Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Adam Curtis and Isaiah Berlin

Having previously welcomed Adam Curtis's series The Trap as "television for grown ups" I now have to express my disappointment with the third episode in particular.

It took Isaiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative liberty, and argued that the West had embraced the latter concept as a philosophical bulwark against Soviet communism during the Cold War. Further, is still the ruling philosophy of the Blair and Bush governments today.

Much as I admire Berlin, it is impossible to deny that the standing he enjoyed during his lifetime was bound up with the Cold War. But to argue that Tony Blair is motivated by a belief in negative liberty is simply bizarre.

As Not Saussure writes:
Much of Blair’s legacy, it seems to me, is precisely a demonstration of precisely how a doubtless well-meaning determination for positive liberty can lead to a huge growth in arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy, both at home and abroad. We will make you happier and more secure, whether you want to cooperate or not, which is why all these CCTV cameras, ASBOs, summary penalties and ID cards are for your own good, if only you’d bloody well realise it…..
After all, this programme went out in a week during which the government had proposed criminalising those who do not stay in education until they are 18.

But Curtis's account of Berlin's ideas was inadequate too. As the same Not Saussure article reminds us, Berlin did not present negative and positive liberty as polar opposites. Nor did he argue that any attempt to reform society would inevitably end in tyranny.

For this reason Curtis was wide of the mark when he ended his series with the words "Isaiah Berlin was wrong. Not all attempts to change the world for the better end in tyranny." All Berlin asked was that we should be aware of the dangers in such attempts.

There is a deeper point here. The two greatest liberal thinkers at work in twentieth-century Britain were Berlin and Karl Popper. While both were reformists, they were convinced anti-revolutionary thinkers.

Popper's follower Bryan Magee gives a good summation of the reasons behind this position in his Confessions of a Philosopher:
There is a situational logic to revolutions. Disparate groups unite to overthrow an existing regime, but once they have succeeded in doing so the cause that brought them togther has gone, and they then fight one another to fill the power vacuum that they themselves have created. These internecine struggles, usually savage, among erstwhile allies perpetuate the revolutionary breakdown of society far beyond the overthrow of the old regime, and delay the establishment of a new order.

The population at large begins to feel threatened by unending social chaos, and in these circumstances a strong man who can bring the warring factions to heel and impose order comes forward and meets with widespread support, or at least acquiescence. Thus a revolution carried out in the name of civil liberties, or equality, or to bring a tyranny to and end, will itself end by putting into a Cromwell, a Napoleon or a Stalin.

All revolutions are uncontrollable, and all revolutions are betrayed. It is in their nature that these things should be so. This fact makes belief in violent revolution as a means of changing society not only irrational and delusory but profoundly immoral.
All very reasonable, you might think. Yet the Left in Britain is still drawn to these adolescent fantasies of political revolution, which is why its members so often dismiss profound liberal thinkers like Popper and Berlin as Tories or extreme right-wingers.


Anonymous said...

watch all three episodes of THE TRAP by clicking HERE

Tristan said...

I'd include Hayek in that list of great 20th Century liberal thinkers, and he had pretty much the same view of revolution.

This is the biggest area in which liberalism and conservatism overlap. So much so that Hayek felt he had to write 'Why I Am Not A Conservative'.

Unknown said...

I think you may be confusing 'liberal' with libertarian.