On freedom

December 29, 2016

Freedom is one of those words most often taken for granted, not really thought about or understood properly, a totem which can be crassly used to belabour those with whom one does not agree. I found myself scanning my bookshelves, as I often do when I’m reflecting on how to frame and develop a blog post, looking for novels that tackled the subject, and was struck by the fact that there weren’t/ I haven’t any from before the twentieth century… did this really mean that freedom wasn’t an issue in earlier times in the way it has become more recently?

I’m sure for thinkers, philosophers and theologians freedom was theoretically an issue, in the sense of free will, or how much scope we have for choosing and acting as we would like to, and this aspect of freedom continued into the twentieth century with the existentialists. Those of my generation will surely remember reading Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, or even seeing the excellent BBC adaptation of it in the 1970s: we were each free to deliberately make the choices we wanted to, in order to validate our existence… or not, as the case might be. Certainly the question of freedom has become a theme in literature in the last few decades.

When I wonder why this might be, I think we need to look at its opposite, oppression and slavery. The United States technically got its house in order with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War; the question of freedom for slaves is explored in such novels as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck’s mental gymnastics as he considers the issues while travelling with Jim the escaping slave on the raft down the Mississippi are as clear an exposition of the issues as any I’ve come across.

Russia, and then the Soviet Union, was rather different, and has perhaps determined how the issues were framed in the twentieth century. Serfdom was finally abolished in the 1860s; it hadn’t been quite the same as slavery in the US, but wasn’t terribly different it its effects. But then the authorities continued to deprive political dissidents of their freedom and march them in chains into exile in Siberia: Chekhov wrote about this in his travelogue The Island; Dostoevsky experienced it first-hand. And the Soviets took this much further; the West was easily able to frame the picture of the Soviet Union as a land where nobody was free.

As is so often the case, this is rather an oversimplification. We need to consider two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to. In the West we have foregrounded the latter, and ignored the former: we are free to move where we like, to travel where we wish, to work at whatever profession we choose, to live where we like, to believe what we like and worship how we choose, and everyone should similarly be free. Fine, all well and good, as long as we have the necessities of life – actually the money, if we are honest – to allow us to exercise these freedoms.

George Orwell is often regarded as the author who explored these issues most clearly in – allegedly – his devastating critiques of communism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. The animals win their freedom and are then oppressed even worse than previously. In Nineteen Eighty-four everyone is under Big Brother’s constant gaze and has no freedom of action or speech. Except that we oversimplify. The animals abdicate their responsibilities: freedom once won has to be watched over and preserved by everyone; Big Brother’s gaze is the watch of the totalitarian state, of whatever political colour or direction; it’s convenient but untrue merely to say Orwell is criticising communism.

Margaret Atwood, in her dystopian vision The Handmaid’s Tale, is a writer who invites us to look much more carefully at freedom from and freedom to. At some level the latter is a bourgeois luxury that most of the world cannot even dream of enjoying. Before you can be free to do loads of things, you need freedom from hunger, thirst, homelessness, violence, unemployment, and a few other things besides; most of the world would settle for this kind of freedom. And, like it or not, the Soviet Union and its allies did assure these freedoms as a minimum: there was shelter for everyone (yes, quite grotty flats sometimes, but better than railway arches), food was cheap, very cheap (not a lot of choice and frequent shortages), everyone had a job (and yes, some were pointless, make-work schemes and often you had to work where you were sent) and so could earn money. The basic essentials of life were available cheap.

I’m not saying the Soviet Union was better, or that I’d like to have lived there. What I am saying is that the attitudes we have, the slogans we parrot and the freedoms we allegedly need, are worthy of deeper consideration than they are given, and that we need to be aware of the very privileged positions from which we pontificate.

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