The freedom conundrum

Published: October 4, 2013 - 13:38 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 02:05

A fascinating debate rages in Europe today over the merit of freedom. The question is how much freedom does a human being really require to fulfil needs without ruining self, community and society?

Slovenian philosopher Renata Salecl is a little sceptical of freedom. Salecl respects political freedom but in modern capitalism, she says, individuals are not really free to make choices. People are only made to feel that they are free. When markets dominate the economy, it is the market that chooses what is best and not the consumer.

In such an economy the market manipulates and makes consumers only feel that they are free to buy what is necessary. The market often lies to make people feel this way with the sole purpose of multiplying its own prosperity. And whenever the market is allowed to dictate to human beings there is trouble in society.

Having come of age in the now dissolved republic of socialist Yugoslavia, the author of The Spoils of Freedom and On Anxiety calls modern capitalism a tyranny of choice. Salecl concludes that multiple choices regarding life, career, brands of cosmetics and clothes do not liberate but in fact overwhelm and imprison people’s thought processes. Multiple choices confuse decision-making. When people are constantly expected to choose from multiple brands of clothes, schools, careers, restaurants and homes, the brain is paralyzed and no longer sensitive to what is dear in life and what is not.

The fear of making a wrong choice and of failing in life prevents human beings from being spontaneous. This way of life is the death of intuitive decision-making. Fear of a wrong choice causes emotional paralysis. There is fear of taking risks that may lead to failure. There is anxiety and guilt over being laughed and mocked at, for making choices that do not guarantee ‘success’ as described by society.

 The fear of making a wrong choice and of failing in life prevents human beings from being spontaneous. This way of life is the death of intuitive decision-making

Salecl traces the origin of this kind of a market-dominated lifestyle to the post-industrial era. This is when the individual was promised unlimited success. The State said that individuals can do what they want to succeed in life. However, in reality real freedom is enjoyed only by a privileged few. The number of those who actually make it to that elusive idea of success is low. A handful of people may be happily successful but the majority continue to put tremendous pressure on self to succeed in the way society wants them to succeed. What deepens anxiety amongst human beings is uncertainty over the choice made by them.

The State allows freedom to every citizen but access to the ladder of success is enjoyed only by some. The State washes its hands of individuals who botch up dream after dream of a good life. According to this kind of a State, failure is the individual’s own fault. The modern capitalist State has no time for the large majority of its citizens who do not live up to the State’s expectation of success.

This way, an entire society is collectively deprived of the very joy of being alive. Even before making a choice, even before trying, even before failing, citizens are paralyzed into non-action by the thought of failure. What if, even after making all the supposedly right choices, there is no acceptance, no satisfaction? What if unhappiness does not go away, then what? This obsession with success, as defined by others, makes citizens feel helpless and angry, goading some to indulge in violence.

Such a view of life makes the individual alone responsible for unhappiness even when circumstances not of his making may constantly contribute to personal misfortune.

The solution offered in societies living out this philosophy are equally absurd. People unhappy at work may rightly move on to another career, throw out of the window a useless brand of toothpaste or readily exchange a bad purchase of property. But to rent wives, to constantly swap children and to dump parents? How crazy is that?

A free society is great. But a truly free society is when it is also sensitive to its not so smart and not so successful citizens. It is dangerous to live in a world increasingly dominated by markets that leave a large majority of people out in the cold without compassion for those unable to flaunt monetary gains.

The coming general election is a golden opportunity for voters to look for a government that promises a little more than just individual success. 


This story is from print issue of HardNews