Two Varieties of Liberty

Have you noticed how many websites begin with the prefix ‘My-‘? I belong to a political studies association whose website is Myapsa. And a road users’ association whose website is Mynrma. I can register my car at Myrego through Myrta. I can pay for toll roads on a MyE-toll website. I can invest money with Myamp. My children can look up the Myschool website. And now we have a Myune website. I don’t know where this common My- prefix has come from, but I am pretty sure the names are meant to pander to what they think is a tendency to put ourselves first. Despite the wish of companies and bureaucracies to make us feel at home with them, none of them actually belongs to us, at least not as individuals.

There is a pervading cultural shift in Australia which is making us think and behave more as individual persons and less as connected with others. We are constantly viewed as customers or clients, and even the Australian government prefers to see us as ‘clients’ buying services from them rather than as citizens participating in the enterprises in which the government is supposed to represent us as a community.

The shift is, at least in large measure, owing to the cultural dominance of the United States in the English-speaking world. Not only are we suffused in American popular culture — music, television and cinema — but our business connections, and our business methods, are hugely influenced by America, where a president once told his nation that ‘the business of America is business’.

As we have heard many times, Americans are supposed to love freedom before all else. When America was under terrorist attack, President George W. Bush presumed that it was for envy of America’s liberty: ‘Why do they hate our freedom?’ The answer that many in ‘third world’ countries would give is that freedom for you is economic bondage for us. Certainly the Muslim world has long suffered from western economic colonialism, with America as the symbol of domination.

Leaving aside the apparent fact that Americans are prepared to set their freedom aside in favour of greater security (surveillance of the people), American freedom boils down to the freedom to do business, or, for the person in the street, the freedom to shop. Business freedom, under which large and rich companies can use their power to prevent the public from regulating their activities, turns out to be freedom to exploit. Under the ‘neo-liberal’ banner the poor person who is exploited is poor because of his or her own fault. Anyone with the foresight, energy and self-discipline to forgo immediate gratification can become affluent in such a generous society as America. It is a fiercely individualist world that scarcely brooks any type of collective political action. Beware the individual person who actually can’t find work, because taking welfare from the government is the lowest of the low, and the government that provides welfare is dangerously ‘socialist’. Meanwhile, advancing technologies remove people’s jobs with automated machines and efficient computers. Many more will be seeking welfare.

A famous philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, once classified freedoms into two types: the one, negative freedom (‘freedom from’), and the other, positive freedom (‘freedom to’). The first meant to be relieved from all impediments to doing anything (legal) that one likes. The other, ‘freedom to’, implied the opportunity for persons collectively to use the power of the community (the state, so hated by the neo-liberals) to improve the lot of the less well off. This came close to saying to take ‘socialist’ action, a term so reflexively hated in America.

My haste has possibly caricatured Berlin’s sophisticated analysis, but through the democratic lens the difference between the two positions becomes quite distorted. The United States has long claimed the title as leader of the world’s democracies, but in truth, democracy is difficult to discover in its institutions and procedures. Ironically, America was indeed the cradle of democracy in the seventeenth century, just as was ancient Athens in the fifth century BC. In Athens, Socrates judged a society by the way it treated the lowliest persons within it, and later Aristotle characterized democracy as ‘the rule of the poor’. American democracy began with the migrating puritans who fled the shackles of established religion in the Old World. Dare I say it, but the original democracy of America was collective. It was individualist only to the extent that pilgrims believed they were severally responsible for the conduct of their own lives, but they sought their goals together.

The same people who formed a church congregation on Sundays became the town meeting on weekdays, and all matters of public concern were dealt by them in these meetings. The first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, urged his people to submerge their self-interest for the sake of the wellbeing of the community. In his quaint seventeenth-century dialect he adjured people to ‘abridge themselves of their superfluities’ so that the poorer might be fed. He asked them to delight in one-another’s company and to invest their own happiness in the comfort of their fellow citizens. The town meeting survives in some communities to this day, although its competence is reduced to purely local matters. Its methods are extolled by American political scientist, Jane Mansbridge, in her book Beyond Adversary Democracy.

Obviously a rapidly growing and entrepreneurial America would scarcely live with this ethic very long, but they still liked the ring of the word, ‘democracy’. In clinging to it, they quite reversed its meaning, so that for ordinary people democracy would mean freeing people from the power of the collectivity over them. Curiously, although democracy began among the Athenians as a particular species of government, generations of American ‘democrats’ taught their people to hate government. The man presiding over the most powerful machine in the world, Ronald Reagan, had the hide to tell his people ‘government is the problem’. To describe the institutions that they claimed to be democratic, American realists reduced the activity to competition between elites, and theorized that the system would work better if the ordinary people were kept out of it as much as possible.

The story has often been told that Australia led the world in democratic experiments during the nineteenth century. To preserve that commitment, we now need to resist our talkative home-grown billionaires attempting to turn us into American individualists. Our freedoms were formed, and flourish, in community.

- Professor Graham Maddox

Professor Graham Maddox is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at UNE. He specialises in Australian democracy and the History of Political Thought.


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