The Reactionary ‘Freeman-​on-​the-​land’ and a Political Fracture

Sean Keating

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.

  6 comments for “The Reactionary ‘Freeman-​on-​the-​land’ and a Political Fracture

  1. 20 May 2013 at 7:26 pm

    This ana­lysis does not ac­count for the ori­gins of “Freemanism” — it is an American im­port with roots in the ex­treme right anti-​tax move­ment. The Irish prac­ti­tioners of it have barely even bothered to make it over for local use; the phrase “found­ing fathers of the con­sti­tu­tion” is an ob­vious, lazy co-​option of American rhet­oric that makes little sense in an Irish con­text. If nothing else this proves the in­sin­cerity and cyn­icism be­hind Irish Freemanism; they have latched onto the something-​for-​nothing as­pects they want to hear and have paid only the most cursory at­ten­tion to the “theory” that un­der­pins it.

    I sym­pathize with people who are in des­perate straits due to debt, but when they ap­pear in court yap­ping about Admiralty flags and how the “Bar” of the Bar Association is the “British Accredited Registry” then I think a cer­tain amount of de­ri­sion and ri­dicule is in order.

    • Matei Clej
      28 August 2013 at 9:41 pm

      Whatever their faults are, Freemen make for some rip-​roaring you­tube viewing.

    • Lacan
      10 March 2014 at 2:29 am

      Stunning ana­lysis moron.

  2. 21 May 2013 at 9:51 am

    Another art­icle cri­ti­cizing them polit­ic­ally is “Resisting the Lure of the Freemen” at http://​www​.wsm​.ie/​c​/​a​n​a​r​c​h​i​s​t​-​c​r​i​t​i​q​u​e​-​f​r​e​e​m​a​n​-​m​o​v​e​m​ent which does go into the polit­ical back­ground and its du­bious US based roots.

    • 21 May 2013 at 9:58 am

      “There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council. We were all a lot of silly po­licemen looking at each other.”

  3. Ganymede
    10 March 2014 at 3:44 am

    Thanks for a beau­tiful evening Benny, how­ever my mem­brum virile is ex­hib­iting some post-​coital in­flam­ma­tion so it might be prudent if you sought a clinic and a goodly swabbing.

    Your sweet Catamite XO

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