Volume 2 of the Babylon is Dead series. Crudely formed out of the writings below.
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The Illusion of Freedom
The Self! The Self! The Self!
“The Self! The Self! The Self!” we said. And if this is not what freedom is, then what else could freedom ever be? Being able to do what I want, when I want to do it. Being able to have what I want, when I want to have it. So long as I can afford it.
And endless choices. A flat screen TV with endless channels. A supermarket with endless products. An infinity of availability surrounding the self. Freedom is an infinity of amusements and diversions. Freedom is an infinity of conveniences. And freedom from inconvenience is freedom from evil. Food without washing up. Travel without time. Sex without relationships. Children without responsibility or sacrifice.
...And justice for self! When one person’s gain is another’s loss… When one person’s pleasure is another’s heartbreak… When one group prevail and another are down and out… When nations go to war, and when other nations fight back… We say “freedom!”
We used to talk about it as if it were an absolute value. A transcendent virtue to live up to. A Platonic form. A universal human right. Everlasting wisdom. The eternity in our Grandparents’ eyes. The beat that our hearts still dance to. But if that is so, then whatever this is that we now call freedom has to be something else.
The glory of every age was there in its values. The highest value of our day was individual freedom, and the god of our day was the individual. "The Self! The Self! The Self!” we said. We thought that we were free because we could do whatever we wanted to, so long as we had enough money to do it. Our notion of freedom was defined by the agency of the self.
What happened to freedom that it became the same thing as self-interest? What happened to self-interest that it ascended to the lofty heights of freedom?
Self-interest, used to be like an erection in a public place. A private appetite. That member which we all knew we had, but were embarrassed to mention. That which we publicly denounced in others, and which we privately wept over in ourselves. And so we lied to ourselves twice over. First, under the previous order, was denial. And then afterwards came the brazen and shameless diabolical vanity. Our forefathers denied their self-interest. We justified it.
The spin doctors pored over it and shouted: "FREEDOM!"
The advertisers re-branded it: "FREEDOM!"
The wizards danced around it singing: "FREEDOM!"
The politicians voted on it: "FREEDOM!"
The weather girls smiled and predicted it: "FREEDOM!"
The priests and the clergy blessed it: "FREEDOM!"
And with sleight of hand the illusionist did his little trick and it was done: self-interest - the illusion of freedom
Economies, industries and advertisers, instituted it as the bedrock of society, to encourage more discretionary spending, and they said, greater ingenuity in the spirit of men. Governments, religions, and other powers followed suit and we were coerced to all their interests. It became our philosophy, our praxis, our religion, our ideology, the central premise of our educational system, our political system and our social structures. It watched over us as we came and as we went. It united rich and poor, black and white, man and woman. And it destroyed the names of those who would not adhere.
The illusion was complete, and if we thought it was an illusion we played along anyway. We liked it. It went along with what we wanted so we went along with it. The truth is, we could hardly imagine any other way of thinking about freedom anymore. If there was something crooked about the illusion we had no idea what the actual thing could be. And we didn’t talk about it. For us the dream was enough. It justified itself: the dream of a masterless freedom.
But the dream blossomed into nothing very diverse or beautiful, and we wondered to ourselves about that. The old shrugged their shoulders, shook their heads, pursed their lips. Washed their cars slowly with stiff spines, and decided emphatically not to worry about their children, because each must make his own life. The young cut themselves, covered themselves, and uncovered themselves, and then covered themselves again. Reinvented themselves. Went off looking for themselves hopelessly in places they had never been.
There was no masterless freedom. There could only ever be an exchange of masters.
Self-interest turned out to be predictable and easily steered. We liked to talk about freedom of speech, but we all said the same things, and the same things, and the same things. We liked to talk about individualism but we all went on doing the same things over and over. We liked to believe that we were all unique snowflakes, but there’s nothing unique about selfish interests. The same hand-full of desires come around again and again and again. We were weak, gullible, predictable. Dull machines under strip lights monotonously humming out the same old whatever on the conveyor belts winding out of ourselves. Every day.
We said we were doing what we wanted, but we really just did what we were told. We obeyed anyone rich enough to put a wet dream on a billboard, a screen, or a magazine. Without questions. Self-interest is an endless goldmine of desire. We were ripe and they harvested us like fields of green money. Through the illusion of freedom the people became a people no more. The people became a market.
The illusion of freedom was relative. One interest against another. One individual against another. One generation against another. One nation against another. Those on top called it healthy competition. Those below died with no voices.
We did what we were told because we lived in a race of gods, and some gods became greater than others. Because freedom is selfishness, and community is competition. Because they held the keys to the kingdom, and if we’d had the brains or the money we’d have done the same to them. Because those were the options given. We didn’t think there were other options. We didn't think. It was every man for himself, and we didn't have the energy.
They put desires in our hearts that we had to gratify. Dreams in our heads that we had to satisfy. They put rats in our pants and watched us dance, and milked us for all we had. Then they lent us more money so we could keep on dancing and also pay them interest on the money they had lent at the same time.
We let them touch us, coughed up our money on endless disappointments, dressed up as other people’s selfish fantasies, ate food stolen from other countries, took our pills, denied our children’s souls, and hung up naked girls in the street. And we called it freedom.
We chased hollow satisfactions, and we became hollow satisfaction for somebody else. We didn’t rebel, we just wept.
Because, what could we say? The system did not let us down. The system never claimed to care about us. The system laid out the terms: "every man for himself," and called it “freedom.” And we agreed. And we are now laying out the same terms to whoever is coming next.
O, the glory of the spinning blue planet! The endless universe! The forms beyond! Within and without! We forgot it all! O, the mysteries of time! The miracles of the young! The memories of the old! We forgot it all! O, the recession of pleasure! The diminished quest! The experience of existence become so small! O, the treadmill forever and ever, pursuing each and every desire as it arises until the lost and forgotten end of what, in the end, turns out to be really nothing at all.
The world had got smaller and simpler. The business of satisfaction. Gratification. The appetite.
Individual freedom was everything, and individual freedom was the appetite, and so the appetite became everything. It became the individual's very soul. And so we defined ourselves by our appetites, and then lost ourselves somewhere within the obnoxious demands of our appetites, until we believed ourselves to be our appetites, and appetites only.
The illusion of freedom was enslavement! Self-interest was the devil himself! As hungry as fire. As hungry as death. As endlessly dissatisfied as industrial chimneys. Coffee a little stronger every time. Roads a little wider every year. One more image for the harem in my heart. All consuming. The destroyer of worlds. We were enslaved to it. We had no will to resist it. It became us. We didn’t recognise the freedom to deny it’s endless wants, only the freedom to pity ourselves if we couldn’t afford it. We did not even recognise ourselves apart from it.
Whatever glory was beyond the insatiable self, we never talked about such things. It became necessary to let go the belief in any truth beyond the realm of self at all. Particularities faded away and characters quietly withered under-used, while appetite paraded loudly over all things with its religious zeal, it’s dogma and it’s self-help rhetoric.
Really, what is freedom if not the power to appease your desires whenever they arise? We couldn’t remember.
The Illusion of Enslavement
Jesus said that whoever who loves his own life will lose it. We smothered Him with patronising religious labels. We said we’d outgrown Him. We said that that way was good for Him, even though He just said that no man’s own way is good for himself. We said that to abandon self-interest could only be enslavement, and then we became slaves to the diabolical throws of self-interest and all of its exhausting vanities.
Jesus said that a seed has to fall to the ground and die before it can become what its meant to be, and we had lost any structure of thought to make sense of it. Mysticism! A game with words. The cheap business of looking clever by simply turning the obvious up-side down and claiming a higher truth. But whoever could accept it had nothing to lose and nothing to fear, while the rest of us continued in our quiet enslavement to the terror of losing something.
Jesus said that if someone wants something out of you, you should give them twice as much. Did it sound reckless? Whoever could accept it had a freedom which was loving and relational. The freedom to love, steamrolling petty appetites and vanities. The rest of us continued with our lonely illusion of freedom; where the only concept of others was competition, or fair game. We withered away endlessly shoveling coal into the angry furnace of self, and pitied Jesus for His strange enslavements.
What was it supposed to mean? What say you Gandhi? What say you Martin Luther King Jr? What say You God Himself? What say You God? We would have killed you… and we did kill You. But could we have done it if You hadn’t let us. And since that is what we did, we ask, why? What kind of freedom is that? The freedom to die? The freedom to act at your own expense? What kind of dream were You pursuing? What kind of illusion drove You to it?
The illusion of enslavement: Freely you receive. Freely you give.
There was no masterless freedom. There is no masterless freedom. We exchanged one master for another. The selfless for the selfish. The image of God for the image of man. And what was gained? It was this: The right master would put us in the wrong but the wrong master would put us in the right… Because self-interested and crooked masters justify a self-interested people, while living off of their blood.