They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent. What you represent to them is freedom. That’s what it’s all about all right, but talking about it and being it: that’s two different things. It’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free because then they’re going to get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are. They’re going to talk to you about individual freedom, but when they see a free individual, it’s going to scare them. It makes them dangerous.

– A lawyer’s words of wisdom to his hippy friends in Easy Rider (1969)

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Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s surrealistic documentary film The Act of Killing follows a group of aging Indonesian gangsters who define their creed as the desire to be “free men.” They explain to the director that “free man” is indeed synonymous with “gangster”. The other notable thing about these men, aside from their freedom, is that forty years earlier, in 1965-66, they killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in their government’s war against communism. Because this elimination of communism was fomented, assisted and approved of by United States government, the genocide of one million people was never condemned, prosecuted or commemorated by the “international community” and its media organizations, although it does occasionally get a mention as an “outbreak of mass violence” and other such euphemisms.[1] By the early 21st century, the Suharto regime in Indonesia was gone, but the killers were still in positions of power, thus there was no movement within Indonesia to make the nation face up to its past. Joshua Oppenheimer expressed how about how he felt while making his film: “… it’s as though I am in Nazi Germany 40 years after the end of the Holocaust, and it’s still the Third Reich, the Nazis are still in power.”[2] He might also have said that it was just like living in North America while the people who “settled the continent” and fought communism in Asia were still in power and proud of everything that “had to be done to win the cold war”.

The genocidaires portrayed in the film were intelligent and sophisticated in a banality-of-evil sort of way. They read the newspapers and knew about the war in Iraq and the UN tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Their desire to be free men was completely ordinary and understandable, yet forty years after the murders they still justified the killing of communists as a necessary defense of their freedom—in their case the freedom to corner the local business in scalping movie tickets or shaking down Chinese merchants for protection money—which they are shown to still be doing in the present day.

The American and French revolutions, with their exaltation of freedom and liberté established the forms of liberal democracy that rule the world, yet still the masses of people living under and upholding this system fail to see the deep contradictions of freedom revealed by the genocidaires’ commitment to being free men.

One has to go back to a time before the neoliberal order became entrenched, to Easy Rider in the 1960s or to philosophers like Karl Polanyi in the 1940s, to hear nuanced discussions about the contradictions inherent in any economic system dedicated to freedom. David Harvey summarized Polyani’s thoughts about freedom in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

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In a complex society, [Polanyi] pointed out, the meaning of freedom becomes as contradictory and as fraught as its incitements to action are compelling. There are, he noted, two kinds of freedom, one good and the other bad. Among the latter he listed “the freedom to exploit one’s fellows, or the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensurate service to the community, the freedom to keep technological inventions from being used for public benefit, or the freedom to profit from public calamities secretly engineered for private advantage.” But, Polanyi continued, “the market economy under which these freedoms throve also produced freedoms we prize highly. Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one’s own job.” While we may cherish these freedoms for their own sake,—and, surely, many of us still do—they were to a large extent “by-products of the same economy that was also responsible for the evil freedoms.” Polanyi’s answer to this duality makes strange reading given the current hegemony of neoliberal thinking:

The passing of [the] market economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom. Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all. Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.

Unfortunately, Polanyi noted, the passage to such a future is blocked by the “moral obstacle” of liberal utopianism (and more than once he cites Hayek as an exemplar of that tradition):

Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be essentials of freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery. [3]

The idea of freedom “thus degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise,” which means “the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property.” But if, as is always the case, “no society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function,” then the only way this liberal utopian vision could be sustained is by force, violence, and authoritarianism. Liberal or neoliberal utopianism is doomed, in Polanyi’s view, to be frustrated by authoritarianism, or even outright fascism. The good freedoms are lost, the bad ones take over.

Polanyi’s diagnosis appears peculiarly appropriate to our contemporary condition. It provides a powerful vantage point from which to understand what President Bush intends when he asserts that “as the greatest power on earth we [the US] have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.” It helps explain why neoliberalism has turned so authoritarian, forceful, and anti-democratic at the very moment when “humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to offer freedom’s triumph over all its age-old foes.”[4] It makes us focus on how so many corporations have profiteered from withholding the benefits of their technologies (such as AIDS drugs) from the public sphere, as well as from the calamities of war (as in the case of Halliburton), famine, and environmental disaster. It raises the worry as to whether or not many of these calamities or near calamities (arms races and the need to confront both real and imagined enemies) have been secretly engineered for corporate advantage. And it makes it all too clear why those of wealth and power so avidly support certain conceptions of rights and freedoms while seeking to persuade us of their universality and goodness. Thirty years of neoliberal freedoms have, after all, not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and even retailing (for example Wal-Mart). The freedom of the market that Bush proclaims as the high point of human aspiration turns out to be nothing more than the convenient means to spread corporate monopoly power and Coca Cola everywhere without constraint. With disproportionate influence over the media and the political process, this class (with Rupert Murdoch and Fox News in the lead) has both the incentive and the power to persuade us that we are all better off under a neoliberal regime of freedoms. For the elite, living comfortably in their gilded ghettos, the world must indeed seem a better place. As Polanyi might have put it, neoliberalism confers rights and freedoms on those “whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing,” leaving a pittance for the rest of us. How is it, then, that “the rest of us” have so easily acquiesced in this state of affairs?[5]

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The problem of getting free becomes even more complex when one realizes just how deeply the economic order has penetrated all aspects of culture and private life. We live in a world where dating apps like Match Group (owner of Tinder) have market values of $4.8 billion,[6] and these apps are just the continuation of changes that started with the rise of modern capitalism in the 19th century. Romantic love and marriage have been commodified to a degree that most people would prefer to ignore. The radio platform France Culture interviewed anthropologist Francois de Smet about his book Eros Capital,[7] and posted this summary of the conversation on its website:

Sex for resources: what if this demonized exchange, stigmatized and thought to involve only prostitutes and sugar babies, was in reality the foundation of all romantic relationships? This is the essence of the theory of econo-sexual exchange, a theory which states that with the rise of bourgeois marriage there was only a difference in amplitude but not in the nature of relations.

Today, emotions exist in the marketplace, sustained by the dominant cultural model that has capitalized on the nature of Homo computantis, a species that never fails to exploit its own kind. The Internet completed this process of marketization by turning us all into actors in a permanent market, at the heart of which the individual evolves as both customer and product. Money and intimacy are fundamentally linked, but we are perpetually invited to pretend that this is not the case. Our era is now characterized by a giant denial of human nature and of the venal aspects of love. This denial requires two apparently contradictory attitudes: the denigration of prostitution and the elevation of love as the ultimate religion.

Why did love never stop being a commodity? Eros and capital go together. The philosopher Francois de Smet discusses his recent book, Eros Capital: The Laws of the Market for Love. According to de Smet, if love is an ideal, it has also become one of the cornerstones of capitalism. How could it be free of the laws of the market?

We cannot discriminate in most domains, but we can discriminate in love. This is expressed sometimes as “sexual liberty.” Love is not as pure as we would like to believe, and to gain emancipation and equality, we rely more on our genetic heritage than our cultural heritage. In the end, love is a disguised econo-sexual exchange, rarely recognized as such, with its winners and losers. We’ve hypostatized the notion of love, enshrined it in our culture and turned it into a place of refuge. To get out of this deceptive situation, we have to recognize this reality, face our human nature and adapt our culture into new ways of living together.[8]

In the interview, de Smet stressed that sexual liberty became a double-edged sword. With the rise of industrialization and urbanization, young people were able to leave their villages, go to the big city, and attempt to rise in social status through marriage. Traditionally, their marriage options had been limited to a few eligible locals, and decisions were controlled by relatives and religious customs.

In the new freedom of the city, men had to gain wealth and status in order to make themselves appealing to women while women were much more able to, but also confined to, trading on their genetic endowment. In this market, individuals were free to make their choices with extreme prejudice. No one wants, and no one should want, affirmative action policies enforced in the personal sphere of life, but one can’t deny that millions of similar private choices have political consequences. In recent decades women have attained more in education and professions and thus can also leverage these qualities in searching for a mate. Overall, the move to the city became like a trip to a casino in which a great game of life is played out during one’s prime. The evolution of marriage into this econo-sexual exchange has turned marriage into the means by which class divisions expand and solidify through assortative mating. Even though powerful romantic feelings and commitments may be sincere and may be what is consciously experienced, the cold calculations and economic advantages involved are present and may be suppressed or denied.[9]

The normalization of this reality penetrates all facets of culture. Just consider the classic 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail for how it portrayed the mating market when society was turning from the dating the old way, through the real-world physical presence of the other, to dating the new way, through textual exchange in the physical absence of the other. The female protagonist has decided to look for love through email chatrooms during a time of her life when her economic survival is at stake. Her small bookstore is threatened by the construction of a mega-bookstore in her neighborhood. The owner of the mega-bookstore chain becomes her nemesis in real-world encounters, but unknown to both of them is the fact that they have anonymously become attracted to each other through email exchanges in which they have used pseudonyms. When they finally find the courage to meet in person, the heroine’s face registers angry tears, but she quickly overcomes her contradictory feelings and surrenders by declaring “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.” Did her love arise from the ethereal textual exchanges about their philosophies of life, or from their mutual physical, adversarial presence—from voice, mannerisms, and gestures, as well as from observations of how the other interacted in society, and, most significantly, who they were in the social hierarchy? I thought at the time I first saw the film it would be interesting to change the setting to occupied Paris in 1942 and have the heroine exchanging anonymous letters with a Nazi officer. The final, “freely-given” submission to the powerful male in the social hierarchy would be no different. The final irony of the story, clear in hindsight twenty years later, is that we know the mega-bookstores soon came under siege from Amazon and had to close branches just like the small stores they had displaced.

All of this raises intriguing questions about what we want when we say we want to be free. Referring back to Polyani’s writing: could the passing of market economy become “the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom”? How would our most private and personal decisions be affected by the elimination of economic insecurity and anxiety about social climbing—if  freedom were not “an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but [were rather] a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself”?

Notes

[1] Peter Dale Scott, “Still Uninvestigated After 50 Years: Did the U.S. Help Incite the 1965 Indonesia Massacre?Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 31, No. 2, August 3, 2015.

[2]’The Act of Killing’: New Film Shows U.S.-Backed Indonesian Death Squad Leaders Re-enacting Massacres,” Democracy Now, July 19, 2013.

[3] Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press Second Edition, 2001, first published in 1944).

[4] GW Bush, “Securing Freedom’s Triumph,” New York Times, September 11, 2002.

[5] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), 36-38.

[6] Steve Bertoni, “Tinder Hits $3 Billion Valuation After Match Group Converts Options,” Forbes, August 31, 2017.

[7] François de Smet, Eros Capital: Les Lois du Marché Amoureux (Eros Capital: The Laws of the Market for Love) (Flammarion, 2019).

[8]Pourquoi l’amour n’a-t-il jamais cessé d’être un marché? (Why did love never cease to be a market?)” France Culture, February 1, 2019.

[9] Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui, “Equality in Marriages Grows, and So Does Class Divide,” New York Times, February 27, 2016.