It's hard not to respect the Guardian's enviro-scribe and social commentator, George Monbiot, although he can play hell with one's blood pressure. His latest missive concerns how Trump and Brexit are "freeing up the rich to exploit the poor."
Propaganda works by sanctifying a single value, such as faith, or patriotism. Anyone who questions it puts themselves outside the circle of respectable opinion. The sacred value is used to obscure the intentions of those who champion it. Today, the value is freedom. Freedom is a word that powerful people use to shut down thought.
When thinktanks and the billionaire press call for freedom, they are careful not to specify whose freedoms they mean. Freedom for some, they suggest, means freedom for all. In certain cases, this is true. You can exercise freedom of thought, for instance, without harming others. In other cases, one person’s freedom is another’s captivity.
Above all, billionaires and the organisations they run demand freedom from something they call “red tape”. What they mean by red tape is public protection. An article in the Telegraph last week was headlined “Cut the EU red tape choking Britain after Brexit to set the country free from the shackles of Brussels”. Yes, we are choking, but not on red tape. We are choking because the government flouts European rules on air quality. The resulting air pollution frees thousands of souls from their bodies.
The same ethos, with the same justification, pervades the Trump administration. The new head of the environmental protection agency, Scott Pruitt, is seeking to annul the rules protecting rivers from pollution, workers from exposure to pesticides, and everyone from climate breakdown. It’s not as if the agency was overzealous before: one of the reasons for the mass poisoning in Flint, Michigan, was its catastrophic failure to protect people from the contamination of drinking water by lead: a failure that now afflicts 18 million Americans.
You don’t need to listen for long to the very rich to realise that many see themselves as the “independents” Friedrich Hayek celebrated in The Constitution of Liberty, or as John Galt, who led a millionaires’ strike against the government in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. Like Hayek, they regard freedom from democracy as an absolute right, regardless of the costs this may inflict on others, or even themselves.
When we confront a system of propaganda, our first task is to decode it. This begins by interrogating its sacred value. Whenever we hear the word freedom, we should ask ourselves, “Freedom for whom, at whose expense?”