Sunday, February 26, 2012

Freedom: ACTA, PIPA, ITU, and Julian Assange, a reflection of our unsustainable path?

            I was ten years old when Romania’s brutal totalitarian regime collapsed.  Many people asked me recently whether I still remember what it was like.  Most who grew up in the west, have no way of understanding that there are certain things that one just does not forget.  How am I to forget when my mom was crying a whole day over the fact that Mr. Antal, one of her co-workers was arrested, beaten to death, and then declared to have died of lung problems?  My parents used to often remind me not to say anything about the regime, or the president, before I would go to school in the morning, or when talking on the phone.  I remember the sadness I felt, when a woman was being dragged away by two police officers.  Out of a sense of desperation, she yelled at a saleswoman nearby to help her, to which the sales woman replied to leave her alone, because she does not know her, despite the fact that the arrested woman called her out by name.  I have no idea why the woman was dragged away, but I do remember that she was frightened, and so was the saleswoman at the prospect of being associated to her in any way, for the obvious reason that there was a chance that the woman was being taken away for political reasons.  I also remember the increasing level of misery.  The economic situation was getting worse, and as such there was an increase in shortages.  There were rolling power outages.  Hot water was rationed, and so were most food items.  The most ridiculous shortage we experienced was a constant absence of toilet paper from the market.  I am reminded of that even two decades later, whenever there is a commercial on TV about the quality and softness of brand X or Y.

It goes without saying that I did not understand then why it was all happening, but I do remember the effects, and now, two decades later, I have a chance to make better sense of it all.  The economic situation was the key to shaping that particular social environment.  It became worse gradually, as a result of misguided economic policies.  As the economic situation became worse, the natural reaction of the government was to take measures to discourage dissent.  This was done through intimidation, as well as through an intensification of control over the modes of communication, which went as far as trying to control personal face to face communication, through a robust network of informants.

After experiencing such a brutal, controlling regime, it is understandable, why I value freedom.  In fact I value it so much, that I even found it necessary on a few occasions to express my views, in the face of pressure, in the form of cultural values that if questioned, one becomes labeled unfavorably as a consequence.  I believe in the importance of speaking out for what one believes to be right, even in the face of social intimidation, because it can be just as harmful to society in some respects as legal intimidation.

It is with sadness that I have to acknowledge that we are as a society witnessing the beginning of the end of human freedom as we know it. Do not get me wrong, our freedom was never ideal.  Our democracy is tainted by money, as is our mainstream media.  Even our culture and values are a reflection of social conditioning, meant to serve certain interests and needs.  Nevertheless, the level of individual freedom we experienced thus far is something I believe to have been a rare breath of fresh air, which few people experienced through human history.  I can write this blog, I can choose to go, or not to go to church, and even criticize it if I wish to do so.  We get to vote, as well as express our opinions about our elites.  We have artistic freedom, and some social mobility, although far less than what many would want us to believe.  The taste of freedom is sweet indeed, even if it is not perfect. 

It is increasingly obvious that this era is close to coming to an end now.  It may not revert back to the brutal totalitarian rule for the foreseeable future, but control through intimidation is especially evident, as is the increasing effort to gain control of the internet as we have seen, and continue to see.  Intimidation comes in the form of situations such as the one which Julian Assange finds himself in.  There is little doubt in my mind that he was set up in Sweden.  Former economist at CIBC, Jeff Rubin was let go shortly after his book was released, and we are increasingly told that private enterprise is in the habit of screening potential employment candidates, through searching for their activities on the internet.  In other words, we no longer have to fear only our governments, but also our prospective private sector employers, and in this case, there seems to be very little that we can do about it.  Intimidation through the threat of marginalization can be quite effective.  Persecuting people for their political views, when hiring, or trying to wrongly prosecute someone, all the while maintaining the belief that we are still the same free society is an effective tool of control, especially due to its complexity and sophistication, which unlike the brutal and blunt forceful approach employed during my childhood experience, few can actually understand it, or even acknowledge its existence.  And unlike the brutal approach, this one is far more successful at turning dissenters into losers, rather than martyrs.

I do not want to focus entirely on arguing whether this curbing of personal freedoms is happening, or in what shape or form.  I want to also concentrate on the reasons it is happening, and why it is happening precisely now. It is important to acknowledge the causes and not just the symptoms, if one is to truly understand what is happening in our increasingly complex world. Freedom can be correlated to many factors.  In the US recently, support for freedom became correlated in the minds of many, to the willingness to invade other countries.  Many like to correlate freedom to the bravery with which many were willing to fight for it.  Some correlate the presence of freedom to the level of education within a society.  I think however that freedom, and its advance or retreat, can most easily be correlated to the level of content experienced by the population living within a regime.  Level of collective social content can easily be destroyed by a decline in economic prospects, and that in turn can trigger a response on the part of the authorities and elites, trying to prevent change which is increasingly demanded, whether it is constructive or not.  The ramp up in attempts to limit internet freedom, as well as a few other recent curbs on people’s abilities to voice dissent are simply the response to expectations of increased dissatisfaction on the part of the public for the short, medium and long-run.  The world is gearing up to respond to the 2011 Time’s person of the year (the protester), in order to make sure that it will not lead to eventual social breakdown.

The threat of social breakdown is expected, because we have problems, with few solutions proposed or implemented by our elites.  Since we are incapable of responding to the problem, the world is gearing up to respond to the symptoms.  The problems include resource scarcity issues that we are very busy as a society debating whether they are real or not, but there is very little debate on what to do about it, aside from a few unrealistic proposals, which can never make a real difference, aside from the difference it makes to a few elites who can point and say that they are actively doing something to try to solve the problem.  I stated already in previous articles, my belief that the peak in conventional oil production, which happened in 2006, according to the IEA, has shaved a full 1% from our yearly potential global GDP growth.  Resource constraints ranging from water, food, rare earths, and many other key resources, including our environment, which are in danger of not being able to keep up with demand, will have a similar global growth dampening effect.  Market economics does provide some flexibility for the economy to adapt to these scarcities, but it is nowhere near enough to neutralize the effects.  That is why I suggested giving the market a helping hand in this matter, through my proposal for implementing a standardized global sustainability trade tariff, which is designed to encourage efficiency.  I am not one of the elites however, so there is little chance that the idea will ever be noticed and gain traction.  Ironically, if I were one of the elites, I would have never been able to come up with such a suggestion, because I would have been too concerned with protecting my status and position in society.  So we continue our paralysis, and settle for dealing with the symptoms rather than the problems.

Our current elites were also unable to protect the global economy from the imbalances we are currently witnessing in trade, which threatens to derail the economy.  The solutions to this problem as well as the above mentioned sustainability issue, are not to be found in solutions suggested within the increasingly heated arguments between left and right.  Both sides are heavily invested in their respective ideologies, and it is precisely the constraints of these ideologies, which prevent us from finding appropriate answers to the world’s problems.  So regardless whether the left or right prevails within our current political environment, the result will inevitably be less freedom.

Note:  Feb/27, the ITU meeting in Geneva is the next event to watch in the current tug of war over how much control should be exercised over the internet.  The ITU, which is a branch of the UN, can pass binding legislation through a simple majority vote.  It may not happen at this meeting, but it will probably happen eventually, because following the social media revolts of 2011, there are many parties interested in curbing the freedom of people to organize protests online.

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