Modern Society Freedom

A painted sign in the colors of the Ukrainian flag with the words "peace" and "freedom" hangs on a garden fence in the Schwabing district of Munich.
Peace and Freedom | Photo (detail): Katrin Requadt © picture alliance/dpa

The limit of my freedom is the freedom of others – what does that mean, especially today, for our modern, complex society? Armin Nassehi talks about the concept of freedom in a world that is being rocked by one disaster after another.

By Armin Nassehi

Faced with the impact of the war of aggression initiated by Russia against Ukraine, it isn’t easy to write about freedom – but maybe it’s particularly necessary in this context. Possibly the most impressive political definition of freedom comes from the liberal John Stuart Mill. The principle known as Mill’s Limit states “that the only valid reason society or individuals are permitted to interfere in the liberty of action of one of their members is for the purpose of self-protection.That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This famous quote from Mill’s work On Liberty, published in 1859, sums up the intellectual challenge of the concept of freedom: that the freedom of the individual impacts the freedom of others. That might sound abstract, but then freedom is not simply arbitrary, not simply unrelatedness, it’s a social form and expectation. If the limits of my own freedom are the freedom of someone else, then freedom is not a consequence of arbitrary individualism.

The idea of freedom is the expression of a society in which not everything that happens is defined from the outset: it’s true to say that life outcomes are still strongly dependent on origin, class, economic power, access to resources and education, gender or social prejudice, or recognition relationships. But in modern society – at least under relatively pluralist political conditions – there is no such thing as a clear-cut definition of life outcomes and opportunities. And political, economic, legal, artistic, media and scientific forms in a complex modern society are dependent on allowing degrees of freedom. Otherwise it is not possible to debate democratically, research scientifically, administer justice, be artistically creative, or even conduct business. The more complex a society is, the more scope there is for degrees of freedom in that society.

Modern Society is Unavoidably Dependent on Forgoing Full Control

Now, one could object to this description on the basis that it is far too idealistically formulated, euphemistically even, and ignores the constant repudiation of degrees of freedom and the potential of unimpeded development. But that would contradict this description. Conversely it is true that a large amount of energy has to be expended at those very points where freedom is limited – in political, legal, cultural and everyday contexts. Unfree political conditions have to be implemented. Dictatorial control of a society, authoritarian assertion of claims to power, suppression of diverse and plural lifestyles, control of free communication, forcible containment of criticism – all these take up substantial energy in complex societies. A modern complex society cannot be identified in centralistic terms without the use of force. The fact that authoritarian regimes usually reach the limit of controllability of their own society is an indication that the under-determinedness of the social context has proven to be fairly stable. You can ban radio stations, lock people up, confiscate resources from scientists, obstruct artists and much more.

But that might be incorrectly formulated: you have to do all that because it’s the only way to restrict the degrees of freedom in a complex society – and this energy expenditure indicates how strongly the condition of freedom – and its likelihood – is anchored in a social structure that has to relinquish total control over all its processes. Societies in earlier times, who feared nothing more than incalculable developments, were able to do this – but modern society on the other hand is unavoidably dependent on forgoing full control.

From this it can be dialectically concluded that authoritarianism, populism, antipluralism – all of these exist in the world, but they are a characteristic feature of modern times, having re-emerged in regular waves since the 19th century. But on the other hand, it’s also an indication of the extent to which society is influenced by forces beyond our control. That’s the social condition for degrees of freedom – and their suppression. Russia’s foreign policy of military aggression against the sovereign state of Ukraine is essentially based on precisely this oppression in terms of interior policy. But there are increasing signs that this strategy may well achieve the opposite – admittedly at a high price.

Freedom is More than Simply a Value

Some people prefer to view freedom in the sense of Western values as a European or Western notion. The only aspect of truth there is that many of these concepts of freedom emerged in Europe – at least the ones that are debated here. But it can be seen from the protests against authoritarian regimes worldwide, but especially from the huge amount of energy required to control social dynamics and cultural plurality, that no culture and no region of the world can avoid experiencing non-controllability of society as a whole, or the degrees of freedom within decisions. You only need to think of democratisation processes all over the world – and the resultant backlash. It can’t be a European or Western concept if you bear in mind the totalitarian disasters of the 20th century – but also the current repercussions in the United States, where it was possible for a notorious non-Democrat to govern, or the Eastern European members of the European Union – and then Russia, whose government seeks to offset its own salvation against inner pluralisation and loss of control with the classic strategy of initiating a foreign offensive. You can only hope it’s the inner non-controllability of society that can eliminate such regimes. That nascent ability to think in alternative patterns and not allow oneself to be brought into line cannot be entirely suppressed – because people have to speak and language offers the excellent opportunity of saying no.

Freedom is more than simply a value – and emphasising the concept with inflection and enthusiasm does not help anyone. One potential source of optimism is that the complexity of the modern global society incorporates that germinal complete loss of control. It’s also the seed of what we call freedom – which admittedly does not necessarily germinate.