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The Myth of Individual Freedom ~ by Subroto Mukerji


Society and its shibboleths
“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
-William Pitt, British prime minister (1759-1806)

Are men really born free? Rousseau says he is...but is everywhere in


chains. I think Rousseau was right, give or take a dram. Is the (mythical)
Social Contract, then, the greatest con ever, even if not taken literally? I ask
you, is it possible to reconcile the need for individual freedom with life in an
organized society? Rugged individualists would have us believe that
freedom of choice and control over one’s life are the two most important
things to men. Before examining this issue, we have to assume that men
choose to live in society for those very reasons, in the first place. Society
seems to offer freedom of choice, security and opportunity for self-
expression—the much-vaunted advantages of living in an organized society.
But don’t miss the paradox here: men gain control over their lives by
agreeing to surrender full control over their lives!

So (ask the individualists) isn’t freedom within society a mirage? If


society didn’t confer freedom and control, reply their opponents, why don’t
we just revert to a nomadic or hunter-gatherer existence? But everyone
knows that’s impracticable, given that life in the Outback or on the fringe of
the Gobi desert would be a severe test for all but the most rugged of
rugged individualists. Besides, the realities of national and cultural frontiers
have to be squarely faced. So if men choose to live in an organized society,
does it follow that they have compromised? Don’t the choices open to an
individual for making a living in a ‘free and open’ society appear to be more
in number and better in quality than those available in drift mode, or in a
state of anarchy, where life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and
short’—to quote Hobbes? Or so they’d like us to believe. Thoreau would
have disagreed, I know.

The real question we need to ask ourselves is whether freedom of


choice – within the vital question of control over our lives – is a pie-in-the-
sky? Is it at all attainable? In considering the answer to this question, we
are led to another one…who really benefits from the organization of men
that we call society? Is it the man in the street, who gets his electricity,
telephone connection, public transport, rations, housing and a chance to
rear a family in relative safety and other ‘benefits’ despite pollution and
galloping inflation, in exchange for which he is condemned to slave from
dawn to dusk? Whose freedom is submerged in the process of doing so?

That rhetorical question brings us to another, more fundamental, one:


does the common man have freedom of choice? Of sorts, yes...perhaps. He
has the choice to live or to die. He has the choice to accept, to gripe, to
reject and to rebel. The latter option will lead to incarceration and loss of
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almost all his freedoms sooner or later. But if he opts to live by society’s
rules, he has to be prepared to lose many an important freedom to the
greater freedoms of other more important people.

VVIPs cost us many a freedom by imposing their greater freedoms on


us. And Brutus, as you knmw, was an honorable man. So I suppose life in a
civilized society is a compromise, a trade-off…but it’s an acceptable
sacrifice to most, seeing that freedom means different things to different
people.

Are the rules the same for all? Not that I know of. There is no such
thing as a level playing field. The more money one has, the more influence
one wields, as is patently obvious to all who read the newspapers. Money
and influence help one to flout or bend the rules (remember the Jeffrey
Archer case? Sentenced to a four-year jail sentence for perjury, he is
alleged to have attended parties outside the jail premises, and was paroled
out after a mere two years. But then, he’s a Peer of the Realm. Some peer!
And Manu Sharma was caught carousing when out on parole after having
been convicted for the morder of an innocent girl who stood up to his
brattish bullying).

While representative democracy (what other type is there, anyway?)


seems to offer the best route to individual freedom, it can be just a tad
oppressive because a remote bunch of legislators write the laws that
govern us…write them in such a way as to level the palying field in their
own favor. Some elected representatives! We can thus see that, very often,
the more free a society claims it is, the more suffocatingly restrictive it can
be: ask any surviving Vietnam conscriptee, or the victim of a mindless,
faceless, couldn’t-care-less bureaucracy. So it appears that as one earns
more, the options to opt out of society increase, by way of greater
possibility for freedom of action, i.e., better control one over one’s life.

The myth of Human Equality could be one of the greatest inventions of


the seventeenth century. It earned – for the philosophes that cooked it up –
the undying gratitude of a grateful plutocracy, who pretended the concept
irked them. If you don’t include Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, a host of
notables and luckless Jacobins/Girondins such as Marat, Danton and
Robespierre, the men in power were, in fact, delighted. Everyone knows
that illusions are precious commodities, and the illusion of equality is no
exception. It is an undeniable fact that some men are more unequal than
others; it’s just impolite to say it openly. The most that men can lay claim to
are equal rights and equality before law. No politician will ever touch the
subject of inborn inequality with a barge pole unless he wants to commit
hara-kiri at the hustings. Doublespeak and double standards are universal
phenomena. We just need to keep our ears and minds open, to spot
inconsistencies as they crop up.
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We live in times when individual liberties are being rapidly eroded. This
is especially true of the technologically advanced West. Electronic
surveillance via GPS systems and an excess of computerization that allows
‘the authorities’ to track each little transaction of our day-to-day lives have
brought Orwell’s 1984 uncomfortably close. We are on the verge of having
our identities replaced with numbers. Today, our identities run side by side,
from election cards and income tax Permanent Account numbers to ration
cards and driving licenses
But Nandan Nilekani’s UID number will tag all Indian citizens, replacing
the ID proff offered by all the other cards. Voila! We are reduced to a string
of digits in the State’s machine (Ben Hur was Number 41 on Quintus Arias’
galley), and will need to quote this ID number whenever we undertake any
type of transaction—financial, administrative, or legal. (There were riots in
China a couple of years ago over this issue, with the Chinese savouring – for
a short while – the tantalising aroma of civil liberty that arose in a post Mao
Tse-dong era).

So Big Brother intends to keep a sharp eye on us, so sharp, in fact, that
he’ll soon know more about us than we do ourselves. His super-computers
will churn out statistical tables that will be the envy of actuaries
everywhere. The minutiae of our lives will be monitored more closely than
those of chimpanzees in research laboratories...and all for the sake of
saving democracy. Are we witnessing the rise of neo-totalitarianism? Could
it possible that the earlier, less efficient system was better? Another
paradox now rears its head: opting out of one form of totalitarianism usually
means stepping into another one just as bad.

It is self evident that the acquisition of wealth has become synonymous


with survival itself, what to speak of living the good life. As the gap between
the haves and the have-nots widens, the common man is losing whatever
little control he had over his life. He is caught in the grip of powerful forces
he can barely understand, leave alone manage, inflation being the
commonest one. As money gets dearer, human life gets cheaper.

Money can preserve and extend life, while bringing true freedom of
action within reach. This is the basic reason why more and more people
today (more so, perhaps, than ever before in history) are obsessed with
acquiring more and more money and squirreling it away in tax havens or
Swiss banks, by whatever means. Control over one’s life varies in direct
proportion to one’s bank balance. It always has...but even more so now.
Whether it brings true happiness is quite another matter.

Money offers the nearest thing to real freedom, offering a viable


alternative to opting out of society while staying within its protective fold.
Money lets you have your cake and eat it too. Never before in history,
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therefore, has the acquisition of wealth been as important to the survival of


the individual. It is a bastion against want but not against hopelessness
(see the empty lives of people such as Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress, pop-
singer-on-skid-row Lindsay Lohan, and Halle Berry, former Bond girl and idol
of millions, yet a woman who has lost all hope of finding true love and an
enduring relationship). So although it does allow one to control one’s life to
the maximum extent possible, money is no guarantee against loneliness or
freedom from the tyranny of possessions.

Sometimes, wealth can be the biggest burden of all. The treadmill of


commerce can constrain just as effectively as chains in a medieval
dungeon. This is exactly why spiritual masters have always stressed the
ephemeral and insubstantial nature of worldly possessions, and the need to
search for lasting value on a different plane. As a means to attaining
individual freedom, the opposite of wealth accumulation is equally if not
more effective. Complete renunciation, i.e., total negation of wealth, can
apparently bring complete freedom and peace. Unfortunately, such
negation is almost impossible for the average individual in these
materialistic times. Bill Gates is certainly not an average individual, and
he’s busy giving his wealth away, scattering it judiciously before the anti-
trust suits take it all.

We must face up to another truth: all organizational structures (the


management texts are coy here, so one has to turn to social behaviour in
the animal kingdom), whether of ants or men) are designed to benefit the
uppermost strata. It is a pyramidical structure, designed to ensure that the
cream rises to the top. In a country of well over a billion people, not more
than 2% Indians would be able to honestly say that they are free to live
their lives as they wish.

So what’s to be done about the remaining 98% unfortunates? The


answer’s simple…distract them! Give them something to keep them
preoccupied. Something that appears so important to them, their families,
their heritage and their posterity that they would be willing to sacrifice
anything, freely shed inhibitions as well as blood, break all moral laws,
surrender to the basest motivations, indulge in the most heinous of crimes
a lá Godhra Massacres…and come out feeling that they have done their
sacred duty. Motivation has metamorphosed into machination and
manipulation. This is the essence of Machiavellianism.

Fear is the key – as Alistair MacLean titled one of his books. Being the
opposite of love, fear begets hate…a useful tool for those who would incite
violence and bloodshed between men. Hate is taught, rationalized, and
organized into group action. Who benefits? Certainly not the common man.
But in an age when politics has become a no-holds-barred war-game for the
top of the pyramid, all tactics are admissible.
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Thus politics and war have much in common. Money drives both.
Everyone breaks the rules…but only the victors get to erase their misdeeds
ere history is re-written. They are the good guys, with the losers always
ending up as the bad guys. After the courts exonerated Jayalalitha of the
multiple cases registered against her (does anyone remember?), she turned
upon her opponents and savaged them while the world looked on
helplessly. One can get away with murder, if one is willing to discount a few
people like Shibu Soren who were careless and got caught.

Where is Shibu today? Sitting pretty, is he? See, it’s just as we told you.
All you need are money or influence (which, in India, are synonymous, for
all practical purposes) to go scot free. The IPL imbroglio claimed an
amateurish Shashi Tharoor as a victim; he’s a too cerebral a guy to try and
dip his paws in the cesspool formed by the nexus between vulgar tamasha,
er…sorry…organized sport, politics and money. Good thing he’s decided to
take a breather and go off and get married to his attractive friend Sunanda
Pushkar. Spoilt brat Manu Sharma would have been roistering even today
had he not become so over-confident as to let his antics be captured by a
newsman’s lens.

The Nazis are still being bashed by Hollywood, 65 years after World
War II ended. And we have Gujarat, our very own 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom,
and Nandigram to live down. But will it be chronicled the way it actually
happened? Or will the facts be culled from the history books? We know
what’s going to happen, don’t we? I wonder how many more such events
await us in the future.

The Eastern Command has yet to give a satisfactory explanation for


the destruction of all the records immediately following the end of the 1971
operations in Bangladesh. After forty years, is a post mortem of any use?
And who really won, in the light of the proxy war that Pakistan has stepped
up over the years, against India? Only vultures win wars; everyone else
loses, including History.

 Subroto Mukerji 