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 »