Ongoing austerity and policies of uncertainty can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, unions, higher education, workers, students, poor minority youth, and any vestige of the social contract. While this position in fact dissimulates the increasing powerlessness of ordinary people, it also has roots in older philosophical arguments of the economist F.A. Hayek. Freedom doesn’t exist as the objective, it exists because there is another objective to obtain, and freedom is the means to obtain it. Julius Evola (1898-1974) claims freedom and equality are tools of manipulation, and after the movement leaders get what they want, they’ll toss you aside. Evola explains, “Practically speaking, it is only a revolutionary weapon: freedom and equality are the catchwords certain social strata or groups employed in order to undermine other classes and to gain preeminence; having achieved this task, they were quickly set aside.”
In 1762, Rousseau published the Social Contract in which he defined the ideal social contract, describing how man could be free and live together in a community. By ‘equality’ Rousseau did not mean that everyone should be exactly the same, but differences in wealth should not imbalance the state. Equality it seemed to him, is a necessary condition for the preservation of liberty, while property and material inequality are the root of human misery and evil. Massive material inequality can put liberty up for sale. The poor would be willing to sell their freedom, and the rich would be capable of buying it. Both the very rich and the very poor would value money more than liberty. Thus, Rousseau asserts, that some level of material equality is necessary to ensure that liberty comes before profit. He defended private property; if everything we did was for the state, we would no longer be free.
Since the time of the French Revolution, freedom has been regarded as the greatest value of culture. Today in modern society, we are trying to restore the value of individual freedom, which we formally perceive as one of the rights of man and citizen. The concept of “freedom of the individual” is increasingly used in the media, in the speeches of political leaders, as well, is declared by the US Constitution. However, the meaning invested in this concept by different people is different, often the most opposite ways of solving the problem of freedom of the human person are offered. But the category of freedom itself is not subjected to sufficiently serious analysis. Freedom is a state of mind; it is a philosophical concept reflecting an inalienable human right to realize one’s human will. Outside of freedom, a person can not realize the wealth of his inner world and his capabilities.
In the 19th century two philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, stood out with their reaction against the ‘impersonal’ rationalism of the Enlightenment, and stressed the importance of the individual. Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the ‘father of existentialism,’ believed that one must choose one’s own way without the aid of universal objective standards. Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. It was necessary to create one’s own values in a world in which traditional values no longer governed. For Kierkegaard, the real problem of life was to discover one’s true talent, secret gift, authentic vocation. So, freedom acts as a universal value. People are striving for freedom, for only in it and through it can the creative human potential be realized.
Friedrich Hayek described the connection between economic control and totalitarianism: “The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialist promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time the necessity and the power of choice, it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right choice, inevitably carries the risk and responsibility of that right.” Central to Hayek’s argument on social institutions and their evolution is that only freedom allows all the minds of all the people in the world to participate in interactions from which each of us gains from what all the others can contribute to the global community of humankind, and within which each attempts to better fulfill his own personal ends and purposes. Today the economic elite claim, there is a threat to other freedoms with any reduction to economic freedom (i.e. regulations).
Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. For Hegel, historical advance did not proceed through a series of smooth transitions. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. The middle class has been stripped of jobs, income and security. Thus, since the Great Recession the majority realizes that the middle class is under attack from the existing economic system, and opportunities once available to the previous generation, have disappeared.
A Freedom in the World report from Freedom House has documented social and economic changes related to globalization have contributed to a crisis of confidence in the political systems of long-standing democracies. The democratic erosion seen among Free countries is concentrated in consolidated democracies – those that were rated Free from 1985 through 2005, the 20-year period before the 13-year decline. For example, Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010. Nicaragua’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to authorities’ brutal repression of an antigovernment protest movement, which has included the arrest and imprisonment of opposition figures and intimidation and attacks against religious leaders.
While democracy in America remains robust by global standards, it has weakened significantly over the past few years, and the current president’s ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism, and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline. Having observed similar patterns in other nations where democracy was ultimately overtaken by authoritarianism, Freedom House warns that the resilience of US democratic institutions in the face of such an assault cannot be taken for granted. The United States score is now below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – it is still firmly in the Free category.1 In a long passage in the Philosophy of Right Hegel attributes the excesses of the French Revolution to Rousseau’s ideas on will, consent and freedom, and to ‘the reduction of the union of individuals in the state to a contract and therefore to something based on their arbitrary will’.
Foucault points out ways in which we are less free than we thought, but it’s not power in general that makes us less free; rather, it’s a specific form that power takes. Discipline is a dominating form of power, one that creates asymmetrical relationships of power in which there is control over the minds and bodies of individuals. It’s this kind of power that Foucault is worried about precisely because it limits our freedom by influencing the choices we make and what we even take to be the field of reasonable possibilities. Neoliberalism, with its combination of market anarchy and workplace despotism, is projected as the ideal world where discipline and conformity in the office or factory are counterbalanced by a potpourri of gratifying and pleasurable consumer choices. It further destabilizes social order by promising and then ‘dashing’ hopes of individual freedom. It is necessary to challenge this ideology.
As American society has moved from social welfare projects to deregulation of economic activity, the institutions that were once meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished. The lack of freedom to make choices creates a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, thus they become susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions. The outcome of this individual economic freedom is great inequality for most, which hollows out realistic notions of democracy. The intent of neoliberalism was to push the balance of power between capital, the state, and labor to a new equilibrium that was necessary for sustained economic growth. This new equilibrium is to the detriment of worker rights, and we now realize efforts should be made towards achieving a more equitable balance between the interests of labor rights and economic competitiveness – to restore freedom. An essential attribute of the good life is that people enjoy not just a range of personal freedoms, but an access to knowledge and a voice in public affairs.
1 Democracy in Retreat. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019