If liberation describes a genuine change of state for a sentient being, human or animal, or a group of such entities, then what is the individual’s status in the post-liberation condition?
The question of ‘What is it to be liberated?’ has two primary meanings. One, as a verb, asks what the process or event of liberation actually entails. The second, in its adjectival reading, seeks knowledge pertaining to the state of the liberated being.
The state of being before liberation is implied by potential fact of liberation itself (whatever the latter is or isn’t). Something can only be liberated if it is in a state that allows of liberation – that is, the absence or impairment of liberty, such as being oppressed, confined, incarcerated, dominated, controlled etc. On this interpretation, the post-liberation state is one where these conditions no longer prevail.
Can the post hoc state of liberty, then, be defined only by the absence of certain objective conditions? If so, what are those objective conditions? This does not seem like a question with an easy answer.
Alternatively, we can see as ‘unnatural’ those external conditions that liberation removes, insofar as they are imposed by other actors (moral agents?). In this case, liberation is actually a return to an original, or at least prior, ‘state of nature’. Whilst inverting the received political wisdom that the past is better than the future, this anti-golden-age perspective on which modern political theory is founded still attempts to justify action in the present in terms of the not-past.
All the ahistorical theorising about existential states misses the key point: in the real world, animals – including humans – have never been ‘free’ of external constraints on every single thought and action. We are, always have been, and always will be, embodied in the world.
A strong theme in Christian religious culture is that the body itself is some type of cage incarcerating the spirit within the flesh. The problem is not whether this is, or could be, true or untrue; but that the wrong conclusions have been drawn from it within that tradition.
Rather than accepting the transcendental reality of our embodiment as self-aware biological entities, the western intellectual tradition deriving from Christianity has sought to deny this unavoidable and unchangeable precondition of our very existence. Instead, it has sought the chimera of liberation or emancipation as a categorical experience.
Liberation from the world of evil. Liberation from the prison of the flesh. Liberation from slavery and serfdom. Liberation from capitalist exploitation. Women’s liberation. National liberation. Sexual liberation. Animal liberation.
The drive for liberation is widespread among human cultures. While it may not be universal, at the very least it is certainly not restricted to those cultures deriving from Abrahamic religions or western intellectual traditions. And some other religions fare not much better, if anything, in this respect.
In Buddhism, a human can (with immense difficulty) become liberated (moksha) from samsara, the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. However, this appears to be a notional concept only. Nirvana means ‘extinguishing’ (e.g. of a flame) and can only ever be described negatively – it is a non-state. And it is only with the death of the body that the fully enlightened being is finally liberated, and the non-state of mahaparinirvana (‘great-beyond-nirvana’) is, well, not attained.
China’s indigenous, mystical Daoist tradition seeks liberation in a diametrically opposed, life-affirming direction – that of immortality. But the iron laws of physical nature cannot be subverted by alchemy, as was no doubt discovered too late by those who, in search of liberation from earthly mortality, imbibed toxic substances such as mercury sulfide (red in appearance and known as dan in Chinese and as cinnabar by the ancient Greeks).
The solutions to our problems are not usually found in running away from them, as strong as that urge can be at the individual or collective level. For some, such as refugees from war zones or animals fleeing forest fires, it may be the best of a bunch of very unattractive options. But flight is not the same as liberation – as the refugees Australia has inhumanly abused in appalling conditions on Manus Island and Nauru know only too well.
In contemporary politics, calls for ‘liberation’ are shibboleths distracting from the reality of the human condition. They serve to conjure illusions of the obtainability in the near-future of states of affairs in which we or some other group of beings are no longer ‘unliberated’.
Deeply problematically, these liberation mythologies promote the idea that once we are liberated our problems will magically evaporate in the sunshine of our emancipation.
There never has been and will never be a point in history upon which we are ‘liberated’, a time when we can leave all our troubles behind us. This is the thinking of the desperate, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised. But there will be no inheritance, earthly or otherwise.
What we need now in this time of global general crisis are not flights of febrile fantasy, but hard-nosed political realism grounded in the cold, dry facts of the objective situation. We need to accept as unchangeable the reality that we will always need to struggle against oppression, push back against exploitation, and resist power in all its pervasive and pernicious forms.
Our future wellbeing lies not in utopian dreams of freedom, but in sober, practical and politically feasible solutions, based on sound understandings of how our societies really work, and building on the hard-earned experience of those who went before.