"Liberation is not an insular experience; it occurs in conjunction with other human beings" - Peggy Kornegger - Anarchism: The Feminist Connection
I hear the concept of "personal liberation" being bandied around all the time in radical circles. This is expressed in several different, but equally vague ways. Sometimes the term "shifting consciousness" will be used. A friend's zine once put it this way: "the revolution won't happen in the streets, but in our hearts". It's never really made clear constitutes "consciousness" or "hearts", because they are nebulous phrases intended to have emotional, rather than rational impact.
But regardless of muddy lexicons, what is it supposed to mean? In anarchist terms, it seems prioritise a change in individual perspective over structural changes. Indeed, individual perspectives and structural changes are sometimes conflated - as if the State and capitalism only exist in our minds, and changing our minds will make it disappear. It seems to require either a disengagement from these systems, ridding of your systemic conditioning, or both.
We need to be perfectly clear: no one can fully liberate themselves, as an individual, from capitalism or the State, or its conditioning. You will still be dependent on those systems in some form, even if it just living off the waste of that system. Besides, even if you did have the choice, what kind of an ethical decision would that be? Leaving everyone else in the shit whilst you and your mates frollick around getting your food out of bins? I am certainly not opposed to the freegan lifestyle, but it has its limits - it is not a sustainable way of liberating everyone. Many people are more embedded in these systems, having families to support and so forth. Liberation is pretty meaningless if everyone's not invited to the party. It is the inescapable totality of capitalism that is so horrendous. The fight is against that totality - not our own little escape route.
Besides, an emphasis on personal liberation has an underlying implication that other, unluckier, less well educated people aren't aware of their
oppression. It implies that others need to be "awakened" in some sense from those who are already "enlightened". This is arrogant, and obviously bollocks. Not every worker (or every activist, for that matter) is aware of the
finer points of capitalist theory, or their "consciousness". But every worker
knows that their boss will cut their job in favour of profits. Every
worker is fully aware of how their circumstances work against them. No
worker can personally liberate themselves out of this situation. They
have to organise collectively, based on their shared experience, and attack the material conditions that operate against
them. Everyone victimised by oppression, and excluded from the wealth that is obviously abundant in the world, knows they are victimised by a system that survives on inequality. Individuals may have differing perspectives on how this should be corrected, but they are aware that they are being fucked over.
And this is where anarchists come in. We need to spread propaganda, not because it enlightens anyone, but because it helps contextualise an oppression that people are already aware of. While an overview of anarchist theory is probably necessary, it doesn't have to be academic. I love reading up on history and politics, but a nerdfest circle jerk over an A3 blow up of Kropotkin's face isn't going to change the world. Simply expressed ideas at the right time just might.
"Personal liberation" means nothing. It means nothing because the individual is nothing without communities around to nourish it. It is brought up in the environments of the world. They are completely intertwined. And, likewise, total freedom depends on our focus on our shared enemies, rather than billions of individual struggles.