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The Illusion of Freedom

We are always being told that we live in a free society, but do we?

It would appear that a ban has been introduced on spontaneous protest within one kilometre of Parliament. According to a recent feature in the Sunday Times, as a form of low-key protest against this, a man called Neil Goodwin regularly dresses up as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, holds a placard carrying the slogan “Not Aloud” and stands within the vicinity. This means, of course, that he is liable to get into trouble, and he has indeed been arrested several times. Many of the passing crowd think he is a tourist attraction and on one occasion, when a policeman told him to move on, one of them said, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?”, whereupon the man is said to have shook his head ruefully.

But surely in Britain, we live in a free society with the right to protest? It’s a democracy after all; we have a choice of leaders to vote for. And in between elections, there are a whole host of issues we can give our voices to in order to make a difference to the world around us, knowing that we won’t get jailed for our views or actions. So maybe our tramp is just an eccentric exception.

People power is in evidence everywhere and more and more we see individuals and groups “standing up for their rights”: minorities of every kind have a voice. The right for a woman of a certain religious persuasion to wear a black mask over her face while teaching…the right for gay couples to adopt children…it sometimes seems we have rights spilling out of our ears.

And democracy, it would seem, is proliferating with the advance of technology – through participation in phone-ins and on-line voting you can give your view on everything from road pricing to who should be ejected from Big Brother.

Again, society is so much less formal than it used to be. Everybody is on first name terms and we dress more casually than previous generations. It can be easy to believe it when we’re told that class doesn’t exist any more and that we no longer have any superiors to doff our caps to.

And what about all that freedom of choice for the consumer? The range of brands and products you can buy in any high street store or supermarket is mind-boggling.

Big business, too, is seemingly much more aware of our needs than it used to be. We have an increasing number of companies practising “customer care”, “responsible companies”, trying their hardest to please customers and employees alike. And if they do something we don’t like, we can sue them.

But we don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to see that our tramp in the first paragraph is only one small example of the ways in which our freedom is restricted.

A lapse into Grumpy Old Man mode evokes cash-strapped local councils trying to squeeze more and more money out of us and at the same time clobbering us with a barrage of regulations: smoking bans, parking fines, fines for not putting rubbish in the correct recycling container, or, as happened to one no doubt bemused man, for momentarily placing a drinks can on the pavement while tying a shoelace.

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, we are herded like cattle to be searched at airport queues for anything that may be vaguely dangerous.

On a more sinister note, there is a government proposal that children are to be fingerprinted when applying for a passport. Additionally, according to Labour’s recent crime review, every child will be assessed to see if they are likely to turn to crime. Those that comply with a certain profile will be “actively managed” by social services. Also mentioned in the review are ID cards, mobile fingerprint readers, crowd scanners and an expansion of the DNA database of people who have committed no crime. It seems we are all to be guilty until proven to be responsible adults.

Looking at the wider world, we have innocent people routinely held in prisons, with that bastion of western democracy, the United States, habitually ignoring Habeas Corpus in places like Guantanamo Bay.

There are millions of people worldwide, many of them children, working in conditions that rival those of the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries look like a fairground game. Not to mention the number of people working for pittances in call centres and other soul-destroying jobs.

So what is the truth of it? Are we more free or less free than we used to be? On the one hand, we seem more prepared to stand up against authoritarianism. But on the other hand, there seems to be a lot more of it to stand up to.

By and large, any concession of rights and privileges by our leaders, any freedoms won by trade union activity or direct action, are limited in nature. Governments as a whole, acting on behalf of capitalism, concede just as much freedom as they think we need to do our jobs effectively and keep contributing to “the economy” (for which read the profits of the rich minority).

In some ways capitalism has had to relax its attitude to the people who produce its profits. The rigid old social divisions were counter-productive, and people are more street-wise as a result – but don’t use their power effectively. Efforts are mostly directed towards ameliorating one narrow aspect of the capitalist machine while leaving capitalism itself, and the repressive governments that do its bidding, alive and well.

As proof of this, the newspapers every now and then toss their rich lists at us, to rub our noses in the widening gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us. This despite the ever increasing competitiveness that compels businesses to spend less and make their goods and services as cheaply as possible. The resulting squeeze hits the ordinary working person, while our lords and masters rake in ever increasing profits.

And as long as we hit our deadlines and keep the money rolling in for our bosses, it doesn’t matter what we wear while doing it, or whether we call our boss Richard instead of Mr Branson. We still know our place. And what capitalism gives us with one hand, it takes away with the other much larger one.

Capitalism limits our freedom in so many ways because it rations us by the amount of money we earn and carries with it a mass of rules to make sure we don’t overstep the mark. Most of us in Britain are undoubtedly more fortunate than many in other parts of the world, but we are all chained to our jobs, our pensions (if we are lucky enough to have either), and to our governments.

So how do we really become free? If the examples above haven’t made it obvious, we need to realize that it’s not a free country in any meaningful sense. Then we need to question some ingrained attitudes.

We don’t have to live in a world full of leaders who do nothing but lead us up the garden path. We don’t have to accept that money is essential to making the world go round. And we don’t have to take for granted that oppression will always be with us.

We need to see the world as a whole because capitalism itself is a world-wide system and as such produces world-wide problems. The only effective route to freedom is its world-wide abolition and replacement with a classless, moneyless, world society without governments or national boundaries – socialism.

In socialism we wouldn’t be free to do whatever we wished. But the constraints on our personal freedom would be self-determined by local communities agreeing as equals and not imposed on us by the state or one of its local government offshoots. Whatever freedoms we decided to sacrifice would genuinely be for the good of the society we lived in, i.e. the people around us and the world at large.

ROD SHAW