorance, not just misunderstanding, not amenable to debate and discussion, but serves an ideological purpose in capitalist society which must be confronted and challenged. In Jim Turk’s writings on intellectual freedom there is an implication that the library’s job is to set aside space for other people to change the world at some unspecified point in the future, that liberal intellectual freedom is there to enable a progress in ideas. But it cannot do this if it is not also engaged in trying to change our social relations. Intellectual freedom in this sense must take sides, must commit to the values that we want to see in the world, because these ideas have ontological status also. In order to change the world we have to defend alternative social relationships, because these alternatives provide blueprints for the changes to come. A non-liberal, non-absolutist IF must see itself not as protecting some already existing innate freedom but as actively working to free the intellect from ignorance and capitalist, patriarchal, racist, transphobic ideology. This would be an IF committed to something other than the status quo.

What would this other look like? Well, that probably doesn’t need to be pinned down too closely, but we can see a hint of it in the library values that often fall by the wayside, trumped by an absolute deference to liberal intellectual freedom: community, collectivity, solidarity, equality. From my perspective, this means constituent power: the unlimited, and unlimitable self-determination of the community, unconstrainted by institutionally, organizationally, or economically constituted power. It is possible, as we saw in Toronto, for a community to decide for itself the values it wants to hold and uphold.

Which brings me to another straw-person argument deployed by IF-absolutists like Jim Turk: the idea that any infringement of liberal intellectual freedom is automatically the equivalent to the Chinese government imprisoning dissident artists. It’s a disingenuous argument because no critic of IF-absolutism would come down on the side of the state in a case like that. But for liberals, there is no difference between the constituted power of sovereignty and the state, on the one hand, and the self-determining action of the community on the other. This is the horseshoe theory as applied to intellectual freedom, and it is as disingenuous as the horseshoe theory applied in any other context. Again, this position derives from classical liberal political theory, in which the bourgeoisie (the middle class) occupies a tense and unstable middle ground between the authority of church and state, and the unruly mob. For liberal ideology, there really is no difference between autocracy and full democracy: both, to liberals, are tyrannical, a positioned enshrined in the social contract theorists, notably Hobbes.

The version of intellectual freedom I am proposing is less a noun - static, present, a defensible status quo - than it is a verb: intellectual freedom must mean the freeing of the intellect, the leading out (ex-ducere, educating) of intellectual activity from ignorance and prejudice. Liberal intellectual freedom is passive, it waits to be manipulated by charlatans and bigots and calls that neutrality; the kind of intellectual freedom I am thinking about is active, a commitment to an intellectual life shared by all and lived in common.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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