Freedom and Doublethink
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Freedom is possibly the most important political value we have in contemporary Western society and by definition one would think that the opposite of “freedom” is “despotism” and “slavery”. Sadly that is not the case for it is possible to “Doublethink” “Freedom” into its opposite and in fact that was done long before George Orwell. Just how that was done is the subject of this essay.1
First let us deal with the conventional idea of “Freedom”. In the conventional sense “Freedom” means the ability to make choices free from coercion. In other words it is the ability and “freedom” to make choices and has nothing to do with the choices themselves.
Now of course no one is “free” of outside coercive forces that affect the choices that he / she makes, to say nothing of the problematic question about whether or not humans “really” have any ability to choose to begin with. Leaving aside that question perhaps we can best define it by saying that “freedom” doesn’t exist. What exists is evidence of “freedom”.
Since we cannot prove that any humans really have the ability to freely choose it is perhaps best to think of freedom has something that essentially doesn’t exist. What does exist though is evidence of “freedom”.
To get back to the contrast between slavery and freedom. It can be shown that overall the slave is less free than a free man. It can be shown that the slave has over him a greater amount of coercive authority. Thus there is more evidence that the free a man is in fact “free” than the slave.
A freeman has the greater ability to, move around, his private / family life is subject to vastly less interference by other coercive agents. He generally has more legal rights and is a person, and not a piece of property. The freeman does not have the slave owner / master standing over him with despotic authority over him. Thus there is more evidence that the freeman is in fact free than the slave.
In fact chattel slavery is, perhaps, because it so glaringly illustrates the difference between slavery and freedom, the best illustration that if “freedom” in the abstract does not exist, that the things we look upon as the effects or evidence of freedom and slavery are in fact real and do have a direct impact on how people actually live, and that is real.
In fact this effect of extremes in the continuum from slavery to freedom is best seen when slavery is at its extreme and freedom is at its extreme. Thus chattel slavery which is an extreme reduction of a human being to a thing to be bought and sold is an extreme, but common, type of slavery. In this case it is more extreme than the various versions of un-freedom that have existed like Serfdom or Debt Bondage throughout history. Such practices do not quite have the clear sharp edges of chattel slavery in that they preserve essential attributes of the person has a person.
In ancient Greece, more especially ancient Athens, we see alongside widespread chattel slavery the development of “radical” democracy. Thus we see men being politically free in the most “extreme” manner while at the same time large numbers of humans were being held in what can only be described as “extreme” despotism.
It should not be a surprise then that the Greeks who extensively used and abused chattel slavery would talk about what freedom meant. Personal, everyday experience would emphasis just how terrible and dishonourable was the state of slavery and by comparison just how honourable and desirable was the state of freedom.
Thus in essence “Freedom” is the lack of coercive influences on someone’s ability to make choices and the ability to make and have available to him / her a variety of real choices that can be made. Thus “Freedom” is both a positive and negative attribute. Negative in the sense of a lack of coercive forces acting on someone and positive in the sense of a person being able to make a whole variety of choices. Thus Slavery in contrast to Freedom makes the contrast between Slavery and Freedom very concrete. And in the case of the Ancient Greeks, the “extreme” nature of what they defined as Slavery (Chattel Slavery) and Freedom, (A citizen participating in the Democratic Polis, City State.), brought out the difference by means of an “extreme” contrast. In the case of other societies that existed at the time, where the boundaries between slavery and freedom were far muddier the contrast was not as noticeable.
Thus we see in Ancient Greece the advance of both “Freedom” and “Slavery”, as both in a sense fed off each other and defined each other in relation to the other by each other. This way of dealing with and understanding “Freedom” and “Slavery” has stayed with us since then.2
The above way of defining “freedom” as both a positive and negative “right” goes back to the Ancient Greeks as indicated above. Note it defines Freedom as a process not as a result. In fact in terms of results “Freedom” is neutral. Whether or not the “choices” made are the “right” choices is immaterial. Freedom is simply the ability to make choices without coercion. And of course it is impossible to live in a world free of coercive influences on choice, but a relative lack of coercion is evidence of “Freedom”. Thus there is evidence of freedom although the thing itself may not exist, and certainly does not exist in an absolute pure form.3
Now we get to the how does “Freedom” as choice become its opposite? Well simply put the choice aspect of “Freedom” is eliminated from the equation. Instead “Freedom” is redefined from the ability to make a choice to making the “right” choice.
This assumes of course that there is virtually always a “right” choice to be made and that all other choices are “wrong”. Further that the purpose of government is to ensure that the “right” choice is in fact made. In fact such a way of looking at the political problem of political practice is a form of simple minded dualism that ignores that reality is a mess and frankly utterly weird. Also it accepts without a blush that “right” and “wrong” solutions are in fact real things and not just labels we put on such things.
In fact this once again goes back to the Greeks. In fact to Plato’s idea of “forms”. The notion that there are out there perfect ideal versions of reality that are truly “real” and that we in our political and social systems should imitate this “ideal” real “reality”. Thus there is only one “right” way to do things, and the purpose of politics is to discover the “right” way to do things. Thus the view is shifted from the process to the result.4
In regards to “Freedom”, this means that only in so far as the process yields the “right” response is “Freedom” considered desirable. That the process in and of itself is a good thing is shoved aside and ignored. What counts is how effective the process is in getting the “right” response.
Not surprisingly the tendency is for thinkers who think like this to adopt authoritarian solutions to political questions. So we get from these sorts of thinkers a rejection of democracy on the grounds that the “mob”. “people” “demos” might, horror of horrors, not adopt the “right” solution. This inescapably leads to the notion that only an “enlightened” ruling class can find the “right” solution.
Now of course such authoritarian solutions to the question of political practice are by definition the opposite of “Freedom” and certainly evidence that “Freedom” does not exist. Certainly only making the “right” choice is hardly being “Free” to choose. So how did those who argued for “Freedom” being choosing the “right” way to do things do so?
Starting with Plato and going on with thinkers like Rousseau and Hegel they engaged in doublethink. They added the proviso to “Freedom” that “Freedom” was not the ability to make choices but that it was making the “right” choice. Along with those notions was the notion that those who did not make the “right” choice were enslaved, sort of like in Plato’s myth of the cave. The notion was born that only making the right choice(s) made you “Free” and making “wrong” choices made you a slave. Thus “Freedom is Slavery”, and black is white and day is night.5
Thus Kant argued that there was a universal reason and we were “Free” in so far has we followed the dictates of that universal reason.6 Hegel set up universal reason has a cosmic historical principle and that following its dictates was the height of absolute “Freedom”. Thus Hegel was able to declare, apparently with a straight face, that the Prussian Monarchy of the early 19th century was the height of “Freedom” in so far as the Prussian state embodied universal reason and hence was therefore the height of “Freedom”. That this was addlepated claptrap is rather obvious.7
As for Rousseau. In his various works, such as The Social Contract, he talked about something called the “General Will”, which was basically a fantasy on his part. Rousseau believed devotedly in the notion that “Freedom” consists of making the “right” choice and all choices in accord with the “General Will”, were by definition “right”. Of course sometimes people would act not in accord with Rousseau’s ideas, or begging Rousseau’s pardon the “General Will”. So what do you do then? Well Rousseau created the notion of the individual will which when acting against the general will was always “wrong”. Rousseau even thought up the notion that sometimes if a majority acted in a way he disapproved it was merely the sum of individual wills and therefore “wrong” When you add to this the notion in Rousseau that a minority, even one man, can be carrying out the “General Will”, the authoritarian features of Rousseau’s concept become clear.8
Rousseau never satisfactorily, or even badly defined what he actually meant by the “General Will”. He left it a vague notion ripe for use by authoritarians.
Right into the twentieth and now into the 21st century we get the notion that “Freedom” is not making choices but making a particular choice, i.e., the “right” choice.
By defining “Freedom” as the ability to make the “right” choice these thinkers were basically turning “Freedom” into “Slavery”. They were saying that lack of choice was “Freedom”. They were defining ”choice” as something that prescribed rigidly and deterministically the “choice” you “must” make. This fits very well into Orwell’s notions of doublethink and turning “Freedom” into its opposite.
Thus by shifting the focus from the process of political participation to the solutions, and by stating that the solution part is what is important not the process; the door was open to both turning “Freedom” into “Slavery” and justifying authoritarian rule. After all in this view of political process every effort must be made to secure the “right” results.
Thus did many, many thinkers over the centuries basically proclaim like the Party in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery” or perhaps more accurately “Slavery is Freedom”. Thus lack of choice is turned into “Freedom” and actual “Freedom” turned into “Slavery”.
That this type of doublethink became popular with intellectuals is I suppose hardly a surprise given that it would be intellectuals who would of course be the “enlightened” persons who could divine what the “right” choices actually where.
“Freedom” remains a positive value in so far as the ability to make choices is a positive value in and of itself regardless of what the actual choices are. By forgetting this and shifting the focus away from choice to results endless justifications were found for tyranny.
1. See Orwell, George, 1984, The New American Library, New York, 1949.
2. See Finley, M. I., Democracy Ancient and Modern, Second Edition, The Hogarth Press, London, 1985, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, Penguin Books, London, 1983, pp. 97-132, Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 60-73, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Penguin books, London, 1980, Garlan, Yvon, Slavery in Ancient Greece, Second Edition, Cornell University Press, London, 1988.
3. I get this idea from Revel, Jean-Francois, The Totalitarian Temptation, Penguin Books, London, 1976.
4. For Plato see Plato, The Republic in Great Dialogues of Plato, New American Library, New York, 1956, The Laws, Penguin Books, London, 1970, Dialogues of Plato, Classical Library Here. For a critique of Plato see Finley, 1977, pp. 74-87, Popper, Karl. The Open Society and its Enemies: Volume 1: The Spell of Plato, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994.
5. See Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, Constitution.org Here, Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, The Philosophy of History, Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001. It can be downloaded from Libcom.org Here. I recommend, if you can hack it, to only read the Introduction, since reading Hegel is like drowning in quicksand. Hegel is a dreadful writer.
6. See Kant, Immanuel, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics, Kongmans, Green and Co, London, 1898, Online Library of Liberty Here.
7. Hegel, Georg, pp. 458-477.
8. Rousseau, Book 2, ch. 3 - Can the General Will be Wrong?