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Do we want freedom as a mere paper tiger?

“Freedom” is still a big word. Bigger than its reality, argues Davor Mišković: our freedom and our privacy today have been curtailed and limited, a trend that is strengthened by fear of terrorism and the resulting society of total surveillance. In their frustration with the ever-advancing encroachments, Europe’s citizens all too often make a fatal decision: they react with an idealization of the past and with political apathy – and so voluntarily renounce more and more freedoms. An appeal to make use of the little still existing scope of freedom that the people in Europe are left with.

By Davor Mišković

What concept we have of freedom is closely related to our needs and desires. These, in turn, are inextricably bound up with our way of life and what we know. Moreover, human beings are social beings, and the community around us shapes our concept of both concrete things and abstract ideas. And “freedom” is also an abstraction – which, as such, is profoundly dependent on all dimensions of our specific mode of existence. The word “freedom” has historically already had (and still has) very different meanings, depending on where, when and by whom it was used. The meaning we give to this word is always a relative one.

My question is: What does the concept of freedom, this historically changeable and abstract idea, stand for in today’s Europe? My first answer would be: We have slashed back freedom to the concept of personal freedom. Where we understand “personal freedom” as a negative freedom, to introduce a term from Erich Fromm. For an individual, freedom means above all to be free from the interference of other individuals, from the interference of institutions or the state. That the state not meddle in private affairs was one of the great demands arising from the aftermath of the Cold War, in which the West represented the free world and the East the totalitarian world where the state intruded into all aspects of life.

Today it is becoming apparent that threat of terrorist attacks, real or imaginary, has made this concept of Western liberty obsolete because the protected private sphere has become a problem for national security or for the security of private companies. Each and every one of us could be an “enemy within”, and so freedom is increasingly put under surveillance, the private sphere shrinks or dwindles to nothing. The totalitarian East used to employ the same arguments as the West does today; here as there, individual freedom is subjected to state control. In the course of this development, the concept of freedom has been trimmed back to the idea of not having to fear searches, eavesdropping or surveillance unless you are a terrorist. That is to say, as long as you have not broken any law.

To have to take a job just to make ends meet – is that freedom?

Another important aspect of the understanding of individual freedom today, besides the political one already mentioned, is the economic aspect. In practice, economic freedom means the right to offer our labour power freely on the market or to choose freely the products and services we consume. Swapping our own labour for money and money for goods is fundamental to the workings of our societies. But even this model does not have very much to do with “freedom” (and perhaps never did): we cannot really freely choose the job we do, because job opportunities are not unlimited. The free choice of products and services in turn is also restricted – by the purchasing power at our disposal. Such a concept of freedom is therefore utterly meaningless, even cynical, for the unemployed and the poor. In reality, so-called “economic freedom” often means that we have to accept whatever work is on offer to us, and that we can buy only those goods which will just secure our survival at the lowest possible price.

So it looks as if freedom, one of the main pillars of Europe’s liberal democracies, has degenerated into a paper tiger. Yes, our privacy is protected – as long as we don’t use the internet and don’t walk around the city. No one screens or controls us – as long as we don’t use public transport or the services of public institutions and banks. And we are free to do whatever we like – as long as we have inherited a fortune. The legally guaranteed freedom is not convertible into practice; the whole concept therefore loses its meaning. We must renounce fundamental freedoms if we want to function normally within our societies. This is the logic of the “terms & conditions” that we sign every time we use the Google search engine or fly in an airplane. It is up to us to accept or reject the terms of use, conditions that are designed to limit the freedom we are still granted in principle.

Of course, we are free to go to court or stand as a candidate in elections if we want to push a change in the system. But even this freedom depends on our resources. Without financial, legal or social resources, this freedom too exists only on paper. It is simply a fact that freedom and power are inextricably linked. The power to manage resources and the power to shape the legal framework are essential components of freedom. Most people do not have this power. The limits of our freedom are effectively determined by our ability to take action. In principle we are all free, but in practice this statement is far from the truth. When today we say “freedom”, the word reflects above all the reality in which we live: a reality in which freedom is controlled and curtailed.

No freedom is given by nature – it must be fought for, actively maintained and expanded.

This tension between principled idea and sobering reality leads to cynical, escapist and aggressive reactions. And right across all political camps. Often these reactions have historical models: the Left appeals to social democracy, the Right to pre-modern epochs, or in extreme cases to fascism, for answers to the predicament of freedom today. Our idea of freedom has grown stiff. Almost catatonic, we fantasize about an irretrievable past, and even lose sight of the liberties that have been gained in various emancipatory struggles and held to this day.

Freedom is never given by nature. Every freedom is made, often achieved in violent struggles and centuries-long processes. Take, for example, the rights of women, that is, the right of women to participate in political life, education and free choice of profession. Some of these freedoms and rights have come into force, but not all and not everywhere, so this fight continues. Feminism, seen as an intellectual and political movement for women’s rights or for the emancipation of women, has shown us that freedom often pretends to deceptive universalism and has in reality only partial validity (for example, applying only to men). But the claim to freedom is in principle a universal one.

I have argued that political and economic freedoms cannot endure without a social consensus on the one hand and sustaining institutions on the other. Someone has to guarantee these individual freedoms, and we have left this role to the state. We therefore have good reason to be exasperated and angry when those who hold political responsibility limit the full scope of our freedom. This exasperation, however, often goes hand in hand with fantastic narratives, conspiracy theories and feckless riots that create an irrational political landscape in which the majority of citizens consider abstaining from political processes to be the best solution. But this renunciation means in essence to renounce all freedom and to accept a prefabricated existence.