« We have become the degenerate children of a voluntarism without ethics, but with a label: « freedom »(1).  »

André Guigot

« An ethic, ecologically speaking, is a limit imposed on the freedom to act in the struggle for existence(2).  »

Aldo Leopold

« The proclaimed universality of human rights is matched by the effective globalization of inhumane systems(3).  »

Mark Hunyadi

In our liberal democracies continuing to hypocritically praise freedom, including therefore freedom of expression and opinion, it has paradoxically become perilous to dissertate, even rationally, on certain themes such as population control, « conspiracy » and especially morals, the sensitive subject of the moment since the #metoo affair. In the press, this situation has become embarrassing for satirists, whose activities are threatened. Let’s say it loud and clear: it’s a bad time for freedom of expression! Not having any advertisers to (un)please, we at Kairos dare to express ourselves, not without sometimes being subjected to accusations and insults on the asocial networks from the indefatigable militia of the right-thinking. With the cocktail of emotion-indignation-invective-sarcasm-misunderstanding, or even worse, the political discussion and the democratic debate are not going well! Dirty time, therefore, for freedom of expression… but good time for individual-consumerist freedoms! It seems to me necessary, having reached this historical stage, to question in the first degree the cult of individual freedom, otherwise called personal sovereignty, selfhood, independence or autonomy — not often with the required semantic precision. In political philosophy, the case is already old. In The Fable of the Bees (published in 1714 and again in 1729), Bernard Mandeville encouraged the freedom to act according to one’s private vices, which he believed would bring « public fortune. Less provocative, John Locke glorified individual liberty, seeing it paradoxically as the best means of achieving the well-being of society as a whole. Three centuries later, his lesson has been well learned. Whether one calls oneself a liberal (necessarily), an anarchist (necessarily too), a follower of « personal development » (above all!), or even a socialist, Marxist, republican, monarchist, ecologist, or dwindler, individual freedom is seen as a total social fact that was instituted with modernity (historically speaking) and as a definitive achievement of democracy (politically speaking). The distinction between positive freedom — that of political participation — and negative freedom — that of private enjoyment and the absence of constraint — was established in the Enlightenment, the latter pre-empting the former as consumer capitalist society advanced. Who still knows this distinction today? With morality and sociability, Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw in freedom a human specificity that imposes obedience to the law that one has prescribed for oneself, an idea later taken up by Cornelius Castoriadis under the name of autonomy. He maintained that the object of politics is not happiness, but (positive) freedom. For the very liberal Friedrich Hayek, freedom must be at the service of the market, and vice versa, while the libertarians have made it their credo. The current situation requires a change of perspective, for several interconnected reasons: economic, social, ethical, ecological, demographic. Let us distinguish three types of freedom, of decreasing interest: the freedom to be, the freedom to do and the freedom of choice dear to Milton Friedman. The first is claimed by all identity struggles (but not only); the second, by all business stakeholders; the third, by all voters-consumers. And there is nothing to stop you from adding them up!


It has long been known what is meant by the term « economic freedom »: the right of entrepreneurs and investors to develop (monetary-capitalist) anything and everything, by any means that science and technology can provide, and that the law allows — in principle -, on a playing field called « market ». From this continuous growth, individual and social freedoms would « naturally » follow. It is clear that this  » maximum expansion of the freedom to control and consume the world around us  » (Christian Arnsperger, 2006) is sacking the planet and bringing workers to their knees. On this point, the whole spectrum of the left, the ecologists and sometimes even the conservative right are in agreement: forty years of neoliberalism and market fanaticism are enough! These economic freedoms really only benefit a few and are ultimately liberticidal for the many. The expression « free fox in a free henhouse » evokes this. Should we return to collectivism, planning or simple state regulation? Better than that: degrowth and libertarian municipalism propose the confederation of small, relatively autonomous economic entities respecting the principle of subsidiarity(4). No longer a market economy, but an economy with limited markets that should be encouraged by the state. These markets would be « re-embedded » in social relations and ecological reality, following the reverse approach that Karl Polanyi had highlighted in The Great Transformation (1944).


For Spinoza, the freedom to philosophize is the true guarantor of the political order. I am a strong supporter of freedom of conscience and free examination who subscribes to what Simone Weil proclaimed:  » Total, unlimited freedom of expression, for any opinion whatsoever, without any restriction or reservation, is an absolute need for intelligence(5) « . With this clarification, let us see how the modalities of individual freedom exceed the freedoms of conscience, examination, opinion and expression. In the societal and ethical fields, the theoretically infinite extension of individual freedoms has as its goal happiness and as its means democratic equality(6). The notion of the counter-productivity threshold (cf. Ivan Illich) is also appropriate in this case, as this extension is increasingly problematic on two levels. Firstly, in the public space, we are witnessing the collision of the personal spheres of each other, mainly through auditory intrusions. Since our ears have no eyelids, our hearing picks up the environment at three hundred and sixty degrees(7); consequently, it is constantly solicited and often attacked(8). Let’s leave aside the already disturbing background noise of industrial civilization and consider the most frequent individual noises in public space: loud conversations(9) (connected or not), voice bursts, shouting, broadcasting of « muzak » through digital speakers, abusive or improper use of power tools and vehicles with combustion engines. Our society is tolerant, even frankly complacent with noise(10), seeing it as a sign of economic dynamism and, on an individual level, of legitimate self-expression: « I make noise, therefore I exist. And besides, it’s my right » (11). Wouldn’t the right to tranquility also be legitimate? Certainly, but it is no longer on the agenda in a changing world! From a proxemic point of view(12), the undue occupation of public space by the body and/or the objects attached to it is called « manspreading ». The phenomenon is not exclusive to men and is more a matter of rudeness than of ordinary sexism, because anyone can be a victim. Pitiful mode of self-assertion that this manspreading, with legs widely spread sitting on the seats of public transport, or shoes indelicately put on them! Secondly, identity struggles, by their multiplication, lead to a fragmentation of the social fabric. When pressure groups compete to draw public attention to their particular cause and seek recognition, it is no longer possible to agree on the construction of collective freedom to define our living conditions (« It’s a waste of time, only individual freedom exists »), nor on that of a common world (« It’s all a sham! We are too different, each one has its own point of view resulting from its experiences »), without speaking about that of a collective destiny (« It is totalitarianism! »). According to Hannah Arendt, the common world, in order to be, does not need identities — which today are unstable, contingent, hollow, narcissistic, chimerical and digital — but dialogue, an idea later taken up by Jürgen Habermas under the term « communicative action ». However, let us qualify this. For Michel Freitag, self-identity, that is to say the awareness of the continuity of oneself in time, is what makes the unity of the person. This is obviously not what the market proposes, which commodifies identities by positing them both as a political act via « intersectionality » and as a springboard for individual emancipation. Note that collective identities are valued when they concern societal pressure groups (the most famous of which is LGBTQI+), but vilified when they emanate from the nation, the people or a local culture. Why this double standard? Would it be legitimate, moral and progressive to define oneself as transgender, and illegitimate, immoral and reactionary to define oneself as Walloon?


We know that the ecological state of the planet is dramatic. If ecosystems are so damaged, it is due to the cumulative result of billions of acts of freedom on a daily basis for decades, above all economic freedoms (free enterprise, extractivism, military orders, digitization, potentially 5G, etc.), but individual-consumerist freedoms also play their role: Hubert(13) « the biker », perched on his gleaming Harley Davidson (model FXSTC) during the summer weekends, emits greenhouse gases and assaults the eardrums of the pedestrians, for his own pleasure and that of his biker friends; Monica is a keen sportswoman, and every year she goes scuba diving in the tropical seas and paragliding in the Alps; having inherited a small wood, Denis has decided to clear-cut it, in order to transform it into a profit-making property; Raymond, retired, affirms that he needs (sic) three cars to live («  One for the city, another for long distances and the third — an ancestor! - for rallies « Chantal has bought a second home in Turkey and flies there every school vacation; Philippe and Nathalie, who live in Liège, organize their wedding party in South Africa; etc. Dear readers, it’s up to you to complete this endless list by looking around you! This is where the absolute respect of individual preferences in the liberal culture leads: to the progression of ecocide (or biocide, according to Michel Weber). Collectively, we obviously have everything to lose,  » […] the negative conception of freedom risks blocking the necessary accountability of behaviors in the age of the Anthropocene, where more than ever everyone must think about the social and ecological consequences of their actions(14).  »


Finally, the ecological state of the planet is partly linked to demographic pressure. This common sense observation is however energetically opposed by many ecologists (and others), for whom the answer lies in the level of consumption, which would only need to be lowered to preserve the ecosystems. I will not argue for natalist moderation in this article(15) but I will put forward the hypothesis that individual liberties, even under the banner of the most sincere and generous humanism, will become more and more uncertain to exercise as the human over-occupation of the Earth-home increases, which Dany-Robert Dufour expresses in his own way:  » [L’aliénation] came this time from a surplus of freedom compared to the original quantum admissible for the man(16) « This quantum can be understood in various ways: quantum of births, of professional activities, of consumption, and more generally of conatus(17). When there were still only three billion people on Earth, the writer Albert Caraco (1919–1971) had a dazzling intuition:  » As men expand, they expand and when they expand, they take up more space. However, the universe being finite, the place is measured and in a closed world, the blooming of several billions of humans leads to the general explosion(18) ». The more numerous we are, the more our individual-consumerist liberties will be cut ipso facto. For example, mass tourism kills the freedom of the individual visitor to explore and enjoy the sites at his or her leisure, when Barcelona had 32 million visitors in 2017, when in Iceland 3,000 tourists cluster around a geyser in summer, when in Thailand up to 5,000 boaters swarmed daily on Maya Bay beach, which is only 250 meters long(19) ! Never in the history of humanity have individual rights been so antinomic with collective rights. Today, Locke’s conception is to be returned like a glove, because  » in In a liberal economy, each person permanently restricts the field of possibilities of all the others by the simple fact of exercising his freedom as a consumer and user, i.e. to covet the same goods or to saturate the same infrastructures the same goods or to saturate the same infrastructures(20) ».

some ideas for thinking about individual freedom in the 21st century

As always, an essential part of the possible adjustments is philosophical and cultural:

1  » It is necessary that liberal idealism in all its forms (and especially moral) […] is for us the expression of an error which is found in each act and each phenomenon of the current life(21) », wrote Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul. The decolonization of the imagination, or metanoia, Serge Latouche’s key idea, remains on the agenda. The objective is to make the liberal ideology and its hyper-individualistic religion flow back by ceasing to bring its own guarantee and by avoiding the reflex « no question of making personal efforts when I see all these jerks around me! If specular and narcissistic interaction(22) remains the rule, there is no chance of evolution!

2. Dominique Bourg and Christian Arnsperger propose a new categorical imperative that could be at the origin of a new social pact:  » To be a free person means to live as I wish while voluntarily remaining within the limits imposed both by the carrying capacity of the biosphere and by the exercise of freedom by all within that biosphere(23) ».

3. Jean-Paul Sartre was not only an individualist. He mentioned a solution, admittedly rather difficult, consisting in establishing a morality that takes into account the inalienable subjective freedom of the human being, and that, in the process, presents itself as a morality valid for all. Nowadays, Arnsperger rephrases it:  » Certainly no one has the right to impose his or her own conception of a « full » life. However, we can bet on common frameworks in the quest for existential plenitude(24) ».

4. Collective action requires restricting individual freedoms at certain times, and instituting an authority capable of enforcing these prohibitions, as the astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau advocates: « The law must intervene to infringe individual impulses that are no longer compatible with common life(25) ». It is a question here of questioning certain aspects of our legal heritage, notably Roman law, which defends the idea that it is better to tolerate abuses of freedom than to risk restricting it. The argument was at least valid in an empire of a few million people, with a rudimentary technical system. Is it still the case in a high-tech , interconnected world-system of nearly eight billion people? Similarly, the principle of jus omnium ad omnia, the right of all over all, should be abolished, because it can only encourage mimetic rivalry, a source of violence.

5. Could we not recognize the transcendence of certain values in relation to individual freedom? The first of these values is the preservation of perennial living conditions on Earth, a categorical imperative proposed by Hans Jonas in Le principe responsabilité (Flammarion, 1990). On the other hand, social freedom,  » understood as conscious and assumed interdependence(26) », should be recognized as superior to individual freedom.

6. Given the magnitude of the task, the fervents of personal development believe they have found the answer with « inner freedom », which should be cultivated as an antidote to the violence of reality. But  » the feeling of inner freedom is not enough. Freedom, as self-determination, must be experienced in discussion and collective organization, in confrontation with necessity, and not in its evacuation(27) ».

7. To fight against destruction, collective action (praxis) remains the only possible way. We are neither powerless nor all-powerful, we are always subject to natural necessity — as the Stoics, Spinoza and Marx emphasized — but we have some room for maneuver that we must identify and use with discernment. These margins make politics and freedom possible.

8. What if another danger — the main one? — was in the antithesis of my demonstration? Günther Anders had already foreseen that capitalism could  » deprive us so completely of freedom that we would no longer even have the freedom to know that we are not free . In the digital age, this danger is multiplied. On that day, alienation will have completely accomplished its Copernican revolution. Is it already too late?

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. André Guigot, « Pour en finir avec le « bonheur », Bayard, 2014, p. 215.
  2. Cité in Serge Audier, L’âge productiviste. Hégémonie prométhéenne, brèches et alternatives écologiques, La Découverte, 2019, p. 768.
  3. Mark Hunyadi, La tyrannie des modes de vie. Sur le paradoxe moral de notre temps, Le Bord de l’eau, 2015, p. 36.
  4. Cf. « Le Kurdistan syrien sur la voie de l’écologie sociale ? », in La décroissance, n° 161, juillet/août 2019, p. 25.
  5. Simone Weil, L’enracinement. Prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain, Gallimard, 1949, p. 26. Voir aussi Raoul Vaneigem, Rien n’est sacré, tout peut se dire. Réflexions sur la liberté d’expression, La Découverte, 2003.
  6. « Le rôle grandissant de l’argent, la croissance de la consommation confèrent à cette course  à l’égalité une accélération exténuante : chacun part à la conquête du statut, de la distinction auxquels il croit avoir droit puisque les autres croient également y avoir droit », in Jean-Marie Domenach, Approches de la modernité, Ellipses, 1986, p. 128.
  7. C’est également le cas de l’odorat.
  8. Certes, nous vivons de toute évidence dans une civilisation de l’image, mais nous pourrions tout aussi bien parler d’une civilisation du bruit, déjà identifiée comme telle il y a long- temps : en 1908 à Hanovre, le philosophe Théodore Lessing avait fondé une « Association anti-bruit » et une revue pour aider cette lutte, L’Anti-grossier. Le droit au silence.
  9. Dans les trains de la SNCB, des messages citoyens appellent les voyageurs à parler pour ceux qui les écoutent, pas pour ceux qui les entendent.
  10. Et ne nous leurrons pas avec la loi sur le tapage nocturne, elle est rarement appliquée. Par contre, le laxisme est de mise pour le tapage diurne.
  11. Soit la « conception anale de la liberté : faire tout ce que je veux, comme je veux, quand je veux… et qu’on ne m’emmerde pas ! », in Jean-Claude Liaudet, Le complexe d’Ubu ou la névrose libérale, Fayard, 2004, p. 156.
  12. La proxémie est l’étude des relations spatiales entre les individus (principalement dans la vie sociale), dont l’anthropologue Edward T. Hall (1914–2009) fut le principal représentant et initiateur. Cf. La dimension cachée, Seuil, 1971.
  13. Tous les prénoms sont fictifs, à l’inverse des exemples qui eux sont réels.
  14. Serge Audier, op. cit., p. 795.
  15. Même si elle ne relève pas d’une pulsion consumériste, la procréation participe, au-delà d’un certain seuil, à une trop grande ponction des ressources. Est-il encore raisonnable de fonder une famille nombreuse quand un million d’êtres humains supplémentaires arrivent sur Terre tous les cinq jours ? Cf. Michel Sourrouille (dir.), Moins nombreux, plus heureux. L’urgence écologique de repenser la démographie, Sang de la Terre, 2014.
  16. Dany-Robert Dufour, L’individu qui vient… après le libéralisme, Denoël, 2011, p. 141.
  17. Chez Spinoza, le conatus est cette force vitale qui nous pousse à la conservation de notre être.
  18. http://idiocratie2012.blogspot.be/2012/10/albert-caraco-florilege.html
  19. L’an dernier, cependant, les autorités du pays ont eu la bonne idée de l’interdire totalement aux touristes. Mon intention n’est évidemment pas de réserver le tourisme aux riches, mais de remettre en cause le « pourtoussisme » touristique, donc y compris pour les riches. Cf. Rodolphe Christin, L’usure du monde. Critique de la déraison touristique, L’Échappée, 2014.
  20. Eric Maurin, La fabrique du conformisme, Seuil, 2015, p. 49.
  21. Bernard Charbonneau et Jacques Ellul, Nous sommes des révolutionnaires malgré nous. Textes pionniers de l’écologie politique, Seuil, 2014, p. 67.
  22. Dans la dynamique des groupes, l’interaction spéculaire désigne une tendance de l’individu à observer les (ré)actions de ses congénères avant d’agir personnellement. On la résume par l’expression familière « D’accord, Madame, mais après vous ! ».
  23. Christian Arnsperger & Dominique Bourg, Écologie intégrale. Pour une société permacirculaire, PUF, 2017, p. 30.
  24. Christian Arnsperger, L’homme économique et le sens de la vie. Petit traité d’alter-économie, Textuel, 2011, p. 22.
  25. Aurélien Barrau, Le plus grand défi de l’histoire de l’humanité. Face à la catastrophe écologique et sociale, Michel Lafon, 2019, p. 70.
  26. Serge Audier, op. cit., p. 760.
  27. Groupe Marcuse, La liberté dans le coma. Essai sur l’identification électronique et les ifs de s’y opposer, La Lenteur, 2012, p. 158.

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