In three previous posts I have outlined the three episodes of Adam Curtis’s television series The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom?, in which he argued that a narrow view of freedom and a distrust of public authorities had led us into a dead-end, a morally vacuous society prey to the positive promises of tyrants and demagogues. In this post I will comment on Curtis’s conclusion that what is needed is a new form of progressive politics, the revival of the positive liberty that Isaiah Berlin and Friedrich Hayek told us would lead to tyranny.
Curtis was not shy in his conclusions. Isaiah Berlin was wrong, he said. The problem was not merely that the negative liberty that he had espoused had been mutated into its own form of positive liberty. Rather, it was Berlin’s very notion of negative liberty that was at fault. Positive liberty offers us a hopeful vision of a brighter and better future – it is a means to an end – whereas negative liberty offers no hope at all; it is nothing more than an end in itself. The world it conjured up was one without purpose. This narrow and limiting vision was a dangerous trap, offering nothing to counter the reactionary forces that would seek to sweep liberty aside by offering order and equality in place of freedom. A world of negative freedom was not inevitable, however, and Curtis ended with a paean for a rediscovery of a progressive politics, because positive freedom does not have to lead to tyranny.
It is ironic, then, that so much of this last programme demonstrated exactly the opposite. The positive liberty of the French and Algerian revolutionaries, of Sartre and his acolyte Pol Pot, of the Ayatollahs and all those other inspired revolutionaries – yes, even of Tony Blair’s attempt to marry the two kinds of liberty – had always led to tyranny. In its mildest and most Fabian form, socialism in Britain led to Government officials dictating what individuals might earn and what businesses might charge, and as a result of its mildness it was more incompetent than brutal. Where positive liberty was carried to its logical conclusion, however, absolute poverty ensued – no matter how much relative poverty was alleviated – and dissenters went to the gallows or the gulags or just disappeared during the night.
Curtis refuses to see this because of his bias towards socialism, exposed by his claim that “the redistribution of land and wealth” were essential aspects of democracy. This is nonsense. Democracy may be a means to affect social change, but social change is not integral to democracy. It is integral to positive liberty, however, for it is the vision of a better world and the use of the levers of power – be they autocratic or democratic – to achieve that better world that is at the heart of positive liberty.
In fact, Curtis is wrong on a far more fundamental level. The ideal of negative liberty is neither narrow nor limiting, and certainly does not offer a bleak vision of the future. On the contrary, it is offers the broadest and most enabling future imaginable, for what it recognises is that within each of us is the possibility of creating a better world, and that any one of us may chance upon a profound truth. Rather than be bound to follow the agreed path to progress – be it inspired by Marx or Mohammed or Mammon – we are each able to pursue a better world in our own way. If history is really the march of progress, its greatest lesson is that progress never came from societies agreeing in advance where the future lay and slavishly driving themselves to that goal. Progress came from a million tiny revolutions, from new ideas tried and new concepts espoused, from individuals free from the binding constraints of orthodoxy – or willing to risk pain and death to break those bonds. That progress is not achieved through shepherding society towards a cause, but through freeing men and women to act upon their own initiative.
Isaiah Berlin called this "negative liberty" because freedom came from the absence of something – power and constraint. It suffers from nomenclature: the two types of liberty have semantic connotations. But in fact they are counterintuitive, for it is “negative liberty” that offers a more positive image of the future: one without coercion or conformism or crushing convention. It really does "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend". But even if Curtis were right, and the best that negative liberty could offer was freedom as an end in itself, is that so terrible? By being free, thinking individuals, seeking our own truth and looking to how we can improve the world in our own way, we become better people, more aware of ourselves and of those around us than we ever need do as followers of another’s path. If in the process we enjoy “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, then so much the better. It may be negative liberty, but it is offers a more positive and more progressive image of the future than any other I have heard described.