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Freedom: An Unruly History - Book Review



Freedom is a potent concept with far-reaching applications. The libertarian and Christian right often champion the cause of 'freedom,' but their understanding of freedom is at odds with the democratic ideal of redistributing power and wealth for the collective good. This tension was exemplified in the context of the pandemic, where public health measures were met with opposition under the banner of 'Hands Off Our Freedoms & Rights.' In response, others highlighted the interdependence of individual freedom and social solidarity, advocating for public health measures to protect the right to good health.


In her recent publication, Freedom: An Unruly History, Annelien de Dijn delves into the conflicting definitions of freedom, a topic of immense historical significance. This book serves as a comprehensive historical account of the concept of freedom in the Western world, tracing its evolution from Ancient Greece to the present day, a journey that is sure to captivate the interest of any reader.


Dijn's work elucidates that for centuries, western thinkers and political figures have associated freedom with the ability to influence how one is governed rather than being left alone by the state. Dijn draws a clear distinction between two types of freedom: 'freedom from' and 'freedom to,' also known as negative freedom and positive freedom.


The term' freedom from' (negative freedom) is not just a theoretical concept but a powerful tool used by reactionary groups and small governments to justify the deregulation of laws related to employment, health and safety, minimum wages, and financial markets. The Christian right also employs this concept to argue for religious exemptions from laws. Dijn’s book reveals how this negative conception of freedom continues to shape our contemporary political discourse.


In ancient Greece and Rome, freedom was defined in stark contrast to slavery, a condition that denied individuals any say or power over their future. Ancient Greeks, however, considered themselves free because they were not ruled by another but governed themselves, reflecting a 'democratic conception of freedom.' This passage lays out the concept of 'freedom to,' also known as positive freedom, which Dijn sees as a central idea running through all later discussions about freedom. It originated in Ancient Greece and persisted into the Roman Republic but declined as Rome became an empire.


In later centuries, Renaissance thinkers like Niccolò Machiavelli revived the positive meaning of democracy. The 18th-century revolutions in America and France established new republican governments, and movements for universal suffrage kept the idea of democratic freedom alive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dijn's narrative ends with the decline of positive freedom as neoliberalism (free market ideology) became dominant in the post-World War II period and into the twenty-first century.


Dijn points out that the 17th and 18th centuries revolutions led to the emergence of a type of freedom known as "freedom from," which opposed the democratic forms of government in the United States, England, and France—the period of terror under Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution contributed to the development of negative freedom. This notion was primarily driven by the wealthy, who were concerned about the potential democratic redistribution of wealth. Subsequently, the negative concept of freedom evolved and gained prominence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin furthered this idea, suggesting that negative liberty was central to Western civilisation, according to Dijn.


The idea of "freedom from" is not entirely without value. It points to the paradox of democratic freedom, where the majority can oppress the minority. Dijn illustrates this with the example of ancient Athenian democracy, which decided to execute Socrates democratically. The downside is that it can give rise to the tyranny of the minority. This is why negative freedom is especially beneficial to wealthy property owners who have access to exceptional economic power that most people do not have. Dijn notes how the Old Oligarchy feared the redistributive power of political democracy, a fear that has persisted in reactionary thought from Ancient Athens to today.


The book highlights the limitations of historical forms of freedom. The author makes it clear that historic political systems built around democratic freedom still excluded many people. For example, the Athenian Republic denied freedom to slaves, women and non-Athenian men.

The book is absorbing and encompasses more than twenty-five hundred years of Western discourse on the concept of political freedom. The historical context demonstrates that while an antidemocratic, elitist version of freedom may currently be prevalent, it is actually a recent phenomenon that emerged in response to the remarkable growth of democratic freedom and representative government starting from the 1600s.


The book emphasises the importance of extending political freedom to all minorities while preventing the ultra-wealthy from holding excessive power. It highlights the intertwining of freedom and democracy, noting that democracy involves accepting limits to one's freedoms in order to acknowledge the citizenship claims of others. This requires investing in political infrastructure that limits the freedoms of many. Democracy necessitates embracing the responsibilities of civic engagement rather than the freedom to opt out of them and involves curbing individual liberties to respect the rights of others. Ultimately, it emphasises the importance of fulfilling responsibilities, obligations, and commitments to the social fabric, not just focusing on rights and liberties.

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