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A wrong turn in the search for freedom?

Neal Lawson

18 November 2008

The JRF's recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern 'social evils' on the theme of 'individualism'.

Neal Lawson discusses why we are less happy and why our lives feel more out of control than ever before, despite gaining many individual liberties.

Summary

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The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern 'social evils' on the theme of 'individualism'. Neal Lawson discusses why we are less happy and why our lives feel more out of control than ever before, despite gaining many individual liberties.

Key points

  • The creation of a society based on abundance instead of scarcity presented us with a choice about what kind of world we wanted to live in. Could freedom be found through possessive individualism or would real autonomy, the ability to shape our world, require greater equality and new solidarities?
  • The political triumph of the new right meant that free market ideology put notions of the state and society on the back foot. After the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the search for liberty became overly focused on markets and consumerism. This was a wrong turn.
  • The result, even during a time of economic boom, has been a social recession centring on the social evils shown in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's consultation.
  • Because everyone is prey to the whims of global competition, our lives feel insecure and anxious, and tolerance and respect for others is declining. The social fabric is being eaten away as we compete rather than co-operate; community cohesion is undermined by the forces and consequences of global markets through dramatically higher capital and people flows.
  • At the heart of the neo-liberal project is the consumer society. It is as consumers that we now understand ourselves and others. Consumerism both seduces us and negates the possibility of alternative ways of living. It compensates us, just enough, to keep us on the treadmill of earning to spend.
  • The political and the democratic freedoms we enjoy are under threat from a definition of freedom based solely on market forces and consumption.
  • Progressives need to establish a richer and more ambitious definition of what it is to be free – one that entails not just personal freedom but the ability to shape the institutions that really affect our lives: the market and the state. We can only do this if we are more equal, and more willing and able to work collectively to achieve what we cannot do alone.

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