Freedom under Capitalism

I’ve been a frequent reader of Brainpickings.org – the best website to find the insights on life and human condition from great thinkers – poets, philosophers, writers. Most of my forays into the metaphysical in my own blog, are usually originated by reading something on Brainpickings and then ruminating and expanding on those ideas. One of the recent articles was on Adrienne Rich, an American poet, describing her thoughts about freedom under capitalism.

 

In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?

Are we really free if our freedom requires us to take advantage of the others? Does capitalism promote freedom or undermine it? And to wade even further into heresy territory, do we embrace capitalism in its current form because we are afraid of true freedom? Ask us of our definition of freedom and we’ll tell you that freedom for us is to do what we like. Fair enough. But what do we like? Ask you friends what they like and you’ll hear answers like travel, shopping, movies, some extreme sports for the advanced. But that only means that consumption is freedom. Capitalism encourages that kind of freedom. Even your adrenaline-inducing adventures are marketed to you and paid for. You go to Cambodia and picture yourself to be hardened Captian Willard on a classified mission, but in reality you’re a spoiled tourist on a guided air-conditioned trip to a third world country to make yourself feel good.

You will rarely find writing or thinking on that list of ‘likes’. You may find art, but mostly consumption of it.

Consumption of art is still consumption, however, it can work as a catalyst to creating. Creating art moves one closer to freedom. It involves the bringing out of thoughts, the ability to express a nagging idea in your head in precise and simple way. Whether on paper or canvas or on the stage. Once you start doing it you learn what kind of person you are and it’s not a consumer you’ll find there. And you don’t have to be an egghead to do this. Just pick an art that speaks to you. I’m indifferent to most of the modern art, for example. Some old redneck Southern rock song gives me more food for thought than art by Warhol or Koons, which only causes puzzlement. I think most of modern art is a calculated effort with the marketability in mind, not a product of overwhelming emotions that come out bursting. I guess when it comes to art I’m a conservative – something I would not have realized if I did not sit down and examine it.

Thus, expression is freedom. It’s not that we’re completely oblivious to this notion. We try, in our own clumsy way, to express ourselves – on Facebook, on Twitter, etc. We are humans after all, we were blessed (or cursed) with tools to analyze our own human condition.

Such need of expression is manifested, genuinely but awkwardly, by some random postings of birds or sunset or nature pictures on your Facebook, in some quotes of those long dead, or pictures of self, walking on the beach or in a jumping jack pose (hands up, legs apart) over some magnificent geological or architectural backdrop.  But those moments of awe are rarely examined. We have neither time, no mental aptitude to dwell on it, to examine why we find it beautiful. We think that mere sharing will be sufficient. And because we can’t contemplate on it qualitatively, this need for expression perpetuates itself in quantity of pictures and drive-by postings. We are like a teenage girl, for whom every experience is “OMG, this is awesome!” even though there are, certainly, gradations of that awesomeness, which she is unable to articulate properly. For her, “OMG, this is awesome” can be equally applied to her first glimpse of Grand Canyon, a description of a boy band or a reaction to a friend’s Instagram. We can’t deny that at least in one of those cases she was in a state of genuine awe, perhaps even in a poetic mood but without the tools to express it adequately. So, in her quest to convey her feelings to the public, she resorts to quantity or images, not quality of thought. Such examination, itself a manifestation of our culture that is obsessed with consumption and acquisition, doesn’t take much effort – all it requires is a camera and a ticket to an exotic locale. Our methods of describing the beauty or speaking the unspeakable are handicapped by our culture which demands us to be, constantly and unquestionably, on the market economy treadmill. To build our thinking around the potential material or social (in a sense of social media) benefit of our actions. We define ourselves not with what we think, but where we went and what we saw and what we ate. Not a surprising outcome in a culture that is ever-ready to sell us another tool of pseudo-expression. In such a culture even protest is commodified. And we comply, we are eager to comply. We are suckers for fake excitement.

My personal cure for this ailment is writing.

 

If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.

I guess that’s why I don’t call myself a ‘fiscal conservative’ anymore. Fiscal conservatism is like a polite society’s mitigator of one’s ‘socially liberal’ stance. It’s meant to parlay your “reasonableness” to a respectful audience. Like, see, he’s for gay marriage, but he also wants to cut taxes. That’s what I thought I was, until I started unspooling that and came to a conclusion that economic justice – that is economic protection of the weak, is impossible under the agenda of ‘fiscal conservatism.’

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