Are We Free? On Freedom, Potatoes, and a Third Way Politics in Turbulent Times (Part One)

February 17, 2024  • BÁYÒ AKÓMOLÁFÉ, PH.D., Guest Contributor

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It would seem a nonsensical question to ask. Are we free? The nerve. A question unfit for polite company, perhaps.

And yet, upon this question turns entire worlds of considerations that modulate how we navigate the turmoil of our times and, perhaps more startingly, how we frame solidarity in a moment when its enactment could very well be a form of biopolitical control.

But I digress. Back to the question and, more fruitfully, to your potential response:

Of course we are, you might protest. Of course, I am!

This morning, you stood before your wardrobe and made the decision to wear the blue dress, not the green polka dot one you bought last night (forgive my glaring ignorance about appropriately contemporary fashion examples). Every second of our life, you make decisions mostly by yourself. At the shopping mall, you make intelligent choices between a dizzying array of consumer products, between Coke and Pepsi, between the conservative party and the progressive one, between ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘Barbie’, between opening the door and slamming it shut.

To the extent that freedom is defined by the choices we are capable of making, it would seem we are free.  We are as free as freedom gets.

The people of the fictional city of Omelas also knew they were free. In Ursula Le Guin’s telling, Omelas was a perfect city, as happy and as perfect as any there ever was. The author even invites the reader to imagine the most promising prospects for collective settlement, and then urges the reader to rest assured that Omelas already had that.

Omelas was happy. This wasn’t the fleeting happiness derived from a smorgasbord of exhausted chemical inducements. It was the philosophic kind of happiness, tethered to lasting and rigorous exploits in thought and deed, grounded in the sturdiness of their rituals. A moral heaven of sorts.

Now, you would think that in such a “good” and “free” world, no one knew about a miserable ungendered child that lived in a dark and dank basement beneath the city, its calls for aid bouncing off the cavernous walls of its recent incarceration and eternal gloom.

Much to the contrary, everyone did. In curated expeditions, the city led its citizens to the dungeons below where they were asked to look upon the child, with the caveat that if the child were offered a reassuring smile, a morsel of hope, a hand of friendship, a discardable sandwich, or worse the gift of salvation, in that same hour, the city and its citizens would die. Its numberless children would fade into grim memory. Its vast towers would crumble to the earth. Its archive of wisdom would be eaten by termites.

And so, in this gruesome tale that does not quite resolve itself along the lines of what one ought to do when faced with such a moral quandary, the citizens come face to face with freedom. Or, at the very least, what subsidizes it. The thesis of their freedom is the prosthetic of this child’s unrelenting miserableness. The proposal is frightening, too overwhelming for many to take. A dish too bitter to eat. As such, many walk away from the city:

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”[1]

They walk away from the city and from the text of the story to non-legible futures. What becomes of them is not knowable. The author ends her story, bequeathing their slumbering, despondent, but strangely emancipatory journeys across the plains of that majestic city to the title of the tale: the Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.  

From the story, several scandalizing propositions spring to life like radioactive fungi at Chernobyl.

Maybe the muffin we decided to have, the career paths we decided to take, the vacation we decided to embark on, the solidarities we decided to express…maybe these decisions are indebted to undercurrents our claims to exclusivity often obscure. Maybe the city is only as free as its dungeons have marked it to be. Maybe freedom a la Bergson is an indebtedness to the opacity of relations and the conditionality of our ongoing co-becoming. Maybe freedom is a distraction.

The liberal humanist idea that we are free, unencumbered, only bound externally by meddlesome contrivances like taxes and time – and that this freedom is an inalienable gift of what it means to be human – has been an importunate ally in the crafting of modern civilization.

Perhaps a more complicated story curdles an ocean of milk, and we start to notice that it is difficult to speak of freedoms in, say, telecommunication without invoking the unspeakable horrors that Congolese children undergo to unearth the cobalt needed to make our phones function.

Perhaps without the “Tigres” of old Rio de Janeiro, the Black bodies that acted as the first latrine system of that Brazilian city, carrying faecal matter from the homes of their lords to dump sites, there would be no corporeal freedom.

And perhaps, the conscientious environmental activisms of the political left in the United States could use a descending expedition to the earthing data that suggests more than 90 percent of plastic waste is shipped to the so-called Global South – and not actually transformed into tote bags of progressivist daydreams.

In a sense, we are only as free within the creativities of larger territorial patterns and moral purviews as those assemblages allow. But those freedoms enact exclusionary dynamics and are often caught up in cycles that repeat themselves.

Today, we are shackled by our freedoms. Spoiled with choice, we are immobilized by options. We imagined that the technologies of sophisticated time would release us to be even freer people, free to explore the finer questions about life and death.

But with the proliferation of screens, our inhibitions and addictions have grown.

More roads and wider lanes did not lead to less traffic; it led to more cars. Something about our calculations fails to render the triumphalist declarations of human agency and will into what many might consider a meaningful politics that knows how to respond to climate chaos, to racialized othering, to police brutality, to the genocidal war in Gaza. Something about the ways we calculate peace has focused entirely on the occupants in the room and forgotten the room itself.    

A question persisted through my childhood and early university days when I first began to blow-dry the wetness behind my academic ears.

I was a young West African kid with dreams to “change the world,” like many of my peers. The problem was we felt we were less likely to do all of that while we were slowly cooking in the hot furnaces of our many candlelit nights with no electricity.

Growing up on the streets of Lagos was an exercise in cruel optimism: we were constantly inundated with instigations to think beyond our limitations, to strive for more, to think outside the box, to become great, to be the next Mandela (glibly avoiding the part where he had to go to prison). All the while, we were flooded with televised and fictionalized images of the heavenly Global North where trains arrived on time, where discarded Coca-Cola cans were transported to an undisclosed emerald city and alchemically rearranged as tote bags and personal computers, and where there were more roads than potholes.

I learned more about American presidents than I did about their Nigerian counterparts. Our sociology classes introduced us to Auguste Comte, who assured us lesser folk that there was a universal continuum of civilizational development, and that the West had undergone those stern, hardwired laws of collective growth long before us. Somewhere down the straight and narrow line of time, Comte said, we were next, if we didn’t mess things up. I don’t remember his thoughts about the transatlantic slave trade.

At church, the haunting question grew more villainous when our pastors told us from the corners of their mouths that we were descended from Ham, the cursed son of Noah. It was probably the reason why things worked in Europe and not in Africa. And then I went to a private university that promised to liberate “the Black Man” by becoming the exception to the rules that governed higher education globally, but it did this by seeking to join the Times Higher Education ranking system – a gesture that seemed to trouble its vaunted goals.

The architecture of my earliest training taught me to cower before the unvarnished might of Euro-American civilization and the prominence of white modernity. There, in the depths of my mind, the question churned and wiggled like a worm aerating its loam, carving my hopes, shaping my expectations, exhaling with me when the power went out for the umpteenth time in one day.

The question?

How do we catch up?

What’s the secret sauce to clean roads, mercurial skyscrapers, and urban utopias? Why did we sing “Come and see American wonder, come and see American wonder!” anytime Chuck Norris flipped two Jeeps with a roundhouse kick? What was so alluring about watching it snow on Cartoon Network, and bemoaning the loss of our stolen Christmas stockings?

How do we account for the global dominance of white society?

There are theories. We’ve talked about most of them already: from the fierce critique of Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” and the seminal scholarship of Black authors on intergenerational trauma to Native American stories about “wetiko” spirits that cannibalize worlds in their greed and leave misery in their wake.

What we haven’t really talked about…what never really crossed my childish mind as I stared wide-eyed at the blazing guns and flags of the grander world, wondering how it came to be…is the potato.  

We are so used to thinking about our world as resolutely and categorically human that our analyses often erase the ways we are shaped, moved, altered, infused, engineered, permeated, infected, and recreated by the more-than-human world in and around us. We suppose the world turns on what we do, and so our theories of change begin with us, with the individual, preferably enlightened, who must reflect long enough and critically enough to move the world beneath us.

Quite suitably, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe reminds us that we do not stand upon the earth to move it; instead, we are of the earth, and we move at its own pace. We move at the pace of germs and lichens; at the pace of brittle stars and fungal dispersals; at the pace of textured walls and purring printers; at the pace of archetypes and lingering ancestral temporalities; at the pace of slave ships and whirling whips; at the pace of hidden algorithms and corporate calculations. We move in webs of becoming, in unimpeachably relational flows and densities. We move in lowercase, even though its hard to notice that through the gilded windows of the uppercase.

And, as the late historian William McNeill reminds us, we move at the pace of potatoes too. Indeed, the story of Europe’s rapid industrialization and rise as a civilizational project is more likely due to inbound potatoes shipped in from the Andes by 16th century Spanish galleons during a time of decline and death.

Gwynn Guilford calls potatoes “the secret to Europe’s success” and writes that, “it’s often assumed that Europe’s rise resulted from the Industrial Revolution and, to a lesser extent, the leap in scientific farming known as the Agricultural Revolution. However, Europe’s surprising revival predates both—and the potato has much to do with that.”[2]

The uber-nutritious tubers with their easily removable robes and economic value weren’t an easy sell at first when they first arrived ashore. But then people caught on to their seductive properties. Potatoes were a far better energy source than Europe’s existing staples, yielding between two and four times more calories per acre.” The potato grew so successful in its colonizing of Europe that “Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his government to distribute free seed potatoes and planting instructions throughout his kingdom”, while “Marie Antoinette once sported a potato-flower headdress at a court ball to extol the tuber’s virtues.”      Guilford writes further:

“With Europe’s food supply suddenly more abundant, nutritious, and secure, peasants lived longer and had bigger families. The population leapt from 126 million in 1750 to 300 million by 1900 (and that’s not counting mass emigration). When the population grew bigger than the number needed to toil in the fields, this time peasants didn’t die of mass starvation. They simply moved to the cities. The potato accounts for around a quarter of the population growth and as much as a third of increased urbanization between 1700 and 1900, according to an earlier paper by Qian and Nunn.”

McNeill argues that “…without potatoes, Germany could not have become the leading industrial and military power of Europe after 1848, and…Russia could not have loomed so threateningly on Germany’s eastern border after 1891.” But what’s all the ruckus about potatoes?

Potatoes signal the inadequacy of our attempts to name the world after ourselves. Potatoes intervene in our many projects to reduce the rise of industrialization to human leadership, the sprawl of colonial capture to human “evil”, and the forcefully worldly events beating against the flattening regime of whiteness to “problems we can solve if only we gave it some thought and some funding.” Whiteness can no longer be computed as “white people”; whiteness is also potatoes, Spanish galleons, Andean agricultural wizardry, Black capture, and the morality of solutionism. Whiteness is an arrangement.

Whiteness is freedom.

And those candlelit nights when I envied the roaring machinic freedom of the West, I never could have considered that our collective desires to catch up had enlisted us in a painful cycle of incarceration that has driven us to dangerous ecological precipices.

If freedom is not a property we have, some Augustinian quality in our breasts, but a material, creative arrangement of bodies within conditions that forecloses other possibilities of being with others and the world, then how are we beholden to patterns that repeat themselves despite our claims to unbridled will? How is it that even in the face of overwhelming data, we are unable to turn away from our most peculiar traditions and rituals? How is it that our difference-making enterprises mostly serve up the same epigenetic algorithms?

What do we do when freedom gets in the way of different differences?

This is not an easy question to ask. It is an even more difficult one to answer – which is the reason why I will not be answering it. Instead, I hope to exploit that other mode of responding to a question that does not depend so strenuously on resolutions and conclusions. This other way? Bewilderment.

[This is part one of a two part essay. Read part two here.]

About AGLN Scholars-in-Residence
AGLN Scholars-in-Residence are an Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN) experiment to widen our aperture and bring in global perspectives on humanity’s greatest challenges. We’re thrilled to have Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick and Báyò Akómoláfé as inaugural Scholars-in-Residence serving in this role. They will offer virtual engagements, writings, assist with curriculum development, as appropriate, in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Office of Curriculum and Moderators, and more.


[1] The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin (1973)

[2] The global dominance of white people is thanks to the potato. https://qz.com/quartzy/1148452/potato2