Elisabeth AnkerUgly Freedoms (Duke University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Elisabeth Anker (EA): I started to notice violently aggressive forms of freedom in American politics over the past twenty years—in which freedom has entailed invading Iraq and Afghanistan, deregulating pollution, fetishizing guns, and defunding social support. “Freedom” justified such brutal exercises of power. Critics on the left responded that these claims of freedom were not “real” freedoms but a sham, a perversion of an ideal, or manipulation of an unblemished virtue. These responses seemed problematic to me, as they continued to invest in freedom as always ideal—as if any form of freedom that justified harm could not be real freedom. Yet I realized that history showed us something different: freedom has been exercised as brutality, dispossession, and slavery for centuries. I began to see how throughout western modernity, freedom had been expressed in the capacity to harm another.

By continuing to idealize freedom, scholars had missed the ways in which practices of freedom have included enslavement and exploitation as much as independence and emancipation. What I began to call “ugly freedom” names this dynamic in which practices of freedom produce harm and subjugation as freedom. I use the language of ugliness to push past the idealized practices of freedom to see what forms of damage they legitimate or incorporate.

Yet I did not want to conclude that freedom should be discarded altogether. To demote freedom as a collective aspiration is not to be unburdened by freedom’s legacy but to relinquish a vital resource to fight for a better world. So I reworked ugly freedom to have a second definition: it also names alternative freedoms overlooked as unworthy or demeaning by conventional standards of freedom’s exercise, but that still demonstrate the capacity for shared participation in making a world where all can flourish—my own definition of freedom. These freedoms showcase undervalued and uncelebrated modes of freedom that could otherwise be dismissed as ugly, deflating or “uncivilized”. In this second definition, ugliness opens up different understandings of what free action might be.

For instance, in the context of neoliberal freedom’s violent takeover of politics, I show communities carving out scrappy ways to live habitably with others off the radar—ways otherwise seen as too uninspiring to be interpreted as freedom. I highlight how Black emancipation generates new forms of white supremacy, while also exploring the unsettling actions that thwart structures of antiblack domination, even when these activities do not look like resistance or agency. Alongside practices of freedom like individual sovereignty and human exceptionalism that further climate destruction, I locate experimental freedoms in toxic waste zones and dank bodily guts, which showcase different creatures collaborating to remake decimated worlds.

“Ugly freedom” has a double meaning. In the first it is a critique of certain freedoms understood as unproblematic political ideals. In the second it is a generative resource for identifying alternative freedoms in practices rejected or disparaged by the first version of ugly freedom—freedoms otherwise deemed too inconsequential, gross, or compromised to qualify as such.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

EA: Ugly Freedoms reckons with the difficult legacy of freedom in liberal democracy, showing how individual liberties are entangled with white supremacy, settler colonialism, climate destruction, economic exploitation, and patriarchy. These “ugly freedoms” legitimate the right to exploit and subjugate others. At the same time, the book locates an unexpected second type of ugly freedom in practices and situations often dismissed as demeaning, offensive, or gross but that also reveal emancipatory potential. I argue that freedom can be ugly, and also that ugliness can be a resource for unconventional, worldmaking freedoms. I analyze both types of ugly freedom at work in a number of texts and locations, from political theory, art, and film, to junk food, waste dumps, and war. Whether examining how Kara Walker’s sculptures show that the violence of sugar plantations shapes liberal thought, how Lebanese artist Dahlia Baassiri’s dustwork reveals the co-presence of climate violence and multispecies worldmaking, or how impoverished American neighborhoods in The Wire blunt neoliberalism’s violence, Ugly Freedoms shifts our perspective of freedom by contesting its idealized expressions and by expanding visions for what freedom can look like, who can exercise it, and how to build a world free from domination.

Ugly freedoms are imbricated in many of the largest global problems of our time: neoliberal capitalism, climate destruction, white supremacy, and neoimperialism. Each has, at one point or another, been justified as an expression of freedom. Freedom is not the overarching driving force that constitutes these different systems of power, but its tenets are capacious enough to have validated each one of them.

Analyzing the content and practice of freedom is a central task of political thought and I place my book in this tradition, while also pulling from a more interdisciplinary framework to interrogate freedom’s harms. The injuries produced by the pursuit of modern freedom have been differently documented in feminist, Black, indigenous, communist, and anticolonial thought, which show how political theories of freedom can rely on a metaphysics of gender, race, privacy, and civilizational enlightenment that harm and exclude those considered too dependent or barbaric. My study relies on those formative accounts while arguing further that these harms and exclusions are not merely the violent effects of freedom but can also be considered free practice. Most forms of freedom are nonideal. Freedom entails both nondomination and domination, both worldmaking and world destruction, both challenges to and impositions of unjust authority. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

EA: My first book, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom, investigated how freedom legitimated the War on Terror. I focused on how narratives of melodrama interpreted foreign policy through stories of evil villains attacking virtuous and innocent Americans, positioning the United States to unleash violent state power in order to regain freedom for the state and its privileged citizens. Freedom demanded heroic feats of strength, spectacles of might, and unilateral acts of war and global control.

I became incredibly frustrated by the masculinist prowess of heroic freedom, which I started to see not only in right politics but in many leftist visions of liberation. The ennobling promises of cathartic, heroic freedom seemed so pervasive and damaging that I wondered if the late twentieth-century advent of left melancholia followed not only the collapse of communist and anticolonial experiments and the rise of neoliberal capitalism as a global superpower, but also the sense that some visions of revolutionary freedom can be too unapproachable, too pure, too heroic. Perhaps paralysis or self-flagellation grows in response to a perception that heroism seems beyond the reach of ordinary people who are constantly treading water just to survive. I wanted to unseat heroic freedom from its perch and find more livable and inclusive visions of freedom not premised on the ideal of a morally righteous subject who heroically self-wills his action.

I turned to ugly freedoms in their second valence to move beyond these stale visions and explore more accessible and collaboratively worldmaking freedoms. I searched for freedoms expressed not only in ordinary, minor, interdependent actions, but also in sordid, denigrated, and deviant ones. I found worth in actions otherwise derided as ugly without recouping them back into standard categories of beauty, especially if those categories are themselves crafted out of brutal forms of power. I hoped to transmute their denigrated status into an experience of creative conviviality out of enmeshment with difference, deviance, and unruliness, showcasing their latent possibilities for living free without redefining them as necessarily ideal.

By elevating nonheroic and minor freedoms my goal is not to narrow political horizons to the mundane or truncate political strategies to trivial and seemingly less desirable possibilities. Instead, I seek to expand them, to find allies where one might otherwise expect foes or dead weight, to locate collective support in demoralizing conditions that seem to predict defeat, and to identify generative resources in vulgar situations, dreary institutions, and seemingly vanquished spaces.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

EA: Ugly freedoms circulate widely and affect the study of freedom in various disciplines: not only those of us in political theory, political science, and international relations, but also scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who take freedom as a topic of study or a normative goal of research. Indeed, the ugliness of freedom expands daily: in the United States alone more and more laws, caucuses, rallies, and hard-right movements are using the language of freedom as a cudgel to erode democratic governance and civil rights, and expand the creep of authoritarianism.

Ugly freedoms increasingly justify minority rule, discrimination, and anti-democratic governance; I wrote about this in a guest essay for the New York Times. States ban the teaching of racism and sexism in order to promote “freedom of thought.” Jan. 6 insurrectionists insist “I’m here for freedom” when describing their participation in the attack on the Capitol. Covid anti-vaxxers and mask mandate opponents cite “health freedom” even as their refusal to mask or get vaccinated denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes entire communities more vulnerable to Covid. It is an urgent task to support and create radically democratic alternatives to ugly freedom—in legislatures and local communities, on the streets and in global movements, in ordinary life, and in arts and letters—and to fight for the shared power to construct a free society that truly values the lives of all its members. And I would add that these alternatives are often already exercised in places and by people neglected or disparaged as having little to offer free practice. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

EA: I am beginning a new book tentatively titled “Trickle-Down Domination,” which examines how violent structures of power like capitalism, authoritarianism, and white supremacy rely for their success on the agreement of people embedded midway within their hierarchies. I am interested in how people in the “middle” accept their exploitation by those with more power, and in turn take pleasure from controlling people pushed below them in status hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and workplace power. “Trickle-down Domination” will study this twofold dynamic in workplaces, politics, domesticity, and public space, in which people steadfastly obey people and structures of power that subjugate them, and in so doing gain the capacity to subjugate people with less power.


Excerpt from the book (from Ugly Freedoms, pp. 1-5.)

During the US war to annex the Philippines, American soldiers employed a special method of torture against Filipino captives resisting US occupation. Standing on their arms to hold them in place, the soldiers thrust a running water hose down their captives’ throats to simulate the feeling of drowning. This method, known as the “water cure,” was intended to both punish individual insurgents and compel the larger Filipino population to submit to imperial occupation. When stories of the water cure returned to the US mainland, the technique was condemned as an obscene act abhorrent to American political values, and it was eventually prohibited. Yet for the soldiers on the ground, who continued to perform it, the water cure was viewed not as the opposite of American political values but as an expression of them. One soldier wrote a song, “The Water Cure in the P.I.,” that expressed this view:

Get the good old syringe boys and fill it to the brim

We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him

Let someone take the handle who can work it with a vim

Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom.

Hurrah. Hurrah. We bring the Jubilee.

Hurrah. Hurrah. The Flag that Makes him free.

Shove the nozzle deep and let him taste of liberty

Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom.

In this song, torture is a battle cry of freedom. It is a jubilee celebration—a joyful and world-historic liberation—best practiced by an enthusiastic torturer, someone “who can work it with a vim.” Water is transformed into an instrument of torture by the syringe nozzle, and in this form it provides a “taste of liberty.” According to the song’s sadistic lyrics, once water is forced into Filipinos, it becomes liberty—it is what liberty tastes like for the tortured subject. Freedom, for Filipino captives, is experienced sensorially as drowning by torture. This practice of freedom targets the subject of a violent racial slur, so it draws on and extends longstanding American patterns of racialized violence against nonwhite people. Deployed at home against Black and Native peoples, this brutality is now projected abroad against the people of the Philippines, newly designated as subjects of American racial empire The song’s imperative to “shove the nozzle deep” sexualizes the violence that marks the water cure as a form of control akin to rape. Freedom for the Filipinos challenging US occupation means being subjected to torture, and freedom for white American soldiers entails a celebratory practice of violent and sexual domination over resistant brown bodies in the service of imperial annexation.

There is no higher value than freedom in American politics and political thought. It is the foundational value that the country embodies, that citizens desire, and that the state is said to defend. For historian Eric Foner “no idea is more fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom.” Throughout US history, what people mean by freedom has differed dramatically—it has included uncoerced action, political equality, emancipation from slavery, participation in governing, nondomination, individual responsibility, the abolition of tyranny, and revolutionary collective action to bring a just and equal society into being. Freedom is a notoriously contested concept, as its meaning continuously shifts in different historical moments. But across different uses, freedom has always signified the highest of human aspirations. Even with the multiplicities of freedom, the insistence in “The Water Cure in the P.I.” that torture is a practice of freedom would seem impossible, nonsensical, or profoundly and unsettlingly wrong.

Many critics condemned the brutality of the water cure during the Filipino-American war, as did critics one hundred years later in another war that promised freedom through occupation—the War on Terror—in which the signature method of torture, waterboarding, echoed the water cure. In both cases, critics argued that torture and freedom were opposites, and therefore that supporters of water torture were morally bankrupt and politically misguided because they presumed that it could serve freedom. This comforting response defended the virtue and purity of freedom while separating it from the ugliness of imperialist, cruel, and racist torture practices. But what if the soldier’s song bluntly articulates a paradoxical and unsavory truth? What if torture is a practice of American freedom? What if popular forms of freedom have entailed not merely the celebrated practices of individual liberty, rule of law, or shared participation in collective governance, but also torture, dis- possession, and racial domination?

Ugly Freedoms interrogates practices of American freedom to examine the oppressions they legitimate as principled ideals. Throughout US history, freedom has taken shape as individual liberty and emancipation from tyranny, but it has also taken shape as the right to exploit and the power to subjugate. The American Revolution is perhaps the archetypal expression of political freedom in the United States, when former colonial subjects liberated them- selves from the yoke of unjust monarchy in a radical act of political worldmaking. The founders brought a new democratic society into being, and galvanized a form of free subjectivity beyond individual rights to include the shared making of politics. Yet this liberation was only possible because of widespread land theft from indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land upon which they declared independence. Violent and world-destroying acts of dispossession were practiced by the founders as freedom: the freedom of settlers to take land in order to instantiate a new government, the freedom to cordon off native territory by labor, treaty manipulation, murder, and fiat in order to exercise independence. This practice of freedom disrupted indigenous political systems and land relationships in order to be free from monarchy, a freedom that continues to this day in ongoing settler practices of land appropriation and cultural erasure.

The American Revolution also relied on and was funded in part by the enslaved labor of millions of Africans and their descendants. Slavery, legalized by US juridical processes, was interpreted by enslavers not as the opposite of liberty but as a practice of liberty. Enslavers argued that slavery was necessary for freedom. It entailed the freedom of local control and citizens’ self-rule. Slavery comprised the freedom to buy and sell without government interference, as well as the freedom of private property, as it authorized white property owners to use and dispose of their Black human property largely as they decided. Some colonialists’ desire to practice enslavement unregulated by the British Crown was precisely what led them to support the self-rule of national independence. The system of slavery was thus not merely considered the opposite of freedom but also a practice of freedom: the freedom of the master.

At other moments in US history, freedom was a legitimating factor when the United States entered the second world war, helping to mobilize the fight against the genocidal authoritarianism and violent territorial expansion of the Nazis. Yet US efforts to support global freedom also legitimated imperial wars like those in the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as more recent neoimperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The War on Terror was explicitly called a war for “Freedom against Fear,” and even its military operations were titled “Operation: Enduring Freedom” and “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” to emphasize the centrality of freedom as a guiding principle. The War on Terror killed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed the infrastructure of both Afghanistan and Iraq, installed crony capitalists as leaders, and siphoned both countries’ natural resources and national industries for the benefit of US-based multinational corporations. Within the United States, the War on Terror justified pervasive domestic surveillance, widespread and ongoing state harassment of people with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, and the mass securitization of public space, each in the name of American freedom.

Throughout US history, the pursuit of freedom has legitimated democratic revolution, slave emancipation, labor organizing, and social justice movements for gender, sexual, and racial equality, but it has also legitimated slavery, indigenous dispossession, environmental destruction, sex and gender oppression, and the violent machinations of a “free” market that enable the powerful few to accumulate vast wealth amidst widespread poverty and homelessness. Practices of freedom include enslavement and exploitation as much as independence and emancipation.

Freedom is thus, at once, the highest ideal in American politics and also the most brutal. This ambivalent legacy demands a full reckoning. Celebrated practices of freedom like self-rule, full participation in governance, and non- domination are crucial for understanding the complexity and possibilities of freedom. But systems of domination like imperialism or capitalism have also unfolded in freedom’s name. Freedom is not the overarching driving force that constitutes these different systems of power, but its tenets are capacious enough to justify each one of them. It is too reassuring to claim that these systems are only falsely justified as freedom, that they only fabricate or dissimulate their connection to freedom as a fig leaf to cover true motives. This claim preserves freedom as a righteous, hallowed ideal. But the trouble is not that these practices demonstrate a failure to embody the correct ideal of freedom. Nor is it that the virtue of freedom is tragically subverted by bad actors who erroneously use freedom to legitimate their predation. The trouble is that ideals of freedom can be produced out of and within what Saidiya Hartman calls “scenes of subjection”—that freedom can legitimately be practiced as subjugation. Freedom can entail both nondomination and domination, both worldmaking and world destruction, both challenges to and impositions of unjust authority. Rather than disavowing this dynamic to discard subjugating freedoms as either insincerity or false consciousness, I take the ambivalence and violence of freedom’s expression seriously. Ugly Freedoms de-idealizes freedom and its entailments.