The idea of free will and the incessant wanting to fully understand, define, and explain everything can be frustrating and exhausting, especially when we inevitably realize we cannot. I think free will is both a freeing and destructive idea. With free will comes expectations and disappointment, motivation and hopelessness, solace and pressure; it can invigorate you in one moment and overwhelm you in the next. It is the contradictory mindset of our society.
We often try to ignore the arbitrary nature of life, how the environment we are born into and our surroundings have such an overwhelming impact on and control over our lives. The way in which we view economic poverty is in relation to where we live, how the society functions there, and what commodities are seen as necessary beyond fundamental needs such as food, water, and shelter. How each of us has arrived at this present moment in this specific way is a reflection of our environment which we are arbitrarily placed into or find through random causation – the butterfly effect in action.
The contradiction lies in that the capitalist society we live in wants us to believe we have the free will to overcome our environment through hard labor and dedication to being a cog in the machine, yet it discourages the belief in the level of free will to transcend the system itself and not play by its rules. At what cost do people attempt to overcome their environments through the current economic system? Resources are not infinite and constant economic growth is not sustainable. Our society conditions us to believe that we can continue to climb up the never-ending ladder of “success” or unsustainable “progress” (on account of our free will to work, study, seek monetary goals…), yet it also wants us to rest our entire lives on the imagined existence of this ladder and think it inconceivable to stop climbing or even step off it altogether. This, coupled with overwhelming individualism, makes the demand for change seem impossible.
We think that since we personally cannot do anything to challenge the systems at hand, we may as well participate since there seems to be no other choice. Solidarity in numbers is forgotten. Revolt and rebellion on a powerful scale are portrayed as virtually inconceivable. How do we make change in a society so complicit and caught up in the individualistic pursuit of “freedom”? A society that has been so desensitized to the contradictions of capitalism, that it seems nothing will move them to demand change.
The overwhelming system and the conflict between the desire for free will and its experienced absence produces a numbing effect. We know the system is wrong, but in an effort to rally a population against capitalism’s exploitations, we desensitize that population to it out of the sheer perceived impossibility. We tell ourselves that we individually cannot make much change, it’s the big corporations’ fault. Yet, the system is so complex and bureaucratic that the outside entity to blame seems faceless. It resides in the minds of our society, we are socialized into it and we must re-socialize ourselves out of it. I don’t believe in blaming the consumers of this systemic capitalist ideology, but there should be an effort to make our collective consciousness transcend its privileged hopelessness and be willing to act against the systems and institutions at hand.
Radical thought is often supplemented with anger (at the current economic, political, and societal situation), and that anger is justified. It is an emotion that naturally arises out of frustration with the current state, but it should not be uncontrolled. Overwhelming anger is unsustainable, it is the reason why so many organizers experience burn-out, and the activist scene has such a high turnover rate. Anger at the system is most effective when collectively expressed through organized mass action rather than contained within the individual. While anger can be a powerful motivator, an even stronger and lasting one is hope.
We can better sustain contentedness if we simultaneously work towards improving our situation and not letting the current state of it mentally drain us or put us in a state of despair. Not through conformism, but rather an avoidance of individual emotional turmoil that merely wears us out. Best not to fixate or get too overwhelmed and mentally exhausted by the system. Instead we can have a calm and collected, yet headstrong attitude. Action is most effective not within the individual but through the collective.
I think we individually experience strong desires to feel a sense of free will, or at least the thrill of escaping from the monotony of daily life. It’s why spontaneity is so intoxicating. We crave that feeling of control over our lives and attempt to gain some by breaking away from the schedules and deadlines that both govern and alienate us from our time. Even the decisions we so defiantly make to deviate from the norms of our society or upbringing can be interpreted as essentially just a negation of the norm, informed by this norm, and not truly a decision we make ourselves. But perhaps this idea of free will presupposes the notion of “the self” which we tend to hold on to in our individualized society (an inherently contradictory term). We want to believe we have free will because of this learned idea that we are separate from our community. Perhaps the important question isn’t if we truly have personal free will or not, since we do not actually live individually. We know we are a reflection of our environment and that we are socialized from birth, but we can also exercise some form of self-determinism through decisions about what kinds of people we surround ourselves with and the community that we create. By becoming so preoccupied with ourselves as individuals, we miss out on the beauty of community organizing, discussion, and even some commiseration that can reinvigorate you in times of hopelessness. So go out, create your community, join radical spaces around you, and be vocal about your ideas with friends. It is only through community that we can make change in our society and environment, and forming our community is something that we can influence.