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Conceptions of liberty: an overview

Conceptions of Liberty: An Overview
Can we be forced to be free? The idea seems counterintuitive. If we’re forced to do something, are we not being made to act against our will? And is that not the very antithesis of freedom? Yet this was the claim famously asserted by the Genevan political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. Freedom of in a political society involved, for Rousseau, obeying laws that we make for ourselves. And so if a citizen is forced to obey made in the appropriate way, commensurate of what he called the general will of a community, they are therefore made free. The idea of being forced to be free brings power and freedom together in a very direct manner.
In Rousseau’s view, the community has a legitimate interest in having the general will obeyed. And it has the right to bring this collective power to bear on recalcitrant individuals. In doing so, it does not violate their freedom. This touches on a fundamental divide in the literature on liberty and freedom. And these terms are generally used interchangeably. That between positive and negative liberty, made famous by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, those who favour a negative conception of liberty, such as John Stuart Mill, see freedom in terms of the capacity of an individual to do as he or she sees fit without the interference of others, and particularly without the interference of the state.
Freedom may, therefore, mean the right to do things that we would normally consider against the interest of the individual, such as smoking or gambling. Mill was very clear on this. Society could only restrict the liberty of individuals if those individuals would use that freedom to harm others. Absent such harm, social or political intervention has no legitimacy. The positive conception of freedom, on the other hand, does not associate being free with non-interference, but rather with doing the right or rational thing. And if we are doing the wrong or irrational thing, we are not fully free. Engels’ assertion that freedom consists in understanding natural laws fits very much in this vein.
This idea can gain some plausibility if we think again of the smoker. Perhaps the smoker understands the damage that smoking is likely to do to his body and wants to quit, but is so addicted to nicotine that he finds quitting impossible. So even though this person chooses to buy cigarettes, this is not right an act of freedom, but instead reflects being the subject of or slave to first-order desire when there is a higher-order desire not to smoke at all. Only when the agent does the rational thing and gives up smoking will he be truly free. This conception of freedom is often cast as the achievement of self-realization or autonomy.
One thing worth noting is that neither side in this debate say they are against freedom. This is not a freedom/anti-freedom debate. Freedom is a positively appraised concept in almost all sets of political beliefs. And so the concept is contested in that there are different interpretations of it in play that would involve strikingly different political arrangements if implemented, for example, either banning smoking completely or allowing people to self-harm. Supporters of each interpretation seek to decontest the notion, if only provisionally. In other words, they try to fix the meaning in their own favour. This shows the one very important element in political life is the attempt to control the language of politics.
Language is not something that is easily controlled, and so such attempts are always ephemeral and likely to fail. Nonetheless, convincing enough people that freedom requires this form of politics rather than that form of politics can be a powerful weapon, even if the advantage gained is fleeting. So one way to articulate power is to frame a discussion in language that is conducive to your aims. Steven Lukes gave an account of this with his idea, the three dimensions of power. Where the first dimension is behavioural and observable, as when the government forces protesters off the streets.
The second dimension involves pursuing one’s interests in rather more covert ways, including the power to set agendas, in such a way that contentious issues are not allowed to surface. The third dimension of power, however, is essentially ideological in a sense in which Marxists tend to use that term, where ideas are taken to mask forms of power and exploitation. It involves the very way in which conceptions of interest come to be formulated and what people think is even possible. Here, we may see no political conflict at all. But as Lukes said, the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflicts from arising in the first place. Ideas of freedom and power are intricately connected.
We exercise our freedoms through the powers and rights that we have. And at the same time, our society or the state that we live under may use its power to deny our freedoms or to force us to be free. How we understand what the state is doing may determine whether we see it as our friend or seek to mobilise against it. The differing and conflicting conceptions of freedom that we have show why the attempt to control language is such a critical part of political struggle. Liberals, fascists, communists, and anarchists will all claim to make us free. They will all seek to decontest that idea. In the end, the question is who can they convince?

In this video, Mat Humphrey, Professor of Political Theory at The University of Nottingham, introduces the classical distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty: the freedom to realise your own true potential (or some other higher goal) on the one hand, the freedom to be left alone to do as you please on the other. What does Freedom mean to you? Is it just a question of exercising personal preferences? Or do you feel that the political system in which you live can, or should, actively enable, promote or even force people to become free?

Suggested further reading: click here for a more detailed explanation of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty.

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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