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Post-Carbon Politics III: The Ends of Freedom

Post Carbon Politics, Part III:
The Ends of Freedom


“The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.
--Barbara Kingsolver

“’Walter thinks the liberal state can self-correct,’ Richard said. ‘He thinks the American bourgeoisie will voluntarily accept increasing restrictions on its personal freedoms.’”
--Jonathan Franzen


In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s goal is to describe the ultimate end or telos of human behavior, something which, he argues, must be a good in and of itself rather than a means to another overarching good or desired end. Aristotle argues that the only thing that fits this description is Eudaemonia, roughly translated as “happiness” though with overtones of overall well-being: happiness, he explains, cannot be conceived of as the means to some greater good, but all other goods (such as freedom, having friends, or a well-ordered polis) can be seen as a means to happiness. Happiness, he writes, is “just such an end because we always choose it for itself and never for any other reason.”

Since the Enlightenment, however, Freedom has all but usurped “happiness” as the ultimate goal of human life. It is true that the quest for freedom may in some ways be subordinated to happiness, in that freedom is said to offer the most direct, and at some times the exclusive, path to happiness. But even when our very freedom, may, with its anxious uncertainties, interfere with the path to something like happiness, freedom as a goal nevertheless seems to reign supreme. A happiness won without a difficult transversal through the trials of freedom is not authentic happiness, and it is better, according to the post-Enlightenment consciousness, to meet a tragic fate in pursuit of freedom than to enjoy the safe comforts of servitude. Or as John Stuart Mill similarly noted, it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

The virtually unquestioned ascendancy of freedom is visible even within the political and moral philosophies that have been most overtly suspicious of bourgeois freedoms and that have, at least in their crude manifestations, seemed willing to sacrifice freedom for some other greater good. I am thinking, here, most notably of Marxist and Nietzschean critiques of conventional freedom. For what is Marx railing against if not the crushing servitude in which capitalism enslaves the bourgeoisie and the proletariat alike? Is his ultimate goal not a world in which all are free from the distorting alienations of wage-labor, suffocating competition, and the abstraction of value from legitimate human needs? Motivating his critique is the belief that the undeniable liberties bestowed by capitalism are, in effect, technologies of mass enslavement masked by a cloak of inconsequential choices and illusory freedoms. The critique of freedom is thus made on behalf of a higher form of freedom, or something very similar to it. Indeed, in the modern world it is difficult to identify a position not committed in some way or another to individual expression or self-realization.

The one major exception—one which should give us great pause and convince us to proceed only with the greatest of caution and care when discussing freedom and its ends—is Fascism, fueled as it is with the ecstatic collapse of the self as it dissolves into the collective eros of the state. Here, individual differentiation, not to mention liberty and self-determination, are made subordinate to the higher goal of an aestheticized unity. Except in various short-lived cults, or in the variety of fleeting and temporary consumer experiences manufactured by the industrial marketing complex, fascism has been a rare manifestation of this truly radical reaction to the spirit of the age.

Subscribers to the theory of Peak Oil who are aware of the tectonic shift in consciousness and values, and thus politics, that it is likely to cause often predict that Peak Oil will mark a break with the past as radical as that caused by the “discovery” of the New World, The Enlightenment, or The Industrial Revolution. Standing as we are, then, on the cusp of an epochal shift, is it not then of value, (if not urgency) for us to reflect upon the concept of Freedom as the overriding value of the age we are leaving? If we have found ourselves at the moment where we in the industrialized West and especially in The United States will be forced to make our first awkward steps towards the rolling back of our traditional freedoms to use, have, and waste as much as we can afford, should we not be concerned whither freedom in this new age?


Like Aristotle’s definition of “happiness,” which Aristotle admits is something of a platitude, the concept of freedom suffers from the same difficulties of definition. It is tricky to define freedom without using one of its immediate synonyms, such as liberty or independence, or without describing a state absent of, or exempt from, one of its many antonyms: servitude, control, regulation, interference, oppression, determination, intrusion, obstruction. Freedom, indeed, is regularly defined as an absence of these sorts of enslavement—freedom from control or regulation or oppression. Even freedom in the positive sense, to follow Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction, is characteristically freedom to flourish free from interference or obstruction.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill attempts to do for freedom what Aristotle does for Eudaimonia. Mill’s starting premise is that all individuals have, in principle, the right to what appears to be unlimited freedom: “In the part which merely concerns himself his independence is of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The important qualification comes into play only when we are dealing with parts that also concern others: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”

In principle, this is clear enough. People are allowed to do anything they want unless it harms others: “The only part of the conduct of any one for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others.” Then, and only then, Mill asserts, is it permissible to bring governance into play, whether “in the way of compulsion or control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.”

In his First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson articulates freedom in a way that could easily have provided a model for Mill. According to Jefferson, “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” Similarly, in his 2nd State of the Union Address is 1802 Jefferson “remark[s] with special satisfaction those which under the smiles of Providence result from the skill, industry and order of our citizens, managing their own affairs in their own way and for their own use, unembarrassed by too much regulation, unoppressed by fiscal extractions,” thus establishing the particularly American consanguinity of freedom, industry and commerce, and low taxes.

Despite the relatively transparent nature of the definition of freedom shared by Jefferson and Mill, its equally open-ended character has been cause for much debate and consternation. For what is not clear in either articulation, nor perhaps should it be, is how we might define the “harm” Mill discusses or the “injuring one another” that Jefferson presents as the only legitimate cause for the restraint of the governed by the government. In other words, if we establish that all people should be free to do whatever they please up to the point at which their actions may harm another, the difficult work of judgment and decision making will only there begin. How might we define and measure this harm?

Marxism, as I noted, will in fact suggest that the very nature of this formulation, and the freedom of competition and the resulting consolidation of the means of production into the hands of the few that it permits, is itself a cause of great harm. Similarly, the bad reputation that “liberal academia” has been given has largely been caused by its ability to identify and elaborate all the various, though not readily obvious, sorts of harm and injury created by the manipulations and asymmetrical distributions of power that define our society

Jefferson, in contrast, as did virtually all of his contemporaries, had a rather optimistic view of the general harmlessness of a society of free and unregulated commerce and industry. It is true that this lack of insight could be traced back to the relatively novel nature of their project, in which its ills has not yet had enough time to make themselves clear, and to their indisputably privileged position within this system of free pursuit of life, liberty, and property, in which they were likely to be the beneficiaries of what we now refer to as an “unlevel playing field.” But I am going to suggest that the political consciousness of the age was ignited by a specific yet overwhelming sense of the world, a sense of the world that we, at the moment of Peak Oil, are finally beginning to see in all its clarity as we take a step back from it and, perhaps, set a course towards an entirely different cosmology.

If we trace this notion of freedom to the Enlightenment, where it received its early articulation, we might recall that this was also the age of exploration, in which an increasingly over-populated and deforested Europe set its eyes upon and then set sail towards an immense and unmapped world. It is difficult now, in our world of GPS and Google Maps, to comprehend the sense of unlimited space within which the European consciousness was constituted, the awesome freedom of unconquerable distance, the breaking apart of the finite, closed, and hierarchical world that had previously defined it, a sense that still predominated only a century ago when Joseph Conrad’s Marlow dreamed of “the many blank spaces on the earth.”

In our world of interstate highways, where cross-country road trips have become a way of life, it may also be difficult to understand the dizzying sense of possibility that Jefferson would likely have had, perched on the edge of a great wilderness, uncharted in ways accessible to him. Its size unknown, Jefferson nevertheless predicts in his First Inaugural Address that this “chosen country” would have “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Jefferson’s father and many close family friends worked as land-surveyors and were thus charged with venturing out into this frontier. While Jefferson himself never travelled a significant distance to the West, living vicariously through the travels of other, his preoccupation with the expansive possibilities of America come clearly through in his writing and the extension of the United States into the American continent was among his most important projects during his presidency.

In The Declaration of Independence, for instance, one of the complaints against King George was in fact his prohibition on westward expansion. In his letters with George Washington, the two repeatedly discuss what Washington refers to as “the immense diffusion and importance of it.” Jefferson, who might also be considered the father of the American Growth Economy, looks favorably upon expansion for numerous reasons. In addition to offering a buffer against foreign and hostile powers, he believed that it had the possibility of paying for itself in increased revenue while providing the space upon which America’s promise, its newly forged expressions of freedom and liberty, might find its place. Again in the First Inaugural Address, Jefferson reports on the latest census and looks favorably on the exponential growth that the young republic was enjoying: “you will perceive that the increase in numbers during the last 10 years, proceeding in geometric ratio, promises a duplication in little more than 22 years.” This growth is viewed with nothing but optimistic pride: “we contemplate this rapid growth and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits to the multiplication of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price.”

Not unlike economic growth, today, this growth in population and territory was perceived as a remedy for nearly any problem. But I am particularly interested in the way the expansive quality of the entire globe for the Enlightenment, and of the American continent for the Enlightenment’s first major political experiment, informs the notion of freedom that we have seen articulated by both Jefferson and Mill and which remains in hobbled operation in today’s shrinking world.

One’s ability to act as he [sic] pleases without harming or injuring others would seem to have a fairly direct relationship with physical space. When space is limited, nearly any action will send quivers through the tightly knit web of humanity. It is only when there exists a seemingly infinite space for expansion, I am arguing, that one can imagine a vast range of actions that can be performed without harm to others. This is not a zero-sum world, where one person’s benefit is another person’s loss. This is not a world of limited resources. It is instead a world where I too can have what my neighbor has, if for no other reason that I can launch out to the West.

In a way that speaks eerily to the concerns that we in the “Peak Oil Community” have over things like soil and conservation, in his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson discusses the consequences of having a seemingly limitless supply of unoccupied, fertile, land. Unlike European agriculture, which he admits is more intensive in its nature, the character of American agriculture is formed by the fact that a parcel stripped of its fertility can be abandoned for another: “The indifferent state of that among us does not proceed from want of knowledge merely; it is from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please. In Europe the object is to make the most of their land, labour being abundant; here it is to make the most of our labour, land being abundant.” I sense, here, a hint of wistfulness. Jefferson, as can be seen in his reflections on the cultivation of tobacco, was not one who would tolerate waste easily. He would not, I am confident, be content to see the way that this tolerance towards waste and destruction would become so great a foundation upon which our principles of economic maximization would sit. But the principle of unlimited resources nevertheless looms large in his consciousness. It provides the blank canvas upon which he can illustrate a form of freedom that can range far before doing injury to others.

I would like to examine a different sort of thinker in an entirely different part of the world to support and extend this thesis—that the modern conception of freedom was formed amidst a world of perceived unoccupied spaces available for expansion. In his encyclopedic “The Philosophy of Money, published in 1900, German sociologist Georg Simmel provides a 500 page analytic of the philosophy, psychology, and sociology of “the money economy.” Although Simmel was loosely affiliated to Marxism, hoping to provide a thicker and more nuanced description of the material conditions necessary to a historical materialist project, his tone is neutral and dispassionate. He is interested in describing and analyzing, rather than judging, the psycho-social affects of money’s objectifying and abstract fungibility. While no stranger to the idea of alienation, Simmel also realizes that certain privileges and freedoms could be best expressed in a money economy despite, referencing Aristotle, the “eudaemonistic devaluation” that is another of its consequences.

In a section entitled “Individual Freedom,” Simmel focuses on something very similar to Mill’s “principle of harm.” Despite his project of descriptive neutrality, Simmel is also a part of the Enlightenment tradition that can hardly conceive of a value more essential than freedom. His concern, then, is “to build a world that may be acquired without conflict and mutual repression, to possess values whose acquisition and enjoyment by one person does not exclude that of another.” How, in short, can we protect that space where a person can acquire and consume in freedom, without, therefore, causing injury to others?

The very nature of Simmel’s approach suggests a growing cultural anxiety over these issues, absent from either Jefferson or Mill. While they had assumed the near-limitless availability of this space, Simmel recognizes its limits—or, as we shall see, almost does so—and is therefore concerned to protect and expand it. There is a sense, in his writing, that new, non-spatial frontiers must be opened up for exploration. The condition he contrast the freedom created by money to, he refers to as “the primary form of social values, in which one person has to be deprived of what the other receives.” Employing a definition of freedom which is able to liberate itself from this sort of zero-sum, impacted economic constraint, “the money economy is able to increase individual liberty to its fullest extent.”

So complex is Simmel’s philosophy of money, that I cannot review all the interrelations between money and human liberty. But it is impossible not to be struck the way he turns to something very much like the principle of economic growth as the solution to potential limits of freedom within an increasingly crowded world, something that was certainly at the forefront of this German Urbanist’s mind. It is, at any rate, still expansion, and really only expansion, that “reduces the human tragedy of competition.” More specifically, “to the extent to which further substances and forces are incorporated into human uses from the available supply of nature, competition for those that are already obtained will be reduced.” Without Jefferson’s vast frontier, Simmel instead turns to the possibilities offered by the extraction and processing capabilities of a “progressive technology” and what might be referred to in today’s economic jargon as “innovation.” It is worth quoting Simmel at length:

“This relative total can, indeed, be multiplied indefinitely by bring 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 substance 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.”

Indeed Simmel approaches and almost recognizes the problem of a finite earth when he adds, “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.”

Whether taken as a whole or in its specific parts, Simmel’s articulation is stunning, both in what he says and doesn’t say, what he assumes and what he seems unable to conceive. As if he is peering in to the future, Simmel seems to anticipate the “green revolution,” the microprocessor, nano-technology, not to mention the splitting of the atom. He provides a link between Thomas Jefferson and Silicone Valley, employs concepts which have become today’s advertising slogans. As in Jefferson’s thought, the world, for Simmel, is still large enough that the explosive qualities of exponential growth, of “indefinite multiplication” of “thousands of generations,” do not appear as problems. Yet most significant is the way that the very concept of freedom and individual liberty hinge upon the principle of an expanding world, of the opening of spaces free from “the tragedy of human competition.”



If it is not already apparent what all this has to do with Peak Oil and a post peak world, I would like to submit, finally, a rather startling and unsettling conclusion that may force us to turn the Enlightenment, as well our entire field of political values and expectations, upon its head. The very notion of freedom as we have come to understand it and the way almost without exception it has been defined over the past 500 years--this notion has evolved exclusively in a context of imperial expansion or economic growth, without which the concept, as a master-value, may become meaningless, if not harmful. What, then, will the status of freedom be in a contracting world? What becomes of it when the conditions under which it evolved disappear? For without the sort of expansion of place or value that both Jefferson and Simmel appeal to, we will see the catastrophic elimination of places where my freedoms won’t injure or harm another. We will be back to “the primary form of social values” that Simmel is relieved to have escaped.

We should probably note The Transition Movement’s fascination with something perhaps reminiscent of this “primary form of social value”--the sort that having come to terms, finally, with limits and a veritable contraction of “the available supply” of natural resources, then starts experimenting with the sorts of economies, like barter, that the money economy replaced. We should also ask whether sufficient attention has been paid to the culture, laws, and values that have traditionally accompanied a non-money economy.

One of the most interesting accomplishments of the histories of oil that we see in the work of Greer, Heinberg, and Kunstler is the broadening of our historic lens. Instead of seeing the growth economy and the technological boom of the last two centuries as the continued manifestation of a tradition of progress that began with the Greeks and runs through the Enlightenment, we now can speak of the “oil interval,” the briefest blip of time in which humans lived like Gods. Within this larger historical context, technology and a growth economy now look like aberrations rather than the normal state of affairs which we can expect into perpetuity. It is here, then, that we find renewed interest in the societies which were based on the “primary social values” referred to by Simmel. But it is also, here, in the further investigation of these societies, that we may discover an additional wound to our cultural heliocentrism: we perhaps discover that the freedom we value is no more transcendent or permanent than fossil fuels and the technological “progress” they enabled, that the political values of the oil interval are not the ultimate telos of human potential, that this may also be the “freedom interval.”

For in small tribal societies, individual liberty as a primary social value is an alien concept. From a liberal point of view we may cluck our tongues at the cruel inhumanity of tribal customs and the ancient and venerable prejudices upon which they were based. But such societies were organized for their survival. If members deviated from their prescribed roles, if the cooperative network of limits and self-imposed moderation is violated by an obviously insane person whose only suitable punishment is banishment or death, the entire society may disappear.

This is perhaps an idealized view of pre-modern societies. But if we consider their failures as well, the harmful nature of individual freedom becomes even more apparent. Take, for instance, Easter Island. In Simmel’s world where “substances can be divided into smaller and smaller parts and more specific usages,” he is not forced to consider what happens if you cut down all your damn trees. While the tragedy of Easter Island seems to have been a matter of inter-tribal conflict and freedom, the point remains visible: if your space is confined enough, there is little room outside of the principle of harm. All liberties must be constrained and constrained by the cruelties, as well as aesthetics, religion, and traditions of the society. It is difficult to envision a society of this sort that had room for distinctions between the practices necessary for group survival, and individual “lifestyle” choices. Birth, sex, eating, death and burial all become inscribed with the weight of religious necessity, taboos are erected, and the ways of the ancestors become unbreakable law

Perhaps more surprising, because it is embraced by the same people, progressives perhaps, who also are highly identified with the freedoms of choice that North Atlantic Bourgeois Democracies provide, is that a similar vision of the tight interrelation of things can be found in Permaculture. While those engaged in Permaculture enter it from our larger world of growth and liberty, and may even engage in Permaculture as their most notable lifestyle choice, within the designed space we can see the sort of restricted and closed economy where interaction, feedback, and a tightly spun ecology of cause and effect, are, rather than freedom, the hallmark values. This may not be an entirely accurate description of Permaculture, and it is in Permaculture that we may indeed find new freedoms, if that is what we are looking for. But at the very least, Permaculture is alien to Jefferson’s sense that there was “such quantities of land to waste as we please.” And it is in Permaculture’s elimination of waste, in its ethic that everything matters, that we see a vision of prosperity and plenty at odds with the view in which, to recall Mill’s words, “the only part of the conduct of any one for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others.” For in Permaculture and increasingly so in our post peak world, there is nothing that doesn’t concern others.

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Tags: Freedom, Oil, Peak

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