Three experiences started this train of thought.
Number one was of course my first sight of the remains of the Berlin wall. Near the Brandenburg Gate I came across a small museum commemorating the Kennedys and in particular JFK’s visit to Berlin in June 1963. I watched his speech and was very struck by one sentence, not the most famous:
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.
The second prompt was the marvellous novel ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi, which I read while travelling. It’s about Iraq under Ayatollah Khomeini including the Iran – Iraq War, not a subject I know much about. But I was particularly struck by one point: a friend of hers who had chosen to wear hijab (I presume – Nafisi calls it a scarf) before the revolution:
At that time, she had worn the scarf as a testament to her faith. Her decision was a voluntary act. When the revolution forced the scarf on others, her action became meaningless.
The third, more personal, incident was connected with a minor difficulty in ordering vegetarian food in the city of curried sausage, and realising that some people really do take exception to my decision not to eat animals or fish, despite it causing no harm to them whatsoever.
Each of these episodes made me realise just how much my political perspective is grounded in the importance of individual choice. I don’t think this was always the case, for example when I was a London left-winger in the 1980s. Although on the other hand my tendency towards leftie authoritarianism was always leavened by an element of feminist individualism.
There are, of course, problems with the wider consequences of personal choice, for example the ‘tragedy of the commons’, when the aggregate of single decisions brings about a detrimental situation for a wider group. It is now widely understood that many of us do not pay the full price for the benefits we enjoy, and that those who do pay on our behalf might live a long way away, or may not yet have been born. Awareness doesn’t seem to lead to behavioural change, though.
Choices have a cumulative effect in our own lives. The degree of context and autonomy varies over space and time, but both make us what we are. There is no such thing as truly ‘free’ choice, as I pondered at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Track 17 and the House of the Wansee Conference.
So how can we make the ‘right’ choices, both for ourselves and for society as a whole? I think this is a real problem for those of us on the democratic left, who follow Gramsci in believing we need to win over civil society and create counter-hegemonic positions rather than dictate to people. It looks like the tide is turning against austerity in Europe, providing an opportunity to think about a practical alternative rather than just opposing right-wing parties. I hope Labour in the UK and the Republic are both up to the challenge. And I hope that the Greens can be brought into new a left of centre alliance, following the German example, in order to develop a political philosophy that includes the best of democratic socialism and environmentalism for the future.