Rewriting Canonical Discourses: The Political Subject of Gender-Neutral Freedom
If it seems increasingly difficult to get a purchase on freedom in today’s world, it is worth revisiting its canonical roots with Nancy Hirschmann’s Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory. She intervenes skillfully in the literature on Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill to engage contemporary theoretical and popular discourses of freedom that fail to acknowledge their limits. In the United States, at least, we appear content to Chase Freedomsm into the consumer realm, captivated by the allure of a society where the multinational banking company teams up with the Rolling Stones to reiterate the popular myth: “I’m free/To do what I want/ Any old time.” The commercialized narrative of self-mastery and unlimited opportunity reminds us that ideal of negative liberty, as the absence of external barriers on choice, has not lost its luster. And yet, when we confront the fine print -- a maze of complex specifications, percentage chances, and indecipherable terms -- the chase often renders freedom illusory. The fine print, Hirschmann hopes to prove, is the condition of judgment and action: our everyday lives are interwoven with economic, social, administrative, and discursive powers that not only circumscribe the arenas of choice, but more fundamentally, shape the identities, attitudes, and desires that inform our choices, and not least of all, structure our conceptions of freedom itself. If we try to chase the concept of freedom in the marketplace of ideas, we risk overlooking its political power.
The de-politicization of freedom in theoretical and popular discourse is a primary concern animating Hirschmann’s recent writing, which aims to discursively reconfigure it. In this regard, her new book is logically a prequel to her previous one, The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom. That book analyzes women’s concrete experiences with domestic violence, welfare, and Islamic veiling to provide a rich, contextual account of the ways in which discourses of freedom emerge from specific configurations of power and produce the kinds of subjects, relationships, practices, and institutions necessary to sustain them. But such thick social constructivism, she acknowledges, has had limited influence on most contemporary political theories of freedom. Gender, Class, and Freedom thus aims to meet the discipline on more familiar grounds, by carefully tracing the historical contexts, the specific configurations of gender and class power, and the discursive practices that significantly structure the concept of freedom in the works of five key canonical thinkers.
The result is one of those rare books with the potential to bridge a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives and approaches. Hirschmann’s close reading of five modern thinkers engages traditional debates on their theories of freedom and stakes out new claims in relation to feminist interpreters and others who read modern political theory against the grain. But she is explicit that the “potentially radical force” of her arguments will be tested by their ability to compel “mainstream” theoretical discourses of freedom to wrestle with questions about context, power, and human subjectivity they so often resist.(17, 2) This is both a crucial and promising challenge, and it is with regard to these stakes that I ultimately question the limits of the book in rewriting canonical discourses of freedom.
Hirschmann’s two books on freedom are best read in conjunction with one another, as evidenced by their interrelated form, arguments, and methods. Formally, Gender, Class, and Freedom reiterates and expands the first two chapters of Subject of Liberty. Those chapters, and the new book, set the conceptual and historical grounds for her contemporary engagements with women’s lived experiences and, finally, for her constructive theory of freedom. Readers interested in Hirschmann’s constructive vision have to read backward in time to reach the punch-line of her argument. (Warning: This review will contain spoilers.)
In terms of argument, both books begin with Isaiah Berlin’s typology of negative and positive liberty, which unfortunately structures much contemporary theoretical discourse on freedom. While Hirschmann finds the typology simplistic in its dualism -- negative liberty’s focus on external barriers facing a unified self, positive liberty’s concern for the internal barriers of a divided self -- it broadly conceptualizes freedom in terms of two analytical tensions she adopts and complicates. First, freedom entails internal dimensions (desire, will, subjectivity) and external dimensions (other people, material forces, institutions) that work together, in infinitely more complex ways than Berlin imagines, both to constrain and enable freedom. Second, as even this simplistic typology reveals, different theories of freedom deploy different conceptions of humanity; what they claim to represent descriptively, they in fact produce discursively. Hirschmann thus locates within Berlin’s typology a resource she finds lacking in contemporary discourses indebted to it: the grounds of a political concept of freedom, one that accounts for the ways in which freedom is conditioned by the formation of subjects in relation to their social contexts. (While scarcely conjured in her latest book, Foucault hangs over it like a specter, and if political theorists read backward in time to her constructive vision, we find she has skillfully led us into his grips on our own terms.)
Hirschmann’s methodological approach, perhaps her most important contribution, seeks to render the politics of freedom visible in two ways. First, analyzing how gender is put to work, in the discursive practice of a text or in a broader discursive regime, offers one tool for examining the dividing lines used to manage the unwieldy concept of freedom. For example, in her readings of the canon, Hirschman carefully traces how each theorist constructs and justifies a complex set of interactions between gendered power relations in the family, on the one hand, and the norms, practices, and institutions regulating participation in education, labor, and politics, on the other. Hirschman acknowledges that gendered power interacts with many other modes of power to structure the concept of freedom in any given context. Her intersectional analysis of gender and class in the canon shows not only how gendered freedom often figures differently across class, for men and women, but more generally, that the proper subjects, spaces, practices, and institutions of freedom are constituted in relation to complex, regulated orders of exclusion.
Hirschmann’s second methodological intervention arises from her main substantive claim: If freedom is political, that means it is practiced and conceived in relationships of power and difference, and can neither be abstracted from them (as is the subject of negative liberty), nor external to them (as are the dictates of positive liberty). She thus draws the discursive practice of political theory into proximate engagements with what it takes to be different from itself, that is, with specific, contextual arrangements of power and experience. Gender and class figure in her works not as abstract analytical categories, but as identities constituted in local, material, and discursive contexts. Mirroring her contemporary engagements with women’s lived experiences, her historical and contextual approach to the canon aims to unsettle theories of freedom that, while indebted to it, fail to account for the politics of its form or content. On her reading of Kant, for example, moral reason and self-mastery are not prior to but rather conditioned by autonomy; autonomy is in turn contingent upon a socially constructed position of economic independence to which servants can aspire only tenuously and women not at all. There is indeed something radical in this contextual method, both in its potential to move theoretical discourse in unwonted directions, and in its deep appreciation for the rootedness, specificity, unwieldiness, and humility of human experience.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that Hirschmann opens our readings of modern thinkers to a more variegated and rocky imaginative landscape than we commonly attribute to them. In putting Berlin’s typology to work to reconfigure the concept of freedom, she resists the more common move of deploying it, or any typology, to manage the conceptual complexity of the canon. Rather, she encounters texts brimming with indecipherable forces, anxious tensions, dynamic relationships, myriad closures, and masked logics. From these unsteady grounds, she crafts five compelling and well-argued narratives that, while taking liberties at times, attend to the conceptual logic and discursive structure of each author’s corpus. Her readings contain ample enough provocations, staked grounds, and creative resolutions of benchmark problems to surprise, or critically engage, any reader. Those trained in feminist and critical theory will likely find familiar territory in the general outline of her narratives and many of her arguments. But oriented around the specific problematic of the politics of freedom, and viewed through the analytical lenses of gender, class, and social constructivism, her readings of each canonical thinker, and of all five together, offer a welcome resource for political theorists looking to recast crucial questions and concepts of our time.
Hirschmann’s conclusions draw a pattern of the common aims, constitutive tensions, and overall contours that structure the concept of freedom across the texts. First, none of the five thinkers fits neatly into Berlin’s dualistic typology, which classifies them as either negative or positive libertarians. Instead, modern political theory forms its own dualistic concept of freedom, whose common denominator is that relative freedom for some subjects requires relative unfreedom for others. Each author divides freedom complexly along gender and class lines, creating different hierarchies and formations in response to common questions: which subjects enjoy the fewest external limits on choice, which are most capable of accessing universal norms, which must endure discipline from external guides, in what spaces and through what institutions, according to what justifications? Hirschmann attends both to the substantive answers each author provides and to the discursive practices by which he constructs those answers.
For a glimpse of both pattern and texture, take her readings of Locke and Rousseau. Locke’s negative liberty, she finds, is not merely exclusive; it is limited by positive freedom, posited differentially in the private realm for all subjects. Training in moral character and critical thinking provides wealthy men the reason necessary to participate in public law-making. In more restrictive fashion, wealthy women endure socially reproductive education that shapes their wills into obedience, and the unemployed undergo forced labor to discipline them toward limited industry and independence. Hirschmann remains agnostic as to whether Locke’s hierarchies are merely contingent or also structural within a discursive regime that legitimates uneven distribution of property. She is convinced, however, that these divides illuminate his disciplinary formation of all subjects toward the ends his positive order requires. Rousseau’s proper subject of liberty is the classless male, capable of both the independent judgment to make his own voluntary choice and the compassion to align it with the right choice, or the general will. To ensure this alignment, Rousseau tightly structures the relationship between public legislation and the home. The home becomes the sphere of love, where women are habituated to embody but also to restrain love’s power. If a wife’s love balances her husband’s self-interested reason, steering his will toward good public judgment, her power must remain in the home. The proximity of sexuality in the legislative sphere threatens to destabilize reason and foment particularistic passions that incapacitate freedom. Hirschmann acknowledges that the structural importance of the home to freedom need not require gender stratification. But even if Rousseau’s theory could be reconstructed as gender-neutral, she adds, the social constructivism at its base remains.
Revealed in these sketches are two conceptual elaborations. First, what matters to a hierarchical concept of freedom is not whether liberty is negative or positive, but how its negative and positive aspects are distributed and organized. If Rousseau and Kant align freedom with the internal discovery of a universal moral standard, they are no less concerned with the conditions by which individuals voluntarily arrive at that standard. Both thus carve negative spaces (public for Rousseau, private for Kant) that protect men’s individual judgment from external barriers. And in other spaces, each posits external guides -- in the form of proscriptions, relationships, and structures that differentially orient men’s judgment toward universal standards, while subduing women’s capacities and desires for independent choice. Hirschmann suspects that readers will be most surprised to find aspects of positive liberty at work for Hobbes, Locke, and Mill. But as she unfolds the logic of their texts, three names synonymous with natural desire (Hobbes), consent (Locke), and non-coercion (Mill), are realigned, respectively, with competing primary aims -- security, authoritative reason, and utility. If their political instiutions formally secure negative spaces for choice, other discourses and structures are deployed at a micro level to shape choice, albeit differentially, in the service of posited ends.
The second conceptual elaboration arises from the tension between each author’s commitment to individual choice and his need to direct it toward the right choice for his normative ends. The resulting anxiety constitutes, in each case, a discursive performance that foregrounds desirable subjects, relationships, and structures of freedom, while often masking a complex regulation of others. Substantively, Hirschmann hesitates with regard to this anxiety: she is consistently unwilling to transcend contextual, and partial, relations of power to claim that gender structures freedom in any universal sense, even within the modern canon. And yet her five contextual readings, across time and place in modernity, reveal that gender is centrally part of that conceptual structure. Her conclusion draws a pattern of anxiety about female sexuality. As that which eludes control, in men no less than women, sexuality unsettles the modern illusion that freedom can co-exist with universal order. The discursive masking of sexual anxiety itself, then, is necessary to produce the illusion. For the rational, self-mastering subject of modern liberty is predicated elusively on a masculinized ideal of man -- one to which women and most men of its time could not lay claim. Gesturing toward her pre-existing sequel, Hirschmann asks, “Has this subject changed, or has ‘he’ pretty much remained the same?”(286)
Hirschmann’s gendered concept of freedom is by no means a claim to capture the complex overlays of power in modernity that condition freedom’s subjects, practices, routes, and roadblocks. As such, her futural gesture, chasing an ever-elusive and still sexist freedom into our times, is perhaps not as dim as it seems. Full disclosure: The constructive vision of Subject of Liberty is that freedom is an ongoing practice that is contextual, relational, and oriented toward its own limits. It opens spaces for us to participate in constructing the contexts that shape our desires and visions, and it enables us to do so in relationship with others -- others who posit questions that guide us not to some necessary end, but to the limits of our own illusions or cynicisms about the present. One might engage Hirschmann over the most hopeful dynamics, dispositions, and languages of freedom’s practice, or its most promising affects, relationships, locations, silences, and so on. But I worry here about what will move “mainstream” readers of her canonical interventions to pick up the sequel and join in that crucial conversation. That is, I wonder about the absence of constructive vision in Gender, Class, and Freedom. The book richly complicates Berlin’s typology, but significantly reinforces its limiting terms by remaining within a vision of modernity that disciplines all freedom, albeit differentially, in the service of universal logics. What might move the contemporary discourse of freedom, put “on edge” by Hirschmann’s well-argued critique, to wrestle with its ethical and political implications, rather than disregard it as just another cynical exposé of power?
The question raises, at base, an ambiguity about Hirschmann’s discursive performance. Perhaps her anxiety about modernity’s universalizing vision prevents her from putting its key insight to work: vision’s vital role in moving discourse? Or perhaps her discursive performance remains too true to these canonical roots? Is it the power of her argument that causes her to enlist canonical resources that might otherwise reveal the dynamic tension between freedom’s critical and constructive orientations -- resources that might enable unsettled readers to imagine new possibilities for freedom? It seems strange, given her debts to Foucault, that Hirschmann seeks freedom’s roots in modernity without overtly acknowledging this constitutive tension. Foucault’s key ethical insight, that freedom requires work at the limits of the present, appeals directly to an enlightenment ethos that questioned the givenness of things. Where he finds it in Kant, who links enlightenment to the publicity of critical exchange with others, we might locate it in a similarly generous reading of Mill, for whom freedom is a dialogical activity. If freedom requires the removal of external barriers, on his account, so too must it be enabled by social, economic, and political institutions that dispose us toward listening, questioning, eccentricity, and gender equality. We might inherit from Kant and Mill imaginations of freedom that wrestle with the tensions between their constructive and critical impulses -- and thus open, at least, a conversation about world-building that is more open-ended than Hirschman grants. But she glosses over and rewrites these critical tensions: both are pulled into the sway of an argument that foregrounds the hermetic qualities of modern freedom’s circumscribed and disciplined spaces. It is indeed a compelling argument! And it encourages the question: In rendering the canon a strange guide to freedom, does Hirschmann leave it unstrange precisely where it has the most to say about freedom?
Laura Grattan is a PhD candidate at Duke University. Her dissertation, Harboring America: Imagining Democracy, Containing Imagination, analyzes the cultural spaces, institutions, habits, practices, and dynamics of democratic imagination in the United States through engagements with populist, immigrant, and nationalist social movement traditions. She can be reached email@example.com.