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The Business of Freedom, by John Hinkson

‘Free speech’, free markets: when global society sees itself as freedom.

In spite of dangers to political alliances it is clear that ‘freedom of speech’, especially arising out of the Andrew Bolt case, is a core issue for Tony Abbott. The issue contrasts the rights of the individual against what are now referred to as ‘identity rights’, what could be called social rights or rights associated with various social backgrounds, whether multicultural, ethnic or indigenous. It remains to be seen whether George Brandis and Tony Abbott will turn back what they see as the tide of ‘identity rights’. It is turning out to be a more complex issue than they had anticipated, with the emergence, on the one hand, of criticism from the very Indigenous individuals Abbott has been promoting as the new leaders of Indigenous affairs and, on the other, Jewish lobby groups, mostly close to government, who for understandable reasons wish to defend laws that deny public rights to those who engage in ‘hate speech’.

This is actually a larger issue than it may first appear. A particular defence of the unconstrained individual fits into a bigger pattern that tells us what this government stands for. It is certainly not, for example, a pattern that gives support to traditional rights of association, rights that go back deep into a history broadly associated with the emergence of democracy and were substantially drawn into the liberal tradition. The right to associate is a social right and social rights are not the concern of the government.

Nor is there any reflection on those social groupings that experience ‘hate speech’, whether Indigenous, Jewish or Muslim. Some have experienced practical hatred on an historic scale. In Australia in particular Indigenous cultures are our direct responsibility. Were ‘free speech’ to be restored, it would need to be balanced by respect for the suffering of those social groups. Nor is there any reflection of the way today vulnerable people sense a deterioration of the social environment, the usual source of threats to them. In other words, there is little empathy at the centre of this strategy.

There is no balance in all this. Free speech (of some individuals) is the focus. Free speech and freedom are in the foreground, social groups in the background at best. A naive, simplistic freedom is the goal.

Freedom to act, freedom without constraint: this orientation is widespread in the economy as well. Australia is open for business! Constraints on business and trade will be removed to make the economy hum. Removing red tape, re-opening old growth forests to the chainsaw, turning national parks into business opportunities, attacking the role of unions: and now we have Free Trade Zones breaking out throughout Asia.

A predictable outcome of a change of government? In part, but if we go beneath the surface meanings of freedom and the liberal tradition, the implications of this strategy reveal a new radicality. Take Free Trade Zones for a start: they are of interest to particular sectors looking forward to the advantages they offer or others wishing to criticise them because the agreements are not really free. But Free Trade Zones are one expression of a larger process: the emergence of global markets that work to break down all barriers to market access, whatever the cost. When Toyota recently announced the end of auto production in Australia it explicitly referred to the imminent Free Trade Agreement between Canberra and Tokyo. The freedom unleashed by markets is of a particular kind, one quite consistent with pursuing freedom without concern for others.

How does this work? A little historical perspective helps here.

The freedom that was so stunning in Thomas Jefferson’s day (putting aside his reliance on both slavery and settler colonialism) was relative, in institutional terms.  Those institutions that promoted liberty—legal institutions that promoted the rights of the individual, political institutions that allowed the expression of individual power, the rise and rise of educational institutions, the free market of Adam Smith—were relative to a vast array of community-based and other institutions. These latter institutions worked on principles of social organisation and social order that were solidaristic. They were not oriented to freedom. The individual often found that the centre of their lives—family and community—did not especially respect their individuality. But where these were supplemented by institutionalised liberty, the resulting mix gave a unique expression of constraint combined with choice: a liberal society with social spaces that allowed the enhancement of individuality. Freedom was in these terms ‘freedom from society’, paradoxically facilitated by certain social institutions that offered a limited social transcendence. Or to put it more accurately, relations facilitated by abstract processes were dominated by less abstract associations, often integrated within the same person.

Whatever is to be said about that liberal society, the freedom now typical of global society is qualitatively different, for global society has emerged on the back of the high-tech revolution in higher education which has generated new social institutions, such as the mass media and the Internet. In turn, these have transformed and supercharged older institutions, such as those of politics and the market of Adam Smith. The liberty of the Internet, for example, represents a change in society of immense proportions, allowing a society of constant movement freed from the constraints of others grounded in place. But the high-tech that makes the Internet possible also supports the whole range of institutions that make up much of our contemporary reality. Now politics is the politics of image, largely divorced from grounded publics and the everyday. And the market is so powerful it no longer acts as a supplement to community-based institutions.  Rather it moves into and takes over many of their functions—exemplified in the training of individual members of families by the media in the art of individualist consumption. We are ‘freed’ from the need for community based in place. This is a liberty of a new kind, supported materially by a new range of social institutions that have their own logic and are no longer offset to any significant degree by social realities shaped by community-in-place. This is techno-scientific freedom, those social relations made possible by high technology. Rather than ‘freedom from society’, global society sees itself as freedom, going so far as to experiment (via biotechnology and other technological forms) with liberation from species identity itself.

Markets augmented by high technology, augmented by the intellectual practices of the sciences, allow the extended reach of technology. They allow the emergence of heightened forms of individuality, remake the productive economy along high-tech lines, and break down all barriers to the global. The other side of these markets is intolerance towards local economies, historically gained skills and employment related to place. Neoliberal markets also undermine social settings globally, lying at the heart of the production of asylum-seekers, who then are granted no rights.

It is also these markets that lie at the heart of the greatest threat to the Earth as we have known it through the period of the Holocene, that period since the Ice Age associated with the rise of organised human cultures, including what is called civilisation. By being the medium of the pursuit of high-growth economies, they deepen the environmental crises that threaten to overwhelm the general condition of life on Earth. And of at least equal importance, markets undermine those face-to-face institutions that lie at the centre of how our humanity is formed and renewed each generation. As such they promote a post-human future. Even F. A. Hayek was against a market that consumed the everyday; he saw that certain core relations could not be reduced to market relations.

The Abbott government is headed full throttle towards an economy and a society flattened by these processes. Even as trade expands general conditions worsen for most members of society. Some have lost their jobs as a condition of others taking up new opportunities for further consumption. But all experience the emptying out of the familiar social relations and institutions that are the necessary support for any responsible expression of freedom. Social life deteriorates in these circumstances. That the government responds to the growth of asylum-seekers with militaristic responses illustrates the reality behind their commitment to the new freedom. It would be foolish as we move deeper into crisis to imagine these measures will be limited to asylum-seekers.

The classic defence of freedom relied upon by both Abbott and Brandis contrasts the individual with the threat of interference by the state and its related institutions. While it may be arguable that legal constraints upon ‘free speech’ are unfortunate, a one-sided approach to the question misses the point when the whole context of society is undergoing basic transformation. The revolution that defines our times, which has buried the socialist revolutions that were feared by capitalism, also buries capitalism as it was known. For the capitalism reworked by intellectual practices promotes different principles as a society. The other side of the pursuit of constant mobility and fleeting relations (freedom) typical of this society is surveillance. In the face of the decline of significant relations grounded in presence, where families and communities are no longer the base on which society can rely for basic coherence, the freedom of distance technologies goes hand in hand with the surveillance of distance technologies.

Here the silence of our politicians is telling. In the circumstance of the new individuality, surveillance becomes an objective need. It is the other side of the new individual and of ‘free speech’. It is essential if society is to hold together. Recent scandals about the widespread use of telecommunications to maintain order and security are illustrative. The defence of free speech by the Abbott government completely misses the point of the real issues now at work. We are experiencing a crisis of society, not a crisis of free speech. As liberal rights lose their essential social supports, the question becomes, what are we going to do about a society that must rely on surveillance for social integration? The Brave New World we know of was always one of surveillance by government. Now that is old hat. Through the media of the Internet, mobile phones and email, and now deployed as much by corporations as government, surveillance moves into the very structure of our lives.