Birds i’ the cage: freedom and lockdown

Lear and Cordelia in Prison – William Blake, 1779

Boris Johnson announced lockdown to the British public on March 20th. Stating that it ‘seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people’¹, he nevertheless used his ministerial powers to close pubs, clubs, and restaurants. These restrictions were then extended to a wide range of businesses, small and large, that had contact with the public. Open spaces like parks became policed, and uniformed officers patrolled high streets, ensuring that individuals from different homes stayed two metres apart.

These restrictions, and particularly, law enforcement presence, can make it feel as if lockdown is the product of an oppressive authority. “Stop and ask” practices, run in recreational areas and open forests, hazily shadow the militarised checkpoints used in countries under martial law. Is tackling the virus so difficult that we must implement these wartime-esque measures? This is a question the “freedom-loving” British people have undoubtedly asked themselves countless times.

Trying to understand what the freedom instinct is takes us across time and space in a narrative that covers perhaps all of human history. No wonder Johnson did not elaborate on exactly why the restrictions are compatible with British liberty in his speech. Some even view his stance as completely wrong, like American business voices that called for reopening as soon as possible². There is a sense of desperation in the opposition to lockdown, and rightly so: it creates harrowing circumstances for many, leaves our lives feeling somewhat empty. But a proper concept of freedom does not bow down to lockdown. As Shakespeare wrote, we can ‘sing like birds i’ the cage’³.

British freedom has a long and storied history, that begins with the 7th century Law of Ethelberht⁴⁵⁶. This is both the earliest surviving Germanic law code⁷, and also the earliest document written in English⁸, which demonstrates the importance of law to British society. By establishing an objective framework for identifying and punishing crime, the text conceptually transformed the nation from the personal domain of the king, to a nation of citizens. Ethelberht exercised monarchic power, but he did not do so purely over his own property: in some small sense, the common man had become independent.

The second seminal date is 1066. William the Conqueror brought Norman rule to England, and with it emerged a feudal system⁹. Although the king was the only landholder by title, and all property ultimately belonged to him, his decisions had to be made with the consent of the clergy and nobility¹⁰. Because the church was a law unto itself at the time, this effectively established multiple sovereignty. In the same way that separation of powers into President, Congress, and Supreme Court in the US system prevents any one leader from becoming tyrannical, the system of Great Councils limited dictatorial rule, and widened the number of people that participate in governance. The American system has problems with deadlock¹¹, and the Great Councils faced similar issues: when consultation and consent deteriorated, it often became impossible for government to function, leading to disputes like the one that gave rise to the Magna Carta in 1215. Regardless, the councils evolved into the English Parliament¹², which checked and balanced the crown. Freedom for those at the lowest levels of the feudal hierarchy was a long way off when Scottish King James VI ascended to the English throne in 1603, but what was surprising to him were the constraints the Lords and Lords Spiritual imposed on his power¹³. It was a clash between his House of Stuart and parliament that ignited the English Civil War¹⁴, leading to the decapitation of Charles I, and the establishment of a nominally more egalitarian “Commonwealth”. The end result of the political upheaval was the “Glorious Revolution”¹⁵, which definitively placed parliament’s power above that of the crown. The incoming rulers, William of Orange and Mary II, swore at their coronation to govern according to the statutes the parliament agreed upon, rather than by the customs of previous rulers¹⁶. These statues were then embodied in the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed trial by jury, and freedom of speech in parliament; banning arbitrary punishment, and personal exercise of power by the king; but allowing any citizen to complain to the crown and seek its assistance¹⁷.

One century later, France became the epicentre of the struggle for freedom. The revolutions which began in 1789 attacked the byzantine, and often unfair tax system¹⁸. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen held all men to be equal, and therefore argued they should be subject to equal treatment. The declaration was later used by abolitionists to campaign against slavery, and by suffrage movements to give women the vote. Not only did this aid the search for freedom by many, but it held that rights were properties of human nature itself: to have your rights violated was to be treated as subhuman.

However, nowhere is liberty more closely associated with a nation than America. The statue of the Roman God Libertas that sits in New York Harbour recalls the founding fathers’ mission to establish a state that could prosper without tyranny. They had a republican vision of freedom, where the individual self-determines through active participation in governance. Although the moniker republican is associated with political division today, uncapitalized, the ideology is associated with Athenian democracy and civic participation in local administration¹⁹. One difference between the American and the Greek view however, was that the ancients took class to be the primary determinant of freedom: citizens were free, and slaves were not²⁰. It took until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s for Americans to recognise that a state which systematically oppresses its own people is not one that endorses freedom.

Freedom is not, however, an absence of discrimination. Nor is it a fair rule of law or democratic governance, as literal readings of this history might suggest. The deepest and most profound liberty we can experience is internal; one that escapes politics in some senses, and highlights its injustices in others.

The human being is fundamentally something that escapes mere survival. It is thanks to the superfluity of our cognitive resources and abilities that we are able to build societies where we can create, discover, and love. However, this superfluity must be put to use for us to lead meaningful lives. The links between liberty, humanity, and existential purpose are so integral and yet so obvious that we rarely concern ourselves with thinking about them. Aristotle, for example, argued that the purpose of human life was to flourish, through the development and exercise of our abilities²¹. Marx found that it was freedom, rather than purpose, that this flourishing embodies²². Sartre cemented the triangular relationship by arguing that freedom is the necessary condition of existence; the necessary condition of man²³.

Mr Johnson did not consult Parisian existentialism when he decided to impose restrictions on the British nation, but what he did do is conclude that they do not constitute “arbitrary interference” in our lives. The Constitution that emerged out of the French revolution took liberty to be ‘the power which belongs to man to do anything that does not harm the rights of others’²⁴, but scholars developed this concept into one where the individual is free from ‘arbitrary interference’²⁵. This disqualification of “arbitrary acts” worked its way into what we would not call British liberalism, which holds that the government should not intervene in our lives unless it has a very good reason to do so. The extent to which they do step in is determined by which acts we consider to be arbitrary, and which we deem rational, and therefore justified. This consideration is often central to the freedom debate, and perhaps represents the distinction between the operation of a minarchist²⁶ state, similar to Somalia de facto, and one with state intervention in almost every walk of life, like Norway²⁷.

The issue with “negative liberty”, the technical term for the views of many advocating against the lockdown mandate²⁸, is that it treats people like they are separate and isolated individuals. The desire for liberty is not truly a desire for the absence of arbitrary intervention. Rather, it is the desire for a state in which we can live our best lives. These are not one and the same thing. For one, we can never escape “arbitrary” intervention. We are born to parents that shape who we are. The social and economic circumstances of our family then determine countless things about us. Even imagining a heavenly, perfect world, few would conceive of paradise without a loving partner; yet that partner will often arbitrarily impose their will on you. Sometimes, this is part of the fun – and this too can be part of the freedom. Total freedom, under the incorrect definition that too many of us subscribe to, entails ‘separation of man from man’²⁹, presupposing that a monastic life of isolation is our ultimate dream. A life with no external interference is hardly a human life at all: as stated earlier, our fundamental characteristic is that we are thinking beings that participate in society. Properly speaking, human beings only arise with society; and thus to deny society, and its arbitrary influence, is to deny the nature of our own existence.

So what is liberty, and how do we recognise when we don’t have it? Lefebvre makes a compelling argument regarding necessity. Necessity constrains liberty by creating a state of affairs in which human powers are not utilised for the sake of their own development. Simple, everyday necessities, like waking up at the same time every day, or driving along a traffic-choked route to work, capitulating to your annoying boss, or listening endlessly to a tiresome partner, constrain and control us. It is only through escape from these everyday totalitarianisms that we can flourish³⁰.

But there is another view that we can take. Within this box of necessity, we nevertheless have tremendous choice over how we lead our lives. Compared to the Hobbesian state of nature from which we emerged, modern humans can do more, see more, and feel more. It is perhaps because of habituation to the extreme breadth of choice advanced society affords us that we experience any minor deterioration of this scope as a maximal incursion. This is not to say that we are now “more free”: in the political sense, we can only be unfree when another person restricts our freedom; and so as primitive humans, we may have been unable to do things, but liberty itself was not a consideration. Regardless, it is accurate to say that a supermarket today presents me with more complex decisions over what I choose to eat than a prehistoric hunting ground would.

Freedom is not an abstract, purely political or philosophical concept. Freedom is something that real humans experience and real humans know when they feel. It is embodied in the sensation of the wind through your hair when you stick your head out of a car window as much as it is in a fair and representative government, as much in passionate love or a genuine friendship as civil rights. Underpinning all these things is the knowledge that we are most ourselves when we are given the room and support to grow, explore, and change.

The lockdown does not have to be a restriction to this freedom: it can present an opportunity. How many chances do we have to throw our routines out the window? How often is it that we are given more free time to make art and music, to cook good food and inspire ourselves through reading? We may not be able to do many of the things we are used to doing, and for some – those with oppressive families or abusive partners – the cost of a healthier country may be truly terrible. But for those of us lucky enough not to live under such circumstances, it can be a blessing as well as a curse. We should take this opportunity to flourish, cultivate new or existing abilities, for their own sake – and shake off necessity, wherever possible. For as Sartre said³¹, we are always more than our situation: we are condemned to be free.

Originally appeared on How the World Recovers


¹ Reuters, “Ancient British rights to a drink in the pub have to be suspended: Johnson”. March 20, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-pubs/ancient-british-rights-to-a-drink-in-the-pub-have-to-be-suspended-johnson-idUSKBN21732F. Accessed May 24, 2020.

² CNBC TV report, April 18, 2020

³ Shakespeare, William, King Lear. Oxford School Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, 2013. Act V, Scene III.

⁴ “Æthelberht”, S.E. Kelly, in Lapidge, Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England.

⁵ Geary, Patrick J. Readings in Medieval History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. pp. 209–211.

⁶ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 59–60

⁷ Ibid.

⁸ Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Routledge, 2015, p. 1.

⁹ Bartlett, Robert (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075 -1225. London: Oxford University Press

¹⁰ Bloch, Marc (1964). Feudal Society Volume 2: Social Classes and Political Organization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

¹¹ MAYHEW, DAVID R. Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations, 1946-2002, Second Edition. Yale University Press, 2005.

¹² Maddicott, John. The Origins of the English Parliament, 924–1327. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010.

¹³ James had written The Trew Law of Free Monarchies just years earlier, which set out the “divine right of kings”. This political philosophy argued that kings were the earthly administrators of God, and thus their seat on the throne was theologically justified. Willson, David Harris ([1956] 1963 ed). King James VI & 1. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

¹⁴ Stephen, Jeffrey (January 2010). “Scottish Nationalism and Stuart Unionism: The Edinburgh Council, 1745”. Journal of British Studies. 49 (1, Scotland Special Issue): 47–72.

¹⁵ Harris, Tim (2006). Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685–1720. Allen Lane.

¹⁶ Anon. “The Convention and Bill of Rights”. http://www.parliament.uk. British Parliament. Retrieved 24 May 2020.

¹⁷ “English Declaration of Rights”. The Avalon Project. Yale University. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/england.asp

¹⁸ Chanel, Gerri. (2016). Taxation as a Cause of the French Revolution: Setting the Record Straight. Studia Historica Gedanensia. 6.

¹⁹ Miller, David, “Introduction”, in Miller, ed., Liberty, 1991

²⁰ Constant, Benjamin. The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns, 1819 (lecture)

²¹ Younkins, Edward W. “Aristotle, Human Flourishing, and the Limited State”. Le Quebecois Libre, 133, 2003. http://www.quebecoislibre.org/031122-11.htm

²² Marx, Karl, Capital, Vol.3 p.593

²³ Bakewell, Sarah. At the existentialist café : freedom, being, and apricot cocktails. London: Chatto & Windus, 2016. Ch. 1.

²⁴ Acte constitutionnel du 24 juin 1793, 1793. Paris, France. Article 6.

²⁵ Phillippe, Pettit, “The Republican Ideal of Freedom’, in Miller, ed., Liberty Reader, 2016.

²⁶ Garner, Richard. “Minarchy Considered”. Libertarian Papers, 1, 2012.

²⁷ The contrast between small and large-scale intervention is humorously brought out in the excellent Netflix Original series Lillehammer, through the American protagonist Frank Tagliano’s interactions with the Norwegian nanny state.

²⁸ Taylor, Charles, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?”, in Miller, ed., Liberty Reader, 2016

²⁹ Marx, Karl. ‘On the Jewish Question’, Early Writings, p.183

³⁰ Lefebvre, Henri, Critique of Everyday Life, 2016, p.190-5

³¹ Flynn, Thomas, “Jean-Paul Sartre”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/sartre/

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