Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Lay off Frank, he's a "free" man

Frank Turner, the so-called legendary folk-punk musician, was outed in the press recently as a person of right-wing political persuasion. This upset a lot of people, who seemingly thought he was a good, decent, morally upstanding lefty like themselves. It's unclear why they might have thought this, given that at least one of his songs is a hymn to libertarianism. Turner himself wrote a very reasonable response to the apparent scandal, saying he's never tried to hide his anti-government inclinations. It's obviously a bit cruel of the Guardian and the twittersphere to be so unkind to the guy over the whole thing so suddenly, but there you go.

Why do we find Turner's politics so upsetting? It's because we assumed he was one of us, of course. We assumed he was one of us, even to the point of ignoring his actual politics that came from his mouth, because he projected a punk-inspired, anti-corporate, culturally alternative persona. As he himself points out, Turner is far from a conservative or a Tory. What we failed to account for is that you don't have to be conservative to be a right-wing nutjob.

Turner's particular brand of nutjobbery is libertarianism. I suspect it's the whole concept of libertarianism that is getting people so hot and bothered, rather than any specific betrayal they unfairly perceive on Turner's part. We on the left find libertarianism extremely unsettling, because some of its core elements, almost embarrassingly, appeal to us. Yet at the same time, it's anti-government and anti-tax, which is anathema to leftist dogma.

Many on the left need to think things through a bit more before we can whole-heartedly believe in our own views without feeling guilty. What it comes down to is the liberal inability to deal with the concept of freedom. Freedom is a trigger-word; like "hope" or "justice" or "community" - it is automatically something to aspire to, something that must be sought at all costs. Any belief system can be imbued with positive affect by filling it with these words. When libertarians talk about the need to preserve freedom, it takes the wind out of the sails of our counter-argument. Something in our brain goes click, and we suddenly think to ourselves: "hold on, freedom is good, they're right about that. So why am I arguing against it? Especially since this guy seems so nice and punk." Normally, the response is to deny that left-wing principles or policies really reduce freedom, which is actually a fairly strong argument (they're no real evidence it's curtailed by government action), but we don't even need to go there. We just have to get over our cultural obsession with the word.

It doesn't take much musing on the subject to see that freedom, much like the other buzzwords I mentioned, is an entirely empty concept. It's so ill-defined as to be meaningless. We talk about it in quantities, as if you are always somewhere on a scale between pure power over all creation to shackled in a prison. (It's worth noting that even at this abstract stage, freedom is greatly limited by physics. I can't choose to fly or to kill people with my mind). We assume that limitations on freedom imply a smaller number of choices, when in fact you could argue the opposite is the case. And we see it in terms of individuals all trying to do their own thing, as if we weren't constantly impacting hundreds of other people with every choice we take.

What people mean by political freedom, perhaps, is restricted to certain specific actions or choices that are in some way deemed important. If the government blocks one of these, then we can fairly say we have been wronged. In this case, freedom is arbitrary - we want to be able to do whatever it is we happen to want to be able to do. Fair enough. It's nice to be able to do stuff we like. But what if we like to start wars or have sex with small children?

Freedom is a ridiculous ideal on which to base a social system, because it can't possibly exist in any social context. Even without a government, any interaction that involves two or more humans automatically implies a loss of freedom. Each individual set of desires and choices is likely to conflict with others. That's before you even come to things like culture, which is a set of behavioural codes and moral values that automatically massively limits the conceivable choices of individuals. I can't walk around naked, be overtly homophobic or talk to strangers on the tube without incurring social disapproval - is this restraint on my freedom the government's fault? All the biggest restraints on freedom take this form - we're not even aware of them as restraints because we've internalised them as second nature. So if we're not aware of them, are they still a restraint? What if I'm so used to paying tax that I no longer see it as a restraint. Is it still a limit on my freedom?

But even where the government is concerned, i.e. in the maintenance of a functional political system, no one expects full freedom. If you're going to lock up murderers, then you're going to limit the freedom of the entire population to kill each other. If you're going to prosecute libel laws, then you're going to infringe our freedom of speech. Not only that, but for either of these cases, you're going to have to have an effective police force and legal system, which you'll need to fund by limiting people's freedom to use their money as they want.

Everyone agrees that freedom must be limited to an extent, and even if we didn't, it still would be. The debate between libertarians and socialists concerns the size of this extent. Socialists may be willing to lose more freedom if it helps more people and makes everyone happier. We might be happy to fund the UK film council with tax money allotted by an elected government rather than let it slide into private hands with their own agenda. The libertarians might complain that the Council would then be funded through "the threat of violence towards citizens" (Frank's own words), which is obviously moronic on every level. One man's threat of violence is another's rule of law, and in either phrasing, you have to have it in some form if you want to lock up murderers.

But the debate about freedom is itself silly. We have so little of it anyway - or so much, depending on how you look at it - and government policy makes no real difference. If you deregulate the economy, our freedom merely becomes limited by corporate profiteering rather than government policy. This phenomenon has been documented extensively by social scientists; how the introduction of neoliberalism in the 80s largely led to an increase in regulation - only it was the market rather than the government doing the regulating. Meanwhile, societies we traditionally think of as lacking freedom, such as Soviet Asia, have been seen to produce communities that devise all kinds of new forms of action through which they can express their choices and create their own cultural limitations under the radar of official structures. (I can give references for studies documenting both these phenomena if anyone's interested). This doesn't mean that totalitarianism is OK, it just means that freedom tends to be the roughly the same in every kind of system. Or at least it's different in kind, not in degree.

The point is, freedom is so poorly understood, so amorphous and meaningless, that we need to abandon it as a valid political ideal. When arguing against libertarians, who are often obsessed with freedom to the point of insanity, we should have no inner doubts. This doesn't mean it's OK to stop people from doing stuff just for the sake of it, or that we can disregard things like privacy, but rather that when considering such issues, we should evaluate them in terms of benefits like happiness rather than moral absolutes like freedom. Such absolutes rarely exist in the real world the way we think they do, and they rarely bring any tangible gain when sought.

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