Freedom under Capitalism (Part 2)

If consumption was freedom then Upper East Side housewives would be the freest people on Earth.

So what is freedom if it’s not consumption? The next logical step here would be to look outward, not inward. We would not really be free if we lived alone on a deserted island. So freedom then would have something to do with others, with our social bonds. We can experience freedom only in relations to others. Freedom then would mean being or, more precisely, being able to be a good member of society, a good citizen. Sure there will be many who would not want to be good citizens. But the avenues to be a good citizen should be available and easily accessible to anyone who wants it. What are the available avenues for being a good citizen today? Voting, volunteering, charity? Yes. But these are supplementary not foundational. The economic foundation to be a good citizen is lacking. The current foundation is a barbell between cutthroat competition on one end and everyone else, the losers, on the other. One is made to oscillate between these two extremes without having a safe landing ground in the middle. One can’t be a good citizen if the available economic choices come down to either be a predator or to be a sucker. Such are current conditions. There’s no existing functioning framework where you can be neither. Even worse, we are required to suppress our good nature to meet the demands of the competitive framework.

What’s interesting to note here is that many of those who are winners in this game, those who rose through the ranks, went through this competitive hazing themselves. They became assholes, if you will, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Thus they are not inclined to allow others to have an easier path. The strong are the product of this environment. In a small-minded and petty way they expect others to replicate such moral degeneration in order to prove their worth. How can one be free under such social construct?

This is where the notion of nobility arises. The essence of nobility is in protection of those who can not protect themselves. Being noble in the olden times required risking one’s life on the battlefield. A lot more was expected of those of noble descent. If you were born into a noble family you were expected to protect your keep, to uphold some duties. Nassim Taleb actually touched on this theme in his book Antifragile. Today’s nobility is democratic, rarely hereditary. They won in the game of life, outsmarting others, fellow citizens, for self-benefit, but they act as if they slayed some great foreign enemy. They manifest their nobility, their elevated social position, not by courage on the battlefield (or, in our days, moral courage to call bullshit or to stop their own game), but by displays of status and one-upmanship. And at that point it doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter how you got there.  In the current zeitgeist continuous self-promotion is the most logical thing to do. If, say, Jon Snow was living in a modern-day New York, he would’ve jumped at Stannis’s offer to help him run a hedge fund (to march on Winterfell and reclaim the North), rather than enroll with the Marines (stay behind and do his duty on the Wall).

Jon Snow, the one who stayed on the Wall, understands the now forgotten concept of duty, a concept that was originally inseparable from being noble. But today, duty is for suckers. Today, it’s all about black-tie events at Cipriani, filled with every Who’s Who of financial and political elite. Today it’s WHCD dinner, a grotesque event where journalists rub elbows, drink and laugh with the subjects they are supposed to rip apart. Who is there, aside from Taibbi and Bernie Sanders, to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted?

So in the current paradigm, since it’s almost impossible to do good and be good, what we can try to do is to be less evil. We should try, whenever possible, to advocate for and protect the weak. Try to, even on a small scale, call bullshit whenever you see it. Be respectful and polite to those below you on a social ladder: they wish they had your problems. I mean, literally, smile and say “Hello” and “Thank you” to a taxi driver or your cleaning lady. And if you can’t bear it anymore, make plans of escape and work towards them: downgrade your lifestyle, cash out your 401K, move to Mexico. Minimize the amount of small evil around you. When the critical mass of people unwilling to carry that torch grows big enough, when one by one we start breaking down that dehumanizing relay competition, then there’s some hope for us.

2 thoughts on “Freedom under Capitalism (Part 2)

  1. blakely says:

    Thank you very much for the disciplined thinking and lucid writing. (Super intriguing, but It hurts my brain). Here are my two cents. Both posts on Freedom and Capitalism have brought up the need to question our assumptions about meaning of both concepts. This reminds me of the “This Is Water” speech by David Foster Wallace. The Western world has been swimming in Freedom and Capitalism for quite sometime now, and yet we struggle to define them. It is a hard process. Capitalism is an emblem of progress. Capitalism is free market economics that provides us with very VERY useful tools. However, as professor Sandel noted, “The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations?”. Your posts are the signs of us starting a conversation. As a fan of free markets, I find it utterly fascinating. You provided an insight: no matter what you do in your life, just put integrity and human dignity as your guiding principles, like nobles many many years ago did. Your life will be a good life, enriched by meaningful connections with people. And that is a definition of Freedom. Bravo. Thank you again for the blog. Please keep on writing, the subject is nuanced and needs critical minds like yours to unpack it.

    • When we say ‘free markets’ what do we actually mean? Current economic system or a bunch of artisanal producers, mom and pop shops that line our street? To me the latter is free market and that’s not what we have.
      I know, for us, from Soviet Union, any mention of ‘decay of capitalism’ and Marx is an opportunity to chuckle, with a sense of superiority, at naïve American leftists. But if we put labels and pre-conceived notions aside, I’m truly befuddled about how this model will sustain itself. Here’s the quote from something I read, and I have no intelligent rebuttal the points made. From here:

      “Unable to expand and generate profits at past levels, the capitalist system would begin to consume the structures that sustained it. It would prey upon, in the name of austerity, the working class and the poor, driving them ever deeper into debt and poverty and diminishing the capacity of the state to serve the needs of ordinary citizens. It would, as it has, increasingly relocate jobs, including both manufacturing and professional positions, to countries with cheap pools of laborers. Industries would mechanize their workplaces. This would trigger an economic assault on not only the working class but the middle class—the bulwark of a capitalist system—that would be disguised by the imposition of massive personal debt as incomes declined or remained stagnant. Politics would in the late stages of capitalism become subordinate to economics, leading to political parties hollowed out of any real political content and abjectly subservient to the dictates and money of global capitalism.”

      How, and I mean seriously, do we expect another Apple app to sustain this economy without devouring itself?

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