Friday 10 April 2009

Conventional liberty; unconventional God

The Convention on Modern Liberty, 28 February 2009, London

The Convention on Modern Liberty, a gathering of more than a thousand people in central London in February, provided space for a much-needed discussion about liberty, though the most radical ideas came from Christians and academic historians.

Two major threats to liberty hung like Damocles’ daggers over the Convention: the current government’s plans for a DNA database, and the issue of 42 days’ detention without trial. They sum up the alternately legalistic and moralistic ways that make good sense of liberty as it is dominantly understood in today’s climate. Whilst this was optimistically a non-partisan event following the failure of party politics, incorporating liberal and conservative traditions and contributions from red, yellow and blue; the consensus oddly put faith in the legal-democratic system: calls for better party manifestos, renewed respect for human rights legislation and voting in the next general election. 

The spectre of Orwell’s paternalistic Big Brother has a lot to answer for. Deepening anxiety about the skulking menace of a British ‘surveillance state’ makes it easy to see the dark threat of totalitarianism in the proliferation of CCTV along with bans on the public snapping police officers, and insidious monitoring of ‘suspicious’ behaviour; yet this obscures equally pernicious attempts to intrude that seem more mundane in comparison – blanket smoking bans, drinking laws and the newfangled obsession with healthy eating. Today’s brotherly ghost forgets that such interference is often warmly invited to protect us from each other and ourselves: in 1984 it is Big Brother’s bid to make his subjects secretly hate and suspect each other that gives him such an iron grip; counter to the casual moralism of the state today, his amoralism that makes him all the more terrifying.

But the Big Brother metaphor misses a profound difference between what motivated Orwell’s criticisms in 1949 - the totalitarianism of reactionary Stalinism in Soviet Russia - and the situation in contemporary Britain, with its absence of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Concern the West might fall prey to dystopian horrors characterised its literature during the Cold War, which made two-pronged attacks on Communists abroad and potentially damaging trends back home. Whilst there is good reason to defend our freedom from the state, today such fear has its roots more in confusion about what elites are up to rather than an appraisal of fascism or communism as a serious political alternative. The old ideas float fiendishly from their mid-twentieth century underpinnings. Orwell was criticising totalitarianism from a liberal-socialist perspective at a time when the world was engaged in fierce ideological struggle, yet only carefully cherry-picked criticisms are mentioned in the popular press (there are few allusions to the revolutionary message of Animal Farm in The Times – apart from recent gleeful reports of TS Eliot’s rejection of the manuscript because of its Trotskyite message).

Through championing individual freedom Orwell made a case in favour of ‘negative liberty’ as a socialist worried about the spread of Stalinism to Western Europe, some say taking issue with the Labour Government led by Clement Atlee at the same time. He suggests challenging the strong hold of the state by creating a private sphere free from its reach; yet it is only because he lives in a totalitarian order that Winston’s unmediated relationship and love of a woman over Big Brother can constitute a political act of rebellion in 1984.

Thinking about liberty in a similar way today often simply serves to give contemporary attitudes a bogus moral legitimacy at the expense of constituting arguments that connect with real people. (When asked who the leader of Oceania was for Red Nose Day’s Mastermind, Davina McCall failed to give the answer of her much-watched people-watching show, Big Brother.) Such talk threatens to reduce liberty into an idealised something we own independent of society and history, neutering it from any context that might give it genuine meaning. Liberty begins to look like a bland sort of a private property: the state isn’t allowed my DNA because it belongs to me, just as I own my human rights by virtue of my human biology – and everybody should respect what is mine. This liberty-as-property picture is the legacy of a context that has championed the private sphere whilst being reluctant to theorise about the public: human beings have become personal bodies but not yet political subjects.

Indeed, Orwell’s legacy offers little about any more social aspect of freedom that might resonate today, apart from his desire to defend human dignity - which has again become a radical stance. While 1984 saw the wrong sort of political power and ‘positive liberty’ as part of the problem, it is the resultant dread of popular politics and alarm at giving freedom any definite content that restricts contemporary discussions. It is not just I as a private individual who should be worried about my liberty; but I as an individual by virtue of society who must be concerned more generally about freedom. Just as some have shown that Orwell’s work displays deep anti-political tendencies that pedal dread at the results of expressions of popular will, it is partly the residue of this distrust of mass action that hampers the re-emergence of ideas that might lead it (1). It is a shame that it seems to be reactive fear of a dystopic future – be it totalitarianism, environmental catastrophe, corporate consumerism or a militant sharia state – that motivates a defence of liberty; and not a more generous project for freedom, stressing ongoing human liberation and what it’s good for – what we can make with it as a society – in a way that can inspire others.

In this, the idea of creating a ‘culture of liberty’ was one interesting idea running throughout the Convention. The two sessions I went along to – Faith and Freedoms, and Republicanism, Sovereignty and Liberty – began to cleave a space between the rhetoric of human rights and the more socially-encoded notion of civil liberties. Whilst the first debate considered brotherly solidarity and religious virtues of charity and goodwill; the academic historians of the second looked back to the Christian-inspired Leveller tradition of the seventeenth century. Both preceded author Philip Pullman’s speech in the final plenary, which called for a British republicanism based around the virtues of courage, intellectual curiosity, modesty and honour.

Arguing for the resurgence of a republican tradition can seem conservative today, though, as the discussion is often bound up with its Christian heritage. Whilst some argued for more focus in schools on the English Civil War to give weight to the republican cause and buttress a better national understanding, this period - recently dramatised in The Devil’s Whore nevertheless took the form of a battle between elites at a time when only a minority of the society were involved in deciding the events of the day. Whilst aspiring to a fuller, more participative democracy based on popular sovereignty is progressive when it comes to freedom, beginning to appeal to such a broader audience is an important first step. The fact that the common sense of values and purpose that have imbued republican ideas of the past are something mainly absent from contemporary Britain, cannot be waylaid by an appeal to history alone.

Yet Peter Tatchell, speaking at the Convention on behalf of Republic – a campaign to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state and draft a new constitution – seemed bombarded with questions about exactly what sort of a society he was advocating mark and letter. The underlying utopianism that marks much of today’s thinking about the future - which suggests making it is solely the theoretical job of a few - will only begin to be overcome by more campaigning around freedom that aims to connect with a broader audience in the present. Orwell and Christianity have done a lot to advance the cause of freedom historically, but it may be time to assuage appeals to arbitrary authorities.

(1) Honest, decent, wrong – Louis Menand, The New Yorker 27 January, 2003

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