Re-negotiating Freedom in an Age of Limits – Part Three

In an essay calling upon artists to pursue the truths of the times we live in through honest, socio-politically responsive work, Scottish playwright David Greig argues that one of the key roles of theatre in our times is to resist ‘the management of the imagination by power’. Here, Greig paints a picture of the influence of capital and power on the core cultural mythology:

The institutions of global capital manage the imagination in the first instance through media institutions. Hollywood cinema, the television and newspapers of the great media empires like Fox and CNN. These forms create the narrative superstructure around which our imagination grows. In this way we learn to think along certain paths, to believe certain truths, all of which tend, in the end to further the aims of capital and the continuance of economic growth. Once the superstructure is in place, our own individual creativity will tend to grow around it and assume its shape so that the stories we tell ourselves, the photographs we take and so forth, are put in the service of the same narratives and assumptions. … Very few imaginations are totally colonized, just as very few are totally liberated. In most minds there is a constant back and forth- a dialogue between challenge and assumption like waves washing against a shoreline. … By intervening in the realm of the imaginary, power continually shapes our understanding of reality.[i]


For an understanding of the colonizing power of capital in the realm of culture we can do no better than look to the contemporary theoretical work of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimson Bichler for whom capitalization is ‘the central institution and key logic of the capitalist nomos’.[ii] It is the algorithm that generates and organizes prices. Specifically, they understand capitalization as the representation of the present value of a future stream of earnings: it tells us how much a capitalist would be prepared to pay now to receive a flow of money later. A concept that was perfected in the 20th century – notably with the rise of the corporation – its principle characteristic is universality. In other words, the calculation of value based on a claim on future earnings can be applied to everything. Nitzan and Shimson explain:

Nowadays, every expected income stream is a fair candidate for capitalization. And since income streams are generated by social entities, processes, organizations and institutions, we end up with the ‘capitalization of everything’. Capitalists routinely discount human life, including its genetic code and social habits; they discount organized institutions from education and entertainment to religion and the law; they discount voluntary social networks; they discount urban violence, civil war and international conflict; they even discount the environmental future of humanity. Nothing seems to escape the piercing eye of capitalization: if it generates earning expectations it must have a price, and the algorithm that gives future earnings a price is capitalization.[iii]


                The all pervasive influence of capitalization suggests to Nitzan and Bichler that capitalism seems able to shape ‘preferences’ as effectively as any authoritarian regime and is able to mould habits and instil fears. Indeed, capitalism does more by virtue of its ability to make these ‘preferences’ and outcomes sufficiently predictable for capitalists to translate them into expected profit discountable to present value. On the face of it, they add, liberal capitalism is all about ‘individuality’ and ‘free choice’. And yet, the so-called individual consumer ends up being part of a collectively managed mob. And here’s the rub: the Friedmanite[iv] individual may feel ‘free to choose’ her location in the distribution, but the distribution itself is shaped by the power institutions and organizations of capitalism. And it is this shaping – i.e. the very creation of a predictable ‘representative’ consumer – that gets capitalized.[v] The consumer has every choice under the sky except the choice of whether to consume! The global expenditure on advertising in 2008 reached nearly half a trillion US dollars, equivalent to more than $80 dollars each for every man, woman and child on the planet.[vi]

One of the contributions of the Nitzan and Bichler’s thesis on ‘capital as power’ is their demonstration of how our understanding of the operation of capital must incorporate any power arrangement, institution, and process that systematically affects the flow and temporal pattern of earnings, because this is how the capitalist views the world. In other words, it is impossible to distinguish contributions to accumulation as clearly ‘economic’. Instead we must include institutions ranging from politics and culture to the family. It follows that capitalists exert control within relevant communities in order to maintain the status quo and protect the value of the assets they own or seek to provoke changes in order to generate and divert earnings.[vii] Moreover, building on the work of Veblen, Nitzan and Bichler show that – for the capitalist – there is no absolute benchmark against which accumulation may be judged as successful or unsuccessful. Rather, the success of accumulation is a matter of differential comparison, i.e. capitalists and their enterprises seek only to ‘beat the average’ in a defining and unending intra-capitalist struggle over trades, takeovers, and mergers, together with the pursuit and capture of assets not already capitalized. Evaluation of success occurs within markets as participants buy and sell on the expected ability of the vested interests to turn the ‘social control’ exercised by dominant capital in the 21st century into earnings. Markets therefore constitute empirical representations of control. Cochrane comments:

It is these groupings within dominant capital whose actions have the greatest influence on political economic developments. Their struggles for differential accumulation are massive exercises of power that continually order and reorder society.[viii]

Di Muzio[ix] has illustrated the extent to which dominant capitalist groups depend on broader social, cultural and political processes in their attempts to beat the average returns and redistribute a larger share of earnings away from their competitors:

For example, the corporate earnings of Apple Computers Inc. do not simply depend upon the ability to produce its range of iPods or other goods and services by directing the labour of its workers. Rather, their corporate earnings, and the willingness of investors to bid up the price of existing shares, depend upon a whole range of factors that the corporation may wish to influence: the perception that portable mp3 players are a necessity; their ability to press for new markets and trade agreements with other legal jurisdictions; the ability of the state to punish violators who infringe their intellectual property rights; the quality of their lobbyists; their public reputation; accounting practices and standards; the ability of its consumers to access credit; the ability to influence anti-trust legislation and so on.

It is this understanding of accumulation that leads Nitzan and Bichler to argue that ‘power is both the means and the end of accumulation’.[x]  Corporations exert whatever power they can muster over society, politics and culture in order to generate earnings and beat the average. Di Muzio notes that, if Nitzan and Bichler are correct, behind this movement is a whole history of corporate power deployed to ‘restructure society and affect its overall development’.[xi] At the heart of their thesis is a claim that anything – including any dimension of human creativity and behaviour – can be targeted for capitalization through enclosure, expropriation and commodification. Indeed, as Di Muzio concludes, for Nitzan and Bichler, the modern corporation has become an incipient form of the State, insofar as firms control ever more facets of life and planetary resources. Power itself has become commodified.

The current era of economic, social and environmental uncertainty has given new prominence to a number of debates that converge around the theme of sustainable consumption. Questions about the effectiveness of traditional measures of national economic output such as ‘Gross National Product’ or ‘Gross Domestic Product’, the contested relationship between consumerism and life satisfaction, and  improvements in our ability to measure ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ are putting subjectivity centre stage.

The governmentalization of lifestyles implies a shaping of desire and morality so that people want to do what they believe is good for them according to a prescribed biopolitical logic. I want to frame forms of mindfulness training as an opening to contemporary practices of askēsis as understood by Michel Foucault (Foucault 1985, 1986; McGushin 2007), with the potential of making a contribution to the development of personal and collective resilience in the face of biopolitics as consumerism in an age of ecological constraints. Mindfulness[xii] is associated with the cultivation of enhanced states of concentration, awareness and moment-by-moment intentionality; alternative materialist and embodied systems of knowledge/discipline; and an articulation of individual freedom that might be reconciled with notions of sufficiency and limits, and thus, potentially, with support for public choices compatible with sustainable consumption[xiii].

As lifestyles are already being reshaped in preparation for a low-carbon future (Lipschutz 2009:3), it is imperative that we keep the door open to research and insights that not only direct our attention to alternative governmentalities in pursuit of sustainable development, renewable energy services and green products, but direct our attention to the quality of attention itself and the prospect of a new materialism. This prospect is tied to a significant premise of this article, which is a view I share with Davisson (2002): Foucault’s engagement with Greek and Christian antiquity and askēsis (‘gymnastics of the mind’) was not designed merely to call us back to a ‘golden age’ but (as evidenced by his passing, but significant engagement with Zen practice) was bound up with his desire to destabilize deeply engrained contemporary concepts of self, identity and ways of knowing; and an understanding that an important dimension of our resistance to political power is established in the relation of the self to itself[xiv]. Foucault’s approach to askésis has a subtle and contemporaneous ring to it in this ‘Century of the Self’ (Curtis 2002), and age of limits.

Renegotiating freedom in an age of limits

The back story to the rise of the consuming self runs deep in those parts of our history where the ends of the West’s (geo)political legacy meets its  philosophical heritage, and the Western subject’s negotiation with the timeless and formative experience of contingency. Late-modern states are now confronting a moment of transition that will be characterised by a departure from ‘secular assurances’ (Connolly 1991), often worked out through acts of consumption, to a reworking not only of the relationship between the citizen and the state, but a revisiting of our understandings of freedom and felicity.[xv] In late modernity, writes Connolly, the contingency of life and the fragility of things becomes more vivid and compelling, while aspects of our reflection on the issues posed by this condition have too often been shuffled to the margins of state-centred discourse. Attempts at the mastery of micro-contingencies and the globalization of macro-contingencies advance together:

Each possible scenario of future waste or destruction is linked ironically to priorities definitive of the modern epoch, especially to the drive to organize the state, the economy, and self so that the world itself can be subjected to more thorough mastery. These scenarios of possible reversal expose how the end of eliminating contingency recedes as the means to it become more refined and perfected. (Connolly 1991:25)

The modern concept of the individual, bounded, isolated self is a modern phenomenon, roughly paralleling the development of industrialisation and the rise of the modern state. Tracing a genealogy of the political economy of desire, Beard (2007) discusses the destabilisation of the ‘Old World’ following the discovery of the ‘New World’, and the role of doubt at the dawn of the age of reason. During a long sixteenth century, she notes (2006:77-79), the doubt of the age inspired a corresponding impulse ‘to sharpen boundaries, to render meanings more precisely’, and define the terms of humanity’s promise. It was during the beginnings of the modern era in the 16th century that the Western world began to shift from a religious to a scientific frame of reference, from an agricultural to an industrial means of production, from a rural to an urban setting, and from a communal to an individual subject. These changes set the scene for the dual triumph of Michel de Montaigne’s (1533–1592) subjective individual and the method necessary to study it, in Descarte’s objective empiricism (Cushman 1990:600). For Beard it is the work of Montaigne that exemplifies this struggle with uncertainty and doubt – the loss of words caused by the discovery of the unnamed New World, and the loss of the Word in the religious wars of the Reformation – a struggle of each subject to know itself, construct its ego and to recognise itself in the gaze of the other.

An important dimension of this crisis of representation was an emerging liquid market in Europe and its apparent capacity to commute specific obligations, utilities and meanings into general, fungible equivalents, prompting fears that the emerging self was as empty as the fetishes of capital (Beard 2007:82). Roy (1992) traces part of the critical transformation back to Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) fateful rejection of the notion of ultimate purpose and the reduction of our understanding of ‘felecity’ to ‘a continual progress of the desire from one object to another; the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter’[xvi]. Roy (1992) concludes that with this revision, our needs became endless in two senses: on the one hand, needs came to be detached from higher life purpose and, on the other, they began to expand and proliferate endlessly. The endlessness of life came to be grounded in the acquisition and accumulation of material resources such as wealth, prestige and power. Commodious living, in the Hobbesian sense, came to constitute the prime motivating force of life in modern times.

With great prescience, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) would later (cited in Roy 1992:372) observe that this shift from simple to commodious living required a condition of the highest cultivation that could establish accord within and among men through self-discipline. In meeting the demands of his or her nature, the individual must – in order to protect collective well-being from possible harm – exercise a higher control over the self. Instead, the advances in science and technology that would follow, and apparent control over nature, have culminated in a culture of consumerism that has helped to erode auto-control and further conflate the goods life with any sense of the good life.

One of the most intriguing questions the modern citizen faces in this new age of limits – an age in which it appears that the anticipated exhaustion of resources and pollution sinks is matched by the psychic exhaustion of what was once a political imaginary with universalising ambition – culminating in an age of sovereign consumers demanding the West of all possible worlds – is the ageless question of freedom. On the meaning of freedom signalled by the rise of the ecological movement, Eckersley (1992) once suggested that the new project entails much more than a simple reassertion of the modern emancipatory ideal of human autonomy or self determination. It also calls for a re-evaluation of the foundations of, and the conditions for, human autonomy or self-determination in Western political thought (Eckersley 1992:18). Leiss (1978) made a related point when he observed that everything depends not so much upon the establishment that limits to economic growth do exist but upon whether humans regard such limits as a bitter disappointment or as a welcome opportunity to turn from quantitative to qualitative improvement in the course of creating a conserver society. Leiss’s (1998) question hovers over contemporary debates about prosperity, welfare, human happiness and the ends of politics and the economy, as witnessed most recently in the publication of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009), commissioned by the President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, which explores how ‘narrow measures of market performance’ have come to be conflated and confused with ‘broader measures of welfare’, signalling a potentially far reaching renegotiation of the State’s responsibility to its citizens.

The politicization of consumption and growing scepticism about the globalizing culture of consumerism registers and re-opens wider debates about the relationship between the economic and the political, and that between the roles of consumer and citizen, especially as these relations have been rearticulated in extremis under the sign of neoliberalism. Modern States and international institutions are deeply embedded in the ethos of productivism while confronted simultaneously today by the need to deal with the negative fall-out (unintended consequences experienced as socialized risks) and contingencies resulting from a process of bracketing off and externalizing the full social and environmental costs of stimulating and meeting consumer demand for goods and services, in the pursuit of economic growth. Productivism describes the way in which mechanisms of economic development substitute for concepts of personal growth. Consumerism has its roots in and is a direct expression of a collective and individual embrace of a productivist orientation to the world: ‘It is, as it were, an active, mass exploration of life politics…the need to make life choices is expressed only in a distorted and narrow way as the purchase of goods and services’. (Giddens 1994:169) States appear trapped in this ethos while publicly espousing the rhetorics of sustainable development policies that demand a shift towards a post-scarcity economic model. It seems the dilemma is symptomatic of the closure of the political that has resulted from the technologising of politics and politicisation of all life (Dillon and Campbell 1993:23). By aspiring to an ontology of unconditioned certainty and to the extent that it exhibits confidence in its articulation of such an ontology, Western thinking has experienced a risk-laden foreclosure of transcendence. Dillon and Campbell (1993:23) sum up their point as follows:

If you aim to tell it like it is, and believe that you have succeeded in doing so, then there is no more to be said or done.

In the wake of the demise of the Christian legitimization of rule, the State had to develop a capacity to comprehend every finite thing in order to hold out forever (Dillon 1995). The world was transformed into a legible surface. The new objects of the ‘State’, the ‘economy’, and the modern ‘subject’ could not and cannot exhaust the real, but we are confronting the very real prospect that  the ‘ground plan’ (Heidegger) of consumer-led development now threatens to exhaust the complex ecosystems on which it has been imposed  in a violent assault on being. The unprecedented global risk presented by climate change recalls Foucault’s (1987) warning that modernity stands at a threshold where the life of the species is now wagered on its own political strategies. The threshold signals not only a unique level of risk but also a challenge to investigate the individual and collective consequences of a decision to buy into a self-imposed closure of a privileged ‘world-view-as-destiny’ associated with a socio-economic model of development defined in the image of the ‘West’ (Latouche 1996; Swazo 1984).

Climate change marks, perhaps, our most acute and potentially most destabilizing experience of global contingency. In some senses, the scale of the work ahead of governments and citizens has left us quite literally lost for words. Perhaps there is some appropriate historical symmetry in the alignment of the name of ‘Kyoto’ with the UNFCCC ‘Protocol’. Certainly, many of us who attended the negotiations leading up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 were aware of that city’s other historic association with the tradition of Zen Buddhism. The former UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Michael Zammit Cutajar, reminded one plenary session for the negotiators that their challenge was not unlike that of a Zen koan: bringing about a deep mental shift in language and understanding.

[i] D. Greig, ‘Rough Theatre’, in R. D’Monte and G. Saunders (eds.), Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), cited in R. Nada-Rajah, ‘A Review of ‘Environmental Justice’ Research in the UK’ (2010), available at <;.

[ii] See J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above.

[iii] Ibid., at 158.

[iv] A reference to the leader of the Chicago school of economic thought, Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman. Friedman has been a highly influential figure for his association of capitalism with freedom. He regarded agency and freedom in the context of the market as much more than instrumental values but as ends in themselves. In libertarian terms, Friedman viewed market activities as existential goals. See S. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (Harvard University Press, 2008) for a critical discussion on libertarian approaches to economic thought.

[v] See J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above, at 160-161.

[vi] The chief aim of global advertising, described by Kanner and Gomes as the ‘largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race’, is to sell consumerism itself and shore up a consumerist, addictive culture. Kanner and Gomes describe the construction of a ‘consumer self’, resulting from the ‘merciless distortion of authentic human needs and desires’. A. Kanner and M. Gomes, ‘The All-Consuming Self’, in T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.),  Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (Sierra Club Books, 1995), at 80 and 83. Cited in M. Hathaway and L. Boff, The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis Books, 2009), at 103-104.

[vii] D.T. Cochrane, ‘Castoriadis, Veblen, and the ‘Power Theory of Capital’, paper presented at the 2008 Great Lakes Political Economy Conference (23-24 April 2008), at 114.

[viii] Ibid., at 116.

[ix] T. DiMuzio, ‘The “Art” of Colonisation: Capitalising Sovereign Power and the Ongoing Nature of Primitive Accumulation’, 12:4 New Political Economy (2007), 517, at 522.

[x] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel (Pluto Press, 2002), at 10.

[xi] Ibid, at 38.

[xii] Mindfulness training, or meditation, is now firmly established in Western therapeutic practice, with the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) peer-reviewed in medical and psychiatric literature (2008) and other writers such as Eckhart Tolle (2005), Thich Nhat Hanh (2008) and psychoanalyst Barry Magid (2007) bridging the literature on mindfulness, psychology, and well being.[xii]

[xiii] Barber (2007) has argued compellingly that public liberty demands public institutions that permit citizens to address the public consequences of private market choices. Liberty understood as the capacity to make public choices (in Rousseau’s terms to engage in ‘general willing’) is a potential faculty that must be learned rather than a natural one that is exercised from birth.

[xiv] CDF82, p.241.

[xv] In his brief essay on ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1991:16), Connolly excavates the ‘background assumptions’ or ‘unconscious phenomenology of life and death’ that mediate secular experience and compensate for the experience of loss after the ‘death of god’. Recognition that life is short, he notes, encourages the self to contribute to the crystallization of its own individuality. Morever, the relation of individuality to foreknowledge of death creates an ambiguous context for the exercise of freedom.

[xvi] Thomas Hobbes 1950, Leviathan, E.P. Dutton: New York, pp.79-80.

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