Not Saussure

March 26, 2007

The Trap III: We Will Force You To Be Free

Filed under: Philosopy, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 10:08 pm

The final part of Adam Curtis’ series, The Trap, We Will Force You To Be Free (download at Indybay, as are the previous parts) is summarised in quite some detail by Wikipedia. It was far more focussed, to my mind, than were the previous two programmes, omitting the discussions of psychology and genetics that I found interesting but ultimately distracting. Instead, it took as its starting point Sir Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom, explored in his 1958 lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty (free registration required; paid subscription to read the whole lecture, but the sections introducing the two concepts are free).

The programme explored the ways the protection of negative freedom had been used, particularly by the USA, as a bulwark against both Soviet Communism and the various anti-colonial struggles of national liberation, pursuing their ideal of positive freedom to govern themselves. Curtis traced the way that the Marxist ideas of Franz Fanon on anti-colonialism and the way that, in his view, the violent anti-colonial struggle is an act of personal liberation quite apart from its political ends of national independence, were developed and mediated by Ali Shariati (see also this website devoted to him), of whom I’m afraid I’d never heard, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

I had heard of the latter, obviously, but I wasn’t hitherto aware of the way that his thinking was, apparently, a fusion of Shi’ite Islam and Sartre’s Marxist Existentialism as mediated by Fanon and Shariati. This was quite an eye-opener for those of us who’re more used to thinking of the Islamic Fundamentalists as being throw-backs to the Middle-Ages.

It also explored the ways in which, as Curtis put it, Western anti-Communism had created a ‘strange mutant idea that used the techniques of violent revolution to create a world of negative freedom’, and how economic freedom had been used as a form of ‘shock therapy’ in both Russia and Iraq, with catastrophic results that were not predicted by those who recommended and implemented it. I’d previously expressed my reservations about this aspect of the programme, and all I can really say is that they were confirmed by watching it and that there’s a very good piece about it at Fixed Point. I would, though, add that Curtis gave a very misleading impression of how privatisation was handled in Russia, in that he completely ignored the way that much of the economy was already effectively in the hands of the private sector before; it was just that then it was called ‘the black market’ and ‘the Russian mafia’ (many of whom were also members of the nomenklatura. Privatisation, to a great extent, was merely a legitimisation of what had already happened, accompanied by a great deal of corruption from which some Western consultants and financial institutions had the good fortune to profit, inadvertently, I’m sure.

My main misgiving about the programme was, I think, in its presentation of negative and positive freedom, which seemed to me — not that I’m an expert — something of an oversimplification of what Sir Isaiah Berlin had to say.

Describing negative freedom, Sir Isaiah wrote

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can do what he wants. If I am prevented by other persons from doing what I want I am to that degree unfree; and if the area within which I can do what I want is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. (p 7)

Positive freedom, in a contrast that may not be immediately clear, means something different;

The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. […]
I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for his choices and able to explain them by reference to his own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not. (p 16)

These may, as Sir Isaiah says, seem two ways of stating the same thing. And it’s important to stress, as Curtis certainly didn’t, that he doesn’t present them — at least as it seems to me — as polar opposites but, rather, tending in opposite directions;

Freedom in this [negative] sense is not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government. Self-government may, on the whole, provide a better guarantee of the preservation of civil liberties than other régimes, and has been defended as such by libertarians. But there is no necessary connexion be- tween individual liberty and democratic rule. The answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’ is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does government interfere with me?’ It is in this difference that the great contrast between the two concepts of negative and positive liberty, in the end, consists. For the ‘positive’ sense of liberty comes to light if we try to answer the question, not ‘What am I free to do or be?’, but ‘By whom am I ruled?’ or ‘Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do? The connexion between democracy and individual liberty is a good deal more tenuous than it seemed to many advocates of both. The desire to be governed by myself, or at any rate to participate in the process by which my life is to be controlled, may be as deep a wish as that of a free area for action, and perhaps historically older. But it is not a desire for the same thing. So different is it, indeed, as to have led in the end to the great clash of ideologies that dominates our world. For it is this — the ‘positive’ conception of liberty: not freedom from, but freedom to– which the adherents of the ‘negative’ notion represent as being, at times, no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny (pp 14-15).

The example of ‘positive’ liberty as ‘a specious disguise for brutal tyranny’ he has in mind is, obviously, the ‘liberty’ of the then citizens of the Soviet Union and the other People’s Democracies. According to Soviet theory, Soviet citizens were far freer than those living under capitalist systems since only the Soviet workers were in control of their own state and of the means of production. Consequently, they were able to decide for themselves, through the democratic processes of the Communist Party, how they lived their lives than was anyone else. They didn’t have to devote much of their lives to making goods they could never afford for themselves, or didn’t particularly want, in return for wages determined not by themselves but by the impersonal forces of the market and which they spent on goods similarly determined.

Obviously, not all Soviet citizens seemed to see it quite that way, but that was because such individuals didn’t appreciate the nature of freedom. I, for example, am free to choose (at least for the time being) whether or not to go and buy a packet of cigarettes, just as I’m free to buy some apples. But, in another sense, my choice to buy the cigarettes or not isn’t free in the same sense as is my choice to buy the apples, since it’s impelled, at least in part, by my addiction to nicotine. I might wish I could give up smoking but find it too difficult.

According to this positive concept of freedom, someone might help me to become positively free — that is, to realise my conscious, rational desires — by restricting my negative freedom (that is, my freedom to buy and smoke cigarettes in my own home, where it doesn’t affect anyone else). They might argue that I’m damaging myself so much by smoking that, were I being fully rational about my own interests, I would give up. The fact I’m continuing to smoke must mean, therefore, that I’m behaving irrationally and I need to be liberated from my habit, whether I want to be or not. That’s the logic we use, after all, when we offer heroin addicts a choice between a drugs treatment programme or prison (or, at least in California when I lived there, habitual drunk drivers the choice between prison and a year’s compulsory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous backed up by injections of a drug that makes you violently ill if you drink alcohol).

Applying this on a huge scale, the Communist Party recognised that many of the workers didn’t fully understand the class nature of society and where there best interests lay, so the Communist Party made for them the decisions that they would have made had they fully understood their situation and their society. And, in consequence, frequently found itself having to restrict the freedom of individuals in order to promote the true, socialist, freedom of the society as a whole.

Berlin, as I said, didn’t pose these as polar opposites; in reality,

we recognize that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal (let us say, justice or public health) which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt.

The trouble is,

This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake,in their, not my, interest. I am then claiming that I know what they truly need better than they know it themselves. What, at most, this entails is that they would not resist me if they were rational, and as wise as I, and understood their interests as I do.

He’s not taking the extreme position that we shouldn’t, at times, coerce people in the name of justice or public health; he’s pointing to the dangers inherent in the thinking behind this; but the mere fact slopes are sometimes slippery means, to my mind, that it’s prudent to exercise caution when venturing on them rather than that it’s necessary to avoid them altogether.

Anyway, Curtis obviously couldn’t explore the distinction at the same length as have I, or everyone would have switched off. Rather, he concentrated on the way Berlin’s negative freedom was promoted as the safest protection against Communism during the Cold War; he rather unfairly, to my mind, characterised it as the freedom to satisfy your desires and the means to satisfy them, along with some 1950s and 60s visuals of self-satisfied men and women playing golf and drinking Coca Cola, suggesting that this was in some ways an empty and purposeless freedom,

To my mind, that’s a bit of a travesty since there’s no particular contradiction between enjoying negative freedom — freedom from external coercion — and pursuing, or at least thinking you’re pursuing, a purpose, which can be either personal (caring for your family, perhaps) or social. The important question is who is to decide that purpose, which is why I became distinctly uncomfortable when, in his peroration, Curtis started talking about ‘our’ needing a purpose beyond the merely personal — possibly we do, thought I, but we don’t necessarily need a common purpose so much as those individual purposes that seem good to each of us as individuals to pursue, whether on our own or together with other, like-minded individuals.

The Wikipedia article summarises Curtis’ conclusion, to my mind fairly, thus

The closing minutes hinted that instead of seeking either positive liberty, with its coercive undertones leading to tyranny, or negative liberty, with its selfish undertones leading to meaninglessness, a balance could perhaps be achieved, or that positive liberty could in fact be employed in our societies without resulting in violence and coercion,

thus echoing — unintentionally, I’m sure, but it had me hooting — Tony Blair who, as the programme had revealed earlier on (with a degree of suspicion), written to Sir Isaiah (not realising he was on his death-bed and in no position to reply) asking if he didn’t think a third way was now possible between positive and negative liberty and explaining that

The limitations of negative liberty are what have motivated generations of people to work for positive liberty, whatever its depradations [sic] in the Soviet model. That determination to go beyond laissez-faire continues to motivate people today. And it is in that context that I would be interested in your views on the future of the Left.

You seem to be saying in the interview that because traditional socialism no longer exists, there is no Left. But surely the Left over the last 200 years has been based on a value system, predating the Soviet model and living on beyond it. As you say, the origins of the Left lie in opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy. The values remain as strong as ever, but no longer have a ready made vehicle to take them forward. That seems to me to be today’s challenge.

Much of Blair’s legacy, it seems to me, is precisely a demonstration of precisely how a doubtless well-meaning determination for positive liberty can lead to a huge growth in arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy, both at home and abroad. We will make you happier and more secure, whether you want to cooperate or not, which is why all these CCTV cameras, ASBOs, summary penalties and ID cards are for your own good, if only you’d bloody well realise it…..

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  1. A good critique. I’d add on the Iranian revolution part that if anything Khomeini took advantage of and then betrayed the Marxists – using their support to help him and the Islamists to power, then cast them aside and suppressed them. The Wikipedia article on it is extensive:

    Lenin also pointed out some problems with the 3rd part:

    Even though I wasn’t entirely convinced by Curtis, it was a pleasure to watch this and actually see something like it on television. It was candy for the brain – something exceedingly rare these days.

    Comment by . — March 26, 2007 @ 11:56 pm

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    Comment by eteraz — March 27, 2007 @ 2:21 am

  3. Very interesting post. It’s good to be reminded of Berlin’s useful points about the term “liberty”, particularly as there seems to be a certain hostility to his analysis these days – as “The Trap” demonstrated, I thought.

    “He’s not taking the extreme position that we shouldn’t, at times, coerce people in the name of justice or public health … but the mere fact slopes are sometimes slippery means, to my mind, that it’s prudent to exercise caution when venturing on them …”

    I wonder whether 16-18 compulsion can be justified under “justice” or “public health”. I feel we haven’t seen much evidence of “exercising caution” on the issue.

    Comment by Fabian Tassano — March 27, 2007 @ 10:12 am

  4. It could just be that I have fallen into the China censorship trap, I used to get several visits a day from different cities in China, but it’s almost been 2 weeks without a sign. Should we send out a search party to find them?

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — March 27, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  5. […] wish I’d said that March 27th, 2007 Not Saussure: Much of Blair’s legacy, it seems to me, is precisely a demonstration of precisely how a […]

    Pingback by I wish I'd said that « UK Liberty — March 27, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  6. Lest not the volume of your critique dim the great rhetorical effort of Curtis’ curious and ambitious film. Your points of contention are numerous and seem to attenuate your underlying sympathies for this great hybrid of the visual documentary and the rampant editorial. Recognize the ridiculous limitations of the medium and make your peace!

    Comment by Julio Hector — March 28, 2007 @ 4:25 am

  7. Jailhourselawyer, the Chinese don’t seem to have blocked you as yet, at least not according to the Great Firewall site. Maybe they’ve arrested your readers, instead.

    Fabian, the compulsory education example is, to my mind, a good one. Most people would agree that it’s perfectly justifiable to coerce parents into ensuring their children receive an adequate education (many, indeed, would like to coerce schools into providing one) up to a certain age. We might argue about the exact age, but most people seem quite happy to make the children at least have a stab at attaining a GCSE.

    In this new set of proposals, however, the government seem to have accepted that telling parents to make their 16 and 17 year old children go to school would be ludicrous (otherwise they’d be threatening to fine the parents) but have, instead, decided that they’ll do the coercing themselves, since the teenagers would voluntarily attend school if only they and their parents understood their own best interests as well as does the government.

    Julio, while I liked a lot of the individual points he made in the films, I’m afraid I didn’t think it had a great rhetorical effect, precisely because it went off in too many directions. This, I think, was because his underlying thesis was unclear, even to him. And certainly, when I have known something abut the specific topics he was discussing, I’ve frequently thought he misrepresented them.

    Certainly he misrepresented them very stylishly, but misrepresentation it certainly was, nevertheless. Indeed, Obsolete’s point about the role of the Marxist mujahideen in the Iranian revolution and their subsequent fate — ignored in the film — makes me wonder if the chap he showed dramatically shouting slogans from Fanon didn’t, in fact, find himself killed by the Islamists after they’d consolidated their grip on power.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 28, 2007 @ 10:56 am

  8. You are right, Beijing is back today…

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — March 28, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  9. Can’t help feeling this is missing a dimension: society, be it national/local/family/in-cyber-space. This week we celebrate the 200th of abolishing slavery, the lower tier of a two tier population, but both positive and negative freedom smack of another two-tier setup: rulers and automata, albeit erratic automata. To temper it we have oodles of “consultation” in which very often not the slightest notice is taken of the lower order. As a result the upper order grows more sour by the day. The Lyons Inquiry into local govt has just published: he writes of “outcomes”, meaning a rounded whole that satisfies – he is in danger of being cast aside, because its too easy for rulers to just pull levers and not mix with the populace.

    Comment by dreamingspire — March 28, 2007 @ 3:03 pm

  10. From what I can see, the points Curtis made about the Islamic Revolution in Iran still stand. While Khomenei sided with the hardline faction in quashing an idea of western-style liberalism, the key ideals of revolution and struggle still stand – and set the Islamic Revolution apart from the more reactionary Sunni extremist groups.

    I doubt the chap shown ‘dramatically shouting slogans from Fanon’ was exterminated, as he probably never knew Fanon – it’s Fanon’s ideas via Shariati which filtered through to Iranian society. These ideas of revolution still stand, as can be clearly seen from this interview with Manouchehr Mohammadi – whom Ahmadinejad installed as Deputy Foreign Minister for Education and Research:

    In short, Curtis’s assessment of the Islamic Revolution (which is essentially about the start of the Islamic Revolution anyway), is not inaccurate.

    Comment by Ed — October 21, 2007 @ 9:08 pm

  11. If anyone wants to watch more Adam Curtis films, have a look here also includes some other things that may be of interest.

    Comment by Rew Islam — January 14, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

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