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.

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