“Freedom lies in being bold.” Robert Frost
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” Thomas Jefferson
“Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness.” Frank Tyger
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela
“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom assumes responsibility and most people are afraid of that responsibility.” Sigmund Freud
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Janis Joplin
and of course, “Freedom is Slavery.” George Orwell
Throughout most of my life, I never thought twice about what freedom means. It seems self-evident: the more the better. In high school, I donned colorful shirts and stopped cutting my hair because I thought that the hippies of the 1960s were free while almost everyone I knew was not. Freedom from oppression and coercion is always at the front of our consciousness because being coerced is a terrible experience. It’s impossible to miss or ignore.
The concept of freedom as a negotiable quality is slightly harder to pin down. As in, everyone has freedom and therefore we all have to curb our individual freedoms when they come in contact with those of another. Related to this is the idea of the social contract, a controversial theory from the 18th century which says that everyone agreed to exchange some of their individual freedom for protection and the rule of law administered by a government.
But the experience at ground level is very different from that posited in theories. When I chaffed under the coercion of my parents and school rules as a kid, freedom seemed a simple thing: I wanted it and didn’t have it. I was denied freedom by parents, teachers, principals, society. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t feel significantly more free, but who’s coercing me? I’m not talking about the coercion of laws and economics, social constraints placed on all of us in supposedly equal measure. Even though I’m well aware that some in our society are much more equal than others, to use Orwell’s phrase, I’m not particularly upset by my lot in society in relation to everyone else. I can work with what I’ve got. As a citizen of the United States of America in 2017, I’m not very oppressed or coerced, at least compared to most other people. But I feel limited nevertheless.
All I want from life is extremely modest. I want to have a good family to love and be loved by. I want good friends and neighbors, a group of decent people to belong to and to share my remaining years on Earth with. I want to be able to practice the craft which is important to me and which I’ve spent my entire life getting good at, although I am more than willing to accommodate the tastes and interests of my fellow humans in the exact manner in which I practice this craft, or even to switch crafts altogether if need be. Finally, I want to be able to continue learning and bettering myself, so that I can be the best person I can be to myself, the people around me, my society, and the planet on which I live.
Ok, you got me—I don’t know how to segue into what I’m trying to say… It’s possible for a person’s completely modest, boring goals to be impossible to realize through no fault of their own, or of their fellow humans, or even of their elected and non-elected leaders. What’s preventing us from living our lives in a halfway decent manner is something much harder to point to than any of these, more nebulous and harder to grasp. We can start figuring out whats going on by addressing our misunderstanding of the idea of freedom.
During the later Middle Ages in Europe society was going through changes which would have great influence on the way we think of freedom. A growing acceptance of trade and commerce combined with new technologies was undermining the rigid social order, which had remained largely the same since the fall of the Roman Empire. The difference was that now people could buy their way into a higher social position. Before this, whatever station you were born into was the one you died with, no amount of desire or effort on your part making any difference.
Social mobility in practice meant that you were responsible for your own success or failure. When everyone’s lot in life was a foregone conclusion, no one could blame a carpenter for failing to make it rich and send his kids to a private school—no amount of dedication or genius could change that. While it’s distasteful to modern sensibility, this arrangement had an important plus side: if no one can rise to the top or fall to the gutter and god is the only one who controls men’s stations in life, no one need be anxious about failing to strike it rich. All evidence points to the fact that people were relatively content with their lots under a feudal system compared to what came after. I’m not saying they had nothing to complain about, as wars, famines, diseases, and who knows what else were certainly a feature of early medieval life. But it is a historical fact that peasant uprisings, lunatic asylums, the black death, and decades-long, genocidal wars began in earnest for Europeans at the same time as they underwent the shift to early capitalism.
Many factors which played a role in the transition from feudalism to modern society can be identified, but it’s hard to ascribe a causal relationship to any of them. These included growing urbanism, continued enclosure of the commons traditionally reserved for shared use by the peasants, increasing accumulation of capital by merchants vying for power with the nobility. For our purposes, the important thing is that starting in the late medieval period people were more and more likely to view themselves as responsible for their own lives, whereas before this everyone was secure in the role they played in their community and needed only to do their best.
Ironically, the events of the 1960s accelerated this trend toward personal responsibility. Hippies insisted that no one need to follow anyone else’s path, that everyone could be their own person. Not only was everyone now responsible for their own success or failure, but one’s very identity was up for negotiation. It’s easy to see the effects of this pressure on teenagers, at the moment in their lives when they don’t know who they ought to be yet and are desperately trying to figure it out. The question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult things. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society’s obsession with individualism makes it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.
Imagine being told that you could be president of the United States, that anyone could, when you can’t even pay attention in class, don’t know anyone whose parents aren’t in jail or on drugs or whatever? That kid is going to grow up with a sense that he’s a failure so deep he’s not even going to know it’s there. He’s just going to go from one experience which confirms what a fuck up he is to another, from juvy to jail to some shitty job flipping burgers. If he was born in a feudal-like environment instead, let’s say, 1980’s Guatemala, he would go through life expecting to pick produce alongside his parents, siblings, eventually children, and as long as the Army didn’t come in to steal the land his village reclaimed from the jungle over the course of seven hard lean years, he would be relatively content.
In contemporary American understanding, everyone is always competing with everyone else, and being poor is not ok, is your own damn fault. This is a really good way to get everyone to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times. We’re just not made for this kind of constant stress and judgment, and increasingly, we don’t have adequate support networks to help each other deal with the psychological and physical burden imposed by the rat race, or simply to blow off steam.
A familiar way to think of this might be the juxtaposition of individual freedoms and the common good. Everyone probably remembers this concept from government class. Different societies can be placed on this scale relative to each other. In doing so, we would find that many eastern societies like China are closer to the common good end of the scale compared to present-day America, which is closer to the individual freedoms side. Modern globalized capitalism is, as a whole, incompatible with the common good side of the scale. It is a force pushing everyone toward the individual freedoms side. But, it is entirely possible that humans as currently constituted are incapable of living meaningful, fulfilled lives without a strong common-good ethos to guide them and keep them grounded. This doesn’t mean that everyone living in less individualistic societies is happy, obviously there are many ways to make life hard for people. But in general, we aren’t made to be “free” on our own: true freedom is being a part of a thriving community.
It can be said that freedom is inversely correlated with sanity insofar as it is only possible to succumb to the pressure of expectations (the main cause of many psychological disorders) when you live in a society in which you possess the freedom to succeed or fail. Conversely, in a society in which everyone is tied to their station in life and understands themselves as a member of their group rather than as a free-willed individual, issues of belonging, identity, and success or failure simply can’t arise.
Essentially, an increase in freedom implies a decrease in well being. I say this because medieval peasants didn’t miss the extra freedom we’ve gained over the centuries, but we free citizens of the free world clearly and profoundly miss the security and sense of belonging which the medieval peasants enjoyed. Modern capitalism relies on this fact to keep us buying shit we don’t need day in and day out. They’re quite clear on the mechanics of using our need to love and belong to sell us things.
Here is theologian Jacques Ellul on the trade-off between freedom and well-being
…man himself is exalted, and paradoxical though it may seem to be, this means the crushing of man. Man’s enslavement is the reverse side of the glory, value, and importance that are ascribed to him. The more a society magnifies human greatness, the more one will see men alienated, enslaved, imprisoned, and tortured, in it. Humanism prepares the ground for the anti-human. We do not say that this is an intellectual paradox. All one need do is read history. Men have never been so oppressed as in societies which set man at the pinnacle of values and exalt his greatness or make him the measure of things. For in such societies freedom is detached from its purpose, which is, we affirm, the glory of God.
There is an interesting theory by Julian Jaynes called bicameralism which essentially says that meta-consciousness (awareness of awareness or thought about thought) was a relatively recent development in human history, as recent as the ancient civilizations of the Near East in the millennia preceding the Common Era. I find this very intriguing. I associate meta-consciousness with the strong sense of self that characterizes late capitalist societies. Meta-consciousness, strong sense of self, may be both the evolutionary hurdle which, once crossed, spurred mankind to amazing technological achievements, and a barrier to being happy. It’s possible that we simply can’t have both advanced civilization like we have today and relatively happy people.
On the other hand, I don’t think that civilization per se is incompatible with high levels of meta-cognition. It may be that most people do not have a highly developed sense of self in any case, so that we’re talking about relatively low levels of highly individualistic people in any scenario. Also, I can’t for the life of me see the reason a low density, low technology (limited if any fossil fuel use), mostly small scale agrarian society can’t exist and even support billions of people. This is obviously an uphill battle at best, but it seems more grounded in reality than the utopias conceived by libertarians, communists, or anarchists. Although it’s possible this would be an anarchist utopia, out of necessity. In any case, such an agrarian society would not necessarily mean a complete absence of meta-consciousness or strong sense of self, perhaps just the opposite.
Almost everyone would be a farmer and agriculture would be extremely intensive. Lots and lots of technology would still exist to help us farm and live good lives, it would just be a tiny fraction of current amounts, in both total number and variety, because there would be no way to create or power it using any energy source more concentrated than wind or hydro. It could still be extremely sophisticated, like, we could still have limited internet in a more stripped down form for communication and laser tag if we’re hellbent on it.
Such a society seems plausible to me so long as we get to it before we turn the world into a desert. It’s how humanity has lived for ten thousand years, except in this ideal society no parasitic government, warlord, or boss would exist to suck up all the surplus (This is because in a densely populated world without fossil fuels to constantly replenish the soil, there will be nowhere to move except unproductive lands. To keep the soil productive season after season, all surplus will need to be reinvested. Such a society can’t afford a parasitic overlord). I know all you modern people out there hate the idea of no cars, no iphones, and farming, but that’s cause you lack the imagination or the knowledge to imagine a way of life other than the current one. You will not be consulted should the opportunity for our civilization to transition to anything but a wasteland presents itself, as you weren’t asked whether you wanted to become lonely, overworked consumers of unsatisfying trash. But you will be much happier. And you can still chew your cud with the other livestock.
Let’s not end on that note! I have every reason to think that all you wonderful people will become much better, much more generous, cooperative, sensitive to others, thoughtful, and yes, even more intelligent should we ever dump the lifestyle we presently practice. Just as the brains of wild animals are much larger than those of their domesticated kin, all our faculties will be sharpened by the transition to a sustainable way of life. And to be fair, I realize that none of us are such crappy humans by choice.
Freedom isnt the act of shedding our attachments, but the practical capacity to work on them, to move around in their space, to form or dissolve them.
“The Coming Insurrection” by The Invisible Committee