The unresolved Challenge of Freedom

Not long ago, politicians and even some scientists tried to convince us that democracy would soon spread throughout the world, as if history were following some kind of teleological law. Historical evidence has always argued against such a view, but reason and our feelings of right and wrong seemed clearly in favor of it. Must it not seem much more desirable to every rational and justice-seeking person to take an active and participatory part in political affairs rather than to follow the dictates of a government that decides over his head? Doesn’t such an attitude make democracy an imperative?

Meanwhile, this optimism seems rather naïve, if not outright misguided. History seems to suggest a different interpretation just like particles in quantum physics: Could it be that we should understand its course more accurately as wave-like?

In any case, the Greeks saw it this way. For them, the political pendulum alternated between aristocracy and democracy, with both occasionally ending up in ochlocracy, the rule of the worst. On the other hand, the Hindus of brahmanic India expected a constant ebb and flow of succeding ages following each other  in a circular motion. The exceptionally clear-sighted observer of his time, French poet and thinker Paul Valéry, may have found the deep-lying reasons for this movement, which he summed up in the following observation.

The individual seeks an epoch that is pleasant in every way, one in which he or she may enjoy the greatest freedom and the greatest assistance from others. They find it at the beginning of the decline of a social system. This is a delightful state suspended between order and disorder. All the potential good that order and duties can bring is achieved, and people can enjoy the first loosening of this system. The institutions still hold. They are grand and awe-inspiring. But without anything visibly having changed, they now offer only this beautiful facade;… secretly, their future is already doomed… Order always constrains the individual. Disorder makes him wish for the police or for death… 

Valéry was well aware that an excess of freedom generates an authoritarian system – often even dictatorship. But he does not blame the government, as if the German AfD and other far-right movements only emerged as a protest against the failure of democratic politics. His analysis aims deeper. An excess of freedom that democracy provides to private forces and aspirations ultimately dissolves the order without which a society cannot live, so his diagnosis goes. Or, to put it another way, democracy itself – if not tamed for the sake of the common good – produces the forces that ultimately destroy it. We know that for this reason it must always remain on guard against parties that push for its abolition – and may do so even in a perfectly legal way. We also know that it is in constant danger of being dominated by private forces that undermine equality of opportunity and establish a new plutocracy. Valéry’s point is that neither democracy nor dictatorship produces a state of social equilibrium.

For the security that the latter initially provides is soon perceived as unbearable oppression („Order always constrains the individual„). How many of our self-proclaimed free thinkers, who would love to completely overthrow the prevailing order, could survive even one day in Putin’s Russia, where they would either have to shut up or go to jail? Yes, dictatorships soon give rise to the first calls for freedom, but a democracy is much easier to destroy than a dictatorship to eliminate. What the wave-like currents of history unmistakenly show is that one extreme feeds the other: an excess of freedom is no more stable than an excess of coercive order.

Freedom is a precious good, but it demands a high price when carried too far. Then it regularly degenerates into disorder and arbitrariness, causing social discord and disruption. In modern technosociety, unrestrained freedom to develop one’s talent can lead to capable individuals inventing the modern computer or the internet in garages or attics, but it may also lead them to develop malware to disable computers and the internet worldwide. In extreme cases, single individuals may use their inconspicuous home in a suburban community, to manufacture – unnoticed by anyone – the bombs with which they blow up government buildings or asylum centers. The recipes for any kind of attack on public order is freely available on the internet (darknet).

While democratic societies grant their citizens more and more freedoms, this very process forces them to monitor them ever more closely. Not only in China, but also in the US and the UK, cameras in public places are ubiquitous. Freedom has bestowed upon the individual citizen the power to disrupt the community with all sorts of terrorism, but also with seemingly harmless means. Certainly, surveillance cameras can spring from the megalomania of an autocratic government that wants to control its citizens‘ every move. This is the case in China. But their ubiquity even in democratic states proves that surveillance has become a necessary tool wherever the actions of individuals may become a threat to society as a whole. Just as the invention of GPS was a necessary response to the challenge of navigating large and labyrinthine cities by car, the new public surveillance is a response to individual liberty as it may pose a threat to the common good.

In this case, freedom as a danger to the community and the common good does not come from the government but from private forces that use it for themselves in an uncontrolled and sometimes uncontrollable way. I would like to illustrate this with two examples. „It is suspected,“ says chemist Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, „that at least 300,000 substances and entire cocktails of various, continually changing compositions are released into the outside air, soil and water. Some of the best-known problem substances are now subject to legal requirements. But what about the large remainder? These figures illustrate the stark disparity between technology-related harm on the one hand and the ability to control and mitigate it on the other.”

Under current conditions, such control cannot be exercised, because a government inspection bureaucracy would have to count nearly as many heads and departments as the entire private business landscape. Furthermore, it would have to be financially equipped as well as all companies put together if it is meant to test each new product for its environmental compatibility. Last but not least, it would need access to the mostly confidential data of products, which, due to the rules of competition, seems hardly possible.

This observation makes abundantly clear that the general public has lost control over its private actors – it can now exercise this control only in exceptional cases. This freedom granted to private actors is obviously not sustainable but destructive in the long run.

The restriction of state authority, which would be indispensable in the interest of the common good, not only applies to a steadily deminishing control of private dealings with the environment – the basis of physical survival – but also to the relationship between people, which is increasingly sliding towards antisocial behavior and chaos due to the so-called social media. As Valéry described it, it is considered a „delightful state“ when the existing order still holds but everyone can live out their freedom as they wish – in the Internet for instance. There he enjoys the freedom to distort facts, spread lies, defame individuals or threaten them with impunity and call for shitstorms against them. He can do all this to a large extent without fearing any consequences for himself. After all, he insists on his freedom, even if this ultimately causes the state to totter.

That is indeed what we are currently observing. A growing percentage of citizens no longer trust the state and the so-called quality media. Not that their quality is always maintained, but compared to the pseudo-knowledge, conspiracy fantasies, and the hidden propaganda controlled by some foreign powers that now infest the internet, the leading traditional media still rank at the top of the scale in terms of journalistic diligence and credibility. It is therefore very disturbing when a respected and upright Austrian journalist, Florian Klenk, strikes a deeply pessimistic chord in one of his recent articles. There are more and more people, he states, who cannot be persuaded even by well-researched truths but rather throw themselves willingly into the arms of demagogues. Let’s listen to Paul Valéry once more. They do so because they still enjoy that „delightful state suspended between order and disorder“ where people misuse their freedom to prepare the ground for a state of unfreedom.

Apparently, modern techno-society is no longer up to the challenge of excessive private freedom. It has failed to find the middle ground between the extremes – neither the ecological middle ground, as it is currently exploiting and polluting nature on a global stage, nor the ideological middle ground, as our antisocial media pose an acute threat to the balance of any society (not to mention the increasing wealth gap). You don’t have to be a hardened pessimist to talk about the Predictable Collapse of Techno-Civilization.

The upcoming Post-Fossil Society will have to establish a new balance with nature and among people. The more positive freedom the state, as the representative of all citizens, grants to each of them, the more rules it must necessarily create to prevent the abuse of freedom. Or the other way around: if citizens are not to be smothered in regulations, they will have to give up some of their freedoms.*1* This paradox cannot be resolved. For otherwise the price of freedom threatens to become very high indeed. More and more societies will voluntarily choose unfreedom. But, as already said: a democracy can be easily destroyed, dictatorships only with great, usually bloody sacrifices.

1 For example, the freedom granted to private citizens and companies to spread more and more artificially produced chemical substances in soil, air and water – today, as I said, there are already more than 300,000 (CO2 included) – substances whose effects on the environment and thus on the lives of future generations cannot be assessed. Or the freedom to anonymously spread bullshit, agitation and lies at will on the net. On the international level, an excess of freedom is already becoming an existential problem for the very survival of mankind, since even dwarf states like North Korea are becoming nuclear powers. These states are behaving like private actors who demand unlimited freedom for themselves.