Freedom by GB Shaw Summary
Nobody can be totally and absolutely free, and this is true of the richest as well as the poorest among us. For, whatever we may do, we can never hope to be free from the necessities imposed on us by nature. And, the women’s lot is even worse than men’s because they have to bear the additional burden of child-bearing. But there are other Jobs, besides such natural ones as eating and drinking, from which one can free oneself by exploiting the labour of his fellow beings. Through force or fraud or trickery, one can manage to steal from others the fruits of their labour, just as you ride a horse instead of walking to a place yourself. Thus the rich and the powerful people in our society shift many of their jobs on the shoulders of the poor and the weak.
Thus, a great majority of people have to labour hard, providing not only for their own necessities but also for those of their masters. And, our governments, instead of abolishing this slavery of man to man, protects and strengthens it by all means. It is true that they impose certain minor restrictions on the greed of the master class. And they take a lot of precautions so that you mistake your slavery for your freedom. In order to convince the people that they are free citizens, they give the people a right to vote and persuade them that this right makes them the free citizens of a democratic country. The reality, however, is that a man having a right to vote is just as much a slave as one without such a right. The surprising fact is that this hoax on the part of the ruling class proves quite effective with the people in general.
But man’s slavery to nature is radically different in character from man’s slavery to his fellow beings. Instead of regarding our natural wants as slavery, we derive great pleasure from their satisfaction. But the slavery of man to man has no such redeeming virtue. This slavery gives rise to class hatred and class struggle in society. Our poets and thinkers unanimously declare that there can be no really stable and peaceful society until this slavery of man to man is abolished forever.
Naturally, the ruling class does everything in its power to prevent us from realizing that we are essentially slaves. They make every effort to convince the common people that they are free and that their freedom was won by their forefathers through a series of so-called glorious historical struggles. Sometimes great writers start exposing this hoax of the ruling class, and the government then quickly bans their works and vilifies their names as best they can. When the teachings of these great writers inspire a people to attempt a social revolution, England immediately starts doing everything in her power to suppress that movement.
Thus in order to delude the common people, the ruling classes build up an elaborate framework of trickery and false propaganda which, in the long run, deludes the master class more completely than it deludes the working people. A gentleman’s education and breeding thoroughly convince him that the social system in which he lives is the best of all possible systems. He feels that he must do everything in his power to preserve this ideal social system. But the masses of oppressed workers, who are less thoroughly deluded by the propaganda of the ruling class, now and then give vent to their fury and hatred by resorting to (unorganised) violence. But such (unorganised) violent activities never succeed in improving their lot.
Having thus far placed the “plain natural and historical facts before his readers, Shaw starts praising the institution of slavery in his characteristically ironical manner. He points out that slavery constitutes the very foundations of a class society and that obedient workers and law-abiding citizens are nothing but slaves who have been deceived to believe that they are the free members of a democratic society. So firm is the grasp of this deception on the common workers that, when given a choice, they would always choose as their representative’ a member of the ruling class rather than one of their own. Since this slave mentality of the working people is but a forced, artificial product of a very particular kind of education and propaganda, it naturally follows that an opposite kind of propaganda would inevitably produce an opposite kind of mentality.
The fundamental practical question is related to the equitable distribution of the total income of a whole country. Such a distribution may, indeed, become possible only when wealth is produced in absolute abundance. But it is quite possible that nature may put some restraint on our efforts to increase production indefinitely.
Now the author returns to his original proposition and declares that no one can ever be absolutely free. For, nature compels us to do a number of things which we can avoid only at the risk of our own destruction. Moreover, we have to earn our living. Over and above all these compulsions, our freedom is further restricted by the laws of the land. But, for the vast majority of the people there are two more formidable compulsions in a class-divided society. These are the compulsions exercised on the common man by his landlord and his employer. To protest and fight against the oppression of their employers, the workers sometimes use the trade union weapon of the strike. But Shaw calls into questions the efficacy and wisdom of this weapon.
It turns out that a man, having worked for twelve hours, may obtain a four hour’s respite in which he is relatively free to do as he pleases. But even this freedom is restricted in real life by a number of factors including the laws of the land and, of course, the financial conditions of the person concerned. It remains, however, an absolute and universal truth that the vast majority of the people desire a greater degree of freedom. But Shaw firmly declares that they will never get it so long as they remain content with a vote and a dole. Shaw suggests that freedom should be called by its old English name of ‘leisure’. He further suggests that people should keep demanding more leisure and more money to enjoy it, in return for an honest share of work. Meanwhile, people should stop voting for all parliamentary candidates whatever party they may belong to.
In conclusion, he points out that it is not at all easy to make a fruitful use of leisure even when one is fortunate enough to obtain it. Those, who are unaccustomed to having much leisure, would find life extremely difficult if they were suddenly provided with a lot of it.