How should we use intellectual history to inform our thinking about freedom in the advent of digital technologies? Quentin Skinner argues that prevalent liberal idiom is unable to address the political challenges in the world of big tech.
History of European Ideas
How should we use intellectual history to inform our thinking about freedom in the advent of digital technologies? Quentin Skinner argues that prevalent liberal idiom is unable to address the political challenges in the world of big tech. While liberals consider these challenges in terms of invasion of individual privacy, in Skinner’s neo-Roman - and once widely accepted - perspective, the growing datafication of contemporary societies should be considered an affront to liberty. By invoking the figure of ‘paths not taken’, the author of Liberty before liberalism shows, how we may learn from the past without abandoning commitments to contextual accuracy of historical investigation. The interview will be published in Polish in Przegląd Polityczny [Political Review].
Filip Biały: I would like to start with the ways in which civic liberty is threatened by technology’s unchecked powers - and how the threats go beyond liberal worries about privacy. In your dis-cussions on the third concept of liberty and on the genealogy of the state, you have been con-cerned with contemporary states’ ability to extend what you call a ‘silent power’ over citizens’ lives. Recently we have been witnessing a dynamic growth of datafication of social and political sphere as a part of what Shoshana Zuboff called ‘surveillance capitalism’. In this context, the silent power belongs not just to political institutions of the state, but also to technological corporations.
Quentin Skinner: Before I can talk about silent power, I need to say something in explanation of what you describe as the third concept of liberty. It is there that the question of silent power is addressed, and in a way that we do not encounter in most current discussions about the concept of individual freedom.
The idea of ‘a third concept of liberty’ was the title of an article I published in 2002. The title alludes to an essay by Isaiah Berlin, which is famous in Anglophone political philosophy, entitled Two concepts of liberty. Berlin distinguished the liberal view of freedom, which he endorsed, as the claim that the presence of liberty is always marked by an absence, and specifically by an absence of interference with the choices or actions of an agent. He contrasted this account with what he called the positive view of liberty. I do not think he ever succeeded in explicating that concept very clearly. But the claim he seems to have had in mind is that an agent cannot be counted as free unless they commit themselves to some self-fulfilling form of life. More specifically, what Berlin sometimes seems to be talking about is the idea that a truly free person is someone who has succeeded in realising the essence of their nature. This is the view of freedom that, in Angophone philosophy, has recently been much developed by Charles Taylor, especially in his Sources of the Self.
I introduced into this discussion the purely historical point that, in Western political theory before the 19th century, there prevailed a view of freedom according to which the nature of the absence that marks the presence of freedom is not an absence of interference, but rather an absence of any relations of domination and subjection between one agent and another. Freedom, in other words, is taken to consist in not having a master, and is thus the antonym of slavery. To be free, on this account, is not just a predicate of actions. Rather it is the name of a status - that of people who are their own masters, not subject to anyone else, and in consequence able to act according to their own autonomous will.
I need at this point to say a word about Philip Pettit, who published a classic work entitled Republicanism in 1997, the same year in which I published my book Liberty before liberalism. It was Pettit who labelled the view that freedom consists in absence of domination as the ‘republican’ theory of liberty. This view was certainly the one espoused in the Anglophone tradition by a number of early-modern republican writers, such as James Harrington, John Milton and Algernon Sydney. However, the problem with labelling their view the republican understanding of liberty is that the same view was espoused in the Anglophone tradition by many philosophers who would have been horrified to find themselves described as republicans. For example, John Locke. For this reason, I preferred in my book Liberty before liberalism to describe the theory as neo-Roman, in acknowledg-ment of the immensely influential statements we find of the theory in Roman law and in such Roman moralists and historians as Cicero, Livy and Tacitus.
Where I fully agree with Pettit - by whom I have been greatly influenced - is in the account he gives of the nature of the conceptual divide between the neo-Roman and the more familiar liberal view of liberty. The basic contrast is that you can be unfree, in the neo-Roman view, even in the absence of any act of interference. This is because you are already unfree if you have a master. The master need never interfere with your choices and actions for you to be unfree to act according to your own autonomous will. It is sufficient that the master has power to intervene should he choose, because in that case all your actions will have the character of permissions. You are able to act only because, first, you have the will to act, and secondly, because your master has decided not to interfere. The master, in other words, has a silent power of interference at all times. He may choose not to exercise it, but he always possesses the power, so that you never act exclusively according to your own will. You always act according to your own will and the will of your master silently expressed in the form of his permission.
That brings me to the point you make about silent power. As you say, a prominent and increas-ingly troubling instance of it in our society stems from the power of the social media corporations. They amass information about our beliefs and preferences which they then hold for undisclosed purposes. The liberal objection is that this constitutes an invasion of privacy. But on the republican view it is not just your privacy that is violated, it is your freedom. While these corporations may not interfere with your freedom of action, you are subject to their power, and you have no control over it.
The response of the media companies has been to insist that they will never use the information they hold about us against our interests. But according to the exponents of the neo-Roman view of liberty this misses the point. The point is that at the moment it is open to them to use the infor¬mation in any way they choose. As you say, Shoshana Zuboff has been vividly illustrating that it is the power of surveillance in itself that constitutes a threat to liberty.
In your lectures on the genealogy of liberty you also mentioned that silent power is not just this potential to intervene or interfere with our actions, but that it also makes us think in a certain way and makes us self-censor ourselves. Social media have this power of ordering the way we think and how we behave. We might say that what we have in this case is not just this potential violation of our freedom - technological corporations have actual influence on how we behave.
What is, in your opinion, the role of the state, as still the most powerful political entity, in resisting this uncontrolled, silent power of technological corporations? To put it a bit differently: what should we do in a situation in which we cannot trust the states, and yet there is something to be done, if we do not want our societies to be dominated by seemingly non-political - and certainly undemocratic - technological powers?
This seems to me a very important point, and it carries us back to the ancient formulations of the neo-Roman view of liberty. Here the fundamental distinction that was always drawn, most influentially in Roman law, was between free persons and slaves. Free persons are those who are subject only to their own will; slaves are subject at all times to the will of their master. The distinction marks a difference of status, but also points to a difference of experience. You cannot be a slave for long without coming to recognise that you are living wholly at the mercy of someone else, and this in turn cannot fail to shape how you behave. You can hardly avoid doing everything you can to keep out of trouble. As Tacitus brutally puts it, servitude breeds servility; slaves are inevitably slavish. How could it be otherwise?
As you say, one of the worries about the technological corporations is that they have the power to shape and channel our choices and behaviour. When you buy something online, you are always liable to find yourself being told that, if you like this, then you are sure to like that. It is hard not to feel that desires are being manufactured for us, and that we are being manipulated. Furthermore, as we have agreed, the fact that they are holding so much personal data about us, the use of which is beyond our control, makes them enemies of our liberty as well as our privacy. I take it, however, that the most obvious anxiety about the social media companies is not so much about their power to manipulate, but rather about how lazy and incompetent they seem to be about controlling the volume of abuse, threats and misinformation that they allow to circulate, thereby provoking widespread distress and often causing serious danger to the general public as well.
You ask about the limitation of liberty in contemporary life through the mechanism of self-censorship. Here it seems to me that the most important instances are those in which individuals, and even states, find themselves living in subjection to a dominating will that may threaten their economic well-being or even their life. Consider, for example, the extent to which de-unionised workforces - and, even worse, undocumented aliens - currently live at the mercy of employers with power to dismiss them at will. Or consider how the widespread economic dependence of women continues to limit their freedom of choice, leaving them vulnerable to partners whom they lack the resources to escape. The loss of liberty suffered in such circumstances need never stem from any overt acts of coercion or interference. It already stems from the mere fact of living in subjection to the arbitrary will of others, with the virtually unavoidable consequence of constraining you not to act in any way that may be liable to cause them offence. Anyone in this predicament is condemned to live like a slave.
As I say, these considerations seem to me to apply not merely at the person-to-person level but also in relationships between states. For example, a state or corporation which chooses to invest in an economically disadvantaged country will always be in a position to exact special privileges, including favourable tax rates, easy regulatory conditions, perhaps a lowering of environmental standards. A powerful state or corporation will never need explicitly to demand such favours. The nature of their relationship to the country in question - that of domination and subservience - will be enough to ensure that they get their way. So the freedom of action of the dominated community is silently taken away.
You ask what states can hope to do about the injustices that arise from such exercise of silent power. They cannot hope to do much, I would say, as long as they continue to accept the liberal view of individual liberty, according to which freedom of action is limited and taken away only by acts of overt interference. They first need to see that there can be unfreedom in the absence of any such interference. Then they need to recognise that, at the level of civil society, this calls for legislation to prevent people from falling into the condition of living at the mercy of others.
They also need to acknowledge that one of their obligations is to ensure that relations between states, and especially between the rich and developing areas of the world, are not relations of uncontrolled domination on the one hand and inevitable subservience on the other. As for the relations between states and media companies, it is becoming increasingly obvious that they will have to be regulated in such a way that their power to spread violence and dangerous misinformation is curtailed.
What you have been doing in your work - and what is also present in your answers today - is you have been using certain concept that you take from the past to inform our current problems. My next question is exactly about that relationship between purely historical research and the fact that we want to learn from the past to help ourselves in certain ways. In Liberty before liberalism you have rejected a suggestion that your contextual historical interpretation is just of antiquarian interest. In fact, you have been interested in uncovering ‘paths not taken’, and by doing just that you have been addressing very urgent present concerns. Recently, you have been calling yourself a moralist who is interested correcting the mistaken understand¬ing of some of the most important political concepts, including concept of liberty. What are the advantages of doing just that - of using historical concepts such as the neo-Roman concept of liberty, as a basis for interventions in contemporary debates? If we - as you have famously stated in Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas - need to do our own thinking for ourselves, maybe we should go beyond the accounts we inherited from the past and come up with new ways of understanding political concepts, especially when confronted with new challenges, such as digital technology?
I first need to say that I now regret what I said in my early manifestoes on historical method about the need for us to do our thinking for ourselves and treat the past as a separate realm. This suggests an absolute rupture between past thinking about our moral and political world and trying to grapple with our current predicament. I retain some sympathy for my motivation in those early essays, because the past is obviously a very different place conceptually, morally, physically and in every other way. We cannot generally expect to find concepts and arguments in the past that can then be applied directly to our present world. But there is an alternative way of thinking about the relations between the past and the present. This stems from the fact that, in the case of some of our most important normative concepts, the way in which they used to be understood differs greatly from our current way of thinking about them. And so, as you rightly put it, I have become interested in the investigation of paths not taken. We need to explore the possibility that some of the ways in which we used to think about our moral and political concepts may be more fruitful, and more helpful to our current purposes, than the way we are currently thinking about them.
Let me give you some examples. We have talked about the case of the concept of liberty. This used to be defined as absence of subjection, and is now generally defined as absence of interference. My question is: has that change brought an improvement of understanding, or did we take the wrong path? Yes, I think so. A similar point can be made about the concept of the state. The state used to be widely understood to be the name of a distinct moral person represented or personated by the holders of sovereign power. But nowadays when we speak about the state we generally use the term simply as a synonym for government. Have we taken another wrong path? Yes, again I think so. Let me add a third example. I think something similar can be said about the concept of rights. The prevailing discourse about human rights sees them as universal moral claims that everyone can equally make upon everyone else. But an earlier tradition, especially in Anglophone common law, instead connected the possession of rights with the neo-Roman view of liberty as immunity from interference. This gave rise to the claim that there are certain ‘fundamental’ rights - the right to life, to liberty of movement, to the holding of property - that must be absolutely secured if we are to enjoy the status of free persons. Is that a more fruitful way of thinking about the idea of human rights? I think that’s a question which deserves to be further explored.
What do you think about moving on with formulating our own, new concepts without looking into the past? Do you think a we are free to do it, or should we always try to rethink our own concept through the past and through those paths not taken?
We absolutely do not have to be historians. Let me return for a moment to the neo-Roman view of liberty we have discussed. I see no reason why someone might not simply arrive at the intuition that there may be something amiss in the prevailing view that, when we talk about freedom, we must be speaking about choices and actions. Someone might find themselves reflecting that what seems essential to freedom not so much the ability to act without interference, but rather the experience of being a free person. They might then ask about the nature of that experience, and reflect that it seems to take the form of being able to follow one’s own wishes without being beholden to anyone else. It might thus be possible, by a pure process of inward reflection, to arrive at the neo-Roman conclusion that freedom is essentially a matter of being your own master. I think, however, that we are more likely to succeed in uncovering such unfamiliar insights by reflecting on the history of our culture, simply because there is a whole archaeology of knowledge already waiting to be excavated. The more we dig around, the more buried treasure we are likely to find about such topics as free¬dom, rights, the state, and other concepts that continue to guide our lives.
By reminding ourselves about those historical concepts and advocating to use them to correct a contemporary understanding, we are effectively putting the ideas of the past into action in the present context. For example, the authors of the republican tradition might have been concerned with the problem of being subjected to arbitrary will of political rulers, and today we are using the concept of liberty as not non-dependence to challenge the power of digital corporations. And as a result a role of an historian and of a political philosopher or theorist might be somehow blurred. Is it a concern to you that it may lead some people to believe that one can use the concepts from the past to address our current situation rather freely? What do you think in this context about the role of an intellectual historian as yourself? Do you see yourself not just as a person that is interested in uncovering the past, but also as an actor in the debates of your own age?
I agree that, in applying the neo-Roman view of liberty to think about some of our present concerns, I am using it to examine some issues that it was not originally designed to explore. But I do not think that this involves deploying the neo-Roman view in an unduly free or anachronistic style. I am merely claiming that this way of thinking about liberty - that it consists in absence of subjection - turns out to give us a more revealing and useful analysis that the prevailing view that liberty consists in absence of interference. So to that extent I do indeed think of myself as someone interested not merely in uncovering the past, but also as making use ofmy historical findings to contribute to the debates of our present age.
I also see myself, however, as engaged at the same time in a purely historical enterprise that has nothing to do with current debates. I am interested in a number of early-modern political writers - especially Machiavelli and Hobbes - who wrote about the theory of the state. My aspiration as an historian has not merely been to recover what they say about such concepts as freedom, power and the state, but also to establish what they were doing in presenting their specific arguments. My method as an historian, in other words, is to treat texts in political philosophy not so much as general and abstract statements of principles, but more as interventions in local political debates, which in turn leads me to a preoccupation with recovering underlying intentions and purposes.
The picture of the political philosopher that emerges from adopting this approach is that of someone preoccupied with attacking or defending contentious policies or points of view, or else providing advice and warning about different courses of political action, or sometimes merely satirising the passing political scene. The project in which I take such writers to be engaged is, in short, that of seeking to legitimise (or delegitimise) some prevailing political value, institution or practice. The final outcome of adopting my approach is to question any strong distinction between ideology and political philosophy. The classic texts begin to appear less as systematic treatises above the pol-itical battle and more like participants in the battle itself.
As I say, my guiding purpose in adopting this approach is to try to find out what the writers I study are doing. I treat speech and writing as forms of social action. The same words uttered in different contexts can be a warning, a complaint, an order, a response to something already said that constitutes an attack on it, a defence, a repudiation, a celebration, and so on. For me the question is always: what exactly is going on? If you ask why that is the question I always want to address, my answer is that this is the question we need above all to answer if we wish to establish the historical identity of a text. If you ask why this purely historical form of enquiry seems to me worth undertaking, my answer is a very conventional one. Some writers in the history of our culture have always raised the curiosity of their readers. This emphatically remains true of such writers as Machiavelli and Hobbes, and it seems to me a form of intellectual curiosity well worth trying to satisfy.
Let me ask you about the wider significance of what you are saying about freedom and what probably should be heard by people engaged in politics today. There is a number of public intellectuals, who are trying to influence the public debate. Yet you seem rather sceptical about your own active engagement in the debate - you would rather speak as an historian and not as a public intellectual. Is it a conscious decision on your part? Or maybe you think it would be important for the points you make to be manifested to the public, but maybe you do not think it is your role to do it?
My historical investigations, especially into classical political theory and its revival in the Renaissance, gradually led me to uncover the unfamiliar views we have been discussing about freedom, rights and the state. I came to feel that these views are not merely of historical significance, but are well worth reconsidering in themselves. While I wish to retain my basic identity as an historian, it is true that I have recently been inclined to emphasise that the kind of history I study has a lot to offer our present times. I have been writing increasingly in this vein, and it is something I tend to bring out in interviews like the present one. I do not feel that I have much talent as a public intellectual, and it is certainly not my métier. But I am more inclined nowadays to stress that the intellectual history of the West seems to me not merely an important object of scholarly study but also an important resource.
I would like to once again address the question of freedom. The biggest challenges of the day - which are, arguably, the datafication and algorithmisation of social and political processes, COVID-19 pandemic, and climate crisis - require not just individual, but rather collective pol¬itical actions. For example, to fight the pandemic, citizens need to see that the success depends on everyone getting vaccinated - and not just among the members of privileged, Western societies, but also in other countries that still do not have access to the vaccines. Do you think the Western focus on the concept and value of liberty - be it liberal, positive, republican or neo-Roman - makes us overly concerned with the individualistic perspective? We seem to be preoccupied with the idea that the most important value we should pursue is individual freedom, only rarely recognising that such preoccupation may in fact not only be an obstacle to solving the most pressing, collective problems - it may also be in the way of maintaining or ensuring the very individual freedom we want for ourselves. For example, not vaccinating yourself (claiming that it is an expression of your individual freedom) endangers the safety of the society that enables you to enjoy your freedom in the first place. What is there to say, particularly in the tradition you have been uncovering, about the collective dimension of liberty?
You seem to me to be raising here an extremely important question about the current limitations of our moral vision in democratic societies. As you say, individual liberty is widely regarded as one of the most fundamental of our political values, although many of our most pressing problems cry out for collective political action. I agree that we need to ask ourselves, more than we are inclined to do, how far our emphasis on freedom and individual rights may be hindering our efforts to deal with such urgent issues as the current pandemic and the looming climate catastrophe.
I do not think that a commitment to the neo-Roman theory of liberty need hinder us in the pursuit of collective action. One reason is that the neo-Roman theory closely connects liberty with equality. The aspiration of those who accept the theory is to remove relations of domination and dependence so far as possible between as well as within states. But to espouse this view is to commit oneself to endorsing the need for extensive legislation, and other forms of collective action, in order to eliminate the conditions that currently condemn many people to living in servitude.
A further reason is that the new-Roman view sees no necessary collision between the imposition of law and the maintenance of liberty. The neo-Roman view is inherently a democratic one. Those who accept it are committed to the view that, if I am not to be dominated by the will of others, then the law must somehow be an expression of my own will. If it is not, then I am remain subject to the will of others, and hence bereft of my liberty. This can only be avoided if the will of the people as a whole is able, at least by a process of equal representation, to enact and impose the laws under which everyone is then required to live. There is thus a means of ensuring that, while liberty is respected, collective decisions are successfully reached.
By contrast, I feel that the liberal view of freedom can be a menace to collective decision-making, and even to the lawful powers of the state. The imposition of law takes the form of coercive interference, but liberty is said to consist in absence of interference. So law is seen as the prima facie enemy of liberty. There is thus a perpetual danger that the liberal view of freedom may carry us in the direction of concluding that, in the old American adage, ‘he governs best who governs least’, and thus in the direction of a form of libertarianism that can easily shade into an anarchistic refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the state.
As far as I can see, the only way to stop this slide towards anarchy is to insist on giving prominence in our political deliberations to a robust conception of what is required by the common good or public interest. We need to be ready to insist that, while individual liberty is rightly prized, it is only one value among others, and may sometimes need to be subordinated to a collective value of still greater significance in relation to the attainment of our social ends.
As we have found, however, in the course of the current pandemic, these rival commitments cannot accommodate one another. The instinct, at least in western European states, has been to try to require each individual to act in such a way as to limit the danger to all. Some states have even begun to propose that, in the name of the public interest, vaccination will have to be made compulsory. The response from the most fervent advocates of liberty as non-interference has been to deny that the state has any legitimate power to interfere with our freedom of choice in this way. I see no prospect of negotiating this divide. As we have increasingly begun to see, first in the United States and now in Europe, the more that states call on us to act in the name of the common good, the more they are met with protests and violence in the name of liberty as non-interference.
I must be careful, however, not to imply that the neo-Roman view of liberty somehow allows us to escape from subjection to the will of others in the process of collective decision-making. The obvious problem here is that collective decisions in democracies almost never reflect the will of the people as a whole, but only the will of the majority. So the minority always finds itself in subjection to the will of others, and without the comfort of believing that the public interest has thereby been served. We are regularly reminded that this is the price we agree in advance to pay in order to sustain a functioning democracy. But the danger is that in some cases too many people may feel that the price is too high. Consider, for example, the democratic decision by the British people in 2016 to leave the European Union. Seventeen and a half million people voted in favour, but over sixteen million voted against. It is a serious matter for a democracy to find that a third of all those eligible to vote for a measure with immense social and economic implications voted against it, and now feel themselves to be living with the disastrous consequences of a huge collective mistake.
I wonder if you could offer something of a summary for what we have been talking by addressing your forthcoming book, which, as you said recently, may be your most important academic project. How all those issues relate to this project and what you are trying to say in the book?
It is most kind of you to ask about my current project. Here I think it will be wise if I respond very briefly, if only because the book is still far from being completed. My aim is to write an account of when and why the idea of freedom as absence of subjection was so widely abandoned in favour of the view that liberty is simply absence of interference. My provisional answer to the question about when this happened is that, at least in the Anglophone tradition, it did so rather suddenly in the wake of the crisis in the American colonies after 1766, and in reaction to the revolution in France in 1789. My provisional answer to the question about why this happened is that the emergence of the liberal view of freedom was due to its counter-revolutionary power to respond to the two revo¬lutions of the late eighteenth century, both of which had been proclaimed and legitimised by invok¬ing the rival view that liberty consists in self-government for individuals as well as states. I hope to end my study by drawing up a kind of balance sheet of the gains and losses that resulted from this overturning of one hegemonic ideology and the emergence of another. Actually I see the change almost entirely as a loss.