Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Some Thoughts on Positive and Negative Liberty (Pt 1)

The positive/negative liberty dichotomy always bothered me. Not so much because it is necessarily wrong (though it is, as I'll explain), but because Isaiah Berlin and the propertarian (free-market) conceptualization has been the primary narrative on the subject. This is not to say that I dislike Berlin per se, or that he is undeserving of his acclaim. But this does speak to the imminent need for the ruling narrative to fit into the vision of the ruling class.

Indeed, Berlin starts his essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, by blasting so called "fanatically held social and political doctrines" reflected in the works of Marx/Engels as "dangerous ideas." To Berlin, this speaks to the supreme importance of ideas in shaping our world. Yet for all of his inquiry, the materialist conception of history is lost on Berlin. He claims without irony that "political theory is a branch of moral philosophy," perhaps ignoring just how many transfers of wealth and power occur as a result of the material conditions of society rather than abstractions like "morality" - abstractions that have their own place, but not as the foundation of rational inquiry into the movements of society. With Marx, the moral foundation is absolutely critical - but only in guidance.

Nonetheless, this critical error directs Berlin throughout his essay. Berlin's anti-materialism resolves itself into the following astounding rant:
"It is one thing to say that I know what is good for X, while he himself does not; and even to ignore his wishes for its - and his - sake; and a very different one to say that he has eo ipso chosen it, not indeed consciously, not as he seems in everyday life, but in his role as a rational self which his empirical self may not know - the 'real' self which discerns the good, and cannot help choosing it once it is revealed. This monstrous impersonation, which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-realisation."
The Liberal's Tragedy

Berlin defines a hazy line between liberty and self-realization; indeed, it seems to be little more than an acknowledgement of present norms, that is the dispensation of power and liberty as it currently exists, as a moral norm in itself: leave it alone, he says, or you are being coercive. What is further lost on Berlin is that self-realization models only refer to the consequence of persistent liberty to the human psychology. If you raise yourself as a free agent in a society which only "coerces" you not to coerce others, you can be said to have self-realized yourself. This is not only a consistent theme of the "monstrous" political theories of self-realization - it seems to be precisely what Berlin is describing when he refers to the incompatibility of competing men's liberty when extended sufficiently. His criticism of such "rationalist" theories of liberty is reduced, then, to criticizing them for simply going far enough to learn something about humans - which he denounces as "impersonation." Indeed, for Marx at least, the human being cannot be freed from without - but only by himself.

For Berlin, on the other hand, the human being is free as things are, or need not be freed from things as they are. His is a supreme confirmation of the world as it is, akin to an appeal to nature. Above all, Berlin is indemnifying the prevalent social order from criticism by ascribing to a voluntaryism which merely gives lip-service to the issue of coercion. He conflates communist theory with the Communist Party leaders and their doctrines in a grasping attempt to discredit the former. His ideology could just as readily apply to an affirmation of the old feudal relations - so long as too few people stood up in revolt that it would be a "monstrous impersonation" to claim that peons wanted to be freed.

In fact, this is probably the most important distinction of liberal ideologies. Fundamentally, they rely on an affirmation of prevalent norms, and a policy of permissiveness. This permissiveness does not extend to social relations in a refined, penetrating manner (which might translate into a permissiveness for human actualization). Rather, the permissiveness is consistent in its reverence for property and power currently held by members of society.

The Fundamentals of Positive-Negative Freedom

Berlin's liberalism did not keep from approaching a more materialist conception of social relations:
"It is not only that my material life depends upon interaction with other men, or that I am what I am as a result of social forces, but that some, perhaps all, of my ideas about myself, in particular my sense of my own moral and social identity, are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am (the metaphor must not be pressed too far) an element."
However pleasing this ounce of materialism is, Berlin seems incapable of rendering it without a pound of his metaphysical liberalism:
"What oppressed classes or nationalities, as a rule, demand is neither simply unhampered liberty of action for their members, nor, above everything, equality of social or economic opportunity, still less assignment of a place in a frictionless, organic State devised by the rational lawgiver. What they want, as often as not, is simply recognition (of their class or nation, or colour or race) as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own, intending to act in accordance with it (whether it is good or legitimate, or not), and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand, as being not quite fully human, and therefore not quite fully free."
It's not clear what exactly this "recognition" might entail, but that's just the point: Berlin is able to provide a narrative which just might describe some of the sensual conditions of liberty - but conveniently overlooks the material conditions for liberty, protecting his narrative from all the pitfalls of empirical claims.

In fact, there is a rational conception of positive-negative liberty, and it was described more than a decade before Berlin's famous essay. But that's for next time, since I left my copy of Escape From Freedom at home.

Berlin, Isaiah: Two Concepts of Liberty Online

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