Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Brief Moment of Self-Expression

Thanks to the hat tip from Southern Beale a few days ago, I've been experiencing an increase in traffic lately. If my stat counter is to be believed, a small but significant number of new readers are checking me out. I have some new commentary being offered by people who've never commented before. All of this is great and makes me smile.

Since I have been getting this new attention, I thought I would take the time to blather on about myself and my blog for those who aren't quite sure what's up.

First, a brief autobiographical essay:

I was born in Southern California and grew up in the Greater Los Angeles metroplex. My parents have been registered Republicans all their lives, but don't let this fool you. My father, despite his fiscal conservatism, is very libertarian on social issues and a strong believer in an improved (as opposed to merely expanded) social safety net. My mother is, and always has been, a straight-up liberal Rockefeller Republican. Couple this with the communal and collectivist sociology of the Mennonite Church in which I received my religious education and you can see that it's only natural I ended up on the left, regardless of the political party to which my parents belonged on paper.

Despite where I ended up, as a teen I flirted with conservative and libertarian politics because of my belief in certain elements of common sense economic and constitutional principles. The problem is that those common sense principles, which conservatives and libertarians rhetorically espouse, had nothing to do with actual right-wing politics. As I learned more about economics and political science, I was drawn more and more to the left. I changed my registration to the Democratic Party in my very early twenties and now, like my parents, my party registration is largely on paper; I am significantly to the left of most mainstream Democrats.

It was also in my early twenties that I met my partner, whom I love very much. For reasons of economics, we moved from California to East Tennessee and I now live in the Tri-Cities roughly half-way between Kingsport and Bristol. In Tennessee, we have had our own experiences with poverty before our circumstances finally stabilized.

It's a lot easier to describe what I believe and oppose than to fit myself into an easy political niche. I believe in free will and reject any notion of predestination, which immediately separates me from the religious right on pretty much every social and moral issue. We enjoy the freedom of individual conscience as long as we respect the natural rights of our fellow human beings. This puts me at odds with libertarians and economic conservatives whose version of individual liberty is simply a lack of regulation that places no limitation on the rights of those with the money and power to do so to shamelessly violate the rights of others. Real individual freedom is impossible in a social and economic environment in which one's degree of liberty is increased by one's wealth and those with less wealth do not enjoy equality before the law with the rich. I would describe myself as 'libertarian' only so far as I believe in the importance of personal freedom. I do not place particular faith in the natural superiority of the 'free market.'

Indeed, it is the nature of the 'free market' where my real left-wing thinking begins. I have written, in the past, about the nature and varying definitions of freedom. It is a word with many shades and meanings that means different things to different people. When speaking about freedom in the political and economic sense, I find it most useful to abandon English and instead make use of the more clear distinctions between definitions of freedom in Russian.

There are two entirely different words for freedom in Russian and they mean two entirely different things. The first word, which represents the freedom advocated by many on the right wing and among the most active anti-statists, is volia. In English, the literal translation of volia would be less 'freedom' and more 'license.' It is the absolute negative freedom espoused by libertarians, the freedom from outside authority. One can do as one pleases and can only be stopped by force. One has the absolute right to respond with force in the face of such an attempt to restrain one's chosen activities. There are no limits to volia, no responsibility to respect any authority or law. It is the ideal freedom of bandits, buccaneers, corporations, Cossacks, and libertarians.

The are some obvious problems with this concept if one examines it closely. First and foremost, volia is not for everyone. It is a Nietzchean or Orwellian freedom for the favored few; the ubermensch is not bound by the same moral laws as the average man and some animals are more equal than others. This form of freedom is for those with the will and power to make it real and everyone else who tries to exercise it gets ground into the dust. When the right-wing in America talks about 'freedom', 'free markets', or 'individual rights' they mean volia. This is freedom for the 'special' people who 'deserve' it, something else I've written about.

The next time one reads a conservative writer going on about 'liberal elitism' or 'arrogance', I hope they keep all this in mind.

The second Russian word for 'freedom' is 'svoboda.' Where volia is absolute and unlimited in scope, and thus very specifically limited to those able to take it and hold it by force, svoboda is something in which everyone shares. No one person can possess svoboda alone, svoboda is the freedom shared by a social body aware of each other's rights and their own responsibilities to each other. It's the freedom that the Apostles talk about in the Bible, shared by the early Christian communities who practiced their own form of democratic socialism. It is the freedom that the tragic Russian Revolution was intended to bring to Russia and the freedom that we, as Americans, brag about but rarely appreciate or protect.

To put it simply, I am utterly opposed to volia and dedicated to the reality of svoboda and its expansion to include the entire American community. That is what this blog is about.


Southern Beale said...

Thanks for sharing that. I didn't know you were from SoCal as well. We might have grown up in the same neighborhood!

You make a really good point about freedom not being just about freedom from regulation or taxation. Freedom from oppression by those with more money and power is an inconvenient fact that Libertarians too often ignore. The magical Free Hand Of The Market doesn't have much to say about that.

Look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

Chris Richards said...

Heh. I clearly did not read closely enough to know that you were either.

I'm from Upland, in San Bernardino County, just east of Los Angeles County. My dad graduated from Pitzer College, in Claremont. Amusingly, Pitzer College is the home of an archive on the writings and history of left wing anarchists. Which just makes me laugh.

Thanks very much for the kind words. I like your blog a lot, which if why I've been making such a nuisance of myself there lately, and I'm certainly not going to complain if it's mutual.

democommie said...

So, does that mean we can have bumper stickers that say.

"Svoboda isn't volia!"

and watch the reichwingers try to figure out what it all means?

Great Post, Christ.

I like that other folks come over to Southern Beales and help to stem the flood of dumbass that sometimes threatens to engulf the threads.

I like your take on the two versions of "freedom" and I agree with it.

Chris Richards said...

'I like your take on the two versions of "freedom" and I agree with it.'

I have always given thought to what people mean by freedom and it's always been pretty obvious to me that people mean different things by it. Earlier this year I was reading a book on Russian history, because that is the sort of thing pedantic and geekish thing I do to entertain myself, and it went into more depth about Cossack and Russian peasant culture than one normally finds in books that focus on 'important' names and dates.

The concepts of volia and svoboda just sort of jumped out at me and I found the missing piece I'd been looking for. It'd affected my thinking and writing ever since.

As for the bumper stickers, I think that would be a genuinely awesome notion. Or t-shirts.

I found Southern Beale's blog because one of the sites I was reading for research (Delaware Liberal) had a list of liberal blogs by state and I looked at Tennessee out of curiosity. I had known about myself and Leslie Parsley of Parsley's Pics, but I was curious to find more. I checked all of them on the list and SB's was the one that stuck for me.