Preface: This essay was written for BYU’s History of Ideas course (HIST 312) in April of 2021. The recent attempts of the certain parts of the intellectual left to pretend that cultural Marxism doesn’t exist has made it suddenly relevant, as it’s necessary to place the stages of modern and postmodern Marxism in their context within the narrative of freedom and power. I’ve made some minor changes to this essay to highlight that. Book references are included in parenthesis rather than as end notes to make them simple to identify.
Is human autonomy possible?
If so, to what degree? And how do we recognize autonomy when we have gained it?
The starting point for such a question depends on what autonomy is. We have different words for it: freedom, liberty, self-determination, liberation. All of these words seem to be getting at a concept that humans understand and have a natural inclination to pursue, and yet we disagree on what it is. This appears to be more than just an argument over definitions, as it has been an issue since before the days of Socrates and has been argued in every language common to western philosophical writing.
Isaiah Berlin makes a well-known set of distinctions that is useful for classifying the two main threads of thought into which the “over two hundred senses” of liberty could be separated (Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1). Liberty in the “liberal” sense, in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the writers of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers, is what Berlin calls “negative liberty.” Autonomy in this sense is the freedom from violence and violent threats against an individual’s “life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, § 6). The second set of thought systems concerning autonomy is “positive liberty,” which takes many forms and includes the systems of Aristotle, Rousseau, Hegel, and of Marx and his followers. It is generally more nebulous and difficult to define and recognize than negative liberty but can be generally characterized as looking for freedom from influence. This could be the influence of our baser instincts that distract us from the pursuit of collective civic virtue in the understanding of Aristotle or Rousseau, or it could be the influence of economic or other external forms of power in Marxist, post-Marxist, Neo-Marxist doctrine.
A common rule of thumb for this distinction is that negative liberty is “freedom from,” while positive liberty is “freedom to.” But the rhetorical thrust in the systems of Marx and his various followers is also on “freedom from.” Not freedom from acts of violent aggression – attacks on “life, liberty, and property” as Locke and his followers might define it – but freedom from influence, or “power.” Freedom of speech can be conceived as freedom to speak, as though it were a positive right, but is typically legally understood as a freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, or property in retaliation for one’s speech. A better version of the rule of thumb, therefore could be that negative liberty is freedom from aggression, whereas positive liberty is freedom from influence.
Thinkers in the tradition of positive liberty before Marx focused on the influence of man’s base, selfish instincts, while Marx focused on the influence of economic power. Later neo-Marxists and post-Marxists identified and criticized many other forms of power, which they then related to the economic order in various ways to remain in the Marxist tradition. This dominant contemporary conception of influence and power was formalized in the work of the mid-Twentieth Century French critic Michel Foucault, who said that the modern struggle for autonomy “is a question of orienting ourselves to a conception of power which replaces… the privilege of sovereignty with the analysis of a multiple and mobile field of force relations” (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 102). This conception of power “is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (Sexuality, 93).
Given these two radically different understandings of human autonomy, the degree to which autonomy is possible and the approach to achieve or to get closer to it depends on each individual thinker’s conception of the forces that oppose autonomy. Among the theorists of negative liberty, autonomy is possible insofar as it is possible to curtail violence against life, liberty, and property while limiting the extent to which the state threatens them, usually by placing the individual and the state within a social contract. Among the theorists of positive liberty, autonomy requires the elimination of all power. To some of these thinkers, power is an inevitable part of human life which we can fight against in a “perpetual revolution” but never eliminate, while to others, power can eventually be eliminated as when we reach the “absolute,” that end point of the Hegelian/Marxist dialectical process that represents utopia, the end of history, and perfect autonomy.
The concept of negative liberty certainly wasn’t created in the modern period, but the emergence of the individual as a focus of thought during the enlightenment allowed for the refinement of negative liberty into its modern form. In the modern period negative liberty is primarily associated with British and American thinkers and with the empiricist and pragmatist epistemological traditions. There are multiple epistemological and metaphysical outlooks that can lead to a conclusion of negative liberty, and the only metaphysical stance necessary for a theory of negative liberty is some conception as the individual as subject.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, while both British Empiricists, differ fundamentally on their understanding of human nature and on their ultimate conclusions regarding government. But they both agree on the basic question of what freedom is. Hobbes accepts the notion of autonomy as “the absence of external impediments,” though he believes that without a state, a Leviathan to limit freedom, people would live in a constant state of war, their freedom paradoxically leading to mass deprivations of freedom by others (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 13). Without surrendering freedom to the absolute power of the Leviathan via the social contract, freedom is even more radically limited. As Hobbes infamously says, in this state life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, Ch. 13). Only limited human autonomy is then possible, according to Hobbes, as it is compromised by constant war in the state of nature or must be given up to the ruler as a part of the social contract.
Locke’s definition of autonomy may not be accepted as a universal within intellectual circles, but it is the premise beneath many political traditions to come after him. He agrees with the principle behind negative freedom, though he tries to expand the definition in a way that further excludes the possibility of being interpreted as positive freedom, saying that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Human Understanding, § 6). Locke makes clear that liberty is the right not to be subjected to aggression or threats of aggression, but it does not include the “license” to subject another to aggression or threats of aggression. Locke’s conception of liberty is useful because its particularly simple to identify when someone is free by whether they are being subjected to attack or threat of attack (except as retaliation or the possibility of retaliation for their own acts of aggression). This is the liberty referenced in the Declaration of Independence and by the anti-slavery abolition movements.
Locke differs from Hobbes in his understanding of human nature. He believes that the state of nature is one of autonomy already, though there exists the risk of attack against that autonomy. But it is not one of constant war, as Hobbes believes. Locke says that in the state of nature, each individual is tasked with the preservation of liberty by exercising their “right to punish the offender and be executioner of the law of nature” (Human Understanding, § 7). This right is part of their autonomy, and it is a right they give up to the state upon entering a social contract. When one is a member of a social contract which they have consented to, they even then are arguably perfectly autonomous in Locke’s understanding.
Later thinkers in the tradition of Locke have focused on discovering how liberty might be preserved while sacrificing a minimum of one’s own autonomy to the state or even rejecting the social contract as non-consensual and therefore incompatible with autonomy. After the rise of Marxist thought, thinkers working in the paradigm of negative liberty ranging from John Stuart Mill or Lysander Spooner in the nineteenth century and up to Robert Nozick or Murray Rothbard in the late twentieth century were relegated to the fringes outside the mainstream of Western academic philosophy.
“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Of the Social Contract, Bk. 1, Ch. 1). Rousseau’s assertion begins the modern understanding of positive liberty, and thinkers and academics from him to Foucault three hundred years later have dedicated their careers to the analysis of the forms these chains take. Rousseau thinks of liberty in an Aristotelian sense, focusing on what he calls “civil liberty” or “moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself” (Social Contract, Bk. 1, Ch. 8). He acknowledges the existence of negative liberty as a “natural independence” but believes that civil liberty is the ultimate form of human autonomy which is can only be gained in entering a social contract (Social Contract, Bk. 2, Ch. 4).
Rousseau’s civil liberty is the liberty of a citizen. “Individual self-interest may speak to him quite differently from how the common interest does,” so that where they conflict, “each individual will be forced to be free” (Social Contract, Bk. 1, Ch. 7). The common interest, or “general will,” represents man’s true interest, and to comply with and support that general will is to be free from those chains. The obvious political problems that come from discovering the general will and forcing compliance with it mean that human autonomy waxes and wanes with the life cycle of each government. “The body politic, like the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction” (Social Contract, Bk. 3, Ch. 11).
Hegel represents a turning point in thought, not merely because of his influence on Marx, but also due to the implications of his dialectical method. In Hegel’s dialectical conception of society, the particular and the universal are essential members of a relationship that makes them complete, or “absolute.” This is the dialectical approach that Hegel applies to every basic relationship in metaphysics. This approach allows for both negative and positive liberty, as the liberty of both the individual (the particular) and society (the universal) are necessary for absolute liberty.
“All the qualities of Spirit exist only through Freedom; that all are but means for attaining Freedom” (Hegel, Philosophy of History, 77). This conception differs from that of Rousseau, as both freedom of the individual and of society are necessary for absolute freedom, and therefore forcing someone to be free would not be compatible with absolute freedom. Hegel believes that all history is a process of realizing and refining autonomy, and that the disagreement between Locke and Rousseau on the meaning of freedom will be reconciled in the ultimate realization of autonomy.
The Hegelian approach to the history of ideas means that ultimate, absolute autonomy is possible when society reaches the “absolute.” This is the state in which the spirit, meaning both the spirit of the individual and the spirit of society, exists “in and for itself.” Hegel believes that all aspects of society follow this approach of dialectic progression, that science, philosophy, art, law, politics, and any other matters of contention are constantly being refined and will eventually reach an end state, the final “synthesis” or “absolute.” True and complete autonomy is only possible in this final state of synthesis, as freedom is an “indefinite, and incalculable ambiguous term” that can only be understood within the absolute (Philosophy of History, 79).
Marx inherits Hegel’s belief that history is undergoing a process to achieve a final state of synthesis, though he “turns Hegel on his head” by focusing on the economic processes he believes determine changes in political and intellectual life. His process is the beginning of a unique trend in that he focuses on the ultimate causes of the forces which exercise influence on people against their autonomy. He believes that workers in the capitalist system are slaves due to both the influence the employer has by offering them wages to influence them to give up the fruits of their labor as well as the influence the capitalist system as a whole as on “consciousness.” There is no state of nature or social contract in Marxist thought, because humans are fundamentally economic creatures whose behavior has always been influenced by economic demands, even when they were just the economic demands of the household.
A truly autonomous person, says Marx, is not influenced by the lure of wages or the economic needs of society. An autonomous person can “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” (Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” in Marx-Engels Reader, 160). As long as there are economic factors that influence his work, he is not truly autonomous. But Marx believes that after the overthrow of capitalism, in the Communist society that constitutes the “absolute” theorized by Hegel’s approach, there will be no economic factors influencing people’s behavior, and they will therefore be completely free.
Autonomy is not just a possibility for Marx, it is an inevitability, though it can only exist in that “absolute” state after the workers inevitably overthrow capitalism and establish a state without property. Marx believes that in this state there will be no economic influences, and therefore no other kind of influences, acting on anyone, as politics, law, and culture are downstream of and dependent on economics.
Marx’s understanding of autonomy as the absence of power or influence was tremendously influential in academia, though the historical events of the first half of the twentieth century would cause a crisis for the concept of Hegelian/Marxist progression. The Hegelian belief that society was progressing toward a stable end state of absolute justice was seriously threatened when the Second World War showed that the First World War was not the “war to end all wars,” but the beginning of a period of over 200 million excess deaths in less than thirty years, setting up not a stable peace but another potential showdown between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in its immediate aftermath. In Bolshevik Russia and Maoist China, it appeared that communism was obviously not a final stage of economic progression, but a political movement. The Marxist thinkers in the post-war period also had to explain why communist nations appeared to have oppression without economic oppression, which shouldn’t be possible in the Marxist framework. Put simply, the first problem is whether positive freedom, the absence of all power/influence, was still to be considered inevitable or even possible, and the second is whether economic power is the fundamental form of power/influence.
Antonio Gramsci was confronted directly by these problems as a prisoner of the regime of Mussolini, who had once a been member of the National Directorate of the Italian Socialist Party and yet had created a regime that was clearly not the absolute state Marx predicts and had even greater oppressions than ever before. Gramsci, a Marxist, believes the missing explanatory factors in Marxist thought are culture and the intellectual class responsible for it. Cultural influence is still downstream from economic influence, according to Gramsci, but the bourgeoisie, through their control over culture, have the ability to delay or redirect the natural reaction to their economic oppression by indoctrinating the proletariat with their bourgeois morality. “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government” (Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectuals” in Selections from Prison Notebooks, 145).
Theodor Adorno, a German neo-Marxist of the “Frankfurt School” working out of the University of Columbia during and after WWII, follows and expands on Gramsci’s insight regarding culture in the capitalist world. He is aggressively critical of negative freedom, saying that “freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same” (Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, 135). Culture, for Adorno, is also a means of influence which threatens human autonomy.
The project of both Adorno and Gramsci is to identify culture as a causal factor in the progress of history. As Marx believes that capitalism is an economic race to the bottom, in which things get progressively worse for the proletariat until the proletariat inevitably retaliates, leading to the final synthesis, Adorno believes that there is a similar race to the bottom in culture. “Today, works of art, suitably packaged like political slogans, are pressed on a reluctant public at reduced prices by the culture industry” (“Culture Industry,” 133). If we understand the process of cultural decline for the proletariat Adorno believes is linked with capitalism as the same process of economic decline for the proletariat Marx believes is linked with capitalism, then we can predict what must happen in culture if it follows the Marxist pattern in economics. Eventually, the proletariat must rise up against the culture industry, which, according to Adorno, “they recognize as false” (“Culture Industry,” 136). The inevitability of a final absolute state, in which all power/influence against autonomy is overthrown, is thereby resurrected in Adorno’s system, because the true revolution will be against the capitalist “culture industry.” This is why Adorno and the Frankfurt school can be referred to as the “neo-Marxists” or “cultural Marxists.”
In traditional Marxism, the economy is the structure on which everything else in society – culture, science, philosophy, religion, etc. – is built. Economics is the structure, everything else is the “superstructure.” Changes to the structure precede changes to the superstructure, but changes to the superstructure cannot change the base structure itself. Cultural Marxism is simply any strain of Marxism that considers culture to be part of the base structure rather than the superstructure. It asserts that the overthrow of capitalist culture is part of the overthrow of the capitalist economy, not an after effect of that overthrow. This intellectual framework is what makes Adorno a “cultural Marxist” rather than just a “Marxist cultural critic.”
The cultural Marxist framework might provide an answer to the first of Marxism’s two Twentieth-Century problems, that positive freedom as the absence of all power/influence can still be considered the final synthesis at the end of history, but Michel Foucault argued that there are still forms of oppression or influence that are not fully accounted for by economics and culture. Foucault believes that “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together,” and he commonly uses the term “power-knowledge” to show that they are fundamentally connected (Sexuality, 100).
In his History of Sexuality, Foucault claims that these discourses shape human identity using the example of homosexuality. He points out that the category of “homosexual” was developed as part of Victorian morality, and saying that “The machinery of power that focused on this whole alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality: it was implanted in bodies, slipped in beneath modes of conduct, made into a principle of classification and intelligibility, established as a raison d’etre and a natural order of disorder… The strategy behind this dissemination was to strew reality with them and incorporate them into the individual” (Sexuality, 44). Foucault believes that the identity of homosexuality, like all other identities, is created by discourse as an exercise of power.
Everything is systemic for Foucault, and the individual is just a node in the system, a construct of language and discourse. These power-relations are not simply an act of oppression of one person or group against another person or group as they are in the Marxist tradition or even in the tradition of negative freedom. Even though “power relations… are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice of decision of an individual subject” (Sexuality, 95).
Foucault’s analysis of power describes the means by which we might resist or overthrow and transform it, but we ultimately cannot eliminate power, because power is knowledge. Power-knowledge certainly isn’t caught in a race to the bottom that will lead to the inevitable destruction of all power-knowledge as capitalism and the cultural industry are claimed to be in Marxism and neo-Marxism. Human autonomy is not inevitable in Foucault’s system, which is why he can be categorized as a post-Marxist. So to what degree is autonomy even possible in this now widespread Foucauldian worldview? Our freedom is limited by the range of options made possible within the context of the various discourses or power relations we exist at the nexus at. The Foucauldian system leaves us without even a criterion by which we can tell whether or not we are autonomous, as any knowledge of one’s autonomy is power-knowledge, and therefore subject to the influences of outside discourse.
Autonomy in the sense of negative freedom is easy to identify, if not always politically possible to achieve. Autonomy in sense of positive freedom before Hegel and Marx, as used by Rousseau and other earlier thinkers, is similarly identifiable and achievable, though difficult. In the systems of dialectical progression of history, Hegelianism, Marxism, and neo-Marxism, autonomy is not only achievable but inevitable. But in the post-Marxist sense, in which all sources of power and influence must be overthrown as forces against positive liberty, autonomy is ultimately not possible, though it remains something we must strive for anyway. This last understanding of autonomy is more radically different from the others than Locke’s negative liberty is different from Rousseau’s positive liberty, as it calls for a state of “perpetual revolution” as Mao put it. It calls for nothing less than the imperative to constantly redefine autonomy and then overthrow that new definition as another iteration of power-knowledge.
Top Image: “The Triumph of the Guillotine in Hell” by Nicolas Antoine Taunay, 1795