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What a troubled, angst-ridden year 2011 is turning out to be.  As if going through the economic grinder isn't enough, the country is now morally convulsed by the hacking scandal, legally and socially convulsed by the riots and internationally convulsed by the spiralling uncertainty created by the Eurozone and the Arab Spring.  It would be nice to think this was just one bad year, a hitting bottom before things get better but, as I argued elsewhere, the 2010s seem bound to be a brittle and difficult decade.  Sadly, 2011 may just be the start.

What a troubled, angst-ridden year 2011 is turning out to be.  As if going through the economic grinder isn't enough, the country is now morally convulsed by the hacking scandal, legally and socially convulsed by the riots and internationally convulsed by the spiralling uncertainty created by the Eurozone and the Arab Spring.  It would be nice to think this was just one bad year, a hitting bottom before things get better but, as I argued elsewhere, the 2010s seem bound to be a brittle and difficult decade.  Sadly, 2011 may just be the start.

There is, of course, no end of pontificating about what has caused our various troubles and, indeed, whether they are linked.  And I really hesitate to contribute to the noise.  In fact, I found the storm of opinion about the causes of the riots that permeated every blog, tweet, column and broadcast uniquelyoppressive and unilluminating.  But I did want to share one particular perspective, if only to get it clear in my own head.

Ever since the Crash of 2008, there has been a growing emphasis on the need to refound a sense of community and shared responsibility both as a nation but also at the more local level.  The riots have only intensified this with much talk, particularly from the left, about how many young people have no stake in British society and hence feel no responsibility towards it.  Many on the right are pursuing a similar theme although with more emphasis on the notion that simple misbehaviour and selfishness has led to a loss of social responsibility.  Some seem to feel that this lack of social responsibility is behind the behaviour of speculative bankers, amoral journalists, corrupt MPs and violent looters.  Indeed, Compass and NEF have been kind enough to give us a new term, "feral elites", which nicely mirrors the "feral youth" of last week's troubles.

It occurs to me, however, that there is a different way of looking at all this.  This would be an approach that starts not from notions of responsibilities to others or to wider society but from the notion of individual freedom. This may seem strange to many, on both left and right, who, in their different ways, think that there has probably been too much emphasis on individual freedom and not enough on the common good.

I'll explain this via a brief detour through an observation by the political philosopher, David Miller. Miller argues that there are three broad ways of understanding liberty which have developed over the centuries. 

There is the liberal approach which sees freedom as essentially about the securing and preservation of the rights which prevent powerful institutions such as the state or the church curtailing the human urge to live, think and speak as they see fit. 

There is the republican approach which sees freedom as essentially residing in our capacity to shape our own destiny as individuals and as communities through equal participation in collective decision-making processes and activities.

And there is the idealist approach which sees freedom as essentially about our ability as individuals to shake off bad practices or thought patterns and live as people who make rational, considered decisions for themselves.  I should say that Miller is very clear that these three approaches are not hard and fast nor are they, necessarily, mutually exclusive. Most philosophers draw on all three traditions.

What is fascinating about Miller's distinction is the way it could be applied to our own current social, political and economic culture. It seems to me that we have plenty of public debate and institutional focus on the liberal and republican conceptions of freedom.  This is not to say that the UK is by any means a perfect liberal or republican society.  However, if, as Thomas Jefferson said "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance", we can probably tell what types of freedom a society values by what it is most vigilant about. 

So while the UK is relatively vigilant in the protection of liberal rights and vigilant, or at least permanently worried, about republican type engagement of the citizenry, it seems far less concerned about protecting an idealist conception. We widely accept that liberal and republican freedoms must be struggled for and then protected but the notion of struggle with oneself, with one's own base desires seems to have far less resonance.  Put another way, we focus heavily on freedom from others but hardly at all on freedom from ourselves.

The result of this, it seems to me, is a society where all sorts of freedoms are secured or guaranteed (quite rightly) but increasingly for the purpose simply to pursue our most ill-thought out and basic desires. We are released from the tyranny of the state and other bodies into a self-imposed tyranny.  At the extremes, this leads to the rapacious banker for whom material accumulation and conspicuous consumption are their measure of freedom with which nothing must interfere. Or to the looter who uses a momentary freedom from the police and social norms (which began as a protest in protection of the liberal right to life) to do nothing more than grasp merchandise. 

But in more normal times and for those of us who live a more normal existence, I think it has also led to daily lives built around the satisfaction of trivial desires.  From the punctuation of the day with endless snacks to the burning desire for an expensive car to the instrumentalisation of education so that qualifications are a route to higher earnings rather than clearer thought and knowledge, we seem to have lost a sense of what it really is to be endlessly vigilant with ourselves, so that we can choose and create lives based on fully free consideration of the best way to live rather than the most satisfying way to live.

So what we may have seen since 2008 is the culmination of many years in which our notion of freedom has become imbalanced.  The solution, therefore, may not be invocations to less individualism and more community but to a much clearer sense that real freedom only emerges when we use liberal and republican liberties to achieve an ideal self driven by reason rather than desire. In short, we need a new type of freedom not less freedom. 

Of course, saying this is not the same as achieving  it.  We would need to understand why we don't value the idealist conception first. And then maybe look back to neglected philsophers or practitioners who have focused heavily on that conception.  For example, much religious thought is interested in an idealist notion of freedom. Could that be rediscovered for a more secular age?  Could it flourish alongside republican and liberal conceptions? Questions though for another blog post or ten!

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