It is almost impossible to talk about free will without talking about insanity. Most of us are by now, of course, almost completely insane.
Force is an expensive and inefficient way to exploit. This is as true on the grand social level as it is on the familial. From the perspective of those in power, it’s more desirable to get those you exploit to participate in their own victimization.
One way this can happen is through mystification, where an exploiter convinces victims that the violence is their fault. The abusive father, for example, might tell his children he would not have hit them had they sufficiently cleaned the dishes. This serves the function of causing the children to focus on cleaning the dishes instead of attending to the inexcusable violence of their father. Perhaps more importantly, it convinces them that if they can only be good enough at reading and responding to their abuser’s everchanging wants, they might not get beaten. The question as it relates to free will becomes: if they clean the dishes obsessively and perform every other obeisance, all without him beating them anymore, are they then doing these of their own free will?
We can ask similar questions about the actions of black people facing the threat of lynching. If you are a poor black farmer, having seen your neighbor hanging long-necked from a bridge, if you give up your crops or farmland to white farmers, are you doing so of your own free will?
In 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama, four Ku Klux Klan members kidnapped Willie Edwards, Jr., beat him, took him to a bridge, and forced him at gunpoint to jump. Faced with the choice between certainly being shot and possibly surviving the fall, did Willie Edwards, Jr., jump of his own free will?
Note that we’ve slid across some sort of boundary here, from victims convinced of their own culpability to the elimination of choice such that it actually becomes in the best interests of the victims to choose the lesser of two very great evils. They are now not merely convinced they should participate in their own victimization; they are forced to.
There are extreme political ramifications to this reduction in choice. One of the most brilliant things the Nazis did was to coopt rationality, and to coopt hope. They created circumstances such that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational best interests not to resist. Would you rather get an ID card, or resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather take a journey on a cattle car, or resist and possibly get killed? At each step, choices have been reduced such that the victims participate “of their own free will.”
I experienced the process not long ago, with consequences much less severe. An airport security agent ran her fingers beneath the waistband of my pants. I asked what she was doing.
She responded, “This is for your safety and the safety of others.”
“You putting your hand inside my pants doesn’t make anyone safer,” I said.
“Flying is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t like it, stay home.”
I began to disagree, and she motioned to a nearby cop. I had a plane to catch, and so I had a choice: I could make a scene and possibly get arrested, or I could get the hell out of Austin, Texas. I got the hell out of Austin, Texas.
But to choose, to really exercise free will, you must also have the opportunity to not choose. Willie Edwards Jr did not have the opportunity to not choose. Nor, for the most part, do most of us. Would you like to vote Republican or Democrat? (Note that even not voting does not protect you from the outcomes of the vote.) Would you like to work for ibm or Microsoft? Try leaving the wage economy and becoming a hunter-gatherer. Try, as a community, not allowing those in power to have access to – that is, exploit – your landbase, and then the rest of us can take bets on how long before the tanks roll in, and how long until it’s you hanging long-necked from a bridge.
Before we move to the terminal stage of this process there’s one other condition we need to talk about. One of the most common and necessary steps taken by an abuser in order to control a victim is to monopolize the victim’s perception. That is one reason abusers cut off victims from family and friends: so that in time victims will have no standard other than the abusers’ by which to judge the abusers’ worldviews and behavior. Behavior that would otherwise seem extraordinarily bizarre (How crazy is it to rape one’s own child? How crazy is it to toxify the air you breathe?) can then become in the victim’s mind (and even more sadly, heart) normalized. No outside influence must be allowed to break the spell. If the abuser is able to mediate all information that reaches the victim, the victim will no longer be able to conceptualize that there is any other way to be. At this point the abuser will have achieved more or less total control.
This is, of course, the point we have reached as a culture. Civilization has achieved a completely unprecedented and nearly perfect monopolization of our perception, at least for those of us in the industrialized world. Nearly all of our sensory input is mediated by our fellow civilized. I’m typing these words sitting in a manufactured chair staring at a manufactured computer screen, listening to the hum of a manufactured computer fan. To my left are manufactured shelves of manufactured books, written by human beings. Civilized, literate human beings, who write in English (languages, many of them indigenous, are being destroyed as quickly as all other forms of diversity, and to as disastrous an effect). To my right a window leads to the darkened outside and reflects back to me my uncombed dark hair surrounding the blur of my own face. I’m wearing mass-produced clothes, and mass-produced slippers. I do, however, have a cat on my lap. All sensory inputs save the cat originate in civilized humans, and even the cat is domesticated.
Stop. Think about it. Every sensation I have comes from one source: civilization. When you finish this paragraph, put down the magazine for a few moments, and check out your own surroundings. What can you see, hear, smell, feel, taste that does not originate in or is mediated by civilized human beings? Frogs singing on a Sounds of Nature CD don’t count.
This is all very strange. Stranger still – and extraordinarily revealing of the degree to which we’ve not only accepted this artificially imposed isolation, but have actually turned our insanity into a perceived good – is the way we’ve made a fetish and religion (and science, for that matter, and business) of attempting to define ourselves as separate from – even in opposition to – the rest of nature. Civilization isolates all of us, ideologically and physically, from the source of all life. We do not believe trees have anything to say to us, nor stars, nor coyotes, nor even our dreams. We have been convinced that the world is silent save for civilized humans.
Try this: take a moment and attempt to conceptualize nonownership of land. That is, an end, abrupt or otherwise, to the right of a few to force other people to pay for the right to actually exist on the planet (it’s called rent). Having been fully enculturated, perhaps you cannot even imagine nonownership of land, or see how the power to control access to land is maintained through a combination of social convention and force. You may, if you are a member of the police or military, or just a good citizen, kill to protect the right of land ownership, even to your own detriment. This is how it can also begin to make sense that those in power have the right to toxify the planet. If you’ve been sufficiently enculturated, you may refuse to recognize that there has ever been any other way to be, and you may, once again, oppose those who oppose this toxification. This is how we can come to believe that production is more important than human or nonhuman life.
You can list your favorite delusion.
Free will at this point becomes almost meaningless, because by now the victims participate of their own free will – having long-since lost touch with what free will might be. Indeed, they can be said to no longer have any meaningful will at all. Their will has been broken. Of course. That’s the point. Now, they are workers. They are productive members of this great and benevolent structure of civilization that brings good to all it touches. They are happy, even if this happiness requires routine chemical assistance. There is no longer any need for force, because the people have been fully metabolized into the system, have become self-regulating, self-policing.
Welcome to the end of the world.
Fortunately, however, there do still exist people – mainly the poor, people from nonindustrialized nations, and the indigenous – who still have primary connections to the physical world. And fortunately, also, the physical world still exists, and all of us can at the very least reach out to touch trees still standing in steel and concrete cages, we can see plants poking up through sidewalks, breaking cement barriers that don’t quite keep them from feeling the sun. I would hope we can learn from these plants and ourselves break through our barriers. I would hope we can see or feel our way to remembering what it means to be a free human being – we certainly must remember deep deep in our flesh and bones and organs – and to remember the joy that can come from standing on our own hind legs, from saying No! I do not know if free will can be entirely eradicated. I do know that it remains in some of us, as crazy as the system makes us all, as much as we have come to tolerate.
Originally published in the May 2003 issue of Adbusters
Republished at Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition