The 13 May was usually a happy day for Carolina Maria de Jesus. It’s a day of celebration in Brazil, especially for Black Brazilians, as it marks the date that slavery was abolished in 1888, making this the last country in the western hemisphere to do so. However, on that day in 1958, de Jesus didn’t have time to celebrate. It was cold, and the impoverished daughter of Brazilian sharecroppers had only beans and salt to feed herself and her children. She spent the day sending her children to plead with neighbours to share some lard so that she could make soup for her family. Or, to use her own explanation of her situation, she spent the day fighting slavery of a different sort – the ‘present-day slavery’ of hunger, and the constant struggle to avoid it.
The diary in which she wrote these words, Quarto de Despejo (1960) – literally ‘The Garbage Place’; published in English as Child of the Dark (1962) – broke barriers. It was the first bestselling work of literature by a Black Brazilian woman and to date one of the most prominent first-person accounts of life in favelas, Brazil’s notorious slum neighbourhoods. De Jesus grew up an outcast, one of two children born out of wedlock in a heavily Catholic section of rural Minas Gerais. When her mother died, she moved to the slums of the big city of São Paulo, where she built herself a house out of whatever suitable scraps she could find, and from where she wrote her diary. This diary makes vivid the structuring reality of dire material insecurity: where the hunger after a skipped meal and the cold that rips through worn-out clothes meet the worry of whether there’ll be food and shoes tomorrow. As she told it, these thoughts and concerns stood steadfastly between herself and freedom.
The 31 October of the same year was a happy day for a prominent contemporary of de Jesus’s: Isaiah Berlin became the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford when he delivered an inaugural address called ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, which became a classic work of political philosophy. In the lecture he distinguishes between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty (typically used interchangeably with ‘freedom’). Negative liberty is freedom from interference, the absence of certain kinds of obstacle, restraint or coercion from other people. The paradigmatic form of negative freedom is freedom from the arbitrary will that a dominating master inserts between the enslaved person’s agential capacities and her desires. This conception is often preferred by political liberals and libertarians, who champion political rights and institutional procedures that aim to protect individual freedom from the encroachment of others – including (and, for some, especially) the state. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is ‘the freedom which consists in being one’s own master’: self-control, the ability to make choices and act upon them. Someone struggling with addiction might have negative liberty, since she could be free from others’ interferences, yet still be unfree in the positive sense if the addictive impulses overwhelm her capacity to decide for herself.
De Jesus’s way of thinking about freedom, implicit in her description of favela poverty, doesn’t obviously fit into either of Berlin’s ways of thinking about freedom: she neither describes her unfreedom as the imposition of any particular actor (as a failure of negative liberty) nor as a failure of rational self-control (as a failure of positive liberty).
It’s tempting to write off her description of material deprivation as slavery as a dramatic overstatement or rhetorical flourish. De Jesus, after all, was a complicated figure whose lifestyle didn’t conform to middle-class norms of respectability – she never married, and her three children had different fathers. Further complicating matters, her politics often diverged from the tidy progressivism that might otherwise have established her as a liberal or even a Left icon – she notably declines to call Brazil a racist country when given the opportunity, and her diaries describe her fellow favelados in critical terms. In contrast, Berlin was a person of the expected pedigree for philosophical thought: a named professor at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, who retains iconic status long after his death in 1997. Nevertheless, there’s another option: that de Jesus deliberately expressed a deep insight into the nature of freedom and what it requires, and that insight in itself might present a viable alternative to the account preferred by thinkers such as Berlin.
Characterising the difference between de Jesus and Berlin comes down to a subtle difference in subject matter. Both positive and negative liberty primarily relate the actions of the political subject to her desires and goals, and the different things that corrupt this relationship: on the negative version, the interference of other people in the pursuit of one’s own goals; on the positive version, the interference of unmanageable desires or aversions that can result in failures of rational self-mastery.
But perhaps this is one level of abstraction too low to meet the lofty point offered by de Jesus. After all, our desires and goals themselves are powerfully shaped and explained by our circumstances, and our preferences, plans and actions respond to these circumstances. Perhaps freedom, then, relates directly to our circumstances, and not just to the relationships between rational goals, action and social interactions that develop afterward. This is the thought that seems to be behind de Jesus’s suggestion that hunger itself made her unfree, rather than a particular story about why or whether she or others were to blame for her hunger.
De Jesus’s thinking about freedom is in good company with the wider history of a particular genre of philosophical thought known as ‘materialism’. Materialists have good reason to take security as seriously as de Jesus does: especially those aspects of social and economic life that concern our basic needs – that is, material security.
Political use of the term ‘security’ is often associated with surveillance and authoritarianism given the Right-wing politics that currently dominate discussion of this idea and its structuring role in our oppressive political order. But security itself – particularly with respect to basic material needs such as food, water, shelter, healthcare and protection from violence – is also one of freedom’s most important building blocks. This is clearer now than ever, as the fallout from COVID-19 adds hundreds of millions of people worldwide to the food-, housing- and water-insecure. The overlooked radical history of thought about this term demonstrates its promise for us in the present: a politics up to the task of fighting the fight for freedom in an increasingly precarious world.
De Jesus begins Quarto de Despejo with a diary entry for 15 July 1955, her daughter’s second birthday. De Jesus had hoped to buy Vera Eunice a pair of shoes but, she writes, ‘the price of food keeps us from realising our desires’. So de Jesus casts aside the desire to buy her daughter shoes, and instead finds a pair in the garbage and washes and patches them so they’re ready for her to wear. Later, she uses the few cruzeiros she earns from washing three bottles to buy bread.
No tyrant made her fish through the garbage in search of a birthday present. No individual or dictatorial army compelled her to buy the food. There’s no problem of negative liberty here. Neither is there of positive liberty: she doesn’t she feel an irresistible impulse to buy the food – she decides to, after sober reflection upon her circumstances and priorities. Yet de Jesus still chooses to describe her predicament in terms of slavery, writing ‘we are slaves to the cost of living’.
Materialism offers us some reasons for taking her literally. This view emphasises the connection between human society and the natural world. We are embodied creatures with biological imperatives and needs, and we are this before we’re anything else. Since economic production is how we make the things we use to meet our basic needs, perhaps we can start here to build our understanding of the social world.
Under capitalism, production is chiefly controlled by firms that owe their social role to their private ownership of the ‘means of production’. Paradigmatically, this has meant ownership of natural resources and factories (though today ownership of technology and intellectual property are rising in prominence). These firms are often understood as trying, above all, to maximise profit or value for shareholders. Since these firms are the movers and shakers of our global economy, it might stand to reason that our whole social system should be analysed in the same way: as primarily driven by profit-hungry elites and the decisions they make to maximise their and their co-conspirators’ wealth. This way of understanding things lends itself to a particular sort of explanation of historical events: the war in Iraq, policing and climate change are really problems driven by the same things that drive corporate behaviour: a desire to maximise profit and wealth for a shadowy corporate elite; the accumulation of capital.
This is too simple. An analysis that reduces everything to class neglects a broad array of social relations that are fundamental to explaining history, such as those related to race, gender, caste and ability. But, as Vanessa Wills notes in her lecture ‘What Could It Mean to Say, “Capitalism Causes Sexism and Racism?”’ (2018), the reason why the working class and its economically productive labour enjoy such centrality in Marxist thought (an important, though not the only, strain of materialist thought) is derivative of the role that production itself plays. In other words, Wills argues that Marxist thought is a production-centred view of society, not a class identity-centred view. Humans are creatures with biological needs, without which we will die – meaning that our pursuit of any other ends is causally dependent on our continued existence. This, in turn, causally depends on our activity to meet those basic needs. This set of activities – the things that must be done if anything else is to be done – is production.
But, important as it is, not everything we do is directly explained by the social need for production. Though mentioned by Karl Marx in Das Kapital, Volume I (1867), it was materialist feminists who best recognised the importance of social reproduction: the work done today to make sure production can happen tomorrow. This establishes a second important functional category besides production that we can use to explain more of our social world than we could by appeal to production alone.
With security in mind, it’s easier to see how focusing on the maximisation of profit and plunder gets things wrong
However, a third kind of social goal stands in the background of both
- in an activity known as dolphin drive hunting. Besides drive hunting, they also face threats from bycatch, habitat loss, and marine pollution