What makes us free?

What makes us free?

Martin Wolf, who was Guest of Honour at last year’s Drink & Think, wrote a sensitive piece about Democracy beginning at home [‘The healing of democracies starts at home.’ Financial Times 23Jun21.] Meanwhile, a Freedom House classification chart showing the decline of the free and the rise of the not free is frankly chilling.

Of course, ‘free’ isn’t uninhibitedly free and ‘not free’ is not, for the most part, enslavement. Societies demand rules of behaviour that must be observed if they are to be cohesive and peaceful.

There is nothing quite like a pandemic to exacerbate the question of freedom in a very practical way. The freedom to gather together, to exchange ideas by a whisper, to nod and smile a knowing consent just between two protagonists of a cause, have been largely, albeit temporarily, lost. What I call “the right to hug” is very much a key to freedom and a vital tool in the bringing up of children.

In the free world the right of expression and the rigours of opposition communicate a modestly fast response to leaders. Excellent leaders don’t always react by giving in to populist clamour. They sometimes – though, alas, decreasingly – make their own judgments about the medium-term consequences of taking action.

As has happened to many managers of businesses and other organisations, confidence in the democratic system has been waning – for a long time, actually, but more dramatically in the last two years. Good democracies rely not only on legislation, guidelines and legal advice but on self-discipline. That in turn depends on the level of self-knowledge we have and how that translates into individual self-confidence.

Martin Wolf applauded the renewed attempt at western cooperation. To me, too, this is important, not as a way to gang up on China, or any other nation, but as evidence that at least a major part of the world recognises that the future of the planet is in jeopardy and that capitalism, far from producing more equitable stakes in the world, has failed even to begin to tackle the problem of poverty on anything approaching a major scale. Most sensible people today think that a more balanced life is desirable not only from a humanitarian and planet point of view but also for good business. The only way is cooperation with others, starting with cooperation with ourselves. Our personality must be in harmony with our behaviour. When it is, we are equipped to handle the complexities of climate and sustainability.

The media provide power to the individual. People who know themselves well – and there are now many resources to speed the process – and whose personality and behaviour are in harmony are able to use the media to tremendous advantage – in the way that Greta Grunberg and David Attenborough have ably demonstrated.

Much media is devoted to disturbing that harmony – quite a good thing to have it ruffled occasionally but disastrous if overdone. And excess of this – as with several other things – seems to be what many think will bring them happiness. It’s a hard job to convince them otherwise but very necessary to do so. For freedom is a concept first and a practical experience, second. Freedom of thought has to allow freedom of action within the law.

Democracy may seem to be an excuse for the media to litter their reports and entertainment with four letter words but that is only another form of enslavement for those trapped in a system of following fashion. Real freedom is the right to think widely about the way the world is run and to suggest, publicly, seemingly viable alternatives. Freedom is not an absolving of conscience before or after what we need to do to retain our rights. It is having a conscience, in the first place, and showing it, in the second.

You may have noticed that, in this brief article, I have used an unfamiliar and, today, seldom quoted word – conscience. Used it twice, in fact. It seems that we are reluctant to talk about it and quite unwilling to teach children about it or to develop it as part of the business of growing up.  Is it a good thing that “smart” has replaced it?

If so, do you think that autocracy might usefully replace democracy?

Perhaps there is a real danger that it will.