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Rebuilding Community Resilience & Self-Reliance

Geo-Physis of Freedom

At the end of my last installment I proposed that freedom requires an open system and that it is incompatible with a closed one.  This hypothesis of course needs some clarification and evidence.  As a first step in clarification, I should explain that I’m talking mainly about political freedom (though some of the same principles and conditions apply to more existential or spiritual kinds of freedom) and more particularly, yet, about the way a society (or system) might deploy freedom as a primary principle of organization.  To rephrase my claim, then, a society can be organized predominantly around freedom, at least in in a relatively stable and self-perpetuating way, only to the extent that the society is, or can operate as, an open system.  While I think the distinction, here, between open and closed systems applies to many of the various sub-systems that form a society, I am especially concerned with open and closed systems of resource uptake and waste disposal, and thus of material consumption, and therefore of wealth and accumulation.  The distinction between a closed and open system, or closed world and infinite universe, is significant because the Earth’s ecology is a closed system (with minor exceptions), though we treat it, and organize ourselves and our values, as if it were an infinite universe.

In order to work-through a number of the concepts embedded in this hypothesis, we will look at some articulations that assume a functioning society can, in fact, be organized around individual freedom, searching all the while for clues about what sort of underlying conditions of possibility are required, and whether these conditions might plausibly exist within a closed system.  Because it combines brevity, great historical influence, and philosophical heft, John Stuart Mill’s classic discussion of freedom in On Liberty, provides an ideal starting point.  On Liberty, as Mill describes it, analyzes “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”  Despite his insistence that “utility,” or the greatest good for the greatest number, provides for him “the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions,”[i] compared to his more doctrinal Utilitarianism, in On Liberty Mill pragmatically considers of how a society might balance the ever-competing, and sometimes incommensurable, requirements of public good with individual liberty.

Given the reputation of utilitarianism (and certainly true of its Benthamite form) for  its willingness to calculate the happiness and pleasure of others, it may be surprising how far on the side of freedom, as opposed to general utility, Mill falls.  To digress slightly, his explanation for this focus on freedom, at the possible expense of utility, boils down to this: it is difficult for him to conceive of a form of utility that does not emerge through individual freedom.  In this way, his understanding of liberty and society is an early representative of the belief I attributed in my last installment to contemporary society.  In our society, I suggested, it is difficult to imagine many fundamental goods other than freedom, and difficult to imagine any form of human good not associated with freedom.  Security, in the face of very particular  kinds of threats may be the best counter-example.  But in general freedom is valued over the results of a life well and successfully lived.  Thus even if we expect a great many or our fellow citizens to make an inedible and sickening hash of their freedom, “the attempt to exercise control,” as Mill puts it, “would produce other evils, greater than those which it would prevent.”[ii]

Despite his hope that utilitarian satisfaction will nevertheless accumulate across society, then, “the individual,” for Mill, “is sovereign”; “in the part which merely concerns himself,” Mill explains, “his independence is, of right, absolute.”  Neither society nor others can be permitted to interfere with this independence, even if for “his own good, either physical or moral. . . .  He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him” (18).  The “appropriate region of human liberty,” Mill elaborates, includes “the inward domain” of conscience, opinion, and sentiment, regardless of the topic or issue, as well as general tastes.  But it also includes a more outward and more public domain of “pursuits” and “of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow.”[iii]

I would like to pause briefly and consider the phrase, “doing as we like.”  Although Mill believed heartily in all the “remonstrating, reasoning, persuading, and entreating” that might convince people to want to do things good for both themselves and society, he tames his own instinct for social betterment and consents in his freedom-based outline of social utility that people should do, for the most part, whatever they want, regardless of the harm to themselves they may cause, and regardless of why they may want to do it in the first place.  While many in the contemporary world still envision a “higher” form of freedom, perhaps one free from the menace of want-producing advertising and marketing, the history of philosophy since the Enlightenment is littered with attempts to achieve solid purchase in second-order desires, or to create a foundational theory of, and a workable alternative to, the mass-manipulation that is responsible both for hazardous wants and desires and the elimination of other types of  higher freedoms.  In the end, or so it seems, a working Liberal democracy must content itself with the base and venal wants that people happen to have, regardless where they came from.  Thus do thinkers as diverse as P. J. O’Rourke, on the one hand, declare that “most things that people spend most of their time doing are none of our business,”[iv] while Richard Rorty admits, on the other hand, that a liberal ought to be devoted to enlarging the sphere of life in which people can do things that are no one else’s business.[v] 

Although Mill’s emphasis is clearly on the individual and his or her liberty and self-rule, a working society (even O’Rourke would admit) does demand some limitations on this freedom, but only along a narrow and very clearly demarcated sphere, first hinted at when Mill refers to “the part which merely concerns himself.”  There is a part, then, which does concern others.  As Mill explains it, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  This formulation is repeated a number of times: “Those interests [utility of society] I contend, authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people.”[vi]  Lest we are tempted to think that Mill is prepared to accept that “the interests of other people” might have a broad definition, he seems quite clear that such interests are limited to freedom from “harm” or to “security.”  More specifically, Mill is mainly attempting to make this kind of freedom uniform, so that one man’s freedom and framing of a life plan does not make another’s different life plan impossible to achieve.

As Milton Friedman would later restate it, in this sort of Liberalism “welfare” or “equality” are far less central than liberty: “liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society.”  The role of government, and thus coercion, is limited to something similar to that of an “umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on,” and decided on to maximize individual freedom.  “So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained,” Friedman explains in terms familiar to Mill, “the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another in respect of most of his activities.”[vii]

At this point I would like to make an implausible proposition, made only more improbable by knowledge of Mill’s biography as a nervous man of Victorian England who spent much of his life cloistered in narrow hyper-intellectual circles: Mill’s view of freedom, like those maintained in his wake, is nevertheless a frontier freedom, one designed for wide open, wild places—the sort of place, mind you, that did sit at the periphery of British home rule and, I will later suggest, at the center of its consciousness.

Space and the Consequences of Freedom

There is in the popular imagination, an indelible connection between freedom and space--one which reveals an intuitive understanding of the actual requirements of freedom.  Broad vistas, an open prairie, the expanse of the sky, or the infinite reach of the heavens are unfailing images of freedom, used predictably but effectively in the opening moments of motion pictures, or in advertisements for the liberating qualities of the latest SUV or compact mobile device that might take you anywhere you have the courage to imagine.  Oppression, in contrast, is often associated with spatial confinement, crowds, tight quarters, places where there is no room to roam.  Running parallel to this are the metaphors of a closed mind versus an open one, representing entrapment and liberation respectively.  Similar value-laden terms of open versus closed can be found throughout our current metaphorics.

This open space of freedom is often associated with America and the American West, as well as an American personality that has, in more recent days, been unleased across the entire globe.  This American archetype is a self-reliant, bold, risk-taking, solitary man [sic], who lives by his own rules, takes ownership of his conquests, and responsibility for his mistakes or misfortunes—“subject to such consequences as may follow,” as Mill would say.  The frontier, no doubt, is the home of the brave, independent, steadfastly purposeful man who frames a life plan as he would without help or interference; his is the land, clearly, of the free.  Success on the frontier would only forge the way for limitless others to follow and fan out towards the endless horizon; failure would affect no one else.  In the West, one might die alone and turn slowly to dust, while traces of one’s activities would be swept slowly away by the winds and the rain.  The decisions of this, the most dominating modern mythical hero, in any event, would not reverberate through society, nor would they initiate a cascading chain or cause and effect, except those according to which the progressive freedom of all mankind might also be lifted.  He is free because he is alone, away, separate.

What does this mythical vision of the American West have to do with John Stuart Mill?  It would of course be interesting to find a subtext in the marginal insights or illustrations of On Liberty suggesting that America is the model for Mill’s view of freedom (as there are for Locke or Rousseau), but there are not.  If there is an unconscious to the book, a repressed condition of possibility, it is far more likely to be the British colonies, crowded India foremost among them.  But the very conception of freedom, and the society built upon it that Mill describes, presupposes both the sort of space that the Americas made “available” to Europeans, as well as the riches taken from the colonies.  Space and surplus, I am suggesting, form the conditions of possibility for a successful society organized around individual liberty.  

It may difficult for us to see this because, in a way similar to Mill, we tend to view both space and surplus as normal and inevitable, and so also the freedom they enjoin.   This is so even as space and surplus are both well into decline. Because, perhaps, we think in the service of a metaphorics of an infinite universe, backed by a science that can both split the atom and send men and women into outer space even as the limits to growth continue to close in upon us, we are all but unable to understand our mistaking of reality and human good for what it is--the tiniest blip in the history of humanity, and a very deadly one at that.

The connection between space, surplus, and freedom would be easy enough to see from outside our current anomaly—from within the sort of situation of scarcity and confinement that few of us have much experience with.  But we can nevertheless try.  If we break it down and consider it carefully we see that Mill’s view of freedom carries a generalized postulate upon the coat tails of an unexamined and historically unique existential condition, so prominent and ubiquitous as to seem beyond any question: we are free to “do as we like,” recall, up to the point where it harms someone else.  The example both depends upon and establishes the alleged fact that this “point” is somewhere beyond the scope of most action.  But what if it is not?  What if much of what we do might harm others?  I think we could rephrase this slightly, without stretching Mill’s beliefs or assumptions, and say: “we can do as we like because it generally won’t harm anyone else.”

 This, at any rate, is clearly one of Mill’s assumptions, as his contrast of the modern world to ancient civilizations makes clear.  Conditions of scarcity and tenuous security, Mill notes, make freedom impossible in many earlier civilizations, as well as current ones outside of a North Atlantic rationality.[viii]   If “doing as we like” were, with any substantial frequency, to harm others, it seems unlikely that freedom could be a main organizing principle of a society.  As in ancient fiefdoms, human purpose would be restricted to yet more basic requirements of security or the prevention of harm.  If the exception to the rule, freedom would, in other words, be an afterthought, something that might be permitted at the margins of one’s duty-bound life plan rather than at its starting point.  Mill, like most of us, believes that most of what people do most of the time is none of anyone else’s business, but only because it doesn’t affect anyone else’s business; he  is of course quick to admit that whenever it does, restrictions come into play.  To put this another way, choices of the sort that both Mill and most modern people assume can be free and unconstrained are free because they don’t have any consequences, because the consequences are deemed inconsequential, or because the individual, alone, is subject to the consequences as may follow.

Anyone who has spent time in a crowded snowbound tent, or aboard a small boat, knows that when space is limited, in contrast, very few choices are inconsequential; these experiences, often self-imposed (at least for rich Western people), provide a useful counter-perspective to some primary modern assumptions about freedom and consequence.  In conditions of confinement, everything is tightly interconnected and everything matters.  What and how much you eat, where you put your feet, how frequently you evacuate your bowels and vapors that may waft betwixt, what sounds you make when sleeping, whether you snort or wheeze when laughing—all of this affects, even harms, others.  When provisions begin to run low, to make matters more extreme, the situation shifts from remedial comfort to survival.   

But, as I suggested above, the American West provides the most vivid image of freedom because it is, at least in our mythical representations, the furthest from this situation of confinement.  It provides an idealized model of the possibility of inconsequential choice.  For when people are spread out across a vast frontier, cause can give the appearance of floating way without effect, without any connection to or impact on others.  Space provides the opposite of conditions of saturation or overload.  Because the individual is sovereign only to the point where his or her life plan or use of resources or materials affects others, this sovereignty clearly reigns most fully in wide open spaces.  When there is room to roam, and roam free, one is increasingly free from the limitations of tight interconnections.  If there is enough room between neighbors, to each his own.  Pack the same people into a crowded city and everything changes.

Even as Mill seemed to be unpreoccupied with America, even with spatial seclusion, America’s very existence had created an existential change within the whole of Europe.  It is remarkable to me the relatively limited extent to which, even among professional historians of science or culture, it is not taken for granted that the Enlightenment and Liberalism, like the seventeenth century Scientific Revolution, took flight only with the onset (and against the backdrop) of the “discovery of the Americas” and the sudden expansion of known, inhabitable, exploitable, and (by dint of a tragedy of microbiology) mainly empty land.[ix]  We descendants of this new world may forget the impact all this had on the European consciousness, which had recently suffered the effects of human overpopulation and unsustainable consumption.  America was, to speak of it in our lingo, “the biggest thing” happening in and to Europe for a number of formative centuries.  It provided the “noble savage” in Rousseau’s political philosophy and the “state of nature” for Locke’s.  Bacon’s instrumental science can be described as a way of managing newly acquired raw materials, and for cataloguing new species.  “America,” Hegel admitted, “is the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself,” while Marx noted that capitalism was first spun from American-grown cotton.  Even Leibniz’s infinitesimal mathematics and Copernicus’s understanding of the very shape of the cosmos bore the imprint of trans-global navigation. 

And just as the first moon landing cast the Earth into a new light and changed forever our sense of ourselves, and our home, the sudden expansion brought on by European exploration at the end of the fifteenth century stretched the great chain of being beyond its breaking point, split open the Cosmos, and flooded Aristotelian taxonomies and theistic prohibitions with waves of disarray and disorder requiring a new kind of management.  All that was solid melt in to air.  This, the now inescapable fact of human flight from the chain of ancient and venerable prejudices that had bound us to all previous beliefs and habits was, Edmund Fawcett has argued, less Liberalism’s goal than its starting point.[x] For the world, as Thomas Jefferson often said of the American continent, now appeared infinite, at least to all practical and calculable purposes. Or as the Ecomodernists would say, still entranced by this great disorientation, “to the degree to which there are fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant.”  This “new world,” in every sense, was open for exploitation but still needed some management.  The need for new ways of organizing politics, economics, motivation and morality, was thrust upon society. 

Like absolute power, we might someday realize, infinite space may be too much for the human mind and spirit to manage.  Or perhaps the problem may be more simple—it may only be that we live in a large space that was, for a moment, incalculably vast, but finite nevertheless.  Like a drug addict attempting to recapture that first high, we are unable to move beyond that first intoxicating moment of ecstatic liberation as the world suddenly appeared infinite, or perhaps our sober routines have been set according to the belief that we might trudge on into perpetuity.


Surplus Buffers

In our later stages of modernity, the earlier presumption of unlimited space has become increasingly difficult to maintain.  But the freedoms this space made possible still, at any rate, form the spear point of our expectations.  In modern society everything can be bought at a price, and the privileges of an inconsequential life plan, or to do as we please, have become ever the more obtained through money.  With money—or rather surplus—it is possible to buy (or buy-off) a degree of freedom-space that is not actually available.  The enclaves of the ultra-wealthy, the gated communities, private golf-courses and air-strips, or the hobby-ranches are one extreme literalization of this trope of buying space needed for freedom.   The idea of cap and trade or any sort of the carbon off-sets  that one may purchase are another, for these, of course, are nothing more than buying someone else’s share of atmosphere or carbon processing services—no matter how these shares are calculated and distributed.  There was a time in which garbage could simply be dumped in uninhabited countryside.  Now it is dumped either on the land of someone who can be coaxed into devising a life plan around this sort of unwholesome windfall, or upon those who live beneath the visible horizon of consequential consequences

As I suggested earlier, freedom as an organizing principle, has two basic conditions of possibility.  Space, of course, was the first one.  Surplus is the second; though I should add that the two have operated largely in conjunction: just as one might now purchase additional space, unexploited space is the original source of surplus and wealth, at least ours.  But they do work in a slightly different way: while space might permit cause to drift far and wide without creating a socially meaningful effect, surplus is used as a buffer to absorb the consequences of choices and life plans that might otherwise affect others, whether this surplus is used in philanthropic, half-baked, or outright nefarious ways.  With enough money almost any sort of freedom can be bought, unless of course we examine these transactions from within the whole, closed system of the finite Earth, in which we’re just buying time, and maybe not even that.  For just as habitable space is not really infinite, the space we buy (as well as the lion’s share of our freedoms) are bought entirely with unpayable debt. 

Tolerance for non-productive activity, self-destruction, and pointless use of resources are, in any case, most plausible in a society with a level of surplus exceeding its previous set of received expectations.  It is not just wealthy individuals that can offset the consequences of their actions by doling out a bit of their surplus, entire societies can put their wealth towards buffers, whether in the form of seawalls and sandbags, or novelties and diversions that help focus the wants and desires of the masses so that they want what the society has to offer.  It is easy to understand how this buffered sort of freedom can, with the right incentives, create sufficient and growing surplus, especially when there are still large tracts of wild and unexploited land or colonies available, peopled only by those whose life plans are deemed inconsequential.  It is more difficult, apparently, to understand the current state of affairs when such conditions, and its surplus, begin to disappear. 

A shifting focus from space towards surplus can in this vein be seen throughout liberal theories of society and democracy. It has become a truism in modern liberal thought, starting with Martin Seymour Lipset’s groundbreaking research, that wealth and so-called economic progress result in greater levels democracy.  A great deal of research on the connection between GDP and freedom has been conducted, and the explanations are varied and thorough.  But they all share a self-congratulatory teleology of universal liberal progress.  They have difficulty imagining a deeper, more temporary, contingency underwriting these features of modernity.  Writers like Fareed Zakaria, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Friedman seem unable to entertain the possibility that current levels of GDP are a symptom of ecological overshoot, and that individualism is the operating system of overshoot.[xi]

Earlier in the evolution of Liberal democracies, however, freedom had a less secure (and non-teleological) purchase over modern expectations, leaving more room for conditional thinking about the contingencies of freedom and surplus.  Consider, for instance, the reflections of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century German sociologist and philosopher, Georg Simmel, another thinker as far from the American frontier as Mill.  Perhaps a forerunner to today’s ecomodernists, Simmel is more explicit in his assumption that human freedom does, in fact, depend upon the availability of effectively unlimited resources, and seems pressed to explain how we might maintain them in the absence of infinite human space, an issue that Zakaria, Krugman, or Friedman now assume has been settled by the alleged advance of “technology.”[xii]  

By way of background, I should explain that Simmel’s main focus in his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, is the way the medium of money has changed human societies, a topic Simmel covers with encyclopedic attention.  Although, as a quasi-Marxist, he is ambivalent about the changes brought on by money, he does admit that the impersonal and less binding forms of transaction that money permits has created the conditions necessary for increased human freedom.  But regardless of the means of exchange, Simmel also admits, were there a limited or set supply of goods, “the satisfaction of the individual needs is gained only at the expense of someone else.”  Here, exchange results only in a “change of ownership” and sets the stage for what Simmel refers to as “the human tragedy of competition” over finite goods.”[xiii] 

There is a sense, of course, in which Simmel is only restating Adam Smith’s fundamental point in The Wealth of Nations—namely, that this wealth is not a set amount, stored in the Prince’s castle vault, but is the sum total of a nation’s goods and services.  Crucial to this insight is the understanding that this sum might be increased through cooperation and trade, and needn’t be gained only through violent changes in ownership.  In today’s terms, economics is not a “zero-sum game.”  But Simmel’s description of the process is nevertheless worth observing.  The solution Simmel applauds, at any rate, seems to anticipate today’s obsession with economic growth.  Here similar to Smith, he writes, the “noblest and most ennobling result in the historical process is to build a world that may be acquired without conflict and mutual repression, to possess value whose acquisition and enjoyment by one person does not exclude that of another, but opens the door a thousand times for him to acquire such values as well.”  To put this in the terms we’ve been employing, Simmel is searching for a way to ensure that our freedoms are effectively inconsequential and thus not mutually exclusive—that my life plan does not interfere with yours.  

How this world might be built in a world grown both smaller and more crowded in the years since Adam Smith’s earlier insights?  For Simmel, the modern era might still be the era of freedom if instead of fighting each other, men might unite and double-down in their fight against nature.  Or as he puts it, in the modern era we witness “the diversion of the struggle against fellow men towards the struggle against nature.”  When humans collectively turn “against nature” (which to modern eyes may seem to be a reverse euphemism for increasing exploitation) we can expect that “further substances and forces are incorporated into human uses from the available supplies of nature.”  This sort of increase will, in turn, reduce “the competition for those that are already obtained,” thus releasing humans from entrapment in forceful, one-sided, and enslaving forms of exchange.   Simmel intuitively understands that freedom is incompatible with a closed system in which wealth might be limited; he is therefore anxious to explain how we can breach these closed systems.  Or as he summarizes it:

The thesis of the preservation of material and energy is, luckily, valid only for the absolute total of nature, but not for that section of it which human purposive action designates.  This relatively total can, indeed, be multiplied indefinitely by bringing more material and forces into a form that accords with our purposes, that is by annexing them.  A progressive technology teaches us to gain even more uses for things, even from what is already completely occupied.  The transition from an extensive to an intensive economy is applicable not only to the cultivation of the land, but to any substances that can be subdivided into smaller and smaller parts for more and more specific usages or to the substance’s latent forces that are to be released to an even greater extent.[xiv]

For those of us who have already rejected the promises of this sort of “progressive technology” in the name of an ecological point of view, there is little remaining debate about whether the human-used total drawn from nature “can be multiplied indefinitely.”  But accepting this view of our finite Earth also means accepting a shrinking sphere available for “the part which merely concerns himself,” a realization that comes with greater difficulty.  The broad possibility that an expansion of the private life, the part of our lives which are on one else’s business because its free operation will not harm that of others, has begun to disappear in late modernity as we have reached the limits of growth.  A growing number of aspirants are fighting each other for a limited supply of goods.  The field of economics and much of our political and social commentary, as well as significant wing of the world’s multi-billion dollar marketing “industry,” will someday be reinterpreted as the attempt to deny this possibility for as long as possible.  For our two hundred year “struggle against nature” has brought nature, and thus us, well beyond the limits of sustainable consumption, while hardly reducing “the struggle against fellow men.”

When prosperity and growth is viewed as the major underwriter of our individual freedom, it not only understandable, but entirely predictable, that most modern stake-holders will insist that wealth, as our ecomodernists declare, has no practical limits. This message is urgent, and its dismissal should not be taken lightly in a society organized around individual liberty.  For the moment we admit that there are indeed limits to growth, and to consumption and wealth, the sort of striving permitted (if not demanded) in an individualistic world organized around freedom becomes part of a zero-sum game.  There is then little prospect that my life plan, if successful, will not limit yours.  There is no way, unless we live in an infinite universe, that one person’s acquisition and enjoyment will not eventually exclude that of another.  At the limits to growth, all doors will be shut and double-locked, an armed and dangerous coveter lying in wait behind.  Without an infinite universe, a whole intellectual edifice will collapse.  The modern era and its many life-systems, including freedom, do not require a large Earth; they require an infinite universe with an open and expanding system in which consequences will always remain inconsequential.

A crowded Earth, in the meantime, is beginning to look more like a lifeboat or crowded tent than a wide-open frontier.  Freedoms that wealthy modern people take for granted and enjoy with hardly a thought are, in fact, everyone else’s business—what you eat, whether you run an air conditioner, choose to walk or drive, or hop on a plane for the sake of your amusement or for high-sounding requirements of research, sales-meetings, or environment-saving conferences.  We are sovereign on these issues only up to the point at which they cause harm to others or prevent others from enjoying the same liberties.  This “point” is no longer off in the distance, well down the road taken by more extreme choices of life plans; it is a more basic condition of almost all action.  The guillotine has already fallen on our individualist life plans.  

The Primacy of Politics over Metaphysics?

There is a sense, I’ll admit, that a valid perspective exists from which all the above will seem like a dangerous overstatement.  At stake, on the face of it, should only be freedoms that involve our interactions within that part of our world that is, in fact closed.  This would mainly be our consumption, leaving all sorts of other basic human freedoms untouched by the return of a closed world.  Perhaps, to think about it like a Hegelian, the relève of freedom might occur were we collectively able to sort through the freedoms that we want to maintain and that don’t threat our ecosystem—like, perhaps, sexual practices; speech, expression, and assembly; or religion and moral conscience—and those surrounding and affecting our environment that must be let go.    A new world order might appear from the conflicts and contradictions of this one in which people express their freedom—only now without unlimited consumption, without substantial mobility, and with far fewer choices at their disposal.  I’ll set aside the question of how intertwined our various freedoms may in fact be.

We might, according to this view, even maintain something similar to Mill’s articulation.  We can, after all, still do what we please and form a life plan up to the point where it makes those of others impossible, only now this will require greater care and caution.   Perhaps we only need a shift in expectations and priorities.  Perhaps this will signal the maturation of humanity from the excesses of our destructive and nearly perilous adolescence.  Perhaps we are not at the end of freedom but the beginning of politics and negotiation—a place where a renewed effort of intersubjectivity gives us the skills to balance our wants, needs, and desires against those of our global equals, and to accept the results of this sort of negotiation.

It is to this question that I will turn to next.

[i] Mill, John Stuart.  On Liberty.  (London and Felling –on-Tyne: Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd, 1901), 19


[ii] Ibid, 21


[iii] Ibid, 23


[iv] O’ Rourke, P.J.  On the Wealth of Nations (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 4


[v] There is a split, then, between our personal moral codes or the virtues we expect from ourselves, and our public morality, in which we attempt to be tolerant of the moral codes of others, or the absence of them, even if they are objectionable or abhorrent to us.  More about this incomensurability at a later date.


[vi] On Liberty, 20,18


[vii] Friedman, Milton.  Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 5, 14.


[viii] “ The ancient commonwealths thought themselves entitled to practise,

and the ancient philosophers countenanced, the regulation of every part of private

conduct by public authority, on the ground that the State had a deep interest in the whole

bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens; a mode of thinking which may

have been admissible in small republics surrounded by powerful enemies, in constant

peril of being subverted by foreign attack or internal commotion, and to which even a

short interval of relaxed energy and self-command might so easily be fatal, that they

could not afford to wait for the salutary permanent effects of freedom. In the modern

world, the greater size of political communities, and above all, the separation between

spiritual and temporal authority (which placed the direction of men's consciences in other

hands than those which controlled their worldly affairs), prevented so great an

interference by law in the details of private life” (24).


[ix] Much post-colonial research, as valuable as is, is more apt to discuss the way Euro-centrism shaped the Enlightenment, never mind its original spatial precipitation.  See also,   Karen Ordahl Kupperman, ed.  America in European Consciousness, 1493-1750 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.  Portundo, Maria. Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.


[x] Fawcett, Edmund.  Liberalism: the Life of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).


[xi] See for instance, Zakaria, Fareed.  The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton, Inc, 2003).


[xiii] Simmel, Georg, The Philosophy of Money, trans by David Frisbee and Tom Bottomore  (London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1990), 290, 291.



[xiv] Ibid, 291



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