Freedom is a word and idea that has become synonymous with America. President George Bush told Americans in the wake of 911 that the reason terrorists attacked the country was because “they hate our freedoms.” The national anthem proudly proclaims that America is “the land of the free.” Every July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day and the freedoms that America represents. But what doesfreedom actually mean? What do politicians, those in power, and everyday individuals mean when they usefreedom to describe the essence of America? In the sense that we have been conditioned to think of freedom and America as synonymous, there is actually no true meaning or definition of freedom. It is what George Orwell termed a “meaningless word” because it conveys nothing specific. In reality, freedom means different things to different people: the right to free speech;the right to vote and participate in the political process; the right to privacy; the ability to accumulate great wealth and consume various products; or the right to live unmolested and to move about freelywithout constraints.  Essentially, the meaning of freedom is a personal one that has no official consensus.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, freedom means: a)the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b) liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another. Freedom, then, is about autonomy and independence – to be in control of oneself and to choose one’s destiny. If we apply this definition as the standard, do we truly have freedom?
“Work Until We Keel Over and Die”
The reality for most people in the world today is one in which we serve the needs of the economic system, and in turn, those at the top who benefit from the status quo. For a human being to do anything in the world, his or her most basic needs – such as food, shelter, and clothing – must first be met. Since all individuals need money to survive, the economic system within a country is one of the primary – if notthe primary – determinant of an individual’s course and quality of life. Since money is directly tied to survival, it serves as a major factor that guides our decisions.
Frontline’s recently released documentary Two American Families vividly depicts the extent to which money and the economic system affect our everyday reality. The film follows the lives of two working-class families (the Neumanns and the Stanleys) over the course of twenty years as they struggle to live the “American Dream.” Their troubles begin when both Tony Neumann and Claude Stanley lose their well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs to overseas outsourcing. What follows in the next two decades for both families is a painful struggle to keep up with their bills, feed their children, and cope with the constant stress of being unemployed, underemployed, and on the brink of poverty and homelessness. Throughout the years, the Neumanns and Stanleys work various demanding jobs (sometimes two at a time) and eventually hope to live a life of “purpose and a lot more self-respect.” The Neumann kids worry about the family’s finances and, at one point, even offer to sell their baseball cards. The Stanley boys start their own lawn care business and have no time for fun during the summer because, as the oldest son Keith says, “You have to go out there and help your mom and dad.” Only one Stanley child makes it through college while the rest are unable to attend due to medical bills that put the family $30,000 in debt. Even with all their hard work, resilience, and refusal to give up, both families express their disappointments and blame themselves for the struggles they have endured over the years.
One of the most disturbing examples of the injustice and ruthlessness of our system is the foreclosure of Terry Neumann’s home. After 24 years, Terry loses her house in 2011 because her part-time job wages are not enough to cover the mortgage. If we assume that the monthly mortgage payments stayed the same for 24 years, the Neumann family paid JP Morgan close to $236,160 for a house the bank sold for $38,000 in foreclosure and for which they demanded an additional $120,000 from Terry as a buy-out. After years of barely “making it,” Terry has little faith in the future and believes that most of us will simply “work until we collapse, keel over and die.”
Poverty – As American as Apple Pie
Unfortunately, the Stanleys and the Neumanns are not unique. Their stories are typical and happen to millions of Americans every day. According to recent surveys, 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and 80% of Americans struggle with unemployment and near-poverty at some point in their lives. Since the 2008 economic crash, millions of Americans have slipped into poverty, lost their homes, gone bankrupt, become unemployed, and are now working part-time jobs in an economy where not even full-time wages are enough to make a decent living. But these conditions have always been present, as evidenced by families like the Stanleys and Neumanns; it’s just that now an increasing number of Americans are living this reality that had previously gone mostly unacknowledged. Currently, there are more than47 million Americans on food stamps (most of thememployed), and almost a third of working class families earn wages below the official poverty threshold. In the more updated poverty measures, which include additional living costs such as medical expenses, almost 50% of Americans – 146. 4 million people – are considered poor or low-income. On top of all this, 69% of Americans today hold some form of debt with the median household owing $70,000. Unfortunately, the odds of overcoming these dire economic circumstances are slim: theU.S. ranks consistently at the bottom when it comes toincome equality and offers much less economic mobility than other developed countries. So, who is benefitting from this system?
The top 1% richest households in America received 121% of all income gains from 2009 to 2011, and median CEO pay increased to $15.1 million last year. Today, the richest 1% of Americans take in 24%of all new income, while in 1976 they took home 9%. The 400 wealthiest individuals – the real owners of America – have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. Corporations have also raked in record profits, yet somehow none of this prosperity has “trickled down” to the rest of us.
Freedom to Live, Not Merely Exist
When we look at the Stanleys, Neumanns, and millions of other families struggling to (literally) survive, one has to ask: are they free human beings? What freedoms do they enjoy? For the overwhelming majority of us, our whole lives revolve around meeting our basic needs and keeping our families from starvation and homelessness. Most individuals are at the mercy of the economic system and have little time for anything else – survival is their main concern. What kind of a life is that? Is this a life lived inabsence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action? People spend most of their lives working for a ruthless system and benefit very little from the incredible work and labor they put into it. And despite their best efforts, they are barely making it.
But being a human is about more than just earning a living, working 40 plus hours a week for someone else’s benefit, and wasting countless more hours commuting to and from work. We get a few hours to ourselves for lunch or at home after work, and (if we are lucky) two weeks of vacation per year. This is not freedom – it’s more like temporary release. Living means more than merely existing; living is about experiencing life by expressing one’s passions, connecting with one another, and contributing creatively to our communities. For the most part of our existence, our bodies and our time belong to our employers, the “owners.” The only reason the current system “works” is because it threatens us with starvation and homelessness – this is coercion. It is not freedom by any definition.
According to studies, most workers today have completely checked out from their jobs and are practically sleepwalking through their workdays. This even includes high-income workers, which suggests that money has little effect on whether we actually enjoy our jobs. These statistics fly in the face of those who argue that our current system is necessary because it creates an incentive for people to be productive. Studies have repeatedly shown thatmoney is actually a bad motivator, and what people really care about is to have autonomy at their jobs and the opportunity to apply their talents and be recognized for their work. Turns out, self-expression and the ability to make one’s own decisions are more important than money. This may be surprising to many of us because we have been indoctrinated into an economic ideology that sees profit as the ultimate value without any consideration for human beings and the natural world. Today, our global economy is mostly geared toward consuming and producing products we don’t need at the expense of exploited workers and the degradation of our environment. In other words, we are lending our labor to forces of death and destruction while ignoring the consequences of our work. No wonder most people cannot relate to their jobs.
Unfortunately, many individuals cannot afford to quit their jobs even if they find their work morally repugnant because they have to worry about paying their bills and taking care of their families. Moreover, in an economy based on consumption and exploitation, there are few meaningful jobs that provide us with a deep sense of purpose and that create a positive impact on society. If they do exist, these jobs are mostly reserved for privileged individuals who get to choose between careers of profit or lives of purpose. It is these kinds of choices that working class people do not have in our system today.
No one is suggesting that people should not be “productive” or contribute to society; on the contrary, people want to have a purpose in life and we should be able to utilize our talents and passions for the benefit of society while still working in harmony with each other and the environment. A coercive economy only creates widespread discontent and fails to meet even the basic physical and psychological needs of the majority of people.
Unfortunately, there are still those who blame others for being poor, unemployed, or struggling in this economy. While those in power often blame people for their misfortunate in order to evade responsibility for creating and perpetuating a system of oppression, there are also those within the working class who echo their sentiments. Clearly these individuals have internalized the authoritarian and coercive mindset that keeps them obedient to the needs of those in power. Their anger, criticism and disgust are misplaced and should be directed at the ruling class who benefits from this system of oppression and degradation. They have sharp words of “personal responsibility” for working people, yet no calls for accountability of Wall Street criminality and general belligerence of the ruling class. The victim-blamers never stop to ask themselves why there is no space in our economy for people to express their passions and talents; or why every person must adapt to the needs of the system – isn’t the system supposed to work for us, the people? But, of course, it is much easier to blame the victims than to confront our own powerlessness.
Limited, Predetermined Choices
Our every decision depends on the system’s approval, and we forego many of our wishes, desires, hopes, and dreams because we have to labor to survive. This is simply a sophisticated and updated version of slavery that has most people serving the interests of the powerful with minimal benefits to themselves. And make no mistake about it – the ruling class – if they could get away with it – would make all of us work for free. They are certainly not above slavery, as the history of African Americans and today’s corporate exploitation offarmworkers,temp workers, prisoners, and millions of sweatshop laborers around the world clearly shows. We are only putting up with this system because we have no other choice; we are blackmailed and rendered passive because our survival depends on our servitude to the interests of a ruthless authoritarian structure. No one in their right mind would willingly choose this type of existence because it goes against every natural human instinct that pushes against oppression and yearns for self-expression and creativity.
We cannot even choose our own education because we have to look to the system to determine which majors will land us a job or make us a lot of money. Knowledge and education have been commodified, stripped of their inherent value, and turned into assembly-line products to be bought and sold on the market. We have lost the most basic and personal freedoms to determine how we wish to cultivate our lives – it is all about the system and how we can be used to serve its needs. This type of thinking is so deeply ingrained into our psyche that most people do not even realize that this is how they approach life. Living our passions and having autonomy should not be a privilege – we all deserve the opportunity to express our talents, not just the lucky (mostly privileged) few. Anything less than that is psychological and spiritual suicide.
The issue of freedom boils down to autonomy – the dignity of self-determination which recognizes that we as human beings are more than just commodities to be used and exploited for the benefit of the few; to exercise our inherent rights as living beings to make decisions about our own lives without facing catastrophic consequences from a system created by those in power who benefit from our oppression. So the next time you hear the word “freedom,” ask yourself: do I have the autonomy to direct my life as I wish, to pursue my passions, interests, and desires without facing the consequences of starvation, homelessness or alienation? Am I free to do as I wish (without harming anyone) or am I dependent and beholden to a greater force and power than myself – one that makes those fundamental decisions for me? Do I have real choices in my life or only the superficial “choice” of Pepsi or Coke, Democrat or Republican, CNN or Fox News? In other words, do our choices have substance or is it just the same shit in a different package?
 Because the word “freedom” conveys nothing, individuals (and governments) can conceal the true nature of their ideas and actions behind such ambiguous words, while allowing their audience to fill in the missing definition. For instance, when politicians speak of a free economy (or economic freedom), what they really mean is an economy free to exploit workers and the environment without any regulation, rules, or oversight of corporations; however, many individuals interpret economic freedom to mean the right to work, decent wages, or better opportunities to start small businesses. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the politician’s meaning of the word and its interpretation by the audience.
 Even the rights we think we have are vanishing before our eyes: as a result of mass surveillance, the right to privacy no longer exists; our votes have become meaningless because regardless of who we vote for, Wall Street and the military industrial complex always win; many of us cannot even walk around freely without being harassed in the age of codified racial profiling under “Stop and Frisk”; and of course the “chilling” effect on free speech resulting from unprecedented persecutions of journalists and whistleblowers by an establishment so afraid of the truth that it jails those who expose corruption and war crimes.
 $820 (monthly mortgage) x 12 months x 24 years = $236,160. This sum does not include fees and penalties the Neumanns paid over the years when they fell behind on their mortgage.
 Some critics argue that even these figures are too low because the standards for calculating the poverty line have not been updated since the 1960s. If the measures had kept pace with living standards over the years, today the poverty threshold would be $34,000 for a family of four instead of the $25,222 in the more “updated” version under the Poverty Supplemental Measure.http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/cepr-blog/raising-minimum-wage-to-9-not-enough-to-ensure-that-families-with-fulltime-workers-live-above-poverty-line