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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Between being free and being alive

In a capitalistic society, is personal freedom nothing more than a myth?

Update : 22 Mar 2021, 07:37 AM

The recent fiasco regarding Aarong has given birth to a lot of conversations. From a broader perspective, these conversations can be divided into two groups.

One is critical of the decision, condemning the fact that a corporation like Aarong can have so much influence on the lives of its employees. The other is much more supportive, with people who acknowledge this decision as a necessary evil to people who are lamenting the fact that a “poor” old business like Aarong is being barred from being able to exercise its freedom.

While these camps can be further broken down into smaller groups -- people who are alleging that Aarong is a part of the “islamophobe” establishment, something that can become its own article -- these two categories should suffice. 

And when examined closer, these two umbrella terms can be distilled down into two abstract categories -- support for freedom of the individual and support for freedom of the corporation. And while this debate sounds simple enough, trust me, it is anything but.

First off, let’s discuss the relationship between corporations and private citizens in a capitalist society. Aarong and other similar corporations function inside a free enterprise, an economic system that is supposed to offer the maximum amount of freedom to all of its participants. It ensures that this is the case by offering a system where both people and corporations interact on a voluntary basis.

If that did not happen, the invisible hand of the market would come swooping down like Superman, correct any of the incongruities that have arisen in the market, and save the day. So, everything’s good and safe, right?

Problem is, these are things that are supposed to happen in theory. What this theory fails to account for is the fact that in real life, there exists an imbalance of power between the different players of society.

Regarding our example, corporations like the one in question are much more powerful than any private citizen that it may have wronged. And while there are supposed to be checks and balances in the form of the buying power of customers, boycotts, and such, in reality, it still doesn’t correct the undue levels of power certain corporations have.

To illustrate, let’s look at the people who are supporting the organization's decision. They would argue that they are only mandating that their employees wear a uniform and, since that is a commonplace affair, this is something that should continue. 

But is the mandatory nature of uniforms something that the players in society have discussed and agreed upon, or is it something else?

Is it not a pervasive invasion of an employee’s private life that has been normalized through centuries of norms? And even then, isn’t it something that has become the norm because people with power over our very lives (because if we don’t get paid, we starve to death) have compelled us to do? 

When it is a choice between securing the basic necessities that are fundamental to maintaining our life and exercising our will in order to lead the life we want to, how many people would choose the former?

And as such, we have arrived in this unfortunate situation. The organization will probably post a phony apology and keep doing what it has been doing. 

Regular people will make a fuss about it, but they will soon forget. And those who apply for these jobs -- people from the lower classes -- would soon have to shut up about it, as it is a choice between being free and being alive. 

And most of us would have done the same. And that works as a good introduction to the myth of freedom in a capitalistic society. When capitalism is criticized in any way, or a more refined and humane replacement is suggested, most people would jump up from their seats and lament the loss of freedom that the new system would result in.

And that is true, to an extent. There are certain freedoms we enjoy under capitalism that would have to be curtailed under other forms of governance. But is that really bad? 

I mean, sure, you don’t get to show off how filthy rich you are. But aside from that, what are the other downsides? 

You can decry the loss of freedom of expression, but one thing that everyone should remember is that freedom is not absolute. It never has been. From corporations dictating how we behave, to governments limiting our ability to accumulate massive amounts of wealth: Absolute freedom has never existed.

And in that ecosystem, I would rather have some semblance of a personal life than the ability to show off without reason. The same goes for enterprises.

While capitalism has people believing that anyone can do anything, the truth is that the connections and financial status necessary to do so is only afforded to the richest of beings.

Take Amazon for example. Bezos came from an affluent, suburban family, and he received half a million dollars in today’s money from his parents when he started his venture. 

With a start like that, how are we even supposed to compete? Isn’t it better to make changes to the system so that it fixes the flaws of the free market, or is it better to hold on to a capitalist sense of freedom and let everything else go to waste? 

Of course, this is a broad topic. In fact, better people have written entire books on this. But given the current circumstances, I think this is a conversation we must have. 

I think it is high time we discuss the freedom we want, versus the freedom we have. If not, well, bears aren’t the only thing we are going to lose.

Nafis Shahriar is a student of business and a member of the Dhaka Tribune op-ed team.

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