Book review | The Illusion of Freedom: New Frame

Two recent works of political theory evocatively capture the origins of the perverse state of unreleasedness we live in today. French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou The ungovernable society: a genealogy of authoritarian liberalism (originally published in 2018 and translated by Wiley in 2021) and British writer Stuart Jeffries’ Everything, all the time, everywhere: how we became postmodern (Verso, 2021) help readers understand the origins of the shift to neoliberalism from the 1970s to the present day, the repercussions of this movement, and how we can move away from it.

In their influential 1980 documentary and accompanying book Free to choose, neoliberal economists Milton and Rose Friedman argued that an unrestricted free market was the solution to social problems. They argued that governments and unions were holding back human progress and innovation. Milton Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, also believed that democracy was the enemy of freedom and that people were first and foremost consumers who could express their preferences better with their wallet than with their vote. .

Friedman supported the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, where popular socialist Democrats Salvador Allende was overthrown by right-wing authoritarian Augusto Pinochet. Despite the junta that unleashed police terror against civilians, including the execution of hundreds of leftists in football stadiums, Friedman supported the state that adopted its free market policy. He believed that capitalism was synonymous with freedom, making a military dictatorship preferable to a reformist, moderate left-wing government that respected civil liberties.

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Over the following decades, many of Freidman’s and other right-wing libertarian ideas were applied by governments from Beijing to Pretoria. But far from creating a liberal utopia, we live in a world that offers fewer opportunities to the majority than in the 1970s. A global database on inequalities report published in 2021 has shown conclusively that the rise in incomes of the super-rich has been directly accompanied by reduced social mobility for the poor and middle classes.

As inequality and impoverishment reach new heights, even the old middle classes find themselves both overworked and less socially mobile, resulting in increasing levels of depression and anxiety. Rather than a world of open borders and free spirits, we are increasingly surrounded by what political theorist William I Robinson has called the “global police state” of surveillance and growing walls.

Friedman believed that Homo economicus – a person wholly motivated by profit without interest beyond accumulation – was the glorious end point of any historic enterprise. But, despite marketers and media influencers claiming we have more choices than ever before, the grim social conditions of the 2020s are like a cage surrounded by thunderous video billboards pacifying us with fake luxury imagery. and autonomy inaccessible.

How we got here

Chamayou began his book in the early 1970s. In the North as in the South, radical reforms and social interventions aimed at regulating capitalism have resulted in an increase in the standard of living. This increased pressure on social structures of power prompted calls for more radical direct democracy. From decolonial movements to feminism’s rejection of masculine despostism over women, the era has been defined by a new sense of emerging human freedom and shared collective and individual emancipation.

But from the perspective of business leaders and politicians, it was seen as an attack on the whole socio-economic order. By assembling a vast network of documentation, from reports from conservative think tanks to internal notes from business people who thought their staff were getting too unruly, Chamayou makes the compelling argument that the neoliberal turn was fueled by a sense of crisis. among the elites.

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Their tactical response was twofold. This involved pushing for new “monetarist” policies to restore the power of capital, reducing taxes, undermining unions and undermining social security networks. By making life more difficult for workers, it was believed, they would be dissuaded from the popular radicalism that the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s had provoked. Ideological indoctrination supported this new direction. Anti-business activists had given big business a bad name, exposing their complicity in the crimes of the Vietnam War, their support for the apartheid government in South Africa and many other exploitative practices. In response, corporate marketers and politicians such as Margaret Thatcher have presented capitalism as a radical force opposed to cold bureaucracy and sclerotic forms of state control. They took the popular ideals of freedom and hollowed them out, reducing them to the limited scope of economic choice.

This idea of ​​freedom was a pretext for growing authoritarianism. Chamayou demonstrates that workers have constantly seen democracy disappear in the workplace and now have to endure extended working hours, reduced wages and increased surveillance in factories and offices.

Claiming emancipation

In his book, Jeffries explores how this ideological shift was accompanied by postmodernism. The term is often seen as a bogeyman – the right claims it signifies a nihilist rejection of traditional values, and many leftists have interpreted it as an attack on the values ​​of social progress.

Jeffries demystifies these two approaches. It shows that postmodernism emerged in the 1970s as a hint of “grand narratives,” with an emphasis instead on casualness, change and play. For example, the architecture of social housing programs was seen as cold and inhuman, which prompted developers to learn from the color and energy of commercial advertising in cities like Las Vegas. Pop icon David Bowie has shown that identity and personality flow smoothly by changing appearances in each album. Hip-hop, which emerged from the dilapidated urban conditions of New York City in the late 1970s, used the technique of sampling old songs to create the future sound of the music.

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But these benign experiences masked how the right and capital benefited from postmodernism, as it also caused the feeling that innovation is no longer possible, that there is nothing beyond consumer economies. today. This allowed the right to normalize neoliberalism as the only viable way to organize society. Even though we feel like nothing is working and we live in an increasingly serious corporate dystopia, we are constantly reminded that there is no alternative.

But as these two captivating and richly detailed works show, neoliberalism is a historical and political project that is only a few decades old. It is not an unassailable fortress, but a fragile ideological construction which, like the recent rejection of the Constitution of the Pinochet era in Chile shows, can be disputed.

The revolts of the 1960s showed that instead of creating an opposition between personal freedom and social justice, improving conditions increased the scope of individual freedom. The left must reclaim the concept of freedom from the right and promote a vision of human emancipation that shows neoliberalism to be the authoritarian mirage that it is.

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