On Freedom and Order

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]


Sitting down to ‘reimagine society’ and to ponder proposals for the future, I find myself examining the classical sociological tension between freedom and order.  The ideal types of each of these certainly seem untenable, but when thinking about how to free people from economic exploitation, and social and political oppression, it becomes clear that fundamental changes in the existing balance between freedom and order are absolutely necessary.  But, how to approach this heavy philosophical question in a way that relates to our daily lives and begin proposing concrete ideas to actually change things?


Because it is ultimately ‘power’ – and particularly the ‘power’ of the global status quo – that stands between people and their ‘freedom’ (in the broadest sense), I think we should focus our analysis and proposals on the Western world, and particularly the US and Europe.  Of course, we should bring the lessons of the non-Western world and of history to the table with us, because we cannot do otherwise.


In both textbook debates over freedom and order and policy debates over how to lift capitalism out of its current economic crisis, we are presented arguments over whether more state or market forces should be pursued.  Of course, this implies that the state represents ‘order’ and the market, ‘freedom.’  While it is certainly true that the state places limits on human activity, it is also that institution – we are taught – that is ‘democratically’-elected, and thus ‘legitimate.’  Also, this presentation glosses over how the market, without exception, favors the wealthy and powerful.  This scenario, in reality, is a pitch that aims to tap the impulses of freedom and democracy into the ‘free market’ camp, while tainting the notion of the ‘state’ as an avenue of redress.  How brilliant!  And, how wrong!


Certainly, it is preferable – if not imperative – to push for a more democratic– and less market– oriented state, if we are to move toward a free society, responsive to the desires and needs of people.  But when the “American Dream” is invoked, what is it the powerful refer to as ‘freedom?’  Is it political freedom?  Or market freedom?  They are clearly not the same – nor are they synonymous.  And, in fact, they can be mutually exclusive!  This is heretic in mainstream circles to be sure.


These rhetorical questions, of course, are precursors for a call to push for more democratic freedoms – not market ones.  The current global economic crisis (of capital) provides us with an excellent opening to both think and act.  Newsweek magazine provocatively posited that, ‘we are all socialists now.’  The Nation magazine’s, Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., began a ‘Reimagining Socialism’ forum, and of course, Z is hosting this project – exciting times, indeed.  But what will come of it?


It seems to me that the challenge of pushing society in the direction of freedom – and self-directed, self-fulfilling lives – must be approached from both ‘within’ and ‘without.’  Free-thinking ‘democratic’ spirits in government and in the broader society must do what they can to facilitate the conditions for the input and autonomy of all people.  This is a task that calls on people in positions of some power in social institutions to essentially, “walk the walk.”  Obviously, this is not an easy task when we live and work within systems of incentives and disincentives that act to blunt criticism and to thwart threats to their existence.


For this reason, the flip-side of the coin – ‘the without’ – becomes critical.  People must consciously seek to engage more directly in their places of employment and in their communities and to assert themselves and advocate for their interests.  The same obstacles exist as far as having to confront authority, and systems thereof, that are resistant to challenge or change, to be sure.  That is why the balance of power must be changed.  People need more real power, period.  This should not be construed as some abstract notion of power either; but rather, real concrete power.  Practically, this means the freedom to say what you think and critique the society, the workplace, the school … the “system,” without fear of sanction or repercussions.


As it stands now, people implicitly know that they can lose their jobs (if they are employed), their health care, and their homes if they dare seek to organize their workplace (unions) or speak out against the ‘democratically’-elected “powers-that-be.”  This utter lack of security in basic needs and basic human rights inherent in democracy is unacceptable.  This lack of both practical freedom and security, to think and to act, has deep-rooted, negative consequences.


While people are smart enough to recognize ‘how things work,’ they are also smart enough to protect what they have – their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods.  Thus, in conditions where no viable options for protest, critique, or dissent exist, people – in the spirit of survival – drop out or simply close their eyes.  This is both sad and dangerous.  When people blindly obey laws that they know are unjust or unevenly enforced, blindly sacrifice their sons and daughters for military adventures abroad, criticize and hate ‘protesters,” are anti-union, and hate and fear any political ideas or parties ‘outside the mainstream’ – without thought or reason – we are living in fascism already.  Mainstream, “middle America” is leery and weary of “going through appropriate channels” to adjudicate their grievances because they know from experience that more often than not it is the wealthy and powerful and their interests that prevail at the end of the day. 


The preconditions, then, for altering the balance between freedom and order must include the right to a livable-wage job; the right to a real voice in the workplace; and the resurrection of the ‘social good’ and/or ‘the commons.’  Nobody will grant us these freedoms.  They must be seized.  This translates into economic power, political (decision-making) power, and social power that ultimately favor people and democracy over markets.  We should not and cannot expect that our existing governments and parties will be the drivers of such transformations either.  They have too much invested in the system – they are part of the existing anomalous system.


So, while there is reason to believe that there are free-thinking, truly ‘democratic’ people among the ranks of the government and business officials, we must realize that the existing institutions are corrupt – not democratic – and foster clientelistic relations, parasitism, and oppression.  This critique also held (and holds) for the so-called “communist” regimes.


Thus, while ‘reimagining society,’ we are brought full circle to the question of whether we should ultimately seek, “the conquest or destruction of state power (emphasis mine).”  It is clear – even to most observers and contemporary adherents of capitalism – that the system is broken.  I believe that we must strive for radically strengthening freedom and democracy and severely regulating the market.


Make no mistake: the wealthy and powerful are class-conscious and aware of their interests and actively seeking to remain, “kings of the hill!”  For the good of humanity, we too must act to eradicate economic exploitation, strengthen workplace and societal decision-making power, and secure basic human needs so that people can pursue and live truly successful and meaningful lives – authored by the people themselves.


Failure to act boldly at this juncture may well usher in an even more oppressive future.  We must all do what we can, where we live and work, to engage in this effort.  What will replace the existing order will be shaped by real people and real actions.

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