Liberty in the Post-Industrial Society

24 Jul

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.” —Karl Popper

Do the ideas of 19th century philosophers on ‘liberty’ have any relevance to society following the advent of the ‘technological revolution.’

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”(1) So speaks Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The character Gradgrind expresses the Utilitarian view held by ‘philosophical radicals’ of the nineteenth century such as Jeremy Bentham, a friend and close political associate of one James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill.

What is particularly interesting about this admittedly loose connection is that Theodore Roszak in Cult of Information (1986) begins the chapter entitled ‘The Politics of Information'(2) with this same quote and lends weight to my argument that the ideas of 19th century philosophers, and John Stuart Mill in particular, have a direct relevance in today’s society and the society that we may find ourselves in tomorrow.

Allow me to elucidate. Roszak’s work, subtitled ‘The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking’ deals with the rise in the status of ‘information’ through three decades of rapid technological advancement and puts forward the view that “like the unfortunate emperor in the parable, the computer has been overdressed with false claims by those with something to gain by it-elements in our society who are making some of the most morally questionable uses of computer power”.

The abuse of technological power is rife in today’s society and there are many examples of computers being used as a tool to control the masses rather than as an aid to the advancement of society and the benefit of the individual. It is particularly sad that those who have set out to subvert the development of technology in an effort to bring it to the people have generally failed.

In 1984 with its Orwellian overtones a company started by two college ‘kids’ in a garage launched a new computer; “Apple announced the Macintosh’s arrival with the most famous advertisement in the history of the high tech industry. Into a dismal workhouse full of inmates with shaven heads, being harangued by the magnified face of Big Brother on an oversized screen, runs a brave young woman athelete who hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering the image of Big Brother. The symbolism may seem overblown now but at the time it represented the way Jobs [Steve -, then head of Apple] fel about himself, Apple, and the Macintosh. IBM then seemed to be an unstoppable force, and Jobs saw himself and his computer as instruments of liberation and democracy”(3)

The two ‘kids’ were Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. The computer was the Apple, it was built out of surplus chips from the aviation industry and along with the Altair was one of the first ‘personal computers’. But, I hear you cry, where is the argument concerning liberty? Liberty, in at leat one form at any rate, is concerned with freedom, and Jobs and Wozniak brought a stake in the computer revolution to the man on the street.

There is always the possibility for corruption unless society ceases to exist. Therefore, perhaps Jobs’ view that he was bringing ‘liberation and democracy’ to people was founed on the belief that the big corporations were treating their users as if they belonged to them and were under obligation to support them. This is typical of IBM’s attitude to business in the 1970s.

Generally speaking, most major technological developments are related to the military, usually through research grants etc. This means that a situation occurs that Marx would have attacted as strongly as he did capitalism. Technology is power. In capitalism the means of production are held by the few and the proletariate are shackled to the system. In a society where the military has all the computers it is not difficult to envisage a police state.

In Singapore today computers pervade every part of daily life. Any transaction that takes place, all the work of government and its services, including the police and military, is monitored and controlled by computer. Every citizen carries an electronic identification card. The possibilities are terrifying. The British government wants to introduce a similar identity card scheme. It has said it will not force people to carry them but once retailers start asking for them, then the police, they will become a requirement.

In the past there have been many views of liberty but there are two that arise on a regular basis; the negative and positive ideas. The positive holds that a man is unfree to do something when is prevented by his passions. However, in today’s society this is seldom the case. Governments have legislated against most known drugs with no other function than to induce good feelings and they the British government have made it clear that were alcohol introduced for the first time tomorrow they would ban it. This may sound like a good idea but then you are unfree to do as you wish, to ‘shoot up’ on heroin, ‘drop’ ecstasy, smoke ‘dope’ or just get plain old drunk.

It then becomes clear that we live in a society where the negative view of liberty becomes prevalent. This states that a man is unfree to do something if another preventing him from doing so. The government is preventing you from being free by introducing legislation. If freedom then is the specific liberty to ‘do as you please’ (Plato) then the government would probably rather stamp it out so that everything you do would be covered by some legislation. With the introduction of technology they now have the means to do this.

Did you know, for instance, that many of the automatic teller (cashpoint) machines that you use on a regular basis have hidden video cameras behind them? They are there to catch fraudulent card users but in a society that already has a declining level of freedom, some would argue, how far down the line is it until the government is using these cameras to monitor suspected dissidents etc.?

After the Hegelian period of thought follow Marx, Mill and Bakunin and others. Mill argues for absolute freedom of action. The freedom to do what you want, but with the proviso that no one else must come to harm because of your actions.

. Marx argues that liberty does not come from being free to do as you wish but from society.

In his lecture on Individual liberty J.P.Day points to the generally accepted view of liberty. Day is only concerned with individual liberty and he defines this by what it is not, i.e. collective liberty of religious organisations, individual liberties (as separate entities) etc. Individual liberty then is the freedom of the individual and it is this ‘moral right’ that he argues must be safeguarded. It may only be restrained, he argues, “if the moral obligation to respect the right is overborne by some stronger moral obligation”. By this he means that for example C1 is free to do X where X does not impinge on C2 and should C1 attempt to do X if it does then R has a moral obligation to prevent C1 from doing so (where C1 and C2 are subsets (individuals) of the group C (citizens), X is an act causing harm to any C (e.g.. murder) and R (Rex) is the government). Thus if I am free to do as I please I may choose to kill you but this would cause you harm and so the government has a moral obligation to restrict my freedom to prevent your harm.

Day starts out by defining two concepts of liberty, 1) the intrapersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because he is a slave to his passions), and 2) the negative or interpersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because A is restrained by X from doing B; as in the previous example). Day selects the latter definition as the more accurate and goes on at some length to explain it.

He argues for the right of liberty of tastes and pursuits pointing out “R injures each individual C if R deters or prevents him from his pursuit of happiness”. He carries on by essentially summing up the U.N. declaration of HUMAN RIGHTS;
liberty of association (to belong or not to any group of your choice) etc.

Finally he mentions the differences between moralistic, ‘good Samaritan’, and paternalistic legislation. For instance you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to live (moral) and this is acceptable to all, it is negative in that it prevents an ill action from taking place. Also you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to shelter (‘good Samaritan’) however where the person receiving is CN, the group that must support this right with their income is all C. Finally (this time I mean it) You may make paternalistic legislation designed to prevent C from self injury by doing activity X (Day gives the example of taking heroin). Through paternalistic instincts R can seek to protect C from himself based on a ‘moral’ right to do so. However where do you draw the line at self abuse – drinking is bad for you so therefore is not morally right to ban it and set up punishments for those doing so?

Quote from Alduos Huxley, “But if you want to be free, you’ve got to be a prisoner. It’s the condition of freedom – true freedom”. He also discusses ‘Freedom and Liberation’ by Benjamin Gibbs whose main conviction lies in the belief that a free society is “one that makes its people do what is right and good…[while also] making them desire to do it understanding it is right and good”. Again we get the subjective moral judgement of the majority over the minority (see other lectures).

Flew claims Gibbs is quite critical of Mill’s theories of liberty, almost a ‘mirror image’, but Gibbs responds to this claim in the following lecture. Flew criticises Gibbs’ terms of liberty but he does not give the whole picture. The main argument is over whether a person who sells himself into slavery is free because he has chosen to do so. Flew argues he is not, Gibbs that he is.

Gibbs states that Flew has made a ‘grotesque misrepresentation’ of ‘Freedom and Liberation’ and that he was misguided to couple his views of freedom with the phrase from ‘1984’.

Gibbs notes that freedom has different meanings and tries to correct the ‘damage done’. Gibbs’ work is concerned with the rights and wrongs of slavery (see above). He also argues that liberty is not necessarily violated when people are coerced to conform to a given set of moral standards, he raises the examples of life style , alcohol abuse etc.

In Liberty & Compulsory Education, P. Gardner presents the argument that we treat children as having fewer rights than adults and that this is the reason we treat them the way we do. He refers to Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women’ and likens it to our treatment of children. He also points out that it is not usual for unruly adults to be sent to corrective schools (while they remain inside the law), or for illiterate, inummerate and otherwise socially handicaped grown-ups to be sent to institutions to correst their problems. Why then, he asks, do we force our children to go to school.

He continues to argue that children have as many rights as any other group of individuals and it is only because society as a whole refuses to think in this way that the process of ‘subjecting’ children is legitimated. In other words the ‘moral’ majority has control over the minority (children) and while the intentions may be good the result is a restriction of freedom. This refers back to arguments for individual liberty (see previous lectures).

Shelly’s ‘Prometheus’ shows another idea of freedom, the stoic, as the man enchained by the ruler of the rulers and discusses the idea of ‘Promethean Freedom’ which I cannot claim to fully understand. He goes on to show that the true spirit of freedom that cannot be shackled (as in the quote) is that of inner sanctum. You still remain free to some degree until they take away your life.

He refers to Marx’s view that materialism reduces freedom. He also mentions Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr Faustus’, “Law, every law, has a chilling effect, and music has so much warmth anyhow, stable warmth, cow-warmth…that she can stand all sorts of regulated cooling off–she has even asked for it”

D. A. Lloyd Thomas discusses the relationship between property and liberty and Mill’s arguments about property rights and freedom. The simplest way to sum up Mill is to say ‘Do what you like’-Plato, ‘but don’t harm anyone’. First part fine, last part subjected to moral judgements (if you kill yourself do you harm your family?). One argument runs you are only free if you have the means to do what you want to do. I’m free to travel to Mars. No-one is stopping me from going. The problem is I am earthbound because space travel costs money. However, it could be argued that money itself is a restriction on freedom quid pro quo ‘all property is theft’-trad.

1) page 1 Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 1989)

2) page 180 The Cult of Information by Theodore Roszak (Paladin Books 1988)

3) ‘The Computer Wars’ – James Fallows, published in the New York Review of Books, Volume XLI, Number 6, March 24, 1994

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Politics, Society


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