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Just because we can choose from the menu presented to us does not mean we are free. Especially if we cannot choose what is on that menu.

Philosophers have long grappled with ideas of freedom, free will, causality, individual sovereignty and the like. In fact these discussions are so involved, subtle and broad that anyone taking even a brief look at some of this material comes away with the disturbed conviction that present political discussions of the concept are made by people who don’t really know what they are talking about.

To focus  upon one subregion of this large philosophical continent, it has been established that freedom can’t really be discussed fruitfully without reference to power, nor to its opposite – servitude.

Especially that powerful servitude in which we are trained to enslave ourselves.
John Stuart Mill added a very potent argument to  previous discussions when he spent much of his “On Liberty” discussing the possibilities of self-servitude. This was, I believe, a brilliant analysis of the ways in which we internalize our cultural memes and thereby censor our own liberty.

Entering a large warehouse store is a disorienting experience; crowds of shoppers pushing carts among an infinity of choices. This shopping would, to many, be the paragon of freedom. But there’s something deeply disturbing about this freedom. Interactions between shoppers are usually impersonal and anonymous. Few greet each other, even as they face off  down the aisle; either one or the other will give the cue and push their cart to either the right or the left and pass without greeting or acknowledgement.

In the midst of this strange atmosphere of crowded non-community let us pause before the sodas and consider the choice between Coke and Pepsi. Douglas Atkin, in The Culting of Brands:  When Customers Become True Believers says

Today’s most successful brands don’t just provide marks of distinction (identity) for products. Cult brands are beliefs. They have morals – embody values. Cult brands stand up for things. They work hard; fight for what is right… Brands function as complete meaning systems
Our freedom to choose between two almost identical, harmful to both our bodies and the environment, differently labeled cans of flavored soda-water has evolved into something that can’t really be honestly called freedom. And it doesn’t become freedom by being expanded to hundreds of varieties of the same basic flavored soda water. It is a choice between brands.

This is an empty caricature of freedom which denies the underlying sameness of the items on the menu. It is a choice between empty words.

Empty as they may be these words are valuable commodities in themselves. In brand rankings Coke tops the list. The words “Coca-Cola” and “Coke” have been valued at more than $67,000,000,000. Just the words. Not any actual syrups, or bottling plants or cans on shelves.

Choosing an image is choosing something. But it is a choice with very little individual sovereignty in it. If the choice were available to me I would choose to not waste the resources of the planet on such empty meaningless things and have soda manufacturers be tasked with job of providing adequate drinking water for the more than a billion on the planet who need it.

But this choice is not on my menu. The choice to use 60% of the earth’s resources in creating products to market to the 11% of the world’s population who can afford to buy them is not a choice I assented to. And the other 89% of humanity doesn’t matter a whit in these considerations to those who put together this menu.

When President George H.W. Bush attended the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 he made a very revealing and direct statement about our country’s participation in global environmental issues. He said :

The American lifestyle is non-negotiable.
It was a powerful statement. Made more powerful by being backed up by the most powerful military force in the world. That powerful military had, the year before, forcefully ejected Saddam Hussein from the oifields of Kuwait and destroyed his army. It was clear that, since our non-negotiable lifestyle depended upon oil, we were going to use our military to protect our freedoms - many of which required burning lots of oil – even if that involved breaking things and killing people in other countries.

One of the political issues in this election year, 2012,  is the price of gasoline. Politicians running for office are deeply concerned that if the price of gasoline rises too much past $4 per gallon the American people will become angry at this restriction upon their freedom to drive whatever vehicle they want, wherever and whenever they want to go.

The price we pay for this freedom, at $4 dollars a gallon, or even $5 a gallon is not its real price. Its real Price is being paid by the Ogoni and Ijaw peoples in the Niger delta who are suffering from a toxic swamp polluted by Shell Oil and being oppressed by corrupt Nigerian politicians owned by that company. The price of this freedom is being paid by the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, by the increasing acidity in our oceans and by the increasing temperatures of the whole planet. If we had to pay the real Price for the gas in our cars most of us would lose this freedom. Only rich people would possess the freedom to drive whatever vehicle they wanted, wherever and whenever they wanted to.

Ultimately these freedoms, these rights, like the right to shop for electronics made in sweatshops in China,  are called into question by the fact that they increase suffering in the world. Can we really call it a freedom if it is purchased at the cost of the suffering and misery of others? This is almost exactly the opposite of the kind of freedom spiritual leaders speak of.

How is it we could become so confused? Victor Lebow, a retail analyst in the 1950s has an answer to this. He said:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.
It seems here in “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” we have fallen into confusion about the difference between freedom of consumption – freedoms that enable us to accumulate possessions – and personal liberty.
Consumerism has attached itself to a novel identity politics in which business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling. Identity here becomes a reflection of “lifestyles” that are closely associated with commercial brands and the products they label, as well as with attitudes and behaviors linked to where we shop, how we buy, and what we eat, wear, and consume.
The identity politics of the 21st century is then part and parcel of the infantilist ethos. It mistakes brand for identity and consumption for character while treating Americans as consumers of Brand USA rather than as the free citizens of a democratic republic. 
– Benjamin Barber  Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
And in a little serenade called “Loyalty Beyond Reason”  Kevin Roberts CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi “The Lovemarks Compay" tells us,
When everything can be a brand - religions, reality TV shows, presidents - brands can't matter. But hold on to your hats. The next big leap lies ahead. The transformation of brands into Lovemarks. A brand that's irreplaceable and irresistible…
Lovemarks inspire loyalty beyond reason… 
Remove a brand and people buy a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and you've got a protest on your hands…
"Loyalty beyond reason," being the goal of billions of dollars of investment, cannot be other than powerful and intensive opposition to freedom. It is violent opposition to liberty masquerading as "consumer choice." An attack on reason, as this can only be, is an attack on freedom. John Locke, one of the philosophers the Founders looked to when they were refining their ideas of freedom and liberty speaks to this:
The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst brutes
In pursuit of "loyalty beyond reason" corporations and their advertisers stand in direct opposition to another building block of a free society: informed consent and the education necessary to give that informed consent. We are encouraged not to think but to be "irresistibly" drawn to those products we feel good about. A 15 year old buying and smoking cigarettes because being a "Marlboro Man" appears to him the best way to meet his deeply emotional need for acceptance among his peers is not making an informed choice. But he is an ideal consumer, especially if he becomes addicted to the product and spends his (shortened) life identified as a "Marlboro Man."

As immoral and unethical as these manipulations are, their purveyors still have some standards.

In a piece written in 1999 at Stanford the authors found that

The current state of political advertising has aroused considerable concern within the world of commercial advertising. Major advertising firms and professional associations have widely deplored the lack of accountability of political advertisers and their unwillingness to adhere to a code of ethics (see Advertising Age, April 29, 1996; New York Times, April 29, 1996; Washington Post, July 30, 1996). What exactly is Madison Avenue concerned about? Perhaps commercial advertisers fear that the apathy -- and all too frequently, aversion -- induced by political advertising campaigns may damage the credibility, and ultimately the persuasiveness, of more traditional forms of advertising. As Alex Kroll, former chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, put it: "We must stop politicians from ruining our reputation."
And this reputation is being ruined because, unlike the whole propagandistic exercise of consumer marketing, politicians, being concerned with more than just sales – namely power – use these well established manipulative forces to denigrate the brands of their opponent. This is ruining the reputation of marketing propagandists because, as the Stanford study tells us,
Perhaps the amount of negativity featured in political campaigns is designed to shrink the "market" rather than increase the sponsor’s relative share. Discouraging people from voting is much more feasible than persuading supporters of one candidate to vote for the opponent. It is well known that most Americans hold fast to their partisan attachments and that the act of voting generally serves expressive (as opposed to instrumental) needs (for a review of research on political participation, see Rosenstone and Hansen, 1992). Since people acquire their affiliation with the Democratic or Republican parties early in life, the probability that they will cross party lines in response to an advertising campaign is slight. And since the motivation to vote is typically symbolic or psychological (in the sense that one’s vote is unlikely to be pivotal in determining the outcome of the election), increasing the level of controversy and conflict in ad campaigns is bound to discourage voters from making a choice and casting a vote. In effect, negative campaigns create an "avoidance" set within the electorate (see Houston et al., 1998, 1999).
So, advertisers worry, political marketing may be decreasing the effectiveness of all marketing.  So, when McCain used McCann for his branding campaign he was harming the sales of L’Oreal and Nestle, who also used McCann.

And the Obama campaign won the Association of National Advertisers“Marketer of the Year” for 2008.

It is this political brandscape which gives us our menu to choose from as we exercise our freedom and vote.

Yet, I know I don’t get to vote for what really matters. I get to choose a brand that has spent a lot of advertising money campaigning for elections. A brand that gets this money from those who have much more of it than I and which is thus much more receptive to those wealthy and powerful donors than it is to me.

And together they write the menu which I get to choose from. A menu that has no real solutions for catastrophic climate change, no repeal of corporate “personhood,” little or no support for viable alternatives to fossil fuels – in fact which offers subsidies to fossil fuel industries… I could go on and on.

In  the name of the “Freedom" brand, in the name of the “Free Market” brand we are bringing an end to the fabric of social and environmental connections which support and sustain us. Funds from such brands as “Exxon/Mobile” are being spent in large quantities to obfuscate these cold, hard facts and to urge us to remain in our warm, fossil-fueled state of "liberty." The future they tell us, a future brought to us by brands like “Beyond Petroleum,” will be one of fabulous freedom and consumer choice. We will be happy in this future.

Originally posted to grains of sand on Tue Jul 03, 2012 at 06:41 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  asdf (6+ / 0-)

    "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free".

    So sang Toby Keith.

    I am simply wondering where he was comparing "America" to?

    Free to do what? Is a question I always fail to get an answer to. Those who do try to answer mouth endless platitudes.

    When asked what the price of the freedom is, there are even fewer answers.

    I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
    but I fear we will remain Democrats.

    by twigg on Tue Jul 03, 2012 at 08:41:05 PM PDT

  •  A fitting little quote from someone long ago.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Renee, veritas curat

    I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.

    ~ Thomas Jefferson (1816)

    The real power in America is held by a fast-emerging new Oligarchy of pimps and preachers who see no need for Democracy or fairness or even trees, except maybe the ones in their own yards, and they don't mind admitting it. ~ Hunter S. Thompson

    by Saint Jimmy on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 06:11:56 AM PDT

  •  When Poppy Bush said (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Renee, veritas curat
    The American lifestyle is non-negotiable
    he meant it was non-negotiable for the super-rich and the megacorporations. Everyone else was already screwed, and his son went on to screw them even harder.

    If it's
    Not your body,
    Then it's
    Not your choice
    And it's
    None of your damn business!

    by TheOtherMaven on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 06:16:08 AM PDT

  •  This I wonder about, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    veritas curat

    if it still holds true to the same extent:

    Since people acquire their affiliation with the Democratic or Republican parties early in life, the probability that they will cross party lines in response to an advertising campaign is slight.
    It seems more people consider themselves "Independent" than used to, which would at least imply there is some opportunity for movement to or away from brands.

    And this:

    "Loyalty beyond reason," being the goal of billions of dollars of investment, cannot be other than powerful and intensive opposition to freedom.
    is about fanaticism rather than any notion of even normal patriotism. It is frightening, frankly, and hard to imagine anyone with knowledge of history would see it as good.

    Thanks.

    Tell the people you love that you love them when you can. You don't always get another chance.

    by Melanie in IA on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 06:34:38 AM PDT

  •  You don't have to participate. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Renee, pee dee fire ant

    I don't drink coke or pepsi.  I drink water out of a tap.  I buy second hand and don't give a damn about the labels.  When people show off their shiny bright baubles all they get from me is a confused look of "whatever".  Granted, this preempts conversation with ALOT of people, but whatever.

    What you are observing is the triumph of belief over thought: I believe this bottle of caramel-sugar-water makes me a better person while that bottle of caramel-sugar-water is for chumps.

    and their contempt for the Latin schools was applauded by Theodoric himself, who gratified their prejudices, or his own, by declaring that the child who had trembled at a rod would never dare to look upon a sword.

    by ban48 on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 08:32:18 AM PDT

    •  What's wrong with me? (0+ / 0-)

      I willy-nilly choose diet pepsi  or diet dr. pepper with a frequent jump to diet mt. dew depending on my taste buds desire of the day.  I never drink coke if any of the above are available but I certainly don't demean coke drinkers, and I occasionally enjoy a sugary ginger ale.

      Liberty without justice is impossible; justice without liberty is unbearable.

      by pee dee fire ant on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 11:15:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  drink what you want to drink. after all, after (0+ / 0-)

        all, it is only a drink.  Many people do identify themselves by what they buy.  But unless you live in a cave you have to buy some things just to live.  I quit soda pop because a blood-sugar test right after I slammed a 32 oz coke measured in the diabetic range.  I had it checked later and it was normal.  That spike put me off so I quit. I don't miss it at all,  and it doesn't even taste good to me anymore.

        It is hardly that we don't have choices.  If anything, it is now too easy to believe anything, because for most people nothing is important.

        and their contempt for the Latin schools was applauded by Theodoric himself, who gratified their prejudices, or his own, by declaring that the child who had trembled at a rod would never dare to look upon a sword.

        by ban48 on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 12:50:59 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  we can barely imagine true freedom (0+ / 0-)

    Getting to choose your boss is not freedom.  Getting a seat at the table to discuss the terms of your service is not freedom.  Being ruled and managed by people who are willing to earn your loyalty and full functionality is not freedom.  True freedom may not be possible in our society; it may not be possible in any society whose primary goal is the perpetuation of a socio-economic structure, which depends on you and everyone else playing a role for the sake of the system itself.  It's definitely not possible for any person who depends on that structure to provide them with both necessities and luxuries.

    "Freedom" on paper is meaningless without the ability to exercise it: just because you may doesn't mean you can.  Rich people are more free than poor people, even if they want exactly the same thing.  Caligula was probably one of the most free people who ever lived; yes, partially because he was evil and/or insane and had no inhibitions, but also because there existed an entire society around him that would work to make whatever he commanded happen ... until it threatened his bodyguards.

    I would start by saying that true freedom is the ability to do something for no other reason than because you want to.  But even that doesn't go far enough; you can want to work because you would rather not live on the street and eat out of dumpsters, and you can want to obey laws because you would rather not go to jail.  But that's no real choice.  I think that true freedom would be more like Buridan's Ass: a choice between two (or more) equally appealing options - "How am I going to arbitrarily blow my mind today?!"  True freedom is the freedom to be impulsive: to get an idea in your head and act on it because there is nothing that prevents you from doing so.  Not laws or customs or morality, nor any lack of skill or resources on your part.

    The pursuit of freedom must constantly improve the capacity of people to act in accordance with their needs, values, and desires: maximize physical mobility (the option but not the necessity), maximize access to information and physical resources, minimize any given thing's demands on a person's time, money, psyche, etc.  It must be possible to minimize existential burdens while simultaneously maximizing the variety of things that people are able to do.

    To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

    by Visceral on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 12:46:58 PM PDT

    •  Bizarre! Is that you, Ron Paul? n/m (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      veritas curat

      Liberty without justice is impossible; justice without liberty is unbearable.

      by pee dee fire ant on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 07:51:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeah, I've read that comment a couple of times now (0+ / 0-)

        and still can't quite figure out whether this is some kind of Libertarian enthusiasm. I think, maybe, the problem is that this kind of stuff seems to de-emphasize the consequences part of
         

        the ability to do something for no other reason than because you want to
        I suppose you could take this to mean that no one would "want" to cause harm to others because it would make them feel bad. But I don't know.

        Ayn Rand (Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum) the self-proclaimed "radical for capitalism" didn't think much of altruism. Here's something from Austin Cline about her admiration for the psychopath William Edward Hickman:

        What did Rand admire so much about Hickman? His sociopathic qualities: "Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should," she wrote, gushing that Hickman had "no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"

        This echoes almost word for word Rand's later description of her character Howard Roark, the hero of her novel The Fountainhead: "He was born without the ability to consider others." (The Fountainhead is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' favorite book -- he even requires his clerks to read it.)

        Clarence Thomas. I never doubted Anita Hill for a moment. Not a moment. Yeesh.

        muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

        by veritas curat on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 04:13:33 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  It's Amaxing (0+ / 0-)

    In the 1950's and 1960's, Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith tried to make the case for the overwhelming power of marketing and advertising.  Both missed the truth: Human nature responds to the message but only so long as the message reflects or reinforces human nature.  We will continue to buy a product, service or idea as long as it continues to match our needs or expectations, but will drop it at the first disappointment.  In other words, one "aw s..t wipes out a thousand attaboys".  

    Liberty without justice is impossible; justice without liberty is unbearable.

    by pee dee fire ant on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 08:17:13 PM PDT

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