Saturday, April 18, 2009
Poisoning the Well of Freedom
In parts one and two of The Trap, Adam Curtis demonstrates how removing human decision-making from key societal institutions led to a bureaucratized world in which management-by-numbers has made people less free than ever before.
Ironically, the goal of these exercises -- designed to promote negative freedoms -- were part of a "bureaucracy bashing revolution" that, according to Curtis, went horribly awry.
In the concluding chapter of The Trap, Curtis presents the alternative to these notions of negative freedom -- positive freedom, the promotion of which he muses has led to tyranny around the world. The dream of positive freedom, Curtis argues, has at its very heart the goal of transforming people.
Curtis acknowledges the particular dangers of this particular form of freedom, he also notes its strengths -- that it provides hope and inspiration.
To governments, these two things can be dangerous. Of all the things governments believe they can control, they know they cannot control inspiration, and so must account for where that inspiration may lead before they can afford to encourage -- or even discourage -- it.
Hope is actually what often fuels revolutions. Contrary to popular belief, revolutions tend to take place when conditions are improving, and revolution is seen as a method for helping make further hoped-for improvements.
Curtis credits Iasiah Berlin for dreaming up this theory of positive freedom.
Berlin concluded that most people don't understand true freedom, and had to be terrified into freedom. French Jacobin Robespierre is said to have said the same thing, and conducted his famed reign of terror in the name of coercing the French people to muderously and ruthlessly cast off the elite Robespierre believed was oppressing them.
Berlin described negative freedom as a society designed to prevent citizens from impeding upon the freedoms of others. It is essentially the freedom to do as one chooses within throughly-defined boundaries.
Berlin treated the Soviet Union as the epitome of the perils of positive freedom, and proof of the need for the predominance of negative freedom.
There is, however, a key logical flaw in Berlin's theory. If anything, the Soviet Union offered negative freedom -- allegedly, freedom from material want, although history would eventually revoke that offer -- but it never tolerated positive freedoms.
Moreover, revolution is rarely an act of positive freedom exercised by the populace as a whole. Rather, revolution is usually the machination of a select few people -- a new elite, replacing the old elite.
Berlin's belief was that the freedoms of politicians to attempt to improve society should be curtailed, because the efforts of such individuals could only lead to the kinds of tyranny witnessed in the Soviet Union.
American leaders would eventually conclude that the only solution was to counter governments implementing positive freedom was to stage and promote revolutions based on negative freedom. During the Cold War, the goal of this policy would be complete containment of communism, particularly Soviet communism.
According to Curtis, this interventionist mentality essentially poisoned its own well. In the name of containing Soviet tyranny the United States had supported many oppressive regimes, simply because they helped contain communism.
Because the battle against communism was also the battle for freedom, this certainly represented little more or less than the perversion of freedom.
The American neo-conservative movement partially emerged in protest to American support of some of the world's harshest dictatorian regimes. In 1979, the neo-conservative protest was vindicated by the Iranian revolution, in which the Shah, a tyrannical patron of the US government, was overthrown by the equally- or more-oppresive Ayotollah Khomeini.
Ronald Reagan took full advantage of the neo-conservative protest to American support of oppressive regimes by promising to use America's power to spread freedom across the globe.
This particular strain of neoconservative thought led to the rise of ironically-self-dubbed "democratic revolutionaries" like Michael Ledeen.
What these individuals overlooked is that democracy cannot be imposed through a revolution. A revolution, as mentioned before, is by its very nature a mass uprising designed by elites in order to empower themselves. The opportunity to implement democracy can be won through a civil war -- as was the case in the United States and Britain -- but history offers no clear examples of countries wherein democracy was implemented in the wake of a revolution.
Reagan was as good as his word to the democratic revolutionaries, compelling dictators into calling elections and respect the results. The United States embarked on an aggressive democracy-building campaign around the world, teaching politicians to implement democracy.
Reagan's administration did take a very cynical view of democracy in places like Nicaragua, where a democratic victory by the Sandanistas was viewed as tainted.
In order to promote freedom, neoconservatives embraced Leo Strauss' "noble lie", using propaganda inventing a serious threat to justify using coercive force in places where threats did not actually exist, and eventually led the Reagan administration into the famed Iran/Contra scandal.
When the Soviet Union dissolved many viewed it as an opportunity to implement their visions of negative freedom in the land where positive freedom had allegedly reigned.
When economic reforms implementing free-market capitalism through the overnight removal of price controls backfired, Russia collapsed into complete chaos, and eventually to the empowerment of individuals like Vladimir Putin who simply empowered themselves while restoring the old positive freedom-backed status quo.
Even in Iraq the goal of spreading democracy failed when those planning the construction of a post-war democratic order forgot about the whole "democracy" part.
What these individuals have failed to recognize is that one cannot socially engineer societies to be free -- freedom is only truly freedom when it develops organically. To attempt to force freedom and democracy around the world is only to lay the groundwork for tyranny.
All those who wish to spread democracy can truly do is give people who are prepared to embrace democracy the opportunity to do so. In the end, the actual construction of a democratic order must be left to them.