My libertarian friends have a very strong attachment to the notion of freedom. So do I. Yet we always disagree on the policies, because we have different value attachments as far as freedom is concerned. What is freedom? What the libertarians mean by freedom is that the government does not interfere in the lives of private citizens. If we were freed from government coercion, people would have a good life, because the free market would regulate our lives, and we need no bureaucrat to tell us how to live wisely.
On the face of it, this reasoning is very poor, because the state has to set the rules of the game, and the only relevant practical question is how the government should regulate private activity, and specifically in whose interest. If the rules are set such that only 1% of the people can gain all the wealth, then it would be very disturbing and no sane person can support such a position. This is how our current economy is structured, however. Even philosophically, I question how much freedom there is in a political economy, where private property wealth appropriation means that a few people can become phenomenally wealthy, while so many other people are trapped in low-wage jobs despite hard labor. Marxists and socialists actually agree with a classic libertarian assumption that freedom means to own one’s own source of labor. But the difference is that right-wing libertarians think that the current oligarchs are the rightful owners of the labor, while socialists believe that workers themselves are the rightful owners.
But that is the socio-economic discussion of libertarianism and freedom, and I think I have engaged on this question on multiple occasions in the past, such that I doubt that I have much valuable input to offer. The other type of freedom is that which we encounter in personal life. Let us take say education. One of the main accomplishments of the human mind is the creation of art, music, literature, philosophy and the like. There is a very strong value in studying the liberal arts and humanities, because it makes people much more reflective about themselves and society. Naturally, in a highly insecure neoliberal world, it is not really appreciated to nurture independent thinkers, who only want to be paid to philosophize and reflect on the human condition. Having too much free-thinking carries the risk of disturbing the ruling mantra of individual work, merit, competition and strife, which we are told is a natural condition of life. We are going to school, such that we can learn the skills, which train us for careers. We receive the instruction from the teachers, and we need to be obedient to their orders, just as we are obedient to our bosses at work.
This instrumental approach to education, which is backed up by powerful forces, which want to eviscerate the humanities, and replace it with vocationally-based systems, is naturally inimical to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Once we accepted the framework of individuals striving for their own success, and leaving everyone else behind, and then blaming the inevitable losers from such a cutthroat economic environment, it is very difficult to establish alternative values to neoliberal dogma, such as learning for its own sake, and solidarity with other people that are facing political struggles, such as those faced by homeless people or people of color. It makes a lot of sense to defend the humanities, which will be structurally weakened by powerful social forces, but will hopefully continue to exist as long as there are people, who can spare a little bit of leisure time to carry out their interests.
But let us return to the question: what is freedom in a personal sense? I have made the observation that it is better to pursue personal research projects rather than things that are dictated on the class curriculum. I would be able to tell you a summary of the two dozen or so papers, which I have written up to this point, but I would not be able to tell you what I have done in 12th grade mathematics. I have total respect for math wizards, yet I lack the passion and energy to pursue a very mathematically oriented direction of research. I have gone through the government-mandated school system, and have continued on with college-based course work. Every time, when I read something that was required of me, such that I could write a paper about it or complete an exam, I retained much less information over the long term than if I read something based on my own interests.
Reading, writing and thinking are very individual processes. While I am typing up this blogpost, I am sitting in the library by myself, only staring at the screen to produce the next words on the screen. If there is an interest in a certain topic, I tend to write these blogposts rather quickly and almost effortlessly, while class assignments vary, and can take a long time, especially with respect to subject material with which I lack familiarity and/or interest. The freedom to discover things on your own is one of the greatest freedoms to have, yet within the confines of our society it is hard to attain such freedoms.
There are other education examples of freedom that also come to mind. I can recall more things in random public lectures that I chose to attend than class lectures in my assigned courses, even class lectures that somewhat interest me. While there is no clear extrinsic reward for attending public lectures (it won’t boost my GPA, and might even reduce it, because it takes time away from my formal studies), they are more meaningful, because we have actively chosen to attend it; we have the freedom to choose how much we want to get out of this experience (or how much we want to forget because there is no examiner to test and grade us); and we don’t have extrinsic tools to control our behavior and thinking. Full self-control implies complete freedom.
But education is not the only realm where freedom is possible. Most people experience their work as drudgery. We have this proverbial proliferation of “bullshit” jobs (Graeber 2013), i.e. jobs like accountants, managers, lawyers, consultants and financiers, which are paid a lot of money, but lack intrinsic value for the society. We could argue that we need lawyers to be able to cope with the complications of modern society, but we could not explain why countries outside the US would not have so many lawyers and unnecessary litigation. Of course, what is necessary is defined in the context of every society, but I very much doubt that people would miss out if the society would be able to solve social problems more peacefully and with different means. The better example are the financiers and bankers, which have made the economy more risky with their casino-speculative operations with downside insurance for them if things don’t work out for them. They get government bailouts, which is not available to working class people. These bankers are neither creating value, nor is their exorbitant pay justified from the standpoint of fairness and social justice.
In the low-wage jobs, there is also plenty of drudgery, such as in the retail sector and among some low-level administrative positions. The capitalist economy apparently feeds off from these many low-income workers, who should never experience the notion of freedom within their lifetime. Currently, there are many governments which are using the guise of an unaffordable welfare state and an aging population to justify deep cuts in pension programs, which will force more senior citizens to return back to the workforce and keep the wages low for everyone. Seniority won’t help with pay, because nowadays companies can dismiss older workers and rehire them at lower wages.
No one can claim that either the high or the low-wage workers- experiencing so much drudgery- are experiencing any degree of freedom. I don’t doubt that there are a few workaholics, who relish the prospect of spending their lifetime at work, and dread prolonged phases of downtime. But these are the exceptions to the rule. People can not experience any freedom if they are not given any. Even to the workaholics, I have to say, have you ever thought about which environment you enjoyed more? Meeting clients at work, and trying to sell them a worthless product, which you have to sell anyway, because that is what your boss wants you to do? Or meeting co-workers and friends after work in a dinner party, where there is plenty of good food and wine, and the opportunity to recapitulate a day of work and talk about sports?
It is so obvious that the latter situation has significantly more allure than the first one. In the first example, which is tied to economic activity and work, there is the bondage of work, business and capital accumulation/ profit-making. Some people feel in their natural element while doing so, because they feel happy about making money. Though I have to say that this is contrived and reveals the pitfall of modern market societies. But the fact of the matter is that making money takes primacy over any other interaction, and that tends to reduce the meaningfulness of work-related conversations.
I have noticed it myself after having worked in the retail industry for over four years. I was just an employee, and hated selling shoes, though I enjoyed the fact that it was a rather leisurely job. But what I really enjoyed was when there were only very few customers in the store, and I could meet and have very meaningful discussions with customers, who in turn were very happy about not just buying shoes but also sharing their wisdom and insight with a shoe clerk. There was a mutual benefit that was created in a work environment, but the primacy was nonetheless the economic transaction (selling shoes). So when the store got really busy, I could not have these kinds of conversations, and needed to process the customers like on a conveyor belt. Nonetheless, I am sure that I was able to generate a higher level of job satisfaction than someone without that social experience at work.
The second situation (the dinner party) I described earlier is very different from the first one. Because the interaction is not tied to achieving any tangible outcomes (making money etc.), there is a much greater potential of having simply very relaxing and rewarding conversations with other people. That situation constitutes freedom, and so we as social human beings seek to repeat these rewarding encounters by organizing many parties and get-togethers. However, it is possible for some people to not enjoy such dinner parties, either because they are very introverted people, and don’t enjoy mingling with so many other strange people, or because they are too extroverted, and want to make as many friends as possible, while lacking the time to do so. In the former case, there is a degree of social awkwardness (to which my advice is: go out and don’t be afraid) , but in the latter case, there is a strong resemblance to the profit-making motive. Immanuel Kant argued that we should not regard other people as means to an end, but as an end in itself. That was his categorical imperative.
If I care about how popular I am and how many friends I have (and Facebook oddly quantifies that, and makes available the number of friends that people have, even though the number of real friends, i.e. people that we meet regularly and have strong sympathies for, is much smaller), then I am no longer concentrating on the moment in the dinner party with the individual that I am talking to. The human being turns into a number or an instrument rather than an end in itself. This is part of the competitive nature, which is nurtured in our current society, and which I have forcefully attacked earlier.
When describing freedom, there can be no doubt that freedom has to mean that there is a freedom from externally induced coercion; a freedom to self-control and self-direct time and effort. Homework and exams are a bad way of learning, but self-instruction and reading are good ways of learning. Spending time at work is a bad way of gaining satisfaction, but spending time at leisure is a good way for that. The former activities reduce freedom, and the latter activities increase it. That was known to most thinkers in history, who were privileged enough to live the life of the mind, because they were either born into aristocratic families or were financed by one to do things which they enjoyed anyway (though, it is one notch less of freedom).
But even if we now assumed that I have now convinced you that attaining the greatest amount of freedom is a desirable thing to have, you might argue that I am a dreamer, who wants to accomplish things, which are simply not feasible in current society. We have to create a standardized system in education, where students are told precisely what they should know, or else the discipline in society would disappear, and we would have chaos. The even worse chaos would be in the sphere of work. If people wanted to maximize their freedom and leisure time, that would mean we would not have enough workers to fill important jobs and the society would collapse.
To be honest: I am not concerned about either outcome. Let us not forget why discipline in education is so important: because we need workers, who are disciplined at work. So let us focus on work first. There currently is quite an active discussion about the guaranteed universal basic income, where every person is paid a certain amount of money just by being citizens of a country. Why has that discussion arisen? The way I see it, the reason why we want to discuss the basic income scheme is because the world of work has changed sufficiently to undermine the laborist political economy, which relies on wage labor to function (see my discussion in Liu 2015).
We are currently concerned about the creation of an army of unemployed people, because technology encroaches on so many jobs. Of course, it does not have to end so dramatically, because we could just expand one of these bullshit jobs like finance or consulting, and feed more people with jobs that are only about swapping empty paper promises and giving nonsense advice to managers. But for the sake of creating a good society, we should be mindful of what this is all about: bullshit jobs. Unnecessary jobs. The original attack against the leisure-maximization scheme is that there would not be sufficient production to keep the society going, but what if there is plenty of production, and we merely have a proliferation of bullshit jobs without which the employment picture would be even worse than it currently is? Let us just stop producing these bullshit jobs, pay out the UBI, and allow people to decide themselves whether they feel free at work or at leisure.
The discussion of work naturally affects the way how we look at education as well. If we don’t need to have a disciplined workforce in a very automated society, we also don’t need to have disciplined students, which would eliminate the intrinsic requirement for threatening assessments, and open up the opportunity for most students to study what they like to study. Not everyone will pick the route of more education, and we certainly require a minimum amount of schooling, so that people can function in society (e.g. read and understand cooking instructions in the supermarket). But we should not have to force people to take it. I find it even more likely that in a society where the obligation for work disappears, the prospect of undergoing lifelong education becomes more and not less likely.
The basic income scheme is not really an outlandish proposal, though it is certainly considered as such because we lack the political imagination, which is itself the outcome of a world, where going according to formula, i.e. GPA-maximization, income-maximization and profit-maximization lie at the heart of our political economy. The mark of true education and the pursuit of freedom would be at least to acknowledge that there could be desirable alternatives to the status quo.