Kicking John Stuart Mill

Asking for it

No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. John Stuart Mill put forward the most famous defence of it and the truth of his case is now widely accepted, at least in the civilised places of the world. When I read Mill when I was younger his arguments seemed so much like common sense that I wondered he had even had to make them.

A few years ago I was working – for reasons that now seem as naïve as my appreciation of Mill – in the UK government’s Department for International Development. It was a merry place full of well-intentioned liberals who were for the most part quite genuinely committed to ending poverty across the world.

I soon began to notice that, while certain criticisms of the Department were acceptable, others were not. Questioning the efficacy of certain methods was fine – welcomed in fact. But questioning the rule of profit, trade and efficiency, and questioning the power relations between Department staff and poor people was entirely beyond the bounds of reasonable criticism.

I tried to talk about these things for a while but in the end I shut up. It wasn’t that I didn’t hold to my criticisms any more, but I discovered that the more I voiced them, the more I got pigeonholed as some kind of crank, or worse, useless to their cause. I stopped saying what I thought in meetings. I knew that if I did speak, any attempt to get a permanent job would be ruined. When I stopped caring about that – who the hell would want a job there? – I still said nothing. There seemed no gain to anyone from establishing myself as a useless weirdo.

That was when I went back to the past in a time machine, found John Stuart Mill, and dragged him forward to the future, just so that I could give him a hearty kick up the arse. ‘I didn’t want freedom of speech,’ I told him. ‘I wanted freedom to speak. An abstract freedom does nothing for my dignity if eight hours a day, five days a week I can’t practice it. Freedom of speech is nothing but a bad joke if the economic power of my managers renders them deaf.’

Then I began to notice that in the Department, so committed to the poor people of the world, no one gave much thought to the fact that they, a professional class of people extending across NGOs and government departments across the world, had granted to themselves a vast amount of decision-making power over how aid and development was done. It never seemed to occur to them that every decision they made was a decision that poor people could not make for themselves. Of course they admitted they got the decisions wrong sometimes, but they could always try again, there would always be another chance to be effective.

It seemed to me that the managerialism of the Department was a microcosm of a greater managerialism: the wealthy countries managing the poor countries and we, the wealthy, managing the poor. The roles we all played in this vast managerial empire could not be questioned. My freedom of speech – such as it was – meant far more than the freedom of speech of a poor person, and that was fine with the Department, even though the poor had much more at stake. The trick was simply for us all to play our roles as well as possible.

This made me, I’m afraid, quite irate, and I grabbed John Stuart Mill, who I had refused to return to his own time, and kicked him up the arse not once but several times. ‘We didn’t need freedom to speak,’ I said to him as I kicked. ‘We needed the power to speak. We needed to break out of the managerial regimes we were taught to regard as ‘natural’. We didn’t want to be supplicants asking favours of the elite, we wanted to speak as equals.’ I then put John Stuart Mill on a leash and tied him to a stake in my garden. I had a feeling I was going to need him again.

Soon I noticed that the professionals of the development industry were very keen on something called ‘voice’. The voices of the poor should be listened to if development was to be a success. This seems very laudable, unless you have already noted the power relations of the managerial regime, and so you become suspicious.

What is this ‘voice’ they mean? How does it fit in to the development industry? And you find that it means surveys, questionnaires, occasional interviews with poor people. These can then be summarised – with the more extreme views filtered out of course – and fitted into a report to come back to the Department. This will then be added as an annex to another report that doesn’t pay any attention to the mild conclusions of its own annex.

I began to realise that any time someone talks about ‘voice’, it means they intend to keep the powerless powerless. While the ‘voice’ of the poor floats through the corridors of power, the poor have to get on with their lives. As the ‘voice’ of the poor goes into the NGO newsletter – discreetly edited of course, since the donors wouldn’t understand the complexities of the project – the poor have to do things in order to live. Usually, and in the long run, it is their own actions that will create better lives for poor. Meanwhile in the Department the poor had become passive bodies, recipients of our help. The talk was of how our actions could save the poor.

So I went out to the garden to see John Stuart Mill again. This time I gave him a damn good thrashing. ‘The power to speak is not enough,’ I said to him. ‘I realise now that speaking won’t put food on anyone’s table. We needed the power to act. That means political power. You talked so much of liberty and freedom but you always assumed that the political structures of the elite were the right place for politics to happen. You assumed that if the people did have politics, it would be processed through the institutions of the elite and so find expression. But the elite have their own politics, their own desires to enact, and so our own desires and actions become swallowed by theirs.’

I don’t work in the development industry any more. Two days before leaving the Department for International Development I vented my frustration at the months of silence by telling a lot of the staff exactly what I thought of the place. It’s true I didn’t get locked up for doing that but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference either, except for ending any chance that I could work in development again. Everyone knows everyone you see, and they all know the kinds of things you should and should not say.

No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. Except, that is, for criticising the word ‘freedom’, the word ‘of’ and the word ‘speech’. No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech, except to say that it is not the power to act. If you do not have the power to act then freedom of speech becomes subsumed into the control techiques of those who do have the power, if you do have the power, freedom of speech is a triviality.

I still keep John Stuart Mill in the present, locked in my basement. Every now and then I go down and give him a good kicking on general principles. I suppose he suffers a bit but no one could call me a cruel man. I always allow him to say whatever he wants to me, however hard I’m kicking him.

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