By Billy Bragg
Published by Faber Social, June 2019.
Essex born political songwriter Billy Bragg has written the first in a series of political pamphlets to be released by Faber Social. The pocket-sized paperback that costs around 7 pounds can be digested in a few hours. Hopefully, future editions will be just as accessible and thought provoking as Bragg is here. He tackles freedom in a broader sense of the concept whilst remaining firmly grounded in political reality like his songs. He argues there is more than just freedom of speech, and to be truly free we need to look further than social commentators saying they are being shut down.
Bragg’s argument is that our societal and political freedoms are being challenged by an ever changing world that we have not kept up with. In order to restore freedom we need to concentrate on three things that have eroded over time: our liberty, equality to be heard and accountability.
Part one discusses liberty and our perception of freedom and liberty. The main discussion of this part of the book is around economic liberty and personal agency for human beings. This is introduced with what our concept of liberty is in the 21st-century, then he talks about our freedom to criticise has become skewered to us due to the advancement of social media. The well-off they have the ability toexpress themselves with their money and in the past our ancestors could express themselves through their democratic right to vote. Now when the working class do vote it makes little difference because of the hollowing out of our democratic institutions by capital. Neoliberalism has made people feel “left behind” and unable to voice their opinions and influence their own lives which is driving them to vote for populist politicians.
He uses Donald Trump’s victory and the campaign to illustrate how freedom of expression is being used as part of cultural war against so-called political correctness, Bragg goes on to question is this even exists.
Following this example, and probably the clearest example of a cultural war between the “haves” and “have nots” in the 21st-century, Bragg goes on to explain how this conundrum came about using history to highlight how we got here. The story of Frederick Hayek and the liberation of western economies and how this came to mix capital with democracy. Then with the financial crisis of 2008, liberal western democracy and capitalism became stuck. Bragg illustrates that we are not free, on a personal level but also a national level, our image of freedom has been completely lost.
Equality is the subject of part two, and how it is not being respected in today’s political discourse. Bragg talks about such characters like Ben Sharipo and Jordan Peterson and how they contradict their own claims that political correctness is stopping their right to freedom of speech. When in fact they have sold out stadiums and have podcasts with subscribers in the tens of thousands. Bragg continues with the incompatible nature of public expression and personal space that we believe social media to be, when in reality it isn’t. Safe spaces and conservative commentators are discussed here, however at times I felt a bit lost as he seemed to put the argument together in a disjointed way.
Part three looks at accountability. In this part Bragg explores how accountability has bought into check the powers above the average human-being, from throughout the centuries from the English Civil War to Roosevelt’s financial reforms after the Second World War. This he points out led to the social democratic era of prosperity, and resulted in many countries adopting a welfare state, free health care and housing. He then goes on to talk about how democracy is being undermined in the modern day by technology, and how global tech giants are not held accountable, and how they come with algorithms to undermine democracy with the example of Brexit.
Finally, Bragg sums up that all three dimensions are needed to ensure that humans can enjoy freedom. Whilst doing this he puts in his own point of view on Brexit, in which he states that the UK should be joining, not leaving, global institutions to fight global problems. He acknowledges that the European Union has problems, and it’s not perfect. However, without it workers would not continue to enjoy protections that their European counterparts enjoy such as limits on working hours and agency worker protection. I do feel that his opinion on Brexit was thrown in at the end, but I don’t feel it adds anything to do with the argument about the reinstatement of accountability, mutual respect in the public domain and human freedom. This could all be done outside the EU with a left-wing government but we don’t have that at the moment, so like many on the left Bragg supports remain.
He does make a valid point which I have come around to respect and appreciate which is that this Brexit is in the hands of Conservative party and that they have never taken well to being part of somebody else’s empire which is why they are pushing to leave. With this they will be able to ensure they can have all the deregulation they want as the European Union, as much as they are a neo liberal a project, is increasing regulations on workers’ rights, digital security and tax avoidance. That being said, if United Kingdom did leave the EU and all these new deregulations were to happen, it would not last long as there would be even more public unrest than just arguing on Facebook.
Bragg puts his argument clearly in the last five pages of this 102 page book, we need to hold companies, governments and people to account and regulate the above so that it does not crush the people below. We need to offer meaningful change so that the electorate are not attracted to the likes of Trump, and that we need democratic and workplace reform to give people a sense of security and freedom in their lives.
The Three Degrees of Separation is a great start to what I hope is an interesting series and worth trying out. I think this publication is thought-provoking in a time when we are usedto being told what to think. We have taken freedom for granted and highjacked from under our noses. Bragg reminds us how we can get it back and why we need to.