The Guardian 22 June, 2005

TAKING ISSUE with Marcus Browning

On the nature of freedom

"God bless America" shouted Douglas Wood when the Australian was freed from his captors in Iraq last week. The government was quick to jump on the bandwagon, Prime Minister John Howard calling the actions of the Department of Foreign Affairs "superb professionalism", even though it is unclear how the rescue of Wood actually came about. In The Australian newspaper Wood was called a "blessed rogue" by one reporter. Wood is now free, to do what?

Why was he in Iraq in the first place? He was working as a private contractor, making money in the carnage being inflicted on the Iraqi people. He was "free" to make a packet out of the conflict, briefly lost his "freedom", and had it regained while all around him the rights of Iraqis were being trampled.

The hype around Wood’s release drowned out the plight of a Bangladeshi man, Masued Unon. Mr Unon is mentally ill and has been locked up by the Australian government for five years for daring to come here seeking asylum.

Last week he was due to be deported to Bangladesh even though he has been on suicide watch and was under the care of a psychiatrist. The government was forced to allow him to stay in Australia by refugee advocates who raised his case with the UN.

Though their experiences are worlds apart, Douglas Wood and Masued Unon have experienced something in common: they both lost a certain type of freedom. That is, the classical bourgeois outlook, freedom from restraint.

This concept of freedom is what drives people to flee from political or religious persecution to a place where they believe those restraints will not be imposed. That asylum seekers come to Australia in that belief and then are locked up for doing so does not at all demean or devalue their striving for freedom: their incarceration is a reflection of the unrestrained use of political power.

As political power itself is generally considered to be a threat to personal freedom, so the curbing of such power is seen as allowing more freedom.

Freedom from restraint is also a major demand of the corporations and individuals who are in Iraq in the name of reconstructing the country. They want freedom from anything that impedes the drive to profit, be it government regulations or the intervention of the international community.

In fact this underpins the alleged superiority of the capitalist system — the natural and unencumbered functioning and operation of business in pursuit of profit. For them, the less government, the better. Indeed, with such a system, government itself is a necessary evil.

So, when we see George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney strutting arrogantly for the cameras, it is not simply for show. They’re proud of what they’re doing in Iraq, just as their predecessors in the ruling class would have seen it as a mark of distinction to have had ancestors who were slave owners. In fact, the more numerous their slaves, the greater the distinction.

It is their freedom to be able to exploit others and become obscenely wealthy on the backs of the masses of the people: inequality is the hallmark of their political and economic freedom.

So, you’re free to "make a pile", to "stand on your own two feet", to "be a freewheeling individual". It is not an abstract freedom, but exists in the real world with economic freedom as its basis. In Iraq economic freedom has been usurped by the US invasion and occupation, and before that by more than a decade of sanctions.

Douglas Wood is "alive and free", as the headline put it; free to return home to Florida where he lives, to drink his beer and watch his footy in the land of free enterprise, which is conducting a robber-baron war in the name of freedom. He might use his freedom to stitch up a lucrative book deal about his misadventures or even go back to Iraq where the big bucks are being made. That’s freedom under capitalism.

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