Rethinking Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2002

This era should be one of unprecedented freedom. A revolutionary period lasting over two centuries has seen the overthrow of a series of political tyrannies, from absolute monarchy to Fascism and totalitarian Communism. Yet the absurd violence of these times, in which addiction can drive individuals to random mugging and murder in the streets of the richest cities, and international terrorism can send a jumbo jet through the office windows high above, was inconceivable when this era began.

Freedom from fear seems even more remote than when FDR made it one of his Four Freedoms in January 1941. Freedom from want should be far behind us also – given the extraordinary productiveness of our economic systems – but this too eludes many millions around the globe, as do freedom of speech and freedom of religion still in many parts of the world.

What is the root of the problem? Why are we still oppressed?

The standard answer is that capitalism is inherently evil – as though evil was a function of economic and political organisation. Logically this analysis proposes a repetition forever of the capitalist/socialist face-off that dominated the period before 1989. Who really wants to go through all that again? There is need for a new analysis – one that does not scapegoat ‘systems’ for human failure, but looks for the root of the human failing that prevents capitalism from developing a truly human face. That failing clearly warped political socialism also, especially when it gained control of a sizeable economy – creating an oligarchy of ideologues even more nasty than the reactionary aristocracy of the ancien regime.

We can gain some insight into this by remembering one of the most obvious anomalies of the Soviet Union in its last years – those secret shops that imported western consumer goods and sold them only to the soviet socialist elite. Western hi-fis, videos and large-screen TVs – and no doubt Irish whiskey – passed through these places into the luxurious dachas of the politburo outside Moscow – and it was eventually the shortfall in such goods (as well as Reagan’s proposed Star Wars anti-missile defence system) that convinced Gorbachev that Marxism-Leninism as he knew it could not match the West either technically or economically. The world’s greatest experiment in socialism failed at that moment.

The soviet demand for such goods can be explained simply as mimetic desire – an irresistible and largely unacknowledged urge to possess what is possessed by others – especially those with whom one is in rivalry. It can be guessed that Khrushchev’s goggle-eyed amazement at US consumer society on his visit to the US in 1959 led directly to these Orwellian purchases, which eventually bankrupted the integrity of his own revolutionary generation.

Rene Girard insists that where we find conflict we should look for similarity, not difference. As a teacher of history I was trained to explain the Cold War as essentially a struggle of contradictory ideologies – free market liberalism versus Marxist totalitarianism. However, there was also simple rivalry for global dominance between two societies that had both risen to the status of superpower in the preceding two centuries, their armies meeting along the Elbe in 1945. Wherever human endeavour brings triumph, an antithetical challenge will sooner or later emerge.

Mimetic desire (that is, desire borrowed by imitation) and rivalry also dominate the current face-off between Islamic radicalism and the west. Osama bin Laden emphasises the differences between his ultra-puritanical version of Islam and western decadence, as the root of his quarrel with America. Why then not simply take pride in this moral superiority and leave the West to perish in its decadence? The fact is that the west possesses something that bin Laden wants – supremacy in technology, especially military technology, and the geopolitical supremacy this also brings. Radical Islam is, through people like Bin Laden, in rivalry for global political, cultural and religious supremacy with the West.

So, wherever there is conflict look not for differences, but for similarities – especially similarity in objectives. President Bush is currently riding on the crest of a wave of patriotic fervour in the US, with many feeling that the original zeal of the American dream is being restored. Yet every TV picture of the flaunted stars and stripes is bound now to call forth equally chauvinistic Islamism when redisplayed by El Jazeera. Outside Latin America the ‘War on Terrorism’ seems to have only Islamic targets – Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and possibly even Indonesia – and this can only feed into the polarisation bin Laden and his followers seek. It is above all TV that declares who is glorious and who is impoverished today – and TV currently contrasts the ruins of Afghanistan and the lush lawns of Hollywood, stating clearly the disparity that Islamic radicalism seeks to end in blood.

And similarities too explain the current crisis between India and Pakistan. Both states want undisputed possession of Kashmir, but neither government can yield it and survive.

As for Ireland’s conflict, although the surface complexities have deterred people as intelligent as Graham Green from attempting an analysis, it’s clear by now that simple rivalry for dominance of the north-east lies at the back of the contest between green and orange paramilitarism. The latter emerged in mimetic response to the rise of Provisionalism in the early 1970s, until then the focus of the global media. Although Sinn Fein has stressed its leftist credentials, it has not rejected suggestions that it might become the crutch supporting Fianna Fail if the latter again fails to win an overall majority in a general election this year – so mimetic desire for political status is clearly paramount for this supposedly new political broom also. And the standard explanation for the original outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s is that a newly educated young Catholic intelligentsia found itself shut out of the usual economic rewards in a discriminatory Unionist society. That is, frustrated desire for wealth and status was again crucial in explaining the onset of violence in 1969.

As for the random violence of the streets, in London in early January of this year a teenager was shot in the head when she objected to the theft of her mobile phone – currently the most saleable and portable of consumer durables. The wealth-producing sector of western society must display the fruits of its labour – infuriating those who still remain outside that sector, especially if they also belong to a racially disadvantaged minority. This same factor was clearly at work in the race riots that traumatised several British cities in the summer of 2001.

What of that other western anomaly – school violence – the focus of so much American angst prior to what they now call 9/11? Significantly, the leading spirit in the worst example of that violence, Eric Harris, confided to video the root of his alienation before shooting twelve of his schoolmates dead in Littleton, Colorado: “Everywhere I went I had to start again at the bottom.” He was referring to the problem posed by his semi-nomadic soldier father – moved about from base to base. US High Schools too are pyramids of esteem – an extraordinary fact in the state supposedly founded upon the principle of human equality.

The root of the violence that oppresses the world can therefore, it seems, be reduced to conflicting mimetic desire. The possessions, status and power we acquire through success, automatically become desirable to those without these. Our media flaunt our Western success globally in the faces of the uneducated and impoverished. Where these have inherited a proud memory of earlier cultural and military achievement – and this is especially true of the Arab world – we can expect a deadly rivalry to flourish.

Rivalry is also the basic dynamic of the power games played by competing political parties in the democratic world, and often causes internal fissures within parties as well – as the relationship between chancellor and prime minister in Britain currently illustrates. Here again the media are misled into looking for differences between rivals, rather than similarities. Very little of ideological importance now divides the parties or personalities that alternate in office in the major democracies.

Yet real equality remains elusive. A large underclass, often educationally disadvantaged, seems permanently shut out of the ‘good life’ shared by the ‘meritocratic’ elites. And it is this underclass that suffers most from addiction, unemployment and urban violence. Meritocracy is, of course the self-promoting ideology of the ‘bright’ people who currently enjoy the western gravy train.

Post modernism tends to argue that all ideologies are designed to empower those who purvey them. Very little separates this insight from the basic Christian premise that, unredeemed, we are a selfish species that makes war upon our own weakest members. Mimetic desire describes our basic weakness precisely, in a manner that makes it rationally inescapable.

The conclusion is inescapable also: western politics can be rejuvenated only by a realisation that true freedom and equality can be achieved only through a recovery of spirituality. The deep well of corruption that alienated voters from British Conservatism in the early nineties is now beginning to taint pristine New Labour – and in Ireland cynicism on the same evil knows no bounds. Although Ireland is now gearing up for another general election, the political polarities of the 1920s that provide the only logic of our two-party system are now entirely meaningless. There is a need for an entirely new kind of politics here and throughout the West.

It will be based upon a value system that will roundly challenge liberal meritocracy by arguing that humans everywhere are inalienably equal in dignity, and can never lose or gain in that respect. We are indeed differentially gifted, but this asymmetry should be seen as similar to that of an orchestra, in which the differing contributions of all are of equal value. Education will be redesigned to develop all intelligences equally – including, above all, spiritual intelligence.

There is this much wisdom in liberalism: that genuine equality is indeed the only route to freedom. However, how come that in the most ‘egalitarian’ societies liberal politicians are themselves tolerant of a social hierarchy almost as layered in terms of social esteem as any that preceded it? How come they accept that some people become more equal than others by hogging media attention as well as power, and then rigging tax and educational systems to perpetuate that inequality? How come they are blind to the dynamics of rivalry, which explains their corruptibility as well as their conflicts? They above all need to become spiritually aware.

For Christians this awareness is best expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Only a deep appreciation of its wisdom can undermine the whole notion of celebrity that currently fuels the upward journey of millions. Media-borne celebrity is the supreme mirage – the stupid notion that some people are truly deserving of separation onto a higher plane of being. It is also the supreme object of political mimetic desire, as Tony Blair’s air borne posturing so well illustrates.

Which means in turn that the next Pope will need to include this in the re-evaluation of the role of the papacy that John Paul II has called for. As mimetic desire is the root of oppression and injustice, every spiritual leader should be emphasising that no-one ever really becomes more important, more worthy, than anyone else – and behaving accordingly.

This really should be no problem for any Christian. Nothing more characterises Jesus of Nazareth than the refusal of worldly elevation – from his first step down into the Jordan to join the sinners, to his acceptance of the cross. If the west is to deliver freedom to the world it must rediscover Christ as the gentlest but greatest enemy of mimetic desire. Imitating Him in this alone can indeed set the world free at last.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *