Liberty is not the property of the right, says James Heartfield
Who made freedom a dirty word?
'When I was in England I heard no one saying the word freedom', was Canadian Director David Cronenberg's comment on the year-long ban on his film Crash, only recently passed by the British Board of Film Censors. Actually you can hear the word freedom these days, but the only people talking about it tend to be right wingers, cranks and others on the fringes of society.
In the general election the only people standing on an explicit platform of defending freedom were James Goldsmith's Referendum Party and the UK Independence Party - who were defending the freedom of the British government. In the midst of the election the far right British National Party stood up for the freedom to broadcast - their own, that is, as their televised election broadcast was threatened with a ban. Sportsman's Alliance candidates stood on a platform of the freedom to own firearms. But in the centre and on the left, nobody was talking about freedom - except to denounce it.
It is the radicals of the liberal left who have made 'freedom' into a dirty word. They are used to denouncing the idea of freedom when it is used by the right as a cover for their own sectional interests. So much so that the left now think that the very idea of 'freedom' is suspect. 'Freedom', according to them, is just an ideological disguise for the greedy rich, or worse for racists and bigots. 'Don't talk to me about freedom', they say, 'when people are homeless'; or 'when black people are subject to racial attacks'; or 'when women are being abused'. 'What use is freedom to the victims?' challenge the radicals.
Quite a lot of use, actually. Indeed there is no possibility that social inequality will ever be challenged if people do not have the liberty to decide for themselves what the problems are, and to organise for themselves what they want to do about them. But radicals seem to prefer that people remain victims instead of taking control of their own lives.
Try this simple experiment with your friends: ask them to support freedom of speech. The answer you are bound to get is 'whose freedom of speech?'. As an answer that shows an astute sense of political scepticism, no doubt. It is always worth asking what lies behind a particular demand. But it also shows that the idea of freedom in general holds little appeal these days.
When people hear the word freedom being used, it is generally a grand slogan for a reactionary goal. The Pro-Life Alliance had their election broadcast banned outright on the dubious grounds of taste (not previously known to be the basis on which political choices are made). That is an attack on freedom of speech, they protested. But the goal of the Pro-Life Alliance is to take people's rights away. Specifically, they mean to take away women's rights to an abortion. Similarly the British National Party's complaints about freedom of speech ring hollow next to their programme of repatriation and authoritarianism.
But who was it that made the British National Party the authority on freedom of speech? It is not as if freedom is something that flows naturally from their programme. Rather, it is the radicals and the left that have made the far-right into the champions of free speech. They did it by abandoning free speech themselves. You can hardly complain that free speech is in the gutter if you are the one that left it there.
In the past, radical voices did campaign for free speech, as in the Zircon Spy Satellite affair, when journalist Duncan Campbell was prosecuted for revealing defence secrets. More recently the left has supported the McLibel Two, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who are being sued for libel by McDonald's. But the examples are rare and becoming rarer. Much more likely is the case that liberals are the ones demanding curbs on free speech. So the Anti-Nazi League protested outside the television companies demanding that the British National Party broadcast be banned. 'No free speech for Nazis', they say. And when the Islamic society is banned from college, or the Pro-Life Alliance broadcast is banned they say 'no free speech for bigots'. When lecturers are banned for talking about sex they say 'no free speech for sexists'.
All the time they seem to forget that free speech is not free speech if you have to submit your views to a committee for approval beforehand. Being free to speak is like being pregnant - you are or are not.
What is really disturbing about the radical reaction to free speech is what it says about their view of the rest of us. In the event the British National Party broadcast was just boring. It was about as right-wing as the D-Day celebrations, which it resembled uncannily, being introduced by a BNP leader looking like the Harry Enfield character Mr Cholmondley-Warner. The idea that this sophisticated piece of propaganda would seize the imaginations of the masses was happily disproved on the day, by the desultory votes for BNP candidates. Who in their right minds would ban this boring rubbish? Only somebody who thought very little of the television audience, the voters, and who thought that their own arguments against the BNP were not all that convincing.
The knee-jerk reaction of the left is 'ban it', because they have so little faith in the ability of ordinary people to decide for themselves. No wonder they do not like the idea of free speech. They think that in any open argument they are bound to lose. It is not the rights of the British National Party that are curtailed - it is the right of everybody else to decide for themselves what they think of the BNP's appeal. As for the BNP, no cry of 'free speech' was heard from them when Sinn Fein's broadcast was censored, but tragically no cry of 'free speech' was heard from anywhere.
What holds for the particular case of free speech also holds for the general question of freedom: the left has abandoned the idea of freedom to the right.
Before being elected prime minister Tony Blair bemoaned the fact that under the Conservatives 'economic liberalism has often lapsed into greed, selfishness and moral irresponsibility' and that they have 'failed to provide security for this new world'. Of his own agenda he argued that 'socialism is based upon the moral assertion that individuals are interdependent, that they owe duties to each other, as well as themselves' (Giles Radice (ed), What Needs to Change, 1997).
In general New Labour takes the view that there has been too much freedom under the Conservatives and they aim to redress the balance. As Home Secretary Jack Straw says 'we all have responsibilities as well as rights, duties as well as freedoms' and he adds 'the concept of mutual responsibility is at the heart of the stakeholder society' ('Tackling the causes of crime: Labour's proposals to prevent crime and criminality'). In the nagging tone of Straw's remarks the message is clear enough: we have all had too much freedom, and we had better knuckle down and accept our responsibilities. >
Too much freedom under the Conservatives? This was the assessment of the rights group Liberty of the Conservatives' record:
'Over the last 15 years, the [Tory] government has extended and concentrated the powers of the state. The rights of people to organise have been considerably constrained; the media censored, the powers of the police extended and the rights of defendants diminished. Basic human rights have been denied to people on the grounds of national security; local democracy has been weakened and unelected quangos are now responsible for more public money than elected local councillors are.' (Human Rights, Human Wrongs: The Alternative Report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Conor Foley for Liberty, 1995)
With this record of taking away our freedom you might have thought that the first thing a 'radical' government would do would be to set about restoring some of those rights. In fact New Labour has promised to go further in each of the areas outlined above. New laws are already being drafted to limit the media, give more powers to the police and further undermine the rights of defendants - all on the grounds of 'providing security'. And as far as undermining democracy by unelected quangos goes, Labour's Gordon Brown has already handed over the control of interest rates to the Bank of England.
With Labour promising a clampdown on freedom and the Conservatives defending a record of authoritarian measures, it is little wonder that freedom gets a bad press. But surely somebody would take a stand for civil liberties? Some on the left do feel disquiet about the drift towards authoritarianism. Veteran left-wingers like Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Foot pointed to the threat to civil liberties in the election. But the left are uncomfortable with the idea of freedom. As soon as the opportunity to campaign for a ban on the far-right appeared it was back to business as usual - picketing the BBC to demand that the broadcasters curtail freedom of speech.
The reason behind the left's fear of freedom is that it has always seen political action in terms of the state. The left in Britain has had a long education in the power of the state. All of its favourite policies are state policies: state intervention into the economy, nationalisation of railways, industry and utilities, welfare and public education; or more recently community policing and constitutional reform. Whatever the problem is, the left has always seen the solution as the extension of the power of the state. Today, the left finds it inconceivable that there could be any kind of action but state action. State-led reforms are to them the exemplar of what politics is about.
Invariably this orientation towards the state is an orientation away from putting your faith in people. After all, what is the state? It is not the bricks and mortar of Whitehall or the local social services department, nor is it the material of the policeman's uniform or the council letterhead. The state is an outside power exercising authority over people's lives. It acts as the public organisation of the collective interests not of everybody, but of the ruling elite - the businessmen and bankers, newspaper proprietors and investment fund managers, generals and police chiefs.
For most people the state is experienced as a loss of freedom. Its actions are arbitrary, operating according to some obscure pattern that is rarely fathomable, still less alterable. Its instruments are hearings and notices, awards and penalties, offices with queues, and telephone queues, and officers with arbitrary powers. And this is the left's chosen instrument for change.
At LM we have never agreed with the orientation towards the state. Independence from the state has always been the precondition of any kind of progressive social change. Whether it is the military occupation of Ireland or the Criminal Justice Bill, the politics of Aids or censorship, LM's guiding principle has always been independence from the state. Without the freedom to think, speak and act there can be no struggle for progressive change. The importance of taking up the case for freedom is all the more important when freedom has become a dirty word.
Worse still, freedom is in danger of becoming the property of a handful of right-wing cranks. The Conservatives claimed the banner of freedom with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Right wingers today still claim that freedom from the state means the same thing as the freedom of the market. As it turned out the 'free market' needed so many repressive measures to prop it up, that the Conservative administration became known for its authoritarianism - a reputation soon to be surpassed.
In practice the 'free market' meant the restriction of the rights of trade unionists so that they could not press their claims against the employers, and all the restrictions on civil liberties outlined above. These were not imperfections in the free market nor incidental to it, but a necessary outcome of it. Where a society concentrates all wealth in the hands of an elite, as the capitalist market does, then it needs to concentrate coercive power in the hands of the state, too.
The left's biggest mistake has always been to take the right's claim to be the champions of freedom as good coin. What they should say is that the market is a shabby parody of real freedom, and that the freedom of the few capitalists is not the same thing as the freedom of the many. But instead the lesson that has been learnt is that too much freedom is a bad thing. The habit of relying on the state to fulfil the left's ambitions has proved stronger than any sympathy for the underdog. The disaster looming is that we give up any aspiration to freedom at all.*
James Heartfield is speaking for Freedom and Law on the
Legalisation of Everyday Life course at The Next Step conference
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997