MUST READ: Unsubscribing From Freedom

ACADEMIC FREEDOM is one of those “public goods” that most people seldom question. Even in New Zealand, a country not especially hospitable to intellectuals of any sort, academics are seldom identified as persons in need of official restraint. New Zealanders prefer to joke about the otherworldliness and impracticality of academic research – especially in the social sciences and liberal arts. That is to say, they used to joke about it. Over the last few years academics have given ordinary New Zealanders small cause for laughter.

Indeed, it has become increasingly clear to the Free Speech Union, along with many other advocates of freedom of expression, that the place where academic freedom is most at risk is, paradoxically, academia itself.

The banning of Don Brash from the Palmerston North campus of Massey University – by no lesser person than the Vice-Chancellor herself – was one of the most dramatic early examples. There have been many others. Not the least of these was the initial failure of the University of Auckland to defend the seven members of its own academic staff who dared to declare, on the pages of The NZ Listener, that Mātaurānga Māori was not Science.

While paying lip-service to the principle of academic freedom, New Zealand’s university authorities have begun to hedge it around with all manner of restrictions. The pursuit of research subjects and/or the articulation of ideas capable of inflicting “harm” on other staff and students has become decidedly “career-limiting”

To discover exactly how pervasive this revisionist approach to academic freedom has become, and to identify how many academics still uphold freedom of expression, the Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Research to survey a representative cross section of the New Zealand academic community. That survey is ongoing, but one of the responses received was so startling that the FSU posted it on its website.

This is what it said:

Tēnā koe,

Please remove me from your e-mail list.

Freedom is an archaic feudal principal (sic) employed by colonial capitalism to advance the upward mobility of the few and maintain the status quo, and I do not subscribe to it.

It is important to bear in mind that the person who wrote this is a member of the academic staff of a New Zealand university. Someone bound by the terms of their employment to uphold the highest standards of scholarship. Someone who is almost certainly lecturing to and/or tutoring young New Zealanders. Someone who, by their own admission, does not subscribe to the principle of freedom.


Let us begin by unpacking the anonymous respondent’s declaration.

The first observation to make is that the his/her understanding of both European and New Zealand history is entirely untethered from reality. To begin with, feudalism was not based upon the idea of freedom, but of reciprocity.

In the fiercely hierarchical societies of the medieval period even those at the summit of the social pyramid owed a duty of care and protection to those whose status was inferior to their own. Those at the bottom, far from being free, were legally tied to their lord’s land. Male dependents of the lord were also expected to fight for him when required to do so.

What the serfs (as these dependents were called) received in return was access to the sustenance that the lord’s land provided, as well as military and legal protection against those seeking to harm them. In certain rare circumstances a serf might be released from his obligations, thereby becoming a “freed” man. With nobody now obligated to care for him, however, such a person faced a difficult future. Unless he was especially gifted, a freed man would hasten to “bind” himself to another lord or master.

Clearly, feudalism and freedom are not concepts one usually finds grouped together – quite the reverse in fact. What about “colonial capitalism”? Is it legitimate to associate the capitalist economic system with feudalism and freedom?

Not really.

Historically speaking, capitalism is the economic system that dissolved feudalism, along with the aristocratic political system it sustained. Rather than a society founded upon hierarchy and mutual obligation, capitalism gave rise to a society based upon the freedom of the individual to enter into contracts with other individuals – for money. If you were inventive, clever, or just plain lucky, these contracts could make you rich. If you had nothing to offer but your unskilled labour, then the contracts entered into generally offered little more than the barest subsistence.

In the context of New Zealand’s colonisation, however, a persistent shortage of skilled – and unskilled – labour offered working-class colonists a considerably better existence than the one they were escaping on the immigrant ships. At least initially, it wasn’t freedom that underpinned the growth of the colony, but the prospect of a more prosperous and open-ended life – which emigration to New Zealand promised.

New Zealanders’ interest in political freedom grew out of the failure of the colony’s rulers to ensure that opportunity and prosperity remained a realistic prospect for the ordinary colonist. A large part of that failure was attributable to the difficulty encountered by the colonial authorities in acquiring sufficient land from the Māori to keep the New Zealand enterprise going.

It was precisely the freedom to contract, or not to contract, with the Crown in respect to the sale of land – a freedom guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi – and exercised vigorously (to the consternation and rising fury of the settler government) by the Kingitanga and its allies, that caused the British Crown to make war upon the Māori.

If anyone was defending freedom in 1860s New Zealand it was the tangata whenua.

In making war upon the Māori, the colonial capitalists and their servants in the colonial legislature were not defending the status quo, they were tearing it – and the Treaty of Waitangi – to pieces. Their legal justification for seizing Māori land had nothing to do with the laws of capitalist enterprise, but to archaic English laws pertaining to rebellion against the Crown. Feudal laws.

What’s more, the seizure of Māori land did not advance the upward mobility of wealthy capitalists alone. Thousands of Pakeha colonists benefitted from the parcelling-out of the territories seized, mostly in the form of leased small-holdings – later translated into freehold farms. It was the Pakeha many who prospered, and the Māori few who were dispossessed.

It is hard to see how this great wrong can ever be righted in an Aotearoa-New Zealand where freedom has no subscribers among the tangata whenua. Harder still to see such a rectification being accomplished where the research and intellectual labour needed to convince a majority of New Zealanders that change is necessary is not rigorously monitored, or the fierce debates it sparks given the freest rein. Academic freedom must amount to more than protecting ignorance and sanctioning disinformation.

The simple truth of the matter is that freedom is always and everywhere indivisible. Suppress it in our universities and its suppression elsewhere will soon follow. Those who do not subscribe to freedom have no place in our halls of learning – or anywhere else enlightened human values are cherished.


Related Posts