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More On Choice And Freedom


There’s an interesting article in Here And Now about modern psychology, recovered memories and hypnosis. I would say they outline the problem reasonably well yet they fail to come up with much of solution; indeed they hardly seem to try.

In anycase, there are certainly serious issues at work when you look at modern psychology and modern psychological movements in general.


Thomas Szazz, an eloquent opponent of modern psychiatry, has an article in Liberty where he argues against the legal power of the psychiatrist to confine persons for psychological disturbance. I am quite sympathetic to removing this power yet I believe Szazz’ argument falls short in terms of the contrast between this society and what could be called a free society.

Szazz cite Hyak and Von Mises in his call for not allowing the behavior of giving up responsibility through insanity. The right libertarian approach naturally must involve guarding society against those who would “give up their freedom”. And the freedom of the libertarians consists of a wide variety of economic choices made by atomized individuals.

Now today, the variety of this sort of choice is increasing tremendously. The privatization and marketization of education, insurance, health, utilities and retirement combined with the more marketized job market makes anyone with more than zero dollars the captain of ship sailing through uncertain waters. Contrary to Hyak, Von Mises and Szazz, this is not a pleasant situation. And thus it is not all surprising that the rate of insanity is today is increasing at a fair clip (Szazz claim more individuals are incarcerated psychiatrically than even by the swollen US prison system). But this is also a subtle thing, since the point isn’t the increase in insanity as such but a decrease in the solidity of ordinary roles and a consequent search for new roles. One solution to this search is the dependent, “insane” condition (Insanity is something of a role and something of a rejection of roles since it involves creating sufficient disturbance that I person satisfies their needs for a solid reality themselves rather than through looking at the world – self-delusion, self-generated reality). Another result is the aggressive bully.


The Generation Of Hunger

It is important to realize the process whereby a reliable commodity selling process occurs. The first necessary element a commodity must have is the ability to satisfy a need.

Maslow articulated this approach and classified needs on a scale ranging from survival (food, clothing, etc.) to “self-actualization” (achievement, community, etc.). Certainly, the tendency is for larger, established monopolistic enterprises to switch production of an item from being based on general capacity to being based on the satisfaction of particular needs determined by market research (I worked for Intel Corporation at the time they made this switch explicitly).

But ultimately, those sell a commodity must establish a strong and permanent motivation for this commodity. Human wants are unlimited but desires which will produce a strong motivation and definite decision lie in a very narrow range – as a survey of motivational factors called on by advertising will show.

Generally, strong motivation is much more difficult to induce in people whose needs are essentially already met. As one successful marketer has said, for a successful restaurant, “you need a hungry crowd”. So a world of commodities requires people whose needs on different levels are barely met. But this particular kind of human is someone that has been constructed by the history and processes of the system itself.

It is a well-known tendency within “less developed societies” for an increase in income will cause a decrease in worker’s willingness to work. This was especially noted in Medieval England and was a source of consternation for the ruling class. This also showed that, roughly speaking, the medieval peasant satisfied most of their “higher” needs outside the work-relationship and the money system – once they had food, they didn’t want much more.

The factory system, with its massive increase in the workday was a response to this. It was an effort to beat-out the “laziness” of the peasants and establish the “discipline” needed for capitalism. But this discipline was also an isolation and thus the prerequisites for the next character type. With the rise of the credit system and the advertising system came the rise of this character type, the worker who satisfied their needs primarily from factory commodities. This was the consumer. And so our modern system naturally produces consumers who are hungry on many different levels – and it is now well known that this behavior is needed for the survival of capitalism (“buy stuff to fight terrorism”).


Pluses And Minuses

Looked at from a distance, our present market world has been a path downward for human functioning. Truly, the experiments of today involve discovering the level of alienation which humans can survive on. Colonies in Antarctica and preparations for missions to Mars explore people’s ability to stand isolation while marketer wrack their brains continually to find new ways that sociality can be replaced by product consumption. The third world, we can absolute and horrific declines things nutrition intake and standard of living. Even in “prosperous” America, this can be seen in the rising incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, television hours, hours spent at work, health conditions, hours of free time, teen suicide and so-forth. This decline is determined at the macro-level through capital’s need to only meet the needs of its workers in the most minimal level. Of course, this is somewhat distinct from a nineteenth century version of only barely supplying food, clothing and shelter. The most advanced form of needs meeting meets each of Maslow’s needs to the minimal degree. But the same problems return on a higher level. Consider; science discovered vitamins, proteins and general nutrients most necessary for human life fifty years ago. Yet humans fed on food composed entirely within laboratory to satisfy all “daily nutrition requirements” would certainly have their health impaired and likely die. And we suffer from scientifically synthesized diet of today (except when we invest in the “luxury” of unpolluted (“organic”) food – if we can believe these folks). The failure of “biosphere II” is equally notable for efforts to circumscribe human biological activity. By all this, the efforts to meet human mental and physical needs are even further from providing full satisfaction.

But in detail, the commodity’s transformation of life is a spiral path with human transformed into sometimes interesting directions. We’ll acknowledge that the “play of the commodity” is not some purely “evil” or “negative” affair. Contrary to certain primitivism, the first stroke of a conqueror could not turn the free human into homo economicus. Humans have struggled continually against the exploitation and the alienation generated by exploitation.

This struggle has been primarily the personal and community struggle for subjective satisfaction with revolutionary or utopian efforts coming only intermittently.

And today, marketers are quite happy to find new ways that people can be active (exercise and sports are big), marketers are interested in finding new ways that people can interact and so-forth. All these transformations are not arbitrary. In one way, Modern commodity society involves transforming people more and more in the direction of the rigid authoritarian. In other ways, it aims for creating the whimsical, dependent child. While pass our judgment against the rule of the commodity as a whole, we aim to keep our opens around the complex transformations that it generates, especially those transformations which leave the possibility that people might be able to quickly re-create a true, rich community (even the shallowest moments of “togetherness” have some aspect of this).

Humans’ evolution within civilization then has not been primarily the death but the deflection of the human spirit (and the deflection moves the path in the direction of the spiral). Play springs anew within and without the commodity space. But the nature of the economy is specifically that the play within the commodity space is turned against the mass of humanity. The hippy, the new-age, or the ironic consumer all created new relationships with things – but these relationships can then be resold to those who put who put less mental effort into their activity.  The television rebel (hippy, rapper, goofball or whatever) is the incarnation of the individual putting some activity into the banality of commodity relations. And he or she naturally serves to further draw more people into a purely passive relationship.

What heads the direction of the spiral downward is, as noted above, the way that a commodity can only successful circulate when it barely fails satisfy the discovered need. Cocaine and heroin, which generate the needs that they appear to satisfy are the ideal commodities in this. But the entire commodity cycle functions in this way – the modern dept-crazed consumer as the natural result of this (see notes above). And the dependent individual in a world demanding independent choice is thus a characteristic phenomenon of the modern world.

By the same token, the struggle for subjective satisfaction has only intermittently been organized based on a systematic strategy which saw and wished to abolish the whole exploitation relationship (For the anti-state communists, we see the force “communism” being a weaving together of all those strands which did wish to destroy exploiter relations as a whole). Such an approach can be seen as something of a product of civilization itself, since to approach things this way you must see that humans are both subjects and objects. Even pre-civilized humans often were willing to exchange their pleasant existence for civilization based on the word of colonizers (this ironically demonstrates how humans can trust and sacrifice for those beyond their most immediate community, though in this case the trust was foolish).


Full Human Existence

Returning to the questions raised by Szazz, we need to also recognize that the entire concept of divisible, quantifiable needs is ultimately only a partial truth. Humans cannot be reduced to ants fed a defined solution of nutrients. For example, passivity is not enough. A satisfactory existence requires a person to satisfy at least some of their needs within their general activity rather than as some extra aspect tacked-on. Beyond even this, we view any effort to divide a fully satisfying life into measurable pieces will fall short.

A person moves in a sea of meaning, communication and symbolization coming from the world and his or her fellow humans. Language is one of most important creations of the human brain, yet it cannot exist without the rich fabric of human social existence. Not only are these interdependent relations something people need to exist but they also change regularly with the whole of society.

Still, our interdependence is certainly relatively weaker today – we can remember those natives taken by early colonists to Europe. Isolated in Europe, they would literal from die lack of contact with their native tribe (and native land). During the European colonization of the Americas, natives would again simply die from the imposition of the alienated relation of work and slavery on them. Thus in the new world, Africans were kidnapped and used as slaves. It worth noting that since Africa had experienced the rise and fall of various previous civilizations, the surviving agricultural tribes-people were more adapted to exploitation than natives of the Americas.

While today human interdependence may be weakened, it is powerful enough that humans few people today are ready to adapt to the purified autonomy of the individual entrepreneur in all aspects of their lives. Indeed, a wide spectrum of tendencies involving a return of dependency has been growing up along with the formal autonomy granted to people today – insanity, religion, fascism, self-help and so-forth. And ultimately this is understandable. If a free life is to spend twenty-four hours a day piloting a giant vessel through complex waters of the market, it is hardly appealing since it involves uncertainty and continual mental and physical labor. Thus, it is surprising that more and more individuals adopt exactly what Szazz denounces, “an unwillingness to take on freedom”.

In many ways, the Here And Now article is looking at a similar problem. They mention that hypnosis arose as a social phenomenon at the very point where the ideology of a modern consumer was being articulated. As a ritual of individual dependence, such demonstrations replaced the earlier religious hysteria as a counter-pole to “rational man”.

Hypnosis has been used in modern times as a counter-part to the “Recovered Memories” movement (though it was used most often by those untrained in hypnosis). Here again, a lurch towards individual dependence was a natural counter-part to ideology of absolute independence.

For Here And Now, hypnosis and the “loss of freedom” is a riddle, one which they note and pass-over. They mention that freedom is not a bourgeois idea but an “anarchist ideal” (though a consistent materialism wouldn’t credit idea neither to anarchism or Marxism).  Still, we’re going to look at concepts of freedom, we can look at several versions.


- (Negative) Assumed Freedom: Freedom is the product of withdrawing controllers leaving individuals able to make choices. Just much, freedom is the absence of those traditions, cultures and pressures which could otherwise an atomized consumer.

- (Positive) Created Freedom: The freedom to do things, freedom is the result of having the resources, especially the community, needed to create rich and varied choices. Some versions of this take freedom as a wealth of commodities. Our version naturally doesn’t see a concentration of commodities as being a concentration of personal resources.


Of course, we must also consider the freedom that we have now as well as the freedom that we aim for. Today,


In anycase, libertarians are correct in saying these two versions are incompatible. Certainly, positive freedom involves a web of social relations which includes some dependence within the interdependence. Any social interaction involves giving up some autonomy in the sense of raw choice. This is got back in the form of a richer variety of choices but there is no getting around a certain degree of surrender.


Here And Now attacks some new age movements and some scientific rationalists. Yet they are essentially confused about where this is all going. Rightwing know-nothings and leftwing do-anythings are both common and you can see pretty how they reinforce the system. The hard and unanswered question for Here And Now is how to become something else. And here they are lost (now as well).

The question we like to ask is what counter-force within (or generated by) the system can become the enemy of the system itself. Our answer here is again is community. To successful, we don’t want to be Thomas Szazz here and tell people to go out and take responsibility. Just much, we don’t want to be recovered memory experts and indulge people’s urge to pure, permanent dependence. In a sense, we wish to break from both sanity and insanity (a la Vaneigem). Here And Now 8 (The “Mental Health Issue” I’ve been referring to) contains one shot where they parody psycho-professionals going after the love-struck Romeo and Juliet. But they simultaneously express a puritan horror towards to emotional indulgence of talk shows. I would suggest these folks extend their insight to seeing the power of love, passion and surrender as being an organic part of an upsurge against this society. If we are to walk then we want one rational and one emotional foot, so to speak.

I can imagine a few interesting tactics to that end. Ken Knabb’s “realization and suppression of religion” is one idea worth considering. At the same time, only a collective struggle would give this approach real impetus.


I would say that a lot of this has been covered in ASAN 2-6, especially 2-4.