Liberty, Equality, Fraternity


Within abstract political vocabulary, the French revolutionary trinity of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity still covers the main content of modern political thought surprisingly well. Our obligation to the environment is not included, but human-to-human relations are pretty fully covered.

More recent abstractions or code-words, such as choice, opportunity and respect have not picked up anything like the same general currency, and are unlikely to last as long. None of them are serious universal abstractions, they are just elements of party programmes, or buzzwords adopted by politicians who want to refresh general concepts that seem too vague.

Liberty and equality still remain absolutely foundational ideas in western politics, but by the late twentieth century two things were quite clear; that the right had won most of the arguments about economic liberty, and that outside the economic sphere the left had won most of the arguments about egalitarianism, in the fields of law, education, political inclusion, gender preference, and personal rights. Political vocabulary changed accordingly, and New Labour began to call not for equality but for less inequality, and then for an end to ‘unfair inequality’.

The Reagan-Thatcher project, in parallel with the end of the Cold War, put an end to radical economic egalitarianism, but not to radical libertarianism, so there are still things to be said in this area. It is also worth pointing out how uncaring about, and damaging to, fraternity the conservative-individualist project really was.

A short moment of reorientation and redefinition is called for.

Liberty concerns the right to differ and in the end it is granted by other people rather more than it is by states. States, in fact, have a rather ambivalent attitude to liberty, and are very happy to snatch it away for state purposes, which are represented as being for our own good. Liberty frequently works against the interests of the state, especially when it comes to freedom of speech, information, publication, association and protest. Equality, though, is very much the purview of state institutions, and cannot be granted by individuals directly to each other. Equality concerns the degree to which we will be the same – that is, will have the same rights – and is worked out in legislation and courts.

Fraternity is always the bridesmaid, elbowed out of the picture for long periods since 1789, but it is actually the vital animating spirit of politics. It works neither for nor against the state, and cannot be granted or created by any one person or institution. However, it can only really operate within some wider structure. It has to acknowledge boundaries outside which it is not intended to operate. It grew up within the concept of the nation, but it can work anywhere. It is also something that we all get a great deal more personal, sensual pleasure from, compared to liberty and equality, which need reflection and a certain abstract frame of mind to take any active enjoyment from them at all.

Fraternity has a function. It is the glue that holds us together while we work our political futures out. It is the recognition that we are all to some extent the same. Crucially, fraternity is the leg of the French Revolutionary triad that deals directly with Difference. And it tends to minimise it, when outer limits to fraternal obligations are declared and widely understood.

But it is generally still liberty that we hear most about. Liberty can mean a lot of different things to different people, because it is a licence, not a directive. This makes it a very useful abstraction, one which automatically sounds good in every ear. Its major drawback is that it is essentially contradictory – our freedoms of speech and action frequently run up hard against the liberties of others. But liberty remains critically unscathed and perennially popular. No one is against it, except certain religious types to whom personal liberty is a useless concept unless it is understood to mean freedom to worship and obey God as prescribed (by them). This is not perceived as liberty by many, and needs a large dollop of post mortem reward to make it palatable in this life.

Liberty is something we enjoy and can wish for others. It has, of itself, no force in determining relative political positions; there are authoritarian and libertarian tendencies on both left and right. Love of liberty therefore tells us nothing about its lovers without further definition.

Liberty is an entitlement – a right not a necessity, and it has no self-supporting moral standing. How ‘good’ your liberty is depends on what you use it to do, and moral worth then attaches to the deeds, not the freedom that allowed them. Nor is freedom an unlimited right; in settled societies it always has boundaries, and classic liberal theory teaches that it is the boundaries that create the liberty enjoyed within them. Liberty without boundaries has no liberating qualities for a society.

In religion, God is always freer than Man; in politics, liberty is a provisional privilege that governments regulate and can withdraw as they wish – from criminals, as a punishment, and from all citizens on a daily basis in minor ways, like highway codes, and more drastically in times of crisis.

It is more instructive politically to ask what liberty is for, not what it is. Within left-wing thought, liberty is a kind of Phase Two of the project, only truly realised once all our social injustices have been thoroughly addressed. Till then it is merely a deception by which the strong can dominate the weak. All hard-left programmes involve an initial, transitional stage when everyone must be made to stop doing what they are doing, because the status quo and the patterns of conditioned behaviour that support it are reckoned to be the source of all our problems. Unregulated liberty has fostered injustice and the need for change is axiomatic, they believe. Unlike ‘bourgeois liberty’, the liberty that follows revolution will be harmonious and non-antagonistic, because we will all want to do the same, right things.

Liberty is slightly more pleasing to right wing minds than left, because it is a natural precondition for true competition, and therefore has a role in recognising the reality of Difference. We all want to do different things because we are all different. If we all did the same things, or uniformly wanted to do the same things as each other, then we wouldn’t need or want liberty. Extremists on both left and right subscribe to this idea. Moderates agree that we need to be free, but also concur that we need laws and moral precepts that distinguish good actions from bad, and for these we need some provision for authority. Here we find the battlefront between the individualistic and authoritarian right.

This liberty-authority paradox is also shared by all forms of liberalism. Right-wing criticism of liberalism is always that it contains too little authority.

Overall, liberty is our licence to dream. Even Marx was thrilled by the freedom that he thought communist societies would produce; the liberation from labour that machines would bring, the self-expression that increased leisure time would allow. The end of alienation, he thought, would mean the flourishing of Man’s true nature. Hunting in the morning and criticising in the evening with a bit of shepherding in between, as he fondly imagined.

Liberty is politically definitive only in small ways, but liberty is meaningless if you have no choices, and no mainstream political theory will now dare deny that we all must have equal potential access to areas of choice. So in the modern era it is equality that defines most of the day-to-day politics in the west, around the central ideas of equality of legal status and of political rights.

Liberty is in contention with itself, but the great battle within the triad was always supposed to be that between equality and liberty, with the two pitted against each other by different priorities on left and right. These debates now have a faintly archaic air to them, because the idea of radical equality, which was very much at the heart of communist philosophy, has proved so unpopular wherever it has been imposed. Now the left-right battle is more about the difference between liberty and security, with most on the right much keener on the latter than the former (especially when in government).

This is an abandonment of a deep historic trend, and demonstrates that right-wing people will generally choose to defend themselves and their communities before worrying about abstract liberties. A familiar commitment to competition usually kicks in first. The effect of jihadi terrorism has been very profound, and the authoritarian right has embraced the war against terror and its associated sacrifices in liberty much more fondly than anyone on the left.

From a right wing angle, security trumps liberty, while liberty trumps equality. Security justifies itself, but the right wing love of liberty is consistently justified in the modern world by reference to material goods; liberty produces plenty more surely than equality does. But egalitarianism is not just about material goods. As a principle it elevates our apparently material debates into moral debates because the belief that people are actually equal, or ought to be treated equally as a first principle, can only be understood or justified in moral terms. We clearly are not all equal in every quality and do not live under conditions of perfect equality. The gap between our experience and the need or justification for equality grants space for the ‘ought’ that defines a moral, rather than a practical, question. The political issue within calls for equality – the defining clause – is precisely who is to be treated equally and when. On the left the answer is everyone and always; on the right the answers will be rather more detailed, and determined by local specific conditions.

The left has persisted with the promotion of equality in the face of the fact that equality, especially when manifested as uniformity, tends to be very unpopular as a mode of living. This may be because we have an innate competitive urge, as the right would claim, or because equality inevitably makes winners and losers at every level by putting people on a par not only with people they might consider their superiors, but also with people they would definitely consider as inferiors.

Equality is generally unpopular with the right who fear it as a form of unnaturally imposed restriction. However, within approved categories like kin or nationality, equality interpreted as a form of positive Sameness can be promoted by the right too, as long as it is within the area of social norms or forms of good behaviour. A potential contradiction lurks in this though, as it can lead to conformity-equality being directly pitted against individuality.

Fraternity, the holy wisdom or feminine principle in the Revolutionary trinity, has largely disappeared from political view, but in many ways she is due for a revival. Fraternity is the glue of the trinity and could perhaps now be better translated, in less gendered language, as ‘empathy’ or ‘sense of community’. Fraternity is centrally important in determining positions on global issues, because unlike the other two elements, which define behaviour within communities, Fraternity actually defines those very communities themselves. Accepting who is or is not your brother, sister or neighbour is absolutely central to any understanding of environmental issues.

Lastly, Fraternity is all good, no matter who is included. It is a positive thing, literally the opposite of enmity. Where liberty is for minds and bodies and equality is for our moral sense, fraternity is for the uplifting of our human spirit. Such a woolly idea was included by the original Revolutionaries as a reminder that political life was about people not principles, and that some kind of amity or favourable disposition towards others is essential to make any of the intellectual content of liberty or equality mean anything. Perhaps it could be alternatively translated as “And no cheating!”

 Posted by at 6:12 pm