Histories of Violence: When Freedom Turns Ugly

Historians in the News
tags: liberty, freedom, Political theory

THIS IS THE 51st in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Elizabeth Anker, an associate professor of American Studies and Political Science at the George Washington University. She is the author of Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke, 2014) and Ugly Freedoms (Duke, forthcoming in 2022).


BRAD EVANS: Let’s begin this conversation by talking about freedom — or more to the point when freedom turns ugly (to invoke your provocative vocabulary). We can often think about freedom as being the opposite of oppression. And yet as your latest book, Ugly Freedoms, testifies, freedom can be the condition of possibility that allows violence to thrive. Can you explain how you understand this relationship between freedom and violence?

ELIZABETH ANKER: Freedom is considered one of the highest values in politics, the very opposite of oppression, enslavement, and violence. Throughout modern history, freedom has taken shape as individual liberty, collective control over governance, and emancipation from tyranny — but it has also taken shape as the right to exploit and the power to subjugate. Perhaps the most obvious example is the American Revolution, when former colonial subjects liberated themselves from the yoke of unjust monarchy in a radical act of political worldmaking. Yet this liberation was only possible because of widespread land theft from indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land upon which they declared independence. Violent and world-destroying acts of dispossession were practiced by the founders as freedom of independence. The American Revolution also relied on and was funded in part by the enslaved labor of millions of Black people. Slavery, legalized by US juridical processes, was interpreted by white enslavers not as the opposite of liberty but as a practice of liberty. It entailed the freedom of local control and citizens’ self-rule, and the freedom of property. The system of slavery was thus not merely considered the opposite of freedom but also an iteration of freedom: the freedom of the master. Throughout modern history, practices of freedom have included enslavement and exploitation alongside independence and emancipation. This ambivalent legacy demands a full reckoning.

“Ugly freedom” names a dynamic in which practices of freedom produce harm, brutality, and subjugation as freedom. The injuries produced by the pursuit of modern freedom are well documented in feminist, Black, indigenous, and anticolonial political thought, among others, which detail how philosophies of free practice can rely on a metaphysics of gender, race, and civilizational enlightenment that harm and exclude those considered too dependent or barbaric to practice freedom or be worthy of its responsibilities. The concept of ugly freedom relies on those formative accounts, while arguing that those harms and exclusions are not only the violent effects of freedom but can also be considered free practice.

We can see this dynamic play out in current practices of eviction, the capacity of landlords to remove nonpaying tenants from their property. This capacity draws from freedom as property ownership and freedom as the capacity to make a profit in a free market, two of the central tenets of liberal freedom in capitalism. The freedom of landlords to evict poor tenants both requires and disregards systems of political economy that make one person’s poverty a source of profit for others. Those evicted are primarily poor women and their children, especially Black and brown women, who cannot make enough money in minimum-wage jobs to both support their family and pay high rent, nor do they have enough legal or social support to stay housed in one of the most economically unequal countries in the industrialized world. In a neoliberal era when wages are depressed, state support for impoverished families is minimal, and rent prices have skyrocketed in a deregulated housing market, the entire housing system prioritizes owners’ profit over renters’ lives. Evictions, and their support in legal policies and law enforcement, show how the legacies of dispossession, mastery, and patriarchy are not historical embarrassments but present structures of power that continued to be practiced as freedom.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books