LWC Book Review
Creating Freedom by Raoul Martinez
“Every valuable human being must be a radical and a rebel for what he must aim at is to make things better than they are.”~ Niels Bohr, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 1986, p.42
ne of the most important lessons in my life is that almost everything I was brought up to believe turns out to be untrue.” These ominous words at the beginning of Raoul Martinez’s 2013 documentary, The Lottery of Birth, set the tone for that movie. In his 2016 book, Creating Freedom, we learn that that film is one part of a trilogy of ideas. The book is divided into three sections, The Lottery of Birth, The Illusion of Consent, and The Fight for Our Freedom. (Two movies to come?)
This book is radical, literally—Martinez goes to the roots of our political and economic ideas. He often writes in aphorisms, enough to make Nietzsche proud. Here are some samples: “The idea that we are rewarded according to the market value of our contribution is not just unfair, it’s a myth.” “In the real world, deregulated markets favour those who own capital.” “Politics, as the classical economists knew, cannot be removed from economics.” “Moral codes evolve. Aesthetic tastes alter. Political views refine. Personal ambitions shift.”
“In the real world, deregulated markets favour those who own capital.”
Any criticism of Creating Freedom is likely to include Martinez’s early central premise—that we should reject the myth of responsibility. Simply put, Martinez argues, we humans are sculpted by two forces we do not control - our genes and our environment - especially the environment, that shapes us when we are young. In other words, nature and nurture happen outside of our conscious will. We are not truly responsible for our actions, because we are not the ones who shaped and made us. This is one of those ideas that is deeply unpopular, but which is devilishly hard to refute. It takes some serious nerve to publish with such premise, but nerve he’s got, and brains as well.
In the first chapter, Martinez quotes Daniel Dennett, a well-respected American philosopher, who argues that we should accept the myth of responsibility, because to fail to do so would lead to chaos, and, ultimately, “that way lies the Gulag.” This is pretty much what everyone thinks—if you say that responsibility is a myth, then you will have a disorderly world, which can only be ordered by totalitarian strongmen.
This book is about questioning our sacred presumptions, many of which are accepted widely, with very little thought.
But there is a deep contradiction here, which Martinez picks up on. Daniel Dennett is, after all, famous to most people as one of the four horsemen of atheism (along with the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris). He’s a very thoughtful skeptic of myths, but here he argues for hanging on to a pervasive and questionable one. As Martinez points out, Dennett elsewhere argues that myth cannot stand, because, to quote Dennett: “There is no future in a sacred myth. Why not? Because of our curiosity.” In other words, we humans will keep thinking about a myth until we mentally unravel it, so myth cannot stand forever, and we have discarded many myths along the way.
Martinez agrees with Dennett’s skepticism, but wonders why the philosopher doesn’t remain consistent. If we must accept the theory of evolution -even though it may be put to improper and awful use -because our curious minds must have the truth - then why advocate for hanging on to the myth of responsibility? The atheist goes one god further, we are told. Martinez asks Dennett to go one myth further and state, consequences be damned, that the myth of responsibility is just that, a myth. In other words, Martinez out-Dennett’s Daniel Dennett.
Martinez does not conclude, however, that we must simply tolerate careless irresponsible behavior. “We may not be responsible for who we are or what we do, but we still have choices to make. Our actions have consequences in the world and, not being neutral creatures, we favour some of these consequences over others.” Following Martinez here does not lead to a lawless world, but by rejecting the myth of responsibility we can perhaps leave aside some of the brutality of our punitive-heavy system of justice.
This book is about questioning our sacred presumptions, many of which are accepted widely, with very little thought. Take the ubiquitous neoliberal paradigm, which is mouthed everywhere, and little understood: “At the heart of neoliberal thinking is the belief that the only way to guarantee individual freedom is to protect ‘market freedom’.” This is the equivocation fallacy, where the squishy, careless use of words like ‘freedom’ are used in two different ways. Freedom to exploit and bully workers, and protection of our civil rights are not analogous. Tighten up our thinking, and we locate an obvious truth—a rampaging, untethered corporate ‘free’ market will impinge upon the freedom of workers, not protect their liberty. One’s freedom to be unemployed, underpaid, and freighted with debt and worry is, however, safe.
This is a vigorous, challenging book, well worth a slow read. It will likely (and hopefully) spark arguments. For the lazy among us, however, we also hope that Mr. Martinez makes those two remaining documentaries.