What freedom?

Published August 14, 2015
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

MARX famously asserted that slaves, serfs and lower castes became ‘free’ when the bourgeoisie overthrew the nexus of feudal lords, clergy and kings that ruled over western Europe for centuries prior to the English and French revolutions.

No longer would one’s birth be the determinant of social status; a new world had emerged in which all human beings were considered equal – in the language of the French revolutionaries, everyone was a ‘citizen’ with immutable rights and entitlements that the modern state would protect. The age of divine kingship and caste-ism was over.

Yet even in its embryonic stage, the modern social order was hopelessly compromised. Only property-owners were deemed ‘citizens’ in the First Republic, a fact that rendered virtually meaningless what was otherwise an utterly compelling notion of ‘freedom’. In his unmistakeable sarcastic style, Marx opined that ‘freedom’ under the apparently enlightened bourgeoisie was effectively a meaningless choice: the property-less mass of working people was ‘free’ only to choose whom to sell its labour power to in exchange for the nominal wage that would keep it alive.

In the almost two centuries since Marx’s seminal critique of capitalist modernity first appeared, the world has undergone numerous transformations, most of which have been triggered by the ever-increasing capacity of the human intellect to understand and then harness the power of Nature. As we have traversed this journey, the blatant contradictions between the narrative of an enlightened and equal world and the brute realities of exploitation, discrimination and exclusion have never gone away – in fact they have become more acute, even while we try unfailingly to sweep them under the proverbial carpet.


The state itself is the heartbeat of a system in which historical oppression occurs.


It is in the context of the nation-state project that these contradictions come to the fore most glaringly. Every state in our world claims to be the paragon of freedom, enlightenment and guarantor of its citizens’ interests. Yet the state itself is the heartbeat of a system in which the historical oppression of the property-less, people of colour, women, ethnic and religious minorities – the wretched of the earth – is reproduced on a daily basis. Any genuine attempt to liberate human beings from the system that enslaves them must therefore be premised upon a challenge to the nation-state project.

It is not by chance that I write these words on ‘Independence Day’, when the last thing we are all supposed to be doing is challenging the nation-state. On this day we are trained to celebrate our ‘freedom’, and vow to defend it at all costs. We go out onto the streets with our families and soak up the carnival-like atmosphere. We give thanks for all of the things that Pakistan has given us.

It is on days like this that dissidents and critics are chastised for always painting the country in a negative light. While I appreciate the imperative of writing about and celebrating good things in society – and there are many – I think it is precisely on occasions like Independence Day when it is necessary to critically interrogate what freedom actually means.

Among other things we ought to pause for a second and consider whether all ‘citizens’ of this country actually share the nationalist sentiment that is most pronounced in urban centres. Is it likely, for example, that the humiliated villagers of Kasur who have been traumatised by the local police, administration and the gang of child molesters that these state functionaries have wilfully protected feel a great deal of love for Pakistan right now? Why would they?

And what about the thousands of residents of the I-11 katchi abadi in Islamabad whose homes were bulldozed into dust only two weeks before ‘Indepen­dence Day’? Do they feel like celebrating? What about the so-called IDPs languishing in camps, still unable to return to their homes? Or those ethnic-nationalist political forces who continue to be branded ‘traitors’ 68 years after they first acquired the lofty title (many of whom have never picked up a stone, let alone weapons, against the state)?

How do we reconcile the mundane suffering of those without power and money in our criminal justice system with the nominal idea that we are ‘free’? If one is poor or deemed a public enemy the principle that actually operates in our courts and police stations is ‘guilty until proven innocent’? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? And then there is the fact of ours being amongst the most patriarchal societies in the world, where most women do not even enjoy the freedom of walking down the street anonymously.

It is not as if the so-called ‘advanced’ societies are free from these contradictions – they were after all the original site of Marx’s critique of modern capitalism. The truth, however, is that we spend so much time distinguishing and defending ‘us’ from ‘them’ that we neglect that most of ‘us’ are anything but free, subject to the whims of those who rule in our name.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2015

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