Freedom: A 21st Century Update

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The Original Social Contract Story                   

From Liberalism to Neoliberalism                     

The Culture of Neoliberalism                             

Brands Take Over                                             

When Freedom Becomes Slavery                     

Freedom and Reason                                        

A New Social Contract                                     

A New Political Economy                                

Getting There                                                    

Freedom Now                                                   


About the Author                                              


With Trump out of the White House America continues to face the triple crises of pandemic, climate change and assaults on democracy.  His conduct as president made them especially severe because he set a standard of virtually unlimited personal freedom – whatever one can get away with by means of their fame, power, connections and money. The infamous remark “When you’re a star…you can do anything,”1 perfectly expressed his attitude.  In myriad ways – refusing to wear masks, storming the capitol then expecting clemency, denying the election results and more – his followers seek similarly unlimited freedom.  With or without the former president, the movement he led will continue, to be halted only by a stronger one that upholds limits on freedom for the common good, social justice and stewardship of the commons.   Presently the Right has many tens of millions of supporters plus majorities in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as several state and local governments.  It may win majorities in both houses of Congress in 2022.  With the start of a new administration and congress advocates on all sides are now mobilizing to push their agendas.  Yet piecemeal change will not conquer the crises of pandemic, climate change and democracy under siege.  They require a unified approach based on a forward-looking conception of freedom.   

Americans have long held a very broad notion of freedom.  Now however the views of the Right and the Left are in mortal conflict, with both standing on the antiquated Enlightenment myth of the social contract. That there is no longer any social contract is well known and also that our government is now lacking in the legitimacy conferred by that contract.  To restore its legitimacy, to protect both freedom and life, we need a new narrative that redefines freedom and democracy to meet the urgent needs of our time.  In this essay I will first review classical liberal political theory then trace how that doctrine devolved into the neoliberal political economy that reached its climax in Trumpism.  In this Orwellian world freedom indeed became slavery, and I explore some of its varieties.  Using the Enlightenment’s own method I next offer a new social contract narrative that satisfies the requirements of reason as it enhances freedom, democracy and life.  The present extreme threats to life that include climate change, pandemic and environmental destruction further demand a new political economy for which I present a basic model.  This provides the optimal structure for democracy and, with it, legitimacy.  My review of history, ideas and current conditions leads to a new conception of freedom which people can adopt now to embrace both liberty and life.    

The Original Social Contract Story

America’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – are based on the classical liberal political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their views differed in some respects, but they agreed that the authority of government is derived from the consent of the governed which was originally granted by the social contract.  The story of the social contract is a myth according to which humans initially lived in the “state of nature.”  Hobbes identified this state with anarchy, “the war of all against all.”2  For Locke it was a mythical society in which people had unlimited freedom subject only to the law of nature which was basically the Golden Rule that everyone enforced for themselves.3  Rousseau depicted it as the original condition of humanity in which people all lived separately like Robinson Carusoe.4  They concurred that God created humans in the state of nature, granting them vast freedom to act within their physical and mental capacities.  Hobbes considered humans to be savages by nature, while Locke and Rousseau ascribed to them kinder dispositions.  In all versions humans by nature originally acted in accordance with their individual self-interest.  People in the state of nature were however endowed with reason, by which they saw that they would all be better off with some cooperation among themselves.  So they unanimously formed the social contract which established a commonwealth, political society or body politic, agreeing to limit some of their natural freedoms in exchange for collective protection of those now limited ones as well as their remaining unlimited freedoms.  By this means they transformed, with some restriction, their God-given natural freedom into fundamental constitutional rights. 

Establishing the social contract did not abolish the state of nature but rather created a new civic order which superimposed a civic identity upon the people who otherwise retained their natural character.  As citizens people had a duty to abide by the laws, but as private individuals they were free to do anything which was not prohibited by law, with this freedom being protected by the law.  Our philosophers stressed that the body politic was “artificial” to distinguish it from the underlying natural order.                          

The social contract story was embedded in the broader outlook of the Enlightenment.  This included Newtonian science, natural law theory with its long history from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and natural history.  Calling itself “the Age of Reason,” thinkers in this period employed rigorous methods of reasoning, believing that such techniques certified the material truth of their theories and assertions. 

From the discovery of the same constant mathematical patterns in the motion of bodies ranging from pebbles to planets Enlightenment scientists conceived an entire world view.  It represented the universe as composed of elementary material bodies and discrete collections of them acting at every level according to Newton’s laws.  Being thoroughly quantitative it defined everything in terms of units which, according to the concept of partes extra partes exist alongside, beyond and exterior to each other with no interdependence, only external independent existence.  All objects were understood to have internal inertial states of motion exemplified by the uniform rectilinear motion of planets whose paths were bent into ellipses by external forces of gravity.  As the laws were verified with observations of innumerable kinds of macroscopic objects they were declared to be the universal laws of nature attributed to God the creator who imposed them on his creation rather as human lawmakers impose laws on citizens.  Further, assuming the conceptual character of mathematics the laws were claimed to be absolutely true and necessary, indeed revealed by the light of reason.  Hope for the new science took the form of a belief in inexorable and continual progress.  

Nature and reason were the two sources of authority with which our political philosophers disputed monarchs’ claims to divine right based on religious grounds.  Supported by the advance of science, they were inclined to identify the two, elevating the tradition of natural law to rational truth as well.  Locke wrote, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”5

Reports of Indigenous Peoples newly discovered in America were seized upon as representations of the natural, original state of human beings and as evidence for the species’ progress.  Our thinkers’ method of reasoning and intellectual heritage however led them to quite mischaracterize such “natural” men. Hobbes was a mechanistic determinist, believing that people were collections of physical particles behaving strictly in accordance with Newton’s laws.  Locke and Rousseau meanwhile held to the traditional Christian notion of free will.  Above all they adhered to the Enlightenment’s precept of partes extra partes.  Humans were a priori conceived entirely as individuals, a viewpoint which was central to the Enlightenment overall. 

Another critical feature of their method was Aristotelian syllogistic logic according to which the conclusion of a deductive inference is assumed in the major premise.  This, paired with the principle of sufficient reason underlay their “self-evident truths.”  An example is that all men are created equal, a conclusion they deduced by first defining humans as a natural species of animal, then asserting that there are no natural social rankings among animals of the same species which thus makes them equal in rank.  This claim was reinforced by the principle of sufficient reason according to which there is nothing in the idea of man so defined which would indicate any difference in rank among them.  Following this reasoning it is seen that “all men are created equal” simply means that insofar as they are all members of the human species, there are no differences in rank among people, making them in this respect sthe same as swine or sheep.  

The total Enlightenment approach to ideas and method was reflected in the classical liberal political philosophers’ construction of the social contract narrative.  It presumed historical progress and defined human beings as individuals in internal states of motion seeking their own self-interest.  Claiming the authority of reason it further asserted that humans were all created equal.  All this moreover was the work of God the creator and lawgiver of nature.  Finally, the source that revealed natural and mathematical truths to humans – the light of reason – also led humans to establish the social contract.  As this light was believed to continue to reveal the secrets of nature forever into the future, so it was expected to guide political conduct following the creation of the social contract.  Like Newtonian science which combined the pure rationality of mathematics with much empirical content, our philosophers sought to justify their vision to the greatest possible extent by means of formal reasoning while also drawing on material representing the human condition past and present.

The story of the social contract established the fundamental rights and the origin of the sovereign which served to legitimize the government that it created.  Our three philosophers presented different models of what that government should be: Hobbes was a theocratic monarchist, while Locke advocated representative democracy. Rousseau favored participatory democracy like that of his native Geneva and ancient Greece.  The American Founders followed Locke, securing very broad fundamental rights and trusting that legislators and the sovereign people would always sustain the common good. 

Supreme among the values guiding the Founders and which their successors were intended to uphold was personal liberty.  They declared

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

By liberty they meant the freedom to do anything that does not harm others.  Moreover, they held that government must not impose any limits on this freedom except those which preserve the liberty of all and are specifically established by law.  

From Liberalism to Neoliberalism

As the American political order was being constructed to implement classical liberal political theory, science continued to advance.  Its method was extended to new areas of study including economics.  In 1776 Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in which he asserted that the free market was governed by the law of supply and demand.  Under this law buyers and sellers necessarily benefit fairly in every transaction because of the universal influence of the benevolent “invisible hand.”  Smith’s subject of study was the specifically economic aspect of people’s lives which he called homo oeconomicus or “economic man.”  Rooted in classical liberal philosophy and emphasizing national policy, his new science was what is known as classical liberal political economy.

America declined to adopt Smith’s pure laissez-faire approach and for several decades after the founding managed its economy according to the American System whose principal features were tariffs, a national bank and federal subsidies for infrastructure.  Following the Civil War big business boomed, igniting first the populist then the progressive movements which gave birth to big government programs and regulations.  Much reform came about from fear of communism and fascism which drove American policy makers to put the demands of working and poor people ahead of those of the wealthy and businesses.  Once big government came into existence it became a magnet for all manner of interests.  While the chief contenders for most of the twentieth century were business and its countervailing force labor, our government became consumed with responding to the multitude of competing claims placed upon it.  

As New Deal policies were advancing in America in the 1930s reaction against socialism was building among some European economists.  Neoliberalism, the Austrian School’s new model of political economy, gained traction after World War II when the Allies were constructing the post-war social democratic order.  With the goal of replacing that system with his neoliberal vision Friedrich von Hayek enlisted a number of European and American economists and businesspeople.  Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago was on board with von Hayek from the beginning, and the two made rapid progress at that institution with each winning Nobel Prizes.  Their efforts were crowned with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America, both of whom shifted their countries to the neoliberal model of political economy.  

Neoliberalism is a radical revision of the core ideas of classical liberal political philosophy and political economy.  Like them it affirms maximum individual freedom but asserts that this requires a free competitive market that embraces all aspects of life.  Insisting that socialism, even the tiniest speck of it, necessarily leads to fascism, neoliberalism demands that government must be reduced to its barest functions of securing persons, property, contracts and the value of money as it promotes capital accumulation through the maintenance and expansion of the competitive market.  For neoliberal capitalist enterprise harmful impacts to people and the environment are “externalities.” People are defined all-inclusively as homo oeconomicus, meaning that all facets of their lives are matters of market competition.  Being “entrepreneurs of themselves,” they must competitively market themselves in any and every human relationship.  As these are multiple, people are thus “bundles of enterprises” always employing or investing their natural, inherited and acquired “human capital” for personal gain.  Though it exalts freedom neoliberalism asserts that people’s actions are determined by “rational choice.”  That is, among possible alternatives, they choose the one that they judge best serves their individual self-interest and competitive advantage.  Ultimately their fates are determined by the invisible hand of the market which ensures that the necessary and universal law of supply and demand always prevails and can never fail. 

Classical liberal philosophers defended their model as being the way of God’s creation and reason.  Neoliberals however swear by the God-almighty market and further insist that their system is the only means of avoiding the descent into fascism or the “road to serfdom.”  Moreover, while liberal government is formed and maintained by popular consent, neoliberalism has been imposed on nations by force or leaders making deceptive promises of freedom and prosperity, never by the fully informed consent of the governed.  Freedom within neoliberalism is, in Milton Friedman’s words, nothing but “freedom to choose” between competing market offerings within the system.6   They deny that the neoliberal system itself is an object of choice, insisting that “There is no alternative” (TINA).  

This is what the freedom of the Founders has devolved into today.  In violation of the core principle of competition in their ideology the Reagan administration early on virtually abandoned anti-trust policy.  Corporate giants decimated smaller businesses, and wealth became highly concentrated, a consequence Hayek in fact foresaw.  His vision for free enterprise also included free trade, so today the market is dominated by the global corporate elite which has established institutions of global governance that can override sovereign nations’ law-making authority.  Competition between businesses is now waged globally as they all strain to increase profits, reduce expenses and raise stock values.  This compels countries to compete against each other to attract global businesses by offering business-friendly conditions consisting of cheap labor, little regulation and low taxes.  Domestically states and communities must compete for businesses to locate in them with an array of taxpayer-funded enticements.  Four decades of neoliberal off-shoring, M&A, downsizing, union-busting, relentless quest for greater efficiency, deregulation, privatization and financial crises have exacted an immense toll on the American people.

The Culture of Neoliberalism

As our economy has been transformed, so has our culture. While Thatcher was declaring, “…there is no society. There are individual men and women and there are families,”7 Americans were shifting to what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism.”8  Change in the nature of work played a large role in this, as the previous model of long-term full-time employment with companies providing generous benefits was overturned.  It was progressively replaced by an array of precarious arrangements – contract work, on-demand schedules, temps – plus continual market flux that requires people to often seek new jobs, update skills, reskill and work two or three jobs at a time.  The fluid nature of work spread to social relations in general, making them particularly superficial and transient or “liquid” according to Zygmunt Bauman.9

Being centered on competition has given neoliberal culture certain distinctive features.  Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook have named it “The Winner-Take-All Society”10 in which corporate boards of directors, universities, sports teams and television networks set the standard by elevating a few people to the status of stars for the purpose of successfully competing with their rivals.  This has produced the overall cult of celebrity which trickles down to ordinary people who engage in more or less universal individual and group competition.  The neoliberal imperative of maximizing the return on one’s human capital in a competitive market means that people will make the most of whatever advantages they have from their birth and upbringing, most notably white privilege.  Competition, as Paul Riesling observed in Babbitt, isn’t aimed at achieving something but rather at defeating one’s opponent.11   Systemic racism is thus baked into neoliberalism, as is patriarchy.  Individuals compete to get jobs, then to move up the ladder in their organization or industry, while even staying in the same position entails competitive effort.  Being in an organization involves playing on its team in competition against rivals, and this requires team members to fit into its culture.  The team model is reproduced across the spectrum of human associations, with each person having multiple identities as employees, members of families, churches, political parties and more. 

Apart from the particular circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing, which it insists can always be surmounted, neoliberalism claims that an individual freely chooses the components of their identity – their job, hair style, religion, political affiliation and so on.  This view pretends that a free individual with an original nature exists, but that is mostly a myth.  Individuality is a creation of the free market.  Offering Fords and Chevys, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, CNN and Fox, marketers exhort us to make the choice that expresses our “individuality.”  In fact however our choices define our individuality.  If there were only one kind of car, individuality in choosing one would have no meaning.  As we proceed in life our identity builds with the choices we make among alternatives for education, jobs, cars, social groups, virtually everything. 

By insisting that people make free rational choices solely to advance their individual self-interest neoliberalism denies the immense influence of marketing.  Yet as it defines everything in terms of the market it construes all human behavior as basically consumer behavior.  Under neoliberalism marketing as well as propaganda profoundly affect people as consumers.  Although their identities are defined by their consumer choices and they are influenced by marketing, individual people remain the agents making the choices.  Indeed, as Bauman says, “Consumption is a supremely solitary activity…”12 This fact explains how individuality and communality are conjoined in neoliberal culture and why the pendulum has swung from people touting their singularity to packing into its distinctive type of tribes.

Brands Take Over

In the early days of neoliberalism in America people were bent on escaping collective behavior and thinking, hence the culture of narcissism.  Robert Bellah’s 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life described how people insisted on forming their own opinions, doing their own things and expecting others to do the same. They constructed their individual identities by collecting assorted bits from a vast smorgasbord of choices exemplified by “Sheilaism,” the personal patchwork religion of a woman named Sheila.13    People still insist on making their own choices, but market alternatives have now been considerably consolidated into a limited number of broadly inclusive packages.  How this came about is the story of brands related by Naomi Klein in her 2000 book No Logo.14 

At its most basic level marketing aims not to sell a product to a consumer but some personal, often intangible, reward from it, e.g., not some food, but the enjoyment of the food, not the Cadillac, but the status of the Cadillac.  Klein explains that in the 1990s marketing was dramatically transformed through a shift of focus to brands.  Nike led the pack by divesting from the production of sneakers and undertaking to market its name and logo to represent such ideals as athleticism, winning and freedom.  By doing this it sought to satisfy people’s desire for meaning in their lives and the world.  The brand represented by the logo was extended to a wide array of products, teams and events, achieving a degree of saturation.  With advertisements featuring athletic stars, notably Michael Jordan who even got his name on one line, the brand defined a lifestyle.  All the branded products, people and events together formed the Nike universe which consumers entered when they bought the goods and in which they were immersed when they attended the events.  Live Michael Jordan games were particularly intense Nike universe experiences, while the televised games were lesser ones.  As consuming something involves identifying oneself with it as well as with other consumers of the same brand, gatherings under a brand validate and reinforce each person’s identification with that brand and create a form of communality.  With immersive events, videos and superstar role models Nike produced and marketed a broad and vibrant mindset by which consumers in some measure transcended their reality.  This was especially illustrated by the passion with which impoverished inner city youth embraced the Nike and Jordan brands and their success with teenagers around the world.

The Nike marketing technique was carried to its ultimate extreme by Donald Trump.  Early in his career he established an image as an icon of success, wealth, glamour, ruthless business practices and, above all, winning.  Like Nike he diversified his business empire to include office buildings, hotels, resorts, golf courses, casinos, a university, book, steaks and even endorsement of Oreos.  Further, like Nike, much of this consisted in selling licenses for the use of the Trump brand rather than actual ownership and operation.  The brand not only spread the glow of Trump’s stardom over consumers’ experience of the branded products and services, it literally incorporated them into his world as tenants, guests, members and students.  Starting with the Miss Universe pageant he progressively moved onto television, the optimal platform from which to promote himself and his brand.  A 2018 New Yorker article explained how The Apprentice resurrected Trump’s then failing empire and paved the way to his presidency.15   The program was created specifically for Trump by Mark Burnett who had previously conceived and produced Survivor. As a youth Burnett was fascinated by Lord of the Flies, and his first series embodied that novel’s ethos.  Depicting Trump as a business superstar The Apprentice vastly expanded the Trump universe and amplified its values.

In The Apprentice people came onto the program to compete for the favor of Trump in his stage persona to win jobs in his real organization.  With his power over the contestants he rather played God by passing final judgement on them, treating losers with his signature cruelty.  While the contestants were literally immersed in Trump’s universe as program apprentices viewers of it were immersed in it vicariously.  As with any successful narrative the audience identified and connected with various characters.  What was significant about the show was how it dramatized the neoliberal culture of competition by exalting winners and demeaning losers.  Identifying with the Trump character, viewers shared the brutally competitive, even sadistic sentiments portrayed as emblems of spectacular success.  The show added new elements to the Trump universe – the character which was a mythical version of the real person and the whole television audience which affirmed its values to varying degrees. 

Emboldened by his increased celebrity, Trump went on to wage his birther campaign, adding a racist contingent to his universe.  His presidential campaign may have been intended as only a marketing stunt for his brand, but with it he exploited white nationalist tendencies, absorbing another bloc into his base.  Central to his campaign were the rallies that could be compared to Michael Jordan basketball games with the brand emblazoned all over, frenzied fans wearing the brand caps and shirts and a spectacular performance by the candidate who had assumed a rock star-like image. 

With his entry into the presidential race and his campaign messaging, Trump magnified another aspect of that image – power.  Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer said “…He’s very much like a cult leader. When you’re in his good grace, you believe that you have this enormous amount of power, which you do…”16  The candidate Trump projected an image of extraordinary power with fantastic campaign promises such as that he would make Mexico pay to build his wall, abolish all regulations and lock up Hillary Clinton.  Like branded crowd events his rallies validated and reinforced the participants’ identification with his brand and further generated communality among them.  Moreover, because a celebrity or popular candidate owes their status to their fan or supporter base, this dependence creates a bond between them and the star. Trump the candidate’s power was also very visibly augmented by his rally crowds’ electoral power.  Once he was elected he proceeded to abuse the power of his office to enforce the loyalty of other officials, and on his way out he weaponized his command of his electoral base for the same purpose.

Trump expanded Nike’s brand saturation strategy to the nth degree.  Impacts to matters great and small around the world essentially bore the “Trump” stamp.  At the center of the Trump brand universe stood the man himself, a paragon of power, wealth and unrestrained freedom.  As president he received immense media coverage, some of it fawning as from Fox, and the rest moderately to brutally critical.  For Trump’s purpose however there was no such thing as bad publicity as he employed Twitter as a 24/7 personal media channel.  The Trump universe was coextensive with the globe, but there were degrees of inclusion in it.  Just as seeing the Nike logo on some object or ad places a person in the Nike universe in a minimal capacity, so merely reading or watching the news drew people into Trump’s, at least on the fringe.  His fiercest opponents were in well into his realm, as he dominated their thinking.  It had a fervent hard core, one medium for which was his campaign’s online alternate universe.  Thomas Edsall described this website and app as “a self-contained, self-reinforcing arena where Trump reigns supreme” and which traps people “inside an ecosystem of dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories and grievance politics.”17  Providing nightly live shows and training videos with surrogates and senior campaign staff it aimed to make the experience as fun and exciting as possible with the app serving to capture ever more people.  For sharing it supporters won points redeemable for campaign merchandise discounts with the ultimate prize being a picture with the candidate. 

Over his career Trump has become increasingly audacious with his defiance of normal standards of civilized, decent and moral conduct.  Edsall goes on to relate how in politics he poses as a champion for people who believe that they are the victims of social control by the established political leadership.  The more he lies, brazenly violates norms and antagonizes the establishment, the more credible is his claim to be the leader of those who feel disenfranchised by that establishment. As a model of uninhibited freedom Trump brandished his exercise of the ultimate freedom of a ruler – the power of life or death over particular individuals, the methodical use of which is known as “necropolitics.”   

The supreme freedom that Trump finally has most consistently exercised is the freedom to create one’s own truth.  At the center of his universe there is a realm of thought in which global warming and coronavirus are hoaxes and he won the 2020 election.  Like the more devoted Nike brand enthusiasts, Trump supporters transcend their reality by believing his representation of the world and embedding themselves in his alternate universe.  Relentless attempts by state and federal officials as well as unruly mobs to overturn Trump’s defeat in the election brought that alternate universe closer to reality. 

I compare the Trump phenomenon to the Nike and Michael Jordan brands in order to demonstrate how individual freedom figures in each.  Like Nike purchasers, every Trump supporter functions as a neoliberal free agent of rational choice, which means basically as a consumer.  This is how they safeguard their foremost value of individual freedom, the more unrestrained the better.  Solidarity, a fundamental feature of labor movements, is alien to Trumpism.  Trump himself, with his everlasting antics, is not only the fountainhead but represents the very incarnation of uninhibited freedom along with the rest of the values of his universe.  Advocates of unlimited freedom rally behind their idol, emulating him with acts of intimidation and violence against officials and citizens.  He can’t admit that he lost the election because winning is absolutely essential to his image.    

Trump and his universe did not come about in a vacuum; rather he rose as a marketing sensation within the total neoliberal culture.  That culture glorifies material success and condemns failure with media feeding a winner-take-all spirit.  Trump’s political success depends on his image as a billionaire businessman celebrity – the ideal fulfillment of popular aspiration.  Neoliberal subjects are driven by competitive self-interest, so they naturally choose to ally or identify themselves with people and brands that promise to advance it.  With brand marketing consumers are drawn into universes of products, activities, media, lifestyles, values, superstar idols and communality in which they transcend their realities and at the extreme abide in alternate ones.  All these elements of neoliberal culture were brought together by Trump to create, grow, consolidate and tyrannically preserve his domain.     

While his doing this is not news, I have sought to illuminate how it embodies standard features of our culture and shall now describe how these figure in group affiliations in general.  Textbook neoliberal subjects freely choose their jobs, education, social groups and even association with family once they become adults.  Of course this is nonsense, as, in addition to marketing, family influence and peer pressure, not to mention individual economic circumstances, play large roles.  Still, these are individual choices, free or otherwise, that define people’s identities and can therefore be treated as consumer decisions.  

Contrary to neoliberal doctrine, not all such choices are made for individual self-advancement.  They do, however generally reflect neoliberal consumer culture in several ways.  The consumer market is driven by novelty: people are constantly exhorted by advertising to buy the newest thing and discard the old.  This impels people to seek immediate gratification and guaranteed satisfaction.  Consumer offerings are designed to provide only short-term contentment, setting the consumer up for the next powerful marketing hit.  With products quickly wearing out, breaking down, becoming obsolete or passé and novelty soon wearing off, the consumer outlook is short-term. 

This is yet another component of the overall liquid character of culture rooted in transitory work described by Bauman which especially reduces and weakens social commitments.  Within neoliberal culture group affiliations are frequently approached as short-term affairs, sometimes lasting only a matter of hours or minutes.  Examples of the latter are many rallies and marches such as the 2014 People’s Climate March.  Bauman has called this kind of gathering “swarms.”18   They are intended, above all, to get media coverage, so they prioritize crowd size, visuals and celebrity speakers.  Longer term but still light commitments he calls “cloakroom communities” – regular actual or virtual gatherings of people who share a single narrow interest.19 Reflecting the domination of media and celebrity culture these tend to consist of followers of a single person who has successfully marketed the organization and themselves, delivering the “verdict of the market.”  As with branded crowd events people joining swarms and cloakroom communities demonstrate mutual approval of each other’s participation which amounts to “validation by the market.”  The least engaged form of group affiliation is that of membership in staff-run organizations.  Robert Putnam has called this phenomenon “consuming a cause” or “citizenship by proxy.”20   In these different ways people adopt so many group identities in the manner of consumers, similarly to the way they acquire furniture for their homes or clothes for their wardrobes.

Although the phrase “identity group” commonly pertains to racial, ethnic and gender distinctions, people with the affiliations I have just described constitute identity groups as well.  Early in the twentieth century sociologist Georg Simmel observed that, as a defense against anomie in mass society, people form groups with like-minded others.  In assembling they automatically establish a distinction between insiders and outsiders.  Over time enforced conformity within groups grows, producing their distinctive groupthink.21   Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm maintained that the purpose of identity groups is not to include but to exclude.22 

I have given an account of group affiliation according to basic consumer behavior.  It has been significantly modified by the advent of big group brands starting with Christian, which Reagan annexed to the Republican Party.  That party brand has since devoured blocs of former Southern Democrats, union members and even People of Color.  Like Hannah Arendt’s totalitarian onion, it has a hard right-wing core with increasingly moderate surrounding layers.  Still it is a brand that commands its registrants’ votes.  Americans are deeply polarized, with their positions defined more in negative than in positive terms.  The Republican brand mostly represents anti-socialism, while the Democratic brand has no fixed meaning beyond being the anti-Republican brand.  In the meantime, the Independent brand is the anti-Republican and anti-Democratic brand.  These brands form parts, sometimes large parts, of people’s identities while, like at Nike, the brand universes are controlled by marketing pros for the organizations’ profit.     

Much of neoliberal culture can therefore be understood in terms of brands, including neoliberalism itself which goes by the name “capitalism.”  As brands such as Nike, Trump and the Republican Party form universes of meaning and action, so does capitalism, which is a total universe.  And here is the contradiction at its heart: people freely choose to be a part of it, paradoxically meaning that they freely choose to be enslaved by it. 

The reality of neoliberalism is that it is a contrived system dominated by the global elite which is ever increasing its own wealth and power but which disseminates a libertarian message.  Thus we have masses of people who are libertarians at heart passionately serving the masters of global neoliberalism.  Some support virtually unlimited personal freedom as exhibited in the resistance to wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  Trumpism is very much a personality cult to which its members surrender their personal autonomy.  Strict loyalty to the Republican or Democratic Party are surrenders as well.  Considering the group structure of neoliberalism with its identity groups and groupthink the overall truth about “freedom” in this system can be clearly seen. 

When Freedom Becomes Slavery

The Western tradition since Antiquity has been to define freedom in such a way as to make it the opposite of slavery.  So I now turn to bringing some historical perspective to current popular notions of freedom.  A key text for this project is Albert Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel, in which the author recounts several approaches to freedom that end in slavery.  He traces the movement for total freedom, which he identifies with nihilism, from de Sade through nineteenth century Russian anarchists and twentieth century absurdists, concluding “that the negation of everything is a form of servitude.”23 Several figures he names were willing to die for unlimited freedom, the very claim made by some anti-maskers and insurrectionists today.  One slave to his ideology was Saint-Just, the extremist leader in the French Revolution who was sent to the guillotine by his rivals.  Camus cites the lesson on freedom in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov.  In that tale Christ returns to establish heaven on earth, but, seized by the Grand Inquisitor, he is told that people don’t want freedom but rather to be controlled by the Church.  This is not because they are cowardly, but because they are lazy.  Ordered by the Inquisitor to leave and never return, Christ retreats to heaven in defeat.  Another dramatic historical example he gives is that of Spartacus, leader of a famous Roman slave rebellion.  The slave, Camus says, achieves a measure of freedom in the act of rebellion.  To this insight I add Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave relation which reveals that the master is in bondage insofar as he is dependent on his slave and must continually act to keep him oppressed.  In this respect the slave is independent of the master and thus his master.  By destroying the relationship a slave rebellion liberates both masters and slaves.  Camus’ final study is of twentieth century communism, relating how the Russian Revolution inevitably led to Stalinism.  Addressing contemporary French communists he condemned their slavery to an ideology that promised perfect freedom in some distant future while presently sanctioning bloody repression. 

Slavery to ideology is notoriously irrational or Orwellian. People today are not so much enslaved by ideologies as the types of brand universes that I have described.  Trump’s alternative universe is one extreme example, but there are several other more or less comprehensive or immoderate such realms.  For charismatic evangelicals God is the guiding force in their lives and the world, and they tend toward vehement anti-intellectualism.  Otherwise the groupthink of all the kinds of associations I mentioned is at least limited in its scope and therefore lacks full rational justification.  This ranges from blind loyalty to a party brand to people who exclusively follow some single political commentator.  There are certainly some good ones among the latter, but it must be recognized that insofar as those are mere journalists they are not historians, political philosophers or activist movement leaders.  None of them present full visions of how the world should be, much less roadmaps for how to make it so.  Celebrities take a national perspective, never adapting their messaging to particular local audiences and their unique conditions.  Finally, they are creatures of the media market in either its mainstream or niche form. 

Freedom and Reason

Decades ago Herbert Marcuse explained that the structure of scientific understanding, advertising and propaganda has spawned a pervasive “one-dimensional” mode of communication and thought.24   Its basic constructions are absolute declarative sentences and standard heavily connotative adjectives attached to certain proper and common nouns.  Examples of the former are “the universe began with the big bang,” “Healthcare is a right,” “Walmart. Always low prices,” while the latter are represented by “quality affordable healthcare” and “crooked Hillary.”  One-dimensional speech, writing and thinking preempt further reflection which might negate or qualify it, rendering it simple dogma.  The identity groups that I have described are formed around doctrines commonly expressed as slogans and labels that reflect the one-dimensional character of the groups’ positions.  Examples include “Make America Great Again” and “Pro-Choice.”      

For Enlightenment thinkers the exercise of reason was a vital component of human freedom, but they differed on what that meant.  Our Founders believed that the laws of nature and the liberal political order were revealed by the light of reason which would continue to guide the leaders of the state.  Rousseau was more pragmatic and democratic, respecting the ordinary rational faculties of individual citizens.  In his native city-state of Geneva he had first-hand experience of its tradition of participatory democracy, regarding the social contract of every individual with every other one as the enduring ground of the body politic.  Factions were therefore antithetical to his model.  George Washington warned of “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,”25 which promotes government corruption and inefficiency, divides society and fosters conflict, encourages political instability and weakness and exposes the state to foreign infiltration.  Ironically, as Americans condemn our partisan politics, their resistance mostly consists of forming new factions – supporters of Trump, Bernie Sanders, Proud Boys, Democratic Socialists, and so on.     

In our time group identity and groupthink are two sides of the same coin.  Identifying with a group means thinking and speaking like them, at least in their company.  Conversely, taking one’s thinking from a particular group means identifying with them for their specific purpose.  People’s identity and thinking therefore mostly consist of a set of consumer choices like what they wear, e.g., Hanes T shirt, Levi’s jeans and Nike sneakers.   

Light of reason notwithstanding, classical liberal political theory is an ideology, as are its successors neoliberalism, libertarianism, Christian nationalism and progressivism.  Within the neoliberal system, which isn’t offered as an object of choice, the latter three creeds are consumer options.  Obviously, apart from broad principles, many people mix and match positions on particular issues, refining their consumer choices in the same manner as they go to this or that supermarket and choose among their selections of identical or similar products.  There are conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans whose views agree or differ issue-by-issue.  Everyone is alike in making choices in political matters whether they are narrow or comprehensive, with no opinion being a choice as well. 

Eschewing factions Rousseau envisioned all the people engaging as citizens with the full exercise of their powers of reason.  Except for the principle of popular sovereignty, this view is devoid of ideology or some scientific model of public affairs.  It amounts merely to people rationally working together to address concerns that affect their collective well-being.  Eliminating slavery to factions, ideologies and brands, it represents the supreme freedom of the citizen.  For it embodies the core concepts of the social contract – that people exercise freedom without harming each other and that they share equally and rationally in governing themselves.  

A Twenty-First Century Social Contract

In so many ways America has drifted far, far away from its original ideals of freedom, democracy and legitimacy.  It is now in the throes of three major crises – the pandemic, climate change and right-wing extremism.  The election of Biden and Harris alone certainly won’t bring about the fundamental change that we need to survive these threats.  I have traced the history of liberal democracy to reveal how it has degenerated into our current state.  Now I propose to repair the damage with updated, improved understanding of freedom, democracy and legitimacy in a new political philosophy.  

In all the systems of thought in the Western tradition methods of strict reasoning are paramount.  The wide variation among these interpretations owes much to the difference in the first principles they postulate which are the premises upon which they rationally build their structures.  Our Enlightenment political philosophers made human freedom their first principle.  Relying on Aristotelian and medieval methods of reasoning they developed the rest.  They chose freedom as their foundation because that was supreme political priority of their time.

Following that precedent, I ask, What is the most urgent concern of our time?  Devastation from climate change and the pandemic, “Black Lives Matter,” “Water Is Life” – it’s obvious: our chief priority is life.   Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Times that in response to the anti-maskers’ defense of their freedom, liberals should say, “Freedom means the freedom not to get infected by the idiot who refuses to mask up.”26   This is a clever point, but it still subordinates life to freedom.  I note that the Declaration of Independence lists the God-given inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in that order.

In identifying life as our premier value, I further ask, Why?  How has this come about?  Climate change and the zoonotic coronavirus have arisen precisely from people exercising their neoliberal freedom, dismissing environmental harm as an externality.  As I have indicated, racial and wealth inequality are inevitable consequences of that freedom as well.  Harm to the environment is abuse, and systemic racism is oppression, a version of the master/slave relation which the master must exert much effort to maintain.  The classical liberal/neoliberal doctrine of freedom is the problem, which I propose to replace with one centered on life. 

While classical liberal thinkers interpreted human life in terms of the partes extra partes concept fundamental to Newtonian mechanics, the exclusive reign of that scientific model was short-lived.  Experimental researchers soon discovered a multitude of patterns in nature that were not directly reducible to the motion of elementary bodies.  The study of organic nature – biology and medicine – proceeded on a different track, acknowledging their subjects as living systems.  Over time Newtonian physics has been circumscribed by relativity and field theory as well as quantum mechanics, and life science now firmly embraces the study of systems.  The physical science upon which the classical liberal conception of freedom was founded is obsolete for that purpose, as it is now understood to represent the mechanistic but not the living aspect of nature.      

Although Enlightenment thinkers claimed that natural science and their political knowledge were revealed by the light of reason as absolute and necessary truth, science, which now includes social science, has long abandoned such pretension.  Science is about theoretical models which have some measure of experimental or empirical support and of which competing ones exist within disciplines.  I have stated that neoliberalism is a model that has been imposed by the power elite on the global economy.  While it has self-fulfilled many of its prophesies, it was in fact decisively falsified by the 2008 financial crash and remains on life-support through ever-growing government and central bank interventions.

The perennial Western method of reasoning does not by itself find or establish truth but develops systems of inferences from axioms and definitions in mathematics, hypotheses in science and first principles in philosophy. Traditionally the latter have been claimed to be self-evident, so I now ask, Is not life also one of or even the first principle of human knowledge?  Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am,” proceeding to “prove” that he was an immaterial ghost in a physical machine.  An even more self-evident truth is I think, therefore I live, for there is no inference, not even a statement, unless I exist for the time it occupies, that is, unless I live as I make it.  I could provide more arcane reasons for adopting life as the first principle for political philosophy, but in the end, the choice is somewhat arbitrary.  The Enlightenment selected freedom because it was the burning priority of their time.  Life, understood in the broadest sense as the biosphere, is now literally burning, making it the premier issue for humans in our time.

Classical liberal political thinkers fixed on the first principle of their theory then applied the knowledge and method of their day to develop it.  Having selected my first principle I shall follow their precedent by next elaborating it in accordance with the basics of current life science.  Far from the seventeenth century’s universal principle of partes extra partes living things today are understood in terms of systems – the interconnections between organisms, their inorganic environment and among themselves.  Systems analysis involves defining things not as isolated and independent atoms but as parts of systematic wholes.  Nature consists of infinitely numerous whole systems that intersect and form parts of yet larger wholes, encompassing organic and inorganic objects alike. 

Living things act to sustain themselves within the manifold systems of which they form parts, and as parts sustaining themselves entails sustaining those systems.  Individual organisms all have finite lifespans, but there is reproduction within their populations and species by which these endure indefinitely as they too sustain the systems of which they form parts.  In fact, living is chiefly aimed at the continuation of life at every level.  The simple act of eating serves to provide energy for an animal in the future, after its body has processed the food.  Likewise throughout populations of species and across the biosphere life is directed at perpetuating itself indefinitely.  At the same time natural history tells us that systems do undergo change, can suffer damage and recover or even be destroyed, especially by major short- or long-term geologic or meteorologic events. 

Though death is inevitable, our priority is life.  So as I proceed to recast the understanding of human life to align with current life science, I will focus on the characteristics of living systems that sustain their life.  This endeavor requires first redefining the human individual as a whole organism which is also a part of larger whole living systems.  As such their essential function is to sustain themselves while they sustain these other systems: this is the ecological imperative.  It contrasts profoundly with the classical liberal conception by which an individual seeks their own self-interest by any means whatsoever as long as they do not injure other people.  That basic right is at the bottom of every environmental and social justice conflict which all revolve around direct versus indirect harm.  The  fundamentalist approach confines it to immediate injury while the systems view has potentially unlimited reach. 

Freedom in my story is freedom for the individual to live and to function as parts of the larger living systems that literally support their individual life.  The first component is presently the standard progressive agenda expressed in the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life” as well as demands for clean air, universal healthcare, basic income and so forth.  The second component implies a far more ambitious program, as those kinds of systems are currently badly damaged or do not exist at all.  To take air, for example, such freedom means living within a mode of production that does not poison the atmosphere and overheat the planet.  This condition for freedom is an objective to be achieved along with many others including a thoroughly healthy biosphere in the place of the one that is now dying before our eyes.

A conception of individual freedom involving conditions for the realization of that freedom is not new.  While the Founders accentuated their idea of freedom, most of their effort was directed at establishing the conditions in which it could exist.  The Declaration of Independence is mostly a list of grievances against restraints and abuses inflicted upon the colonists as it asserts that government is instituted precisely to secure fundamental rights or freedoms.  Following this precedent, my version of freedom is also to be secured by a government. 

My first principle for political thought with its definition of the human creature leads to a new view of the social contract.  It defines the political body or polity as a living system which is a living part of another living system that is the community with which it is coextensive.  The parts of the polity are all the citizens who count as essential, with no one cast as worthless or disposable.  People who, despite the best efforts of the polity, persist as threats to it are of course treated as criminals.  The purpose of the polity is to secure the well-being of the community and all its members.  Insofar as the polity is a part of the community and citizenship is a part of its members’ lives, it also functions to secure the well-being of itself and the members in their capacity as citizens.  The social contract is precisely people’s continual commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the polity.  While no kind of formal law itself, it serves as the moral foundation of the constitution, legislation, executive and judicial decisions.  The government that is made legitimate by this social contract is most directly local participatory democracy that adheres to the rule of law.     Legitimacy of higher levels of government is similarly established by the peoples’ commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the representative democracy of those levels to secure the well-being of their jurisdictions and residents under the rule of law.      

Thus defined as a living system that includes all the citizens as essential parts, the polity accords with the systems model of nature.  So my social contract does not represent the exit from the state of nature, but the return to it.  It contrasts with the previous social contract story in certain vital respects. 

First, the earlier philosophers asserted that the polity was an artificial creation of all the people who entered into the social contract.  That narrative preserved a “natural” sphere of life, distinct from the polity, in which people retained their natural unlimited freedom.  Within the political realm citizens were subject to the rule of institutions and laws, but otherwise they enjoyed freedom to do as they liked with such unconstrained freedom being protected by the polity.  In a natural system, however, there is no distinction between natural and artificial components.  The whole is indivisible with its parts which have multiple natural aspects, for example, people’s private, spiritual and political functions.  Our thinkers’ master of logic Aristotle had in fact said, “Man is by nature a political animal.”27  My social contract undergirds a polity modeled on nature which has no need to drive a wedge between the civic realm and others, as each person is a whole human individual and an organic part of the whole living community.

Another respect in which my view of the polity as a natural system differs from the classical one is in regard to the origin.  The latter characterized people as being by nature unorganized individuals, but there is invariably not only order but systematic order in nature.  Humans are social animals, and their groups, even mobs, always exhibit some organization. The primary questions are which system dominates and to what extent does it does it support and sustain human life.  For a battlefield littered with dead and dying soldiers is something of a natural system teeming with vultures, flies and bacteria.  Moreover, at a minimum everything in the biosphere is a part of that total system, so there is also the issue of boundaries for the polity.

To elaborate my conception of the polity as a natural living system, I offer an analogy with the human body, comparing individual persons to individual cells.  In the body there are systems such as the circulatory system which has a certain structure but in whose function every cell participates.  They all receive oxygen and nutrients while disposing of wastes via that structure which also provides the means to protect cells from disease and to heal them if they are harmed. Different cells primarily belong to different systems, but their functions are all integrated into the whole system, with all functioning to sustain themselves, each other and the whole.  The system that correlates to government is the nervous system which is literally the nerve center of the body that coordinates diverse functions, is the repository of habits and makes decisions.  In addition, it performs an enforcement function for the body which is pain.  The feeling or threat of pain is a signal for the body to avoid certain actions which if committed would be punished with pain.  

Comparing the government of a community to the nervous system of a body, it is seen that as long as the body lives, unless on artificial life-support, that system functions to some degree.  So with government: it may be very corrupt or even so deranged that it amounts to virtual anarchy.  Moreover, as long as a body or a community live, they are systems which also may be in very damaged, degraded or corrupted states.  Impaired parts no longer function in support of other parts, but possibly in opposition to them.  Failure to heal tends to produce a cascading effect among parts that causes more damage and ultimately death of the body. 

For the body to live and perform all its functions its parts must properly function, that is, be healthy. Likewise with a community which is a living system.  The community as a whole is in good condition insofar as its parts which consist of its members, are also in good condition.  Government serves to coordinate the functioning of the parts to maintain their health and that of the whole, and it is good government insofar as it is successful in doing this.  In my model the most immediate level of government is local participatory democracy which corresponds in a body to the ultimate participation of every cell in the functioning of the nervous system.  With government the relationship is not totally reciprocal because it has distinct enforcement authority over the parts. 

Although participatory democracy includes some officials in addition to all the actively engaged citizens, ultimately the government is the people who ideally have no need for heavy official regulation and policing of themselves.  A formal structure of laws, justice and enforcement does exist, but the well-being of the community is sustained by what Rousseau called, after the three conventional kinds of laws – fundamental, civil and criminal, the fourth

…the most important of all. It is engraved in neither marble nor brass, but in the hearts of its citizens; it forms the true constitution of the state: it renews its vigor every day, and when other laws become obsolete or ineffective, it restores or replaces them; it keeps the people in the spirit of its institutions, and gradually substitutes the force of habit for that of authority. I am referring to morals, customs, and above all, public opinion. This category of laws is unknown to our political theorists, but it is essential to the success of all the others; the great lawgiver concerns himself with it in secret, while seeming to limit himself to specific regulations that are only the sides of the arch, whereas morals, slower to develop, eventually form its unshakable keystone.28

I have presented a picture of the ideal democracy in which all the people continuously uphold the social contract that I have described.  In the original story the social contract was a once and done affair that established the government as a distinct entity with authority over the people.  Compared with that model my version which focuses on individual citizens’ continuous responsibility initially appears rather loose and informal.  I will therefore now fill in some details which make it firmer and address human imperfection.  Returning to my analogy with the body I want to stress that while the whole is ultimately indivisible, its systems, the nervous system in particular, function in an orderly fashion.  Likewise, there is structure and orderly process in government, that is, rule according to law.  Meanwhile, humans are unlike cells in the body in that they can choose whether or not to act in the interest of the community and even in their own self-interest.  In the Christian tradition this distinction has been attributed to man’s free will.  Aristotle, who was fundamentally a biologist, saw natural variation among members of the same species, finding some imperfect in a multitude of different ways.  His science reflected the general view of the Greeks who were notable for their great attention to education to not only remedy human deficiencies but to nurture excellence.       

Like the original one-time social contract, my continuously renewed one is completely voluntary.  It is people’s ongoing commitment to each other to support the proper operation of their government, which is a function of all the citizens some of whom are officials.  This contrasts with a current misconception of the social contract – that it is a unilateral obligation of the government to the people.  Although my ideal social contract is a commitment of each individual with every other individual, in reality it is likely to only be such a pledge between some individuals and some others.  Hopefully this includes most of them and all of the officials.  Their engagement does entail an obligation to seek to include all of the people in the commitment.  While in my analogy the nervous system is the principal one coordinating all the others, this function is in fact somewhat shared by the others.  Similarly, insofar as the people are the government, it is their adherence to the social contract that keeps the community functioning well overall. 

Within living systems some parts inevitably fail.  My social contract involves a responsibility to restore such parts to their proper function.  Criminals, for example, must be rehabilitated.  There will also be irreparable defects which may be congenital or acquired which living systems naturally deal with.  If someone loses the use of their right hand, they will adapt by making new use of their left and other parts of their body.  Assistance to disabled people is therefore an obligation under my social contract, along with effort to prevent people from not joining the contract, violating it or becoming unable to honor it.

In reality the effect of my social contract is a matter of degree – how many people commit to it and how thoroughly they do so.  This commitment is also the measure of the legitimacy of the government of which it is the foundation.  Indeed, this is the measure of the legitimacy of any democratic government.  Turning again to my analogy with the body we know that the health of a body is a matter of degree and probably none can be judged to be in perfect health.  Imperfection is obviously inevitable, but like a body, the polity must guard against threats to its deterioration, recognizing that the failure of any part threatens or impairs all the other parts and the whole.  This fact is vividly illustrated in the spread of COVID-19 by people who refuse to follow public health safety practices.   

So far my account of the new social contract has only defined it in terms of a natural system.  Also included in the original story were declarations that all humans are equal and they possess certain fundamental freedoms.  The systems model of nature establishes human equality on the ground that people are living units of a single kind that all together constitute the community.   Being parts of that community involves them exercising their common rationality as officially equal citizens in the democratic government of the polity.  Like cells in a body that all ultimately participate in systems, notably the nervous system, people are all parts of the polity whose function is to ensure the well-being of every part and the whole indivisible body.  Regarding freedom, my model gives the highest priority to the freedom to live.  In today’s neoliberal system, which is the wreckage of classical liberal democracy, people’s right to life is infringed upon in a multitude of ways.  It wasn’t so long ago that broad environmental, labor and civil rights protections were in effect, and they now need to be not only restored but strengthened.  My social contract significantly increases people’s freedom from what it is now.  For one thing it secures the freedom for everyone to fully participate in collective self-government which ensures each citizen’s rational autonomy and freedom from factions.  I will show in the next section that it ultimately provides everyone the freedom to realize the range of their potential and further that it frees people from injury and oppression by others as it simultaneously frees the perpetrators from the compulsion to commit such acts.  Finally it frees people to affirm life, overcome alienation and to reject inauthenticity and banality.                      

Government isn’t the whole story because, as I have indicated in my historical review, particular models of political economy have furnished the conditions for the exercise of first liberal, then neoliberal freedom.  Of course this last is not freedom at all but slavery in innumerable respects.  The new social contract requires a new political economy which provides the material framework for people to live full lives as essential parts of so many living systems and thus enjoy maximum human freedom.  I now turn to a description of that model, emphasizing that it embodies the ideal democracy. Initially presenting it as a utopia or vision to guide our action I then bring it down to earth by urging the implementation of several proposals on the table now.  Preempting the likely objection that it is utopian, I remind the reader that all the models I have discussed – classical liberal political philosophy, classical liberal political economy, neoliberalism, not to mention the Founders’ vision – are all pictures of perfect systems that have never been fully realized and never will be.  They serve, however the indispensable function of providing goals to strive toward, enabling people to map and follow routes to get as close as they can to the destination.  

A New Political Economy

My method is reason in the service of life.  Climate change and colossal environmental destruction are urgent existential threats underway now which demand an all-out global effort to reverse the trend.  A plan for global sustainability created by David C. Korten, founder and editor of Yes! magazine, is presented in his Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth.  He asserts that significant degrowth is required to establish a new economic system consisting of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”29  A key element in his agenda is changing the way that money is created.  Presently it originates as debt, compelling businesses to always be expanding, increasing their revenue and incurring more debt in order to pay off the principal and interest of the earlier debt.  This process, he declares, creates an inexorable growth imperative.  His book focuses on the economic aspects of the model, so my purpose now is to explain how his concept embodies the systematic character of life and therefore provides the economic structure for democracy and freedom in the future. 

As the Founders were crafting a government for the nation Thomas Jefferson found in the town meeting democracy of New England “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.”30  Decades later de Toqueville observed democracy in America flourishing particularly in small towns.  Where people live is their principal habitat, providing the real estate which they either own or rent, their water and air.  It is also where they vote to elect local, state and national officials.  Civic life for better or worse is rooted in the community, and for this reason should be its focal point. 

Bowling Alone explores the array of ways in which community life in America has lost the cohesiveness that de Toqueville judged was essential for democracy.  That consisted in vigorous civil society with a multitude of local organizations and amiable social relationships.  Korten’s model is the means for restoring that.  His local productive and sustainable economies serve local consumers and rely on small locally owned businesses which should also be mostly employee-owned.  In them there is little wealth inequality.  Overall, human interaction is community-centered and therefore diametrically opposed to the current state in which most people commute, sometimes far away, to work and likewise travel out of their communities for shopping and entertainment.  Presently people know few, if any, other people who live around them; their lives are geographically scattered and, as neoliberal bundles of enterprises, fragmented and conflicted.  One of the primary impacts of the competitive global neoliberal economy is the destruction of local economies as people are now mostly employed by entities in the system that contribute to growing global business consolidation, inequality, deterioration of public services and infrastructure. This system has immediate negative environmental effects on everyone.  Whether they commute to work, are employed in a fossil fuel-related industry, sell imported or plastic-packaged goods or do any other kind of work, everyone is a part of the climate change and environmental problems.  In the sustainable community, people cease to harm themselves and their families as they earn their livings.           

Not only does work in the neoliberal system serve to maintain and grow that system, it has scant meaning and provides little or no satisfaction for people.  Mostly people work to earn the money which they then spend in the consumer economy for necessities plus goods and services to gratify desires created by marketing.  This highly artificial system with its extreme division of labor contrasts with the character of living systems in which every function directly serves life and virtually all potential functions are actualized.  In the life-centered economy I am describing people’s work is diversified.  Marx envisioned an economy in which one might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner . . . without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.”31  My model further promotes craftsmanship, in which a worker creates their product from start to finish and, as Marx also said, “sees himself” in the result.32  Finally it includes much meaningful, indeed essential, non-work activity for everyone.

In our time extreme division of labor is defended as providing for the fulfillment of individual potential epitomized by Mozart or Shakespeare.  Frank and Cooke point out that the best-selling authors of our time are the likes of Danielle Steele who owes her success to promoters in a rigged market.  Shakespeare, whose literary genius has never since been surpassed, lived long before culture became dominated by big business and institutions.  It has been noted that the Bard, who had only seven years of formal education, would today be hopelessly lacking the credentials required to teach high school or college English.  Historically many of the greatest people excelled in diverse fields.  Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

One of the chief human potentialities to be more fully actualized in the new order is everyone’s faculty of reason.  Currently people’s minds are occupied with micro-specialized work and consumer activity, especially forms involving media.  The followers of Locke’s brand of liberalism reserved the light of reason mostly for the republic’s officials, assuming that it would break forth among the citizenry should it fail those leaders.  In Rousseau’s model state citizens governed themselves with the exercise of universal rationality.  Under my proposed social contract citizens make rational decisions with reference to themselves as private individuals and as parts of their community.  At the same time these decisions reflect their interests as citizens who are parts of the polity.  Finally, vital consideration is given to the larger living wholes of which their community and polity form parts. 

My understanding of the way of nature that puts life first draws very different conclusions than those of classical liberalism.  While they agree on human equality, mine asserts that people’s essential functions are to serve themselves and their community, ultimately the world.  Further, in virtue of the human faculty of reason, nature points to government chiefly by participatory democracy.  Korten’s sustainable community model, which is now necessary for human survival, is the perfect structure for it. 

Participatory democracy is in fact alive and well today in Vermont town halls.  By state law all municipalities hold them one day each year.  All registered voters may attend, elect local officials and vote on municipal and school policies and budgets.  Drawing on data collected over decades at hundreds of town meetings Frank M. Bryan concludes that real democracy requires small jurisdictions and in-person assemblies.  He notes that town halls have passed resolutions supporting the ERA and a nuclear weapons freeze, and majorities in many of the rural communities vote for Bernie Sanders.  In them there is real debate over matters, which may become heated, but after the town hall people return to their normal and usually close interaction where civility prevails.33

For the same reason that each individual has a role as a citizen in their community, they also have roles as citizens of larger political units.  The sustainable communities in the model are not isolated and closed but rather have economic and political interconnections.  Larger jurisdictions cannot practically operate by participatory democracy and thus require representative democracy which still provides for a high level of citizen engagement.  Not only to restore the environment but also for human well-being this model must be implemented globally, the product of an international people’s movement which establishes some measure of global governance as well. 

Up to this point I have mostly described the world as so many three-dimensional systems.  Yet as I indicated earlier, the fourth dimension, time, is perhaps the most important one for life.  To live is to continue to live, both for individuals and systems.  Sustainability does not simply mean enduring over some time, it means persisting within nature’s scale of time – very many generations and ultimately eons.  Sustainable communities therefore operate with an indefinitely long-term outlook that also applies to their governance.  Our classical liberal political philosophers and the Founders devoted particular attention to the means by which their models of government would persist.  As nature is trans-generational, so are polities, thus as each generation must conserve natural resources for future ones, so must they act to preserve their democracy.               

Much of our present trouble can be traced to the current attitude toward time.  As he has decried the liquid quality of human relationships, Bauman has highlighted how the modern short-term perspective now approaches instantaneity, an orientation he calls “pointillist time.”34   This is certainly a product of consumer culture and its premier marketing instrument media.  The infosphere disseminates items to be consumed now which will be displaced by new ones later today, possibly only seconds later, or certainly by tomorrow.  Brands continually push short-lived hot products as well.  All of this is marketed especially by the biggest players with the objective of maintaining consumers in a state of intense stimulation and craving the next new sensation.

Ideas are no exception to this regime with a simple example being the Bush to Obama voters in 2008 and the Obama to Trump voters in 2016.  In our time ideas are consumer fads mostly pitched in winner-take-all or at least rigged markets.  Ever-shrinking turnaround time reduces the content of communication, which is increasingly measured in mere numbers of characters.  Much material is therefore just ephemeral bytes hurled against the backdrop of the neoliberal system.  Insofar as they arise at all, big elaborate ideas are pulverized into dust and rapidly blown away.  

The model of sustainability that I advocate is a comprehensive vision that calls for people to grasp it fully and make a long-term commitment to bringing it about.  This places me outside the neoliberal marketplace of ideas and denies me the validation of the market which the agents who manage it attribute to the “wisdom of the crowd.”  Absence of their blessing is actually proof that my model liberates people from the tyranny of neoliberalism’s idea market and restores their rational autonomy.     

As they enjoy independence of thought the considerable self-sufficiency of local communities in my proposal also makes their members interdependent in a multitude of respects.  Such range and diversity of community interaction is the very thing that de Toqueville identified as the crucial ingredient in America’s democracy and the feature whose absence Putnam claimed had virtually destroyed it by the year 2000.  Now, as in 2021 the threat of fascism is high, we urgently need to create inclusive multi-dimensional human bonds within a system of green participatory democracy.                     

Presently there are two basic views of government: those on the Left say, “Government works for you,” while those on the Right say, “Government suppresses our freedom.”  Both define government as separate from the people who, in the first case, constitute consumers of services provided by the government and in the second represent victims of government abuse.  In my view both are wrong, for I maintain that government is the people.  Participatory democracy is all the people together making public decisions.  This means every person participating as an independent citizen and not as a member of an interest group or faction.  For as each citizen is a constituent part of the governing body their citizenship is an aspect of the unitary living person who has multiple functions and, in their capacity as a citizen, serve their several interests.  This further means being parts of other living systems and therefore serving the interests of those as well.  The community itself is one such system which includes organic parts, intersects with other systems and forms parts of larger ones.  As citizens individuals therefore serve all of those in addition to themselves.  With their diverse functions and particular positions in space and time they all have unique, though intersecting and interdependent perspectives which they express in the exercise of participatory democracy.  They also privately function as organic parts of the community and larger living systems, observing the morality of which Rousseau spoke as they act to sustain themselves, the community, the polity and the world.

One of the defects of interest group politics and citizenship by proxy is that they reduce people to uniform numbers, which they are in their capacity as members of particular identity groups.  Such depersonalization, indeed profiling, has spurred two forms of reaction.  Groups now often spotlight personal stories in which members relate their individual experiences relative to the groups’ specific purposes.  Meanwhile, Blacks involved in the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter have argued that women’s experience differs significantly for Blacks and whites and that there are many other issues intertwined with the single one of police murdering Blacks.  They have laid bare the system of racism that affects every person through education, employment, healthcare, housing and more.  All these different strands of the whole fabric intersect in every individual, oppressing Blacks and conferring privilege on whites.  As they affect each person they are at the same time public issues for each citizen who should therefore participate in regard to all the individual, shared, simple and complex issues in their personal and public lives. 

The sustainable world I am describing is an ideal in which citizens resolve issues through formal democratic processes.  Yet as Rousseau, de Toqueville and Putnam stress, much of the practice of democracy is informal – social interaction in a variety of contexts.  Having immediate vital stakes in the community, people naturally talk about matters among themselves.  This is a necessarily universal activity not only to realize people’s full citizenship but to reduce division.  John Stuart Mill believed that liberty required conversation between people who disagreed.35 Vance Packard’s 1958 The Status Seekers describes how patterns of socialization at that time divided people.  In regard to Jews he observed that the best mixed relationships were between people who visited each other in their homes as friends.  He wrote, “Personal friendship appears to be a more powerful motive than any abstract sense of justice in getting barriers removed.  And friendship can take root only where there is informal intermingling.”36 Democracy makes citizens equal, and green democracy under my social contract ensures economic security for all while eliminating significant wealth inequality.  At the same time racial, ethnic and cultural variety is essential in communities, just as resilience of natural systems requires rich diversity of species.  Packard lamented the dull sameness of American social groupings which tends toward insularity and intolerance.

How people talk to each other in the informal and formal practice of my green democracy is quite different from the present one-dimensional manner.  Apart from dogmatic sound bytes, public discourse is woefully fragmented.  To give one example, consideration of transportation tends to be just about roads and the current modes, so highway expansion continues unabated.  Regard for climate isn’t part of that conversation except insofar as it includes electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, both of which would ultimately require a vast supply of energy, only a fraction of which could be produced from renewable sources.  Marcuse contrasted the one-dimensional form with dialectical discourse à la Hegel and Marx that seeks out contradictions in understanding as well as Plato’s more eclectic style.  He took particular issue with Aristotelian logic which has dominated Western thought for millennia and profoundly shaped Enlightenment thought.  Rational discourse in green democracy must be thoroughly logical, but its chief distinction is its very broad scope.  It doesn’t isolate topics, but looks far, wide and deep to find the connections between them.  In our current system the vehicles of public policy are legislative bills, executive orders and judicial decisions, the vast majority of which are very narrowly focused.  Multi-purpose actions mostly aim to balance the gains and losses of opposing interest groups.  Rarely, if ever, do we see officials advancing creative and unitary solutions that satisfy everyone.  Our adversarial politics has the effect of making the condition that created the conflict continually worse.  That condition is precisely the total system’s thoroughgoing non-sustainability, which multidimensional rationality that puts life first overcomes.       

In addition to being extremely limited in range, conversation today has a disagreeably impersonal character.  We find that, as Henry Miller said, “We do not talk – we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.”37 Then there is the conceit of “critical discourse,” that detached, disembodied style standard in the academy and professions which has a particularly universal and authoritarian tone.  The discourse of green  democracy is dialogue, which is the respectful exchange of information and ideas.  In dialogue, Nietzsche said, everything that one says is “…in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking…”  It sharply contrasts with the common performative style in which “…it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: ‘That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!’”38                                   

Rational discourse and decision-making in green  democracy further depends on true information.  Our current vast universe of information is a product of the total neoliberal system, and though a great deal of it is superfluous or harmful, much of it would be valuable, even vital to the green democracy.  Shifting to the new order requires that we discard the unsustainable apparatus while retaining and improving upon what serves us.  From the start of the Industrial Revolution humans have allowed technology to become the master which enslaves them.  The very idea of rationality however demands that people can and must control technology for the good of man and now all of life.  Managing information is but one area in which people must determine what is the optimum scale of human activity in the future. 

Apart from physiological impairment all humans possess the faculty of reason, but how they use it depends on education.  The current state of the world, America in particular, is a miserable commentary on our educational practices.  Alongside our public education there is a good amount of private education that includes evangelical religious instruction which promotes zealotry à la Betsy DeVos and Amy Coney Barrett.  K-12 and higher education in general are, as Henry Giroux has maintained, quintessential neoliberal structures whose primary function is to program people to participate in the competitive neoliberal economy, selecting some and eliminating others.  The abysmal level of civic awareness and involvement among young people speaks volumes about the system’s priorities.  Such disengagement is also reinforced by the segregation of formal education from the rest of society. 

In the green community there is much integration of functions such as that advocated by Grace Lee Boggs who led the effort to establish a neighborhood economy in Detroit following the 1967 riots.  She urged including students in the community’s productive and civic activities, indeed enlisting “the tremendous energies and creativity of schoolchildren in rebuilding and respirating our communities and our cities now, in the present.”39  Although Rousseau the romantic believed in inherent human virtue and wisdom, giving Émile the subtitle On Education, there is certainly a substantial place for academic instruction in skills, content and values that prepares students for full participation in green participatory democracy.                                                                                                                                                             I have outlined this new order, which I confess is an ideal, but which must be our guiding vision as we strive to save human life, democracy and the planet.  Obviously change will take time, so, having defined our destination, the next step is to decide how to approach it.  The number one priority must be to forever keep the goal in view.  Presently there are innumerable limited projects aiming at greater democracy and sustainability, but they don’t add up to a single vision, much less the one that I have presented as necessary.  Many of these conflict and further involve major concessions, reflecting the persistence of one-dimensional thinking.  A prime example is the objective of 100% renewable energy that omits the fact that solar equipment manufacture currently relies on scarce natural materials and generates much toxic waste.  Its scenario also leaves everything else untouched, that is, the rest of the planet-killing human environmental footprint.  Declaring that the climate crisis “changes everything,” Naomi Klein is one of a growing number of thinkers who insist that we must remake the whole system. 

Getting There

With our destination always in mind, we may proceed to lay out the pathway to it.  Urgent climate action is imperative, and the most sensible immediate course of action is the Green New Deal.  One of its many virtues is that it employs Modern Monetary Theory for its funding, thus meeting Korten’s objection to borrowing money into existence.  MMT has the federal government create money to invest in such things as infrastructure, healthcare and education.  Although the 2020 election has somewhat dimmed the prospects of the GND and disclosed a fairly benighted electorate, the bright spots are some cities and towns, especially those that have embarked on local initiatives for clean energy such as Ready for 100.        

As the federal government remains relatively conservative, that reality continues to shape citizens’ attitudes toward it.  Gridlock or regression at the national level impel local action, and this is the premier advantage of green participatory democracy.  When it comes to their water, their land and their air, people of all political persuasions tend to support conservation and their local government’s protection of these resources.  Grassroots activists now firmly understand that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations between community members who share their individual difficulties and can organize for collective resolution.           

This brings us to the practical first step: people talking to each other rationally and multi-dimensionally.  Changing the culture to make this widespread and routine requires getting the next generation on the right track with innovation in education.  The other major challenge to this plan is the identity group and formal organization mentality.  Racial and ethnic groups are more trusting of their own, and organizations are often narrowly-focused cloakroom communities.  Thankfully there is a now a surge of leaders of color moving to elevate their followers to full and permanent civic engagement.  Insofar as groups have limited objectives, they must advance to coordinating with each other for unitary changes that benefit all.   

Issues that communities can unite on are water, air, land and energy.  In his 2015 documentary Time to Choose Charles Ferguson declared that the number one global threat of climate change is the loss of clean fresh water.  From widespread lead pollution exposed following the Flint disaster to persistent extreme drought in western states, oil pipelines, fracking, PFAS and more, local water supplies need citizens’ attention now.  Meanwhile the pandemic lockdown revealed how much business as usual pollutes our air and damages our health.  There are many things that communities can do to reduce their air pollution, which has the worst impacts on poor people of color.  The issue of land relates to land use and housing, with concern for the last starting to explode as an eviction crisis unfurls.  Land is earth, which is the source of our food.  To address growing food insecurity people must boost local food production which may include community gardens and urban farms.  With the recent massive Russian hack we are reminded of the extreme vulnerability of our electrical grid and the urgent need to decentralize generation and transmission, therefore making now the perfect time to shift to local green energy.  The foregoing are issues for which citizens can come together immediately to move toward green participatory democracy.

Another high priority is electing enlightened people to office, starting at the lowest level and moving them up the ladder to higher positions.  Republicans have long surpassed Democrats in recruiting candidates.  Since 2016 Democrats have become better but still need improvement in the way of cultivating the right values in them as well as the voters.  As we see with Trump, Bernie Sanders and Biden, leadership is worth a lot as people are inclined to uncritically follow the person in the spotlight.  It is vital to elect candidates committed to green democracy while building support for it among voters through grassroots activity.       

Ours is an extremely challenging time, for as we progress toward our vision there is enormous defensive work to do as well.  Following the record voter turnout of 2020 Republicans are determined to heavily suppress the vote in future elections.  Also on their agenda are rigging the next redistricting and obtaining extreme right-wing Supreme Court decisions.  To achieve progressive goals we must defeat these attempts, fighting on several fronts at once.  This is yet another reason why people should understand separate issues as parts of one big picture.

Until we get beyond adversarial democracy with warring interest groups dominated by lobbyists and big campaign donors we must unite on the urgent priorities.  This does not mean abandoning the agenda I have set out but paying attention to the details to ensure that we keep on track.  Thus, for example, while unions require solidarity vis-à-vis management in the short term, their ultimate goal should be worker-owned enterprise.  This is an objective that can be pursued by workers at every level now.  So much responsibility and power have been given to the federal government, and as media consolidation and loss of local coverage have magnified its stature, people mostly look to it for answers.  At present we do need major action by the federal government, but we must also recognize that it is like the figure in the book of Daniel which has a head of gold and feet of clay.  One man nearly caused it to topple!  Real progress requires transforming the culture, and this involves changing citizens’ fundamental understanding of freedom.  Margaret Thatcher knew this well, saying of her neoliberal program, “the object is to change the heart and soul.”40      

The federal government – the creation of the Founders – needs serious repair.  My critique of their efforts does not imply that that we should ditch the Constitution.  On the contrary, we mostly need to restore some implicit original limits and expand others.  Too many fundamental rights have been stretched beyond recognition, for example, money is speech, corporate personhood, restricting the use of property is “taking” property, owning AK-47s is protected by the Second Amendment and so forth.  These are just a few prominent examples of how the original understanding of freedom has come to undermine true freedom.  The local participatory democracy that I have advocated would obviously depend on federal and state laws as well as international agreements reciprocally conditioned by robust democracy across the country and the world.  There is much fundamental law-making potential, for example green amendments to state constitutions and community bills of rights.  In our country there is a tradition of protecting the government from the people to the point of aggressively excluding them from it.  Our predecessors were doubtful that civic virtue might prevail within the population and went to considerable lengths to establish institutional safeguards.  Yet their basic conception of freedom was the genie they released from the bottle that has lately almost destroyed the whole shebang.  With widespread corruption among leaders, especially those who enslave their followers with Orwellian representations of freedom, it is up to the people to mount a full-spectrum mobilization to secure real freedom now.   

Freedom Now

The triple crisis of our time – climate change, pandemic and subversion of democracy – is the long-term consequence of basing our political order on the classical liberal view of freedom.  Persistent and growing assault on people’s lives and rights as citizens amounts to anything but liberty.  I have shown that at present people are further enslaved by their identification with branded identity groups, which ultimately includes the total neoliberal system.  As a guarantor of freedom the Founders’ approach is obsolete.  I have offered an updated view of freedom that entails a particular model of economic and political organization.  The economic structure provides a response to climate change and urgent environmental threats overall including zoonotic disease.  It is a model for long-term sustainability, assuring people the most essential freedom to live.  This structure further supports the maximum freedom of citizens to govern themselves through robust democracy.

For Locke the social contract was formed in the dim and distant mythical past, granting citizens the right to overthrow a government that violated it.  Rousseau, in contrast, saw it as enduring but requiring people to continually honor it in the day-to-day practice of democracy.  Waiting to repair a system until it is utterly broken is no way to operate a government.  In reality people expect the social contract to be continuously upheld, and the way to make this happen is for the people to themselves actively be the government. 

The fatal flaw of the original social contract story was its claim that the human animal possesses virtually unlimited God-given natural freedom or rights over which the contract imposed only slight specific legal restrictions.  It was the product of an historical period that was rapidly expanding individual opportunities on a vast scale.  That trend has continued up to our time, culminating in today’s nihilistic demands for personal freedom.   Inflamed by Trump, slaves to right-wing extremist ideology have become militant in their determination to share the unbounded freedom that he flaunts which now infamously includes freedom from retribution for his crimes.     

In my account of freedom there are no individual natural rights of any kind given by God, existing in a pre-civilized state or acquired at birth.  Rather, there is the fact of life which imposes certain conditions on human existence.  Freedom consists in living with these conditions being fulfilled, for example, breathing clean air and drinking clean water, plus creating and maintaining the conditions for life by engaging in sustainable economic activity and robust democracy. The historic social contract version makes the private exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness primary. This has led many people to profoundly neglect or totally ignore their responsibility as citizens to ensure that their government represents and serves them, having instead, in Gibbon’s words, “insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.”41 My approach makes it absolutely clear that freedom necessarily entails full civic engagement. 

The recent Supreme Court decisions that prioritize religious freedom over public health in the pandemic are stunning illustrations of the inverted values of our time.  For me the purpose of political freedom is to secure life.  I have mentioned slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life,” but who can doubt that life is the highest consideration for most people?  The premier issue in the 2000 presidential election was Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, and Obama won in 2008 with “quality affordable healthcare for all.”  Trump promised a healthcare plan to replace Obamacare in 2016, then Biden won by focusing attention on the pandemic.  With the economic damage from the disease the necessities of life, specifically food and housing, are also now major issues. 

That life should be the objective of freedom goes without question.  I have explained that we are not to view life as bare individual survival, but rather as broad and full, that is, also involving sustaining the environment and actualizing the range of human potentiality.  The latter especially means rational thinking and robust civic engagement.  One lives freely to the extent that they are an active citizen applying their rational faculties to the affairs of a sustainable and democratic polity.  Still, citizenship is not possible as a solo act but requires numbers of citizens finding or establishing agreement plus dialogue with the rest.  One-dimensional speech and thought must be set aside to achieve comprehensive and creative public policies.  The highest freedom consists precisely in citizens first talking, then working together in the interest of all of their lives and all of life.   

I have sketched the ideal political economic structure for restoring democracy and freedom, addressing climate change and the present environmental devastation, concluding with some specific steps to take toward it.  As I write, defenders of the status quo and slaves to the Trump brand remain resolute, even emboldened, making our situation both complicated and dire.  Attention to our local communities is critical in this time of near iron-clad loyalty to political brands.  People on opposing sides do unite over an array of local issues, and such association provides opportunity to establish human connections and broader dialogue.  An increasingly valuable tool in electoral campaigns is friend to friend communication.  With the 2021 election cycle beginning and 2022 approaching this technique will be vital for penetrating brand barriers in individuals’ networks.  There remains the obstacle of people’s availability, as their time is taken up with work, commuting, attention to family and recovery from the grind that crushes their spirit.  This is no accident but rather a core strategy for keeping people in bondage to the masters of global neoliberalism.  It also divides us and keeps our attention on ourselves, the present and immediate gratification.  But people must mind the warning that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  They must break free from all the branded mindsets and recognize the extreme urgency of stepping forward in their communities, reaching out to their neighbors and asserting themselves as citizens, collectively as the sovereign, to secure the future of their children, their homes, humanity, the planet, our democracy and freedom.


1.  David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005,” Washington Post, October 8, 2016.

2.  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.

3.  John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government.

4.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract.

5.  Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, §6.

6.  Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

7.  Douglas Keay, “Interview with Margaret Thatcher,” Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987.

8.  Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (New York: Norton, 1979). 

9.  Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000).

10. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

11. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1922), 55.

12. Bauman, Consuming Life (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 78. 

 13. Robert N. Bellah, Steven M. Tipton, Ann Swidler, Richard Madsen and William M. Sullivan, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 221. 

14. Naomi Klein, No Logo: 10TH Anniversary Edition, (New York: Picador, 2009).

15. Patrick Radden Keefe, “How Michael Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” The New Yorker, December 27, 2018.

16. Josephine Harvey, “Michael Cohen on Why Republicans Support Trump: ‘We’re Stupid,’” Huffington Post, September 17, 2020. 

17. Thomas B. Edsall, “Trump is Staking Out His Own Universe of ‘Alternate Facts,’” New York Times, May 13, 2020.

18. Bauman, Consuming Life, 76.

19. Bauman, Consuming Life, 111.

20. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 158-60. 

21. Georg Simmel “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1976).

22. Eric Hobsbawm, “Identity Politics and the Left,” New Left Review, May-June, 1996.  

23. Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956), 94.

24. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 14. 

25. George Washington, “Farewell Address.”

26. Michael Tomasky, “There’s a Word for Why We Wear Masks, and Liberals Should Say It,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2020.

27. Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Section 1253a. 

28. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book II, Chapter XII.

29. David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010), 169.

30. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.

31. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society Translated and Edited by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1967),425.

32. Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in Easton and Guddat, 295.

33. Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). 

34. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 114.

35. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II.

36. Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behavior in America and the Hidden Barriers that Affect You, Your Community, Your Future, (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1958), 281-2.

37. Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, (New York:New Directions, 1945), 109.

38. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Section Six, Aphorism # 374.

39. Grace Lee Boggs, “Paradigm Shift in our Concept of Education,” Speech, State Theatre, Detroit, MI, August 20, 2002.

40. Ronald Butt, “Interview with Margaret Thatcher,” Sunday Times, May 1, 1981.

41. Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 2.


Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher.  Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights.  She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard.

This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process.  She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders.

Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.   

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