Over the past several posts, I have been exploring the factors that shape human freedom. Of all of these, the factors that have the most important effect on human action are those that pertain to meeting basic essential needs. Without meeting basic needs, individual die, and so factors which shape or constrain the possible ways of meeting these needs are going to have tremendous influence patterning human action. For small societies (e.g. foraging bands or horticultural villages) with a direct relation to nature in providing for their basic needs, the physical qualities of their environment are going to be an important influence shaping and constraining possible strategies for living. For larger societies, where most have a more indirect relation to nature and make a living through their place in complex networks of economic exchange, the social possibilities within those economic networks will profoundly influence individuals’ range of possible free action.
For individuals living in small scale societies, being incorporated into larger societies and economies – which almost all small scale societies are – tends to entail a massive increase of social restraint on freedom, especially economic restraint (See also here my earlier post, “Freedom and Restraint: Part III”). The result is the social and economic malaise so common among Native American communities throughout the Western Hemisphere after being partially assimilated into Euro-American societies, as well as similar experiences among members of small scale societies in Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania over the past couple centuries. As these smaller societies continue to be further incorporated into the world economic system (frankly, to me that seems inevitable), a concern for these societies, but also anthropologists and any progressive thinking people is and should be to manage such transitions so that they have the least negative economic and political effect possible, the least negative effect on autonomy and freedom possible.
For the 6 billion or so people thoroughly incorporated into state structures and the global economy, greater autonomy in action can only come through greater wealth. Simply put, in the global economy as formulated, greater wealth equals greater ability to act freely. (Money, perhaps, can’t buy happiness, and greater wealth doesn’t free one completely from restraint, but it does free one from the unhappiness that derives simply from deprivation, allows one to go most anywhere one wants [including outer space nowadays if you’ve got enough], gets one a better shake before the law, buys a better education, etc.) Greater autonomy and freedom in general depends on continued expansion of economic production globally, though this is only a necessary but not sufficient condition, for it’s not just a question of per capita income or total income but the actual distribution of wealth.