Howie Klein has a truly gripping analysis at Down With Tyranny! about the ways that freedom — the concept and the word itself — has been perverted by libertarian ideology. Much of Klein’s piece is taken up by an extended quotation from an article by George Monbiot that was published Monday in the UK publication The Guardian. Monbiot’s article is titled “This bastardized libertarianism makes “freedom” an instrument of oppression,” and in his turn, Monbiot looks at the ideas advanced by Isaiah Berlin in a 1958 essay called “Two Concepts of Liberty.” I will quote parts of the Monbiot piece:
Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. …
… The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.
Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it’s the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.
Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.
As Berlin noted: “No man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’.” So, he argued, some people’s freedom must sometimes be curtailed “to secure the freedom of others”. In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.
Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. “If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral.” It follows that the state should impose legal restraints on freedoms that interfere with other people’s freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.
That’s Republican “freedom,” and it’s what Monbiot was decrying in theGuardian. He calls that kind of freedom “the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%.”