Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 07, 2016

SIMMEL: Individual Freedom (The Psychology of Freedom)

In last week’s reading Georg Simmel made his case that an economy based on monetary transactions allows for maximum individual freedom.  Money gives us many more choices about how we earn a living, where we live, and what we do with our leisure time.  Exchanging money for goods and services make us more dependent on the system but less dependent on individual people.  There’s both an upside and a downside to this kind of economic arrangement.  Here’s an example of what Simmel is talking about.  He says “the personality as a mere holder of a function or position is just as irrelevant as that of a guest in a hotel room.”  The upside of this arrangement is the depersonalization of business transactions.  A waitress at a restaurant or a clerk at a convenience store won’t refuse me service just because they don’t like me.  The downside of this arrangement is the depersonalization of business transactions.  Under a monetary system I’m just another customer and as irrelevant as “a guest in a hotel room.”            

Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of arrangement.  Tocqueville once remarked that “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.”  He’s talking about the power of the majority but the principle also holds true for a people utterly dependent on commerce.  In order to conduct business Americans are compelled to act, and even think, in certain ways.  For Tocqueville being dependent on such a system is in reality a limitation of freedom.  Simmel doesn’t agree.  Simmel thinks “we are compensated for the great quantity of our dependencies by the indifference toward respective persons and by our liberty to change them at will.”  If I don’t like my boss I can find another job.  If I don’t like my neighbors I can move.  Money gives me freedom to change my relationships to other people.  I can make my own choices about who I do business with and for Simmel “this is the most favorable situation for bringing about inner independence, the feeling of individual self-sufficiency.”  Simmel points out that “the vassal could change his master whereas the serf was unalterably tied to the same one.  This reflects an incomparably higher measure of independence for the vassal compared with the serf… It is not the bond as such, but being bound to a particular individual master that represents the real antipode of freedom.” 

Simmel and Tocqueville seem to have a fundamental disagreement about what freedom means.  They both emphasize the psychological as well as the financial component of freedom.  But Simmel says “The slave could not change his master even if he had been willing to risk much worse living conditions, whereas the industrial worker can do that at any time.”  Knowing we can choose to change our circumstances is the key to freedom for Simmel.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be better off, at least financially.  Simmel admits that “there is no necessary connection between liberty and increased well-being.”  But there’s a line from an old George Strait song that goes “I ain’t got a dime but what I got is mine; I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free.”  That may be true but Tocqueville counters with this argument.  “Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; the civilization of our age has refined the arts of despotism… in democratic republics the body is left free but the soul is enslaved.”  I’m free to leave my job and work for someone else or I can start my own business. But I’m still dependent on the same system.  Simmel thinks freedom means not being “bound to a particular individual master.”  Tocqueville worries about something much worse.  Being bound to majority opinion and having many anonymous masters is a worse fate than having a particular individual master.  Better to deal with the devil you know than the many devils you don’t know.  This is the psychological tension Freud spoke about in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).       


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