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.