Ideals And Low Deals

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 249 - November 1993

Ideals and low deals
We talk about it, dream about it, may even lay down our lives for it.
But what underlies the concept of ‘liberty’? Vanessa Baird
digs a little deeper to reveal its hidden politics .

She does not look at us, but off into the distance – seeming to see what we can only imagine. What we do see – indeed can’t help but see – is her, the woman in white running towards us, over the barricades.

Eugene Delacroix’s depiction of ‘Liberty leading the people’ – painted shortly after the French Revolution – meets all the requirements of the day. She combines androgynous classical good looks, the resolutely impassioned gaze of the visionary and the attributes of an energetic, young, Mother Nation. At her feet lies the rubble of the old order, the ancien regime, plus a few of its dead or dying foot soldiers.

This symbol of emancipation has resonated across the world. From Chile to China she, or versions of her, have been the motif for countless revolutions against an established order of oppression.

On my desk lands another image, passed on to me by a friend. It’s a full page advertisement featuring a woman in a very similar pose. The word ‘Liberté’ is emblazoned on the opposite page. The text goes on to describe what this international mobile phone system can do for you. ‘Only Vodaphone can offer this,’ I am assured. ‘Liberate yourself. Enjoy freedom of speech and security. Rise above the rest.’

Later, watching TV, I see another depiction of liberty – yet again represented by a woman. This one is floating through the air with an inane, blissful smile on her face. Has she dropped a couple of tabs of acid? No, she’s got her period, giving her a chance to enjoy the extraordinary liberty offered her by this particular brand of sanitary towel.

The illusion of liberty can be used to sell anything and everything. Most of the time we are being sold the same old things, presented to make us believe that commodities will magically open the door to an exciting, liberating, even dangerous new array of freedoms.

Take Madonna – for many the consummate spirit of ‘post-feminist’ liberty. Remixing the images of Marilyn Monroe, Catholic iconography, and mainstream pornography, she has produced a version of liberty with phenomenally high retail value. She produces herself as both a self-pornographing sexual libertine, and a liberated woman in charge of her own affairs.

Bombarded by this relentless barrage of images, icons and rhetoric I find myself wondering what is this idea of ‘liberty’ all about? What has it to do with life as lived by millions of people on this planet? Is it just another image in a capitalist world that according to photographer Susan Sontag ‘requires a culture based on images’ and that ‘needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex’? Or has it some deeper political significance?

Perhaps one should take a few steps back to where the idea of individual liberty, as a political and philosophical concept, first emerged.

Birth of a concept
Ideas of freedom exist in most traditional thought systems – Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Confucian, you name it. But the concept of personal liberty and rights protected in law became dominant with the emergence of the market economies of the West. And it is the Western idea of liberty that holds sway in today’s world.

Writing in mid-seventeenth century Europe, Thomas Hobbes reckoned that liberty hinged on a social contract with the sovereign. Roughly paraphrased it amounts to: ‘I give you my allegiance and authority over me and you protect me’. The idea was to protect individuals from each other. Without the State ‘life is nasty, brutish and short,’ he wrote.1 Another Englishman, John Locke, fastened onto this the idea that fundamental to liberty was the right to economic security, which for him was embodied in private property.

Some would argue that the connection between liberty and private property was already firmly lodged in the European mindset when Christopher Columbus arrived in the ‘New World’. So perplexed was he to see people who appeared to enjoy a considerable degree of liberty – but had no concept of land ownership – that he could only conclude that they could not really be free and therefore were uncivilized.

There were, of course, popular movements that challenged the equation of liberty with property – peasants and workers who fought for the right to organize, political dissenters who fought for freedom of assembly, reformers who fought to expand a restrictive franchise that gave the vote only to ‘men of property’. And in the eighteenth century French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau, came up with the notion of natural liberty. ‘Man [sic],’ he said, was born free, but found himself ‘everywhere in chains’ due to custom and society. What was needed was a new social contract enabling the natural order of freedom to be reinstated. He proposed universal suffrage for all men – but didn’t mention women.2

By the nineteenth century Western concepts of liberty had expanded to include free trade and laissez-faire capitalism. Central to this tradition was the view that ‘he [sic] who governs best, governs least’. Freedom from interference (negative liberty) would naturally give rise to freedom to do as one liked (positive liberty). Individuals should be given as free a rein as possible, according to liberal optimists like John Stuart Mill, a firm believer in the reasonableness of educated human nature.3

But what underpinned this version of liberty was neither reasonable, humane nor natural. Its foundation was unquestioned liberty-taking – at the expense of women, children, and the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. In the name of ‘liberty’ and under economic policies of laissez-faire, slavery flourished and foreign countries were plundered of their land and resources. Free trade was the excuse for Britain’s Opium Wars against China when the latter tried to stop the drug coming into the country. All the while women remained the property (read ‘slaves’) of their menfolk.

Whose liberty?
Today women have the vote in most parts of the world and colonized peoples have fought free of their colonial masters. So have we been raised from galley slaves to passengers on the great ship of Liberty? Can we take our place alongside the white men on the deck?

Not quite.
Liberty is there for all in theory – but is still carefully rationed in practice. Although most images of liberty are female, women know that there is a lot less liberty in their lives than in those of their male counterparts. It’s not just that women are generally poorer and have fewer career breaks. It is also the invisible strings that keep women bound into certain types of behaviour, from Toronto to Timbuktu – such strings kept tight by the need for male patronage and the ever-present threat of male violence.

While many more Third World countries are now following the path to parliamentary democracy and liberal economic policies, the effect on people’s everyday lives is far from liberating. The jobless factory worker in Bombay is hardly more free now that the Indian Government – with the encouragement of the IMF – has pulled down trade barriers and let in imports that put local manufacturers out of business. The citizens of Pakistan or Kenya hardly enjoy political freedom just because their governments – wishing to impress the West with their democratic ways – hold rigged elections to consolidate their grip on power.

Today puffed up phrases about liberty are spouted most vigorously not by civil liberties activists but by right-wing politicians, captains of industry, free marketeers, publishers of pornography, and self-satisfied academics. In the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm: ‘It is a paradox of liberty that it has become the slogan of those who needed it least and want to deny it to those who needed it most.’ 4

This has been most clearly illustrated in the UK with the political agenda set in motion by Margaret Thatcher. Ceaseless rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘deregulation’ disguised the actual curbing of freedom on an unprecedented scale. Anti-union and anti-lesbian and gay legislation were the order of the day. New censorship restrictions were imposed on the reporting of the war in Northern Ireland. Thatcherite economic policies created massive – hardly liberating – unemployment.

One of the reasons that the Right has so successfully exploited the concept of liberty lies in the central contradiction of the Western idea of liberty itself: that it has both a tremendous emancipatory potential and what has been described as ‘a seemingly limitless capacity to legitimate social inequality and undemocratic economic arrangements’.5

You can see the effects of those undemocratic economic arrangements in any city of the world today – be it Lima, Lagos, or Los Angeles – where rich and poor may find themselves on the same piece of cement yet inhabiting completely different realities. Less immediately obvious is the deeply undemocratic relationship between individuals and business interests. The rights drawn up to protect personal property have almost imperceptibly been transferred to huge corporations. ‘Corporate groups are treated as fictive individuals and are thus endowed with the rights that individuals in a free society are accorded,’ say economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.5

Actually they have much more liberty than individuals. If I deliberately blind a rabbit I will rightly be prosecuted for cruelty to animals. But if Max Factor or Revlon daily blind hundreds of thousands of rabbits to test cosmetics, then that’s okay.

If villagers dump their household waste in streams or at a factory gate, that’s an offence. But ICI or Dow Chemicals pollute the very air we breathe or water we use: that’s okay too. It seems the larger and more impersonal the corporation, the more protection it gets.

If the power relations between the individual and corporation are skewed in the rich world, imagine the daunting task faced by the poor residents of Bhopal still trying to get compensation out of Union Carbide. The economic liberty of the powerful means ever decreasing political liberty for the rest of us.

But hang on. Isn’t this getting very negative? After all, the classical liberal and modern libertarian concept of liberty states the possibilities for human freedom in an explicit way rarely found in other cultures. This may be true, but what it fails to do is identify the roots of domination – mainly patriarchy, racism and wealth. It assumes a level field on which the game of liberty can be played out fairly.

In theory an Aboriginal woman sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney has the same freedom of speech as media mogul and multi-millionaire Rupert Murdoch. But we know that in practice that is not the case and that liberty – like money – grows in the hands of the powerful and shrinks in those of the disempowered.

Liberty will not, of itself, bring liberation. In the words of feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon: ‘Anyone with an ounce of political analysis should know that freedom before equality, freedom before justice will only further liberate the powerful and will never free what is most in need of expression.’6

One strategy for trying to get more equality of opportunity is affirmative action. This means making a positive effort to get more women, black and working- class people into jobs that have hitherto been the preserve of the affluent, white male – medicine and law, to take just two examples.

Such strategies have created the most furious of backlashes – mainly from affluent, white men. They come not only from the political right but the liberal centre too. Australian Robert Hughes writes about ‘a culture of complaint’ where political correctness and affirmative action threaten to ‘fray’ the liberal fabric of ‘America’.7 Liberal philosopher Michael Sandel inveighs passionately against affirmative action.8 While political theorist Francis Fukuyama laments ‘genius’ being crushed by calls for equality and culture critic Camille Paglia delivers fast and furious invectives against contemporary feminism which she stereotypes as a ‘puerile, paranoid fantasy of male oppressors and female sex object victims’.9,10

Clash and diversity
Liberties clash. Of course they do. One person’s right to information may clash with another’s right to privacy. One person’s freedom of speech may clash with another’s freedom from racial abuse. One person’s liberty may be another person’s harm. Or in the words of literary critic Isaiah Berlin: ‘The liberty of the wolf often means death to the sheep.’11

Laissez-faire policies have the illusion of being neutral and therefore fair to all creatures. In fact they benefit the wolf and are indifferent to the harm done to the sheep. If liberty is to be anything other than a travesty, an affluent white man’s con trick, anything other than what writer Susan Griffin calls ‘a small idea’ running counter to the greater task of ‘liberation’, then it must be continually negotiated – between rich and poor, male and female, black and white, North and South, gay and straight.

That means taking into account a diversity of viewpoints. It gets complicated, and does not fit easily into the simple, Disneyworld mentality of exponents of the ‘New World Order’. In the words of Muslim scholar Zia Sardar: ‘The world has become hostage to a single civilization: that of the West. And the main power of this civilization comes not from military might or political ability or economic strength but from the power to define. To the Third World it says: “Either you accept my definition of freedom in terms of the free market and parliamentary democracy or you become my slave.” Such enslavement takes the form of cultural subservience, economic pressure, sanctions, withholding of aid, or more direct military force.’12

Liberty has to be about more than just ‘letting [some] people do what they want’. It also has to be about letting people define themselves in their own way. That’s why identity politics or religion are relevant for oppressed people. And it’s why language is so important – something that those who have been part of the culture that defines rather than the one that is defined may find hard to understand.

In a world where liberty becomes equated with little more than the freedom to accumulate consumer goods, it’s not easy to clear the space for a more spiritual, more rounded self-realization. Opening our minds to other notions of liberty can only invigorate and enrich us. Like democracy, liberty has to be part of a discourse. It cannot exist in absolutist isolation. A feminist or an ethnic minority version of liberty is a call for equality. A traditional, pre-industrial or a communist society focuses on collective rather than individual freedom. A Buddhist notion concentrates on spiritual liberty. A Muslim concept hinges on the notion of trusteeship, of freedom limited by an ultimate responsibility and accountability to God. While an ecological view shifts the centre away from humans and towards the survival of the planet and all its creatures.

To escape from the narrow ‘doing what I want to do’ and ‘having what I want to have’ version of liberty will involve engaging with and responding to others. Otherwise the concept of liberty becomes static and false; a totem of power like the US Statue of Liberty, stony, white and phallic. And which – like Liberty in the Delacroix painting – is both inappropriately and appropriatively dressed as a woman.

1 Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes (Pelican Classics 1977).
2 The Social Contract (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (Everyman 1977).
3 On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill (Oxford 1991).
4 Workers, Eric Hobsbawm (New York Pantheon 1984).
5 Democracy and Capitalism, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (Basic Books 1987).
6 Feminism Unmodified, Catharine MacKinnon (Harvard 1987).
7 Culture of Complaint, Robert Hughes (Oxford 1993)
8 Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Michael J Sandel (Cambridge 1982).
9 The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama (Penguin 1992).
10 Sex, Art and American Culture, Camille Paglia (Viking 1992).
11 Four Essays on Liberty, Isaiah Berlin (Oxford 1969).
12 See Zia Sardar book review.

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