Addicted to Comfort

Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.

by George Monbiot

The question has changed a little since Rousseau’s day, but the mystery remains(1). Why, when most of us now possess greater freedom than almost any preceding generation has enjoyed – freedom from tyranny, freedom from slavery, freedom from hunger – do we act as if we don’t?

I’m prompted to ask by the discovery that the most illiberal and oppressive instrument proposed by any recent government – injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance in the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill – has been attacked by Labour not because it is draconian but because it is not draconian enough(2,3). The measure was decisively rejected by the Lords last week(4). But if the government tries to restore this monstrous proposal in the Commons next month, Labour is likely to insist only that it is too timid.

Why do we tolerate a politics that offers no effective choice? That operates largely at the behest of millionaire funders, corporate power and a bullying media? Why, in an age in which people are no longer tortured and executed for criticising those in power, have we failed to create viable alternatives?

In the US Congress this year, for the first time a majority of members are millionaires(5). As the representatives become richer, the laws they pass ensure that they exercise ever less power over the rich and ever more power over the poor. Yet, as the Center for Responsive Politics notes, “there’s been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington.”(6)

We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats, as the biosphere is trashed, as public services are killed or given to corporations; as workers are dragooned into zero-hour contracts. Though there are a few wonderful exceptions, on the whole protest is muted and alternatives are shrugged away without examination. How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?

The question is not confined to politics. Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest. With the amount most of us spend on home entertainment, we could probably buy a horse and play buzkashi every weekend. But we would rather stare at an illuminated box, watching other people jumping up and down and screaming. Our political constraint is one aspect of a wider inhibition, a wider failure to be free.

I’m not talking about thinktank freedoms here: the freedom of billionaires not to pay their taxes, of corporations to pollute the atmosphere or induce children to smoke, of landlords to exploit their tenants. We should respect the prohibitive decencies we owe to others. But there are plenty of freedoms we can exercise without diminishing other people’s.

Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.

A few years ago, a friend explained how depressed he had become while trying to find a stimulating partner through online dating sites. He kept stumbling across the same phrase, used verbatim by dozens of the women he looked up. “I like nothing better than a night in on the sofa with a glass of red and a good DVD”. The horror he felt arose not so much from the preference as from its repetition: “the failure to grasp the possibilities of self-differentiation.”

I wrote to him last week to see if anything had changed. Yes: he has now tumbled into the vortex that dismayed him. He dated 18 women in 2013, seeking “the short sharp hit which keeps you coming back despite the fact that the experience taken as a whole does not add up to anything worth having. My life … is beginning to dance to the Internet rhythm of desire satiated immediately and thinly”. In seeking someone who was not trapped on the hedonic treadmill, he became trapped on the hedonic treadmill.

Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?

If so, it is a habit learnt early and learnt hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors(7). We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.

Tocqueville made a similar point about democracy: it threatens to enclose each of us “entirely in the solitude of his own heart.”(8) The freedoms it grants us destroy the desire to combine and to organise. To judge by our reluctance to create sustained alternatives, we wish neither to belong nor to deviate.

It is not hard to see how our elective impotence leads before long to tyranny. Without coherent popular movements, which are required to prevent opposition parties from falling into the clutches of millionaires and corporate lobbyists, almost any government would be tempted to engineer a nominally democratic police state. Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.


  1. Rousseau’s unanswered question, at the start of The Social Contract, concerns the mystery of our submission to captivity.
  3. Yvette Cooper, Column 176.
  8. Alexander de Tocqueville, 1835. De la Démocratie en Amérique.


  1. WHOA!!!…
    1) “Why, when most of us now possess greater freedom than almost any preceding generation has enjoyed – freedom from tyranny, freedom from slavery, freedom from hunger – do we act as if we don’t?”…
    *** This is SUCH a naive and RECKLESS statement! THIS EXACT line of thinking is the very proof that we have NEVER been in greater SLAVERY than NOW. The MOST INSIDIOUS type of slavery: FREE RANGE SLAVERY (the ILLUSION of freedom). For as long as there are people who think we need ANY kind of GOVERNMENT, SLAVERY WILL BE PRESENT. There’s NO way around that.

    2) “Why do we tolerate a politics that offers no effective choice?”…
    ***WRONG QUESTION! It should be: Why do we tolerate politics and government ALL TOGETHER AT ALL?

    3) “Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.”…
    ***It seems, sadly, that we have NEVER known the TRUE meaning of freedom in the first place. No wonder the latin word “liber” (root for the vocab ‘liberty’) has two meanings: ‘Free’ and ‘BOOK’.

  2. The cocoon of comfort … deadens us to the world outside, isolates us from the exuberance (and catastrophe) of life, stifles meaningful personal growth. Surely within that blanket of comfort, our imperative towards freedom is smothered. The comforts of instant gratification are a direct result of cheap energy and are beginning to slip away. As comfort dissipates so will complacency, and the pendulum will once again swing towards rebellion against tyranny, towards action against the growing discomfort pressing in from all sides, towards character and away from mere personality. The patterns of humanity are persistent.

  3. @Lee Soarez:

    What does a world without government look like? What is to prevent a small group of individuals from carving out their own fiefdom by force?

    I would really like to hear an answer to that. Because honestly, the idea that everyone will be content to live in an anarchist system appears to me to be as utopian as communism. You may get it to work on a small scale, but what is to prevent people from outside of your area taking what you have by force?

    Humans have banded together in societies with some form of governance or another for over ten thousand years. When did we ever have this true freedom you speak of? And if it was in the distant past, how do you reconcile the fact that today this world is at once inhabited by over 7 billion human beings and is gravely diminished in natural abundance?

    How do you propose to eliminate government in an era of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons- not to mention the millions of so-called conventional weapons?

    Personally, I don’t understand the vehement opposition to the very idea of government. I like living in relative peace (Finland is quite the peaceful country in comparison to my home country the USA). I also like the fact that we all pitch in via taxes to have a functioning social safety net: one that includes medical, education, family support, unemployment & training benefits.

    Sure, it isn’t perfect, but I’d much rather tweak this system than declare the whole thing intolerable and worthless.

    1. Well done everyone: some great comments on an important question.

      It’s not a complete lack of government that one needs: it’s a form of government that does not continue to accrue more and more power to itself, until it is tyrannical. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

      What is elusive is the defenses against tyranny, and the gradual erosion of rights.

      People have had many goes at this over the ages: Romans tried kings, emperors, triumvirates, senates etc. The most recent attempt was the U.S. constitution, which is now written out of the law, and dead letters. It was written by people seeking to escape tyranny, and they had a very good go at it. But its defences have been completely eroded. A major step in the process was the conversion of incorporated companies from institutions which had to be checked out regularly to make sure that they were still earning their public benefit status, in exchange for their financial perks. (See The Corporation)

      Some slightly tongue in cheek suggestions –

      1 We could (as someone has already hinted) try Democracy, i.e. what they have in Switzerland, where people get to vote on ISSUES.

      2 Since 90-something percent of prison occupants are men, courtesy of their testosterone handicap, we could disqualify anyone with a blood testosterone over a certain level, say what a typical 64 year old man might have. (Testosterone level gradually declines with age). People in power would then be exclusively women, and men who had with any luck accrued a little wisdom.

      3 Anyone who wants power over other people should be disqualified from ever doing so. Perhaps people could be disqualified from promoting themselves, but have a system like jury service, into government. Government should be very small in nature, and jobs of limited duration.

  4. When I am free of DEBT, then I will be free. Until then, we are all just working for The Man. If I could repudiate my debt, I would perhaps live differently; yet I know there would be a consequence. We don’t have a system that is ” free” of property issues, either. So far, everyone who has commented is “right.” And , if you have free time :-), I would suggest that you read Rousseau all the way through! BTW, this is an intelligent post AND an intelligent thread.

    1. Trouble with democracy with a possible exception of the Swiss version and probably the Icelandic it doesn’t really exist.
      Here in Britain there is the three party plutocracy in play where the party rules the roost not the electors. Even in Switzerland and Iceland there has to be be a rule by majority (min 51%) and if the majority is wrong about something what recourse is there for the minority to opt out of the wrong or make things right?
      And what of those who want nothing to do with governance or democracy and can quite happily life out a fantastic life outside of state control but with state jurisdiction?

  5. For myself, i’ve noticed that the various injuries of life, after a short period of healing and restoration, are better with movement, better to get back to a proper workout. Maybe theres an analogy here.

  6. Just because some may have trouble imagining the absence of the state doesn’t make it right, nor does it mean it’s an impossibility. The state has had a relatively-ephemeral existence and we did not evolve in them.
    Strength in numbers, based on, say, care of earth and of people, might save us from such systems. Otherwise, it could be something like Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory for us. Or worse, extinction. Our call.

    “How do you propose to eliminate government in an era of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons- not to mention the millions of so-called conventional weapons?” ~ Joshua Finch

    Permaea: Earth of Hyperdemocracy

    (Incidentally, in that regard, the good folks at Permaculture Global may not realize what they may be sitting on, right under their noses, insofar as where a potential formative peer-to-peer/hyperdemocratic land-trust/mesh-land-node self-governance/direct-democratic global/local/glocal model/platform is concerned.

    “Lest anyone protest that the state’s true ‘function’ or ‘duty’ or ‘end’ is, as Locke, Madison, and countless others have argued, to protect individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, the evidence of history clearly shows that, as a rule, real states do not behave accordingly. The idea that states actually function along such lines or that they strive to carry out such a duty or to achieve such an end resides in the realm of wishful thinking. Although some states in their own self-interest may at some times protect some residents of their territories (other than the state’s own functionaries), such protection is at best highly unreliable and all too often nothing but a solemn farce. Moreover, it is invariably mixed with crimes against the very people the state purports to protect, because the state cannot even exist without committing the crimes of extortion and robbery, which states call taxation (Nock 1939), and as a rule, this existential state crime is but the merest beginning of its assaults on the lives, liberties, and property of its resident population…

    …In view of the foregoing arguments, we might well restate Olson’s ultimate economic conclusion on anarchy as follows: If a population acts to serve its common interest, it will never choose the state. In reaching this conclusion, we need not deny the countless problems that will plague the people living in a society without the state; any anarchical society, being peopled in normal proportion by vile and corruptible individuals, will have crimes and miseries aplenty. But everything that makes life without a state undesirable makes life with a state even more undesirable. The idea that the anti-social tendencies that afflict people in every society can be cured or even ameliorated by giving a few persons great discretionary power over all the others is, upon serious reflection, seen to be a wildly mistaken notion. Perhaps it is needless to add that the structural checks and balances on which Madison relied to restrain the government’s abuses have proven to be increasingly unavailing and, bearing in mind the expansive claims and actions under the present U.S. regime, are now almost wholly superseded by a form of executive caesarism in which the departments of government that were designed to check and balance each other have instead coalesced in a mutually supportive design to plunder the people and reduce them to absolute domination by the state…

    …Here, however, I have tried only to show how we may think more clearly about the choice between a society under the state and a society composed of self-governing individuals. Assuming that we really had such a choice, the better option seems to me fairly obvious. If the reader takes anything away from my arguments here, however, I hope that it will be an appreciation of how highly warranted is an application of the precautionary principle in choosing between anarchy and the state. Fire has proven to be a magnificent aid to human beings, but a fire that cannot be contained portends our utter destruction, and the state is precisely such a fire.”
    ~ Robert Higgs, ‘If Men Were Angels: The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-government’

  7. @Caelan MacIntyre

    While the quote you provide is quite an accurate statement regarding the government of the United States, I still find no answer to how a planet of over 7 billion self governing individuals is going to deal with global concerns such as nuclear weapons and the remnants of the “civilian” nuclear industry without accords struck between these individuals to provide for the management of radioactive materials. These are materials that will need to be safeguarded and monitored for thousands of years. That is a lot of power to entrust to anyone, and I’d like to know that a democratic state such as mine exercises authority over these materials.

    I also, again, fail to see how removing the state (but allowing other organizations? What about organized crime, would that disappear as well?) from existence is going to provide any sort of freedom for over 7 billion human beings living on a greatly diminished planet.

    Government and “the state” are not the same. Direct democracy is still government, if government means “the system by which a nation, state, or community is governed.” A community living in an eco village will have a method for making decisions- whether or not they set up a “state” doesn’t matter, they are still “governing” their actions with decisions made collectively.

    Besides, I never said that living in a society with a state or even government is the right way for humanity to live. I just fail to see how this ideology is going to work on a planet with over 7 billion people, spread over vast geographical distances. The idea that we should give up the notion of even democratic states in favor of a stateless society is something that would require a tremendous amount of time to come to fruition.

    Religious movements and others (such as deeply held racism) could easily become another stepping stone for setting up “states” or “communities” that decide to impose their will on others.

    Does this stateless society reside on a planet where none of these other factors exist? Have we wiped out religion- and all memory of religion? What about racism? Or patriarchy? That such a world where all of the potential threats to a stateless society are conspicuously absent seems to me to be “wishful thinking.”

    Again, I’d much rather live in a place where the population decides to collectively make decisions (even via proxy elected officials) and implement those decisions through an apparatus -known as a state- that is accountable to the population. I don’t feel oppressed here. I don’t feel the weight of a useless state holding me down, that if only it were out of the way I could flourish. On the contrary, I love living in a social democracy and I think that I am not alone.

    Is it perfect? Is it the right condition for life? No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean that a stateless society is the right human condition either. The ideologies surrounding anarchist thought are far from infallible, just as arguments in support of living in a society with a state.

    By the way, there isn’t anything wrong with my imagination. I’ve tried to imagine a stateless world quite a few times in conversations with others, but their arguments in favor still run into roadblocks set up by the complex world in which we live.

    1. I’m not Lee but here goes.
      All taxation is theft plain and simple as it is all ‘enforced’ by the state. In reality it is a protection racket dressed in ‘all the right reasons’.
      Trusting politicians to use tax money wisely for the benefit if the majority is madness based on all the available evidence.
      Democracy is rule by mob in which at least 49% of any electorate will not agree with the government of the day, the legal codes they pass. the penalties they enforce, the wars they start, the deals the engage in or the strokes they pull.
      Why do you have such a low opinion of your fellow men and women that the only ‘thing’ that will look after others is a tax funded authoritarian state?
      Why do governments only ever seek to get bigger?
      Finally here’s a better way of living one which prevented the Romans from getting a foothold in Britain, twice.
      One where every man was given five acres gratis to manage how he saw fit for the benefit if his family and his neighbours near and far.
      One where every able bodied man took up arms to defend the land from invasion when the threat appeared and did so successfully at least twice preventing the Romans from ‘conquering Britain’. Even Julius Caesar only just escaped with his life.

      The Molmutine Laws

      People fear anarchy because the authoritarian state paints anarchy as destructive. Have we not yet grown up enough to realise that the authoritarian states thrives on lies and fear?
      Every act/code/statute has to be enforced under threat of penalty and the people ‘in power’ can pervert or ignore this acts/codes/statutes with impunity.

      Lastly the most destructive thing created by an authoritarian state is the distrust that is endemic in today’s society at least here in Britain.

  8. The state, the corporatocracy, or however one wishes to call this current nightmare– via the human’s capacity for systemic complexity, if without the wisdom to manage it— is ostensibly largely responsible for the creation of the nuclear and other social, economic and environmental pickles that most, if not all, life on Earth is exposed to.
    Tasking a coercive state government with somehow providing the appropriate solutions/responses to the problems it created in the first place would seem to fall under the definition of a racket, and/or be like repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
    Let’s also avoid deluding ourselves into thinking that large-scale centralized state systems operate under some kind of democracy.

    Iron Law of Oligarchy: sociological thesis according to which all organizations, including those committed to democratic ideals and practices, will inevitably succumb to rule by an elite few (an oligarchy). The iron law of oligarchy contends that organizational democracy is an oxymoron.”
    ~ Encyclopaedia Britannica

    “Since the nation-states are today’s bullies, we can not rebuild the peace of the tribe unless we build a global community that stands independent of these nations…
    …Our societies need to decentralize to remove crucial pressure points. We need to replace brittle systems of hierarchical power with resilient systems of ‘network semi-dependence.’ ”
    ~ Robert Gilman

    “Gustav Landauer: ‘The state is a condition, a certain relationship between beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.’…
    Jayaprakash Narayan: ‘In a Sarvodaya world society the present nation states have no place.’ ”
    ~ Geoffrey Ostergaard, Resisting The Nation State

    “At this stage of history either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control…In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival.”
    ~ Noam Chomsky

    “…we have a great team of people which increases in numbers daily. To empower the powerless and create ‘a million villages’ to replace nation-states is the only safe future for the preservation of the biosphere. Let interdependence and personal responsibility be our aims.”
    ~ Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, second ed.

    “Grown men do not need leaders.”
    ~ Edward Abbey

  9. Bill & Caelan:

    Not everyone who disagrees with anarchy is self delusional. Nor are they insane, moral cowards, or have low opinions of their fellow human beings.

    In fact, they simply have a different opinion than yours. Your perspective on anarchy, taxes, or states is your opinion. It is not the gospel truth.

    No ideology is infallible. I’ve readily admitted that there are problems with the representative democracy model, but there are problems with every model. Some ideas regarding anarchy are very attractive, others not so much. If anything is a fact, it is that no one way is the only way.

    I choose to believe that representative democracy can work. I look at the evidence in my country, Finland, and see a pretty healthy democracy. Not without its flaws, not a heaven on earth, but a working republic.

    I see a representative democracy where the people choose to pay taxes to a government that provides essential social services very well. Education through to a master’s degree, child care, maternity & paternity leave, unemployment assistance, job-skills training assistance, housing assistance, world-class health care… these are all things we exchange our taxes for. Interestingly, Finns trust “state” positions such as nurses, doctors, police (92%!), teachers, and judges at unheard of levels. Politicians, meanwhile, are only trusted by about 10% of the population. Still, satisfaction with our system is quite high and the trustworthiness of each crop of politicians changes considerably with time.

    Our government has made cleaning the lakes to fresh drinking-water standards a priority. It has also made transitioning 20% of our land to organic standards by 2020 a priority. I was informed in a meeting with our new Organic Institute that a target of 50% by 2050 is in place as well. Things could be better, of course, and many of us are working to change the facets we don’t like.

    You may look at Finland and see an authoritarian, unaccountable, thieving, and malicious centralized power lording over the Finnish people. And you are entitled to your opinion. I, and many others, happen to disagree.

    Real men may not need leaders, but they surely need to recognize that others can look at the same set of data and draw different conclusions without claiming that the other is living a fantasy.

    1. Joshua
      If taxation were voluntary we would get a government fit for purpose. One which accepted that not everyone needs a government to run their lives and so took a live and let live approach as long as everyone understood that the only ‘rule of law’ that mattered was ‘do no harm’.

      There are many ways to skin a cat but pretending that a plutocratic authoritarian state created and supported by compulsory taxation of the individual’s income and most of the requirements for ‘contemporary life’ under pain of a financial penalty or loss of liberty, is a democracy is delusional.
      Such an authoritarian entity cannot tolerate anyone who seeks to remain in the land it claims jurisdiction over and live a life outside of the tax dragnet.
      Whether an anarchic land’s people could tolerate an authoritarian government operating in the same place is open to question as as far as I am aware there are currently no real world models to examine.

      It’s not a case of I’m right you are wrong or trying to convince you to change what you think and feel it’s more a case of trying to throw off the blinkers imposed by corporate consumerism and is media to get people to see that flexibility is a better way to go not rigidly sticking with, defending and tweaking the current model which based on available evidence benefits a tiny minority and keeps the vast majority in a life of perpetual struggle.

  10. One question I have is that with the great numbers of people, is there time for Traditional Democracy, and telling someone our beliefs face-to-face, hopefully without reprisal, and thus, healing the “Solitude of our
    own Hearts.”
    On the other hand, my experience of technological innovations, is, for the most part, an unavoidable Totalitarian nightmare, run by the same old “effective team,” faster, more efficient, sanitized.
    The Historical Powers in Finland solved their problems with broadswords; so, good job Finland.
    So is Finland now a target? Or, one of the leaders of the pack?

  11. Joshua, unless your neck of the woods is not coercive– that is, freely opt-outable & not based on force/violence– then it seems a cage– gilded, maybe, but a cage nonetheless. You are welcomed to your own cages, but you certainly don’t represent me or many others, as much as you might like, or like to think. I am uninterested in, and don’t take kindly to, your, or anyone else’s, notions of how to live, imposed on me by force, such as with regard to taxation, regardless of how tasty the carrots might appear. This is key, because the use of illegitimate force is unethical and considered an act of violence, which can lead to war.
    I will also add that this systemic violence-based fundamental, as per the butterfly effect, ostensibly infects many other things and at different scales, time-frames and distances.
    As for the lakes, some can offer greenwashed promises of their cleaning but then the lakes are presumably not drinkable then, nor may the effort make that make much of a difference if the lakes exist within the holistic whole of the Earth, such as within the context of climate change or downwind of some industries across the borders of other glorified prisons some call nation-states.

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