restricted access Theorizing Slave Agency: Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage
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Theorizing Slave Agency:
Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage

If freedom has been a central concept in Western political thought, slavery has long been the dominant metaphor for unfreedom, and since the advent of popular sovereignty the denial of political representation in particular has been framed as a condition akin to enslavement. Yet the perspective of the actually enslaved, particularly people of African descent in the Americas during the Age of Revolution, has not been mined as a resource for thinking about freedom in political theory. Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage admirably begins to fill that gap. In so doing it makes an important intervention in political theory, as well as African Diaspora Studies.

Despite the pervasive use of slavery as a metaphor for unfreedom, it is striking how much modern experiences of enslavement and slave agency are absent from analyses of freedom in political theory. This absence is of course symptomatic of the erasure of modern slavery and colonialism generally from so much of Western political thought, which often reads as if it was all a form of “ideal theory” à la Rawls.1 There are some recent exceptions to this trend, which point us to think about the concrete experiences of enslavement that have informed canonical theories of freedom in Western political thought, such as Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel and Haiti, which traces how the Haitian Revolution, the first and only revolution carried out by fugitive ex-slaves, informed Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.2 Roberts goes beyond the historiographical work of showing how slave uprisings in the Americas served as a source for European theorizing about freedom, however, to plumbing the ideas and practices of freedom enacted by the enslaved themselves.

What does it mean to theorize freedom from the perspective of the enslaved? Roberts argues that the key concept on which such an account should be based is marronage, the experience of flight or escape from slavery. Roberts has an expansive understanding of marronage that goes beyond accepted usage of the term as referring to communities created by fugitive slaves outside of (but co-existing with) colonial and post-colonial (since slavery persisted past independence in the US and Brazil, for example) slave societies in the Americas. Marronage becomes Roberts’ central analytical concept for investigating how [End Page 188] the enslaved enacted freedom. It encapsulates the principal intervention he wishes to make into the way freedom has been conceived in Western political thought. Pointing to Isaiah Berlin’s influential categorization of Western notions of freedom into positive or negative liberty (e.g., those that emphasize self-mastery and collective political participation versus those that conceive freedom as non-interference and non-domination), Roberts persuasively argues that both of these conceptions assume that freedom is a static condition, which subjects either do or do not possess. Moving beyond this polarized, static conception of slavery and freedom, Roberts suggests instead that freedom is the process of flight. Roberts thus turns to marronage because he is interested in “the liminal and transitional social space between slavery and freedom.” Political theory, he argues, “must pay attention to the process by which people emerge from slavery to freedom.”3

In addition to reframing the terms of the debate about freedom in Western political thought, and introducing a third, relational understanding of freedom, Roberts’s formulation of freedom as the process of flight or fugitivity from enslavement also destabilizes an important debate in African Diaspora Studies and black political thought about the contemporary relevance of slavery. In recent years, following the publication of Saidiya Hartman’s influential intervention in Scenes of Subjection, scholars of African Diaspora studies have begun to engage with the question of slavery’s afterlife, of how practices pioneered during enslavement have continued to shape post-emancipation polities and black self-making in particular. Much of this scholarship, under the rubric of Afro-pessimism, has focused on continued forms of black subjection. Afro-pessimism theorizes blackness as a condition of ontological death or fungibility; for afro-pessimists the conditions of post-emancipation societies are contiguous to those of slavery, such that the plantation may have been replaced by the prison but the relation of a fundamental...