On Liberté

The PS Cries Freedom

The PS Cries Freedom

The French Socialist Party (PS), in an attempt to claw back some attention, respectability and perhaps even a little grandeur, recently organised a rally in Paris called (impressively) “The Spring of Freedom“. Chaired by the First Secretary of the PS, Martine Aubry (Photo:Left) the meeting followed Ségolène Royal‘s equally grandiose “Rally for Fraternity“, which was held last September. This time, though, it seems that, in the face of the rather dingy realities of today’s economic climate, the abstract noun – usually so effective in drawing French crowds – is losing some of its magic. Only about 1500 militants showed up in a venue built to house twice that.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité or (lest we forget) Death.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity...Or Death

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Or Death

Working its way through the potent nouns that make up this country’s national motto – indeed, its very identity – the PS is attempting to lay claim to France’s revolutionary heritage and at the same time, draw the political discourse away from the pragmatics of the economy and towards more abstract territory, where it feels safer.

“Our struggle,” Aubry announced yesterday. “Is to make sure that equality and liberty go together.” («Faire rimer égalité et liberté, c’est cela notre combat») To help enlighten those who may be baffled by the intangibility of this objective, the PS recently published a book entitled, “La France en Libertés Surveillées” (“France: Liberty Under Surveillance), which condemns the Sarkozy government’s perceived attacks on civil liberties, within the domains of parliament, the police, the judiciary, immigration and the media.

Those looking for some hard facts may be a little disappointed by this 166 page document. The opening sentence, a quote from Montesquieu‘s “L’ Esprit des Lois” (The Spirit of Laws)  sets the tone: “To prevent the abuse of power ’tis necessary that by the very disposition of things, power should be a check to power.” («Pour qu’on ne puisse abuser du pouvoir, il faut que, par la disposition des choses, le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir.») Ségolène Royal, who is quick to point out in her blog that she did not help to write this pamphlet, admits that the freedoms in question “are still there but…they are slowly being taken over (“mise sous tutelle”).

What emerges from all this is not so much a conflict of policy but of philosophy. We are seeing here the opposition between two notions of freedom, one being pushed by Sarkozy and his like and the other being defended by his detractors. In his work “Two Concepts of LibertyIsiah Berlin defined these opposing notions as “positive” and “negative” liberty. Put simply, the idea of positive liberty is the possibility for an individual to attain the goal that he/she has set or to pursue his/her desires unhindered. In this view of the world, the individual is empowered and liberty is a form of power. The other concept of freedom is the provision of a space in which the individual may thrive without being bothered by others. It is simply the absence of coercion or molestation. France has a long and entrenched attachment (which predates the Revolution) to the idea of positive liberty, while in the Anglo-Saxon world we champion the rather less glamorous version. Paradoxically, it was an eighteenth century Frenchman who best formulated the differences between the two: “The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment … it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale.” Claude Adrien Helvétius.

So it is that when his enemies refer to our Sex Dwarf as “Sarko the American”, they are not only alluding to his shameless materialism and his philistinism, but also to his dangerous susceptibility to the Anglo-Saxon vision of what it means to be free.

4 thoughts on “On Liberté

  1. There is another contrast in the vicinity to the one you mention, Lucy (or possibly a contrast to both of the concepts of freedom you mention in so far as they both admit of degrees of freedom). Its great champion is not an Anglo-Saxon thinker but a French one – perhaps the French philosopher of the post-War period: Jean-Paul Sartre.

    In Being and Nothingness, Sartre says that his understanding of freedom, which he takes to be the standard ‘technical and philosophical concept’ (BN, p. 483), must be contrasted with what he takes to be the point of view of common sense or of ‘the empirical and popular concept’ of freedom (ibid). The latter concept, which admits of someone being sometimes more and sometimes less free, is typically connected with getting (or being able to get) what one wants – but perhaps your other concept fits here too. But neither are what Sartre has in view. To say, as he does, that we are ‘essentially free’ is a claim regarding the pervasiveness of our having “autonomy of choice” concerning what we do. To be free means that it is intrinsic to our lives that wherever we have more than one possibility open to us (and that is, in his view, everywhere) nothing forces us to take one route (to pursue one project) rather than another – in each case the choice is always our own and, ultimately, our own alone.

    On this view the slave is as free as the slave-owner (the slave is free to resist or to submit to his condition, for example). Is this an Anglo-Saxon Sartre? Thatcher’s philosopher? Not exactly.

    What can make things look that way is that Sartre’s whole outlook is aimed at stressing that each of us is, at every step, totally responsible for the life-choices we actually make. So it is, for Sartre, ‘senseless to think of complaining’ about your life ‘since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, what we are’.

    Not surprisingly Sartre is aware that this kind of thought ‘may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life’. It is here that many readers of Sartre have felt him drawing uncomfortably close to an unforgiving (Anglo-Saxon?) ruthlessness. In fact, it is not intended to be a thought that oppresses by insisting that we deserve everything we get, but rather a thought that liberates by reminding us that we are always free to take an initiative.

    But the line between these alternatives can seem very fine indeed. One recent interpreter suggests that, with respect to the alternatives, one can say only that it is ‘in tone…that they differ’. Between Thatcher and Sartre there is just a difference in tone? No, what is decisive here is not ‘tone’ but whether you relate to Sartre’s thought as a claim made on you by another or, ultimately, as an acknowledgement of self-responsibility that comes from yourself and which is itself carried ‘squarely upon [your] own shoulders’. In short, what matters is whether you assume your self-responsibility autonomously.

  2. Is it crazy to suggest that Sartre is (temperamentally, at least) heir to his own nation’s tradition of the ‘positive’ view of freedom, simply by virtue of the fact that through his philosophy he ’empowers’ the individual? This dynamic view of freedom as free will or self-determination is very far from the rather passive Anglo-Saxon view of freedom as being linked to the inviolability of property or the absence of constraint or even the “Get off my land” view of Freedom so championed in America.

  3. I am still struggling with the two concepts you outlined in the first place. What is the difference between being un-hindered and not being bothered by others? It is ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ isn’t it? The first looks completely abstract without the second. But your second thought does not seem crazy. (Except it is always a bit crazy to say: ‘Hey you. Go on, be free.’)

  4. I think that’s precisely the problem. The first IS completely abstract without the second but that doesn’t seem to bother the French, who are happy to talk about Freedom as an abstraction, mainly because the other kind is boring to them. Anyway, be free, man.

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