One of the philosophical foundations of a democracy is the belief in free will. We are free to make choices that involve our moral values: our freedom in what we are going to say to others about the social, political and economic issues, our freedom to assemble with others and with whom we want to assemble, our freedom to write what we want to say in articles, our freedom to worship the way we want to worship and with whom. But all of us, nevertheless, have some limitations on the kinds of actions we can will ourselves to do. To start with we are all bound by gravity to walk on and stay connected with the earth. We can fly off in airplanes, but then we are bound to the floor of the cabin. The possible exception to this is parachuting for the select few and that primarily leads to falling back to earth anyway.
Then there are the limitations to our free will that come from our innate skills and our opportunities. What we do best in terms of our studies and our work is usually what we choose to engage in. Of course, this can be limited by our opportunities. Sometimes a particular community or society very simply doesn’t have good work opportunities for people with particular skills or people with a particular education. People who are good at physical work are increasingly being replaced by machines and robots.
And then there are the limitations to our free will that paradoxically come as a result of making modern life too easy. There are two ways that modern technology can affect our free will by making life too easy. One is by speeding up the processes by which all our daily chores get done. That can leave us with free time on our hands that we don’t know what to do with. So we become bored and then with a lack of tasks among which to choose, our capacity to exercise our free will goes dormant.
Then there is the limitation that comes from getting rid of the physical and mental resistance in our life activities, the organic friction that was previously always a part of our daily lives. Life activities become so smooth and seamless as a result of modern technology. This smooth, seamless, frictionless, experiential vacuum living environment leaves a person in a state of almost no experiential gravity holding him down to earth. It’s almost as if the person is confronted with too much freedom in his life, and this ends up paralyzing his free will. His excessive frictionless freedom paradoxically ends up being a limitation on his free will, almost as if he was locked up or in handcuffs or shackles.
One way people have of dealing with this lasting numbness is to find someone who has the metaphorical keys to let an afflicted person out of his metaphorical handcuffs and shackles and jail cells. Finding a person who has the capacity to fight the numbness in his own life through unpredictable aggressive abrasive behavior. Such a person can give other people the psychological traction to move forward in their own lives. Hence the rise today of the authoritarian populist leader. When people find their capacity to exercise their free will to be considerably damaged as a result of a pervasive numbness, an authoritarian populist leader is the perfect antidote.
Numb people can live their lives through the authoritarian leader. If they feel that as individuals their will is weak, that their lives are directionless and boring, they can hitch their lives onto that of the authoritarian populist leader, and let him give their lives direction, interest, and impact. If as individuals, they are too numb to exercise their free will freely, they can merge themselves with an authoritarian populist leader and become a part of a strong collective will. And the strength is in the numbers. Individuals can feel the rush that comes from the collective will in movement and pull themselves out of their numbness and feel very much alive. They feel very much alive from making all the collective organic imprints with all the other followers of the authoritarian populist leader and feel very content in the knowledge that many of the imprints will be preserved and become a part of a collective surrogate immortality in order to help all the followers prepare for death.
We lose our free will when machines start doing more and more for us, and there is less and less for us to do in our daily lives. We think we are going to be free to do so many different things, now that machines have relieved us of our drudge work. But the more tasks that machines take over, the more new relatively frictionless tasks get redefined as drudge work, because in our increasing numbness, we start to tolerate less and less. And then we either stagnate painfully in a living death and have our free will numbed by conative anesthesia (a fancy way of saying anesthetizing our will), or we abrasively activate our will ourselves by making up all sorts of new tasks to do through conative acceleration (speeding up the will) or we hitch our destiny onto a leader who himself has an acceleration of his will and who takes on the role of an authoritarian populist autocrat. The first posture involves living in the understimulation of an experiential vacuum. The second posture involves living in the overstimulation of a private tension pocket filled with abrasive friction. And the third posture involves living in a private experiential vacuum which propels a person to merge with a charismatic leader and become a part of a public collective acceleration of a collective will. If the first posture leads to a living death from numbness, the second posture leads to burn-out from overstimulation and the third posture leads to a loss of a person’s individual sense of self.
Actually there is a fourth posture to be considered here: that of merging one’s numbed will with the collective numbed will of a mystical guru immersed in meditation and yoga. This represents an attempt to sublimate one’s living death numbness into something positive. Numbness becomes something positive through meditation and yoga experiences. But here is where one’s values come into play. Is it a vibrant life if one spends it primarily withdrawn from engagement with the external world? It means accepting one’s inability to maintain an active sense of control over the direction of one’s life activities. To me, renouncing of control and fatalistically accepting the flow of things to where they want to flow is not a positive state of affairs. It represents the glorification of giving up one’s free will.
Obviously meditation and yoga have been around since way before the transformation of daily life by modern technology. In the old days, they were used to rise above an overly intense immersion and involvement with passionate interactions involving other humans and with nature and with one’s predisposition to perishability surrounded by so much organic stimulation within natural environments. In other words, meditation and yoga used to help prevent people from being consumed by passion. Now meditation and yoga serve to help a person become accustomed to a numbing environment.
But I have strayed far from the original focus of this article which was to show that the frictionless existence within modern technological society leaves some people who take on a certain posture predisposed to want to give up their free will and their individual sense of self and merge with an authoritarian populist leader in order to feel alive by participating in a collective will. Needless to say, this can become very dangerous both for the individual and for the society as a whole.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow