Rubert Russel makes convincing arguments about the unravelling of the ideals of equality and rule of law and their replacement with illiberal manifestations of popular will.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the old certainties still apply: social progress and political freedoms are the result of struggle. That is – political struggle.
Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news. What many people thought were the new certainties – that democracy and capitalism could be relied upon to provide endless peace, rights and freedom – have been shown to be illusions. It was always a dubious claim, but now, in many previously liberal countries social progress is being rolled back and political freedoms are being trampled on by illiberal, democratically-elected capitalists.
Most visible are the Trumps, Modis, Netanyahus, Urbans and Erdogans of this world – demagogues whose ability to exploit fear and violence for political ends is matched only by the ego-infested conviction of their own irreplaceability.
In Freedom for the Wolves (2017), Rupert Russel has delivered a filmic essay that unveils the sources of illiberal democracy today. Yes, Russel says things are in fact pretty bad and, yes – there are far more wolves out there than you think. And, yes: there is an explanation.
«If the freedom that matters to us is the freedom to shop, then we will not be particularly bothered if the political process is being hijacked by wolves.»
The documentary is divided into four parts: «Embracing Freedom» – focusing on the democracy protests of Hong Kong’s umbrella movement; «After the Revolution» examines the return of the deep state in Tunisia after the Arab revolutions; «Illiberal Democracy» directs attention to the rise of BJP and Hindu nationalism and its implications for Indian politics; «The Personal is Political», which looks at a (bizarre and not well explained) crack-down on youth culture in Japan; and «Freedom for Sale» –, an examination of money and politics in Trump’s America.
Russel delivers a good global overview of the rise of illiberal democracy. This comes by way of the lines being drawn in Hong Kong, the post-revolutionary failures of the only ‘success’ of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and the patently murderous Hindu nationalism incubated under India’s present president Modi. There is no attempt to compare. Each is examined in their own right. Savants will no doubt pick out inaccuracies, but Russel makes clear and convincing arguments about the unravelling of the ideals of equality, respect, coexistence and rule of law and their replacement with illiberal manifestations of popular will.
The more sophisticated philosophical side of the argument is conveyed by clips of three men – all US professors – which provides the unfortunate impression of a ‘manel’ – an all-male panel (there are many women interviewed in the films case studies). For me, Harvard professor Orlando Pattersen, however, is the star. Patterson is both clear and to the point (although the sound track, which was a bit incessant and tended to drown out the talking heads at times). Patterson is the author of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991), and Russel makes use of him to repeatedly pull the threads together and give the narrative of the film analytical impact.
«Patterson reminds us that freedom is not intrinsic to human beings.»
Democracy as consumerism?
Patterson is clear that freedom has been re-defined to mean self-realisation through consumerism and that this undermines democracy. If the freedom that matters to us is the freedom to shop, then we will not be particularly bothered if the political process is being hijacked by wolves.
There is a convergence in America, China, India and many other countries concerning the consensus that if you provide people with the economic power and right to consume, they are less likely to defend the right to choose their leaders and the right to participate in political processes. (Hmmmm. So we are all Chinese now, at least increasingly so).
To his credit, Russel interviews ordinary people who say exactly this – a view not often presented on screen. And, like the young Indian woman who feels free riding her scooter, or the American Trump male voter who feels free driving his pick-up, it all seems rather harmless. And yet something gnaws at the brain stem: what was it again? Oh, right – economic opportunity is not freedom from oppression.
Patterson reminds us that freedom is not intrinsic to human beings. As a concept, it was invented in Ancient Greece, which also happened to be the first great slave-based civilization. The concept of freedom was realized in the slave’s desire to escape bondage, but also in the freedom to do as one pleased with another.
«In Freedom for the Wolves (2017), Rupert Russel has delivered a filmic essay that unveils the sources of illiberal democracy today.»
The old idea of freedom for the wolves is in fact the freedom to exercise power over another (according to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, freedom for the wolves often meant death for the sheep). Today, the wolves seek the power to decide whose civil liberties matter and whose do not, who has access to jobs, and who does not. Who may cross borders, and who cannot. The desire on the part of the wolves and their ilk for absolute power over others is a desire to exclude (or worse) those designated – on the basis of gender, religion, race, or political affiliation – as the losers.
The main obstacle faced by the political movements which seek this kind of power are the liberal institutions of equality, coexistence, mutual respect and rule of law. The wolves know this, of course. In fact, what unites American neo-Nazis, national-racist parties in Europe, Hindu nationalists, Muslim Salafists, or other fascist movements is that their self-awareness – their politicization – is based in no small part on a fantasy of victimization arising in part from the liberal institutions established as part of liberal order. Liberation for the sheep is felt as a kind of infringement on the rights of wolves.
Perhaps the most important lesson from this film is that freedom of today’s new class of wolf is the freedom of the slave-master, and the belief that a slave deserves his fate. We should never underestimate the human capacity for racism and hatred, but the fact remains that such easy categories cannot explain the spreading authority of the idea that the sheep deserve its status as victim. At the same time, the slave master on his part fears the slave revolt. The growing popularity of the far right is thus rooted in fear. That has implications for what happens next, but what that will be is anybody’s guess.