What’s this liberal doing in my head? And what does it mean by a ‘free’ society?

Freedom in the US recently: management fails to achieve full complicity in NATO crimes

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It’s common to refer to the societies of rich Western countries as being ‘free’. A lot of people will hastily qualify this. We are, they say, relatively free. We can’t protest anywhere or anyhow we want, but we can protest. We can’t get our opinions on the BBC but we can at least hold our opinions without being arrested.

And of course, admits the liberal in your head, we all have constraints on us. For instance physics, or wealth, or the lack of it. So there are limits. But ultimately the government does not force us to hold or express certain views and we will not be punished for our political beliefs.

Mmmm, yes. And no. Sometimes things are neither one thing nor another. We are, in Western societies, rarely whipped into believing something, but does that equal freedom? We are, for instance, managed. We’re actually managed quite a lot. Let’s start with your boss. You can argue with them to some extent, but they also have the power to sack you if you argue too much.

Maybe that seems obvious. What’s a bit less obvious is that we are managed by many more people than just our bosses. The process of government, being only briefly interrupted by ballots, is a process of management. PR is a form of management of your opinions. Big media is management of what you consume – think of all those people sitting around in offices deciding what you will consume in your paper.

But even less obviously, I would also say we are managed by a whole array of professionals. Architects manage our personal and work space. Planners manage our public space. ‘Creative industry’ professionals manage what we consume, from the theatre to the television. Psychologists manage our perceptions of abberant behaviour (no-one has adequately explained to me why lack of confidence is a frequently-treated pathology while the far more damaging overconfidence is not). Social workers manage our families if we fail to hit the mark. Charities manage our altruism.

Some might argue that the good intentions of the professionals absolve them from looking like authoritarians. But well intentioned control freak parents are still control freak parents. Good intentions in themselves don’t count for much in my book, particularly when they take place in the context of very unbalanced power relations.

Perhaps, in the end, you think that all of this management, because it is not directed at you personally, because you stay out of the arenas where it is strongest, does not affect you much. Perhaps the architects you live with are long dead and the social worker never visits you. But in the unlikely event that you are immune to everything professionals say you are surrounded by people who are not. We are social beings and our social world is distorted by a vast weight of top-down management across all of society.

Meanwhile let’s go back to the obvious management: your boss. What they ostensibly manage is your technical performance and yet you likely will have noticed that the most incompetent people often get promoted first. It happens so often it’s almost like it isn’t a coincidence. Almost like, say, people are promoted for having particular personality attributes, particular ways of behaving, almost like people are rewarded by management for conformity to their viewpoint. And what is the combined effect of that happening across all of society? It’s difficult to measure but I don’t think it is small.

It’s easy not to think too much about the effect on us of all this management, particularly if you feel that you benefit from it – you may be on a management wage yourself. Perhaps you believe your personality overcomes society. Perhaps you are a superhuman, immune to social pressure. Or perhaps there’s a liberal in your head, and it loves pretending to be free. If so, try to gently introduce it to words and ideas between the two poles of ‘free’ and ‘oppressed’. Perhaps one day it will even be grateful for having learned language to describe its situation.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? And why does it think I owe something to society?

Workfare makes us free

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It is one of those self-evident facts that we should all contribute to society – this is one of the ideas behind the current government policy of forcing people to work for free for large corporations. We will be assisted by society in the course of our lives, the logic goes, and we therefore owe something to society. This view is held by many people but some of those people are not interested in economic ‘justice’ of any kind and I can’t be bothered to address them. Instead I will address this to liberals who might be interested in some kind of increased economic equality but who would still rely on this logic.

The interesting thing about the idea we owe something to society is that what people often mean is that we should contribute to society by having a job (and never mind how pointless or actually unproductive the work might be, right?). Now, there’s an obvious flaw that many people can spot here. A lot of what we might call society is little to do with paid work. Reproduction of the human species, for example, largely takes place outside of the framework of paid labour. Yet presumably it does sort of contribute to society, right?

I am not (I think) moving towards the notion that you having sex is a contribution to the greater good (though it does, in many ways, add to the sum total of human happiness) but here’s a poser: is a mother who never gets a full time job a ‘burden’ on society? You could, rather, make an argument that the mother, doing one of the most important things in society, has an entire world of paid labour parasitic upon her efforts. People have commented that it is probably more common for human societies to regard the production of goods as playing a supporting role to human reproduction, rather than – as the assumption appears to be in our society – human reproduction playing a supporting role to the production of goods.

I could leave the argument there, perhaps add in something about the importance of the unpaid labours of art and love, and we could all reach some vague decision that society has its priorities wrong and has lost its spiritual connection with the essentials of human life. But that would (a) let the liberal in our heads off the hook much too easily, thus defeating the object of this post, and (b) wouldn’t get to the bottom of why ‘we’ might have our priorities wrong.

What is, if we might be so bold as to ask, society? Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in it so presumably we should. I think social interaction is a defining aspect of human behaviour and so, without getting too far into definitions, there is a ‘society’ of some sort. We need it, therefore we must owe it, right?

Except that it isn’t a homogenous entity, this society. It has structure within it, and one of the structures we can spot within it is the economic structure. And we can pretend if we like that all the wealth we collectively produced is produced between each of us, and that money goes into a big pot, and from that pot we get the benefits. And then we have to work out why some people get a much bigger piece of that than others.

‘Because it works’, is one thing people say, and I have posted on this before so I won’t elaborate on the dishonesty of that here. So instead I propose another hypothesis: that the entire economic structure was never designed for the benefit of most of us but for the benefit of a few. To keep it functioning some of the benefits have to be shared around, but that is secondary to the machinery put in place to generate great wealth for a few.

This idea has recently surfaced in the Occupy movement as the system being run for the 1% not the 99%. It is nothing new, and one of the effects of it is that the benefits to you are an expendable part of the system. This is why you can suddenly get poorer (as you probably are now if you live in Britain and don’t run or own a large corporation) even though you are not working any less.

So, much as society in some sense does exist, a homogenous society in an economic sense is a fiction. On some level we all know that the idea we are paid what we deserve is nonsense – our pay is determined rather by our power to ask for it. So the notion that this unfair system of pay leads to a fair system of us all doing our bit for society is a bit odd. The idea that your role is to contribute economically to the economic pool of ‘society’ is based on fiction – particularly when you discover what tax havens are doing in the world. You can’t owe something to a fiction, or if you feel you do you would normally be advised to seek help with your mental health.

Why is it that so many people see this fiction as ‘common sense’ then? I think that those who benefit most from the fake economic ‘society’ are good at justifying themselves, and paying others to persuade us to join in with their justifications. The idea that we owe it to society to have a job is an ideological tool for forcing people into work when it isn’t necessary. Sure, we get some benefits, but they are in the power of others to confer, and they mostly do it when they are scared of being hung from a lamppost for not sharing enough.

And yes, a lot of the work we do isn’t necessary. Once you start breaking down one fiction you often find a lot of fictions hiding behind it. As Western countries ‘we’ (not you and I obviously) have vast pools of excess wealth. And yet we ‘have to’ work. Everyone has to. Or we’ll all die. Or something. The threat is rarely spelled out. But it would be just awful.

It sounds instinctively wrong to say ‘I owe nothing to society’, but in the sense of paid labour we can and should say just that. But this is only a start – we do need each other and I think most people feel this on some level. The challenge is not just to act as an individual against a fictional economic ‘society’ but then to entangle our lives with others in a meaningful society – which will often involve things which go on beyond the realm of paid work. So we may end up feeling we have long-term obligations to people, but they will be willingly entered into, with a knowledge of the power relations involved. Not, in other words, based on fiction.

People often seem slightly put out when I say that I don’t want a job at all, that I wish I could do without one. They think I am lazy, or put it down to my middle class decadence. It’s true that I like single malt whisky and I don’t like paid work. Is this a slap in the face to ‘society’, or to those who want jobs and don’t have them? Perhaps. Or perhaps I think I and everyone else would be better off without a fiction that was designed for the benefit of a few.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? The problem of ‘illegitimate’ protesters

Riding bronze horses is illegitimate for sure

This is the first in series about the ‘liberal’ mindset, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

In the wake of recent protests, and through the pre-emptive arrests for the royal wedding, the government and police have made it clear recently that only ‘legitimate’ protesters are protected by our ‘right’ to protest. I would expect them to make this distinction but it seems crazy for protesters to adopt it too. I’ve seen too many rants online and in newspapers against the ‘aggressive’ protesters who spoil things for all the peaceful protesters. This should be a debate about tactics but many people turn it into a debate about morals (I posted on this recently) and worse, happily adopt the term ‘illegitimate’ protester. If you’ve been using the term, even implicitly, you need to start questioning what the crazy liberal in your head is making you do.

This legitimate/illegitimate distinction comes to us from those currently in power. What ‘legitimate’ largely means is protesters willing to comply with the antiprotest laws of recent years and protesters who will not cause any trouble. About fifteen years ago we had far fewer anti-protest laws on the books (Do you remember those crazy days? It was barely safe to leave the house. It was anarchy. Thank you lords and masters for legislating for that problem). The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters could still be made – ‘peaceful’ protest as ‘legitimate’ is an oldie and a goodie – but the laws have made it much easier. Now if you haven’t consulted the police about where and when you will protest, it is illegitimate. Hence the police could comfortably claim that those in Trafalgar Square who were violently dispersed by police on 26th March weren’t ‘real protesters’.

As an aside, many people, establishment figures and good liberals, have recently attempted to describe the recent Egyptian protests as ‘peaceful’, which obviously helped to legitimise them in their eyes. Though the Egyptian people didn’t start a war it is absurd to describe the protests as peaceful. Talking to people in Egypt when I was on holiday there I realised that many people didn’t protest against Mubarak primarily: they went out on the streets to fight the police. They went out to oppose the arbitrary and abusive powers that had ruined their lives for decades. They burned down the police stations that Mubarak’s security services operated from. They confronted police lines and fought through tear gas to push the police back. Many protesters (close to 700) were killed, but finally, with the military largely standing aside, they won. It was to a large degree a physical fight and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the facts.

Ah but things aren’t as bad here, is the stock response to this. Yes, this is a good one. Things aren’t as bad here. We don’t need to oppose our government with force, say the moderate liberals. That’s just too extreme when they aren’t locking us up and torturing us. This misses the point spectacularly and it misses it in a way very particular to the liberal mindset. The biggest problem, the defining problem I would say, of the socially liberal worldview is a failure to recognise and understand power.

Protest is the action of the relatively powerless against those who have much power. It is not, I’ve always thought, a particularly good way to exercise power – it lacks finesse and often direction – but when a corrupt system robs you of power, it is one of the few avenues to express power left to you. The advantage of street protest is that all it requires is numbers to make it effective. Enough people to disrupt the narrative, enough people to raise a dissenting voice, enough people to make it clear that the consensus is broken. What should matter then, in terms of tactics, is the ability of the protest to disrupt the abusive status quo, and not the severity of the abuse of power fought.

I can kind of see the argument for saying that protest should be ‘proportionate’ to the level of abuse, but I’m not comfortable with it because what do you calibrate your scale against – Nazism? Pol Pot? Relative to those things we’re all doing fine and should just go home. But in recognition of this argument, if you do think that the level of the abuse matters, if you do view the number of deaths caused by the government as the scale against which you should match your protest level, then please do examine the current plans for dismantling and privatising the NHS, and the cuts to the NHS they said they wouldn’t make. Standards of care will fall and as a result people will die.

There’s your death count for you, and you can add plenty to it for the benefits cuts, but that’s not why you should reject the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters. You should reject it because if you adopt the definitions of those in power, you’ve already lost.

Again this is about people refusing to think about the problem in terms of power. These words, legitimate, illegitimate, were carefully chosen to help entrench those with power in their positions. If you allow them to label certain protesters legitimate and others illegitimate it should be clear that they will seek to attach the label ‘legitimate’ to those who don’t bother them too much and ‘illegitimate’ to those who do bother them. Since the purpose of protest is to bother those in power, surely only a mad person would accept the labels offered. It is a recipe for failure.

The purpose of protest is to disrupt and confront. Those who engage in protest seek to express their desires when few other options are available to them. There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only protest you agree or disagree with, only protest that works or doesn’t. Yes, within any group some person may commit a foolish act, like throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof too close to people on the ground. Some may even engage in violence for the pleasure of hurting other people. Those people can and should be judged on their own actions. To attach labels to whole groups on the basis of those people is the logic of collective punishment.

There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only effective and ineffective protest. If you keep listening to the liberal in your head then you’ve chosen the latter. You should perhaps be asking why the liberal in your head is telling you these things. It frames the game in a way that ensures you lose. Where did your liberal ideas come from then, and who do they serve?

Perhaps its time to have a stern talk with the liberal in your head. There’s nothing worse than having your own head stab you in the back.