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A free country?

James Heartfield challenges the new fear of freedom

Imagine a country that turned its back on freedom.

It would be a country with a growing number of policemen. More people would be in prison than ever before. Video cameras would track your every move in public. Thousands of those who were not in prison would be subject to non-custodial sentences, like probation, or put on special registers so that they had to report to the police on a regular basis.

Imagine a country that turned its back on freedom. Officials from public bodies would interfere in every aspect of your life, advising you on what you buy, eat and drink, what you read and the television programmes you watch. Professionals would be persuaded to spy on the people that they were supposed to be serving: teachers would inform on parents, doctors would be told to inform on their patients, health visitors would be taking notes on the way that parents raised their children.

A regime that distrusted people to make decisions freely would rely more on the advice of professionals. Elected bodies would be sidelined in favour of committees stuffed with self-styled experts. Open public debate would be decried as rabble-rousing and confrontational. Government, they would say, proceeds best by consensus and agreement.

Regimes without freedom have often tried to re-educate people in the 'right' way of thinking. Lessons in schools and colleges would advise people on the behaviour that is expected of them as citizens. Even television soap operas would contain advice on how to behave. Like the medieval priests, special advisers and mentors would listen to your confessions, and guide you on how best to live your life.

Surely nobody would put up with such a regime? Even under the military dictatorships in South Africa or Eastern Europe there were always some people who protested. But all of these things are happening right now, here in Britain, and we do put up with it.

In Britain in 1998, freedom is not a word that springs to many people's lips. More often it is associated with problems and dangers. The Manic Street Preachers sing 'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next'. Tolerance used to be a positive value but nowadays it is valued at zero. It is pretty hard to tell just what it is that you are turning your back on in the song, environmental degradation or gun control maybe. More to the point it is a universal anthem for people whose mistrust of other people is innate. Just turn your back for a moment and who knows what they will be up to.

Any contemporary discussion of freedom takes as its starting point the idea that freedom is a deeply problematic concept. First of all freedom is seen in the plural, putting a question mark over which kind of freedom you want. And then freedoms are presumed to be in conflict with each other, as the philosopher Mary Midgley argues on page 30. The very fact that the idea of freedom invites such soul searching indicates that it is indeed a problematic thing, though not because freedoms are bound to conflict. In the eighteenth century, when the modern concept of freedom was being formed, political thinkers assumed that it was impossible for one freedom to contradict another (as in the idea that a nation which enslaves another can never itself be free). The different perceptions of freedom - that it was a self-evident truth in 1776, but that it is deeply problematic today - are due to the different historical contexts in which freedom has been discussed.

The prejudice that left to their own devices people will get up to the very worst is surprisingly strong in current circumstances. In Gordon Burn's new book Happy Like Murderers, about the sex-killers Fred and Rose West, Fred West is painted as the perfect caricature of the Englishman whose home is his castle. He did home improvements. He didn't like people nosing about in his cellar. The lesson that Gordon Burn is teaching us is that if you leave people to their own devices they will be chopping other people up before you can say 'Bob's your uncle'.

But what was really so appalling about the West murders, surely, was the imprisonment and abuse of their victims. What makes everybody shudder is that they sought to keep their prisoners alive. The real horror lies not in the murders or even the pain, but in the humiliation and injury of being subordinated to another's will.

Seventy-four per cent of people value the right to a driving licence more highly than they do the right to vote. That might seem a pretty depressing statistic, but it does show that people value those freedoms that are most intimate to them, even if they rarely express it in the grandiose language of liberty.

However much we value our own room to manoeuvre, though, the idea of other people's liberty seems a lot less important. To understand why, you have to understand the way that the political changes over recent years have made freedom into a dirty word.

From 1979 until the 1990s freedom was the preferred slogan of the ruling Conservative Party. In the name of freedom the Conservatives took away many of our basic civil liberties, from the right to demonstrate without police permission to the right to organise our own trade unions without legal interference. Every year the Conservatives passed new laws restricting people's rights. But they did all of this in the name of freedom - by which they essentially meant the specific freedoms of businessmen in a market economy. Under the Tories, the word freedom became synonymous with the sectional privileges of a small elite. Understandably the word wore a bit thin.

In itself that need not have been a problem, if there had been another side to the debate. If there had been another version of what it meant to be free, other than the free market, the idea could have survived in the popular imagination. But just as the Conservatives were reducing the meaning of freedom to the narrow conception of the free market, something even worse was happening on the left.

Over the past 20 years it has increasingly seemed that, for the supporters of the Labour Party, liberty is something to be distrusted, as necessarily favouring the privileged. The left became so defensive that it more or less accepted the Tories' narrow interpretation of freedom as the freedom of the market only. But where the Tories embraced market freedom, Labour only sullenly accepted it, nursing a massive grudge against the very idea of freedom which seemed to work against the left in election after election.

Today the right has collapsed - not just in Britain but across Europe and North America. The Gaullists in France, the Christian Democrats in Germany and the Republicans in the USA have all been reduced to rump parties whose only opportunity to exercise influence is by legalistic skulduggery, or by imitating the Third Way adopted by their opponents.

But tragically the collapse of the right has not led to a new era of civil liberties and independence. On the contrary; instead of taking the defeat of the right to mean that real freedom can flourish, the left has accepted the right's claim to represent liberty and has drawn the false conclusion that liberty is something suspect and reprehensible. As the right's ship has gone down it has taken the case for freedom with it - as if it was a hostage tied to the mast.

Freedom today is often seen as a bad thing, especially the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves how to live their lives. In the rhetoric of New Labour, individualism as such is seen first and foremost as a problem. Tony Blair's new pamphlet The Third Way rarely talks about freedom except with a 'but' attached, as an expression of his own discomfort with the notion that people might be able to make their own decisions, independent of his advisers. 'The truth is that freedom for the many requires strong government', writes Blair, just in case anybody gets the idea that we most need to protect our freedoms from the state. Blair says:

'For the right, opportunity is characteristically presented as the freedom of individuals from the state. Yet for most people, opportunities are inseparable from society, in which government action necessarily plays a large part.'

The implication is that individual freedom, especially freedom from the state, is somehow a right-wing idea, which deserves to follow the Tories into the dustbin of history. Understanding the difficulty of rubbishing freedom so easily, Blair tries to blur the issue, by contrasting 'bad' individual freedom with the 'good' society, and then by a further sleight of hand confusing 'society' with government.

The argument that individual freedom is at odds with society is just plain wrong. The fact is that a society of people who did not want to make their own decisions would be no kind of society at all, just a hotbed of prejudice and bigotry - more like Salem during the witch-trials than a modern democracy.

But for Tony Blair's Third Way guru Anthony Giddens, the very meaning of socialism is hostility to individualism. 'Socialism began as a body of thought opposing individualism', he writes in his new book The Third Way: the renewal of social democracy, adding, 'its concern to develop a critique of capitalism only came later'. Giddens is palpably relieved that the long digression in which socialists criticised capitalism is over. Now at last socialism can be reduced to the real issue of restraining individualism.

Of course Giddens is roughly right on the history. There has always been a current on the left that was more interested in maintaining social order than social emancipation, going right back to the Tory Socialists like Thomas Carlyle. Now that the last vestige of the struggle against capitalism has been squeezed out of Labour, that strand of moral conservatism that wants to hold society together by stamping on the freedom of the individual has come into its own.

What is really galling, though, is the way that all the language and ideas of socialism, once stripped of their liberatory content, have been appropriated to Blair's moral conservatism. Once the word socialism would have described the ambition to build a better society. But in Blair's mouth (when he even utters it) 'social-ism' just means patching up the one we already have, and that has failed us so badly.

In fact, Blair's New Labour is well placed to create a country without freedom. Much of the basic structure of modern society takes the idea of individual self-reliance and autonomy for granted. Whether it is getting a job, or setting up house, whether it is how the courts work or the goal of education, the basic idea of individual liberty has long been a building block of society - and taking it away is no straightforward operation. But that is where Blair's 'social-ism' comes in.

Once it has been detached from the ambition towards a broader social emancipation, the language of socialism and community provides an alternative set of values to those that are premised upon individual autonomy. Words that were virtually banned in the Thatcher years are making a comeback among the policy wonks who make up Labour policy. Today's policymakers are happy to talk about solidarity and community, but they tend to mean a community's solidarity against 'criminal elements', 'nuisance neighbours', smokers or car drivers, rather than solidarity with the Essex firefighters striking against spending cuts. The language comes from the left, but the intent is reactionary.

Concepts like individual rights and civil liberties are out. Instead New Labour talks about more ambiguous ideas like 'care', 'duty', 'service' and 'friendship'. What is characteristic about these New Labour values is that they all cut across ideas of sticking up for what's yours, and tend instead to elevate the altruistic side of behaviour. It seems to be good taste to say that you are motivated by higher considerations like duty and care, instead of being vulgarly ambitious. The effect of imposing this etiquette is further to lower our expectations of what it means to be a free individual.

The left is particularly well equipped to feed this redefinition of society's basic motivations. It was, as Anthony Giddens says, always interested in creating alternative values to those of individualism and of the market. But the condition for the left's newfound influence is that all of its fire is concentrated on attacking individual freedom rather than proposing an alternative to the market.

Many people have been surprised by the apparent resurgence of the left - its election victories, the more open denunciations of fat cat bosses and even a revival of academic Marxism. Superficially it might seem that the political pendulum has swung back once again. But appearances are deceptive. The influence of today's 'left' is entirely contingent upon its own reinvention as a movement of moral conservatism and restraint. The special contribution of the left in politics today is a diatribe against individual freedom.

There was always something of a tendency for the left to be indifferent, or even hostile, to questions of individual rights. But in the past that was tempered by an underlying commitment to a broader social emancipation. Today New Labour has self-consciously erased any such goals, and all that is left is the conservative ambition of holding existing society together. Imagine a country that turned its back on freedom, and now look around you.

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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