Monday, 5 December 2011

“He who wants bread is his servant that will feed him.” What does freedom really mean?

Review of The Return of the Public by Dan Hind
Part Two 

On the day of his execution during the English Civil War, King Charles I expressed his essential political philosophy. Freedom, he said, consists of the state protecting life and property. It is nothing to do with anything so presumptuous as everybody having a share in government.

Of course Charles was separated from his head a few hours later. But his idea of liberty has proved remarkably durable and explains the pseudo-democracies in which we live and which have delivered us into crisis – economic, ecological and political.

Absolute monarchy in England died with Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy power was shared, but it was shared with a very small group of people. The aristocracy, property-owners and the rich had the right to participate in government. They attained “public” status. Everyone else just had to do what they were told. The eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding said that everybody was a nobody in Great Britain, apart from 1,200 people.

The intervening centuries have seen the expansion of the right to vote to everyone. Theoretically we are all equal and have equal power. But public status and the right to real participation is still jealously guarded. In Britain and the US, “the investing classes” Hind notes, “usually described in abstract terms as ‘the market’ or ‘market forces’, constitute “the effectual public in both countries”. A group of just a few thousand people control $100 trillion, two-thirds of the world’s total assets. Almost everybody, as Henry Fielding said almost three centuries ago, is still a nobody politically, despite universal enfranchisement.

We should be a public, but we are still just an audience.

A concept of liberty forged in the mid-twentieth century has given its blessing to this situation and, more importantly, persuaded a lot of people that any deviation will lead to humanitarian disaster. And it is an idea of what freedom is that has a lot in common with what Charles I said before he was escorted to the scaffold.

It was the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who said there were two contrasting ideas of liberty, positive and negative. Positive liberty is the liberty of the French Revolution and the Bolsheviks. A group of people constituting a party or the state decide they know what freedom is and how humanity must get there. Because they know, other people can be ‘forced to be free’. And if they disagree, they can be guiltlessly exterminated, for the good of all. Positive freedom leads inexorably to the gulag.

Here is a description of the two ideas of liberty by the documentary maker Adam Curtis

Negative liberty, the kind of liberty Berlin believed in, was by contrast necessarily limited. Freedom was achieved when people or institutions were “left unmolested” to do what they chose to do. It is this idea of liberty – which traces its lineage back to Thomas Hobbes and the soon to be headless Charles I – that has proved incredibly influential in recent decades. The crimes of Communism have taught an unavoidable lesson and we will have to put up with injustice if we want to be free.

But this concept of negative liberty – leaving private institutions unmolested – has delivered us into seemingly unending economic crisis. And left us powerless to get out.

Berlin’s concept of negative liberty has been described as the classic English interpretation of liberty. But, as Hind shows, that is false in more than one way. The choice Berlin presented was false. We don’t have to decide between Joseph Stalin and Milton Friedman. And there was another English interpretation of liberty, created at the same time as Charles I was insisting we should always remain subjects, that was neither about positive or negative liberty.

During the English Civil War, an English republican, James Harrington wrote a book called The Commonwealth of Oceana. Freedom was only achieved, he argued, when citizens determined government policy. If citizens do not hold power they are not free. Any other form of government was a condition of dependence.

In words of another English republican of the time, Algernon Sidney: “Liberty solely consists in an independency upon the will of another”.

This belief that economic independence was the fountainhead of political liberty meant that Harrington supported “equality of estate”. He believed in widespread land ownership – England was an agrarian country then – that everyone should be their own landlord. As Harrington pithily summarised the situation. “He who wants bread is his servant that will feed him”.

Note that the belief that economic independence is a precondition of freedom and that freedom must mean participation has nothing to do with the positive liberty of Isaiah Berlin’s nightmares. It does not mean the abolition of power – that is impossible – but it does mean that power should be dispersed and not held by a political elite – a Communist party for example – who can coerce others into the utopia or dystopia they desire.

We all still want and need bread, and are thus, as English republicans like Harrington would see, in a state of economic dependence and unfreedom. We not only fear sudden dispossession – losing our jobs – but are captured by the hope of advancement. It is not just that we live in a state of constant precariousness and fear of poverty. We are driven, as Hind puts it, “to alter our conduct and speech, even our beliefs, in order to obtain advantage. Even our desire for independence drives us into an ever more slavishly dependent cast of mind.”

While this material dependence remains people cannot “assert themselves fearlessly as citizens” “A citizen who fears she may lose her livelihood if she speaks out is not meaningfully free,” says Hind, “unless she is a hero or a fool”.

There is a near perfect correlation between career advancement and acceptance of the status quo. Because most of us want career advancement, we don’t stray into areas that will upset our employers. As a result, says Hind, “the individual is left alone in a horribly uneven struggle”.

Hind is inspired by this English Republican notion – dating back to the 17th century – that freedom means material independence. We shall examine in the third and final part of this review how Hind thinks this need should be expressed now, through economic democracy. But he thinks that material independence has to be buttressed by accurate information. The first step towards changing the world, is understanding it.

This where the idea of public commissioning, discussed in Part One, comes in. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it,” said the American novelist Upton Sinclair in the 1920s. So we must start to understand the world outside our own jobs and the private institutions that mediate the information we receive. We must start to reason independently, in a Kantian sense. Enlightenment, said Kant, was only possible when we are able to reason and communicate outside of private institutions.

Currently the population is only audible when they echo governing assumptions. In the US, for example, 53 per cent of Republican voters are in favour of higher taxes on the rich. But Republican senators recently succeeded in voting down a $60 billion Democrat jobs programme because it involved a 0.7 per cent tax increase on people with incomes above $1 million.  On that issue, Republican voters are politically silent. Or just plain irrelevant.

In Britain the story is eerily similar. Conservatives and their friends in the City of London are aching to abolish the 50 per cent tax rate on people earning over £150,000. But Conservative voters – let alone everybody else – want to keep it.

Hind’s idea is that £80 million a year in Britain should be controlled by the population through a system of participatory commissioning. The population, on the way in Hind’s terms towards becoming a public, would decide what subjects to investigate and how they would be publicised. The money would be enough to employ 3,000 journalists and researchers, 250 full-time investigative journalists in each region or devolved nation.

Here is Hind taking about public commissioning

Publicity, how the world is understood, would no longer be in the sole discretion of professional editors and private owners.

It will immediately be objected that the population, given a chance to indulge its wishes in an undirected way, would choose reactionary subjects to investigate. Or, at best, an incoherent mess of reactionary and progressive policies. Capital punishment, for example, has long had wider support among the general public in Britain than among politicians. 125,000 Britons have recently signed an e-petition on the government’s Downing Street website calling for cheaper petrol and diesel. A 2010 e-petition advocating taking climate change seriously and investing in renewable energy, by contrast, attracted just 11 signatures. 

There is a sense in which a participatory Left now should echo Tyler Durden in Fight Club: “let the cards fall where they may”. Reality is bad and getting worse so something has to shift. But it’s also true that a real revelation of the way the world is, can only benefit the anti-capitalist Left. The current order of things depends, as Hind says, on “accepting the comforts of a hallucinatory system of descriptions”.

As an example consider the way disabled and ill people in Britain has are now often branded as “scroungers” and benefit “cheats”. According to polls there has been a substantial increase in the number of disabled people suffering abuse and aggression. Focus groups have uncovered the regular assertion that seven out of ten disabled claimants are faking it.

But these views, vindictive and horrible as they are, also come from somewhere. “Participants justified these claims by reference to articles they had read in newspapers”, says a Glasgow Media Group study of the focus group results. The same study discovered a near tripling of words such as cheats, skivers and scroungers in newspapers. But the fact is that levels of fraud for disability benefits are just 0.5 per cent.

If this subject were investigated through Hind’s system of public commissioning, these fact, as opposed to the distortions perpetuated by the Daily Express, couldn’t help but be exposed. It is a question of shining a light, and if the alternative media can never reach enough people to do so, an alternative has to be found.

Popular resentment of benefit “scroungers” and “cheats” is real enough as many people can testify. But it depends, in the absence of effective scrutiny, on believing that the main problem is the transfer of wealth from the working majority to the poor, rather than on siphoning wealth from most people to insider companies.

Hind quotes Thomas Jefferson – and it should be the motto of a participatory Left today - “there is not a truth existing which I fear, or would wish unknown to the whole world.”

Public commissioning, as Hind concedes, might appear a modest step, dwarfed by the scale of the challenges facing us. But a well-informed citizenry is a precondition for changing the world, a necessary though not sufficient condition as Marxists used to say. As Machiavelli said, without approval, “one change always leaves a toothing stone for the next”.

In Hind’s opinion, as publicity changes so too will general opinion. And when opinion changes, so does the scope of the political, and the idea of what is open to change.

What can this lead? You can’t prejudge democracy but just as the last three decades of neoliberalism have involved remaking the state in the image of business, Hind believes that as neoliberalism implodes, it is not the public but the private sector that needs reforming. And, as we shall see in the third and final part of this review, this involves ending the economic dictatorship in which we exist.

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