Part 3: We Will Force You to Be Free
The final part focuses on the concepts of positive and negative liberty introduced in the 1950s by Isaiah Berlin. Curtis briefly explains how negative liberty could be defined as freedom from coercion and positive liberty as the opportunity to strive to fulfil one’s potential. Tony Blair had read Berlin’s essays on the topic and wrote to him in the late 1990s, arguing that positive and negative liberty could be mutually compatible. As Berlin was on his deathbed at the time, Blair never got a reply.
The programme begins with a description of the Two Concepts of Liberty and Berlin’s opinion that, since it lacked coercion, negative liberty was the safest of the two concepts. Curtis then explains how many political groups that sought their vision of freedom ended up using violence to achieve it. For example, the French revolutionaries wished to overthrow a monarchical system which they viewed as antithetical to freedom, but in doing so they ended up with the Reign of Terror. Similarly, the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, who sought to overthrow the established order and replace it with a society in which everyone is equal, ended up creating a totalitarian regime which used violence to achieve its objectives.
Using violence, not simply as a means to achieve one’s goals, but also as an expression of freedom from Western bourgeois norms, was an idea developed by Afro-Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon. He developed it from the existentialist ideology of Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that terrorism was a “terrible weapon, but the oppressed poor have no others.” These views were expressed, for example, in the revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers.
This part also explores how economic freedom had been used in Russia and the problems this had introduced. A set of policies known as “shock therapy” (also described in the 2007 book The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein) were brought in mainly by outsiders, which had the effect of destroying the social safety net that existed in most other western nations and Russia. In the latter, the sudden removal of the subsidies for basic goods caused their prices to rise enormously, making them hardly affordable to ordinary people. An economic crisis escalated during the 1990s and some people were paid in goods rather than money. Then-president Boris Yeltsin was accused by his parliamentary deputies of “economic genocide” due to the large numbers of people now too poor to eat. Yeltsin responded to this by removing parliament’s power and becoming more autocratic.
At the same time, many formerly state-owned industries were sold to private businesses, often at a fraction of their real value. Ordinary people, often in financial difficulties, would sell shares, which to them were worthless, for cash, without appreciating their true value. This culminated with the rise of the “Oligarchs”—super-rich businessmen who attributed their rise to the sell-offs of the 90s. It resulted in a polarisation of society into the poor and ultra-rich, and indirectly led to a more autocratic style of government under Vladimir Putin, which, while less free, promised to give people dignity and basic living requirements.
There is a similar review of post-war Iraq, in which an even more extreme “shock therapy” was employed—the removal from government of all Ba’ath party employees and the introduction of economic models which followed the simplified economic model of human beings outlined in the first two parts—this resulted in the immediate disintegration of Iraqi society and the rise of two strongly autocratic insurgencies: one based on Sunni-Ba’athist ideals and another based on revolutionary Shi’a philosophies.
Curtis also looks at the neoconservative agenda of the 1980s. Like Sartre, they argued that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve their goals, except they wished to spread what they described as democracy. Curtis quotes General Alexander Haig, then-US Secretary of State, as saying that, “Some things were worth fighting for.” However, Curtis argues, although the version of society espoused by the neoconservatives made some concessions towards freedom, it did not offer true freedom. Although the neoconservatives, for example, forced the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile and the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines to hold democratic elections, these transformations to democracy essentially replaced one elite with another, and the gap between those who have power and wealth, and those who have neither, remained; the freedom the change provided was therefore relatively narrow in concept.
The neoconservatives wanted to change or overthrow the Sandinistas — a socialist group in Nicaragua — who were seen as tyrannical, destabilising, and a threat to US security; the US therefore supported anti-communist rebels known collectively as the Contras, who, Curtis states, carried out many violations of human rights, including the torture and murder of civilians. US Government financial support to the Contras had been banned by the US Congress, so other means were used to continue financing them, including the CIA allegedly providing aircraft for the rebels to fly cocaine into the United States, as well as the Iran–Contra affair in which the US illegally supplied weapons to the Iranian government, originally in exchange for assistance to gain the release of US prisoners in Lebanon, but also allegedly for cash which was then given to the Contras. Curtis uses this as another example of how the neoconservatives had fallen into the trap that Berlin had predicted: although they wanted to spread negative freedom, because they saw their ideology as an absolute truth they were able to justify using coercion and lies and also to support violence in order to perpetuate it.
However such policies did not always result in the achievement of neoconservative aims and occasionally threw up genuine surprises. Curtis examines the Western-backed government of the Shah in Iran, and how the mixing of Sartre’s positive libertarian ideals with Shia religious philosophy led to the revolution which overthrew it. Having previously been a meek philosophy of acceptance of the social order, in the minds of revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini, Revolutionary Shia Islam became a meaningful force to overthrow tyranny.
The programme examines the government of Tony Blair and its role in achieving its vision of a stable society. In fact, argues Curtis, the Blair government had created the opposite of freedom, in that the type of liberty it had engendered wholly lacked any kind of meaning. Its military intervention in Iraq had provoked terrorist actions in the UK and these terrorist actions were in turn used to justify restrictions on liberty.
In essence, the programme suggests that following the path of negative liberty to its logical conclusions, as governments have done in the West for the past 50 years, results in a society without meaning populated only by selfish automatons, and that there was some value in positive liberty in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.
The closing minutes directly state that if Western humans are ever to find their way out of the “trap” described in the series, they would have to realise that Isaiah Berlin was wrong, and that not all attempts to change the world for the better necessarily lead to tyranny.
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