A Point Of View: The trouble with freedom

Bound hands

We've come to believe that freedom is the natural human condition, which only tyrants prevent everyone from enjoying - but when a tyrant is toppled, we can't know what will come next, says John Gray.

In February 1917, a young boy was reading a Russian translation of one of the books of Jules Verne in a street in St Petersburg (at the time called Petrograd) where a bookseller had laid out his stock in the snow.

The boy heard a commotion and, looking up from the book, saw a terrified man being frog-marched down the street. The ashen-faced figure was one of the city's policemen, who were among the last functionaries of the Tsarist regime to remain loyal.

Discovered hiding on the roof of a building, he had been brought down to be taken to what he evidently feared would be his end. What happened to the man cannot be known, but his deathly white face as he was marched away made an enduring impression on the boy who witnessed the scene.

Aged seven at the time, the young boy went on to be the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, who spoke of the episode repeatedly in conversations I had with him towards the end of his life. He often contrasted the mood of optimism that accompanied the February revolution with the darker atmosphere that followed the Bolshevik coup in October of the same year.

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John Gray
  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism

Yet the incident occurred during the first of these upheavals, and it was clear that the impact it had on him had nothing to do with any differences between the two revolutions. As noted by his biographer, the episode left Berlin with a dread of violence that stayed with him after he left Russia in 1921 with his mother and father for a life in England and right up to his death in Oxford in November 1997. But I believe there may have been a subtler effect on Berlin's thinking, which has something important to say to us today.

Not long after the start of the 21st Century, we like to tell ourselves an uplifting story in which freedom expands whenever tyranny is overthrown.

We believe that freedom and democracy are inseparable, so that when a dictator is toppled the result is not only a more accountable type of government but also greater liberty throughout society.

This belief forms the justification of the repeated attempts by Western governments to export their own political model to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In this simple and seemingly compelling story, freedom and democracy are a package that can be delivered anywhere in the world.

An older generation of thinkers recognised that freedom and democracy don't always go hand in hand. The 19th Century liberal John Stuart Mill was a life-long campaigner for greater democracy, but he also worried that personal liberty would shrink once governments could claim to express the will of the majority.

Born in 1872 and dying in 1970 at the age of 98, Mill's godson Bertrand Russell agreed and shocked many people when he observed that while Britain after World War II was a more democratic society than the one he'd grown up in, it was also in some ways less free. For Russell, as for Mill, liberty was one thing, democracy another. It's a deeply unfashionable view, but I think essentially correct.

Bertrand Russell Bertrand Russell warned democracy did not always mean more freedom

Where this older generation differed from many today is that they thought of freedom as a lack of restriction on how we can act. Being free meant simply the absence of obstacles to living as we choose. While it's a view that's been criticised because it seems to see individuals as being separate from society, it seems to me to capture better than any other what freedom means and why it's important for every human being.

We need freedom because our goals and values are highly diverse and often quite different from those of the people around us. Having a voice in collective decisions - the basis of democracy - is a fine thing, but it won't protect your freedom if the majority is hostile to the way you choose to live.

Many will tell you that this danger can be dealt with by bills of rights that put some freedoms beyond the range of political interference. But politics has a habit of finding ways around the law, and when the state is weak declarations of rights tend to be unenforceable.

Once you think of freedom as living as you choose, you'll see that it's not just tyrants that stand in its way. The world is full of failed and enfeebled states in which the main threats to freedom come from organised crime, ethnic conflict and militant sectarian groups.

If you live in some provinces of Mexico, you're likely to be more afraid of ruthless drug cartels than of corrupt and ineffectual governments. In parts of the Balkans in the 1990s, you'd be afraid of lawless militias, operating on ethnic lines but often intertwined with organised crime. In these cases, it's a condition of near-anarchy rather than tyranny that threatens freedom.

Aftermath of an Al Qaeda attack in Iraq Iraq has a constitution and an elected parliament - but how free are its people?

In other cases, it's the power of fundamentalism that can most threaten your freedom.

Think of Iraq. You only have to consider what happened to the Marsh Arabs, whose ancient way of life was destroyed by draining the marshlands and blowing up villages, or the use of chemical weapons against Kurds, to recall how severe Saddam's repression could be. Yet freedom wasn't enhanced for everyone once the dictator had been removed.

Today, if you're an Iraqi woman and opt for a lifestyle that fails to square with a narrow interpretation of religion, you're at risk of violent attack from fundamentalist groups. If you're known to be gay, you risk being hunted down and killed.

If you belong to a religious minority such as Christians or Mandeans (a branch of Gnosticism that was practised in the region for about 2,000 years), you face persecution and the risk of extinction.

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We've forgotten our own history and neglect the dangers we currently face”

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The country has a type of democratic government, but the state is too weak and fractured and politics too dominated by sectarianism to prevent these assaults on freedom. Syria is different from Iraq in many ways, but it's hard to avoid fearing that a similar pattern may be emerging there.

In the reassuring story we like to repeat to ourselves, the emergence of these new threats is just a phase - in time these countries will achieve the type of freedom-loving democracy that we believe we enjoy. But we can say this only because we've forgotten our own history and neglect the dangers we currently face.

The democratic nation-states that exist in Europe today came into being in a process - extending from the French revolution through the collapse of the Habsburg empire after WWI to the break-up of former Yugoslavia - that included repressing the freedom of minorities, and the process hasn't ended with democracy and freedom co-existing in harmony as we like to think.

The far right is on the march in many European countries, using its rights to attack minorities. The dictatorships of the 1930s are unlikely to return, but toxic democracies based on nationalism and xenophobia could emerge in a number of countries and be in power for long periods.

Contemporary illustration of Lenin addressing Russian workers in 1917 The Russian revolution replaced Tsarism with Communism

Coming from Russia, where the despotism of the Tsars was replaced by a far more repressive system of government, Isaiah Berlin didn't need English liberal thinkers to teach him that the overthrow of tyranny doesn't by itself expand liberty. Where he was at one with them was in understanding that liberty is a fragile achievement that can be undermined in many different ways.

We've come to believe a story in which freedom is the natural human condition, which only tyrants prevent everyone from enjoying. The reality is that when a tyrant is toppled we can't know what will come next.

When we tell our tale of freedom spreading across the world, we might pause to think for a moment of the young boy who looked up from his book to see a terrified policeman being dragged off to an unknown fate.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Mankind seems to have made less progress in taming the inate savagery potentially in all of us and concentrated more on systems to codify how society operates. How little encouragement there is for ethics, standards and compassion, the true values.

Peter Mounsey, Harlow, Essex

I would propose another principle: that freedoms flourish in social environments where power is spread most widely and equally. I have met a former German concentration camp prisoner, a refugee from Georgia in the Breznef era, a Kurd from eastern Turkey in a time of military dictatorship and a Ugandan who fled his homeland because of repression by Idi Amin. Also one of my former colleagues lost some friends in Tianamen Square. These were victims of "strong government". We should oppose the concentration of power wherever it occurs. Power brings responsibilities to the governed, unbridled power brings evil.

John Price, Bath

There are many countries better of with a dictator than without such as Iraq, Libya,... and yes, dictators will abuse power and target certain groups of people but at least they in general control the majority of people from targeting others that are not like minded. This is what happened in DR Congo and it's neighbours after Mobutu was gone, all these different tribes try to eradicate each other over thousand year old feuds and in the process slaughter each other in the most cruel ways. Sometimes you just need one man to stop the masses from taking others peoples freedom.

Manu Henrotte, Bali

The democracy here in Australia functions almost exclusively on economic rational; putting matters of finance above the matters of individuals. The competition for work is so intense that people quickly fall into any position available and often one far below that which their qualifications truly merit. The majority of us end up working in positions (through the necessity to provide for ourselves and our families) that actively support the very causes we are stand against. We are only as free as Weber's cage allows us.

Chris Tope, Sydney

Democracy has been hijacked by so called freedom. Freedom has come to mean the freedom to exploit. Individual freedoms such as religious, sexual are just a pretence at freedom. Institutions have the freedom to exploit in a democracy as is evidenced by these pay day loans at exorbitant interest rates that can only be described as usury. In other cultures they may have more repressive regimes in terms of religious or sexual freedom but sharia law protects people from the worst excesses of usury. What you win on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.If we could just combine the best of both then we might have freedom with responsibility.

Jane Jackson, Ireland

I returned to New Zealand about 7 years ago after 25 years overseas, having lived and worked in a number of places across Europe and Asia. Rather than feeling freer than for a very long time (there's only 4m of us in a very large, mostly empty country), I feel more restricted than at any time in my life. I may be in a country that runs a proportional representation system, but unless I subscribe wholeheartedly to one party's particular point of view (and most have a relatively narrow political agenda), I have no voice. All of our parties are remarkably conservative and not one, indeed not even a single politician, can be singled out as a champion of individual freedoms or liberal ideas. Layer onto that an extensive and all-encompassing bureaucracy, and to a truly amazing extent so much of our everyday living is dictated by "others". The final straw for me living in Christchurch has been the absolute powers assumed by Authority following the Christchurch earthquake which have seen (and continue to see 18 months after the last sizeable 'quake) individual rights and freedoms trampled over with no avenue for appeal whatsoever. Much as I love my my friends and my corner of NZ, the overriding power of "Democratic" government and the absence of respect for individual freedoms will take me and my family away forever as soon as we are reasonably able.

Brian Anderson, Christchurch

There is no such thing as Freedom, unless you are marooned, alone, on a desert island. To live with another individual you have to subjugate some of your or their desires and wishes. In large Societies, the freedom of the individual very much depends on the beliefs, values and capabilities of the ruling elite. In a democracy, this tends to be a reflection of the beliefs, values and capabilities of the voting majority. Thus, in a democracy, the majority get the government they deserve.

Steph, Pershore

Democracy is certainly not synonymous with freedom. For the most part, democracies are controlled by those people with the financial means to run for office or by those people who are backed by some external power. While we would like to believe that our votes count and that our voice is heard, for the most part, people find themselves increasingly told what to believe by those who have the money or power to have their message heard. If the people who represent us in the government are nothing like us, how can they represent us. They can't. However laws have been passed to make it difficult for anyone without the necessary capital or connections to run for any office for the most part. When the majority of us are slowly regressing towards poverty and the rich have absolute power and influence through both the people who represent us and through the power of lobbies then it is time to examine our options. We are essentially not free. We have been brainwashed into believing we are through the illusion of a vote and an elected government.

Jimmy Arthur, Jakarta

I see the definition of freedom as simply an absence of restrictions as an essentially immature or 'teenage' view of freedom. A more mature view view of freedom accepts a trade-off, in some ways a form of delayed gratification: in return for payments of various taxes we loose the freedom to spend all our money as we like, but gain health care and retirement benefits, etc. If we accept driving rules, we enjoy greater 'freedom' to travel further than if there were no rules at all. Some may also argue that if we voluntarily accept some restrictions on sexual behaviour, we may enjoy deeper and more fulfilling relationships.

Paul Saunderson, Aalesund

Democracy is the rule of the mob. When the mob votes to spend money they don't have, on fripperies they don't need, this is legalised theft. In spite of all my "freedom" I can't travel abroad without government-approved identification, own a firearm without approval, set up a business without interference, or live in a caravan on privately owned land. My earnings are taxed at source while corporations and individuals end up with 0% and even negative tax rates. It is true that our freedom is an illusion. We have two dozen coffee shops, a dozen bakeries, seven or eight religions, hundreds of TV channels, but only two political parties. How is that freedom of choice?

Colin C, Barnsley

What we have to thank the wretched barons of 1215, or the slave-holder/founding fathers of the US, for is not "democracy" but the fact that the power of the state can be limited. Guarantees for the weak were a while coming, admittedly.

Karen Ray, Colerain, US

I am often surprised how 'The West' thinks the process of liberalisation can be short-cut simply by installing democracy, and assuming everything else will fall into place. I am not at all sure such a quick process has any precedent anywhere in history. As the author mentions, the formation of the liberal democracies in the west took time "extending from the French revolution...". In the case of England, I would go even further back. One could use Magna Carta as a convenient start point (issued in 1215, limiting the interference of the state in the affairs of the individual), and the process continued at varying rates over the next 800 years. England did not emerge suddenly from "the horrors of tyranny" in 1928 with the advent of universal suffrage. As for the future of this "democratisation". Even the UK may not be immune to the ill effects of the assumption that "greater democracy leads to greater freedom". The recent moves towards a fully elected House of Lords seem a case in point. There are obvious problems of two houses being selected in the same democratic way, and then being expected to act differently. However, due to a belief in maximal democracy being a good thing, most politicians appear to support such a change nonetheless.

Ian, Manchester

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