Relative to what?
For whom?
By whom?

‘We’ – as in we, conscious human beings, live in the two tiered environment called – by us, ‘reality’.
I consider it to be ‘two tiered’ simply because it consists of a ‘natural’ layer and a man made one.

The ‘natural’, at least the part we inhabit – a relatively thin ‘skin’ surrounding the Earth, is the consequence of natural evolution. The elements have eroded the mountains, microorganisms have transformed sand into soil and ‘reconfigured’ the atmosphere, lions make sure that antelopes don’t graze the savannas back into deserts… and so on.
On top of that we’ve build a second, man made, layer. Roads, cities, churches… And, a lot more important, many strata of ‘understanding’. Collectively known as ‘culture’.

We live in a Nature which had been ‘civilized’ by ‘culture’.
Well, in fact it was us who have civilized Nature according to our culturally accrued understanding of things.

Freedom is a human concept.
Which belongs to culture, hence to one of the man-made layers which constitute the surrounding reality. The environment which hosts our lives.
Freedom, like many other components of the man made layer of reality, has two dimensions. One of a physical nature and one of a virtual nature.
Both dimensions exist only in our heads. Or, better said, exist only inasmuch as we’re aware of them. Inasmuch as we understand the concept.

For example, one aspect of the ‘physical’ liberty is our ability to move around.
Which liberty is ‘relative’ to gravity, for all those who are fit enough to exercise it and is made possible by the hardness of the Earth’s surface.
To make the example clearer, just imagine what happens to somebody caught in a pool of quicksand. Or in a pit full of molten tar.

The ‘cultural’ side of freedom has to do with the social relations which exist in a given extended community.
Hence its ‘virtual’ nature, since there is nothing ‘physical’ to determine its extent or ‘intensity’/quality. Prisons and shackles do not qualify here since they are used by some people to restrict the freedom of other people, they do not occur in nature.

Cultural freedom of one individual is relative to what the rest of the society has to say about it.
Is for whom the society considers fit to extend it to them.
And is by the same set of rules and customs which keeps that extended community together.

Like all things cultural, freedom has history. What we, collectively remember about its development in time.

At first glance, it would seem impossible to gouge what individual liberty meant 100 000 years ago, right?
Indeed, only some people still live, today, according to rules and customs which might have been valid then. The Saan and Hadza peoples in Africa, some of the indigenous tribes still living ‘traditionally’ in the Amazonian forest...
And these people have a very interesting behavior regarding ‘individual freedom’.
One is free to do as they please, for as long as their behavior do not jeopardize, in any way shape or form, the survival of the group. By not sharing, by intentionally hurting another member of the community…
The punishment for trespassers being banishment.
Temporary or even permanent. The offender is sent out into the wild, to fend it off on their own. Temporary – under the assumption that the individual will be able to learn their lesson, or – for unpardonable transgressions, for ever.

The next step, as human consciousness had become sophisticated enough to make the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – one level higher than the difference between ‘me’ and ‘them’, we’ve invented slavery.
For who are the slaves?
People so different from us that we are no longer able to picture ourselves ‘in their shoes’. Just as we cannot picture ourselves as beasts of burden or as egg laying hens.
And, just as in the previous step, individual liberty was something reserved for those members of the society deemed fit for enjoying it. As individuals who are welcome at the communal fire or as individuals who are not dependent on anybody else – but the ruler/government which dispenses/embodies freedom in a given ‘formal’ society, of course.

Some extended communities have managed to go even further.
And noticed – to their amazement, perhaps, that slave-less societies fare a lot better, as a whole, than those where some of the population enjoy less freedom than the others.
Since these societies had already learned to write and to rely quite heavily on formal laws, this particular piece of information had been enshrined as the most fundamental ‘human right’.

OK, if things are so straightforward as you pretend, then why are we still having this discussion? Why ‘pockets’ of slavery – and indentured servitude, can still be found on our planet? Why, in a growing number of places, people are increasingly putting ‘personal safety’ ahead of ‘individual – and collective, liberty’?

Lack of Trust.

As I mentioned before, freedom is something which may occur in certain circumstances and which is, its social tier, a collective endeavor of the entire extended community. ‘Endeavor’ because liberty is never ‘achieved’. It has to be nurtured constantly, … or else!
The most important circumstance being mutual respect between the members of that particular extended community. Mutual respect which includes trusting your peers.
As I mentioned before, individual liberty is for ‘selected’ members of the community – under aged children continue to be excluded to this day, for example, and ‘by’ the rest of the members who constitute a community.
As mutual trust between the members decreases – for whatever reason, people are no longer willing to ‘extend’ liberty to their fellow … fellow what?!? Since they no longer perceive each-other as being fellow trustworthy citizens…

This being the reason for which deeply divided societies fall prey to totalitarian propaganda.

Whenever too many members of a society arrive to the conclusion that they will never ‘make it’ – because of ‘the wealthy’, or the king, emperor, you name it, will never ‘let them’, those people are ‘ripe’ for socialist propaganda.
On the other hand, if too many people who had once belonged to the middle class are somehow ‘demoted’ – because of various causes, and arrive at the conclusion that the current government isn’t doing ‘enough’, those people are rife for nazi/fascist style propaganda.
Tsarist Russia and WWI defeated Germany are the first examples which come to my mind.
Not much difference between those two regimes, anyway.
Both pretend to put the collective above the individual but, in fact, all what they achieve is to rise an individual dictator above all others.

Apparently, in this situation, the dictator/absolute monarch garners much of the ‘available’ liberty, thus reducing that of the rest.
In practice, things are not that simple.
The dictator becomes ‘freer’ than his subjects only in the ‘virtual’ manner.
He is free only from being interpellated by those around him. But not from the consequences of his decisions.
This being the reason for which all totalitarian regimes crumbling down. Sooner or later.
Nobody, how ever well intended and capable, was ever wise enough to pull through a dictatorship. From Alexander the Great to whomever you want to pick up from the current gallery.

So, is there anything to be done about this?
Or should we just prepare ourselves for the worst?

There are some tools which might come handy. ‘Checks and balances’, the ‘rule of law’…
But tools are only as useful as the mind which tells them what to do.
For ‘checks and balances’ to work, all parties involved need to respect each-other. ‘Checks and balances’ have been devised to weed out ‘honest’ mistakes, not to contain a raging – and conniving, bull.
Same thing with ‘the rule of law’. Laws are enforced, and written, by humans. If those who enforce, or write, them to not respect the others – and these others do not trust them back, the whole thing becomes a farce.

There is one thing which may convince us to clean up our act.
A healthy dose of history.
The understanding that we have just one planet at our disposal. For only this long.

Do we care?
Do we really care?

Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that we still do.

Perceived utility.

There are at least three examples of ‘mutual respect’, and its corollary, functional democracy, having developed naturally.
In the Ancient City of Athens, in Medieval Scandinavia and the entire history of the Jewish People.

The Ancient Athenians had evolved in a particular set of circumstances. They had some – but not much, fertile land, a natural port and a lot of trading opportunities in their vicinity. Hence they had experimented, very early in their development as a nation, something which was later to be described as ‘division of labour’. This very ‘division of labor’ induces trust among the members of the society. The trader has to trust that the farmer will continue to produce while the farmer has to trust the trader to come back with the money. And/or other merchandise. Further more, people involved in oversea trading, and in commercial – versus subsistence, farming, tend to develop a more independent mind-frame. And a healthy dose of self-esteem.

The same evolutionary process had happened in Medieval Scandinavia. The erstwhile subsistence farmers and fishers have expanded their ‘scope’ and became traders cum pirates. Those who ‘manned the fort’ had to trust those who went away would come back to share the spoils and those who rode the waves had to trust each-other ‘in battle’ and the ‘home-makers’ to keep the hearth warm.

Finally, the Jews had been the firsts – that I am aware of, to come with the notion that ‘God had created Man in His own image’.
Hence all men – or, at least, all those who believed in said God, were considered to be ‘equals’. ‘Equal’ sons of the same Father. Add to that the fact that each of those sons were bearing the mark of their Father – His likeliness. How not to trust/respect your ‘brother’?!?

Are we able to recreate this Weltanschauung?!?
To notice, and appreciate, the role played by each of us in the social clockwork?
To teach our children to become useful members of the society?

Let’s remember Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. Evolution is about species, not individuals.
We, individuals, are the ones who had come up with the concept of ‘freedom’. Are we wise enough to use it properly?
For the good – read survival, of our extended communities?
As we somehow managed to do until recently?

Or lazy enough to allow it to be used as a wedge to pry us apart? To smithereens?
By people who have no inkling about what they’re doing?


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