Recognizing human freedom is never as simple as acts of legal pronouncement might suggest. Liberal abstractions like freedom and equality; legal formulations of personhood, free will, and contract; the constructed divisions between public and private, self and other, home and market on which the former are predicated—these are often inadequate to understanding, let alone realizing, the shared aspirations they supposedly define. By the same token, the dense and dynamic relations of power that characterize any liberal society overwhelm and exceed our critical vocabulary. “Racism,” “sexism,” and “capitalism” powerfully name structures of inequality, but they fail to capture the full spectrum of social relations, practices, and exchanges that reproduce inequality—deep structures of feeling, unspoken common sense, the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our places in it.

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