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Freedom and politics: a difficult relationship

Freedom and Politics: A Difficult Relationship -- film by Maiken Umbach
And 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.
French 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.
Calls 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.”
To 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?
This, 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.
Foucault 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.
In 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.
The 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.
Such 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.
Before 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.

In this video, Maiken 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 share your thoughts with the educators and other learners by using the “COMMENTS” function below. We look forward to hearing your thoughts – and if you like, please explain where you are from, and whether you are referring to any specific political experiences in your own lifetime and country, or perhaps to the stories and memories of friends and family.

Suggested further readings (optional):

A good starting point for acquainting yourself with the work of Michael Foucault, which is referred to in this video, is this summary – section 4.4, on his book “Discipline and Punish”, is particularly relevant.

Further references can be found in the “resource bank” that you can find at the end of the final week of this course.

Patrick Joyce, whose work Maiken references in this video, uses a Foucaldian framework for understanding the history of the modern city. Take a look at this short (and slightly grumpy…) review of Patrick’s book “The Rule of Freedom” from The Independent.

In the fourth week, we will take a detailed look at a chapter from another one of Patrick’s books, “The State of Freedom”; if you like, you can skip ahead to step 4.9 now to download it – it is really relevant to both the freedom theme, and the theme of city and a sense of place. Be warned: the writing is a little dense, but it is worth ploughing through it!

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