By Nicholas Barrett
A century ago in the city of Petrograd, a seven-year-old boy watched as Bolshevik revolutionaries replaced the provisional government that had replaced the Tsarist autocracy over the course of two brutal and bloody insurrections. The February Revolution was Isaiah Berlin’s introduction to politics. His childhood education was a front row seat at the centre of the ideological universe as a utopian political theory quickly turned into an oppressive and overbearing reality for the people of Russia.
On the 31st October 1958, Berlin delivered his famous lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, at the University of Oxford. In the four decades following the Russian Revolution, the world had been in thrall to political ideologies that promised citizens that a better world by disrupting the status quo. Berlin had worked as a diplomat during the Second World War as imperialism, fascism and communism collided across the world, ultimately resulting in an ideologically divided map with the Soviet Union on one side and the NATO powers on the other. His primary concern was the political protection of individual freedom, which he believed was facing an existential threat from communism. In his 1958 lecture, Berlin described his two concepts for freedom; ‘positive liberty’ and ‘negative liberty’. ‘Positive liberty’, was how Berlin described the Russian Revolution and all other revolutions that attempted to recreate society. Trying to radically change an entire country was, Berlin argued, inherently dangerous because it always involved some form oppression. Berlin believed that throughout history, it had only ever been the revolutionaries themselves who understood their new definitions of ‘true freedom’ and because the general public would never fully understand the path to utopia, they would always have to be controlled, no matter how well-meaning the revolutionaries wanted to be. In his lecture, he puts himself in the shoes of the revolutionary to demonstrate a whirlpool into tyranny, from which few revolutionaries escape:
“This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing other for their own sake, in their, not my, they would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do. But I may go on to claim a good deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because, there exists within them an occult entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their ‘real’ self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little; and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self fulfillment) must be identical with this freedom — the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate. Self”.
The leaders of reformist and revolutionary movements would, according to Berlin, always regard the wellbeing of ordinary people as secondary to their ideological ambitions. In the eyes of the zealous revolutionary, the suffering and sacrificing of ordinary citizens would always be justified by the benefits of the world the leaders were trying to create. Berlin argued that a ‘just-cause’ posed, not only a risk to individual freedoms but also provided would-be tyrants with an ideological license to kill. To the ideologue:
“any method of bringing this final state nearer would then seem fully justified, no matter how much freedom were sacrificed to forward its advance. It is, I have no doubt, some such dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene, unshakable conviction in the minds of some of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose.”
Berlin’s called his antidote to this problem ‘negative liberty’. It was a remarkably simple idea. Instead of striving to fulfil grand ideological projects, governments should simply protect and facilitate the freedoms and desires of individual citizens. People would be encouraged to be ambitious and governments would afford them the liberty to do so as long as their behavior didn’t impede upon the freedoms of others. ‘Negative liberty’, was what the western world was defending in the cold war. Berlin redefined freedom as a non-collective ideal.
‘Negative liberty’ was a defense against tyranny, but it would also become a powerful instrument of soft power. Western democracies could celebrate an ideologically neutral way of life that allowed art and culture to define their societies. In the 1960’s, the United Kingdom represented much more than a liberal social democracy; it was The Beatles, James Bond and Booby Moore. Meanwhile, the United States was able to offset its unpopular war in Vietnam by simultaneously projecting its counter-culture across the world. If foreigners didn’t like British or American politics, they could still love Britain and America’s informal cultural ambassadors, who were free agents in a world of ‘negative liberty’. Cultural icons were free individuals, some of them may have had strong political views, but they essentially existed as the masters of their own destiny while acting as aspirational paragons of their country’s national identity. Meanwhile, the politicians of this time were not involved in grand ideological projects of national improvement. Instead, they acted as managers and facilitators of public life, which involved cultivating steady economic growth while doing their best to ensure an equality of opportunity (such as civil rights for women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities) so that everybody had a chance to follow their dreams. This idea of managerial politics probably reached its zenith in the early 1980’s as Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan redefined conservatisms as an anti-government movement. In 1981, Reagan’s articulated the mood of the time in his inaugural address in Washington DC:
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.”
Berlin’s world of personal empowerment was also highly appealing to ordinary people on the eastern side of the iron curtain and to those living in young democracies in the developing world. The notion that anybody could have whatever they wanted from life so long as they were prepared to work hard was a useful argument in the intellectual mission to undermine the attraction of communism during the cold war.
Just as ‘negative liberty’ was articulated as a response to the horrors of the Second World War, so too was the promotion of international economic cooperation. In 1950, Robert Schuman, envisioned the “pooling” of coal and steel production between French and German industry so as to render war between the two countries “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” His suggestion came to be known as “The Schuman Declaration’ and led to the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community at the Treaty of Paris in 1951, which would eventually evolve into the European Union. In many ways, supranational trading areas like the EU represent the values of Berlin’s ‘negative liberty’ on a geopolitical scale. Each nation is obliged to open itself up to international trade, investment and talent. Each nation can grow its GDP while helping their neighbors to do the same. Cultures and economies could become greater than the sum of their parts.
The post-war system of individual freedom and international cooperation worked quite well, until it didn’t.
By the time the global financial crisis arrived in 2008, the electorates who had supported the principles of globalisation were, for the first time since the end of the Great Depression, doubting the idea that their children could be financially better off than they were. As inequality increased in the wake of the crisis, the notion that anybody could have whatever they wanted from life so long as they were prepared to work hard, suddenly felt fragile. Furthermore, the demographics of western electorates had shifted to the point where only a minority had a direct memory of the Second World War. Some have started to wonder whether the combination of stagnating living standards alongside this generational shift meant that the West had lost touch with the historical imperative that led to the seemingly post-ideological world envisioned by Schuman and Berlin. A study by Harvard University lecturer Yascha Mounk, published last year in the Journal of Democracy indicates an ominous decline in democratic sentiment within Western countries. According to Mounk, the percentage of people who agree that it is “essential” to live in a democracy declines dramatically depending on the age of the respondent. Older respondents everywhere overwhelmingly agree that it is essential to live in a democracy. And yet, in Australia, Britain, the Nederland’s, New Zealand and the United States, the number falls to below 50% among respondents born in the 1980’s or later.
Considering such a decline in the appreciation of democratic values, should observers be surprised, by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union or the ascent to the White House of a demagogic President who won by campaigning against global cooperation? Furthermore, the idea that the location of a person’s birth ought to be incidental to their personal ambition is once again a counter-cultural idea, as it has been for the vast majority of human history. As wages stagnate and personal ambitions shrink into the distance, western electorates have once again started voting for candidates with revolutionary proclivities. While populists on the right scapegoat migrants in search of better life, their counterparts on the left point the finger of blame at the rich. Berlin’s vision of free individuals allowing one another to peruse their own desires appears to be going out of fashion. Perhaps ‘negative liberty’ became a victim of its own success by rendering the consequences of ‘positive liberty’ so distant that they have become unimaginable to most people. As the systems of international cooperation disintegrates, world leaders will once again be encouraged to outsource the responsibly for their failings to forces, both real and imaginary, that exist beyond their borders and beyond their control. It is easy to imagine a world in which the failures of the Trump administration are attributed to the hostility of the Mexican government and vise-versa. The same is true of Brexit, the consequences of which will probably be blamed on Brussels in London and on London in Brussels. A return to the antagonistic culture of international relations that existed prior to the First World War should not be so surprising, because as Hegel once remarked, “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Many have assumed that the populist political revolts of 2016 in Europe and America were of an anti-elitist sentiment, but this is not entirely the case. Careful inspections of voter attitudes often reveal paternalistic desires to be protected from the winds of globalisation by a robust and confident political class. And so the days of merely facilitating globalisation must end. The next generation of politicians but be seen to actively shape globalisation and to do so they must reinvent soft power. In the years ahead, it will not be enough for leaders to manage compromises between openness and economic preservation. Instead, they must project a vision of the world that plays to the best strengths of the economies and the cultures they represent. In practice, this entails a greater level of global ambition. And because the march of global connectivity is inevitable, policymakers must seek to define it before it defines them. Such an approach would be a rejection of Berlin’s dogmatic assertion that political attempts to make the world a vastly better place will always lead to tyranny. It would also act as a rejection of the populist recoil from an increasingly interconnected world. The ideas articulated by Berlin and Schuman act as excellent international insurance policies against conflict and tyranny. But because they each represent a retreat from ideological substance it has inadvertently created a vacuum of substance and ambition that is being exploited by populists and reactionaries across the world. The winners of the 21st century will be the governments that project more than just pragmatism and dare to actively shape the world in their own self-image.