Posts Tagged ‘freedom to’

On democracy…

November 5, 2020

Warning: politics ahead.

It has been an interesting time for democracy lately…

Let’s get the old saw out of the way: it’s the least worst form of government, or the worst, bar all the others, allegedly. If you live in a democracy and you don’t like the government, in theory you can vote it out. On the other hand, “if voting made any difference, they’d have abolished it ages ago” – you would appear to be being offered a choice on election day, but does it make any real change possible? If you live in an autocracy or a dictatorship, things are rather different, as the good citizens of Belarus are currently discovering, and as the Egyptians found out to their cost a few years back.

It’s easy to see that in a democracy we enjoy more freedoms. We look back at some of the things that happened in the former Soviet Union, or what China has done in Tibet and is apparently doing to the Uighur minority in Xinjiang with shock and/or horror. Although the issue of freedom from versus freedom to is a thorny one, as Margaret Atwood and other writers have pointed out.

The Cold War, which some of my older readers will remember, allowed the West – which claims it ‘won’ said war – to sit on its high horse in defence of freedom and democracy, and because it wrote the narrative here, most of us believed it. But, as was evident at the time and still is, the West was no shining example to anywhere in the world, with the US war in Vietnam and south-east Asia, or its coup in Chile, to name just a couple of examples. Big, powerful nations use force to make other countries do what they want, whether they call themselves a democracy or not.

We may have the chance to vote in elections in a democracy, but how democratic is the electoral system in the UK? Or in the US, as recently demonstrated. The system can be, and is, rigged in many different ways. Both the US president and the UK prime minister have demonstrated a very cavalier approach to law and international treaties and agreements. Apparently we need ‘strong government’, which is guaranteed by the ‘first past the post’ system, which obtains in the UK and the US in different ways. But China has ‘strong government’, as also has Putin’s Russia.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that a very economically and politically successful nation in many ways, the Federal Republic of Germany, has a Basic Law and an electoral system that was largely designed by the victorious Western Allies after the Second World War, a system deemed good enough for the German people but not for British or US citizens. What makes for a stronger democracy? It may well be that a system which encourages co-operation between parties through the need to form coalition governments is stronger and more effective, as well as giving voters a greater feeling of being able to make a real choice and a real difference at the ballot box.

Disillusionment with the slanging match politics of Tory versus Labour, or Republican versus Democrat, leaves many people feeling utterly fed up with the system and plays into the hands of the so-called populists, whom many feel are on the slippery slope to fascism… And I am struck that this issue appears more of a problem in Anglo-Saxon (ie English-speaking) countries. What happens in the US can so easily infect us over here because we speak similar languages; other European nations are safer from the pollution, at least for a few years.

Another issue which is overlooked, I feel, is short-termism: democratically-elected governments rarely look beyond their four or five-year term, as their primary endeavour is to please electors and then be re-elected. So don’t rock any boats too much, especially towards the end of your mandate. And yet, it’s patent that most of the grievous problems facing our world at the moment need long-term vision and long-term plans to address them: pollution, climate change, limiting growth, poverty…

In an autocracy, there are no voters who need to be pleased or to be courted; a government can look ahead and make plans as far in the future as it likes. And it can make things happen very quickly, by directing people. I have no torch to carry for the Chinese government, but when it decided that the air pollution issue in Beijing was out of control, it took urgent and drastic action and made a real difference very rapidly. Then, it has recently decreed new measures to address pollution by 2050, which, unless the PRC disappears in the interim, it can make happen. And it has, after its initial cock-ups and concealment, wrestled far more effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic than any of the Western democracies. Just saying… How do you make long-term changes in a democracy?

Another problem for democracy is that it’s a very effective mask for capitalism to hide behind: we all get involved in choices, discussion, debate and elections, while behind the scenes the same old cabal of the rich and powerful pull all the strings and continue filling their pockets with money… you only have to read about the obscenity of the annual meetings of plutocrats at Davos every year. Money decides everything, and control of the mass media in the West is crucial. The overall narrative is as much under control in London and Washington as it is in Beijing or Moscow. Our media in the UK is largely owned by rich foreigners and tax-exiles, a situation unparalleled anywhere else. In the US, Facebook increasingly monopolises what passes for discussion and debate, and its clear preference for Trump, who will allow its tentacles to spread unrestricted, is pretty evident if one cares to look.

When I look at all of that, I feel the picture is pretty grim, really, and I don’t see how we get out of the mess. It may be too late to impose any meaningful controls or restrictions on social media. Monopolies in press, radio and TV could be broken up by a sufficiently determined government. Political parties in the US and the UK could set out with determination to address and rectify the current broken electoral system, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m a paid-up supporter of the Electoral Reform Society. In the end, to expect capitalism to have any real sense of social responsibility about what it’s doing to the planet is just a ridiculous contradiction in terms. And the UN is hardly in a position to start being a world government that the Chinese, Russian and American behemoths will obey.

A final question: just what, exactly, is the difference between what Trump is currently trying to do in the USA and what Lukashenka attempted recently in Belarus?

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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