Russell Brand and Robert Webb: Two Comedians of Liberty

31/10/2013 15:34 GMT | Updated 31/12/2013 10:12 GMT

So here we are in 2013 watching the two great definitions of freedom being argued over by popular comedians in the pages of the New Statesman. Brand dreams of a revolution, because nothing else can save us. Meanwhile Webb thanks the indiscriminate gods of history for giving us Ed Miliband and the opportunity to elect him. A historically priceless privilege suddenly put at risk by Brand's electoral nihilism.

Brand's manifesto and rhetoric was quickly characterised as irresponsible, by discouraging young people from voting he has played into the hands of the tory government and helped to reinforce the same powerful elites he was trying to destroy. (not to mention the causal disregard of a democracy our soldiers have died to preserve) But this, according to Brand should be the fork in the road between "oblivion or utopia." You cannot vote for utopia because Cleggs will always betray you. Webb then politely advises Brand to "read some f**king Orwell", but given the date of his rebuttal, he might well have said 'read some f**king Berlin'.

It was the 31st of October 1858 when Isaiah Berlin, one of the world's leading intellectuals, delivered his timeless speech, Two Concepts of Liberty. This was the same midnight of the same century that inspired Orwell to write Animal Farm and 1984. The British Empire was evaporating, Europe had been divided and world war three could start at any minute. Berlin had grown up in Russia and watched the revolution and the oppression that followed before fleeing to Britain. In his speech, Berlin had identified two competing definitions of liberty. Firstly there was 'positive liberty'. This was the freedom to act radically, to do whatever it took to dramatically change society for the better, by taking what you needed from the powerful. But this was dangerous and Berlin rushed to warn his listeners that positive liberty would always lead to terror and tyranny. This was because anyone who was confident enough to assume that his or her actions would lead us straight towards a better world, would have a psychological license to cause any amount of harm - secure in the knowledge that they were doing so for a higher cause.

"If you believe there is a single answer to the single question - the true answer, all other answers then being false - all these answers can be put together and harmonize with each other to create the perfect universe, then there is temptation if you think you have it, to do awful things." - Isaiah Berlin

The antidote, Berlin claimed, was 'negative liberty'. Defined as the freedom to do anything that improved your own life so long as it doesn't interfere with the freedom of others, negative liberty, according to Berlin, was the only way to ensure stability and safety during the uncertainty of the cold war. This narrow vision of individual freedom has since become an unquestionable cornerstone of western ideology. Incidentally when asked to name his seven favorite books, Nick Clegg choose the transcript of Berlin's speech.

The appeal of Russell Brand's revolutionary ramblings lies in the paradox at the heart of this idea. Like every other ideology that came before it, negative liberty appears to transcend every other ideology. But negative liberty can only survive if people still believe that they possess the power to improve their own lives. While Labour were introducing a minimum wage and giving us free entry to museums, inequality exploded. Today as the rises in the price of living sprint past the modest increases in average wages, our freedom, as defined by Berlin, is shrinking. Meanwhile the violence negative liberty was designed to diminish, has endured. Throughout the cold war our freedom was defended across the developing world with the barrels of a million American guns and after 9/11 the same freedom was safeguarded by British and American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently by drones in the skies above Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Great things can happen as a direct result of voting for the American democrats and the British Labour party. They have happened before and they may happen again. But the world we live in today, with all of its violence and economic disparity has been molded by the best intentions of progressive politics. Berlin's antidote to a perfect universe has become one in itself and as we watch it slowly disintegrate we find ourselves unable to imagine a new direction. This is unlikely to change unless we scrutinize the writings of Isaiah Berlin the same way we scrutinise the scribbles of Russell Brand and remind ourselves to question the unquestionable.