The Prison of Thought
This is an expanded version of a post I wrote on medium a few weeks ago.
I came to realize, as I began to understand capitalism, that money is a kind of prison. You’re only free when you can afford to break the rules. But as you build wealth, it is imperative that one follow the rules; be a miser, a Scrooge, sometimes in the extreme. Then it dawned on me that thought can be its own kind of prison. I used to think that even prison would not be such a bad fate as long as I had my thoughts. I realized as I spent more and more time at work, and less at school, that one of the insidious things about mental work (even of a menial variety), as opposed to physical work, is that it monopolizes one’s ability to mull things over, in short, to think.But then even “free” thought might not be so free. We become trapped in the frameworks that others create, over time.
The social theorist Theodor Adorno described modern culture as an open prison, in which seemingly free people censor themselves partly due to the “culture industry” of mass media, which established norms and constraints on behavior.
Linguist Noam Chomsky describes the way that the media engages in self-censorship as one in which the range of debate is narrowed, but within that narrow range very lively debate occurs. Chomsky explained how media control worked in a book of the same name:
… liberal democratic theorists and leading media figures, like, for example, Walter Lippmann, who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy. If you take a look at his collected essays, you’ll see that they’re subtitled something like “A Progressive Theory of Liberal Democratic Thought. “ Lippmann was involved in these propaganda commissions and recognized their achievements. He argued that what he called a “revolution in the art of democracy,” could be used to “manufacture consent, “ that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn’t want by the new techniques of propaganda. (Chomsky, Media Control, p.14)
Most Americans have no idea of the full range of political options available due to the two-party system. For Europeans, larger extremes are at least considered in their multi-party systems — parties like the Green Party, Communists, Scottish Nationalists, Royalists and others have seats in Europeans parliaments (even though the results are often similar, with centrist parties usually forming the ruling coalitions).
Economically, the situation is similar. Finland’s plan to give all citizens a basic income, for example, is a kind of test of the freedom of thought. The idea that increasing productivity would free people from work was a prediction that was long in coming. Alaska, Brunei, some Indian nations have had basic income, but those are special cases, based on oil or some special status — Finland is the first country to do it that’s not some special case. We have been hamstrung by a capitalist logic of scarcity for so long that a trend that even Marx could see in mid-nineteenth century Britain is only now beginning to come to fruition. And if a basic income can free people from work, what does it free them to do? Among other things, to think more. And from that thought will come more ideas; a singularity of thought. This may be overstating the case, but as Slavoj Zizek put it, “don’t act, just think.”