Book Review: J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a classic statement of liberal values and an iconic text in the arena of moral and political thought. Published in 1859, it was originally conceived as a short essay upon which Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, fleshed out the liberal values and morality that still provide much of the basis for political structures today. In essence, it seeks to address the question of how far the state or society as a whole should go in controlling individual beliefs and actions, and its answer is a resounding defence of individuality.

Title page of the first edition of On Liberty (1859). (Credit: Public Domain)

Mill opens his account with a historical assessment of the ancient struggle between liberty and authority, suggesting an evolving relationship between ruler and ruled whereby people came to believe that rulers no longer needed to be independent powers opposed to their interests, thus giving rise to notions of democracy. But, whilst government tyranny is a concern for Mill, ‘On Liberty’ focuses more on the dangers of democratic and social coercion and its hindrance upon the individual; perhaps an unsurprising view in the context of Victorian social conservatism. On Liberty sees Mill warn against a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and it is with this in mind that Mill sets out the individual freedoms and protections that ground liberal values to this day. 

‘On Liberty’ focuses on four key freedoms: freedom of thought, speech, action, and association, all of which would challenge the Victorian orthodoxy of custom and restraint in the social and political sphere. 

Freedom of thought, by which Mill means ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects’, is a staple in the genre of classical liberalism; a rejection of group-think and the elevation of individual thought over social customs. Mill’s conception of freedom of speech is arguably more profound and more contentious. His defence of free speech extends up until such speech becomes incitement to violence. He sees value in speech no matter how potentially hateful or self-evidently incorrect, for such speech is necessary to reinforce the strength of our convictions and stop our beliefs and values from becoming mere platitudes. One might perceive this opinion as at the crux of today’s disagreements over the limits of free speech.

Mill’s conceptualisation of freedom of act divides action into two categories: self-regarding action and other-regarding action, and sees only limitations on the latter as permissible. In essence, one should be free to act in any way they please, unless in doing so they directly harm somebody else; a classical liberal statement if there ever was one. Finally, freedom of association; the freedom to unite with any person so long as the purpose does not involve harm. 

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’

‘On Liberty’ is evidently a defence of individualism and individual freedoms, but it represents a major departure from previous liberal thinkers. Mill’s support for liberty is rooted in his utilitarianism. Whereas liberal thinkers such as John Locke see liberty as a valuable end in itself, and man as endowed with natural rights by way of existing, Mill’s individual liberties merely serve a purpose, that purpose being utility. In short, ‘in proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others’. He has come under severe criticism for this, with many doubting his liberal credentials, but as he states in ‘On Liberty’, without firm grounding, ‘there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is not liberty merely for liberty’s sake, but rather it is liberty with a purpose, and his robust defence of individual freedoms still providing the framework for liberal thought today makes ‘On Liberty’ one of politics’ greatest hits.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

Book Review: Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’

Han Kang’s novel ‘Human Acts’ details just that: the experiences of a range of individuals suffering from the actions humans inflict on each other. The narrative flows through different times and places, centred around one boy, Dong-ho. 

The first UK edition cover of ‘Human Acts’. (Credit: Portobello Books Ltd, via Amazon.)

Dong-ho is revealed to be based on a real child who the author was distantly connected to and one of many massacred in 1980 in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. 

At the end of 1979, South Korea’s military strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated. Having been in power since his coup in 1961, he had increased repressive measures to create a de facto dictatorship, declaring martial law in response to demonstrations throughout the country’s south. 

His assassination saw Park’s protégé Chun Doo-hwan gain power. Chun was nicknamed his adoptive son, and his measures reflected their surrogate familial connection. By May, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country, and had introduced a range of restrictive measures, banning political activities, limiting freedom of the press, and closing universities.

In response, student demonstrations sprung up in Gwangju on May 18. The government reacted to the students from Jeonnam University by shooting and beating them. Outrage saw the protests spread as citizens took to the street in solidarity, opposing the lack of democracy and protesting the harsh conditions workers endured during South Korea’s rapid industrialisation. Paratroopers were sent in against civilians, schoolchildren were shot as they tried to surrender, people were beaten, raped, and tortured by government troops, with the fighting in the city finishing on 27 May.

Official figures, which remain unchanged, suggest around 200 died, whereas some foreign press reports estimated 2,000. The death toll is hard to fully ascertain – many bodies were thrown in unmarked graves, Chun worked to suppress discussion of the Uprising, and the brutalities resulted in suicides which cannot be directly attributed. 

Only foreign press were allowed to cover the uprising and Chun Doo-hwan blamed the rebellion on Communists sent from North Korea. With authorities trying to suppress memories of the event, it was only in 1997 a day of commemoration was created. The Uprising has yet to be confined to history; as with Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” in World War Two and Chun Doo-hwan’s Samchung re-education camp, the event remains raw. Regional hostilities against people from South Jeolla, Gwangju’s province, created by the dictatorship to minimise the protests continue and the Uprising is still contested by certain right-wing groups. 

A May 18th memorial in Gwangju, South Korea. (Credit: The May 18 Memorial Foundation)

Kang’s book is an attempt to grapple with this history, offering an attempt to reconcile the cruelty shown to people by their own nation. Kang was born in Gwangju, moving to Seoul aged 10, and the final chapter of the book presents her own experience with the Uprising – seeing her parents trying to hide it from the children, opening a book of photos showing a woman shot in the face – and the need to tell the story of the voices left. The focus on scenes outside the traditional dramatic scenes of tanks arriving allows the novel to act almost as a range of historical sources, guiding you through the effects of history.

The novel was published in South Korea in 2014, the year after Park Chung-hee’s daughter’s presidential inauguration. Park Geun-hye’s ascent to the highest office of Korea motivated Kang to write a book discussing part of Korea’s traumatic past which is rarely spotlighted. It is hard for a country to admit to shooting its civilians – think of Kent State, where in 1970 the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kang’s questioning of why Gwangju residents sang the national anthem as corpses were wrapped in the Taegukgi (the national flag) demonstrates how such wounds can fester, changing a person’s identity. The narration of a corpse reminds how people’s suffering cannot stay in the grave, especially when not given a proper burial.

The book’s strength is in its ability to offer a range of perspectives from the event. Historical literature’s merit is often limited by a narrow focus, single scope, and distorting historical facts. Through Kang’s use of the Korean literary tradition of a linked narrative, the reader is connected to Dong-ho throughout the novel but can see the effect of the Uprising from a multiplicity of perspectives. Giving the narrative to the unionised women who drove the pro-democracy movement, the survivors, and even a corpse, creates a novel which can educate about the event and how people experienced it. The detached tone adopted in all Kang’s work allows for a lack of sensationalisation or didacticism as literal torture is presented to the reader. 

The novel reminds us that history remains in our present politics and all spheres of life. Novels and other works of literature offer an opportunity to act as a historical source, presenting people’s responses to events, and as a way to expose ourselves to areas of history unknown. Human Acts forms part of history and has continuing political significance.

Ellie Williams-Brown

Book Review: ‘The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence’ (2013) by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros

This book has blown my mind. Honestly and truly, this is not an overstatement. The title itself encapsulates the purpose of the book, one which evidently drives every chapter. Gary Haugen, the book’s main author, is the founder of the International Justice Mission; a mass organisation that seeks to end the global injustice of human trafficking. The Locust Effect is an in-depth account as to why violence is the predominant hindrance to ending poverty in the developing world.

The metaphor, indicated by the title, The Locust Effect, which is not addressed until the third chapter, refers to the plaguing effect of violence (the locusts) to the well-intended humanitarian work built-up in small communities (the harvest). Haugen uses this chapter to emphasize his point and does not grow shy of arguing that violence devours progress as easily as a swarm of locusts ravish a harvest. 

He evidences the main argument throughout the book, but most emphatically demonstrates this through an intimate and horrifying example portrayed in the powerful first chapter. This case details the pathetic masquerade of ‘justice’ after the murder and rape of an 8 year old Peruvian girl called Yuri. Haugen describes, through the rural surroundings, how Yuri’s family had tried so hard to provide a life for her that transcended that of their past, particularly through education. Yuri’s murder had been at the hands of a local oligarchical family, who hired a lawyer to protect their murderous son, and destroyed all evidence that would allow justice to prevail on behalf on Yuri.

The cover of Haugan’s ‘The Locust Effect’. (Credit: Oxford University Press)

Thus, we come to the conclusion of this book; in too many developing countries in the world, justice is a commodity the poor simply cannot afford and are in fact consistently victimised by. A reason this is the case is fully investigated in the chapter entitled ‘Colonial legacies and a failure that makes sense’. This chapter is one of the most profound examples of history working in politics today that I have come across. Through his observation of justice systems in the developing world since 1994, Haugen ascertains that these systems are so ineffective because they have had next to no reform since colonial years. In an interview with former Punjab Director- General of Police in India Kirpal S. Dhillon, it is stated that the colonial Indian Police Act of 1861 still governs India up to the publication of the book. The Police Act specifically protected the ruler and not the citizens of the country.

Other examples are used by Haugen to establish how entrenched colonialism and oppression still is in these legal systems. In Malawi, a former British colony, the legal system is still conducted in English, a language which only one percent of the country speaks. This means millions of people are stuck in the legal system often without trial and are unable to defend themselves. Often, the poorest people are randomly picked and abused as scapegoats for the crimes of the wealthy.

Without a functioning legal system that posits democratic justice, efforts to assist the poor in the form of schools and food supplies will not have their full and well-intentioned effect if, for example, girls are too susceptible to becoming victims of violence to be able to walk to school. The need for reformed justice systems in the developing world and a rejection of imposed colonial manifestations of history in these legal systems, cries out from every page of this book. For me, it is a perspective shattering insight.

Haugen’s book is well evidenced by both statistical and case study evidence. Through this convincing argument, the book concludes by stating that although there are huge injustices in the legal systems in the developing world, there are successes from sustained efforts to reform them. One example of this is the huge success of a collaborative legal efforts against child prostitution in the Philippines. Thus, the book ends on a charged yet positive note: there is possible success working with the representatives of justice in the developing world, but a sustained global effort has never been tried to reform these systems wholesale. Therefore, it has never failed.

I would recommend this book to anyone passionate about social justice, a topic which I feel is deeply cloaked in the implications of history in politics.

Anna Shepherd