The 21st-century case for freedom

Sunday 21 October, 1.30pm until 2.45pm, Barbican Theatre Keynote Controversies

‘A society that puts equality (...) ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom’, Milton Friedman

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows’, RH Tawney

Freedom has been the subject of political contestation from ancient Greece onwards. Arguably, it is the very basis of politics. Without freedom, there is no choice. Freedom allows us – even challenges us - to make of ourselves what we will. Yet we appear very uncomfortable with the idea of freedom today.

The economic crisis is blamed on free-market, neoliberal ideologues desperately in need of restraint and regulation. Should big business have the ‘freedom’ to exploit and pollute? In a society that struggles to cope with uncertainty and yearns for security, freedom can appear to come at too high a cost: solidarity and equality seem more attractive than liberty. In this context, for example, seeking freedom from the burden of taxation is seen as grossly irresponsible. And what about inequality? Are those who don’t have the choices and opportunities that others have to be left behind? Should majorities have the freedom to oppress minorities? To this way of thinking, one man’s free speech is another’s hate speech. The freedom of religious conscience can be a screen for bigotry and discrimination, even abuse.

The contemporary mood of fatalism, of things being essentially what they are, seems to dominate our existence. Free will is now frequently derided as an illusion, a mere matter of neurochemical determinism, something susceptible to both a governmental nudge and advert-driven brainwashing. The old saying, ‘it’s a free country’, no longer seems so obvious or uncontroversial. And indeed, from the ubiquity of surveillance to bans on smoking in public places, contemporary curbs on freedom are often welcomed as being for our own good. Freedom is, it is true, always relative to unfreedom. There is always a trade-off to be made between freedom and security. That said, if we do not operate under the ideal of freedom, do we make a virtue of unfreedom? If we overplay our vulnerability at the expense of moral independence, are we simply seeking comfort in conformism to the status quo? Arguably, this is to remove the very basis of democratic politics: something that can only come into being when we are freed to some degree from necessity. If there is any truth to the idea that we are born in freedom, that we have no choice but to be free, what must we make of our freedom in the rest of the century?

Natalie Bennett
newly elected leader, Green Party of England and Wales; London Assembly candidate; chair, Green Party Women; former editor, Guardian Weekly

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Rob Riemen
writer and cultural philosopher; founder & president, Netherlands-based Nexus Institute; author, Nobility of Sprit: a forgotten ideal and The Eternal Return of Fascism

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Recommended readings
Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google's Sergey Brin

Threats range from governments trying to control citizens to the rise of Facebook and Apple-style 'walled gardens'

Ian Katz, Guardian, 15 April 2012

This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression

It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%

George Monbiot, Guardian, 19 December 2011

On Tolerance: a defence of moral independence

Outwardly, we live in an era that appears more open-minded, non-judgemental and tolerant than in any time in human history. The very term intolerant invokes moral condemnation. We are constantly reminded to understand the importance of respecting different cultures and diversities. In this pugnacious new book, Frank Furedi argues that despite the democratisation of public life and the expansion of freedom, society is dominated by a culture that not only tolerates but often encourages intolerance.

Frank Furedi, Continuum, 1 August 2011

Nobility of Spirit: a forgotten ideal

Without nobility of spirit, culture vanishes. Yet, in the early twenty-first century, a time when human dignity and freedom are imperiled, the concept of nobility of spirit is scarcely mentioned.

Rob Riemen, Yale University Press, 16 October 2009

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Christopher Kelly, reader in Ancient History and Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at Corpus Christi College

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