Stefan Berger: Endless rows of people are pushing themselves through the highways of Hong Kong, holding up banners and shouting their support for the retention of the freedom of the city of Hong Kong. One of those people on the streets is trade unionist, Zhendong Zhu. He has been an activist for an independent labour union for more than 20 years in Hong Kong. As the riot police moves in to disperse the protesters, he begins together with others to build a barricade.
Here, he wants to defend the freedom of Hong Kong against mainland China that seems to him to threaten that freedom. As he builds the barricade, he thinks about his struggle against capitalism in Hong Kong as a trade unionist. And he thinks about the ironies of now fighting against a communist regime that is promoting a turbo capitalism that seems more in line with his adversaries on the employer side in Hong Kong than with the people that supposedly communism would be speaking for.
But he has now decided to throw in his lot with those fighting for political freedom in Hong Kong, because without political freedom, social rights will be under threat. Social democracy is impossible to achieve without political democracy. These thoughts go through his head as his fist clenches the brick that he's about to hold at the armed policeman approaching the barricade.
Introduction – Juli Simond: Europe is built around six different values that make up the fabric and face of the European Union, human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Guest: The six European values.
Juli Simond: Over 70 years ago, these founding pillars were written into the treaty of the European Union, but how have they withstood the test of time?
Guests: Freedom, democracy, solidarity.
Well, actually freedom of everything of religion and stuff, too.
I'm really ashamed, I don't know.
Juli Simond: From deconstructing the original meaning to re-imagining the future.
Guest: Economic gains.
Juli Simond: This is the Seventh Value.
Guests: I don't know the other two.
I guess, that's all.
Juli Simond: Today, we're talking to Stefan Berger from the Institute for Social Movements. Together, we look at the role of civil uprisings in the fight for the EU second value, freedom.
Stefan Berger: Okay.
Juli Simond: Let's begin with a round of quickfire questions so I'm going to ask you a question and you're going to answer in just a few words or one word, ideally.
Stefan Berger: Perfect. Yeah.
Juli Simond: Where do you live?
Stefan Berger: I live in the rural area of Germany in the town called Bochum.
Juli Simond: Where do you work?
Stefan Berger: I also work in Bochum at the University of Bochum.
Juli Simond: What values are important to you?
Stefan Berger: Trust, individuality, quirkiness, freedom.
Juli Simond: What motivates you to work hard?
Stefan Berger: That I can contribute a little bit to changing things for the better.
Juli Simond: What did you want to be when you were small?
Stefan Berger: A goalie.
Juli Simond: Ah, for football?
Stefan Berger: Yeah.
Juli Simond: Lastly, if you ruled your own country, what would be the first law that you would introduce?
Stefan Berger: To make education free for everyone.
Stefan Berger: My name Stefan, Stefan Berger and I work at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany. I direct the Institute for Social Movements, which is a central research institution of the university, and I'm a professor of social history at the Ruhr University.
Juli Simond: The right to freedom seems like a given in democratic Europe, how would you personally define freedom? Do you know how or why there was a specific need to put this value in writing as a fundamental aspect of the treaty on the European Union?
Stefan Berger: Well, I think as a historian, I'm keen to historicise the making of the treaty. World War II was caused by fascist dictatorship in Germany, which oppressed freedom, political freedom, and the European Union thought that it should contribute to a peaceful Europe in which freedom was one of the uppermost values. But at the same time, we have to realise that the European Union also came into existence when we had the Cold War. The rivalry between the two systems of liberal capitalism in the West and communism in the East so freedom was also a tool of the liberal capitalist West to say that is something that you do not have, you communist in the East, and we feel that we are morally superior because we guarantee freedom. I think these are the two most important reasons why in the treaty we have this emphasis on freedom.
Juli Simond: As Europeans, it's easy to see freedom as obvious, but what is the state of freedom if you look at it across all layers of society today, how free are we really?
Stefan Berger: You are a free person if you have a wide possibility of making choices. Clearly, if you want to make choices, there are certain preconditions that have to be fulfilled. And then of course, in order to make choices, in order to be free, to make choices, you have to be free of want. You have to have a certain minimum income. You have to be able to feed yourself. And we do see even in one of the richest regions of the world, in the European Union, worrying levels of social inequality and of social misery, we see people who are forced out of their homes, who are not any longer able to afford paying their rents. So freedom for them becomes a very kind of problematic good. And the same is true for other things such as access to education, because you are more free to make choices if you are educated.
Juli Simond: How is the history of social movements connected to freedom in Europe?
Stefan Berger: I think social movements have been critical agent to fight for freedom in Europe and around the globe. We have been studying, or a lot of us have been studying far more left wing social movements with which many of us are sympathetic rather than right wing social movements. But if we look historically, we just have to think of the fascist movements of the interwar period or in the current climate of right wing populism, and we realise that there have been right wing social movements. And there, the prime goal is certainly not freedom.
Ursula von der Leyen - pre recording – speaking in German – translation in English: Societies that build on democracy and common values stand on stable ground, and it is the same values that united the freedom fighters who tore down the iron curtain over 30 years ago.
They wanted democracy, they wanted their freedom to choose their government.
They wanted to rule of law and for everyone to be equal before the law.
Juli Simond: You just listened to a part of the 2021 State of the Union by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. We've seen a myriad of protests in the last few years. The MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, teenagers skipping school for climate protests. What are the similarities between these movements?
Stefan Berger: All of these movements signify mobilisations from below. They are all citizens movements who want to in one way or another extend freedom in particular areas of life. If we take the MeToo movement, we clearly are still living in highly patriarchal society. It is beyond doubt that we have not achieved gender equality, that there are lots of discrimination that women face in the job and sexual harassment against women is still also in Europe, an everyday reality.
We have here a movement saying that to be truly free as a woman, you have to have full gender equality and you have to be free of fear of sexual harassment. The Black Lives Matter movement, we have another group, black people who have a long history of discrimination, a long history of struggle to end discrimination. Then many of the new social movements are not new at all. If we look at the women's movement or the environmental movement or the peace movement, they all go back at least of the 19th century.
Climate change activism is an interesting phenomenon because here we have a situation where it's not really a group fighting for their own freedom, but it is a group of largely very young people who are fighting for kind of universal aim of ending the global threat to the planet. We are really talking about a kind of planetary threat to all of humanity here.
Juli Simond: How do you understand freedom in action? When is protest entirely free and when or where is it limited by state coercion?
Stefan Berger: There are a lot of opportunities to get engaged, to get involved and to participate in what ideally would be a kind of agonistic debate between different interests in liberal democracies for particular political outcomes. Here I see a lot of opportunities in terms of demonstrations, in terms of lobbying of political parties, and forming alliances with trade unions, with other groups in society to pursue specific goals that would extend freedom in certain areas of life. But if we talk about authoritarian regimes, if we're talking about dictatorships, that's obviously far more difficult.
If you cannot officially protest, if you cannot have demonstrations, if you cannot have access to the media, how do you struggle for freedom? And here, we move into a very difficult arena, namely, the question of violence, is it justified to use violence in the pursuit of greater freedom? If you use the historical example, I think many people would say that violent resistance against fascism – attempts to kill fascists – were justified historically because fascism was such an awful movement that you needed to also use violent means in order to get rid of fascism. Many people in Europe would agree that the left wing terrorism that characterised Europe in the 1970s was a form of violence that was not justified.
Juli Simond: How do you see the role of technologies in modern protest movements? If we're talking about the means of protests, what about social media?
Stefan Berger: Absolutely huge. I think we can see that in virtually all social movements of the last 20 years, we have seen that in the Arab Spring, we see that in the climate change protests, social media is one of the most important forms to connect people who are protesting, who are coming together in order to extend freedom. I think this technological change is a huge opportunity for social movements, but at the same time, of course, we also see that it cannot only be used by social movements trying to extend freedom. It is also extensively used by authoritarian governments by dictatorships. If we look at a country like China, it has been incredibly adept at controlling the social media in soft ways, you could say, in ways that many Chinese people actually have no problems about, but also in blocking anything that the Chinese government does not want the Chinese people to read.
Juli Simond: Which social movements continue working towards a more free society today?
Stefan Berger: If I would start listing them, I would be terribly afraid of missing one. This ranges from movements that you have just mentioned to a whole range of classical movements, but also movements that, for example, are trying to guarantee affordable living space in urban cities. If we think of the squatters movement, who also, they also go back to the '60s. And in fact, we find rent strikes and debates about affordable living before the first world war in the 19th century in some of the urban centres of Europe.
Juli Simond: If we take a second to look critically at movements such as trade unions, are they working for a freedom for all or only the groups that their members personally belong to?
Stefan Berger: Trade unions are, of course, historically they have been fighting by and large for the interests of their members. It's a classic organisation that has particular risk solidarity, and they were fighting for greater choice for their members, greater freedom for their members. One of the former chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation, he once said, trade unions are the strongest thing that the weak have in society. He was referring, I think to a sense of solidarity amongst those who are socially disadvantaged, who want to find organisational forms to defend their interests in society and trade unions continue to be a strong force for greater social equality.
Even in the German media where trade unions are still relatively strong, we often read in the press, “Well, do we really need trade unions any longer?” “Are trade unions the last dinosaurs of the industrial age?” We now live in a post industrial reality, trade unions belong to the 19th century. But I think if we are interested in greater social equality, I think trade unions still have an important role to play. And the trade unions themselves are thinking about new and innovative ways of linking to the everyday concerns of the people. I'm just thinking of concepts, such as community trade unionism, where trade unions are no longer only active in the company, but also in the community to mobilise together often with social movements, people who are socially disadvantaged to be able to defend their interests.
Juli Simond: But this of course brings us to the age old question, can freedom be insured for one group without another?
Stefan Berger: The possible way forward would be to realise that we have a variety of particularist concerns that are linked in a greater agenda for emancipation. So we have particularist solidarities of women with women, of workers with workers, of black people with black people, who are fighting largely for the extension of freedom for their particular group. But we could also argue that all of this amounts to a kind of universalist struggle for greater emancipation. We can think of this as a kind of Russian doll. We would have different kind of struggles of different particularist groups to extend freedom, which amount to a universalist concern with freedom.
I think we need to realise that identity is not like a pair of socks. They don't have to be the same. If we look at social movements, we also see a great intersectionality between different social movements. If we look at activists active in social movement, we also see that many of them are active, not just in one social movement but in several social movements, maybe at the same time, maybe at different times in their lives to different degrees. In that sense, there is a kind of connected struggle for freedom of many social movements. This is not to deny that there will also always be tensions.
Juli Simond: If there's so much work done on the ground, one has to wonder who fights for our freedom the most? Is it elected politicians or social movements? And is that how it's supposed to be in a healthy society?
Stefan Berger: Well, it's hard to answer because it depends very much on the contingent situation that we are looking at, I would say. Again, ideally we would have connection between politicians and social movements between more formal forms of politics and more informal forms of politics. There's also a certain tension between freedom as an individual good. Me as an individual, being able to be free in my choices and freedom as a collective good of particular classes or of particular ethnic minorities or of particular large groups like women in society.
Juli Simond: Challenges like the fight against COVID-19 have sparked a debate about the limitation of freedoms as the protective pandemic measures, for example, which limits to freedom would you be willing to accept in favour of national security?
Stefan Berger: Yeah, I think this probably leads us to the field where we have to admit that freedom also always comes with responsibility and that to be truly free also means to be truly responsible. To be truly free, it does not mean pushing through one's personal freedom in each and every situation, but to put one's own personal freedom on the back burner in order to serve a greater collective good. I think that's something that we see very clearly with COVID where many of the liberal democracies are struggling to find a balance between coercion and the ability to convince people that it is better for the collective good to be immunised.
I think it's true that we are living in a society where many people perceive themselves first and foremost as individuals who have no links to social groups, in some respect, that is still an outcome of the ideology of neoliberalism. Just have to think of one of the most famous sentences that Margaret Thatcher uttered in the sense that there is no such thing as society, that's only individuals. I think that this is indeed worrying trend and we need to find ways in which to strengthen social cohesion in our societies again, which means that we also need to find common platforms from which we can discuss issues that unite us, but also issues that divide us.
Juli Simond: As a follow-up to go specifically down one road here, some regions in Europe like Catalonia and Scotland are still for national liberation, wishing for independence from what they view as a dominant foreign state. How does this affect our view on freedom and unity in Europe?
Stefan Berger: National struggles have been taking place for the best part of 200 years in different parts of the world, in different parts of Europe. In the 19th century, they were often directed at large empires and we still have some prominent multinational states such as the United Kingdom and Spain. And within those, we do have strong movements of nations, within those, multinational states wanting to form their own nations, Catalonia and Scotland. Britain was for 25 years my home so I feel very close to British affairs in many respects. And I was quite proud when they had the referendum in Scotland, that it was carried out in such a, we had a high mobilisation of civil society on both sides of the debate. We had the referendum, it was very narrow, but it had the result and everyone accepted that result in the end.
Of course, we might have new referendums in the future. It does look like that. But I think that shows again, that we have in Britain, a very mature democracy, a strong, liberal democratic frame in which adversaries can fight out their different interests in the political arena and come to a result that is then accepted by everyone. In Catalonia, I think we see that perhaps democracy is not quite as mature in Spain as it is in the United Kingdom, because the massive repression on the part of the Spanish state towards the Catalan separatists seems to me to indicate that we still have remnants of a strong authoritarianism that, of course, ruled Spain for much of the 20th century. Here, I think there is the real need to come to forms of debate and political conflict that allows this issue of national separation to be discussed, and then to be decided upon in a political forum and then to be accepted, whatever the majority wishes in those cases.
Juli Simond: Today, we've only discussed one of six values of the European Union, human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. If you could add anything to the mix, what would be your seventh value?
Stefan Berger: I think my seventh value would be solidarity. I think solidarity is a key value to provide precisely the kind of social cohesion in society that we are often lacking today. So to be solidaristic with others is an important precondition for coming together to struggle for things that are important to you.
Juli Simond: Thank you for listening to The Seventh Value, a podcast in collaboration between Are we Europe and the Evens Foundation. I am Juli Simond, your host, and with me in the studio, our producer Anneleen Ophoff and sound designer Wederik De Backer.