Recently President Putin signed a treaty welcoming Crimea into the Russian Federation, following a referendum on Sunday in which the Crimean populace elected with an estimated 93% majority to secede from Ukraine and apply to join Russia. Not so silently (but at least peacefully) the bounds of Mr. Putin’s land increase. And despite the Russian President’s declaration that he does not seek to seize any other parts of the Ukraine, public discourse in the liberal West is brimming with the fear that they will continue to do so. Given both the current instability of Ukraine and the not insignificant levels of pro-Russian sentiment in the country, the basis for the near-ubiquitous belief that we will start to see moves to annex parts of – perhaps even the entirety of – Ukraine is clear . The basis for the fear attached to that belief is similarly clear. Primarily, it is the menace common to all territorial expansion: the redistribution of international power as well as, of course, the redistribution of resources. Secondly, it is the particular menace of the growing power of Russia. Because ‘Russia’ signifies for the West a regime – if not a paradigm passed down from generation to generation – that apparently holds in low regard the principle at the core of the Western world : the sanctity of individual liberty.

The autonomy of the press is a lazily hidden fiction. Political opponents of Putin and his administration (members of the feminist protest group, Pussy Riot spring immediately to mind) are indicted on laughable charges and left to fester in prison until their trials eventually begin. Those whose sexual orientation offends the sensibilities of the hegemonic class face open employment discrimination and are prohibited by law from publicly acknowledging their sexuality. Russia, clearly, is no home to Lady Liberty. Yet while there may be a plank in Russia’s eye, we in the nominally liberal West must recognise that there is more than a speck of dust in our own.

Of course, we enjoy constitutions that uphold a great degree of personal freedom. But for all the careful attention that the soi-disent liberal establishments of Western Europe and North America pay to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we who live in these wealthy, proudly progressive states are living side by side with people whose everyday actions, and life-spanning narratives are largely decided for them. They are largely free according to the letter of the law but when their employers, too, are entirely free, and free to exploit them ever further, the real element of choice in their lives is whittled down until it is barely identifiable at all.

This constraining doctrine of freedom is a sad irony whose hold is strongest – yet more irony! – in the self-proclaimed land of the free. While not as positively feudal as in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the United States of America remains a place where many are in reality entirely at the behest of a ruthlessly profit-driven elite. In a piece for Al Jazeera America, David Cay Johnston provides raw material for the argument that members of America’s contemporary service class have demonstrably less de facto freedom than the domestic servants of the nineteenth century. With most domestic labour being brought in on an ad hoc basis, family cooks and cleaners are not on a weekly payroll or working pre-agreed hours, making their income uncertain and entirely dependent on the whim of their employers and placing the control of their time out of their own hands. Congress, in continuing to exclude domestic servants from laws protecting rights to rest periods and collective bargaining out of apparent respect for the autonomy of the householder, only compromise further the freedom of those who have so little of it to begin with.

The situation facing such unskilled workers in the corporate world is little better. In their compelling attack on Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Chris Betram et al. propose that in the operations of many large employers in the United States there are abridgments of freedom both inside and outside the workplace. Employees are forbidden from visiting the toilet outside company-approved breaks. 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is either suspended or straight-out dismissed. Even supporting the ‘wrong’ political candidates can cost workers their jobs. Such infringements of personal liberty do not often contravene state or federal law. Where they do, as is the case with the dismissal of unionised workers, the sanctions that can be expected for illegal moves are too light to act as any real deterrent. As Thomas Geoghegan notes in Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back, it is far more cost-effective for employers to pay the penalty for illegally firing all workers who join a union than to allow unionisation in the workplace.

And it is not just in factories, supermarkets and the homes of the wealthy that important liberties are allowed to be taken from workers in the name of economic liberalism: that alleged doctrine of freedom. As American universities are pulled ever further into corporate territory, academics, too, find themselves losing much of the freedom they have historically enjoyed in their professional lives. As Noam Chomsky flagged up in a talk he gave before the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in February, more and more faculty staff are hired “off the tenure track”, i.e. on temporary contracts. While such contracts do not compromise the liberty of faculty members in as blatant a way as, for example, factories’ regulations on toilet breaks, they do curb their effective autonomy over their work by placing them in a position of precariousness, where refusal to bend to the will of the powers that be is unthinkable for anyone who hopes to hold on to his job. The relationship between precariousness and de facto freedom to act has not only been acknowledged in modern America: it has been positively celebrated. Alan Greenspan received only praise when he explained before Congress in a 1997 speech that his economic model involved a high degree of “greater worker insecurity” on the grounds that insecure workers cannot realistically ask for pay rises, go on strike, or really do anything but serve obediently.

America is then a land in which, with the blessing of the establishment, the ongoing campaign for the protection of property does not extend quite as far as the protection of personal liberty. That can be bought and sold. Now, of course, absolute freedom cannot be a universal given. In a world of conflicting interests and coinciding aspirations, the liberty of all to do exactly as they please cannot possibly be upheld. Yet that does not make inevitable a world in which there is absolute freedom for some but debilitating constraint on others. The world of purchased freedom -the Western world as it stands today – does have an alternative. It is a world where ‘each according to his ability’ is drowned out by ‘each according to his needs’: a world of greater power from below; of a more regulated private sector. Now, if the Western world hopes to champion positive freedom and not merely reap the benefits of its juxtaposition with an openly oppressive Russia, we would do well to consider this alternative model for a free world.

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