Reclaiming Freedom

by Chris Horner

A Task for the Left

‘Freedom’ must be about the most popular term in the world of politics, and not only in that world. But what does it actually mean, in social and political terms? How should people who want to be broadly progressive understand it?  Too often the Left finds it hard to articulate just how they stand in relation to it and the effect is to cede the term to the Right. This is important, as the word, vague as it is, carries enormous affective force. It matters to people, because it represents a vital human aspiration. And so it’s too important to be abandoned to the people who are, for all their rhetoric, actually the enemies of freedom. On their account of it, freedom is just about individuals having more choices. This is a very weak account of freedom that ought to be met head on and refuted. It won’t do to change the subject, or talk vaguely about equality and solidarity: the Left needs make it clear what freedom is, what it isn’t, and what it could be. If it doesn’t, it risks being portrayed as being ‘against’ freedom, and in favour of mediocre uniformity and regimentation. So we end up with two caricatures, one about freedom and the other about its supposed enemies.

2020 had plenty of examples of this weak version of ‘freedom’. The Covid pandemic led to masks being rejected, vaccines shunned and lockdowns attacked and breached, all in the name of individuals’ rights and freedoms and ‘freedom of choice’. Beyond Covid, in the UK the freedom flag has been waved in support of Brexit, which apparently also means freedom, via the sloughing off of regulations. In the UK and US the word is hardly ever out of the mouths of Prime Ministers and Presidents. Hardy perennials of the right continue to be diatribes against against Health and Safety at work (‘red tape’), tax (the freedom to spend the money one earns as one pleases) and of course, in favour of arrangements that allow ‘flexible working’ – supposedly to free up the choices of employer and employee, but which in fact confirm the precarious status of hundreds of thousands of workers. Then there are ‘free schools’, free markets and much more. It’s an extremely long list. The Left is generally cast as the enemy of all this, the enemy of aspiration, of social mobility, of the opportunity to become a billionaire. It just wants equality, which stifles freedom.

How should one respond to this? Read more »

Existential Choice

by Chris Horner

 At the heart of French existentialism – and especially the version associated with its most famous representative, Jean Paul Sartre – was the notion of radical freedom. On this view, when we choose, we choose our values and thus what kind of person we are going to be. Nothing can prescribe to us what we ought to value, and the responsibility of freedom is to accept this fact of the human condition without falling into the ‘bad faith’ which would deny it. The moment of existentialism may have passed, but the view that we are radical choosers of our values persists in many quarters, and so I want to consider how well this idea holds up, and what an alternative to it might look like.

Sartre’s account in Existentialism and Humanism,[1] of the young man who comes to him for advice is well known, but may bear a brief recounting here. Sartre recounts the (he says true) story of a man, one of his students, who, when France falls in 1940 has a dilemma. Should he leave the country to join the Free French forces or stay with his widowed mother? Either course can be represented as the right thing to do. The commandments of the Christian religion are no help in making the decision – love thy neighbour leaves it quite undecided who is the neighbour here: one’s family or one’s fellow patriots. And if the Kantian approach to ethics is to be recommended then it remains unclear how ‘act according to that maxim which you could will as a universal law’ would apply. The maxim ‘protect your mother’ or ‘loyally defend your country’ could both be contenders.

And so the young man comes to his professor for advice. But as Sartre points out, we tend to go to the person whose advice we are already disposed to take. In any case, the responsibility to take advice, to listen to another and follow their advice, is still one’s own. One cannot escape responsibility that goes with choosing to act. Read more »