Why Did Freedom Fail?

The idea of individual liberty has barely had a look in among the various “solutions” we have been sold as freedom.

In 1989 we thought we had, or at least that was what we were being told, that the human journey towards freedom had ended. What went wrong? Why did freedom fail? Credit: Facebook

In 1989 we thought we had, or at least that was what we were being told, that the human journey towards freedom had ended. What went wrong? Why did freedom fail? Credit: Facebook

It is hard, these days, to summon up the enthusiasm that arose when the Berlin Wall fell. For those of us old enough to remember those days, the world was changing in strange and unanticipated ways. As an Indian, my feelings were a bit mixed. I had dealt with racist American classmates as a young child at an American embassy school in Saudi Arabia, and had found a sort of resistance by reading up on military equipment in the Jane’s military reviews (oddly available at the community library) and comparing Migs and Sukhois to the Northrop Grumman F-14s and the McDonnel Douglass F-15s. We’d see the latter engage in practice dogfights over us from time to time, since our school shared a border with the air force base, and in my imagination the Migs always outperformed them.

That said, I was a child of highly Americanised culture. In Saudi, it was hard not to be. My love of comic book characters, burgers and steaks has continued unabated, and with that I devoured also ideas of liberal democracy, the “free world” and all its promises. My nationality, and reflexive loyalty to a fallen ally, did not fully allow me to completely accept the doctrines, though. And there was something more, a gnawing idea that maybe there was more than one way to freedom, and the answers weren’t all held by the now dominant and only superpower.

In this, I received unaccepted support from German friends who had grown up in East Germany as children. They had no love for the Stasi state they, and their parents, had to endure, but they found it difficult to accept that the dream of freedom ended at merchant bankers and hipsters at Starbucks. We discussed this over Starbucks coffee, of course.

In all the new literature I have since read, few have given me any further clarity of why that moment transformed into the one in which we now live. How did the fall of the Berlin Wall lead to China, with its most authoritarian leader since Mao, becoming the hope of liberal trade? How did the crumbling of the Soviet Union lead to an incoherent, unqualified, sexual assaulter to occupy the White House and work for the destruction of a (relatively) open economic system that the US had done so much to build? How did the expansion of democratic regimes in Europe lead the UK to flee from the greatest project for peace and prosperity that Europe has ever had? How did the fall of communism lead to a rise of authoritarian states, and India’s embrace of the erstwhile “free world” lead to the most toxic, anti-liberal regime – barring the Emergency – that we have ever witnessed?

There must have been a germ in the bud, one that was largely ignored. Many have cited neo-liberalism as that original failing, others have suggested that the American system was just better at propaganda than the communist states. But maybe only a person from an authoritarian state, a deep believer in democracy, can catch it best. In his obituary of the great Chinese proponent of democracy, Liu Xiaobo, Perry Link wrote:

“In the spring of 1989, two experiences, the first in New York and the second in Beijing, profoundly altered the course of his thinking and his life. He was just finishing a book, Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals, which explored several ways in which Western civilization can be “a tool to critique China.” Now, though, visiting the West, he found that the model was not so clear. Issues like the energy crisis, environmental protection, nuclear weapons, and what he called “the addiction to pleasure and to commercialization” were human problems, not particularly Eastern or Western. Moreover, a visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had brought him an epiphany: no one had solved the spiritual question of “the incompleteness of the individual person.”

But in 1989 we thought we had, or at least that was what we were being told, that the human journey towards freedom had ended. What went wrong? Why did freedom fail? Maybe because what was being called “freedom” was not freedom in the first place.

Isaiah Berlin. Credit: Wolfson College website

In 1952, Isaiah Berlin gave a series of lectures to the BBC on six formative anti-liberal thinkers. Edited by Henry Hardy, these were published in the form of a book 50 years later, as Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. In the book, Berlin chose to focus on a narrow range of philosophers who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century and left their imprint on the rising ideologies of Europe – most especially fascism and communism, the former of which had just been defeated with the help of the latter. He chose them so that they would not be too distant in time to his own experiences, and so could be easily understood, although some of their ideas may have had longer lineages, going back to ancient thinkers such as Plato. What is most intriguing is that out of the six (Helvetius, Rosseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and Maistre) most said they were for freedom.

“Although they all discussed the problem of human liberty, and all, except perhaps Maistre, claimed that they were in favour of it – indeed some of them passionately pleaded for it and regarded themselves as the truest champions of what they call true liberty, as opposed to various specious or imperfect brands of it – yet it is a peculiar fact that in the end their doctrines are inimical to what is normally meant, at any rate, by individual liberty, or political liberty… namely the right freely to shape one’s life as one wishes, the production of circumstances in which men can develop their natures as variously and richly, and, if need be, as eccentrically, as possible. The only barrier to this is formed by the need to protect other men in respect of the same rights, or else protect the common security of them all, so that I am in this sense free if no institution or person interferes with me except for its or his own self-protection.”

It is in these philosophers, those that Berlin castigates as enemies of liberty, that we find the hollowness in the ideas with which the triumph of freedom was sold to us. The most important advocate of such an idea was, of course, Francis Fukuyama, who drew on Hegel’s philosophy (ironically, given that communism is deeply derived from the same) to announce the “end of history”. According to Fukuyama, this meant that although conflicts would arise, the Hegelian dialectical conversation of thesis and anti-thesis had come up with a perfect solution.

The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism…What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Francis Fukuyama. Credit: Stanford University website

There have been many critiques of Fukuyama’s thesis, none more so than that of current day reality. Given the state of the largest liberal democracy (India), the oldest modern democracy (the US) and the democracy that boasts “the mother of parliaments” (the UK), the universalisation of Western liberal democracy seems very far from being “the final form of human government”. Most of these, though, have ignored the Hegelian underpinnings of Fukuyama’s argument, and it is here, maybe, where the rot lies.

For Fukuyama, the argument for why “Western liberal democracy” was the final philosophy came out of its success. We were sold this form of government, not because it helped people be free to be who they were, but because it was successful. This comes straight from Hegel, to which Berlin reacts:

“This kind of political pragmatism, this kind of success-worship, revolts our normal moral feelings; and there is no genuine argument in Hegel which is really effective against that revulsion… True values for him are those which are effective; history is the big battalions, marching down a broad avenue, with all the unfulfilled possibilities, all the martyrs and visionaries, wiped out; and morality is really a specific form of bowing before the facts. This identification of what works with what is good, of what is right with what succeeds, with that which crushes resistance, with that which deserves to crush resistance – this is the sure hallmark of the Hegelian system, whenever it is applied to politics.”

Isaiah Berlin 
Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty

And this is exactly how freedom has been sold, and continues to be marketed by many well-meaning people (and possibly some not so well-meaning). “It is what works, it’s good for you, stop struggling and accept it or we will force it down your throat for your own good.”

And here, really, is the other critical flaw. The fall of the Soviet Union left the US as the most powerful country on Earth, its reach supreme, and following Hegelian logic, its system as the most moral in the world. If so, why shouldn’t the US seek regime change, forcefully if need be, if it is in the interest of the people? It becomes not just right, but almost a moral duty.

This thinking is deeper than that of Hegel’s and its roots come from the 18th century European idea that nature was in harmony, and that harmony could be discovered by logic. If so, and if man was part of nature, there could not be a clash of what would be truly good for two different people, even if they said so.

Rosseau knows that, since nature is a harmony (and this is the great premiss, the great and dubious premiss of almost all of 18th century thought), it follows that what I truly want cannot collide with what somebody else truly wants. For the good is what will satisfy anyone’s rational demands; and if it were the case that what I truly want does not tally with what somebody else truly in other words rationally, wants, then two true answers to two genuine questions will be incompatible with each other; and that is logically impossible. For that would mean nature is not a harmony, that tragedy is inevitable, that conflict cannot be avoided, that somewhere in the heart of things there is something irrational, that do what I may, be I never so wise, whatever weapons of reason I employ, however good I am, however upright, however clear-headed and reasonable, profound and wise, I may yet want something, when an equally good and virtuous man may wish the opposite of it. There will be nothing to choose between us; no criterion of morality, no principle of justice, divine or human. Therefore tragedy will turn out, after all, to be due not to human error, but to a flaw in the universe.

The essential mistake for these philosophers was to see the world as logical, and humans as “fixable”, as part of a large harmonious universe, not as an end in of themselves, their freedom to be as they want to be. This kind of thinking about freedom as one type of freedom alone, has been a constant within endless reams of commentary, especially on the mission of the US to “fix” the societies of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the type of thinking that, in France, has led to the idea that if a woman chooses to wear a headscarf – even if she is an empowered, educated and economically self-sufficient person – that choice is not freedom. It is also the thinking that drives the large hyper-nationalist movements in countries like India and China, which are totally intolerant of differences. Or as Berlin wrote about Rousseau:

“What is wanted – I quote Rousseau again – is ‘the surrender of each individual with all the rights to the whole community’. If you surrender yourself to the whole community, then how can you not be free, for who coerces you? Not X, not Y, not this or that institution – it is the State that coerces you. But what is the State? The State is you, and others like you, all seeking your common good. For Rousseau there does exist a common good, for if there were not something which is the common good of the whole society, which does not conflict with individual goods, then to ask ‘How shall we live?’ What shall we, a group of men together, do?’ would be senseless, and that is patently absurd.”

At the heart of the thinking of a harmonious society, or perfect solutions, is the absolute intolerance of an individual to be just as she or he is, for their own sake, for, even, the sake of their own eccentricity. This last bit, the idea of individual liberty, has barely had a look in among the various “solutions” we have been sold as freedom, and it is here that those who believe in liberty must plant their flag, to fight for a person to be who they want to be. The rest are merely manacles masquerading as the bangles of liberty.

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