freedom is polysemous

Dora Longo Bahia, Farsa - Delacroix (La Liberté guidant le peuple), 2014 - Acrylic and enamel on recycled truck canvas 300 x 400 cm


The vulgar appeal to freedom finds strong resonance and even if it does not seduce the majority, it mobilizes enough numbers to win the election

"Long live freedom, man!”. With this catchphrase Javier Milei, neo-fascist (self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist) candidate for president of Argentina, ends his speeches. In fact, he only emulates all the candidates of the far-right wave that preceded him around the world in the current historical period, including the unnameable former Brazilian president. The notion of freedom is found in ancient texts from times far removed from what is understood by this term today, that is, it seems to be a perennial theme.

This “revaluation” of the term freedom by neo-fascism leads to the question: what notion of freedom does this wave mobilize? Why does this mobilization of the term win enough minds and hearts to win an election? In this brief article, I intend to develop a reflection that allows conceiving some possible answers, in the plural, because the word freedom itself is polysemous, in addition to being elusive to attempts at a conceptual definition.

Anyway, everyone values ​​or claims to value freedom, however, this does not generate a consensus on the valued object. So where to start? I will start with a truism and then develop the argument: in any classist social formation, the freedom of individuals belonging to the dominant classes is oppression for those of the dominated classes, and the freedom of individuals belonging to the latter is authoritarianism for those of the dominant classes. dominant. This truism is obvious for social formations based on some form of menial labor, but it seems not to apply to capitalist social formations, where nobody is obligated to do anything except by virtue of the law.

Implicit in this principle is the concept of negative freedom, formulated by Norberto Bobbio, as the absence of legal impediment. In the egalitarian law in force in capitalist social formations, such a legal impediment is the same for everyone, regardless of class or other membership, at least ideally. This seems to be the reason for the strength of the neo-fascist appeal to freedom and the certain paralysis of progressive sectors in the face of such an appeal, which shuffles the cards, as the political conflicts surrounding the issue indicate that there is no consensus on what is meant by freedom.

Accepting the concept formulated by Norberto Bobbio (1996) which, strictly speaking, can be deduced from the thinking of other authors in the liberal tradition, without examining what it implicitly contains, implies accepting that legal freedom is the ultimate horizon to be reached, because he makes no distinctions of class belonging, thus this negative character acquires positivity.

It is precisely this negative character that the examination of the concept must scrutinize. The absence of legal impediment means that everyone is free to act according to their sovereign will. Despite being widely accepted in theory, this scheme never worked very well in practice, testify to the popular struggles (workers, above all), which imposed the adoption of social rights, a type of right that does not fit perfectly with the “free to act” formula. characteristic of bourgeois individualism, since such rights imply some degree of limit to the action of the owner and, at the same time, admit (implicitly, at least) that the will of the non-owner is not sovereign; by the way, not even the owner's. Marshall (1967) covered up (disguised?) this aporia with the notion of a civilizing process of evolutionary conquest of rights commanded by institutions, which deserved a sharp criticism from Décio Saes (2001).

It is not by chance that extreme right-wing leaders around the world present themselves as visceral enemies of social rights, supported by their supporters who often attack social activists, whom they call bums, destroy organizations (houses, gardens, kitchens, etc.) communities. These acts of violence are justified in the name of freedom, because, as they say, state intervention to guarantee social rights generates injustice insofar as it treats individuals unequally.

Of course, this is just an ideological slogan to keep the social base mobilized, as the examination of budget execution shows the privileged access of these sectors to the public budget through mechanisms such as debt service, tax waiver, debt amnesty, credit portfolios, etc.

What underlies the cacophony on the topic of freedom caused by the truculence of the extreme right is that the adjective free carries a dialectic with positive and negative meanings. The formula “free to act” intends to imprison it in the positive meaning, ignoring the negative: “unencumbered by”, as one is not free in the abstract, but under determined historical-social conditioning. Therefore, such dialectics is not just semantics, it accompanies in practice the use of the adjective, even if the speaker is not aware of it, since social action always takes place within a causal chain in which the subject (both individual as a collective) does not control or know, although the possibility of coming to know cannot be ruled out.

Isaiah Berlin (2005) captures this conditioning, but under the liberal key of the duality between inner freedom and external conditioning, in which the ideal figure of the individual becomes the central category of analysis. In this way, the problem of freedom becomes the question of deciding which instance and with what criteria has legitimacy to impose limits on individual freedom. Strictly speaking, if action is always a point in a causal chain tending to infinity, the question of the instance and the criteria for deciding what is meant by freedom (≠ of limit) is always present, but the question changes qualitatively if conceived under the key to duality or the positive-negative dialectic.

Taking conditioning as a natural, therefore, universal condition, Lordon observes that “The modern spirit is mistaken in reserving the imputation of conditioning solely to this type of project (capitalist – JP), since conditioning is not another name for it. pasional servitude.[I] However, it is clear that, however much we are conditioned at all, the modalities of acquiring these conditions, more precisely the question of knowing whether there are instances, and even identifiable intentions of conditioning, do not dejan to make differences.” (2015, p. 110-111)

This conception of conditioning as a natural condition that takes place under different modalities (of course, historical) of being conditioned, displaces the theme of freedom from the internal/external duality, a reference of liberal thought taken to paroxysm by the extreme right, to the dialectic positive-negative of the adjective free which, as I understand it, is Marx's reference, both in his critique of capitalist production and in his conception of communism.

With regard to the critique of capitalist production, Marx observes that “To transform money into capital, the possessor of money must therefore find the worker on the commodity market, free in the double sense that he has, as a free person, his labor power as his commodity, and that he, on the other hand, has no other commodities to sell, free and unmarried, free of all things necessary for the realization of his labor power. (1985, L. 1, chap. IV, p. 140) In this excerpt, the worker appears as “free to act” and “free from”, in a particular historical modality in which the “free to act” becomes effective under the condition concrete seller of labor power (≠ abstract ideal individual, premise of legal theories) because freed from “all things necessary for the realization of his labor power”.

As for the conception of communism, the definition of “(…) an association in which the free development of each person is the condition of the free development of all”, (1998, p. 59) supposes a distinct form of conditioning. Although a very succinct definition, it is worth explaining two differences that are implicit in relation to the conditioning modality of capitalist production: (i) association as opposed to isolated and opposite individuals acting as buyer and/or seller; (ii) egalitarian conditioning among individuals expressed in the requirement that the “free development of each [be] the condition of the free development of all”, as opposed to the different conditions of buyer and seller of labor power, which projects to infinity the differences in each person’s development possibilities.

In the definition of communism, the association between individuals and egalitarian conditioning are the criteria of legitimacy to define the freedom of each one, insofar as everyone is free to act because freed from obligations imposed by the difference in conditioning, difference masked by the figure of the free labor contract, whose holders are abstract individuals, because their different conditions (buyer/seller of labor power) are abstracted.

In other words, the legal obligation that masks inequality is replaced by the obligation that emanates from association. However, if the legitimacy criteria can be extracted from the definition, the instance that implements such criteria and operates the decision-making process cannot be the object of the same deduction exercise, it can only be the result of the historical work of constructing the alternative to capitalism.

As the desire for freedom is a human passion, in the Spinozian sense, and this concept of freedom suggested here is far from the ordinary experience of individuals, there remains an enormous space that is being explored by neo-fascists, as the conditioning of the employment contract appears as a contingency market, without immediately identifiable intentionality, on the one hand, and, on the other, in the daily experience of urban life, the most immediate conditioning to freedom is the risk to physical integrity represented by delinquency.

In this context, the vulgar appeal to freedom, as in the opening sentence, finds a strong resonance and even if it does not seduce the majority, it mobilizes enough numbers to win the election.

* Jair Pinheiro he is professor of political science at Unesp-Marília. Author of The construction of popular power in Venezuela (Ed. anti-capital fights).


BERLIN, Isaiah. Of the concepts of freedom and other writings. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2005 (

BOBBIO, Norberto. equality and freedom. São Paulo: Ediouro, 1996 (

LORDON, Frederic. Capitalism, desire and servitude: Marx and Spinoza. Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2015 (

MARSHALL, Theodor H. Citizenship, social class and status. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Zahar, 1967. See this link.  

MARX, K. and ENGELS, F. Communist Manifesto. In: COGGIOLA, Osvaldo (org.). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Communist Manifesto. São Paulo: Boitempo, 1998 (

MARX, K. The capital. So Paulo: Nova Cultural, 1985.

SAES, Decio. Citizenship and capitalism (a theoretical approach). Institute of Advanced Studies at USP, 2001. See this link.


[I] Referring to Spinoza's concept of affection, Ethics, part III, Introduction and Definitions III.

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