We Are Only as Free as We Feel

Are we free? Are you, me and everyone else in the democratic West, the supposedly “free world”, as free as anyone is ever going to be? And how do we even measure how free a society is in the first place?

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

The mainstream way of measuring freedom in a country these days is championed by Freedom House.[i] This institute monitors the rights in each country, if there is free press, if there are free and fair elections, free­dom of association, human rights violations and so forth. Each coun­try is graded from a score of 7 (least free) to 1 (most free). Countries like Swe­den and the US get a rating of 1, whereas countries like North Korea and Saudi Arabia are rated “not free” with a bottom score of 7. Russia is also, notably, “not free” with a score of 6.5.

The last decade or so freedom around the world has slowly been on the decline, reversing a long trend in the opposite dire­ction. In the latest Freedom House report, 44% of countries were descri­bed as “free”, 26% as “not free” and 30% as “partly free” (including coun­tries such as Ukraine, Turkey and Mexico).

There can be no doubt that these are important statistics and that they offer an important tool for debate, research and political movements around the world. There are, however, also severe limitations to this mea­sure. The greatest limitation is that it makes it appear as though there can be no higher con­ceivable freedom than what has already been mater­iali­zed in e.g. Sweden or the US. I am not questioning the methodology of Freedom House—it serves its purpose and fulfills an exceedingly impor­tant funct­ion. Rather, I would like to suggest the possibility of yet higher forms of freedom being achievable through the transition from a mod­ern soc­iety to a metamodern one.

“Can we be free while being con­trolled by a paralyzing terror or shame?”

Freedom as Emotions

In The Listening Society I discussed the “inner states” of people—and I claimed that these are more fundamental than emotions. The inner states relate to the totality of what your living experience is like at any given mo­ment; every moment can be more or less clear, crisp, enchanted and alive—and this includes spiritual experiences. The inner states are very import­ant since they make up the total­ity of how we experience the world: light or dark, high or low, harmonious or utterly confusing.

But even if subjective inner states are more fundamental, this does not mean emo­tions are unimportant. Emotions are different because they have a cer­tain direction; we generally feel something about some­thing, we are angry at this person, ashamed because of this or that mis­step, proud of our this or that achiev­ement. In grammar, prepositions specify relations between things—and emo­tions often come with prepositions. If we are in high­er states, we generally react with diff­erent sets of emotions, but the states and emotions defini­tely do interact. And emotions still play a very crucial part in (almost) all social life for (almost) all people.

Another important topic in The Listening Society was the study of human flour­ishing and happiness. Some readers, no doubt, felt the focus on hap­pi­ness seemed a bit naive. But, of course, negative emotions also play a major part in everyday life and societal development. And if we are to expand human freedom and development, we are obliged to offer them their due concern, touchy and difficult as it may be.

If you accept this argument, it makes much more sense to believe that the collective good of freedom is always intermeshed with a wide array of basic and complex emotions, and that the anatomy of freedom must al­ways follow the anatomy of human emotions.

The most solid way of introducing emo­tions into the study of freedom is to start from a negative: Can we ima­gine a concept of freedom that would completely exclude all emotions? Can we be free while being con­trolled by a paralyzing terror or shame? Not really.

So, if emotions should not be excluded from the study of freedom, what would be a productive way of introduc­ing them? A simple but pow­er­ful way to do this is to study how different negative emotions can and do constrain people’s freedom.

“Freedom House rating 1 is where the path to true human emancipation begins—not where it ends.”

Only as Free as We Feel

My basic argument is this: People are only as free as they really feel in their everyday lives. If you look at the population in a country like Swe­den, you notice that some citizens are in fact much more free than others. How can that be? I thought that, in Sweden, “all animals are equ­al”? After all, they all live in a country with the best Freedom House rating poss­ible. Yet some people wake up in the morning feeling they have con­trol over their lives, while others are driven by fear and shame, constricted in so many subtle or complicated ways. Consider these exam­ples:

  • Is a person freer if she gets to follow her dreams and work towards goals and ends that are genuinely inspiring, rather than having to work only to pay the bills?
  • Is a person freer if she dares to speak her mind in every situation, rather than feeling she has to hold back in order to avoid the jud­gment and disdain of others?
  • Is a person freer if she feels that she is a responsible parti­ci­pant of her community and society, rather than a passive spectator?
  • Is a person freer if she can make life choices without fearing for her financial security?
  • Is a person freer if she can walk down the street and meet no beggars, see less social misery and not have her mind filled with commercials vying for her time, attention and money?
  • Is a person freer if she consumes goods and services in order to do some­thing she believes in rather than acting out of inner in­sec­­u­rities?
  • Is a person freer if her mind is affected by less cognitive biases and prejudices?
  • Is a person freer if she makes most of her choices in a calm, harmonious state of mind rather than a stressed, anxious one?
  • Is a person freer if she has many different positive identities to choose from, so that if she fails in one regard, she may still flourish in another?

We can safely answer each of these questions with an emphatic “Yes!” It should not surprise us, then, that from this perspective most peo­ple are not quite free in a deeper sense of the term—not even in the Nordic soc­iet­ies. From this viewpoint, the Nordic countries are not conclusively “free”. Rather, these societies have the prerequisites for higher freedom.

Freedom House rating 1 is where the path to true human emancipation begins—not where it ends.[ii]

As such, I would like to suggest another kind of freedom. Not a vague one that would offer excuses for (and obfuscations of) the oppression that goes on in China or Russia—but one that builds upon what has already been acc­om­plished in the freest societies; a definition of freedom that points skyward, towards a more deep­ly felt and more pervasive freedom that en­com­passes all aspects of ever­y­day life.

The basis for this theory is the idea that freedom must be felt and em­bodied by the citizen in order to be real. Hence, we look for support in the sociology of everyday life and, more specifically, in the sociology of emotions.

None of this is to downplay the significance of legal structures and the constitutional rights of citizens as meas­ured by Freedom House. However, for the word “freedom” to have any value, to be truly meaningful, we need to include the emotional aspect. After all, if we don’t feel free, what does it then matter to live in a country rated “1”? Emotions are just as important a part of freedom as our institutions and legal rights, and in order to reach higher levels of freedom, people must be emotionally emancipated.

To strive for less, to call it the day when we’ve established rule of law, independent courts, freedom of expression and universal suffrage, is not only unambitious, it is even unethical given the suffering caused by feeling unfree.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. www.freedomhouse.org

[ii]. My lovely girlfriend called me up a while ago and suggested a radical, even dangerous, thought, which I decided to include in the book: What if the obsession we have with freedom today will be seen as antiquated already in the near future? After all, with all the research into behavioral science, biology, sociology and cogn­itive science, suggesting that human minds, perceptions and choices are always steered by other forces than our “free wills”, and that we generally aren’t aware of how these forces affect us—does it really make sense to obsess about freedom like we do? Maybe we would be better off by focusing less on freedom and more on concrete issues such as the fulfillment of human needs and longings?

Maybe, in a few decades, the word “freedom” will no longer sound cool and magical, but rather like the word “duty” sounds to us today. A while ago “duty” was hailed as something sacred and inherently good. Maybe the same fate awaits “freedom”: Perhaps future people will think it sounds old and a bit silly.

This is a compelling idea. But I still feel we are not quite done with freedom yet; that we first have to expand it before it can be left to the side. Maybe, in the future, the term will be obsolete and exchanged for other terms that have less of lingering pre-modern religious beliefs left in them.

But, dear reader, bear with me and let us save the critical reappraisal of freedom for the future. Let us remain, for the moment, lovers of freedom.