Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsAnd the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave over the land of free and the home of the brave. Freedom. Liberty. These values seem to be central to the ideology of the Western world today. The rousing American anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Statue of Liberty holding its torch. These symbols stand for political values that many Americans regard as foundational and for which the major alliance has repeatedly going to war. And yet, the relationship between freedom and politics is not one for freedom has often been seen as the opposite of politics, the absence of politics.
Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsFrench philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued in the 18th century that freedom is what we all possess in our state of nature and what modern politics tends to encroach upon. Most classic liberals have suggested that being free means keeping political interference in people's lives to a minimum. The government is best that governs least. This saying is often ascribed to Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Constitution. Although Jefferson himself almost certainly didn't actually utter this sentence, it is no accident that it has been widely attributed to him. It is seen as the basis of the American idea of freedom. But it's not confined to America. Indeed, it's crossed many geographical, chronological, and ideological boundaries.
Skip to 1 minute and 29 secondsCalls to restrict the state from encroaching on our freedom abound. Edmund Burke, 18th century critic of the French Revolution and founding father of modern British conservatism, wrote that, "it is in the power of the state to prevent much evil, but it can do very little positive good." Thomas Paine, human rights activist and one of Burke's main political adversaries in the British parliament who later immigrated to America to support the American Revolution, had very similar thoughts on the relationship between freedom and politics. "Government," he wrote, "even its best state, is but a necessary evil." And Jeremy Bentham, a famous 19th century British utilitarian thinker and a foundational figure in the history of British liberalism, advised the state to, "be quiet."
Skip to 2 minutes and 17 secondsTo be sure, this idea of freedom also has many critics. Revolutionaries of the left and the right have argued that people are subject to repressive forces such as the exploitative logic of capitalism, alienation, colonialism, and so forth which we can only overcome through politics, even through political force. Their notions of freedom are thus politically produced. Freedom becomes possible only as a product of political struggles. We shall talk much more about such approaches together in the coming five weeks of this course, but today, I want to invite you to reflect on whether this classical liberal notion of freedom is really as non-political as it seems. So whose freedom are we talking about?
Skip to 3 minutes and 0 secondsThis, of course, the obvious point that if you associate freedom with one particular nation state, there's a perilously close line between the defence of the freedom of all the world's citizens and the defence of the freedoms of one particular nation's citizens, over and above, perhaps even at the expense of the freedom of others. But there's also the question of whether freedom from politics really means that we can do what we like. This question's attracted most academic attention in the last 20 years or so. The works of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, have been particularly influential for those who wanted to explore what being free actually means in practise.
Skip to 3 minutes and 39 secondsFoucault argued that in order for modern liberal societies to function without direct state control and oppression, citizens needed to be conditioned to think and behave in ways that made them easily governable. Moreover, they would also control each other in the exercise of the self-discipline through a system of mutual surveillance. One power metaphor that Foucault identified for how this process operated was the Panopticon you see here. It was designed by the utilitarian liberal thinker, Jeremy Bentham, in the mid 19th century for prisons but also insane asylums, schools, hospitals, and factories. Instead of using direct coercion through threat and punishment, Bentham suggested that structure such as these achieved control of behaviour much more efficiently.
Skip to 4 minutes and 30 secondsIn the Panopticon, those who are to be controlled are simultaneously isolated. No inmate here has any contact, even visual, with another inmate and exposed to the constant, watchful gaze of the guards from their vantage point in the high central tower, unseen by the prisoners. This combination of isolation and constant observation would create a consciousness of helplessness and surveillance which will prevent disobedience more effectively, Bentham thought, than any direct force. You can perhaps imagine that effect best if you think about the modern, open plan office. This is not a place where disciplinarian managers are wandering around shouting at disobedient employees, preventing them from chatting or skiving. Rather, we police one another.
Skip to 5 minutes and 17 secondsThe presence of direct authority is replaced by the watchful gaze of our co-workers. They observe us. We observe them. And in this way, a seemingly free workplace becomes a place in which very little deviance from standardised working patterns is thinkable. For Foucault, the modern liberal state functions in a similar way. We're not coerced into behaving as the state wishes us to behave. Rather, we internalise certain liberal beliefs as seemingly self-evident truth, and we learn to control and oppress all those desires that do not fit into the ideal liberal order. We also learn to police one another by embracing social norms such as rationality and respectability, and by ostracising those who do not comply with them.
Skip to 6 minutes and 5 secondsSuch behaviours, Foucault argued, make those of us who live in liberal states governable in ways that are decidedly political but that now appear to be non-political. Through infrastructures of surveillance, not just physical structures like the Panopticon or modern urban planning, but also through administrative infrastructure such as census data, visas, pensions, insurance schemes, and so forth, certain liberal behaviours are institutionalised as common sense. Historian Patrick Joyce summarised this process as moving from a state where rulers curtail our freedoms to the rule of freedom. Freedom itself. It is what disciplines us into political conformity. In this vein then, freedom is not the opposite of politics. It is merely one way of exercising political power and of following one political ideology.
Skip to 7 minutes and 1 secondBefore we explore the theme in more detailed case studies, we'd like you to take a quick look at the suggested readings by Michel Foucault and Patrick Joyce, and share your thoughts with us and the other learners online. In the next film, Matt will talk us through different conceptions of freedom. And finally, we will ask you to upload an image of what symbolises true freedom for you. I look forward to our discussions.
Freedom and politics: a difficult relationship
Welcome to Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life! This course explores the building blocks of our political views: freedom, community, place, justice and choice. These words mean different things to different people – such radically different things in fact, that individuals, protest movements and entire states often go to war to assert their understanding of, say, freedom over somebody else’s.
We will examine examples from different periods and contexts in the 20th and 21st centuries, looking at how propaganda is used to promote causes both “good” and “bad” in the arenas of public health, identity and belonging, and freedom and responsibility.
In this first video, Maiken Umbach, Professor of Modern History at The University of Nottingham and one of the lead educators of the course, introduces different ways in which political thinkers have imaged the relationship between ‘freedom’ and ‘politics’.
What is your view? Is politics necessary for achieving freedom, or does it get in the way of living free lives? Please let us know what you think by using the comments and also introduce yourself to us and your fellow learners. Let us know who you are, where you live and what you are hoping to get out of the course. Please feel free to engage with other learners right from the start of the course.
Anyone enrolled on the course can comment and discuss the course material. To see all the comments on a particular step, click the pink speech bubble icon. The number next to this icon tells you how many comments there are for this step. You can ‘Like’ comments that you find really useful or interesting, and ‘Follow’ the lead educators and other learners.
If you’re looking for a reading list or suggested further resources, these can be found at the end of the course in the Resources Bank, in week 5, step 5.15.
Credits and permissions for images used in this video:
Statue Of Liberty America Flag Animation (CLIP ID 191046): License granted through the Clipcanvas 2015 (© CassillMedia)
File: Star Spangled Banner Instrumental.ogg WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - Star Spangled banner
File:Penetentiary Panopticon Plan.jpg WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - Panopticon
File:Presidio-modelo2.JPG WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - Presidio Modelo Attribution: I, Friman
File:The Park Northpoint - Open Plan Office Space.jpg WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - The Park Northpoint Attribution: Foundation 7
© The University of Nottingham and The British Library