Friday, September 11, 2009

Liberalism, Freedom and "Totalitarianism"

Liberal political theorist Isaiah Berlin is famous for a paper, "Two Concepts of Liberty", in which he distinguishes what he calls "negative liberty" from "positive liberty" and concludes that the latter inevitably leads to "totalitarianism". Preserving "negative liberty" is the task of a liberal society, whereas fostering "positive liberty" cannot but lead to oppression. The point of the conclusion is to proscribe any politics other than liberalism, on the ground that it plants the seeds of "totalitarianism".

I, for one, find that the closer you look at the distinction between negative and positive liberty, the more confusing it becomes. Raymond Geuss (2005) gives us a helpful rough shot at summarizing what Berlin thought he meant by the distinction:
  1. Negative Liberty means that somebody is free to the extent to which there are no (external) obstacles to the action of that person (in some particular domain).
  2. Positive Liberty means that somebody is free to the extent that they are self-governing or self-legislating.
I'll leave aside whether this distinction is clear or exhaustive. Let's say it is.

Now here's how caring about positive liberty is supposed to lead to 'totalitarianism' (I will always place this term in scare quotes, because I don't think its legitimate; historically it derives from a Cold War politics that simply equated Fascism with Communism, which lives on in contemporary neoconservatism... we have plenty of other, more specific, terms to describe oppression under Stalinism, Nazism, etc.).

Berlin's argument, as summarized by Geuss:
  1. To be negatively free means simply to be in a state in which one has unobstructed opportunities for action, but to be positively free means actually to live and act in a certain way.
  2. If freedom is a way of life, someone else might know better than I do what constitutes that way of life.
  3. Anyone who knew (better than I did myself) in what my positive freedom would consist could legitimately force me to adopt that way of life and in so doing would be forcing me to be free.
And of course, 'forcing someone to be free' is the hallmark of 'totalitarianism' and oppression. Berlin wants us to conclude from this that liberal capitalism is the best we can do, and anything else just inevitably leads to oppression.

But, as Geuss points out, there at least 3 main problems with this argument.

First of all "it would be a mistake to assume that freedom in a positive sense must be an exercise concept, just because it is not a mere opportunity concept. Positive freedom might designate the possession of a faculty or capacity which may or may not be exercised."

Second, Berlin's argument could not hold true for "all positive conceptions of freedom" since we could have a positive conception of freedom which consisted of "individual autonomy", and according to "such a conception it would be an integral part of the free way of life that the individual living it has chosen that life rather than being forced to adopt it."

Third, step 3. in the argument is dubious. It is not obvious that simply because "I know what would be good for you... that I have a warrant to coerce you, especially not if the good in question (say, autonomy) is one which has value only if you chose it freely, so that in using coercion I destroy it".

To make this third probelm with the argument even clearer, Geuss proposes we add a forth step to the 3-step argument above:
4. There is a social agency (e.g. the State) who is really me (or: who is the "real me") and thus all of whose actions are really mine so that none of its actions against me can even in principle count as coercion.
Now if we simply omit step 3. in Berlin's original argument and add 4. instead, we get the "strong and unpleasant conclusions" Berlin wanted to draw. But if that's right, we don't need 3. to arrive at his conclusion about 'totalitarianism'.

In other words, the problem here isn't 'positive liberty'.

The real culprit, it turns out, is a belief about the "relation between individuals and some social agency -something like 4., or like what Berlin calls the 'organicist' conception of society".

As Geuss points out, Hobbes held a "relentlessly negative conception of freedom, but given his theory about the construction of social agency, the Leviathan, he arrives at strongly 'totalitarian' conclusions".

On the flipside, Hegel and Marx (both of whom Berlin wanted to marginalize) "specifically reject the 'organicist' conception of society if by that is meant the view that human individuals are no more than accidents of social substance or organs of a social whole".

What I take away from this is that one way liberalism makes a case for itself is by making a boogey-man of anything that isn't liberal. It's an indirect argument: it's not that liberal capitalism is awesome, it's just that everything else is really bad, so you should be a liberal.

But if you take seriously the thought that capitalism is not the best that we can do, this indirect argument really begins to lose its force. This is why neoconservatives have a vested interest in occluding questions like this by trying to equate the objectives of the Left with the horrors of Fascism. That the Left, and not centrist liberals, have historically been the most strident opponents and activists in the fight against Fascism is merely an inconvenient fact of history for these folks.

1 comment:

Mary said...

You are an awesome writer. Thank you for all of your insight!! This helps me understand the relationship between totalitarianism and free market liberalism.