The Irish Times reports over 100 ‘Freeman’-style arguments used in the Irish courts this year, citing the Law Society Gazette [for the traditional legal response see here and here]. Last Tuesday, Francis Cullen (36) was sentenced to another three months in Mountjoy Prison for refusing to recognise the court’s jurisdiction. He claimed, according to the Irish Times report, that he was ‘a private, sovereign person’.
The Law Society of Ireland ‘advises anyone in financial difficulty to get advice from someone who is trained in and knowledgeable about the law as set down in the Constitution and by the Oireachtas and the courts’, according to the Irish Times, which also cites a barrister pointing out the harmful and abusive dimension to providing vulnerable people with legal advice that is false.
100 court cases over the last 12 months seems like a big number to me. It would also be interesting to know how many people planning on using such arguments eventually thought better of doing so, before their case came before the courts. I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine the appeal of a freeman-style argument. Someone living in a situation of paralysing indebtedness can feel their life is falling apart. The legal fact of being in debt is only one aspect of the private disaster unfolding in their lives, which can also include relationship breakdown, separation from family, and a destructive effect on one’s self-esteem.
An existence as a financially solvent and autonomous individual is a basis for self-respect: that is the kind of existence prized by contemporary society. Spiraling debt is not just a matter of the quantity of debt shooting upward due to interest, fines and penalties. It is also the way in which the means of paying a debt may shrink, in a situation of unemployment and the consequent effects on a person’s morale. Overwhelming debt and a sense of things falling out of control in one’s personal life can have a corrosive effect on a person’s sense of self.
When the legal system appears on the scene, the effect can be traumatic. A split emerges in the mind of the person addressed by the court summons: between the person called upon by the forbidding and imperious complex of courts and solicitors, and the person with a memory and a history, informed by family and relationships and some degree of social worth.
Hence the appeal of the notion that I am a ‘private, sovereign person’: such a notion appears more grounded in reality than the legal ‘fiction’ of a person who exists before the court only by virtue of the fact that he or she is in a situation of a debt that cannot be paid. It follows that if this split can be successfully claimed as a legal fact, then neither the debt nor the court enforcing the payment or punishment in lieu of has any standing. This is an ‘if’ of proportions that are very large and fast approaching infinity.
The appeal can also be explained in terms of the way Freemanism – for want of a better word – preserves particular conceptions of masculinity, petty bourgeois individualism, and property rights. There is a tendency to draw on patriarchal imagery and rhetoric rooted in feudalism, of a time prior to the recent fall – when women had no political rights and every man his rightful place. We are speaking of ‘Freemen of the land’. Ben Gilroy – who says he is not a Freeman, but it scarcely matters since he relies on so much of the same discourse, speaks of the ‘founding fathers of the constitution’. Tradesmen who may have had a viable business during a property boom but for whom work has dried up and debt has ballooned may be particularly susceptible to Freemanism. It is worth restating here that dominant media institutions present the ideal existence in terms of independent businessmen-cum-entrepreneurs operating in an age where class has ceased to exist (though of course, you should be eternally grateful you have a job) and social supports are a luxury, not a right.
Paradoxically, a ‘private, sovereign person’ sees their existence as inseparable from the regime of property: ‘You are the sovereign supreme authority over your own self, your own bodily kingdom. If you can claim ownership of nothing else, you can claim ownership of yourself’, as the Sovereign Independent writes. In the final instance, Freemanism is a product of the regime of property and its conventional wisdom. However, one cannot ‘own’ oneself in the same way as one owns a washing machine. You cannot exchange your head for a washing machine.
This is a political problem then, and not a mere problem of insufficient legal advice. We have to draw a distinction between the manipulative chancers who claim expertise and seek public approval, and those people whose desperation and isolation causes them to either seek refuge in tenets of Freemanism in order to cope with personal catastrophe in the face of legal threats, or enthusiastically circulate material that purports to demonstrate the fundamental illegality of the law (usually by reference to some ‘real’ law that has been usurped).
It is not just a matter of the predicament of individuals who end up in jail with hefty sentences for paying heed to these syncretic doctrines: the more such ideas take hold, the more the possibilities for emancipatory democratic politics shrink. Isolation, debt and an internet connection are an explosive cocktail.
I don’t quite know what the best way is of addressing this as a political problem, but it strikes me that the wrong way of addressing it is to consign people who are attracted to such things to the ranks of the politically unacceptable and ridiculous, or identify a reactionary movement where no such thing exists. If a couple of thousand people – I think it was less than that – vote for someone standing on a platform of Direct Democracy in a by-election, promising greater democratic influence over political decisions, that is not so much an augury of a Grillo-style Five Star Movement in Ireland but the symptom of a fracture opening up in the political system, a consequence both of the real, decisive power of neoliberal technocracy and its destructive effect on people’s lives, and the largely successful presentation of politics as equivalent to representation, within a regime of property. In a country with anything approaching a democratic culture, the phenomenon of someone standing for an election in a political party named ‘Direct Democracy’ would be the object of intense ridicule. However, there has been little democratic questioning of the regime of representation in Ireland.
Having watched the evolution of 15-M in Spain closely, and having also observed the swift passage of Ireland’s Occupy event from initial euphoria and promise to puzzling debacle, it is tempting to diagnose the Irish situation in terms of its absences. One such absence is a climate of openness, trust and friendship. Another is any effective critique of representation at this juncture from a left-wing perspective, since it is widely believed that organising a representative political subject takes priority over democratic participation, and, in so far as democratic participation is desirable, it is with a view to laying the basis for a successful electoral vehicle, not the construction of social institutions beyond capitalism and the regime of representation. To me, both absences lay the foundation for a hiding to nothing.
My sense is that the overall absence of social institutions that operate democratically and on the basis of social solidarity, but crucially, that operate in spite of and against the regime of property, means that Freeman-type ideas will take even greater hold in Ireland, especially in the shadow of the new Insolvency Service of Ireland, which effectively turns people into powerless subjects of a regime that exerts control over the minutiae of one’s personal life. Refusing to address the phenomenon of Freemanism as a vivid symptom of a deep political problem, but merely as cause for derision and ridicule, is only going to make things worse.
Reposted from Cunning Hired Knaves.