Vol. 21 No. 6 (June, 2011) pp.305-307
THE TWO FACES OF AMERICAN FREEDOM, by Aziz Rana. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 432pp. Hardcover. $29.95/£22.95/€27.00. ISBN: 9780674048973.
Reviewed by Stephen Pimpare, New York University, Silver School of Social Work. Email: Stephenpimpare [at] yahoo.com.
A dread fact lurks at the core of the American story: liberty and freedom for some, typically trumpeted under the rhetorical banner of freedom for all, has been achieved, at least in part, thanks to the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the exploitation of workers of all kinds, and the exclusion of women and ethnic minorities. This uncomfortable legacy is now widely recognized and, to varying degrees, increasingly incorporated into narratives of the American experience. Although it is occasionally presented here as if it were something more novel than it now is, Aziz Rana’s entree into this landscape offers a dense, provocative, revisionist tale that finds the key to apparently contradictory strains in American political culture, political thought, and notions of citizenship in our own dual past as settler and colonizer.
For Rana, American ideas of freedom have been deeply rooted in “imperial frameworks,” and in a reality in which “the promise of liberty” was ultimately dependent upon “practices of subordination” (p.3). This tension – these are the “two faces of American freedom” – bequeathed us a “settler empire” built inextricably on and dependent upon a territorial expansion that, inescapably perhaps, undermined freedom itself. Populists (a term he applies broadly to varieties of farmer and worker activists from the early 1800s) pushed against this tide, seeking to “expand the meaning of liberty and to imagine this American ideal without either subordination or empire” (p.3). The dissolution of those movements and their ultimate failures, including the Progressive Era contraction of the franchise, mark the “effective abandonment of the American vision of liberty as an exercise in self-rule” (p.262). What follows is the rise of the modern administrative state, in which settler individuality and populist democracy have both retreated, with potentially dangerous consequences, replaced first with a “humanitarian imperialism” (p.262) of global expansion and, later, the further encroachment and legitimation of broad executive power thanks to the New Deal.
The result is that while “the people” may be invoked like some shibboleth, the public are not engaged (or even much needed) by the distant, modern state; they have become passive subjects of power, and are content to remain so as long as it seems able to provide security from want at home and to protect them from threats from abroad. Republican self-rule has thus faded, and is now dangerously close to being gone. As Rana summarizes: “the dominant legacy of reform has not been to transform the prevailing order but to rationalize it. Equality often has meant simply [*306] blunting the harshest implications of the state’s coercive power over marginalized groups and providing elite access for a privileged few drawn from them” (p.328). What’s now needed is to “[recover] the historical project of independence – only now expanded to incorporate everyone” (p.329), with the civil rights movement as model, and to build, finally, the nonimperial republic promised by Populist ideology.
The scope of THE TWO FACES OF AMERICAN FREEDOM is intended to be broad, employing this internal-freedom-versus-external-subordination frame to fundamentally recast the very history of the Revolutionary, Jacksonian, Populist-Progressive, and New Deal periods. Nonetheless, some of those histories can seem fairly familiar in the telling, as can the readings of U.S. Supreme Court cases incorporated somewhat sporadically into the narrative, and the preponderance of usual suspects in American political thought employed as touchstones: sometimes there is less here than meets the eye. The earlier chapters are most successful, however, especially Rana’s efforts to “[place] the Revolution within a debate over the meaning of empire” (p.22) in an effort to demonstrate that the American Revolution was, in the final instance, “as much about the nature of imperial colonization as it was about political beginning” (p.21).
There are explicitly normative goals here as well, including, most broadly, “to show how apparently marginal views of freedom and social membership are themselves foundational aspects of our identity . . . . making us appreciate as our own practices and ideas that at present appear distant and culturally foreign” (p.18, emphasis in original). This latter ambition is, in effect, an elaboration on Rogers Smith’s (1993) rebuttal to Louis Hartz (1955) (a debt Rana acknowledges): there is no American experience, Smith shows, but a panoply of American experiences, and subordination and oppression are themselves central features of the American creed. The Rana addendum to Smith is that, “projects of territorial expansion and judgments about who properly counted as social insiders helped to generate and sustain . . . accounts of liberty” (p.7).
The volume can offer a lesson in institutional development, too, Rana hopes, demonstrating “how American identity emerged through historic practices of empire building” (p.8) and the “settler structure” of American society, in which freedom was defined as self-rule (for some) in pursuit of territorial conquest: “the goals of economic independence and democratic self-rule rested on a continual project of expansion” (p.13). But scholars of American Political Development will not find here sufficient attention to actual institutional transformation in the service of settler ideology to find the account fully satisfying or persuasive in that regard. That is not to say that there is not good evidence here for the claims, but that the argument feels incomplete and still formative.
The sweeping, all-encompassing kind of explanation Rana seeks to offer has gone out a fashion a bit in American history, and, as a general rule, that’s a good thing: history does not unfold according to a coherent single narrative strain. The “settler structure of American society” (p.13) is an important historical insight [*307] and a useful counterpoint to some of our more reductive visions of the frontier, but, ultimately, not all history can bear the pressure of being wedged into the frame. As a consequence, the account offered here can sometimes feels less like a glimpse into some previously hidden deep structure of American political history than a mere device, something of a narrative trick. There’s a bit of a straw man hovering over the effort, as well. The book is framed as an intervention into notions both of American Exceptionalism and origin myths of a perfected Constitution handed down by infallible framers: but anyone prone to read this volume is unlikely to still hold, if ever they did, such retrograde and naive notions of the founding, and those most in need of myth-busting in this regard would find this book daunting, or more likely still, inaccessible.
But that said, it also seems clear that Rana’s re-telling of the American story is one that will be debated and should be reckoned with, both for its bold sidelong glance at familiar history – especially the manner in which it outlines the case for how and why we moved almost immediately from colony to colonizer – and for its potential implications for the present political moment. Scholars of immigration history and policy, American foreign policy, and American political thought will all find arguments worthy of consideration and deserving of their attention, along with and fresh perspectives on what might ordinarily be stale terrain.
Hartz, Louis. 1955. THE LIBERAL TRADITION IN AMERICA. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Smith, Rogers. 1993. “Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America.” AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 87(3): 549-566.
© Copyright 2011 by the author, Stephen Pimpare.