Prospect forecast: Read and reject the label


“Tocqueville captured the phenomenon of invisibly creeping despotism in atomized societies devoted to the pursuit of wealth when he wrote that people ‘in their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune’ can ‘lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.’”

We might for some inexplicable and unreasonable reason (what else can we call it but a ‘reason’ even if it defies that very thing?) expect that the world, our quality of life – our own individually and that of each successive generation – will progressively improve. This is the lie we’re told/sold in at least American society, if not as overtly in others. And sometimes it turns out true. But the forecast isn’t true for everyone. This we know from the divisions we see played out in American society. And in all societies – modern and historic – the haves and have-nots, the with and without, the empowered and disenfranchised. None of this is hidden or difficult to see, but the label still reads: the world continues to get better; progress is on an endless march forward (whether “progress” means more liberal markets or universal prosperity/material betterment, eradication of the worst of the world’s diseases – its definition depends on to whom we pose the question, and even then does not have a simple answer. After all, for example, we might eradicate disease theoretically, patting ourselves on the backs about the triumph of science and ingenuity. But a drug company will come in and make the cure prohibitively expensive, so we have not made that much progress in reality).

These ideas come to the fore in many books I’ve read recently, most notably in Age of Anger (which I recommend) and the book about Boomers destroying everything. Things teeter on the brink on many fronts because people have been told that this label is true: “Freedom is all that matters – and by freedom, we mean the freedom to get rich.” And somehow, the have-have not dichotomy becomes entrenched because the masses of have-nots do not feel the same deprivation they should or the drive for equality. Instead they have been promised that there are lottery winners (whether literal or through hard work). Because they live in “freedom” (another word with complex meanings, all depending on whom you ask) – which in this case is another form of cage – they will swallow anything because there is a slight hope (certainly not expectation) of becoming wealthy, i.e. truly free.

Thus, individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies.

In Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which was about addiction, one of his addict patients said it in the most down-to-earth, distinct way possible: “Then you go to the office and you see a couple of dozen patients … and all your money goes to the bank at the end of that, and then you count up your shekels or your doubloons. At the end of the day, what have you done? You’ve collected the summation of what you think freedom is. You’re looking for security, and you think that will give you freedom. You collected a hundred shekels of gold, and to you this gold has the capacity of keeping you in a fancy house or maybe you can salt away another six weeks’ worth up and above what you already have in the bank. “But what are you looking for? What have you spent your whole day searching for? That same bit of freedom or satisfaction that I want; we just get it differently. What’s everybody chasing all the money for if not to get them something that will make them feel good for a while or make them feel they’re free? How are they freer than I am? “Everybody’s searching for that feeling of well-being, that greater happiness. But I’d rather be a dog out in the street than do what many people go through to find their summation of freedom.”

But how are we to define freedom, really? We have the version that society feeds and reinforces; our own innate need to fit in or make ourselves feel better (and how? Collecting money? Consuming? Doing drugs or drinking? Owning guns?). From where do we derive our conception of personal/individual autonomy, freedom and what that means and why it is important? Why do we place such an outsized emphasis on freedom – or the version of freedom painted-by-numbers for us in the societies in which we live? Are safety or community or compassion not equally important?

From Age of Anger of course Dostoevsky is cited again: “True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the ‘Occidental Nature’ had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity. ‘You find there instead,’ Dostoevsky wrote: a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination, of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.”

For Pessoa, though, no, freedom actually equates to being free of people and needing them for anything. I relate to his feelings on the subject. I have worked to find freedom from having to co-exist (even if in a bigger sense, e.g. paying taxes and earning money, I do co-exist), and flexibility when I did have to co-exist. At the same time, it is not entirely clear that this ‘freedom’ is important, certainly not beyond the individual sense, and is probably not psychologically healthy either (like it or not, we as humans do need some kind of network and connection to survive, i.e. no man is an island): “Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendours of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant; you’re not free.”

“Slavery is the law of life, and it is the only law, for it must be observed: there is no revolt possible, no way to escape it. Some are born slaves, others become slaves, and still others are forced to accept slavery. Our fainthearted love of freedom — which we would reject as strange and unfamiliar, if it ever came to us — is proof of how ingrained our slavery is.”

“We squander our personalities in orgies of coexistence. Every spoken word double-crosses us. The only tolerable form of communication is the written word, since it isn’t a stone in a bridge between souls but a ray of light between stars.”

“Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me. I yank from my neck a hand that was choking me, and I see that my own hand was holding a noose that fell around my neck as soon as I freed it from the stranger’s hand.”

How can there be this kind of false freedom when it really is a form of keeping people in line, enslaved to a system that pushes them down but teases/taunts them with the tantalizing idea that maybe they could be one of the few to reach the upper echelons? What does it say about a society whose values and education reinforce the idea that that is all that is worth striving for and that that is what truly constitutes freedom?

From Age of Anger:

“In Santayana’s view, most human beings, temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment, and even the few successful rich did not enjoy ‘moral security’ and ‘a happy freedom’. He left the United States for Europe in 1912, having concluded that ‘there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions’. For the next four decades he continued to amplify his warnings that the worldwide dissemination of an individualist culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite a ‘lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’.”

“Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking.”

“Responding to Fukuyama’s thesis in 1989, Allan Bloom was full of foreboding about the gathering revolts against a world that ‘has been made safe for reason as understood by the market’, and ‘a global common market the only goal of which is to minister to men’s bodily needs and whims’.”

A society in which the bitterly competitive fire is stoked to create humans most inhumane?

“Rousseau warned, amour propre is doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied. Too commonplace and parasitic on fickle opinion, it nourishes in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection – in Gore Vidal’s pithy formulation, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

“try to make sense of bewildering, and often painful, experiences by re-examining a divided modern world, this time from the perspective of those who came late to it, and felt, as many people do now, left, or pushed, behind.”

“Yet only on the rarest of occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence, and that the politics of violence, hysteria and despair was by no means unique to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Communist Russia.”

The questions – and answers – are tied up in language and its influence/power as well. The language of freedom and equality are an effective smokescreen to mask that there is no actual freedom or equality. In a sense, it’s a sleight of hand (or tongue, in this case), not unlike when US Republicans have recently insisted that all people will still have “access” to healthcare if Obamacare were repealed. Yes, they would be free like every other person in America to shell out a whole lot of money to buy the care or insurance that perhaps, under Obamacare, they could actually afford. They don’t tell you that by “gaining so much freedom”, you are also losing a lot of money – if you could even afford the care in the first place. Bernie Sanders crusaded around this tricky language in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, reminding people that yes,  “access to” something is not the same thing as actually being able to get, buy or use it.

“Four years before Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the German thinker Max Stirner argued in the equally incendiary The Ego and its Own that the impersonal rationality of power and government had disguised itself in the emollient language of freedom and equality, and the individual, ostensibly liberated from traditional bonds, had been freshly enslaved by the modern state. Bakunin, the forebear of today’s leaderless militants, spoke with glee of the ‘mysterious and terrible words’, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which portend ‘the complete annihilation’ of the ‘existing political and social world’.”

“His friend Herzen saw Europe’s new gods of wealth and power as inaugurating an era of mass illusion – and violent counter-attacks. Europe was fated to move, Tocqueville warned, to ‘democracy without limits’, but it was far from clear ‘whether we are going toward liberty or marching toward despotism, God alone knows precisely’.”

Does it go beyond just the language in which the concepts are couched? Are concepts now inextricably tied to other concepts to form a net in which we are completely tangled? That is, to be American is to be free? And yet “free” in that statement is in a constant state of redefinition, stretched and pulled by different groups (one is tempted to say the liberal and the conservative, but this is too simplistic. Possibly it is pulled by the haves and have-nots, but in those cases, it’s more like the haves are holding the have-nots in their hands and pulling them at both ends like … a taffy pull, manipulating, stretching and taking more and more from them).

“Presciently critiquing the neo-liberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom, Rousseau claimed that individual liberty was deeply menaced in a society driven by commerce, individual competitiveness and amour propre. Anticipating anti-globalization critics, he argued that finance money is ‘at once the weakest and most useless for the purpose of driving the political mechanism toward its goal, and the strongest and most reliable for the purpose of deflecting it from its course’. Liberty was best protected not by prosperity but the general equality of all subjects, both urban and rural, and balanced economic growth. Emphasizing national self-sufficiency, he also distrusted the great and opaque forces of international trade, especially the trade in luxuries.”

And what could be more true than these ideas, also fruits plucked from Age of Anger?

“Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard doubted the then new ‘idea of sociality, of community’ promoted by journalism, and cautioned against the public opinion that rose from ‘a union of people who separately are weak, a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage’. Early in the twentieth century, communications technology was still confined to the telegraph, the telephone and the cinema; but Max Weber warned that, combined with the pressure of work and opaque political and economic forces, it would push modern individuals away from public life and into a ‘subjectivist culture’ – or what he called ‘sterile excitation’. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the era of literacy had ended with the advent of radio and television; their multi-sensory experience in a ‘global village’ had returned humankind to tribal structures of feeling and ‘we begin again to live a myth’. Today’s colossal exodus of human lives into cyberspace is even more dramatically transforming old notions of time, space, knowledge, values, identities and social relations.”

“In his prescient critique of the neo-liberal notion of individual freedom, Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself. But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’. He absolutely won’t find freedom in the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter. For the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre. On the contrary: even the most festive spirit of communality disguises the competitiveness and envy provoked by constant exposure to other people’s success and well-being.”

Photo: Yes, should have paid attention to/read the label before purchasing online. A 1.5 kg package of tea is probably a bit too much.

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