I'm in Austin, Texas for a conference. I've been thinking a little bit about freedom, primarily in response to a passage Alain cited from Zizek on belief in which it seems as if Zizek is saying that liberalism is worst than authoritarianism and totalitarianism. First, it should be noted that Zizek is not referring to the three forms as three succint political formations. Rather, the context is an engagement with the work of an experimental psychologist named Jean-Leon Beauvois and Beauvois's classification of three modes in which people are brought to do something that runs against their perceived interests. The second thing that should be noted is Zizek's further remark that
"the three ways of legimitzing the exercise of authority ('authoritarian,' 'totalitarian,' 'liberal') are nothing but 3 ways of covering up, of blinding us to the seductive power of the empty call."
These are 3 ways of accepting subordination, of recognizing and constituting authority, of submitting. And, all 3 want to find a way to explain or give a reason for our acceptance of the call, thus occluding the way that there is an obedience beyond reason or explanation, or more primary attachment to subordination. In a way, the authority comes first and only is later rationalized or accepted.
What does this have to do with freedom? Well, liberalism has always had a problem in bringing together freedom and subordination or political obligation. From the earliest days of contract theory, it was clear that free choice just couldn't account for political authority. Yet, the illusion of choice persists. Does this mean that a better system eliminates choice? No--but this is the double bind that defenders of liberalism try to inflict on critics. They make it seem as if the choice is liberalism or GULAG rather than asking about the hard questions, as Zizek does in his discussion of Lenin's emphasis on the distinction between formal and actual freedom (also in On Belief, 121):
when he emphasizes that there is no 'pure' democrayc, that we should always ask who does a freedom under consideration serve, which is its role in the class struggle, his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of the TRUE radical choice. This is what the distinction between 'formal' and 'actual' freedom ultimately amounts to: 'formal' freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of actually existing power relations, while 'actual freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates.
Freedom is more than abstract right. It is more than the choices made by bearers of abstract rights. It depends on--and is only as good as--the practices, beliefs, and institutions through which it is materialized, made real.
Is free speech the right to speak? I think of the horrifying babble on Fox News and CNN, on the bizarre exchanges of words that seem like so many traps, on the torrents of words and images on which I depend and to which I contribute. To consider free speech only in terms of the exchanges of words rather than in terms of the potential effects or results of words strikes me as a diminishment of a notion of speech--speech is more than signification. Is freedom to vote a real freedom? Not when voting centers are inadequate, machines unreliable, campaigns unresponsive, and candidates pawns of corporate interests. Do either of these critiques mean that the goal should be to eliminate free speech and voting? No. Again, this is the trick that defenders of liberals want to play on its critics--but in so doing, they resign us to more of the same, as if this is the very best we can do. This isn't freedom.