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Issue #1932      September 14, 2020

What does freedom really mean?

The recent rallies around Australia protesting against restrictive measures to combat the pandemic are emblematic of intensifying contradictions within liberal ideology and its material basis in Australia.

Images of the various rallies show an abundance of placards with a strange mix of the rhetoric of ’60s hippie “counterculture,” and that of far-right conspiracy theories, both of which are imports from the United States. These may seem like strange bedfellows, but in both cases the central conceit is the bourgeois concept and fetishization of “freedom” taken to a particular logical extreme – logical in a formal sense, although as we see, deeply illogical when tested against the real world.

It is tempting to write these people off as fringe extremists and think no more about it. But that would not grasp the deeper material and ideological roots of these ideas.

According to the flavour of bourgeois liberal ideology that is the ruling ideology of Australian capitalist society, the concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” are so deeply intertwined as to be practically identical. In a bourgeois democracy, the main marker of its supposedly “democratic” nature is the “freedom” experienced under it in various forms. What matters most, in this conception, is one’s freedom to act always according to their will, and express in any context whatever views they wish.

Whether or not the people’s views and interests are actually reflected in governance is regarded as decidedly secondary. The fact that regardless of the apparent freedoms of bourgeois society, the government and state disproportionately represent the interests of the miniscule ultra-wealthy minority in our society over the interests of the vast majority of people, and in the Australian case even disproportionately represent the interests of a foreign power (the US) over objective Australian national interests, is not regarded as a contradiction. This demonstrates the idealism inherent in the bourgeois concepts of freedom and democracy, as these ideas are treated as having primary reality as ideas-in-themselves and the objective material outcomes are treated as secondary, instead of the other way around.

Whether or not the words “freedom and democracy” are used to improve the lives of people, or to justify abhorrent acts to subjugate the world and kill millions in aggressive wars, some people are also happy to overlook.

If things were as simple as “more individual freedom – more democracy,” then all of politics would be an extremely simple affair. The basic question of politics – the contradiction between the great variety of individual and group interests in society, and the objective necessity for society as a whole to function in a more or less unified way, according to this or that conception of collective interest – would not exist.

The socialist concept of democracy does not follow this idealist approach, but rather a materialist approach that privileges objective facts and outcomes over abstract ideas. The question of how the facts are, or should be, established is of course an extremely complex one and will not be dealt with in this article; but it must be asserted that it is in fact possible to do such a thing to a certain degree of accuracy, else not only does politics again become trivial and meaningless but so too does science. It is relevant to note that the misunderstanding and even denial of science is often a consequence of the views I am discussing; yet those espousing them demonstrate by their actions that they know politics to be anything but trivial.

Democracy must mean that individuals have a duty to uphold the collective interest, established through democratic processes, above their own, in any case where the two interests are in irreconcilable conflict. To reject this is in fact a violation of democracy; but liberal ideology teaches the exact opposite, that the “freedom” to do so is itself an expression of democracy. Violation of the democratic will for democracy’s sake!

The pandemic has illuminated these different notions of democracy and their consequences. It has shown, clearer than ever, that when there is an objective collective interest, there is a need for unity in action to achieve it. Appealing to the “freedom” to violate the collective interest according to individual interest has become understood by many people as an affront to democracy, not its expression. But this reality poses problems for the ruling bourgeois ideology, as its internal contradictions and contradictions with reality are being exposed.

When China was the first to implement lockdowns to combat the pandemic, the measures were described by many Australian politicians and mainstream media as “authoritarian” and “draconian” – the latter being a word that some journalists seem to think means “Chinese.” But this year’s experience has proved that the measures China took were precisely what was needed to minimise suffering of the people and deaths. But countries like Australia and the US have found themselves caught between this reality and their bourgeois ideology, resulting in an inconsistent mix of methods that have caused widespread confusion, fear and unnecessary suffering and deaths.

It is reassuring to some to imagine that the truth is simple and reconciles these difficult contradictions with a single thought: it’s all fake, we just need our freedom and everything will be okay. This faith in ideas with no need to understand them as reflections of material reality is a powerful tool of the ruling class to inspire reaction, and has hold of not just the fringe extremists but much of our society.

Engels cited Hegel and wrote: “Freedom is the insight into necessity.”

Next article – The importance of the industry – Statement by the CPA Maritime Branch

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