Ask a person if all men should be free and the likely answer will be “yes”.
Move the conversation from the theoretical to the empirical, from the general to the specific, and you will be surprised by the kind of different answers you may receive.
In recent conversations on the outcome of the popular uprisings that have upset the Arab world since early 2011, I have been repeatedly confronted with the argument that some people, for cultural, religious, or whatever reason, “are not ripe for freedom.” Supporters of different strands of this argument use the current examples of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya, violence in post-Mubarak Egypt, disorder in post-Saleh Yemen, and protracted armed confrontation in post- (?) Assad Syria to prove that some people, especially in the Arab world, are not ready to be “free”. It seems to me that hidden behind many of these arguments is the legacy of the XVIII century concept of the “white man’s burden”, according to which the “better” people should encourage the “lesser” people to develop socially, politically, and economically until the latter can eventually take their own place in the world.
Nevertheless, if one accepts the assumption that some people are not ripe for freedom, freedom will never be achieved;
for one cannot arrive at the maturity for freedom without having already acquired it; one must be free to learn how to make use of one’s powers freely and usefully.
The first attempts will surely be brutal and will lead to a state of affairs more painful and dangerous than the former condition under the dominance, but also the protection, of an external authority.
However, one can achieve reason only through one’s own experiences and one must be free to be able to undertake them.
To accept the principle that freedom is worthless for those under one’s control and that one has the right to refuse it to them forever, is an infringement on the rights of God himself, who has created man to be free.
Those are not my words but Immanuel Kant’s (the above excerpt is cited in Michael Bakunin’s Etatism et Anarchie, ed. Arthur Lehning, 1967). Kant’s remarks are especially interesting because of their context. In fact, the German philosopher wrote them during the so-called Reign of Terror (end of XVIII century) in defense of the French Revolution. Kant was defending the Revolution against those who claimed that the violence unleashed during the Reign of Terror showed that the masses were unprepared for the privilege of freedom.
I cannot help being impressed by the contemporary relevance of Kant’s words.
I believe that no rational individual should condone violence and terror. However, the same rational individual should not be too quick to condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued people rise against their autocratic oppressors and take the first difficult steps toward freedom.
It seems to me that when we look at the popular uprisings in the Arab world we are quick to condemn the violence associated with the upheaval but we easily forget what triggered such violence in the first place. Autocrats generally seize and maintain power through violence. Unfortunately, a certain level of violence might be the only way for oppressed people to take that power back from them.
That said, there remain several unresolved vexing issues.
In order to prompt a debate on the topic, let’s narrow down the concept of freedom to political freedoms, and in particular to those political freedoms generally enjoyed in a sound form of democratic government.
Some questions immediately come into the mind:
1) What if democratic institutions bring to power elites or groups that are not committed to democratic values? Or, at least, to the kind of democratic values that we cherish in the West? Put in other words, what if political freedom becomes license to opt for destructive radicalization?
2) Could we expect autocratic leaderships to be credible mid-wives for countries undergoing difficult processes of democratic transition? How do we value the establishment of democratic institutions and practices (a parliament or elections) in terms of achieving political freedom?
3) Is there any factual ground to the argument that a specific culture or religion makes people more or less “ripe” for political freedom?
4) What does history tell us about the path that western societies followed to free themselves from their own oppressive autocrats? Was it a peaceful or a violent one?
Let’s the discussion begin…