Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Futility of Liberty

The question of liberty in the modern world is a sensitive one because the answer is taken for granted. If one asks people in the West whether they are “free”, an overwhelming majority would instinctively answer in the affirmative.

But being convinced that one is free, however this term is defined, is of little importance if not accompanied by a clear consciousness of, and a constant appreciation for that freedom.

If liberty is to have any chance of striving in a constitutional democracy, there must exist what George Santayana called an “instinct” of democracy in the people; that instinct which “assumes that, unless all those concerned keep a vigilant eye on the course of public business and frequently pronounce on its conduct, they will before long awake to the fact that they have been ignored and enslaved.”[1] The representative political system can only function if the people exercises, in the words of Benjamin Constant, “an active and constant surveillance of their representatives, and reserve the right, at not too infrequent intervals, to remove from power those who have failed to honour their promises and to revoke the powers of those who have abused them.”[2]

In some ways, it has become easier today for the people to exercise such democratic surveillance than in the days of this French thinker. The dramatic improvements in communication technologies, for instance, has greatly empowered the individual by providing him with unprecedented information about the misdeeds of his representatives. But there are also reasons why it has arguably become more challenging and also more urgent than in past times for the people to keep a vigilant eye on its elected representatives. As has become particularly evident in the last few years, the military and surveillance powers of many modern States are now almost unlimited.[3]

It is clear that such political vigilance requires an attentive, interested and educated people. Yet, as Herbert Marcuse indicated, in the modern society the satisfaction of needs, real or perceived, tends to reduce the capacity and the necessity for independent and critical thought, and undermines the importance of previously cherished liberties.[4] Admirable constitutional rights and individual liberties have been established de jure in the "liberal democracies" of the West, after centuries of efforts.[5] The question is to what extent these rights and liberties are appreciated today and actually taken advantage of de facto, in a society that incites individuals to meekly fall in line. All States tend to indoctrinate in some form or another, but the development and use of sophisticated indoctrination arguably makes more sense in a democracy than in a dictatorship. As Edward Bernays wrote in “Propaganda,” his notorious work from 1928, since leaders in democratic societies “can no longer do what they want without the approval of the masses, they find in propaganda a tool which is increasingly powerful in gaining that approval.”[6] Noam Chomsky thus also noted that “propaganda has typically become more sophisticated as countries become more free and the state loses the ability to control the population by force.”[7]

Of course, “liberal democracies” can hardly be compared with totalitarian regimes because they are undoubtedly much freer and do present a face of tolerance. But where some States have bluntly used the threat of punishment or punishment itself to assure direct submission, others use much subtler means to indirectly ensure obedience. They take the necessary steps to ensure that the individual fits into society so that finally, like in Huxley’s Brave New World, there is a no need for punishment because there is no dissent. In this vein, Howard Zinn warned of the “dominant powers in society who prefer that knowledge be used only to maintain the status quo, to train young people to take their obedient places in the existing society rather than challenging the people in power.”[8]

It is never easy for an individual to question the society in which he lives, but in such a situation it is almost impossible since it becomes equivalent to questioning himself. Constant entertainment, mass consumerism and media bias hinder the development of critical, independent thought and assure adherence to the prevailing values. As Marcuse indicated, those are the key elements in diverting the individual’s attention away from the political decisions and institutional reality that actually should concern him the most.[9] Social controls, such as the general compulsory education system, which John Stuart Mill called a “mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”[10], as well as the biased and self-censuring mainstream media, help to ensure compliance.[11] The objective is to obtain the blind acceptance of the existing order and values of society.[12]

The success of this indoctrination in the “liberal democracies” of the West is ironically most clearly evident when the question of lack of tolerance is intolerantly dismissed. It is often deemed either shocking or humorous to merely express the idea that coercion and intolerance are basic attributes of these societies. This is the reason Marcuse suggested that independent intellectuals should make efforts so that society, naturally always geared against auto-criticism, does not succeed in silencing ideas that are generally disliked or avoided; i.e. those ideas that question the value-system of this society. Indeed, such doubts about the existing order of society would be validated if these ideas were successfully eliminated. Therefore, “the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.”[13] This consists in adopting an attitude of intolerance towards what Mill called the collective opinion, which the “tyranny of the majority” constantly imposes on the minority.[14]

However, modern “liberal democracies” often do the opposite: they show tolerance not so much towards this minority, but towards those who support these societies and simply take them for granted; that is, towards the majority that forms the social and cultural back-bone of these systems. This majority consists of citizens who conform to society and, as Rousseau said, fit into the mould that all minds seem to have been thrown into.[15] They are those who have the “correct” opinions, vote for the main political parties, acquire the latest material goods, frequent the “right” people, slavishly follow convention, are concerned about the “right” issues, and live the standard life of production and consumption that is expected of them.

To question the existing order of society means belonging to a minority; there could be no such order if questioned by the majority.[16] As Santayana said, “most men's conscience, habits, and opinions are borrowed from convention and gather continual comforting assurances from the same social consensus that originally suggested them.”[17] The most important reason for desiring freedom and tolerance in society is therefore first and foremost to make it possible for the heterodox views of the minority - not the orthodox views of the majority – to be heard. To these minority views often belong ideas that society needs the most but that the majority instinctively turns a blind eye to and tends to suppress.[18]

This minority typically has views that are discouraged, unappreciated and often dismissed without any attempt by the majority to understand them. The expression of new and uncommon ideas or simply the disclosure of relevant but inconvenient information is generally received with indifference, sometimes with incomprehension or even suspicion. As J. K. Galbraith wrote: “These are the days when men of all social disciplines and all political faiths seek the comfortable and the accepted; when the man of controversy is looked upon as a disturbing influence; when originality is taken to be a mark of instability”.[19] The majority automatically adopts and mechanically repeats what Galbraith coined as the “conventional wisdom”; that is, “the ideas that are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”[20]

There is thus a paradox inherent in the modern world: though the advent of the
"liberal democracy" was based on an unsatisfactory yet unprecedented degree of liberty, this society constantly tends to undermine it. The remarkable capability of modern society to direct thought and behaviour tends to render the concept of liberty irrelevant. Democracy is only a chimera and liberty is futile if men and women are content to only be socially-approved automatons.


[1] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, Chapter V: Democracy (1905 Edition).

[2] B. Constant, “De la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes”, speech from 1819.

[3] The revelations of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald come to mind, concerning the NSA, the GCHQ and several other intelligence agencies.

[4] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

[5] There are signs, however, that fundamental rights and liberties are being undermined as the following few examples show. In the USA, the recent and progressive erosion of civil liberties includes for example a loosening of the fundamental principles of habeas corpus and due process, and the acceptance of some forms of torture and pre-emptive arrest. The latest National Defense Authorization Act that now includes the possibility for indefinite military detention of US citizens without trial, also in the name of security (sections 1021 and 1022 of the NDAA for fiscal year 2012, signed by the US President Obama on Dec 31st 2011). 
It is also possible to mention the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ATCA) that has been negotiated by several countries, and that could potentially infringe upon the freedom of expression and communication privacy of internet users. Another example is the extension of the pre-charge detention time for “terror suspects” that has already taken place in the UK. In Sweden, the FRA-law allows the state to eavesdrop on all electronic information flow going in and out of this country. The way governments are reacting to the 2010 Wikileaks publications of confidential information is also indicative of the way liberties are being eroded. Also, it is well known that in several Western countries the expression of support for certain political views is illegal (such as Nazism or historical revisionism).

[6] E. Bernays, Propaganda, p54. IG Publishing, 2005.

[7] N. Chomsky, “Ossetia-Russia-Georgia”, 11 September 2008.

[8] H. Zinn, interview in Z Communications, 29 August 2008 (available on

[9] Moreover, in the decades that have past since the publication of One-Dimensional Man, these factors have developed and expanded to become significantly more pervasive and dominant in the life of the individual.

[10] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p68. In the same vein, H. L. Mencken also once said that the role for the education system was; “To make good citizens. And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps.” (see “H.L. Mencken at Full Throttle”, by Michael Dirda in his review of Mencken’s “Prejudices”, The Sunday Times, 29 November 2010).

[11] The lack of critical and independent media has only become more glaring as the long and slow decline of newspaper journalism has accelerated in the last few years, and as newspapers are closing in record numbers not only across the USA but across the whole Western world. See for instance, The Death and Life of American Journalism, by R. W. McChesney and J. Nichols.

[12] See for instance, N. Chomsky, Lecture at the Istanbul Conference on Freedom of Speech, 20 October 2010 (available on

[13] H. Marcuse, Repressive Tolerance (essay).

[14] J. S. Mill further warned that there is a need for “protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” (J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p8, Everyman’s Library, 1992)

[15] “ règne dans nos moeurs une vile et trompeuse uniformité, et tous les esprits semblent avoir été jetés dans un même moule: sans cesse la politesse exige, la bienséance ordonne: sans cesse on suit des usages, jamais son propre génie.” J-J Rousseau, Discours qui a remporté le Prix à l'Académie de Dijon : Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts  a contribué à épurer les moeurs.  (1750)

[16] As Murray Rothbard said, “all States are supported by   a majority—whether a voting democracy or not; otherwise, they  could not long continue to wield force against the determined  resistance of the majority.” (rothbard, Power and Market, p20, 4th Edition, von Mises Institute)

[17] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p171. For a detailed modern review of this phenomenon of human instinctive bias toward held beliefs, see for instance, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science”, Chris Mooney, 18 April 2011, Mother Jones.

[18] See, for instance, the famous essay by L. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (p1-2).

[19] J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society, p4. Penguin Books, 1999.

[20] J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society, Ch.2. Penguin Books, 1999.

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