The overarching goal:

People are capable of creating their own futures rather than being determined by the constraints received from the past.

The present structure of constraints is maintained mostly by intellectual passivity, which cedes control over the future to the few who can take advantage of the received arrangements. We must become conscious of this structure, identify its constraints, and create new arrangements — empowering each of us to lead lives of our choosing.

One example: strong private property laws and weak land use restrictions that result in scarce housing and abundant pollution. This arrangement originated before population density and climate change reached current crisis points, yet we fail to adapt to our new context. We accept the way things have been, and we lack the will to overcome the resistance to change by the privileged few who benefit. But as Minneapolis demonstrated recently, change is possible.

Cult of the Constitution

Speaking of imagination and the lack thereof…

Every culture must draw the line between the alterable features of social life and the enduring character of human existence. When we understate the extent to which the whole order of society and culture represents a frozen politics — the containment and interruption of fighting — we become slaves of our own unrecognized creations, to which we bow down as if they were natural and even sacred….

A major element in American culture understates the mutable nature of social life …. The source of this denial of the alterability of social life is a species of institutional fetishism: the belief that the genius of the founders and the favor of providence enabled the American Republic to hit, at the time of its foundation, on the definitive formula of a free society. The cult of the Constitution is merely the limiting case of this comprehensive idealization of an abstract conception of the market, of democracy, and of free civil society, unjustifiably identified with a particular, contingent set of institutional arrangements. The structure supposedly requires adjustment only at extraordinary moments of national crisis.

However, it is part of the project of human empowerment and freedom to diminish the dependence of change on calamity.

— Roberto Unger, The Self Awakened, pp 49-50 (complete text).

But what if we are living through an extraordinary moment of national crisis? Perhaps now is the time not only to adjust the structure to solve the immediate crisis, but to reform political life to make changing the structure less dependent on crisis in the future. How? By making politics more democratically sensitive, i.e., adaptive to the needs of people, rather than entrenched in preserving preexisting power relations. Make voting universally easy. Use ranked-choice voting. Limit the terms of representatives and judges. Eliminate vestiges of aristocracy such as the Electoral College and Senate (and presidency?). The list can go on ad infinitum, and should.

Reconsider

Limited imagination is the greatest constraint on our capacity for freedom. We take for granted the way things are: a society in which meeting one’s basic needs requires contorting oneself in the shape of a market niche determined by the privileged few who control the resources that everyone requires. Alternative possibilities seem too radical to seriously consider. But what is so unimaginable about every person having security in meeting basic needs, so that every person has the opportunity to lead a life of one’s own choosing? We have the technological ability to guarantee access to the necessary resources of clean air and water, nutritious food, safe shelter, transportation, medicine, peacekeeping, education, community. It is the way things are that should baffle the imagination. It seems ineluctable, but it is in fact contingent on the outcomes of historic power struggles that were neither fairly fought nor necessary to fight. We should not grant these outcomes legitimacy: they are the tyranny of the arbitrary.

How Apple sees you

I wanted to write a post on Roberto Unger‘s insight that humans have the capacity to imagine and create more than any economic or social regime can accommodate. I was otherwise occupied when this inspiration struck, so I dictated the words “infinity within finitude” into my cell phone’s microphone to capture the idea.

When I later read the text on my phone, I saw these words: “Infiniti within been have to.” I was only mildly frustrated that the phone software did not recognize the infrequently used word finitude. But I was appalled by what it did to infinity — prioritizing the brand name of a luxury consumer item over the widely known word for a fundamental concept in human thought.

I need not think of a better example to support Unger’s observation that our economic and social systems belittle the unlimited capacity of our consciousness. Modern technology really does make life so convenient!

Human, animal, divine

We are animals, contrary to our pretensions. Our economics and therefore our politics are, like the lives of most animals, little more than competition to consume nature in order to sustain and secure ourselves and our offspring. We are bound to nature.

But we do have the capacity for more. In the overall picture our lives may be reduced to biological explanations, but on the finer-grained level of conscious experience we have some power to determine ourselves with a degree of independence from the constraints of biological determinants.

For example, I could be starving yet resist the urge to eat because I have chosen to conduct a hunger strike. If another animal refused to eat we would likely diagnose it as sick or depressed. But to the human animal we attribute the power to act on principles beyond the straightforward biological imperatives of sustenance and security. We are capable of creating values above and beyond those given to us by nature and of acting in accordance with these self-created determinants instead of biological imperatives.

Of course, we ultimately remain bound to biological determinants. Choosing not to eat on principle cannot prevent me from starving to death nor from being nourished by food introduced into my body against my will.

This limited power of creating our own determinants is freedom. I do not mean the crude sense of freedom meaning the ability to do whatever one feels like doing, which could apply as well to a loose dog as a person (in fact, it applies better to a loose dog than many people). I mean creative freedom, the ability to create new values rather than merely pursue those already determined for us.

We apply this creative power not only to biological determinants given to us by nature but as well to social determinants given to us by each other. These received values originate as newly created values in defiance of biological determination, but through socialization they become constraints determining our actions analogous to biological imperatives. As with biological constraints, we can never be fully free from our social context, but we can exercise critical freedom, the ability to create values in rejection of, or at least distinction from, received values.

Whether this power to exercise creative freedom in relation to received determinants is unique to humans I do not know, but it is nonetheless an essential attribute of the human experience. Some may say it makes us more than mere animals. We might even say it makes us divine. Whatever we are, it makes us ourselves.

But critique may not make us happy. It creates the frustrating dynamic of wanting things to be other than they are. We humans are blessed and cursed with the capacity to dream. There is some ironic consolation in this insight. The frustration I feel about the discrepancy between the determinate world and my creative will is, alas, an expression of my biologically and socially determined nature.

Moreover, the world humans have shaped by creating new values has, by operation of this value-creation, become all the more full of determinants with which we must contend in order to exercise some degree of freedom in our lives today. Yet we have neglected the attributes of critique and creativity, throughout history but especially in our modern, over-determined world.

We must foster our freedom. How? Of course, education is crucial, providing the tools and structure for stimulating critical and creative thinking. Education and the resulting discourse must be free from censorship, coercion, and unequal access — and lifelong, never stultified by drudgery. But even more fundamentally, we need to ensure that people enjoy security in meeting biological needs that otherwise dominate the will and preclude freedom. In other words, everyone must be guaranteed access to quality housing, health care, environment, and nutrition — regardless of whether they do work that has been determined valuable by others. When the only instances of hunger are chosen on principle, we will have become truly human.