The myth of liberty

Liberty and security are the two most fundamental ingredients of human life. While democracies irrespective of their credentials claim that that is indeed the case, Conor Gearty’s latest book Liberty and Security (Polity Press, UK) reveals the inconvenient truth that liberty and security in practical terms are enjoyed by only the advantaged few.

Instead of becoming a cheerleader of democracy, the author cuts through its veneer of unqualified success, and separates the real from the manifest. In doing so, he produces a profoundly moral work that is rooted in sound empirical analyses rather than driven by ideological beliefs.

In the pre-democratic phase, the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘security’ started out as narrowly defined constructs at the service of the privileged minority. The advent of democracy rescued these progressive ideas and infused them with a sense of idealism and radicalism. As a result, egalitarian assault on power and privilege was made possible. However, the democratic impulse did not fulfil its full emancipatory promise. A post-democratic model of government (the author calls it neo-democratic) has now emerged. Remit of liberty and security is severely curtailed by old elite readings of the terms in a language that is deceptively universal.

For liberty and security to exist for all, Gearty rightly recognises three chief allies: democratic governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights. He goes on to demonstrate how each of these has been undermined at both the global and domestic stage. However, there is in most cases just enough of a semblance of the three norms to make any infraction seem like a justifiable action. This is what makes neo-democracy/pseudo-democracy a particularly dangerous phenomenon. It operates in an insidious manner and therefore, not subject to easy critique. Gearty in this bold and brilliant work flags several instances of ‘global neo-democracy in action’ and forces us to take notice of the fragile and partial nature of liberty and security.

Reports of grave human rights abuses committed by Russia in Chechnya; illegal detention of Kurdish activists by Turkey; alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces during anti-Maoists operations in India; various excesses committed by the US under the rubric of the ‘war on terror’; quasi-legal action taken by the UK against outsiders viewed as dangerous, of which the Belmarsh prison is a symbol-these and a series of similar reports of state action elsewhere fall into a definite pattern that speaks to the iniquitous situation worldwide wherein liberty and security of certain kinds of individuals are considered dispensable.

It is breathtaking for a 146-page book to have as wide a sweep as it does. The book is served exceedingly well by the unwavering focus of Conor Gearty; the universalism of liberty and security which he espouses in the book is distinguished not from particularistic meanings these terms may have in different societies, but from elitism that constrains their reach everywhere.

However, in one small but significant way, the book will still disappoint those who see a strong link between neoliberalism and neo-democracy. In the book, whenever Gearty draws attention to partisan allocation of liberty and security, neoliberal stamp on neo-democracy and vice versa become too obvious to be missed. But inexplicably, he stops short of acknowledging that the two work in a mutually reinforcing manner.

In the end, the grim view that the author takes of the current standing of liberty and security in the world leaves the question as to what, if anything, ought to be done about it. The answer, contained in the book, is to first try and dispel the myth that true liberty and security are available to all, and stop being in self-denial about disparities that endure. That itself can be a harbinger of better times ahead.

(The views expressed by the critic are personal).

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 5:39:05 AM |

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