Raoul Martinez left formal education at 17 to pursue a successful career as a portrait painter and then writer.
In his latest book, ‘Creating Freedom,’ he poses a fundamental question: “How can we be free if we can’t control the forces that shape us?”
Ross Ashcroft is joined by Martinez to answer just this, how he sees society today and how we can start putting people and planet before profit and power.
Artist, philosopher and writer, Raoul Martinez left formal education at 17 to pursue a successful career as a portrait painter. His work has been selected three times for the BP Portrait Award but he subsequently used his platform to protest against the BP sponsorship of the competition.
Most recently he wrote a book called Creating Freedom which poses a fundamental question: How can we be free if we can’t control the forces that shape us?
Mr Martinez told Renegade Inc that his father taught him that the word ‘Why’ is the most important in the English language.
“I can trace it back even further to his father who actually fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco. He is the reason we’re in this country, (England)” he says. “My dad eventually came to this country because my grandfather had to seek political asylum. So I think there’s been a strong current in my family of of politics and of resistance and fighting authoritarian regimes and principles.”
Martinez says the world, particularly the developed west, is in a ‘pretty terrible place right now’.
“Freedom is a concept that has been co-opted by right-wing ideology,” he says.
“Neo-liberal ideology has been very successfully over the last few decades. Really, if you look at the heart of the ideology, it is about the claim that to protect individual liberty, you need to protect market freedoms.”
The conflation of freedom with market freedom is hugely problematic in a number of ways.
“It has been used as a mask which has been placed on a very unjust, unequal, unsustainable system,” says Martinez. “And with that mask comes a few benefits.
“What are they? Well let’s say having someone like Barack Obama in power is preferable to having Donald Trump in power. But Obama perfectly symbolizes the function of this mask: he is very eloquent, he, rightly, represented people of colour. Many people celebrated his victory as a progressive advancement in our society. And yet essentially when you look at the politics that he represented and the interests that he fought for, they weren’t that different from anyone that came before.”
Obama existed to manage this system as it is: He stood up for Wall Street. He bailed out the banks. He supported a horrendous drone program which has killed thousands of innocent people around the world.
“He knew the research showed that for every terrorist target, they would kill on average 28 innocent people and yet he continued with the drone policy” says Martinez. “His policy on climate change was woefully inadequate and didn’t even come close to addressing the issue.
Martinez says the danger of this mask is that it leads to complacency. It helps to maintain the illusion that we’re living in a free society that we’re living in a democracy.
“It really conceals the deep exploitation the deep wastefulness and irrationality which lies at the heart of our economic and political system,” he says.
“This is the neoliberal doctrine. Maybe the most powerful pioneer of all of new liberalism was the economist Milton Friedman. He did more than anyone to link freedom to free market capitalism, he created one united package.”
Friedman liked to say that even if capitalism was less efficient than some other system, he would still support it due to its unique capacity to deliver the freedom to choose.
“The way that he argued that was to say that markets are characterized by mutually beneficial voluntary transactions. So straight away he’s using the language of liberty of freedom and it all sounds very good,” Martinez explains.
But Martinez says it is important to interrogate what Friedman actually means by that.
“One way is to do a quick thought experiment,” says Martinez. “Let’s say you’re walking down the street and someone puts a gun to your head and they say ‘Give me your wallet or I’m gonna shoot you in the head’. Well if you give that person your wallet that’s a mutually beneficial transaction. He gets your wallet. You get to keep your life. That is voluntary. Now of course Milton Friedman says ‘no it’s not voluntary. You had a gun to your head’ and he’d be totally right. But the truth is every day of the year in our economy. people have to endure and suffer from the metaphorical gun to their heads: The need to pay rent, the need to put food on the table, to feed your children, to pay for health care, to look after sick relatives. These are life and death issues. Many people are in impoverished circumstances which mean they have very few options. And so the idea of conflating liberty and freedom in a kind of unquestioning black-and-white sense of free markets is just ludicrous.”
There are many other ways. Socialist governments are more interventionist by nature. But neoliberals argue that because they interfere in society, they will reduce freedom.
“Whereas right wing neoliberal governments take a step back and say they are not going to interfere in people’s lives, therefore they have more freedom, because it’s simply going to let the market take care of it,” says Martinez. “But again, the key thing to look at is that freedom in a market expands and contracts with spending power. So in our current system try functioning just for a day without money, and you see how interventionist our state is.
“Try and get on a train, try eat a curry in a restaurant, travel, basically anything you want to do, obtain food and water: it requires money. Without that the state waits ready with guns and batons, ready to intervene and prevent you getting what you need to get.
“Only from the perspective of the wealthy and the affluent does this system look like one that advances freedom and liberty for the rest of the population. It is a very coercive system.”
Freedom is something that you either use or you lose. Martinez says we are well on the way to losing a lot of those freedoms, and rights to freedom.
“So we need to fight back,” he says.
Watch the full interview above to find out how to resist the neo-liberal order.