THE LEFT IS THE GUARDIAN OF SLEEP
by Paul Occam
How do we reconcile that in the last century there has been further progress in human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, environment, child labor, basic protections and equal standards – than at any time in history – and yet there is the feeling that there is less and less freedom for more and more people?
It is no longer possible to support a family on a single income. Everyone works. An education costs a lifetime of debt. Under such a mountain of debt, people are coerced to work for the highest bidder rather than the greatest cause. And with a mortgage and family, what does one say when the boss asks you to do something that is perhaps immoral?
In giving people the freedom of buying anything on credit, other freedoms will continue to be taken away. We are sold our own happiness back to us as a receipt for future payments – a bill of unending goods. Alas, if the bookie gives you a loan and you fail to pay – you lose a finger, they break your legs. It is not so different with the bank. The etymology for mortgage after all is – ‘a pledge unto death.’
Despite social gains, the reason there is no sense of progressive individual freedom in the US is because almost none of the popular movements have significantly touched the third rail. Economic power has always been the secret foundation for real individual freedom and the actualization of ideas, including human rights. It is the power to make choices, help others or be independent. Our country was founded on this realization – when the colonists made their stand against taxation without representation.
Successive generations seem to have bought widely circulated false notions of personal freedom or preferred symbolic illusions to the real thing.
The struggles to address basic inequalities, most recently in the 1960’s, began with a sentiment against a “non-representative” government. Serious critiques of society and government reformation in the 1960’s included an economic component which quickly became lost or got cashed in for sexual freedoms – one of the strongest legacies of that era. Although the 1960’s held the promise of Herbert Marcuse’s ‘Great Refusal’ and the consolidated energies of change for a better life, what happened instead was the creation of a significant counterfeit culture. Instead of granting people basic economic freedoms, which would have changed everything, they were given sexual freedoms and equalities, none of which significantly threatens economic hegemony. As Fuerbach pointed out, the hallmark of modern life is to prefer the symbolic to the real. Oppression is quite amendable to being an equal opportunity enterprise. One slave is as good as another.
We can imagine the wizard of such a system throwing a dog a bone. “Fuck anyone you want people, bite the apple in the garden, just don’t touch that knob over there that says Federal Reserve.”
To this day, many of the freedoms people spend most of their time and energy passionately fighting for – have no bearing on changing underlying economic oppressions that affect the vast majority of the population – and every aspect of daily life.
Things stay the same or get worse. This fact is not even talked about. People have more rights today, and even less freedom than their parents.
Even to know something outside the general commerce of ideas and desires is rare – because it is not seen as worthwhile. Controlling the range of “choices” (desires) is the primarily mode of control today. It is simply easier to want what is easily available or what is “special” – or momentarily unavailable – than to imagine what could be. Nobody thinks to order off the menu – when sitting at the diner.
When we imagine what could be…. that is when things seem hard to bear. It is exactly this kind of thinking that is no longer permitted.
Paul Occam is the pen name of a San Francisco writer.
2 thoughts on “THE LEFT IS THE GUARDIAN OF SLEEP”
I love the idea that the sexual, social, and artistic freedoms were a “diversion” to stop a greater revolution that would involve the federal reserve, mortgages, and spreading around some more of that thing we call Cash. But . . . .
Doesn’t this kind of devalue sexual, social, and artistic freedoms that we have? What would you rather do, be able to marry the person you love, or get a great mortgage for that 4 B 21/2 Bath you’ve always wanted? My parents fought pretty hard to overturn dumb laws that restricted people based on race and religion and I have enjoyed the fruits of those laws every day of my life! Yes, we abuse them, and yes, the powers that be appear to have discovered that they can be used to distract a democracy in uncountable ways and cow it into meet, fattened, and inertia-challenged compliance (see: the diner analogy), but that doesn’t mean those freedoms shouldn’t be highly prized, routinely celebrated, and carefully guarded — it means we need to fight back and recognize that they need to be used in more constructive ways. In fact, perhaps that’s just it — we take them for granted now, and as everyone knows, when you take something for granted, you tend to abuse it.
Perhaps the way towards progress is not devaluing these freedoms, but RE-valuing them. They are a big part of what makes us (the United States, and other western democracies) so special. They were pretty hard to obtain. They sure has hell would be hard to give up. If we celebrated our rights to make these choices more, then we’d probably make better choices. Instead of the rich kids who go to college on their grandparents’ trust fund, we’d be the first-generation college kids who work two jobs and study until the library lights shut off.
Moreover, why accept an either / or dichotomy for social and economic freedom? It is this kind of “choice” which is currently being presented in the largest-growing challenge to western democracy : China and countries that are basically adopting the underlying premise of this post and saying “yes” to economic opportunity and “no” to just about every other freedom out there (religion, speech, due process, ect).
What we need to realize is that without either of these kinds of freedoms, we are not free, but that these freedoms are not sufficient conditions to our freedom — only necessary conditions. The question is how to help those with choice make better choices . . . right?
Your comment was sent to Paul Occam. He replies as follows:
Many good points obviously. No argument there. However, the question was something along the lines of ‘how do we reconcile the fact that we have more rights and less freedom?’
For some reason Americans have decided that the defininition of “freedom” is….equal rights as a priority… over other all other things. This is a truly shallow definition that benefits the basic power structure of exploitation. Who benefits from this?
People fought for the equal right for women to join the armed forces, by example – this was celebrated as a great victory – an end to discrimination. Uh…is it? Great, now everybody can kill the enemy. Finally.
A person might really like to exercise their rights on the other hand – their right to protest for example – but really most people are working so hard just to pay off their bills and put food on the table or pay their mortgage or student debt, they aren’t going to take a day off work – or even prioritize this right. So we are given rights with one hand, but maybe the other hand takes them away. Coercion is stronger than the ilusion of “choice” 9 times out of 10.
The underlying economic question is the one that remains unaddressed and is driving everyone’s behavior. I have no doubt that gay marriage will prevail ultimately – there’s a lot of energy in that fight – I don’t have any confidence that poor kids are going to get enough to eat, or a decent education. So far the twain shall never meet. No, I don’t think hunger and marriage are “equal” priorities.
People who have economic independence also have the ‘luxury’ of doing the right thing – volunteering to help others, supporting someone in need, making a stand, the time to fight for their rights. The other “group” of people that are most likely to do the right thing – are people with nothing – ie, nothing to lose.
Most of us are in between.
Just one example: In unionizing efforts, people of all backgrounds, genders and colors will tell you point blank that they are grossly mistreated and they emphatically and privately support a union – but later they are too scared to vote for it – for fear of losing their job – even though it is anonymous! And a protected right!
Despite their talk, I have witnessed repeatedly that folks will choose the security of “slave-wages” to the idea of perhaps being fired for excercising their rights – in this case unionizing or protesting their corporation’s behavior. They have no economic independence – in their view it is “I choose my family or I choose my “right.” Good thing they got to choose their spouse.
Yes, there has been real progress in the field of rights – parents and grandparents fought for them. But slavery was basically an economic institution… still is.