Liberty and the rights of the individual are ideals that form the bedrock of free democracies. Yet the rapid ascendancy of consumerism owes much to the exaggeration of individual liberty at the expense of public democracy. “Liberty is a value conditioned by history”, writes Benjamin R. Barber in his book Consumed. Liberty as it was conceived in the 18th and 19th centuries was about “freedom from constraint, so important in resisting tyranny”, and its articulation gave birth to a democratic society that threw off “the tyranny over the body and mind that defined traditional autocracy”. But Barber states that this original definition of liberty “cannot be a formula for moral liberation or political engagement in more democratic times”. Here in the opening chapter of the 21st century, we can be justly proud of having created a general atmosphere of political and social freedom around the globe, where the greatest number of human beings in the history of our species lives free from authoritarian tyranny and arbitrary brutality. Yet libertarian sentiments are stuck in an earlier era when any kind of coercion was an automatic evil exercised by a political power intent on suppressing the rights of the free individual. Contrary to Barber’s argument that liberty is conditional, libertarians have a rigid, timeless view of liberty. For them, to champion freedom is an end in itself divorced from social or historical realities. The idea that for freedom to be genuine it must be tempered with responsibility and sobriety earns libertarian accusations of violating the inalienable rights of the person.
Consumerism is sympathetic to the fierce sense of unconstrained freedom preached by libertarian advocates of free markets, free choice and the free individual, who voluntarily participates in those markets and makes those choices. Consumerist capitalism’s sustained efforts over the past few decades to subvert the meaning of freedom have largely succeeded. For a great number of people today, their self-conception as free individuals mainly entails the freedom to buy goods and services more so than the freedom to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities. Only such a perverted definition of liberty can produce a living paradox like the Chinese citizen, who believes himself to be free despite living in an autocracy that has no qualms with violating basic human rights when dealing with dissidents and critics. The Chinese citizen doesn’t feel oppressed so long as he has the freedom to shop. He is comfortable with being denied the exercise of civic power - a power that would hold his government accountable for its actions - so long as he possesses the faux power of self-creation through consumption. One can almost have a grudging respect for consumerist capitalism’s achievement, that such a blatant corruption of freedom’s meaning was executed so convincingly.
But there are structural flaws in the architecture, and the cracks are appearing. The freedom to compulsively consume comes with the ‘freedom’ to spend oneself into unrecoverable debt. The liberty to buy status, identity and meaning has the attendant liberty to experience chronic anxiety, dissatisfaction and dis-ease that typify the rat-race. We are incessantly told by marketers that we are free to indulge our childish desires (Barber’s ‘infantilist ethos’) but the adult world has real limits and consequences that more mature minds recognise and respect. Just as responsible parents don’t allow their children free rein with their impulsive choices, so too must a democratic citizenry – through the government representing their public interests – delineate the limits of hyper-individualism, which unconstrained can harm the very same democracy that nurtures individual liberty. Hyper-individualism goaded on by consumerist capitalism produces myopic individuals who cannot foresee the negative results of their selfish actions. A mature, grown-up character takes a long-term view on choices made, but consumerism represses the rational, deliberative adult in favour of an immature, child-like personality that lives only for instant gratification and the sensuality of the eternal present. Consumerism feeds on hot, impulsive blood and cannot survive on a diet of thoughtful, coolly dispassionate humans.
In his book The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton points out that the popular conception of individual freedom as the freedom to do whatever one likes – so long as no one else is harmed – actually compromises one’s ‘inner freedom’ that paradoxically entails self-imposed limits. Hamilton’s arguments display a common observation made by philosophers of various cultures and eras; that the ‘free’ individual can still be a slave to desire, fear and greed. The economist Robert Reich lays out in Supercapitalism the schizophrenic nature of the individual. Reich demonstrates that people tend to be of two minds that are in opposition to each other; the consumer in us demands the best deals and lowest prices from the market, but the citizen in us is appalled by the erosion of democratic principles, an erosion ironically precipitated by the rise of the market’s power caused by our fervent expectations as consumers. Our freedom to be omnipotent consumers ultimately creates a society that as citizens we wouldn’t want to live in. Liberty without limits builds a gilded cage for each of us. And in time all these sad but beautiful cages will become surrounded by an even larger, more opulent one.