George Walford: On Liberty, Despotism and Suppression

We are all familiar with the famous passage from J. S. Mill’s essay On Liberty. Or if we are not then we ought to be, and IC makes no apology for reproducing its crucial sentences:

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle… That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which Power can rightfully be exercised over any Member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others…

But are we all equally familiar with the paragraph that follows it? It is a long one, but we give it in full so there may be no suspicion that its meaning has been falsified by selection:

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not sneaking of children or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means, justified by actually affecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind has attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for noncompliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

This is not quite what we had expected from the apostle of liberty.  “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement…” Sounds more like Kipling trumpeting about “lesser breeds without the law” and “The White Man’s Burden.” Yet when we look back at the first, the famous and familiar passage, we see that this does not contradict it. The principle of liberty is said to apply only to “any member of a civilised community.”

Mill’s book was first published in 1859. He did not know of the Somme, Hiroshima, Belsen, poison gas, radiation sickness, biological warfare or napalm. Nowadays we may feel less confident of the right of “civilised” people to despotise over barbarians for their own good – barbarians, those terrible people who hit their enemies with clubs and sometimes even with swords.

Looking back over history, can we say that it would have been better if the barbarians had always been under the despotism of the civilised? Rome was civilised, and it went down before the barbarians. A tragedy at the time. But this was part of the complex of events that led to the presence of Mr. John Stuart Mill, with his ideas about liberty. Mr. Mill seems to be lacking in gratitude to the barbarians who helped bring him into existence.

And who are “the barbarians?” To the Chinese, the British were barbarians, but Mill did not advocate Chinese despotism over Britain.

The lucidity with which Mill’s ideas are presented lends them great persuasive power, but they do have their limitations. We assumed that he, and those who agreed with him, were the civilised people, entitled to despotise over those who took a different view. He was saying, in effect: “I am right, those who disagree with me are wrong and therefore I am entitled to despotise over them.” We who know, better than it was possible for Mill to know, just what “civilised” people are capable of, have reason to be less arrogant. We cannot presume to despotise over others, barbarians though we may think them. The one thing we know for certain is that there can be no final certainty. Our deepest conviction may be false, the most rational thinker wrong. Even Mr. J. S. Mill. Even the editors of IC. Villainous heresy may be the truth of the future. We can never say of anything that it is valueless, or evil, and know beyond doubt that we are right. Therefore we are entitled to suppress nothing. And to carry that principle actively into effect is to ensure that nothing is suppressed. And to do that is to suppress suppression. The suppression of nothing but suppression itself.

This proposition is no sooner formulated than its difficulties begin to appear. That is as it should be, for to accept that nothing is to be suppressed except suppression itself is not to reach an answer, it is to recognise a problem.

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PROVOCATION: If we are to explain behaviour in terms of a desire for power then we have to include all forms of power, including the power not to exercise power, the power to remain passive.

from Ideological Commentary 3, December 1979.