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In an article that’s just gone live on Huffington Post, I’ve argued that the only fitting legacy for Nelson Mandela is global, not just local to South Africa, and will come in the form of a reinvigoration of the march towards democracy.  This argument is rooted in the idea that true freedom must entail the freedom of the individual to take part in the shaping of the context of her life.  As Mandela put it, “all people [must] be free to govern themselves and to determine their own destiny.”

Continuing the use of this blog as a ‘thinking aloud’ space to go into a bit more depth, I want to explore why I think this sort of freedom is so important and how it relates to the Citizen-Consumer concepts I am working with, as well as why we seem to be giving it up, and what we can do about it.

The reason why the freedom to be part of shaping the context for our own lives matters so much is that without it I believe we cease to be fully human.  Without this freedom the way is open for us to become means to other people’s ends, and to lose the right and the ability to determine our own ends.  If happiness is about meaning and purpose in life, how can we hope to have it unless we have the ability to decide it for ourselves?  Without this sort of freedom, I don’t believe it’s going too far to say we become slaves.

This is why the Consumer is such a limiting concept – as Consumers we act only within the context set for our lives, choosing between options offered to us.  However many these options are, they are still too limited and too limiting.  We still have no voice in what the options should be in the first place.  It is only as Citizens that we have that larger voice.  It is the difference between choosing from a menu and owning a stake in the restaurant.

So why do we seem increasingly prepared to give up that voice, as suggested by our disengagement from democratic processes and our apparent willingness to let democratic accountability disappear (as discussed in my Huffington Post article)?  I believe there are two main sets of reasons.

The first is about invisibility, and takes two forms.  In the first, we’re becoming blinded to the loss of our Citizen voice by the sheer overpowering volume of the noise telling us on a daily basis that our role in society is to consume (as I have reflected on at greater length elsewhere), to the extent that we actually cease to believe that there is any other meaningful way for us to participate.  This is the idea of the internalisation of inferiority – so often do we tell ourselves that we’re just Consumers that we have actually started to believe it.

Invisibility is also caused by losing the signal, the form of freedom that really matters, in the noise of the mass of lower level freedoms that are offered to us as Consumers.  Tim Kasser, Professor of Social Psychology at Knox College and the author of the High Price of Materialism (short graphic version here) talks about the difference between micro choice and macro choice.  He uses the example of shopping for underwear for his four-year-old son – he has a huge choice of underwear with different cartoon characters, but none without.  He has a huge micro choice, but no macro choice whatsoever.  Perhaps it takes us so long to process these micro choices that we simply have no energy left for the macro choices underneath; or perhaps we’ve actually lost the ability to tell the difference between a micro and a macro choice.  This might explain some of the ill-feeling that Renata Salecl talked about in her 2011 lecture on the Paradox of Choice at the RSA (short graphic version here)

The second set of reasons that might explain why we’re giving up our freedom is that it was actually, though it might sound crazy to say it, a deliberate decision.  This goes back to a seminal paper called Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin from 1958, which distinguished between negative and positive freedom, with the characterisation as I understand it essentially this:

  • Negative freedom is external freedom, from direct intervention by other people in my chosen course of action
  • Positive freedom is internal freedom, the freedom to consider my own actions rationally and decide their course for myself

These are often simplified to the concepts of ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ that we use in everyday language, but something is lost in that and it is worth being specific.  A thought experiment is sometimes used to illustrate the difference, of an addicted smoker who misses an appointment because he turns off his route to buy cigarettes.  On negative freedom, he is free because no one else directly intervenes to turn him off his route; on positive freedom, the question is more up for grabs, because in Berlin’s framing his rational self’s decision to go to the appointment is overturned.

Berlin uses this structure to make the case that a commitment to positive freedom can actually be a very dangerous thing.  Essentially, his fear is that if you allow that a person can hold a rational intention (going to the appointment) and have it overruled by an irrational factor (smoking addiction), it is only a small step to say that the person is only free when rational and not when irrational.  It is then only a second small step to say that some people are more rational than others, and a third to say that the more rational people are actually making the more irrational people MORE free by telling them what to do.  And so, in the mind of a liberal American writing in the era of the Cold War, do we arrive at the concept of freedom as espoused by Communist dictators.

The idea I am proposing, of the freedom to play a role in shaping the context of your life, is in many ways a classic positive conception of freedom.  So does that mean I am dangerously opening the way back to dictatorship?

No.

This is because, while there may be dangers with this approach, there are just as many dangers with the idea of negative freedom – and those are rather more present right now.  A very similar ‘small steps’ argument can be made.  If you say that only direct intervention by another person is a restriction of freedom, it is only a small step to say that apart from the few cases where there is someone directly to blame, those who see problems only have themselves to blame for the situation.  From there, it is only a small step for the unhappy people to extract themselves from the process of participation since it is of no use to them; and for the better off to say that they were free to participate if they wanted to, but since they don’t, they are of no account.  And here we are back at dictatorship, or rather feudalism.

It is not hard to see that we are on this path.  The current dearth of compassion in the US cited by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof in a much-shared recent post is one alarm bell; climate change and factories tumbling in Bangladesh, both with no one to blame are further warnings.  In none of these cases did anyone actually do anything directly to anyone, so you are left with suffering people who have only themselves to blame.

I don’t want to go into great detail on this point here.  Suffice to say that the fact that positive freedom can theoretically be co-opted to result in perverse consequences is hardly reason to avoid it altogether, for if this were true, negative freedom would suffer just as much.  And if we are to pick one on the basis of weighing up the risks and benefits, I would be so bold as to suggest that positive freedom of the kind I describe carries the rather greater pay-off, and has rather more avoidable risks.

At this point, we have to take the context into account.  Berlin was writing in 1958, in the context of the Cold War.  His ideas were taken on in the 1970s by Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State and Utopia, libertarian philosophy’s core text.  Both were writing for America and against the USSR.  Their motive was to distinguish between the two systems as clearly as possible.  For this we can forgive them.  But we must also move on, and recognise that what they created has now itself become a deep threat to human freedom.

This leads on to the third and darkest possibility – that we are not currently giving up our democracy at all, but rather that it has already gone.  This certainly is the position of Russell Brand and others.  But I believe there is enough hope in the kinds of initiatives I cited in my HuffPo article to suggest that rumours of the death of democracy are premature at worst, as long as we choose now as the time to actively engage and move for change.  But that requires us to be Citizens, and participate actively in creating a new context for ourselves; not to be Consumers, and simply reject the product that is currently on the shelf.

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