There is a call for ‘freedom’ in the Middle East, both from citizens within its troubled borders, and from our own Western supporters of democracy overseas. This is, of course, with good intention. However, the call seems remarkably simplistic. There is a formulaic image being created of Arab heroes rushing to the streets only to be suppressed, injured, or killed by stubborn, iron-fisted regimes that wish to thwart political freedom. We in the West show our support for our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity under these dictatorships, arguing too that they deserve the right to democratic elections and to other civil liberties that we enjoy here in the West. And so the alleged struggle of freedom vs. oppression / “good vs. evil” continues.
This constructed picture of the situation is troubling. Particularly concerning is the idea that we in the West enjoy some kind of freedom that the Middle East should be aspiring towards. There is no doubt that political freedom in the Middle East is miserably limited. But are we really so much better off? In what follows, I will examine the notion of ‘freedom’ assumed in the West, and consider whether we are in any position to be calling for the freedom of others.
The Philosophy of Freedom
Freedom is not an unconditional virtue in itself. If it wasn’t the case that this seems to be forgotten in modern political discourse, I wouldn’t mention it, but quite often it seems that it is. There are obvious harms that come from certain freedoms. For example, we do not value the freedom to discriminate, or to abuse, or to pollute. Thus we can firmly acknowledge that the prohibition of certain freedoms can actually be a virtue insofar as it prevents harm. Indeed, freedom, like all other social virtues, requires a balance with certain limitations.
In terms of definition, human freedom is generally understood and defined as being able to choose according to our own free will without coercion. The modern emphasis of freedom is almost always on ‘choice’. In the West, this is typically celebrated in our freedom to say, do, elect, and pursue what we want in our lives. The surface appeal of this type of liberalism is strong, especially to the citizens of dictatorships in the Middle East. But there are a couple of essential factors that are almost entirely neglected in such a sense of freedom. First, freedom is not only about choice, it’s also about the options that are given to us. Who decides and gives us these options? There doesn’t seem to be anything especially democratic, for example, about being given two options to choose from, when you had little to no say in what those two options were in the first place. Second, to what extent do the values of our society – which we are constantly and necessarily subjected to – influence the extent to which we desire such choices? We might find that these often ignored factors of available ‘options’ and external ‘influence’ are far more fundamental to the notion of freedom than the rather static aspect of ‘choice’ on its own.
There are a number of spheres within our socio-economic and cultural system that manifest this essentially philosophical problem of Western freedom. Of course, each of the following sections deserves a thesis of its own regarding the issue, but I will try to outline some basic realities that are immediately relevant to us as individuals, specifically on a day-to-day basis.
Banking System and Debt Slavery
Starting with the banking system and its creation of national debt, then, the root problem here is in what is called “Fractional Reserve Banking”. What this basically means is that all the money that the banks physically reserve in their accounts is only a fraction of the much larger amount that they lend out. This allows for more loans to be issued, putting more and more people in debt. But where does the extra loaned money come from if it is not part of the banks reserves? Well, they create it from nothing through a leverage principle called the money multiplier. This means that the loans we take out from the banks typically have no inherent value.
When you take out a loan from a bank, the bank transfers a digital number to your account. There is no actual value to what is transferred; it is just an electronic number. It’s a bit like when you arbitrarily change the time on a digital watch. In return, you are compelled to repay this ‘loan’ with tangible work, usually through some mundane or unpleasant job, for what feels like most of your waking life. And if, for whatever reason, you cannot repay the loan; in the case of a mortgage, your home, car, or any other items put down as collateral – which do have value – will be repossessed; or in the case of a standard loan, you will be prosecuted or have your possessions forcefully taken by bailiffs. The addition of interest to your repayment not only tightens the iron collar, but prolongs the repayment indefinitely – typically, a lifetime and beyond. UK Debt statistics from Credit Action show that the total UK personal debt at the end of December 2011 stood at £1.451 trillion, with the average debt of every UK adult being more than the average national wage. The alarming truth is that there is not enough money in existence, in the form of attainable income, to pay off our average spending, bank loans, and their accrued interest at any point in time. It is systematically impossible. The outcome is such that at least 300 people a day are declared insolvent or bankrupt (can’t pay off their debts), and around 100 properties are repossessed by the banks every single day (this is a far greater concern in the US). In addition, research published in both The Economic Journal and theJournal of Health Economics continues to confirm a link between debt and stress, depression, and mental health problems (Gathergood 2012, Disney and Bridges 2010), while an article from USA Today sees psychologists claiming that debt problems are linked to marital breakdown, domestic violence, and even suicide: a high price to pay for unjust principles in our economic system.
Of course, no one is strictly forced into these economic situations, but getting a mortgage and a /or a car loan are practical necessities in the modern age. Ordinary folk are lured into taking on these burdensome responsibilities through seductive advertising that glosses over the potential difficulties. High pressure and/or psychologically sophisticated bank salesmen are pushed by the bank to “sell products” (make loans) in various ways, and are paid commission to do so. Therefore they are no longer assisting a depositor in a professional capacity with professional responsibilities, but flogging as many goods and services as possible in any way they can. Thus ordinary citizens, few of whom have been taught the basics of finance in our state schools, are subtly pushed into a situation that leads straight to the unpleasant constraints of debt.
So in sum, the banks generally seduce and give you digits of no actual monetary value, oblige and pressure you to work hard to repay the illusionary debt, and will ruin your life and take away your highest valued possessions if you do not. Household debt thus mirrors many of the attributes of an oppressive master-slave relationship: ownership, obedience, burden, and severe punishment. And no political party running for elections ever offers an alternative to this fractional reserve, interest-based banking system since central banks – which benefit abundantly from this system – have close relationships with their respective governments and have strong authority over their economic policies (Moser-Boehm 2006). In addition, the major banks influence who runs and succeeds in ‘democratic’ elections since they heavily fund advertising for their political campaigns. Thus our ‘option’ to be released from this economic enslavement is not available, hence a clear lack of freedom. I should mention that this has branched out to be a worldwide problem, but is most certainly driven by affluent centralised Western banks.
Of course, the effect of an unjust economic system has wider social implications. Capitalism places importance on a free market economy, individualism, and a relentless ambition for company profit. This often means that optimal productivity requires the reduction of paid human labour. Hence, we have continuous wage cuts and redundancies, the replacing of people with automated machines, and the setting up of labour forces in poorer non-Western countries, which means unemployment and inequality become pressing realities in Western states. Meanwhile, psychologists consistently show that the rise and prevalence of unemployment and inequality correlates strongly with the rise of crime (DeLamater et al 2011: 382).
In Part 2, I will be examining our sense of freedom once again, but within the context of crime, personal security, and fear.