Thursday, February 16, 2012

Spoons

    Paraguay--this is not a paradise, this is a third-world country. Please take a moment to allow all illusions of simple lives lived by simple, happy people to dissolve. Reconstruct your images appropriately--poverty is not pretty or idealistic. There is no Rousseau-ian ‘noble savage’, there is just people and human nature. Sometimes, these people have more money and sometimes they have less. Sometimes they have more rights, and other times they have next to none. Notions such as freedom, rightness, wrongness, fairness equality, justice or even happiness are not defined by their absoluteness, but instead by their relativity. If you believe these ideas to be fixed (somehow divine and immutable), perhaps indulge in the momentary suspension of your misinformed reality and try, really try, to internalize and understand whatever picture it is I hope to paint in the following paragraphs. There is no spoon.

    To illustrate the aforementioned claim, I will try to explore one of the previous ideas: that of freedom. This word, in all its rhetorical glory, demands the allegiance of millions of die-hards across the world. Its meanings could not be more varied and, even between those who use it so resolutely, very few are even speaking of the same thing (although usually, they fail to realize such). A Taliban fighter, an American fundamentalist Republican (and an American fundamentalist Democrat for that matter), an EU-living, State-suckling socialist love-child, a prancing guru-hippy and a South American Marxist guerilla would all claim this word as their own, swear to be fighting for its realization (its true realization, that is), and die in defense of such an essential ideal. And yet, what in the world does this actually mean? Surely, if we are all fighting for the same thing, then that must mean we are fighting on the same side...but if so, then who is our enemy? Who is the oppressor that has imposed such a tyrannical rule upon us to the point that we must scream from the bastions of justice and liberty for our proper freedoms? Aldous Huxley had an idea about this, but perhaps this is best to be left for another time and another blog...
    The point is, precious little of the ‘freedom’ rhetoric in the world bothers to define such ‘freedom’ and if they do (which does happen occasionally, if only vaguely), then they fail to see the other side of the coin i.e. the other side of that freedom. See there are many types of freedom in this world. Most of this freedom will fit into one of two categories (such a generalization is, of course, being taken with great liberties by myself so please forgive me). These categories are: freedom from, and freedom to. Described in greater length in the book Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen (founder of the Grameen Bank, Nobel Prize winner in Economics etc. etc.), when someone invokes the name of ‘freedom’, they are essentially referring to one of two things--either the freedom to do something, or the freedom from someone else’s freedom to do whatever it is they want to do.
    For example, one could claim they deserve the freedom to trade and develop enterprise as they wish (a so called ‘free market’)--this being a freedom to. Someone else might claim the freedom from monopolies or the freedom from economic exploitation--this being the freedom from. These two ideas are not necessarily opposed, per se, but at some point within all societies, they will come into conflict at some level. One cannot be free to enslave others while others have the freedom from slavery (unless of course these freedoms are only of the privileged few, but I digress).  Essentially, the realm of these two freedoms must be constantly negotiated by the values of any particular society and culture. Therefore, invoking the name of freedom without further explanation (as the good-old US of A is so prone to do...constantly) is really just the recitation of a mindless creed made to rally the non-self-reflecting masses. Freedom is a war-cry that can be toted by bourgeois and proletariat alike. In reality, there is no spoon, there are many and eventually, we must all eat.
    Capitalism and Communism (and Socialism, although not as diametrically opposed as the previous two) are essentially grand economic schemes that attempt to distill coherence from these two natures of freedom. The rightness and wrongness of these models can be argued endlessly, both with their fair share of failures and shortcomings, but that is not the point. The point is (I think), that economics is only the attempt to make sense of human nature, a task which, as history will show us, is ever-so-hard to do. We must realize that to be free, we must be willing to be unfree to a certain extent. This is the nature of a ‘social contract’.
    Freedom itself would be irrelevant outside the context of society. Only within the constraints of our ‘social-contract’ (as dubbed by enlightenment-era John Locke), where other people have the opportunity to impinge upon our freedoms does freedom itself actually become a talking point. One might try to argue that “Aha! ‘freedom to do things’ is the only real freedom because this is the natural freedom that has arisen out of man’s primitive state”. This, of course, would be wrong and extremely naive--man never existed in a vacuum. Our state (primal or not) has always been within a social context, always within a ‘social contract’, if you will. Man is inherently a social being, a fact to which both our physiology and psychology will both eagerly attest. If you doubt this, consult any Anthropology textbook. Therefore, freedom has always been (since the beginning of our conscious species) negotiated between the to’s and from’s.
    Allow me to illustrate further. Here in Paraguay, people are very free. There is no affordable healthcare system offered to the poor (in a country that is almost entirely impoverished). The police and the government are corrupt. People live in dirt-floor hovels and die at young ages. There is little to no opportunity to change one’s circumstance and instead, people continue to scratch a marginal survival off of the land that often times, they are too poor to own. Still, one can build their house any way they choose--there are no zoning regulations. One can ride a motorcycle without a helmet and with one’s entire family of 5 in toe without being bothered by police or stop lights. The bureaucracy of the state is fairly slow, the people exceedingly poor, and the tiny bourgeois deals mostly in smuggling and the black-market, making tax collection a formality that is rarely even paid lip-service. This is freedom of a sort.
    So at the end of the day (and the end of this silly blog), reflect upon your own freedom. How could it be improved? How could it be degraded? In the great scheme of life and all things, how does your freedom measure to the freedom of others? Is it your freedom that needs the saving? Your condition that requires improvement? When you vote, do you vote for your interests or those of others? Whose freedom are you defending as you flex your democratic voice? Perhaps consider using your freedoms (which, if you are reading this, are considerably large and, well, free) to give such freedom to others. Use your free-voice for those that have no voice, those whose voice is drowned in the sea of freedoms that oppresses rather than empowers. Freedom is a terrifyingly powerful word. Use with caution and, when appropriate, with conviction.

From free Paraguay,
-little hupo

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