Most everyone I know and the overwhelming majority of the opinions I encounter in print, the media, and elsewhere – all seem to both highly value the notion of ‘individual freedom’ and to affirm or imply the conviction that they live in a society that, more than any other in the history of mankind, maximizes that freedom. That may or may not be true, and I am unsure, beyond scholarly investigations laboring in a sociological-archaeological-historical vein, but even within such scholarly endeavors, how anyone could establish that. For all I or anyone else may know, it may well be that the ‘individual,’ in any number of cultural, political, economic, or social dimensions, is freer today than has ever been possible.
However that may be, most people I have read, to whom I have spoken, or whose lectures I have attended over the course of many years do not really seem to have a very firm or subtle grasp of what it actually means to be ‘free’ as an individual.
In general terms, the crux of the consensus seems to be that the individual is free to the degree that, before a range of choices on offer to him, he is not being compelled by any other person to choose in one direction over another, that his selection from among the choices available to him are his own, however encumbered or not by anything or anyone in his idiosyncratic predilections or inclinations at the moment of his choosing.
In so far as that goes, I am not dissenting. Beyond a range of real and accessible choices, there cannot be any choice and therefore no freedom to choose. And if ‘individual freedom’ is in some sense ‘freedom of choice,’ it certainly follows that the greater the range of options of choices available to me, the freer I am as an individual. For two things, really, either constrain or enhance the individual’s freedom: a) the range of concrete possibilities to enact choice; and b) whether or not one is being coerced by another to select only one or a set of those real concrete possibilities.
Individual freedom, then, as most people seem to understand the concept, implies both a range of possible choices or actions and a range of impossible choices or actions, that is to say, conceptually speaking, that the freedom of the individual implies a realm of ‘freedom’ nested within a broader realm of ‘necessity,’ an enclosing framework of ‘limits’ within which the individual discovers options or possibilities of action from among which to choose. And it follows from this that the less constraining becomes the framework of ‘necessity,’ the greater the number of options or possibilities of action open up before the individual, the greater his field of freedom becomes.
One cannot, then, truly speak in an all-embracing fashion of ‘individual freedom’ without at the same time speaking of the limits constraining that freedom. To the degree that you can define the one, you ipso facto define the other, and conversely. Individual freedom will be that field of all possible actions in which the individual can engage beyond that field of necessity that constrains him to undertake, whether he likes it or not, quite in spite of his will, certain activities. If I can specify what an individual ‘must’ adhere to in a given context, I also at the same time define the ‘space’ or ‘region’ within that context wherein the individual can discover or create those options of choice available to him as the objects of his freedom or his free will. Furthermore, because ‘individual freedom’ in its concrete manifestation cannot always be specified until the very moment that the individual ‘decides’ to attempt to undertake a possible course of action, it is actually easier to get a sense of what ‘individual freedom’ is in its ‘substance’ or ‘essence’ by pointing to its constraining and absolute limits than to try to specify its ‘content’ in positive terms without reference to those constraints or absolute limits, for in those moments where exercising the discretion that is free will, man can ‘create’ or ‘invent’ activities or possibilities for himself entirely novel and therefore unforeseeable and undefinable beforehand . You cannot give or divine any real ‘positive content’ to that which in truth is an unknown possibility until at least the very moment of its unveiling, at which point it becomes but one more example of what a ‘man’ was able to choose to do within the concrete limits of his field of possible choices or actions.
So let us proceed, then, to identify at least some of the more obvious if coarser limits to ‘individual freedom’ so as to better grasp the ‘substance’ or ‘meaning’ of that freedom.
One obvious limit to a person’s freedom is that in order to live, he must work or labor. Man does not live but by gathering up what he needs to satisfy at a minimum the requirements of his body. Without an adequate and constant supply of water and nourishment as well as reliable means of protecting himself from the extremes of climate and weather and the environment, he perishes. Taken as a whole, whether men like it or not, they have to work in order to live. This is not a matter of freely choosing whether to work or not. The minimum required to stay alive is a biological necessity and it cannot be satisfied as a requirement of life without action necessarily directed precisely to that end. Until you have eaten your fill, it is pretty much meaningless to speak of freedom.
Another thing that we notice is that no human being who has ever lived ever did so without in some way having been dependent upon at least the work or labor of another human being to survive. To be human is to be dependent upon the collective efforts of other humans in order to live, and in the aggregate, to have others equally depend upon oneself. That, too, is an unsurpassable biological ‘fact’ of our evolutionary being. That dependence is so much a part of what it means to be a human being that it is also encoded, so to speak, in the very fabric of each person’s mental constitution: the culturally inherited content of one’s mentation, which is virtually everything that equates to the content of one’s symbolic representations in the mature years of one’s life, as well as the consensuses of opinion to which one comes to adhere through discursive encounters with others, is primarily the product of ‘group interactions.’ If the individual’s mind is to some degree independent and autonomous, that independence and autonomy is really only possible as the ‘product’ or ‘resultant effect’ of discursive interactions that occur between individuals or groups of individuals, modalities of conversational encounters that over time the individual internalizes as the cognitive functions or features of his own mind. The voice inside your head that is you talking and thinking and conversing with yourself, is really the voice of the cultural elements or currents of organized opinion in the cultural context of your upbringing that have taken root in the tissues of your living brain. Therefore, before an individual can even begin to exercise anything like the freedom of his unfettered will, he must not only learn to satisfy most of the demands placed upon him by the society in which he lives, but also assimilate much cultural baggage before he reaches a point in his cognitive development where at least a part of his discursive engagement with the world becomes a manifestation of his own independent and autonomous effort to think his way through to various possibilities of ‘being,’ to asserting his will in matters of choice available to him.
‘Individual freedom,’ then, begins after, and not before, one’s work is more or less done; and after, and not before, all of one’s social obligations have been more or less fulfilled; and after, and not before, one comes to possess the intellectual wherewithal to begin to discern within one’s social context avenues of possible actions to be undertaken at one’s own pleasure. In other words, ‘individual freedom’ is that ‘time’ in one’s day as an adult when you do not have to attend in any manner to any constraining external demands of either a biological or social nature. ‘Individual freedom,’ in other words, truly only exists during ‘times of personal leisure.’
So there we have it: that society which maximizes ‘personal leisure time’ for the citizen, also thereby maximizes the ‘individual freedom’ of the citizen. The more you have to work, the more you have to attend to the needs of others, the more hemmed in you are by ‘necessity’ — the less ‘freedom’ you possess as an individual.
A society that truly prizes the individual and his freedom will try in so far as it can to increase for all citizens in as equitable a fashion as possible a maximum of leisure time, to create the ‘space’ in which each person, unharried by the hurly-burly of making ends meet, can explore and discover, alone or in company, the joy of engaging in self-selected and self-directed pursuits.
Which brings us back to the question of whether our society really is all about ‘individual freedom.’ If every substantial increase in industrial productivity is converted into additional profits for the already obscenely rich while resulting in mass layoffs and an increase in relative destitution among those who must always labor more than their fair share, if those who are left working after the furloughs must work harder and longer for less than they did before, while those who are put out of work cannot but be always preoccupied with where the next dollar might be earned or gotten – then where is the ‘leisure time’ and the ‘individual freedom’ that was ever the promise of the ever more efficient means of converting the raw materials of nature into means far beyond the requirements of mere subsistence, far beyond the necessity and requirement of having to labor until the moment for actually living and indulging freedom has long since passed?
No, we do not live in a society that prizes ‘freedom’ above all else. That’s just another one of the lies and delusions that conceal from our comprehension our collective and individual slavery to the rich man’s profits. Though we could certainly work a lot less and yet receive a lot more than we currently do for our trouble.
And think of the time of which we are being robbed, of our freedom to be what we might have been, of our freedom to do what we might have done.
Instead, we work the grind until little more of ourselves is left over than the stupefied awareness at the end of the day of knowing that one must now look ahead to beginning the whole goddamn round, tomorrow and again. For most of us, that is the truth and the condition of our ‘individual freedom.’
(In this connection you might want to pick up a copy of Juliet B. Schor’s book, “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure,” 1993 — more as a historical testament to the manner in which ‘leisure time’ tends to evaporate for the ‘gainfully’ employed in a ‘for profit’ economy, than as an analysis leading to insightful solutions to the ‘problem.’ You will, of course, need to commit some of your scarce ‘leisure time’ to the reading of that work. But perhaps you have better things to do with that preciously scant resource in your life.)