March 19, 2012

Freedom or Agency

Daniel Walker Howe's history of America between 1815 and 1848 currently occupies a place on my bedside table. Occupies is a rather important word here: weighing in at over 800 pages it is a formidable volume. But Howe has the ability to make some quite precise observations- one of these is what this blog article is about and I think its worth thinking about. What do you think is the difference between Freedom and Agency?

Howe says that the early 19th Century American smallholder possessed the latter but not the former. He was dictated to by a strict regiment of economic conditions and was not really free in terms of the things he could do or be. However he did have the ability to pursue his and his family's goals as an agent within a constrained society. Its a very interesting distinction- and I'm still puzzling over how it works and whether for example there is a difference here between two values: freedom and independence. The smallholder knows he cannot have freedom- for obvious demographic and economic reasons but also because his community is so tightknit- but believes he can be independent. However I think Howe is right- independence doesn't quite capture this belief because there is a sense in which agency is what is being fought over here.

Its an important distinction because what the settler farmer was fighting for when he used the word 'freedom' is not necccessarily the same as what I might be fighting for when I use the 'freedom' today. Freedom today comes with a much less constrained habit on it and I think what Howe captures is that one of the reasons for that, the reasons for what we might call the modern liberal view of freedom, is the fact that our social conditions have changed. Modern liberalism is in a sense the ideology of cities: becauses its only there that agency within social bounds can leap over social bounds, its only there that curtains can cease to twitch.

Whatever one thinks of that as an observation about normative values (whether one thinks freedom is a good or bad thing), I think what Howe shows is that any value is constructed within the context of the society that it inhabits. By just showing the difference in the words, he shows us the difference between present and past and the contingency of our and their judgement of value upon social situations. Interestingly he can only do this by divesting their texts of the word that they used- freedom- and using a modern word- Agency- in its place.


James Higham said...

"Freedom" today essentially means freedom from govt interference. A simple definition which covers most contingencies.