Rediscovering the collective dimension of freedom

March 20, 2023

It is safe to say that economic growth and consumer freedom of choice should be drastically reduced. Considering the increasing effects of climate change on socio-economic stability, our consumption behaviour is no longer sustainable. Both the European Union and local governments are taking action to combat ecological and socio-economic challenges, trying to preserve collective ideals of freedom and equality. As a result, markets and industries are being regulated more and more, and individual freedom is contained. This tension between the containment of individual freedom and the preservation of collective ideals causes polarization, political distrust, and social unrest. However, our libertarian interpretation of freedom is out of touch with the collective dimensions of the concept.

Since the ‘60s, our idea of freedom has become radically individualized. Left-wing intellectual thinkers such as Marcuse and Foucault spoke about the need to free the individual from oppressive structures and institutions. Sexual needs had to be emancipated and expression of free will evolved into the ideal of authenticity. Subsequently, the revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s transitioned almost seamlessly into the neoliberal revolution, away from the welfare state that had captivated society, economy, and politics for decades. Leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and thinkers like Milton Friedman could draw on the left intellectual movement of the ‘60s and took concepts such as emancipation and equality and incorporated them in a neoliberal definition of freedom. As Thatcher famously said: “there is no such thing as society”. Governments interfere very little, the market can trade freely, and individuals are free to choose whatever they think is best for them. This idea of freedom is very visible in society nowadays. At school, you are taught to fully exploit personal talents. On Instagram, our profile shows the world what an amazing life we have. You can independently choose what to study, who to love, and where to work. Of course, this is not what Marcuse or Foucault had in mind, but that isn’t the point. This neoliberal definition of freedom is fully designed to isolate the individual and its freedoms from its collective environment. It is not equipped to abide by constraints being enforced by public institutions that try to preserve collective ideals.

There is, however, also a classical meaning to individual freedom that tends to be overlooked. We do not have to revive the antisocial ideas of Foucault but can also find inspiration in the classic political philosophy of liberalism. Founding fathers John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith put individual freedom at the centre of the political economic landscape, but always in the context of a larger group of people. The principles of the liberal economy are based on Mill’s utilitarianism: maximizing happiness for the greatest number. According to Mill, the accountability a person has to society applies to those actions that affect others in the long run. Adam Smith saw the need for self-interest to make markets flourish, but he also stressed the importance of treating others well to make society work. Over the years, the ideas of both philosophers have been stripped of their moral and humane context, only to serve as a purely rational justification of individual economic growth accompanied by little sense of responsibilities. Thus, to bring back collective ideals into the individualistic interpretation, we could take inspiration from the classical liberal interpretation of freedom: the individual as part of society. This could make individual freedom the collective ideal it was designed to be.

Burning questions:
  • Is there place for collective freedom in this individualized political economic landscape, or should we shift away from the current landscape?
  • How can individuals be inspired to think more in terms of collective ideals?
  • What elements of individual freedom have become absolute, and should not be rectified?

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Vivian Elion is an Advisor for Regional Approach at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this role, she supports provinces, municipalities and entrepreneurs in adopting national sustainability policies concerning construction, the environment, and society. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in sustainability tensions. During her tenure at FreedomLab, she developed the Deep Transitions Framework into business services.

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