Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Freedom and Restraint: Part III

Social Restraints

One of the key restraints on totally free action in any human society is that which derives from social relationships, with a number of types of restraint being important, including the restraining influence of direct face to face interaction; economic restraint; and cultural custom and law.

Foucault’s conceptualization of power is important here. (The clearest statement of Foucault’s view of power, to my mind, is “The Subject and Power,” published as an afterward to Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow.) For Foucault, power is not an entity that some have and others do not but is rather a quality of all social relationships. Power is action and influence on the actions of others. Everyone has some degree of freedom to act, including to act to influence the actions of others, and at the same time, everyone’s actions are acted upon and influenced by those they are in interaction with. Everyone has some freedom (what differs is the degree); no one has complete freedom (and likewise no one is completely dominant or subordinate).

Power and Restraint in Interpersonal Relationships

In face to face interactions, Foucault’s notion of power applies straightforwardly (it applies in the other types of restraints I’ll discuss, too, just not so straightforwardly). In direct face to face interaction our actions have an influence on the actions of others present, and vice versa.

There may be formal restraint involved, such as with overt coercion, threats or acts of violence, but these are not typical. More typically, the ongoing sequence of actions shapes the degrees of freedom for any remotely normal subsequent action. If in a conversation, I ask, “What would you like to have for dinner?,” you could reply, “Screwdrivers.” There’s no formal restraint keeping you from doing so, but unless you’re a serious nutcase or a serious alcoholic, you wouldn’t response so. There’s a wide range of possible replies, but a wider range of impossible replies – if you care at all about seeming sane and reasonable (which some might not – and their actions are perhaps freer than the rest of us in many situations).

Bambi Schieffelin’s ethnography The Give and Take of Everyday Life beautifully describes the Kaluli society of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. It’s a small culture that gets by through gardening and hunting and gathering in the surrounding tropical forest. One of the interesting facets of Kaluli culture is the near absence of formal restraint on actions. There are occasional incidents of violence in the community (and Edward Schieffelin’s also beautiful and quite different ethnography of the same culture, The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, makes clear that there are more regular instances of violence targeting members of other communities), but the general Kaluli view is that no one has the legitimate right to coerce or force anyone to do anything. This includes the parent – child relationship. (Most people in western culture or most other cultures take for granted that it’s perfectly natural for parents to command the actions of their children, but really why should we take that for granted?) But this isn’t to say that there aren’t power relations at play in Kaluli society. People shape and influence one another’s actions constantly, through attempts at persuasion, through cajoling, through shaming and ostracization. In a small society with a high degree of mutual economic dependency, cajoling, shaming, and ostracizing are in fact highly effective tools to shape and restrain the actions of others.

Knowledge and memory of typical patterns of behavior or of a specific history of interactions with an individual are important in shaping individual free action as well, via anticipation of others’ actions. Foucault’s notion of power applies straightforwardly to direct face to face interactions, but because of the role of knowledge, memory, and anticipation, actions in one context can have a carry-over effect on the actions of others in further instances over time.

Economic Restraint

This discussion of economic restraint is related to my discussion of environmental restraint, the need to meet basic needs, and Julian Steward’s “culture core” concept in my previous blog post, “Freedom and Restraint: Part II.”

Meeting basic needs is done in relationship to nature. This might be highly direct, as with Kaluli hunting and gathering activities, or even their gardening practices. Or it might be highly indirect, such as in the modern world system, where we routinely buy packaged food products which have dozens of ingredients, all produced in different places, utilizing tools and resources produced or gleaned somewhere else, but which still have, however distant, a relationship to nature. But meeting basic needs is also done in relationship to economic exchange with others.

One’s place within a web of economic exchanges (which might take the form of direct face to face reciprocity or highly complex market systems) shapes one’s possible actions. This is true for the Kaluli, but it really has minimal effect on individual free action. In larger complex societies, this is a crucial consideration. One’s place within the overall political economy profoundly shapes one’s possibilities for action. Money is a sign of this place and shapes interactions. To a significant extent, money as a sign of accrued wealth is also a sign of one’s degree of freedom in action. More wealth equals more freedom. One consequence of this is that any significant increase in individual freedoms within the modern world system is dependent on corresponding significant increases in overall wealth, though the distribution of wealth is another critical consideration, i.e. expansion of wealth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for any significant expansion of freedom in the modern world system.

Consideration of economic restraints also brings to mind ways in which different sorts of restraints might butt up against one another. In “Freedom and Restraint: Part I,” I discussed different concepts of freedom. With the classical conception of freedom as the lack of formal restraint, wage laborers are free in the sense that they’re not obligated to work or to take a specific job. As Marx made clear, though, if freedom is thought of as the positive capacity to largely shape one’s own actions and destiny, wage laborers are hardly free to not work – they must work unless they’re independently wealthy. Most wage laborers have quite constrained possibilities for shaping their actions and lives – they’re hardly free at all in any realistic sense.

Many states in the United States have “right to work” laws, which prohibit closed union shops. Closed union shops do in fact represent a formal restraint on workers. They prevent workers from laboring there without joining the union. “Right to Work” laws prohibit this sort of formal restraint, and thus add to the freedom of workers in one way (mainly in a way that corresponds to classical notions of freedom and which not coincidently strengthens the bargaining position of capital). At the same time, closed union shops strengthen the position of unions’ collective bargaining activities, which can enhance workers’ economic position and thus, reduce economic restraints, thus increasing their freedom in another sense, i.e. increasing their ability to shape their own actions in general.

Custom and Law

Custom and law are not the same things, but they work similarly in providing explicit expectations for behavior, either through proscription or prescription. No one always meets the expectations of custom or law in all of their behavior, but most everyone is strongly influenced by them, either through proscriptive inhibition or the production of patterns of behavior under the influence of prescriptive law or custom. Further, their presence can serve to legitimate others’ actions constraining the actions of an individual.

Custom and law are not directly social relationships, and so act differently than other social restrictions and influences on action. However, they are the direct products of social relationships, i.e. produced by individuals in interaction. Further, they comprise a sort of abstract entity which acts as a crystallization of power relations. They constitute indirect social relations over time, as they are in effect one set of persons’ actions having continuous effect on others’ actions into the future.

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