The Trap … (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free): picking apart arguments over nature of freedom

Adam Curtis, “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free)” (2007)

Part of Adam Curtis’s “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” trilogy exploring how the concept of freedom came to be narrowly defined by politicians in order to deal with a particular historical emergency (the Cold War) and how this definition helped to turn people in Western societies into self-seeking, soulless automatons lacking in purpose, this episode targets concepts of negative freedom and positive freedom as proposed and developed by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s, and how these concepts formed the basis of policies followed by Western powers to stifle revolutions in Third World countries and / or to bring Western-style notions of democracy and liberty to these countries, often by force and violence. Using archival newsreel footage and excerpts of movies and documentaries such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous 1966 “Battle of Algiers” film, Curtis weaves a seductive argument about how the over-emphasis on negative freedom and the West’s fear of and desire to suppress positive freedom have ironically led to the current global situation that the West most feared positive freedom would birth: an unstable and violent world where democracy and freedom are retreating even in its traditional strongholds and where people have become so fearful and insular that they come to lack initiative and direction.

In Berlin’s view, developed in his paper “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative freedom (freedom from externally imposed constraints) is to be preferred over positive freedom (the improvement of human beings to make them more “rational” thinkers so that among other things they can choose what sort of society they wish to live in). Berlin believed that the Soviet Union and societies with similar political cultures were the greatest threat to freedom in the world because they insisted on imposing positive freedom on their people and this imposition not only curtailed the people’s negative freedoms but was accompanied by fanaticism, violence and mass deaths. Systems must therefore restrain the “do-gooders” who want to improve humanity in case they get ideas about resorting to “tyranny”, whatever that is, to force-feed such improvements. Of course, “coincidentally” Berlin’s ideas dovetailed with other ideas derived from capitalist economics, American cultural values that emphasised individualism and competition, industrial relations (in particular, the scientific management ideas of Frederick Taylor) and were adopted by Western governments as part of an integrated package.

The documentary follows with various examples the paths taken by the proponents of negative freedom and positive freedom with their associated cultural packages in different countries and how these paths clashed. We boing from the American neoconservatives in the 1980s who believed that the US should use its power to actively spread “demcracy” and “freedom” by force to other countries which didn’t necessarily want them (in their American versions) to the 1979 Iranian revolution which according to Curtis was inspired by Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati’s fusion of ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon on decision and freedom in day-to-day life and on colonialism respectively with Islamic principles; to the deregulation / privatisation “shock treatment” meted out to Russia under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s by Jeffrey Sachs and his team of economists which resulted in widespread poverty among the public and in asset-stripping by well-placed members of the nomenklatura (the former Communist Party network of government and government agency insiders and their families) and favoured individuals who became known as the “oligarchs”. (And I imagine Sachs and some of his team got their share of riches as well.) The social and economic upheavals caused by the Sachs team’s recommendations resulted in greater political repression by the Yeltsin government which then pursued confrontations with groups in Chechnya wanting independence as a way of diverting the public attention away from the economic problems; this paved the way for Vladimir Putin to assume power. Somehow we end up in Iraq after 2003 where Paul Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority overseeing Iraq’s transition to US-imposed “democracy”, tried to remake the country’s economic and political structures: the result was huge unemployment, hundreds of thousands of people thrown into poverty and greater terrorist activity after the Iraqi army was disbanded (bad move, that) and public servants belonging to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were banned from government employment. The country’s entire pool of secondary and primary school teachers – many of them women, I imagine – must have been thrown into an employment black hole overnight.

Curtis’s argument sounds quite convincing, at least for those who haven’t read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism” which covers much the same territory as Curtis’s documentary does (Russia, Iraq) but from a different viewpoint in which the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek take pride of place over the gift of negative freedom and its benefits to supposedly benighted peoples. Like Curtis, Klein is guilty of cherry-picking examples to bolster her arguments especially in her comparison of economic shock treatment to the MK-ULTRA and related psychology experiments carried out by Ewen Donald Cameron and others from the 1950s to 1970s. In both the book and the documentary, the influence of German-American philosopher Leo Strauss’s views, or at least his followers’ interpretations of them, on American political and economic neoliberalism becomes the proverbial elephant in the room; it’s debatable as to whether Isaiah Berlin’s notions about the nature of freedom should be given any preference over Strauss’s views on liberalism (belief in liberty and equal rights) as a precursor to two forms of nihilism (brutality and terror being one, the result of positive freedom; and materialistic, purposeless hedonism the other, the child of negative freedom)  and the role of elites in society as an influence on the American neocons. Indeed Curtis’s documentary in parts looks more like a criticism of Straussian philosophy than of Berlin’s philosophy.

Curtis concludes by saying Berlin that was mistaken in his ideas and that governments and societies following his views on positive and negative freedoms have created a “trap” in which humans live lives lacking in purpose and devoted to materialistic self-interest and hedonism supplied not from within their own imaginations and resources but by external others with hidden agendas. The only way to escape the trap is to create outlets and opportunities for positive freedom. Curtis does not suggest any alternatives as to how to do this; neither does he actually look at whether Berlin’s definition of positive freedom is flawed or ambiguous. If the ideal of positive freedom is to create a better, more “rational” kind of human who can determine what society s/he wants to live in, we had better ask ourselves what we mean by “rational” so that we don’t end up creating a society of so-called “positive” freedoms of the sort that both Berlin and Strauss feared so much and which forced them and their families to leave Russia in 1920 and Germany in the 1930s respectively to avoid persecution as Jews and as members of the middle class. I note that in the documentary, Curtis refers to “rational” people as being motivated by self-interest without reference to emotion: that’s one definition of a sociopath.

We must redefine positive freedom in a way that avoids ambiguity in its definition and takes it beyond a mirror opposite of negative freedom. I prefer to see positive freedom as the freedom that expands one’s horizons as a result of having made a choice between or among mutually exclusive options, such that if you had the opportunity to make the same choice again between or among these options, you’d still go with your original choice. An example would be choosing between an easy, secure life in which you never leave your comfort zone and operate according to your desires and insecurities; and a life that might be hard, lonely, uncertain at times and inviting scorn from others but also a life that makes you a better person morally and spiritually. This enables a person to be in control of his/her life and to achieve self-actualisation.


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