On Emancipation – Should the Left Reconsider Its Approach to Freedom?

Cassian Siminicianu discusses the idea of emancipation, exploring how it should be approached by the left, putting the idea of the ‘Public’ at the forefront. 

Many people feel that something is missing in their lives, something very fundamental to how we approach other people. I think many long for a goal in life or a greater meaning, a greater meaning which can only come about with the help of other people: a scope greater than yourself. It’s about breaking the proverbial chains holding you to the mundaneness of life, setting yourself free to explore the true, the good and the meaningful; it’s about emancipation.

The idea of emancipation has always played a crucial role in Leftist thinking. We talk of the emancipation of different groups, whether it be at the heart of more traditional Left-Wing discourse about working class emancipation or, in more modern Intersectionalist discourse, the emancipation of groups such as women, people of colour, and disabled people. The concept of emancipation is at the very heart of what it means to be a Socialist. It is a running thread through all of the different strands of Socialist thought and it is an important goal. But few of us stop to ask what this ultimate liberation truly entails and what it is to lead us to. 

To the Liberals of the Enlightenment the answer was simple; freedom was an end in and of itself. To them it was thought that once man had reached full freedom through certain rights, with the help of reason and the new technological-scientific discoveries, he would be free to indulge in what he would judge right for him. Much of the Left today still functions on this premise - the premise of the free individual spirit, pursuing happiness on your own. I don’t think this is enough, and the Right has shown us it isn’t! Since at least the 1970s, the Neoliberal Right has pushed for the pursuit of individual goals and a personal created meaning in life. One of Thatcher’s big ideas in the early 1980s was that ‘There is no such thing as society’ (it is only an amalgamation of individuals, presumably each seeking their own interests). This has naturally extended to the field of culture and media, where previously it had been assumed to be important enough to be placed in public control through government funding towards public broadcasters and the arts. The funding was cut and the public broadcasters were marginalised by private competitors.

With the privatisation of culture in the form of the media we consume increasing over the last few decades, we have seen it increasingly being driven towards easily digestible entertainment. This is all predicated on the assumption of a system of commodity consumption; culture in media-form is commodified to fulfil individual enjoyment - enjoyment which the individual chooses ‘freely’ in their pursuit of happiness. My previous blog on cultural stagnation should prove this hasn’t worked, we haven’t been set free by it. It doesn’t matter how niche you go in your interests, or how many varieties of a specific game or TV series the free market media empire can produce for you to choose, you’ll never truly feel free no matter how deep down a sub-cultural rabbit hole you go.

You may now ask, ‘what then? Are we to simply abandon individual preference and adopt a Stalinist rigidity, focusing on only one type of propagandistic and unchallenged media?’ No, obviously not. That would be to miss the point entirely; it would still be to think within the false paradigm of free individual choice vs single collective choice.

Instead we should think of emancipation as a public goal; freedom from the alienation from everyone else which plagues consumerist societies. We must have in mind not a simple amalgamation of individuals but the idea of the Public. I spell ‘Public’ with a capital ‘P’ because I wish to introduce it as a kind of philosophical concept. The Public isn’t a hive-mind, it’s not a singular entity, rather it constitutes a shared humanity: the basis of human desire for greater meaning. It’s a collective cultural need. We all have, not just personal likes and dislikes, but a common desire to reach for something transcending simple reality. It is in this mindset that Socialism can offer real freedom.

This is demonstrated by many people’s negative attitudes towards the BBC. The BBC was created and expanded in an era in which individual consumption habits didn’t dictate focus of the BBC’s media production. Rather, its focus was on serving the cultural needs of the Public. The BBC produced and, despite limited funding, still produces a vast array of quality, culturally significant content such as documentaries, experimental films and independent news coverage; the focus is to be accessible to the Public, to educate it and to make it possible to engage all of the Public’s members by placing the Public in the same plane of reality. The BBC’s goal is at odds with individualised consumption. The licence fees that go towards funding it have therefore come under much attack from those concerned about their own consumption habits of ‘better’ services like those offered by YouTube or Netflix; services which serve to fulfil whatever they ‘want’ to watch. Of course, very few of these critics of the licence fee probably feel like the content they watch is meaningful. Many of them may even feel the same kind of meaninglessness that I described at the beginning of this entry. It’s more important, not that we have as many choices of media as possible, but that we have a smaller variety of a higher quality content which is accessible by and made for the betterment of all members of the Public.

The Left needs to offer Public emancipation, it needs to push forward for the common good; we need to gain back that greater purpose and that shared humanity that we’ve lost along the way. If we want to truly set Britain and the world free, we need to rebuild the pillar of society which is the Public, not only as I mentioned above in culture but also in the way we build our very streets, housing, cities and Public spaces such as parks and open forums. As Tony Benn once famously said, Socialism is “Social-ism”, “It’s about a society built around human needs and not just for profit”. We need to think about what humanity needs, we shouldn’t surrender our lives to the ends of profit and we need to understand our freedom as a process involving everyone. Emancipation ought to happen in this spirit: the spirit of the Public.

Cassian Siminicianu is a Young Fabian keen on shining a light on things we all face but no one speaks about. He shares his views and impressions on his Twitter at @Cassian_Sav.

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