Saturday, August 01, 2020

Every Man For Himself With The Devil Taking The Hindmost


thenation |  In early Anglo-Saxon England and until the end of European feudalism, there existed a class of people known as churls, from which we get the adjective “churlish.” They weren’t called that because they had bad manners; churls were the lowest class of free people. They were not bound to a manor like serfs, but neither did they have wealth and own property like nobles. They were people who possessed freedom to do as they pleased in theory. In practice, their poverty meant that their “free” lives were little different from those of unfree serfs.

Economic reality dictated then, as it dictates today, one’s freedom. People are only as free as they can afford to be. For Americans, lacking guaranteed access to basic necessities like housing, food, and health care (and with our bank accounts determining access to the good versions of those things), this is a constant dilemma. We place great value in perceiving ourselves as free. Yet the more we extol this freedom’s virtue, the more it sounds like we are just trying to convince ourselves. 

Real freedom would include being free to quit a terrible job without losing access to everything on the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid. It would include freedom to live where we want, not where “the market” decides jobs will be available. It would include control over our own labor, like negotiating power over our earnings and our working conditions. In short, it would mean freedom to live the lives we desire, rather than the lives we choose based on a curated set of options over which we exercise no control.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama caused controversy by claiming of working-class voters in the postindustrial Midwest, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The “bitter clingers” remark stuck throughout the campaign, particularly as he applied it to conservative shibboleths like the Second Amendment and religion. 

To many liberals this represents a hard truth, while to the left it is an example of how a politics that abandons economic populism is an invitation for “culture wars” issues to dominate. In either case, it is a useful basis for understanding why so many Americans find comfort in a misguided notion of “freedom” that amounts only to small acts of refusenik-ism, like school kids who rebel against the dress code by untucking one corner of their shirt. When our economic system takes freedom in a meaningful sense away from the vast majority of the population, people place more value on its symbolic expression.