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The title deeds of freedom: speech at the Centre for Independent Studies on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 November 1999.



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THE TITLE DEEDS OF FREEDOM

 

Speech at the Centre for Independent Studies by Mark Latham MHR, on the 10 th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 November 1999.

 

 

Unlike others this evening, I cannot share with you a personal account of the horror of totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe.

 

My life has been more fortunate.  My father grew up in Kogarah, my mother in Redfern.  My generation has only ever known the peaceful freedoms of Australian democracy.

 

Thus by thankful necessity, my account is from a distance.  It is chronological and, in its conclusions, ideological.

 

The construction of the Berlin Wall commenced in 1961, my birth year.  Two years later the East German Government ordered the hanging of red cloth from the Brandenburg Gate to prevent East Berliners from seeing the huge rally in West Berlin for the American President, John Kennedy.

 

The Government was unable, however, to stop the loudspeakers which carried Kennedy’s words across the wall.  "Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free”, said Kennedy, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

 

It is true, walls can keep people in.  But they are unable to keep information in.  They cannot stop the spread of new understanding, new knowledge and new information.  They cannot stop people, having gained these things, from wanting to express them in a free and creative way.

 

The Berlin Wall could not stop the type of changes associated with the Information Age.  Indeed, state socialism was the first and most spectacular victim of the information revolution. 

 

It is worth remembering that, up until the 1970s, the Soviet Union and East European nations were capable of matching the economic growth rates of the West.  Their state enterprises were designed around the economics of the Industrial Age: large units of mass production, run by government command and control.

 

They quickly became moribund, however, as the global economy switched to information technology: small units of niche production, fueled by market competition and innovation.  The command economy was destroyed by global economics.

 

So too, the Soviet system of political and cultural control was destroyed by the growth of global media.  The values implicit in President Kennedy’s speech - freedom, choice and creativity - were broadcast, not by loudspeakers, but by television, radio and satellite technology.  No red cloth or government guidelines could keep them out.

 

Now let me resume the chronology.  My sole visit to the Berlin Wall was in 1985.

 

I passed through Checkpoint Charlie with an American friend, eager to spend a full day in East Berlin.  It was memorable not for what we saw, but what we didn’t see.

 

Something was missing.  Their society lacked the normal chaos of Western life: the spontaneity of civil society; the bustle of the market economy.  It was like visiting a house with no furniture - orderly but formless.

 

Like all young travellers - our curiosity and our hormones racing - we ended up in a nightclub, somewhat surprised at the popularity of Madonna’s music among East Berliners.  This is the entry in my travel diary from that day:

 

“If they dance and sing about a material girl in East Ge rmany’s discos, how much longer before they themselves want to be material boys and girls?”

 

The answer was four years.  Again, information technology and the media played leading roles.

 

The governments in Eastern Europe were unable to prevent the recepti on of Western radio and TV broadcasts.  Protests in one country were watched by large audiences in others.  At last, the Domino theory had real meaning.

 

Information had become power.  The only act of violence by the pro-democracy forces was the seizure of television stations.  These were the world’s first electronic uprisings.

 

Globalisation and the information revolution were the great allies of democracy and the free society.

 

Ten Years Later

 

What conclusions then, might be drawn ten years later?

 

In practical terms, this was the end of a system of government - communism.  It was also the end of a political ideology - Marxism.  Some, most notably Francis Fukuyama, even saw it as the end of history.

 

Yet history has not stopped, precisely because the flow of information can not be stopped.  The fall of the Berlin Wall was just one part of the new politics of the Information Age.

 

There are many other lessons, and they apply across all societies.  I wa nt to talk about four in particular.

 

First, we are witnessing the erosion of centralised political authority and most forms of hierarchy.  The information revolution is allowing societies to master the challenges of distance.

 

It is putting people in closer contact with each other.  It is bringing information, ideas and understanding closer together.  This is a wonderfully powerful force for the erosion of authority.

 

Authoritarianism relies on keeping people apart.  It relies on narrowing the circle of tr ust and understanding between citizens, such that the orders of government can then fill this gap.  Thankfully, this type of governance is now in constant retreat.

 

This has been a worldwide trend.  It was not just an East European event.  Show me a political creed which tells people what to do and I will show you an ideology in decline.  Personal freedom and liberty are here to stay.

 

This point, however, is not understood universally across the political spectrum.  Some Left-wing activists see these changes as a threat, rather than an opportunity.  They have learned little from the mistakes of the Berlin Wall.

 

The information revolution, in fact, is one of the great democratising forces of our time.  It can also be a great equalising force.  Let me explain why.

 

An information society breaks down most forms of hierarchy.  Advanced IT allows the centre of an organisation to communicate directly with each of its component parts.  This collapses management structures and dissolves hierarchical order.

 

In the corporate world it is known as down-sizing - the gutting of middle management and the demassification of industrial corporate giants.  It has produced the disaggregation of capitalism: the explosive growth in small businesses, wired workers and contracting out.

 

A similar process of demassification is now being felt in our social institutions and political system.  The industrial era of big institutions is dying.  Big corporations, big government departments, big trade unions and big interest groups are approaching their use-by dates.

 

This can only enhance the equality of society.  Hierarchy allows power and privilege to be concentrated among the few; demassification is an opportunity for dispersing power to the many.  The good society of the Information Age relies on the dispersal of economic, social and political power.

 

This brings me to a second lesson.  An information-rich society demands a participation-rich politics.  It wants political power to shift from the Executive and the Parliament to the participatory forums of direct democracy.

 

The key to Information Age politics is to cut out the middle-man.  As with the flattening of organisational hierarchies, new IT is flattening the hierarchy of political information and power.

 

Skilled up with educational qualifications and bombarded daily with new information, the electorate is becoming more self-reliant.  It is resentful of intermediaries - such as noisy interest groups and even the media - who try to position themselves between public opinion and public policy.  As Dick Morris puts it: “the voters trust themselves and nobody else”.

 

The ideals of representative democracy have been corrupted by the power of sectional interest groups.  The ear of modern government is reserved for the privileged few, not the self-reliant majority.

 

The fundamental issue in the new politics is the people against the special interests.  The time has arrived for Australian politics to get out of the shadow of interest group democracy and stride into the sunshine of participatory democracy.

 

The key divide in the new politics is not between Left and Right, the owners of labour and capital.  It is between insiders - those with the power and inclination to dominate decision-making - and outsiders, those disenfranchised by the concentration of power.  This dividing line explains each of the electoral shifts in Australian politics this decade.

 

How Bracks the outsider defeated Kennett the insider.  How Howard, campaigning as an outsider, defeated Keating the insider.  How Carr the outsider crippled Greiner the insider.

 

And most topically, how the insiders of the Australian Republican Movement b utchered the popularity of republicanism in this country.  The ARM and its fellow travellers wanted to concentrate more power in the Parliament, giving it the right to appoint the President.  The new politics demands the dispersal of power - in this case, giving the people the right to directly elect their President.

 

Politicians and parties can either move with this trend, or be swept away by it.  They need to hear the words of Adlai Stevenson who, in putting his “ political philosophy into a single phrase”, said this: “Trust the people, trust their good sense."

 

This can be seen in a third lesson.  The new politics demands a higher level of transparency and accountability in public life.  The public has become insatiable for information.

 

It wants institutions to prove their worth and ethical standing. It is less willing to take them on tradition and trust.  It is less likely to be dazzled by advertising and fame.  Just as consumer rights and information have replaced the importance of brand names in the market place, personal freedoms and choice are wiping away society’s respect for reputation.

 

In the Information Age public institutions can have no secrets.  Schools, hospitals and courthouses need to publish performance data and open themselves to public scrutiny.  In many cases, institutions which previously regarded themselves as private are now subject to this new era of public accountability.

 

Witness, for instance, the public exposure applied to outfits as diverse as SOCOG, talkback radio and radiologists.  If there is one thing worse than a scam, it is a scam which the authorities try to keep secret.  The public's right to know has become supreme.

 

This is a powerful force for open democracy and personal liberty.  The days of the spin doctor, the schemer and the manipulator in public life have expired.  The Graham Richardsons of the world will no longer be able to do whatever it takes.

 

Finally, each of these factors has combined to give renewed significance to civil society.  This is the great intellectual legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall - a renaissance of interest in social capital and the non-state public sector.

 

While this century, the effectiveness of markets as a generator of wealth and the role of governments as a provider of social services have grown substantially, society itself seems to have been downsized.  Issues of community breakdown, law and order and a shared sense of moral confusion now dominate the public mind.

 

Social capital has been in decline; or rather, social capital of a certain kind.  Hierarchical and authoritarian institutions - such as political parties, trade unions and organised religion - have lost a large proportion of their membership.  A self-reliant public does not want to be told what to do.

 

It is more supportive of freely-formed, mutual organisations.  This appears to be a defining trend in the nature of social capital - a shift from vertical (hierarchical) structures to horizontal (mutual) relationships.

 

Policy makers take note.  The state needs to dismantle its hierarchies and devolve more of its work to civil society.  It should keep its functions as a funder and regulator of services, while empowering mutual associations as service providers.  This is the best way to regain public support and legitimacy for the public sector.

 

Civil society has become the natural agent of social democracy and social freedom.  Unlike the mass state, its dispersed networks of mutual interest and mutual support are ideally suited to the politics of an information society.

 

This is an enduring lesson from Eastern Europe: once people are exposed to networks of information and understanding, especially on a global scale, they inevitably demand the freedom to express themselves fully.  Globalisation and the Information Age are the great democratisers of our time.

 

This brings me to something I can never understand about my colleagues on the Left of politics.  Those who make the most noise about the need for human rights and democratic freedoms in other parts of the world are also the most fanatical opponents of the means by which these rights might be secured - the global spread of trade, investment, information and cultural values.

 

The human rights of a free society can never be secured by putting up walls, whether in the form of economic protection, political restrictions or so called cultural integrity.  They can only come from tearing down walls - such as in the cause of our celebration this evening.

 

Conclusion

 

When Winston Churchill in 1946 famously declared that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”, he also spoke of the rights of a free society - what he called “the title deeds of freedom”.

 

Such a beautiful phrase: the title deeds of freedom.  He listed three in particular:

 

•  the right to “free, unfettered elections” by which the people can change “the character or form of government”;

• the right to “freedom of speech and thought”;

• plus the right to “courts of justice independent of the executive”, administering “laws which have received the broad assent of large majorities”.

 

Ten years af ter the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, the title deeds need once more to be extended.  The Information Age is demanding the entrenchment of greater freedom and still further democracy.

 

The Berlin Wall was only the first wall to fall.  We now need a free society in which:

 

•  politicians are willing to devolve their authority back to the public and foster a more direct democracy;

• public institutions are willing to establish new standards of accountability and transparency;

• policy makers are willing to flatten public hierarchies and add to the renaissance of civil society;

• and in its totality, a social democracy in which power at every opportunity is dispersed from insiders to outsiders.

 

As ever, for the advocates of freedom: so much achieved; so much more to do.