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The times they are a'changing

The last episode of "The Trap: What happened to our dreams of Freedom?" proved to be a final summary of Adam Curtis' argument. His hypnotic juxtaposition of images and narrative continued the high standards that had been set in the previous two episodes.

Yet I felt that there was a slight misunderstanding of Isiah Berlin's views. Throughout, the idea of negative freedom was derided as being empty and meaningless, and the conclusion was therefore that a positive agenda was now needed. Yet that was the whole point of Berlin's arguments- that humans should not impinge on each others liberty was precisely so that they could reach their own accommodation with life- personally: politically, economically and spiritually. Negative freedom, by definition does not seek to supply the great answers, it only seeks to provide a framework whereby these answers may best be sought. Of course negative freedom is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for benign politics. The ideology of negative freedom is, by definition, not a grand theory like most of the ideas born in the fires of the French revolution. The grand theories of Satre or Fanon (or Marx) seek to impose a Platonic order, Berlin's ideas are based on an Aristotelian concept that processes are themselves ideas and that Platonic perfection is not actually achievable. So the two concepts of Liberty are rooted directly in the dichotomy between Plato and Aristotle. Positive Liberty believes in the perfectibility of Mankind, Negative Liberty believes that Humans are not reliably good. This debate echoes down the centuries, with Rousseau standing against Locke as powerfully as Marx against Berlin.

Nevertheless Curtis is right to point out the vacuum of negative liberty as it has been interpreted since the end of the Cold War. Without moral precepts, political leaders too become suborned by a narrow view of their own interest- election becomes an end in itself, achievements are measured in incremental targets rather than high themes. The "vision thing" begins to fail.

Yet, though Curtis reserves his ire for the Anglo-American version of negative liberty, It is worth observing that those countries, like France, that continue to speak the slogans of positive liberty, are not acheiving their goals either. Though figures like Putin now challenge the concepts of liberty of any kind, even those democracies with a proactive vision remain flustered by the new world.

In the UK now, we have two political parties that have fallen into the trap that Curtis identifies. They are prepared to sacrifice personal liberties, they believe that the power of the state or of business must in some cases over ride the rights of the individual. Both parties, in different ways now speak up for big state and/or big business solutions to economic or social problems. The seventies ideas of Schumacher: "Small is Beautiful" have been forgotten. Forgotten, that is except amongst the British Liberal Democrats.

The timing of Curtis' film is interesting. We have been enjoying an extraordinarily long cycle of prosperity-and with it considerable political stability. Even John Major was a relatively long serving Prime Minister: seven years. The decade either side belonged to Thatcher and Blair, and these are amongst the longest serving Premiers in British history. What happens next may well be much less long term. It is far from a given that Gordon Brown can hold power at the next election, even if he emerges unscathed from his own party's leadership election. David Cameron continues to attract vituperation as much from his own side as from Labour. The mathematics of the distorted First Past the Post electoral system currently favour a hung Parliament. The wilful rejection of political purpose and political vocation, in favour of a career path for a professional political class may yet have within it the roots of a near revolutionary change, as Curtis suspects.

The dynamic of British politics has been changed by the spectacular failure of the Blair government. The British people are indifferent to the blandishments of the political class- nevertheless the time is coming for a leader of vision, and yet such a figure seems not to stand amongst us. Yet I sense a time of great upheaval is coming:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Tristan said…
I suspect Isiah Berlin must be rolling in his grave due to the use people have made of 'positive liberalism'.

Blair has used it to justify the ever encroaching state, and others also use them as an excuse to push socialistic policies and to restrict freedom.

I tend to come down on the side of negative freedoms. They are necessary, but not sufficient, for a stable, free and prosperous society.

No party seems to take them seriously though. I think the LibDems take them for granted, which is a mistake, especially whilst they are under so much threat.

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