David Tyfield is Professor of Sustainable Transitions and Political Economy at Lancaster University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This blog post relates to the Global Discourse article David Tyfield: Interview: Governing Complexity and Reconceptualising Liberty
Living in a world beset by so many new and uncontrollable challenges, there is small wonder that there has been a resurgence of interest in questions of justice. Justice clearly matters profoundly, but there is another social virtue that is arguably just as important, and as both the necessary condition for the ‘good life’ and as an end-in-itself, namely liberty.
Yet today ‘liberty’ is not only rather neglected but often actively repudiated. The reason for this allergic aversion to liberty is obvious. For the term occupies a central position in the political project many of those concerned about justice today aim precisely to dismantle. The US-centric project of neoliberalism underpins the whole gamut of overflowing complex system problems that now threaten to overwhelm us, including both ecological destruction and socioeconomic inequality.
The upshot is an extraordinary situation in which there is an all-out war between ‘justice’ and ‘liberty’. This is obviously a dysfunctional state of affairs. Indeed, it is increasingly so. The polarization and opposition of these two terms is to set up a politics in which only those committed to one but against the other, and so almost by definition at the extremes of political opinion, will thrive. The conclusion of this dynamic is predictably catastrophic. No society can thrive when it must choose between justice-but-emphatically-not-liberty and liberty-but-in-rejection-of-justice. A rapprochement between ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ is thus manifestly and urgently needed.
What has liberty to offer to contemporary theories of justice? History, and indeed the present, is peppered – saturated – with undeniably ‘progressive’ movements motivated first and foremost by the desire for freedom: from bondage, from ‘foreign’ and/or imperial power, from exploitation, from drudgery, from terror and tyranny. The opposite also holds, most obviously in the exceptionally murderous and spirit-crushing regimes of mid-C20th communism, all of whom saw themselves as uniquely righteous regimes of justice and emancipation while explicitly disdainful of individual liberty.
Reclaiming liberty, though, is not just a matter of reviving lost interest in settled conceptions of liberty. Rather, the urgency and necessity of a concerted and explicit reengagement with liberty is precisely because what liberty is, what it means, how it works and what is of value about it has been radically shaken by the emergence of this new world of complex system problems.
In particular, the dominant understanding of liberty today as the unconstrained right of the sovereign individual pretty much to do as s/he wishes – and in terms of insatiable materialist consumption and unaccountable socio-technical experimentation – is manifestly incompatible with the world and its current problems on even the most anaemic of analyses of the latter.
How exactly to update our conceptions of liberty is undeniably a thorny and contestable arena that can only be worked through in practice, not theorized in advance and in abstract. Reviving liberty, and thence justice, will thus demand the ongoing effort of a generation. A political process that takes the issue of liberty as an explicit but key question is needed to refound the constitutions of free societies that have come to learn how to flourish amidst global complex systems. And it will take that long because the issues are that complex.
Perhaps nothing has illustrated this better to date than the headline story of 2020 (and now 2021, and perhaps many years still to come): the Covid-19 pandemic. Arguably humanity’s first real ‘dress rehearsal’ for the wave of turbulence and disruption still coming our way over the rest of this century, Covid has confronted the world most starkly as a problem of liberty, its form and its role in government. Yet Covid has shown how rallying cries of ‘liberty’ do nothing to resolve novel complex problems, and tend to exacerbate the polarised politics that follows in their wake.
The issues raised by Covid, though, are but low-hanging fruit compared to the excruciating and intricate questions that climate change is going throw up for our societies. In short, where climate change is (correctly!) understood as a matter of planetary emergency, where does liberty fit in this picture?
Nor is this simply a rhetorical question, supposedly gesticulating at the terrifying conclusion: ‘nowhere!’ There is no ‘just transition’ without new liberties, not just reinvigorated concern for novel injustices. Any progressive movement beyond this moment of global system crisis will need an almighty exertion of human freedom, in terms of unprecedentedly rapid collective experimentation, learning and political participation. This itself cannot be forced (though certainly supported and enabled) but is premised upon individual liberty. The urgency for serious public and political discussion about liberty and based in appreciation of its importance, thus, could hardly be greater.
In short, in an age of complexity when prevailing definitions of ‘liberty’ are from a different age, the lesson is clear: we need to talk about liberty.