‘Keep cool and you command everybody’*: reflections on history and why we are focusing on the wrong freedoms.

charles-henri-sanson

‘We live in societies where the positive freedom to act as we wish is perhaps our central concern. Whatever the professed fears f global warning, or the expressed sympathies with the poor and downtrodden, the willingness actively to change our way of living is the province of only a small minority.

For most, the everyday rhetoric of politics, with its perennial twin foci of security and prosperity, matches closely with our lifestyle and desires. Positive freedom to choose between ever-widening spectrum of goods and services is maintained as an unqualified good, as consumer-citizens claim as their rights what the [French] revolutionaries would have dismissed as selfish luxury bordering on debauchery.

And at the same time, of course, choice in politics is confined to a narrowing spectrum of appropriately “patriotic” viewpoints, for all but those prepared to expose themselves to vilification by stepping outside the mainstream. Protecting the unparalleled prosperity of the West is the unashamed goal of those who foster the continuing unchecked spread of the security state, with its increasingly autonomous ability to decide who is and who is not entitled to rights that we think we can take for granted’.

David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution

(London, Abacus, 2006) pp.376-7

I have just finished reading Andress’ history of the Terror and found it to be a compelling and a disturbing read. At the beginning of the lockdown I finished John Rees’ The Leveller Revolution, and that too has helped me reflect on the current state of the world. Both books deal with major political and social upheavals that reshaped British and European history in the early modern world. Both describe countries at war with themselves, riven by faction, political infighting, cruelty, oppression, and retribution.

I accept, of course, that the past is ‘foreign country’ and that ‘they do things differently there’ as L. P. Hartley wrote, but that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from history. Andress’ powerful conclusions (a section of which I’ve used above) reminded me that history is perhaps the most important discipline, especially when we are going through turbulent times, as we are today.

In reality very few people were actively involved in the politics of the revolutions in Bourbon France or Stuart England. Very many more would have taken up arms – pressed to do so or voluntarily – but active political engagement with the ideas of men like Danton, Saint-Just (the author of the quote that heads this blog post), Oliver Cromwell, or John Lillburne was probably rare.

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The Brexit ‘revolution’ (if I may call it that for a moment) brought more people out to vote than normally participate in an election, but not much more. In 2019 around 67% of those entitled to vote actually did so, the second highest turnout since 1997.  72% of the electorate voted in the Brexit referendum, 46,500,001 people.

One of the problems with this period of lockdown has been the perception that this is some ways an attack on our freedoms. The freedoms we value, that is (i.e. to move about, to congregate, to see our families, and to consume). What we think of as ‘essentials’ (shopping, freedom of ‘our’ movement, holidays) would, as Andress points out, have been either been alien to the revolutionaries in 1789 (and the 1640s for that matter), or dismissed as ‘selfish luxury bordering on debauchery’.

The collective anger directed at Dominic Cummings is, in part, an outpouring of rage that he is allowed to do as he likes while ‘we’ are not.

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Yet while we bemoan the restriction of the freedoms we hold so dear the vast majority of society is sleepwalking into an increasingly policed state controlled by an insidious surveillance the like of which Robespierre and Fouché could only have dreamed of. Tell us that we can’t go out to the beaches, or to the football, and we rage online; but undermine the rule or law, or play fast and loose with the machinery of representative democracy and we roll over and let the executive tickle our tummies.

The Parisians in 1789 famously clamored for bread, the basic essential of life in much of eighteenth-century Europe. Now I get upset if my supply of blueberries is interrupted.

In the streets and clubs of Paris the sans cullottes debated the issues of the day, as their counterparts in Britain had in pubs and army camps in the heat of the Civil Wars.   There is more widespread debate in modern Britain about the next Strictly or Bake Off victor than there is cogent discussion about the major political issues of our time.

Instead debate is reduced to personalities. You either love ‘Boris’ or you hate ‘Johnson’; you are a xenophobic Brexiteer or a ‘snowflake’ ‘remoaner’. There’s no real light or shade and precious little informed discussion. Social media exacerbates this by directing us towards those who occupy the same goldfish bowl as we do.

You don’t have to study the past to see that the present state of Britain and the world offers genuine challenges to our way of life. Once the pandemic is over the world will look different, but how different and with what effects is, in many ways, up to us. If we allow those that purport to lead us free license to do as they think fit then we can expect more of the same. More creeping control of our lives using technology, more ‘fake news’ designed to misinform and undermine trust in independent journalism, more lining of the pockets of the super rich, and more marginalization of anyone who isn’t ‘one of us’.

History knows where this leads; the records are full of it. We are no more immune to the ravages of history than we are to the spread of CV-19. It is time for people to wake up and pay attention, to stop worrying about the ‘small stuff’ and focus on what really matters in our lives – and on what freedom really means.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities, University of Northampton.

*Louis Antonie de Saint-Just

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