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(DV) Dean: Free-ness







by Jodi Dean
August 31, 2006

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If freedom is no longer an American value what, if anything, has taken its place? I'm tempted to co-opt Stephen Colbert and suggest 'free-ness.' 

Since ideology is always out there, apparent, visible, we find freeness everywhere: a free Disney pin came with an 8-pack of batteries I got yesterday. Last week, I got three free ounces of toothpaste for the cost of a regular tube. My soy milk is fat free. I don't drink soda, but if I did it would be sugar free. I'm pretty sick of most videos, so I watch them on You Tube for free. Did you get a free book with your subscription to New Left Review? I'm looking forward to the last day of APSA -- I'll run through the book exhibit, snatching up loads of books -- for free. In my early years at the conference I'd haunt the receptions, looking for the best free food and drinks. And, someone whose name will go unmentioned hit me up for a copy of Zizek's Politics, you guessed it, for free. 
Free-ness, then, would be the quality of expecting that wants will be satisfied for free. Wanting things -- opportunities, events, pleasure, experiences -- to come with no strings attached, no repercussions. Free of charge -- we don't have to pay with any guilt, responsibility, or loss. To this extent, free-ness could be the ugly progeny of free-love. Wal-Mart is also part of this general phenomenon: its emphasis on low costs clearly masks its actual costs to communities in the US, American taxpayers, and workers the world over. Although not exactly free, the low, low prices fit with the overall value of free-ness. At any rate, the promise of free-ness is, as the enemies of the working people like to say, that "it's a win-win." 
Free-ness involves displacement. It thus requires a rather twisted temporality, one that displaces any possible responsibility or cost elsewhere. To avoid facing up to the political problems of the present, then, we focus on the future, on the horse race of elections. To avoid taking responsibility for the future, we focus on the pleasures of the present--big, fast, cars! A fifth piece of chocolate (ok, maybe I'm getting too personal here). And, there is no past -- no past hopes or dreams or aspirations that might push us away from free-ness and toward freedom. 
Katrina and Iraq remind us of the real costs of free-ness. In each case, a mentality that refused to acknowledge that freedom takes commitment and responsibility, that freedom is a challenge that requires sacrifices, was displaced by an orientation toward free-ness. Thus, there is a classism and racism of politicians oriented toward dollars and elections substituted toward proper planning, a viable policy regarding the levies, and a proper system of response. In contrast, an orientation toward freedom would consider whether people had the material means freely to evacuate the city, whether communities were free to establish their living and working conditions. In Iraq, free-ness was thought to be achievable by bombing people -- they would welcome the bombers! -- and by eliminating a dictator. So, the war would be cost free -- not too many soldiers, they wouldn't need much body armor or training. 
We need to fight against free-ness. And recognize again the Real horror of freedom; that is, the abyss of freedom and the fact of its empty demand.

Jodi Dean teaches political theory in upstate New York. Her most recent book is Zizek's Politics (Routledge). Visit her blog, I cite.