I've had the occasion lately to think about what liberty means. The word famously appears in the Declaration of Independence, "that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." The word Liberty is like a religious incantation to the Right; the Left seems only to utter the word denying whatever position Conservatives take. Conservatives seem to take the position that Liberty is men entirely unrestrained from doing whatever they like, as long as it can be called capitalism as defined by capitalists. The Left says you can't have Liberty but by government restraining men from doing what they like, as if the exercise of governmental authority couldn't possibly be anything but noble.
Merriam-Webster calls liberty, "the quality or state of being free." I like Wikipedia's definition, "A contested moral and political principle that seeks to identify the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves." We want to do what we want to do; we want others not to do what we don't want them to do. We actually agree about more things than we think, we just don't see it because we are too busy arguing ideology. It could be argued in fact, that in the period from 1973 (the year I was born) to the present, America was among the most free societies in the world. Sadly, government in that time grew ever larger, with ever increasing power, and the last thirty years at least, the economy has been draining the wealth of the majority, funneling it upward, while generating unsustainable debt. Many Americans have less liberty as a result.
I've had the occasion to think about this, because I am nominally employed. I've done little work for money the last two months, spending my mornings writing and editing, and most of the rest of the day, dancing and reading. Dancing in part because my furnace doesn't really work, turning on randomly, only a few times a day. I need to stay warm; it's rarely more than 60 degrees in here, often 45-55. Most of the house is closed off except one room, where I write, dance and sleep. Even if the furnace worked properly, it would never shut off, because this house built in 1918 is so grossly inefficient, thermodynamically speaking. I moderate the heat in this one room with an oil filled radiator. It is currently 58, about 40-45 elsewhere in the house. If I had to survive the rest of the winter on the food I have in the house, I would surely starve to death. I'm down to about $3000. If I cease to pay any of the utilities, the city will condemn the house within seven days.
I'm not complaining. I get by quite well. This time in winter in Minnesota, I'm content to hang out in the house and contemplate life. It would be nice if the house were better insulated, with less windows everywhere but on the south side, with an attached greenhouse where I could grow food, with a functional kitchen with a well stocked basement cellar. From my vantage point, Liberty looks like clean air, clean water, clean soil, good food, clothing, companionship, a modest, clean, warm house, and the freedom to travel. Everyone alive should have that, actually. We might have achieved it by now, if we'd set about it 40 years ago. Instead, for almost the entirety of my life, America has been living the trajectory of Empire, every man more or less for himself. With less liberty for most of us, on the horizon.
We sense that our Liberty is imperiled, hence the rise of the Tea Party and the OWS movement, though we are confused about what would improve our chances. There are a lot more people in America with little else to do but contemplate their lives, which most people would rather not do. Many of those who are working are exhausted. Everywhere I go, people seem tired, even somewhat sleepy, or rather, leveled. I suppose because just about everybody is on some pill or another, or several. With alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and sugar, we manage.
I'm fond of alcohol and caffeine. I have not taken any pharmaceutical substance in about three years. I haven't taken any pharmaceutical other than Ibuprofen the last fifteen years, except the time I took antibiotics to kill the lymes virus I was carrying. I don't begrudge anyone taking any pill. How aghast would anyone be, if I said they couldn't? Though I do think we take a great many pills in America because the idea of it makes us feel better.
I do like to smoke Cannabis. I am quite fond of it, actually. The curious thing is, because I consume the flower of this plant, I can go to jail. Not only can I be put in a cage, everything I own can be confiscated from me. If I'm declared a felon, I can't vote, even after I've served my term. I can't vote, but I can be taxed, which is taxation without representation, which is unconstitutional, but the law in America depends mostly on who and where you are. They drug test for people like me, too. The trend is, if you get caught, you won't get that job and it may be hard to get another. Or you may not get those benefits, or those services you've been paying taxes for.
Have I mentioned before, that Cannabis is the most useful plant on the planet, without question? Yes I have. Why is the most useful plant on the planet illegal? Ponder that, the next time you pop a pill. No one has ever been known to die from the consumption of Cannabis. People die everyday taking pills. The government raids cannabis growers; when was the last time the government raided a pharmaceutical company? Some companies have made pharmaceuticals seem like a license to kill. Sell cannabis, and you can be legally ruined.
This isn't anything but one segment of the population at liberty to prey upon another. Predators of certain kinds - a certain fellow running for President comes to mind - are welcome, even elevated, like a cultural prize. Some species prey upon their own in times of great stress. Only Homo sapien sapien has elevated it to an economic or moral ideal. How is it that those most at liberty with the word Liberty have so little to say about some of our species preying economically on their own?
Liberty is whatever the culture says it is. It used to be a liberty to pour whatever you wanted into rivers. We have some limits on that now, though these tend to be rather arbitrary, and our rivers can't be described as clean, most of them. If access to clean water is a fundamental liberty, then mine is considerably limited. There are many on this earth who do not have much liberty at all in that regard. It seems very much that the culture, in an attempt to fulfill the mythology of endless growth, is going to put increasing limits on my liberty to drink fresh water and breath clean air, in an attempt to expand liberty for traditional capitalists, ostensibly to improve the economy by exploiting the biosphere. By traditional capitalist, I mean those practicing the dominator model, who turn exploitation into a virtue, who see the world as mute, dumb nature to be transformed into money and garbage, who have no concept of their place in any greater ecological whole.
I am not against the right of anyone to profit from his or her labor and ingenuity. But Capitalism has to change. Capitalism as it stands is insatiable. It cannot have enough, at any cost. If the Market is God, as some assert, then God is a fool. How else to explain the seas of homes in the colder climates of this country, that are fundamentally useless without affordable fossil fuels? They are still building them, while many sit empty! The market is not God, but the collective and mundane actions of a people who want to behave as if there are no limits to growth, as if we have no responsibility to the Earth. We consider it a fundamental liberty in America to consume without regard for limits, in economics, ecology or energy. The Capitalism we have today will devour ecology and energy to feed the economy until everything is exhausted, and the culture is left with a vast infrastructure that is useless, in a world utterly transformed and ecologically damaged, that cannot support most of us.
We have elevated self-interest at the cost of everything. Self-interest, like money, seems to have no limit. Such a way cannot lead anywhere for the culture but to collapse. No one lives independent of his or her environment. We are all part of the biosphere. Which goes back to that definition of Liberty as the measure of a people's ability to govern themselves.
What does it mean for us to govern ourselves? Self-interest is not wanting to be told how to live my life. Self-interest is me deciding my own fate. Self-interest is me fulfilling the Art that is my life. Self-interest void of concern for others, or community, or the biosphere on which every cell depends, is as hollow as an economy ignorant of its relationship to ecology and energy, and equally doomed. A people cannot rule themselves ignorant of the economy, ecology and energy, and their relationship to each. Conversely, a self-sustaining people are not easily ruled.
The Right makes a big deal about American ingenuity and liberty, but the Right will not allow American ingenuity to experiment with hemp, as example. Industrial hemp would go a long way in making Americans a self-sustaining people, but hemp would displace much GMO mono-crop corn, and industrial corn makes people ill, and an ill people are easier to control. A people dependent on pharmaceuticals to moderate their illnesses are less likely to question the ways in which Liberty is denied by the culture that provides those drugs. A people who accept the dominant mythologies of the culture have less incentive to ponder liberty. Immersion in the mainstream, no matter how tyrannous, feels like liberty. Which is why information is so important. A truly free person takes in all available information, and makes his or her own decisions. A truly free person rules him or herself, in relation to the world around, leaving ignorance masquerading as authority for the empty, shallow thing that it is. A free person ruling him or herself, with a firm grasp of economy, ecology and energy, living in a community of such people, is a happy person indeed.
It was about fifty degrees in here when I woke up this morning. It's below 0 outside, and will likely remain so all day. I could see my breath in the kitchen when I went to make coffee. Liberty too, is a state of mind. We do what we can, with what we have.