Freedom and Human Rights under Imperialist Hegemony

E. San Juan, Jr.

"Freedom is the consciousness of necessity".

-- Christopher Caudwell

[Written in May 2001 a few months before September 11, this essay (delivered at the founding of the International League of Peoples' Struggles) anticipates to some extent the apparatus of ideological mystification now deployed by the Bush administration's "war on terrorism". During the Vietnam "counter-insurgency" war and other interventions in Central and South America in the 80s and 90s, U.S. media and official propaganda exercised a rigorously liberal "free play" of signifiers in the "undecidable" slippages of meaning attached to such terms as "internal security and stability", "collateral damage", and "insurgents" that have returned full force in the "killing fields" of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today the "rebels" in Iraq are not Iraqis opposed to U.S. occupation but foreigners like "Abu Musab al Zarqawi", completely different from Bush's "coalition of the willing". The new nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, may not be a disciple of Derrida, Butler or Bhabha; but his record shows that he is a proven specialist in deconstructive language-games when he claimed that the U.S. does not practise torture since "rough treatment" (as in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), besides being justified in the name of the preemptive defense of U.S. democracy and Western civilization, cannot be considered torture and a violation of the Geneva Conventions covering prisoners of war. The genocidal campaign that destroyed Falluja is more than a signifier that cannot be decentered except by 500-pound bombs and the full armory of the occupying power; it is an index of capitalist barbarism in the age of neoliberal globalization. As Omar Khan recently observed, "U.S. Defense Department objectives in Fallujah will be impeded only by the bodies of liberated Iraqis at their feet" ("Covering Fallujah"). Such is the "disseminating" virtue of deconstruction and bourgeois humanism --ESJ.] 

It seems felicitous that this founding event of the International League of Peoples' Struggle and its theme of the need for international solidarity is occurring at a time when the popular struggle against capitalist globalization is reaching a new high level of militancy. We inhabit today a "New World Order" of unbridled aggression against the masses of working people by U.S.-led hegemony. Post-Cold War interventions, this time directed toward China, Cuba, and other "rogue" states, are being mounted by the militarist corporate elite. While the rightists have seized power in the United States (circa 2000), the revolutionary forces in the "third world" are regrouping. In the Philippines, for example, the National Democratic Front has waged a successful movement to oust the corrupt Estrada regime and convince the Arroyo government of new peace talks. Meanwhile, the reactionary forces led by benighted elements of the Church and the feudal-comprador intelligentsia have mounted a repressive campaign of censorship of media as part of a strategy of recuperating lost ground.

Since the 1898 revolution against Spain and the resistance against U.S. imperialism from 1900 to the present, the Filipino people have affirmed the value of a secular, democratic, and scientific culture as a weapon in the fight for national independence and social justice. I think the controversy over the "redeeming" or pornographic qualities of the film "Live Show" (a film that exposes major social diseases, among others, the prostitution of Filipino men and women) masks the real stakes in this ideological struggle: whether citizens can have the freedom to gain enlightenment about the reality of social life through the exercise of practical reason, or be forced to endure tutelage from authorities who countenance or benefit from such exploitation. The old imperial "civilizing mission" is now being revived by the neocolonial comprador state. The stakes are not a matter of abstract rights or choices. Ultimately, the fight over control of the media and other means of communication reveals the intensity of the class struggles in specific conjunctures of a world-wide systemic crisis.

I want to examine first the question of freedom in the context of the crisis of Western humanism. There has been a trend, especially among Western academics, to complicate the question of freedom by problematizing the self, the "decentered" subject. A recent volume of Oxford Amnesty Lectures entitled Freedom and Interpretation emphasizes the ambiguity of human rights since the human subject is no longer deemed an autonomous rational entity. Because of the indeterminacy of meanings based on language or on the psyche, the idea of humanity has been "deconstructed" to the point where identities and facts are no longer clear or certain. An American scholar, Barbara Johnson, argues that the concept of rights is paralyzed by its inherent "undecidability". 

Since rights in free-enterprise polities are abstract and formalistic, not contextual and interpersonal, they hide the "problematic models of property and identity"—the bourgeois white male subject is the norm behind such rights. On the other hand, Johnson writes, "that very rigidity can come to the aid of the powerless against the powerful if the adjudication of disputes in a more negotiated or experience-near manner would always favor those with the greatest resources. Thus, many argue that, despite their flaws, rights may be the only leverage the powerless possess to begin the process of leveling the playing field" (Johnson 8). For the deconstructive scholastics, a rigorous re-reading of the language of rights, as formulated for example in the U.S. Constitution, "would be inseparable from the attempt to bring about social change" (8). For Johnson, there is nothing wrong with Western humanism as such; the problem is that its promises were not kept, mainly because the foundational texts of Western civilization "covered over" the injustices and oppressions that today can no longer be excused, hidden, or expunged.

It is one thing to demystify the language of domination, another to eliminate the structures whereby such language produces effects in the lived experience of humans. Can re-reading change the oppressive structures and institutions of social relations?  The investment in interpretation or hermeneutics as a method of rescuing bourgeois humanism from its limitations has characterized a certain practice of critical theory (e.g., Adorno and Habermas) despite its claims to being historicist or historically transformative. It would be instructive to contrast that manner of ideology-critique with Marx's early writings on censorship and freedom of the press.

In 1841 the young Marx, as a journalist for the Rheinische Zeitung, defended freedom of the press as an expression of its "rational and ethical" character (McLellan 84). He viewed the free press not as an extension of free trade or the free market, nor an appendix or mere profession, but as an activity "justified in itself"; anyone who writes from an exclusively professional point of view deserves censorship. Marx writes: "In no sense does the writer regard his works as a means. They are ends in themselves" (61). Writing is more than a means of livelihood; it expressed liberty and reason, a liberation from feudal tutelage. Marx regarded the press as the "public form of the people's historical spirit" (Adams 56); it transcended the "class spirit" and "narrow-mindedness" of the bourgeoisie—the "particularity of privilege" in contrast to the "general freedom of human nature" belonging to the citoyen. In the spirit of radical democratic idealism, Marx opposed censorship because he upheld reason and freedom as the "expression and realization" of every human community.

To grasp why writing became a means for crass acquisitive ends, no longer a species-fulfilling praxis, the ideal of freedom needs to be historicized. We need to reflect on the position of writers and cultural practitioners in the context of the process of production, in the "thickness" of social interactions immanent in the political economy of the life-world. With the triumph of the bourgeoisie and its ideology in the 19th century, the idea of freedom became identified with free trade, the "free flow of goods and services". Free exchange of commodities (labor-power eventually becoming the chief commodity) becomes naturalized as the condition of international exchange despite quotas, tariffs, customs, etc. imposed by nation-states; this equilibrium of the free market hinges on private property of the means of production, on free enterprise (Scruton 178). Freedom becomes equivalent to the private ownership of productive labor and its products, and the right to dispose of them. The capitalist mode of production based on exchange dissolves the archaic basis of the community on which "the objective individual" rested.

In Gründrisse, Marx traces the roots of alienation pervading modern society stemming from the process of capital accumulation. Exchange value predominates, resulting in "a system of general social metabolism of universal relations" independent of "the knowing and willing of individuals" (Meszaros 173). A situation of reciprocal indifference characterizes this commodity-centered milieu. What replaces "real communality and generality" is "comparison" (Haye 26). "Comparison" underlies the postmodern logic of difference shown by Johnson, the primacy of formal relations without content, as in nominalism and neopragmatism. With the contradictions between capital and labor, a network of informative and commercial surveillance, the embryo of the present global communication/media system, springs—an apparatus regulated by market-driven corporate mechanisms to increase profit (McChesney et al. 1998). In late-modern society, social alienation and reification based on commodity-fetishism have become globalized. Once lauded as the space of democratic politics, civil society or the public sphere has become marketized. Labor, instead of realizing human potential, has become thoroughly fetishized, compulsive, become "mere natural necessity" rather than an objectification of the subject. Real freedom, the many-sided development of humans in community with others, cannot arise from the rigors of the social division of labor, capitalist competition, and the "illusory community" which conceals class domination. The self-actualization of human "species powers" in the social individual can only occur when the private property of social wealth is abolished and the collective power of associated producers installed.

Such an occurrence is of course what we conceive of as a socialist revolution. In the absence of conditions favorable to such an event, we continue to endure the imperatives of a regime of competitive, possessive individualism. Here civil society and individual proprietary rights occupy center stage. The right of writers and artists to pursue their own interests—whether pleasure, fantasy-fulfillment, prestige, or group emancipation—becomes fundamental. But this is also, as Marx points out in "On the Jewish Question" and other works, the realm of "the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community" (Lukes 63). Historically, rights in the context of the exploitation of labor and the expropriation of surplus value tend to promote the interests of the class of property-owners. Bourgeois rights are integral to the contradictions of capitalist society, contradictions that can be mediated through standards of procedural justice enforced by the liberal state. Such a form of justice inheres in the application of an equal standard on unequal individuals, hence the paradoxical maintenance of social inequality among citizens enjoying abstract equality. This paradox seems to vitiate many eloquent defenses of the rights of individual writers to express themselves without any constraint, especially when such rights are used to reinforce the power of the bourgeois state against its political enemies, progressives and socialist forces organizing against capital or "third world" peoples resisting imperialist aggression.

Take the case of the famous writer Susan Sontag. In a public discussion of "The Writer and Human Rights" in the early eighties, she asserted that writers, while speaking "for a collective voice that is being repressed or inhibited", are defending "precisely the right to have an intensely private view of public matters" (26). But in the context of the intense Cold War rivalry then, "private" for Sontag served as a code-word for the virtue of capitalism against what she ridicules as "the socialist realism of the virtuous" in the Soviet Union or in Cuba. Her plea for "excellence" and for great writers became an unabashed apologetics for U.S. imperialism: "Whatever our criticism of American imperialism and whatever dangers the American military machine poses to the world, we must operate the same kind of judgment everywhere" (Sontag 27). This self-serving pronouncement was uttered at the height of U.S. aggression in Central America, particularly in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Sontag conceded that "great writers have not always spoken for truth or justice" (29), but this concession betrayed her dualism—great art transcends truth or justice—and her fatalism. Her pretense at universal judgment is as hypocritical and philistine as the pronouncements of transnational corporations (for example, Mobil-Exxon or Nike) in respecting the environment and the human rights of the workers they exploit.

Like any earnest liberal, Sontag probably would not agree with General Augusto Pinochet's censorship of the press sanctioned by the Chilean 1980 Constitution. Yet I have never found any evidence of Sontag protesting the intolerable torture and imprisonment of the journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, or taking notice of Palestinian writers in Israeli jails, and numerous instances of persecution of artists in Latin America and other countries where the United States exercises preponderant influence. Clearly, whenever we hear someone defend freedom of speech and other modes of cultural expression, we need to place this in concrete, specifically determinate historical contexts. Examples of contemporary opinions that claim universality but ultimately defend the status quo are those of David Lowenthal, professor of political science, who holds that the choice is "either a rigorous censorship of the mass media" or "accelerating dissent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later, of free society itself" (23), and of Roger Kimball, neoconservative opponent of "political correctness", who blames the romantic avant-garde for all kinds of excesses. Kimball quotes the philosopher John Searle who distinguishes between what is a right and what is morally permissible or acceptable. Searle's focus on social responsibility is invoked by the rightist critic to condemn art "whose entire raison d'etre is to shock and discommode" and thus "transform the art world into a moral cesspool" (137).

What neoconservative pundits in the United States are complaining about in the name of morality or responsibility, is really a plea for the regulation of art and culture by the imperial state. I think we need to ascertain the link between their insistence on social and aesthetic norms and the ideological-political intent and effect of such insistence in reinforcing a repressive status quo—what Henri Lefebvre calls "a bureaucratic society of controlled consumption" (72). Of course, they would not openly oppose the constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment, nor would these cosmopolitan ideologues of the Empire attack individual freedom. But this freedom, as everyone knows, is really the freedom to compete in the marketplace—the classic bourgeois definition of freedom—underwritten by the liberal philosophy of Locke and social-contract theory based on property rights. What I would counterpose to this is a concept of freedom as a person's alignment and intellectual-political commitment as the consciousness of such alignment in real life.

Raymond Williams analyzed the determinate, efficacious substance of freedom inscribed in the specific historical context of its exercise. The more significant question is: Who is choosing the right to speak or write?  Under what conditions?  For what purpose?  Williams reminds us that before we achieve awareness that we are situated in a specific time and place, we are already aligned or embedded without our choosing: "For we are born into a social situation, into social relationships, into a family, all of which have formed what we can later abstract as ourselves as individuals…  So born into a social situation with all its specific perspectives, and into a language, the writer begins by being aligned" (85). Freedom springs precisely from the discovery of our circumambient social relations. It springs from the recognition of the "formed experience, directed attention" that each artist inherits, the raw materials of one's craft, grounded in a historical phase of society, even before any conscious choice or any realization of the possibility of freedom can arise. We need to distinguish this from the neopragmatic and relativist concept of freedom as adjustment, or obedience to customary ways, that Richard Rorty (1999), for example, prescribes.

What freedom means from this transformative-critical perspective then is discerned in actual circumstances. It is embodied in action, in the "active consciousness of the social relationships which include ourselves and our practices", in grasping "the ground of our real connections with our own people and our own time" (Williams 203-204). Specifically, we need to recognize "the radical and inevitable connection between a writer's real social relations (considered not only 'individually' but in terms of the general social relations of 'writing' in a specific society and period, and within these the social relations embodied in particular kinds of writing) and the 'style' or 'forms' or 'content' of his work, now considered not abstractly but as expressions of these relations" (Williams 203-04). Williams proposes the idea of freedom as a duty to clear blocked channels and received boundaries so as to convert alignment into commitment, when the writer discovers "in the consciousness of our true conditions, [including conditions that set limits]"—that "placing in a people, in a language, and in a time, which is not a denial of freedom but, properly used, the means of its realization" (95). The historical limits as a means of realization—such is the dialectical process in which the problem of cultural freedom should be located, assayed, and practiced.

This dialectical-materialist conception of freedom, this process of alignment becoming commitment, may be found rendered authentic in the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the most important African-American writer in the United States today. What makes Mumia unique, among other things, is that he is a writer now confined in death-row in a maximum prison in Pennsylvania. He is about to be executed for a crime which is ascribed to him. The consensus is that the charge has no solid basis, his imprisonment unwarranted, although the criminal justice system of the United States has tried everything it can, against all evidences, to prove him guilty without doubt (Bloom 1999; Weinglass 2000).

Everyone knows the thoroughly racist nature of the justice system in the United States. What is Mumia really guilty of?  I think it is his ideas and his words that have provoked the wrath of the bourgeois power-elite and its coercive apparatus. Here I can only excerpt a few passages from Mumia's powerful work, Live from Death Row, to give you a sense of the danger the ruling class is facing: 

[Prison] visits are an exercise in humiliation.


In Pennsylvania, as in many other death states, noncontact visits are the rule. It is not just a security rule; it is a policy and structure that attempts to sever emotional connection by denying physical connection between the visitor and the inmate. Visits are conducted in a closed room, roughly eighty square feet in size. The prisoner is handcuffed and separated by a partition of shatterproof glass, steel trim, and wire mesh.


What visitors do not see, prior to the visit, is a horrifying spectacle—the body-cavity strip search [of the naked prisoner]…


The ultimate effect of noncontact visits is to weaken, and finally to sever, family ties. Through this policy and practice the state skillfully and intentionally denies those it condemns a fundamental element and expression of humanity—that of touch and physical contact—and thereby slowly erodes family ties already made tenuous by the distance between home and prison. Thus prisoners are as isolated psychologically as they are temporally and spatially. By state action, they become "dead" to those who know and love them, and therefore dead to themselves. For who are people, but for their relations and relationships? (10-12). 

In the seventies and eighties, Mumia as a journalist exposed the racist violence of the Philadelphia police department against the MOVE organization, which cost him his job. In 1994, the series of Mumia's commentaries from prison scheduled for broadcast on National Public Radio was stopped—they have now been incorporated in Live from Death Row, a book that speaks a history of truth to a corrupt apartheid power. Mumia's creative imagination will always be explosive and dangerous to a white-supremacist social order. In his next volume, Death Blossoms, Mumia defies the censorship of the state after 14 years in prison and indicts the so-called "free press". In the United States, the media utilizes lurid crime stories because "that is the stuff that sells…  They don't feed the public pieces that stimulate intelligent thought, pieces that might make people talk or even ask questions about the fundamental relationships of power, rank, and status…  Today the media is big business… When the power of the press is exercised in concert with the political machinery that is in place today—I'm talking about the right wing shift in American politics—what you have is a dangerous, malevolent concoction. It might sound paranoid, but that's what you have" (Death 95-98). Mumia acutely questions the depoliticization fostered by the commercial global media system based on neoliberalism (McChesney 2001), a policy that apologizes for and sanctions exploitation, injustice, and the bankruptcy of a cultural politics of greed and racist oppression of "third world" peoples, including those in the heart of the metropolitan imperial centers.

Like other prisoners in the "belly of the beast"—I am thinking of George Jackson and his immortal book Soledad Brother—Mumia is an exemplary cultural worker in the ranks of the united front against World Bank/WTO globalized oppression against the working masses in both North and South. Mumia is a cultural activist for freedom, an astute and versatile agent of conscientization (Freire 1970). In Mumia's alignment with the grass-roots insurgency of people of color in the United States, in his commitment to grasp the limits of his situation and explore the "weak links" of bourgeois hegemony afflicted with irresolvable contradictions, Mumia demonstrates how writing can be a weapon for people's liberation. He is not only aligned but also committed to the overthrow of finance capital and the destruction of the conditions that produce and reproduce the dehumanizing alienation and misery which transnational corporations inflict on everyone. Mumia has pursued a historical materialist orientation in cultural practice, one succinctly formulated by Walter Benjamin: "The writer's mission is not to report but to struggle; not to play the spectator but to intervene actively" (77). The freedom to write, to express one's self as the conscience of the collective, acquires genuine emancipatory value when it critiques and challenges the power of global capital which commodifies everything, art and culture included, for nihilistic accumulation and waste. That is the historic task all writers, artists, and cultural practitioners need to address today (see San Juan "The Imperialist War on Terrorism and the Responsibility of Cultural Studies" and Working Through the Contradictions). 

[ Text of a paper delivered at the Founding Congress of the International League of Peoples' Struggles, May 26, 2001, at Zutphen, The Netherlands.]

Works Cited 

Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Live from Death Row. New York:  Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

____. Death Blossoms. Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 1997.

Adams, H. P. Karl Marx in His Earlier Writings. New York: Antheneum, 1972.

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. Ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Harcourt BraceJovanovich, 1978.

Bloom, Steve. Fighting for Justice: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Detroit: Solidarity, 1999.

Collier, Andrew. Socialist Reasoning. London: Pluto Press, 1990.

Freire, Paulo. Cultural Action for Freedom. Cambridge, Mass: Center for the Study of Development and Social Change, 1970.

Haye,Yves de la. "Introduction: Contribution to the Materialist Analysis of the Media."  In Marx and Engels On the Means of Communication, ed. by Yves de la Haye. New York: International General; Bagnolet, France: International Mass Media Research Center, 1980.

Hirschkop, Ken. "Democracy and the New Technologies". In Capitalism and the Information Age. Ed. R. McChesney et al. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

Johnson, Barbara. "Introduction" to Freedom and Interpretation. Oxford Amnesty Lectures. New York: Basic Books, 1993.  

Khan, Omar. "Covering Fallujah". Z Net (Nov. 14, 2004)

Kimball, Roger. "Artists Overstate the Effects of Government Regulation". In Censorship. Ed. Laura Egendorf. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Lefebvre, Henri. Everyday Life in the Modern World. Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Lowenthal, David. "Censorship Is Necessary". In Censorship. Ed. L. Egendorf. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Lukes, Steven. Marxism and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Marx, Karl. Gründrisse (1857-58). Trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage, 1973.

____.and Friedrich Engels. Marx & Engels on Literature and Art. Milwaukee: Telos Press, 1973.

McChesney, Robert W. "Global Media, Neoliberalism, and Imperialism". Monthly Review 52 (March, 2001): 1-19.

McChesney, Robert W., et al. Capitalism and the Information Age. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. .

McLellan, David. Marx Before Marxism. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Meszaros, Istvan. Socialism or Barbarism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Rorty, Richard. Hope in Place of Knowledge. Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1999.

San Juan, E. "The Imperialist War on Terrorism and the Responsibility of Cultural Studies". Arena Journal 20 (2002 -2003): 45-56.

____. Working Through the Contradictions: From Cultural Theory to Critical Practice. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2004.

Scruton, Roger. A Dictionary of Political Thought. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982.

Sontag, Susan and Carolyn Forche. "The Two Voices: A Discussion". In The Writer and Human Rights. Ed. Toronto Arts Group for Human Rights. New York: Anchor Press, 1983.

Stroessen, Nadine. Defending Pornography. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

Weinglass, Leonard. "The Political Economy of Race, Class, Gender, and Social Death". Souls 2.1 (Winter, 2000): 84-87. 

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. ____. Resources of Hope. London: Verso, 1989.

THE RED CRITIQUE 10 (Winter/Spring 2005)