This post is in relation to the Gender and Domination course in OOPS.

Very few words have been used, and abused, as often as “freedom.” One of the central concerns for philosophers and political theorists of all times, this term has been given the most contrasting interpretations. “What is freedom? Is it freedom from or freedom of, is it the independence from external interference in our lives, or is it the positive capacity to direct them; is it an ontological property that we can take for granted, or rather is it a task and a project, and if the latter is the case, is the task or project an individual or a collective one? Furthermore, how can different freedoms be reconciled to ensure that my own freedom will not become somebody’s else slavery?” These are the kind of questions that make the topic both distinctive and always timely and that will appear as the common thread of most current publications.

Yet, though so much attention is being devoted to “freedom,” there are aspects of this topic that tend to remain in the shadow. Instead of beginning with the “what is freedom” question, I would like to propose a shift toward the “who” of freedom. In doing so, a completely different approach to the issue emerges: instead of asking ourselves what and which types of freedom, I propose we start by asking who actually wants freedom? Once we do so, it will immediately be evident that the question is not irrelevant because we cannot consider the desire for freedom to be an uncontested a priori of human life: whatever we may mean by that contested term, freedom may well not be something that everybody wants.

This is the reason why after having spent most of my life trying to think of how best to guarantee freedom by criticizing all the institutions that may possibly endanger it (capitalism, statism, sexism, racism, to name just a few -ism) I have decided to take another road. In the past few years, I kept returning to the question: does it make sense to think about how to realize freedom if this is not something that we want? Could the proliferation of publications on the topic actually be hiding something while at the same time giving us the illusion that we are dealing with it? One does not have to be Sigmund Freud and agree with his diagnosis of an innate human instinct for aggression and self-destruction to realize that a desire for freedom is not to be taken for granted. Just a quick look around us and at what we know about the past will suffice to show that for most of their recorded history human beings have lived under conditions of domination rather than freedom. Why do we keep discussing how best to orchestrate freedom if, as it may turn out, not everybody wants it?

Once we start looking at the problem of freedom in this way, we will also find ourselves in different company — indeed, I did find myself in conversation with different people. Instead of Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, I became interested in La Boetie, Nietzsche, and De Beauvoir. There is a common thread that links these authors, one that I will now try to unfold.

It is to Etienne de la Boetie that we owe the first succinct formulation of the problem: in 1552, at a time when most European philosophers were ready to start celebrating the European Renaissance and the achievement of its civilization, he wrote an amazing piece that from its very title, “Discourse on voluntary servitude” pointed instead to its inevitable failure. No wonder the text has never received the attention it deserves. Whereas most western philosophers indulged in a self-complacent critique of tyranny without really being able to explain why it nevertheless kept recurring, La Boetie pointed to the paradox at its heart: tyranny exists for no other reason than the fact that people actually want it. Whereas all other animals, when put in a cage and deprived of their freedom, give clear signs of suffering and distress, human beings seem to be (or have become) immune from that, and, as a result, they tend to end up reproducing the very same conditions of servitude that enslave them.

La Boetie’s answer to the dilemma was to point to the role of habit in human life: it is because people become so accustomed to obeying, that they end up doing it willingly. A similar answer was given by Spinoza, providing another voice against the grain within modern political philosophy (Chiara Bottici’s “Another Enlightenment” in Constellations). As many have indicated, Spinoza’s entire philosophical enterprise is devoted to trying to understand the paradox that opens his Theological-political Treatise, that is, how is it possible that people “fight for their servitude as if it were their own deliverance, and will not think it humiliating but supremely glorious to spill their blood and sacrifice their lives for the glorification of a single man” (Preface, 7). Like La Boetie, Spinoza also emphasizes the role of habits, in particular of ceremonies and ritual practices, in instilling a desire for obedience: because we get so accustomed to a certain discipline of our bodies that is at the same time a discipline of our minds, we end up seeing no alternative to it. But, in contrast to La Boetie, Spinoza went one step further: he also argued that people do not simply obey their masters, but they also find it supremely glorious to do so, despite the fact that this could make them unhappy. Accordingly, Spinoza can very well be credited as the first theorist of ideology — or, better, of what Althusser would call ideological state apparatuses, that is, of institutions and social practices that are devoted to produce and reproduce compliant subjects.

The passage from Spinoza to Nietzsche and Freud is in this respect very thin, but also significant. For Nietzsche, people not only enjoy obeying even if it makes them unhappy: people also enjoy obeying because it makes them unhappy. As he notes in many places throughout his work, there are forms of life, or of degenerated life, that can prosper only by glorifying their own misery and therefore by mortifying life itself. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and its drive for domination and even self-destruction would lie just behind the door. This influence does not take anything away from the genius of that man, Sigmund Freud, one of the few, to my knowledge, who managed to turn his own sickness into an entire discipline: psychoanalysis. Needless to say, Freud was in many ways complicit with the structures of power he live in (patriarchy, capitalism, statism, to name just the usual suspects), but he also provided us with some of the most powerful tools necessary to criticize them.

Many theorists of ideology have since then made recourse to psychoanalysis to unpack the mechanisms of domination. For instance, by combining Freud with Marx, Frankfurt School theorists tried to disentangle the way in which economic alienation achieves the pervasive and destructive effect that it has in our late-modern capitalist societies. Thanks to this combination of insights, they were able to diagnose the paradox of our modern civilization, where the attempt at radical emancipation that some philosophers called “the Enlightenment” dialectically turned into one of the most oppressive forms of domination: totalitarianism.

However insightful those theories may be (and many aspects of them remain in my view), they all fail to highlight one crucial aspect — the “who” question, that is, the fact that the “who” cannot be taken for granted and that it is never gender neutral. To assume a universal “who” means, in fact, to assume the position taken is the default, which is that of men, and thus to conceal that sex and gender are crucial sites in the dynamics of domination. I would actually go one step further and argue that they are perhaps the most illuminating sites for highlighting these dynamics: by looking at gender forms of domination, we can come to understand not simply why certain gendered bodies are more subject to domination than are others, but rather, and more generally, how domination works tout court. In this respect, gender issues can work as a sort of magnifying lens for unpacking domination.

Put succinctly, if there is an element of pleasure in obeying, then it is no doubt gender theories that have provided the most illuminating insights on such a paradox, because it is to them that we owe the deepest engagement with what we can call the erotic dimension of power. As De Beauvoir, among others, pointed out long ago, there is something deeply peculiar in the domination of women (see the Preface to The Second Sex). If we ask proletarians whether they want to stop being exploited and instead be on the side of a capitalist, they would probably say yes. If you ask people living in conditions of apartheid whether they would rather be in the position of those in power, they would equally probably also say yes. But if we ask women whether they would prefer to be on the side of their oppressors, they would probably say no. Not by chance have proletarians thought, and attempted at times, to get rid of all capitalists, but no women have, to my knowledge at least, yet thought or attempted to get rid of all men. This is not only because of the peculiar relationships between men and women, but also because of the erotic dimension that is at stake in these relationships. As such, the previous remarks can well be applied beyond the men/women dichotomy (whatever one may mean by those terms) and extended to all types of gender and gendered bodies. And this plurality is also the reason why I think a multifaceted approach is mandatory if we want to tackle the spiky issue of the persistence and subtleties of domination in our world.