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Liberal Totalitarianism

It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. But liberal individualism seems to have been defeated by a totalitarianism that grew out of its own success at legitimizing the encroachment of branding and commodification into our personal space.

LISBON – It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. You were your own property. You could lease yourself to an employer for a limited period, and for a mutually agreed price, but your property rights over yourself could not be bought or sold. Over the past two centuries, this liberal individualist perspective legitimized capitalism as a “natural” system populated by free agents.

A capacity to fence off a part of one’s life, and to remain sovereign and self-driven within those boundaries, was paramount to the liberal conception of the free agent and his or her relationship with the public sphere. To exercise freedom, individuals needed a safe haven within which to develop as genuine persons before relating – and transacting – with others. Once constituted, our personhood was to be enhanced by commerce and industry – networks of collaboration across our personal havens, constructed and revised to satisfy our material and spiritual needs.

But the dividing line between personhood and the external world upon which liberal individualism based its concepts of autonomy, self-ownership, and, ultimately, freedom could not be maintained. The first breach appeared as industrial products became passé and were replaced by brands that captured the public’s attention, admiration, and desire. Before long, branding took a radical new turn, imparting “personality” to objects.

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