In our capitalistic societies, is freedom largely illusory?
The year 2020 ended on a gloomy note. Among much disheartening news that we came across, some raised questions about “us” as a society. While many were expecting a “happy” 2021, one young government official and a student of Dhaka University committed suicide. Though these two incidents received media coverage, globally, one person commits suicide every 40 seconds.
We may never know the actual causes that instigate people to end their lives, but undoubtedly for some of us, it appears easier to cease living rather than suffering from existing circumstances. The widespread depression and unhappiness among people that leads to fatalistic attitudes and suicide are not individual issues; instead, we must search and analyze the pathologies of the society.
Is our society the root of social pathologies?
In the contemporary world, we have reached extraordinary technological advancement along with “civilized” forms of social regulations. Concepts of aesthetics, beauty, cleanliness, order, etc guide our conduct, prescribing when, where, and how to regulate ourselves. We are subjected to astronomical regularities.
The society -- invention of social regulations -- assumes that we are a group of individuals having reasoning power. Nonetheless, we are guided by “the common good.” Our lives, minds, and labour are not under our own control, but rather that of the “collective and coercive” power of the state, society, family, or other forms of institutional authority -- the so-called gifts of our civilization control us.
More so, the categorization of people in different economic, social, and religious groupings blurs our individual reasoning to be guided by the supreme forces that are in turn moulded by societies’ civilizational achievements, so to speak.
This subjection of us to larger forces takes a toll on us, leading to neuroses, as Freudian psychoanalysts would claim. Social systems make it difficult or impossible to satisfy our diverse needs at once, thus creating both individual psychological and wider societal conflicts. One symptom of the current perils is the soaring suicide rate and the contexts that led to such callous results.
A 2020 research, based on published news content of four Bangla online news portals between November 1, 2018, and October 31, 2019, claimed the major reasons of 199 [reported] suicides in Bangladesh were broadly related with problems in conjugal and familial relationships, financial constraints, social/physical/sexual violence, psychiatric and physical illness, and not achieving socially desired goals.
From these causes of suicides, it becomes clear that society’s “ideals” in terms of familial or marital relations and material achievements instigate suicides. There are two dimensions: Firstly, social regulations that are supposed to maintain harmony within society become unbearable for some.
Secondly, despite tremendous material growth in the world, certain segments are forced to kill themselves, not being able to fulfil their desired material needs.
It is thus understandable that at present, certain aspects/products mean so much to us that some of us end our lives for not being able to access them -- this indicates the power of certain lifestyles that dominate our psyche.
Consequently, we stay unhappy about our appearance, relationships, homes, food, social relations, personal/professional achievements, etc. Ideals about the “good” force and channel us towards a goal that many of us struggle to achieve. The social regulations that have the pretense of greater social benefits are the major causes of our psychic sufferings.
A capitalist fraud?
Philosopher Erich Fromm in The Sane Society argued that our contemporary society as a whole is “sick.” To this characterization of the society, Fromm indicated that even after gaining technological development and increased productive capacity, our society cannot ensure that every person adequately satisfies the basic needs.
For instance, our food production ability has increased, but we still have hungry people in the world. WFP estimated that globally, as many as 2 billion people did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food in 2019. A “capitalistic” society above all emphasizes economic production and efficiency, and does not really consider our basic needs and abilities. This argument resonates with the criticism of capitalist society that it monopolizes wealth to a certain segment, depriving the rest.
Another feature of our contemporary society: We are full of the impersonal giants of enterprise and with the faceless mass of consumers. Consumers’ tastes, preferences, and opinions are manipulated in a “capitalist society” that suppresses humans’ true nature and produces the “economic individual,” whose nature is asocial and competitive.
As such, one can claim in line with Herbert Marcuse’s argument in the One-Dimensional Man that the current society is actually totalitarian, though the elites claim to be democratic. In modern consumer societies, Marcuse argued, a small number of corporations control our perceptions of freedom. We live under the illusion that we can buy our happiness. We rather live in a state of “unfreedom.” As consumers, we act irrationally and work more than we must so that we can fulfil “artificially created needs.” We ignore the psychological and environmental damage we are causing in this process.
For instance, whenever we visit any retail store, we always find a section of products on “sale” as well as a section of “new arrivals,” which means that fashion changes fast, and to increase the selling rate, prices need to be as low as possible compared to competing brands. This fast and low cost “value” fashion has tremendous consequences for the production end of the supply chain.
However, we are so invested in representing ourselves like the iconic figures (that we see every day on social media, television, newspapers, etc), we tend to overlook the exploitation that our consumption practices entail.
The irrationality of our society is eminent; as we create new products, we also call for the disposal of old products.
Though this has been fuelling the economy, we ironically need to work more to buy our new “demands.” As such, we have become a tool and cog in the capitalist-consumerist machine.
For instance: We travel, eat, or buy new products, all being consumed through the lens of a camera. We flood social media with check-in posts.
We do not even enjoy live concerts; rather, everyone stays busy recording with mobile phones and posting videos online, marking a footprint of presence.
As such, we ensure competition, “jealousy,” and further instantaneous consumption.
Modern capitalist societies’ “affluence” and increasing “comfort” have disguised the exploitative nature of the system, and thus, strengthened means of domination and control. Modern “affluent society” therefore, limits opportunities for political revolution against capitalism.
Building a sane society
As per Erich Fromm, in a sane society, mentally healthy human beings will have the freedom and ability to use reason in grasping reality objectively. To this end, a possible “cure” is “Communitarian Socialism,” -- state control of industries, redistribution of wealth, and imposition of radical moral viewpoints onto all in a particular society. However, in such a society, model individuals would still remain subjected to arbitrary coercions in the name of collective best interest. We would rather need a more decentralized system.
Nonetheless, freedom in modern “capitalistic” society is largely illusory: We are conditioned to believe that we are free to direct our lives, but in reality, we are trapped by economic imperatives. Freedom in the truest sense can only be achieved when we can disengage economic imperatives as the prime motive of our social lives.
A capitalistic worldview makes us think that we can help the economy through increased expenditure -- as often economists and governments emphasize on increasing the purchasing power.
However, we do not realize that if we produce-distribute-consume devoid of the circuit of capitalism, we can limit the frenzy of capitalism, and hence reduce inequalities and the possibilities of future socio-economic catastrophes.
If we want to build a society free of the existing inequalities, we can take a lead from the egalitarian experiments that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to adopt.
Many people have experimented with alternative systems of resource distribution: Free supply of basic foods to the poorer groups through volunteers; many have facilitated a process through which agricultural products reached from the farmers to the consumers devoid of any intermediaries; different platforms provided free medical consultation via digital mediums, and so on.
We should all join in to continue this form of solidarity so that everybody has a decent supply of basic human needs once the Covid-19 pandemic finally passes over. This expectation is not utopian.
These are signs of a new “sane” society -- probably, therefore, capitalists have been anxious to only reset to the usual, into the capitalist circuits of profit-making.
For this transformation towards a post-capitalist/post-inequality “sane” society, we must take back the economy. JK Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy have suggested that we should start by transforming the communities, the world, and above all, ourselves.
We must realize that we can consume less or differently to limit inequalities. Prior to the heightened inequalities of capitalism, as humans we worked, cared for each other, and participated in economic and social organizations in diverse capacities. We must take back the social space where we interact.
We must foster alternatives to counter the consumer lifestyle -- leave behind unnecessary consumption, work, ideals, etc and stop treating ourselves or every need of ours as only commodities.
A sane society will enable us to reach our human potential -- no one will live in depression, no one will die or suffer because of deprivation, and none will attempt to inflict premature death onto themselves.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.