Friday, 3 December, 2021

Freedom Is Not Absolute

Freedom Is Not Absolute

Prof. Bhupa P. Dhamala

When I was an undergraduate student in early 1980s, my English professor came into the classroom with an essay written by an eminent English writer GB Shaw one fine day. The essay was entitled “Freedom” which delineated what Shaw exactly meant by freedom. As the professor explained, Shaw critically viewed freedom not as an absolute state of affairs but as a relative concept. According to Shaw, a person can be really free when they are free to do whatever they like, whenever they like, and wherever they like. As fascinating as the view is, many youths, I am sure, fly with fluttering wings to get to that elusive freedom. I, as a young man with high spirit, was also equally elated with my dream of being a free man at that time. As an elderly man today, I wonder if the type of freedom Shaw explained can ever be possible in our everyday life.

Extent of freedom
Liberty and freedom are synonymous terms. While talking about liberty, J.S. Mill argues that even the whole of mankind has no right to silence one dissenter to which GB Shaw would quickly retort, there is no such thing as complete freedom. For the former, mankind would be no more justified in silencing a person even as he is one and only to dissent than that person would be justified in silencing the whole of mankind. For the latter, every individual is slave to external forces at least in two senses: man is slave to nature and man is also slave to man.

As he further explains, we are forced to eat and sleep, or else we die. This is an instance of pleasant slavery of man to nature because we enjoy while we eat and drink. On the contrary, we do not enjoy if we have to serve another man of the same blood and veins simply because some of us are born female or are born non-white or born of the parents of low caste or ethnicity or race. This is the instance of unnatural slavery of man to man. We do not complain much about the natural slavery but nobody would like to be a part of unnatural slavery by choice.

That the human being is an inextricable part of nature is an indisputable assumption. But in modern times we have been far from nature instead of being far from the madding crowd. We have gone much farther than anyone had anticipated even a few centuries before. Rousseau is worth quoting in this connection, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” What mars the beauty of “unprecedented” and “irreversible” life in nature that we would like to live which otherwise we would not have been able to live if unborn in this wonderful world?

Since we are forced to cut off ourselves with nature, we have been slave to the mechanical world. We have a motor car for quick locomotion but it produces smog that is harmful to our health. We have modern home gadgets for easing drudgery but they can produce harmful effects. We have ultramodern electronic means but they can produce radioactive effects. Each time we invent new things for making our lives easier and more comfortable, we imprison ourselves the more. In one way or the other we are slave to the things we ourselves have made. We have thus been inescapably imprisoned in modern prison house without our knowing.

Except for being slave to the mechanical world, we are also made slaves by the organisations we ourselves have established – schools and colleges, temples and churches, football teams and youth clubs, and above all political parties and trade unions. There are so many organisations that we find ourselves chained wherever we go. We have to pay tax to the state, pay tariff for electricity, water, and sewerage. We have to follow rules and regulations of the state or else we will be punished. As simple as it looks, we have to accomplish our tasks within the fixed timeline. If we don’t, we will be doomed. Wherein can we find real freedom then? If we ever try to be free from one organisation, we encounter another one. There is no escape to the organisational system in any way.

Despite similarities in political system, political culture of the third world countries is fundamentally different from that of the first world where advanced democracies are at function. Nepal has been suffering from malfunction of democracy even after it was established. Recently two big rival parties NC and NCP-UML are most discussed and debated. While NC has been divided into at least two camps in the face of general convention, the cadres have no other option but to choose one of the two camps.

Likewise, the UML experienced a recent split where cadres were forced to choose one of the two camps with no other choice. Even the low-tier ranking leaders who previously followed the camp of dissidents abruptly changed their position to follow the mainstream camp. Many innocent people might think they have done it by their free choice which in fact is untrue. No one is absolutely free to make their own choice in political affairs, let alone those helpless second tier leaders.

False consciousness
Even as there is no absolute freedom in modern mechanical world, we could at least have experienced relative freedom. But this type of freedom is also hanging overhead due to the malfunctioning of democracy and malpractice of the political actors. A free party member is one who can freely express their views within the limitations of fixed disciplines and are not made victims of disciplinary actions simply for reason of expressing different views. It is regrettable that nothing of this kind is happening now. The arbitrary power centres are infringing on the freedom of free individuals. We are living under the shadow of false consciousness of being free.

(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation.