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BookREVIEW: Creating Freedom

Raoul Martinez
2016
Canongate Books
pp412

Reviewer Beth Glanville

Creating Freedom, the culmination of over ten years’ work of writer, artist and filmmaker Raoul Martinez, considers and unpicks the concepts and systems underscoring our ideas of ‘freedom’ and what it means to be truly free, regarding the socio-political, cultural, economic, and individual structures that underpin and underscore our climate, from both a contemporaneous and historic standpoint.

The book is divided into three parts: ‘The Lottery of Birth’; ‘The Illusion of Consent’, and ‘The Fight for our Freedom’. Throughout the constituent chapters the text encourages the reader to look inwards, comparable to the work of a therapist, to explore and question at both an individual and a collective level; to wake up and become more aware of the forces that control us, both the manifest but also, and especially, the insidious, murky and more latent controlling forces of big business, corporations, the media, government and the economy. Perhaps unwittingly, the author implies parallels between these such forces and our individual unconscious, both pushing and pulling us in all sorts of directions without us realising the true extent of this manipulation, the history involved, or the position from where we are acting out until we sit down, look at it, work with it, and try something new.

In Part I, ‘The Lottery of Birth’, Martinez considers choice and responsibility, asserting that ‘the notion of ‘individual responsibility’ is just a fig leaf that covers the current gaps in our knowledge’ (p.7), as ‘we make choices with a brain we didn’t choose’ (p.4). Initially I felt myself baulking at what, to me, felt like a controversial claim. However I found myself moving into a more therapeutic way of thinking when Martinez followed through with a quote by Nietzsche, stating that ‘… the belief that we can truly bear responsibility for our actions is, [Nietzsche] wrote, ‘to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society’ – it is to believe that we can pull ourselves ‘up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness’’ (p.13). Following this citation I questioned how much we may connect with the notion of individual responsibility as a means of mitigating against our individual lack of power and control, and the relentless and ongoing struggles of managing the uncertainty and arbitrariness of life that therapists encounter each day in the consulting room. Martinez further includes a psychological perspective in stating that ‘… our will is conditioned, not free. The roots of our behavior go far beyond the will of the individual to encompass the economic, political, familial and cultural conditions from which it emerges’ (p.28), thus starting to link therapeutic ideas with the wider socio-political sphere, rather than containing the psychological in a stand-alone arena. To do so would play into the hands of those with power, claims the author on ‘Punishment’, as ‘to pretend, as legal systems do, that the buck stops with the individual prevents us from tackling the cultural, economic and political causes of violence and criminality’ (p.50).

Throughout Part II, ‘The Illusion of Consent’, Martinez considers elections, markets and the media to ‘explore how our political and economic freedoms have been hollowed out while preserving the shell that is the ‘freedom to choose’’ (p.112). In the same vein Martinez later asserts – somewhat sinisterly – that ‘where consent is not possible compliance will do’ (p.209). In calling for change, Martinez once more links therapeutic thinking and the economic realm, in discussing how the trigger for such change requires a catalyst of some sort: when discussing the major economic crises of the past one hundred years Martinez cites Freidman’s assertion (1962) that ‘only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change’ (p.134). Later on Martinez returns to the topic of collective post-traumatic growth, stating that ‘… it can often take a crisis to overcome the inertia of existence and the grip of cultural conditioning … a traumatic event has the power to challenge core beliefs and assumptions … shocking us out of complacency and shattering the foundations of our world view. Destruction precedes creativity’ (p. 259).

Meanwhile, in considering contemporary materialistic and commercialised culture Martinez’s assertion that ‘happiness harms profits’ (p.166) sharply brings into focus the market forces around us, and how we are played in order to maximize economic gain.  Martinez tackles consumerist culture, citing research (Kassser, 2002) that ‘strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive undermining of people’s well-being, from low life satisfaction and happiness, to depression and anxiety, to physical problems such as headaches, and to personality disorders, narcissism, and antisocial behaviour’ (p.167). Martinez quotes Myers and Diener (1996) in saying that ‘only in the poorest countries, such as Bangladesh and India, is income a good measure of emotional well-being’ (p.167) and highlights the negative impact of socio-economic divisions within a society (p.170).

In Part III, ‘The Fight for our Freedom’, Martinez considers the constraints on society, and individuals, in truly creating freedom. He highlights the ongoing human conflict involved in fighting for what we believe in and value, with high relevance to our current national and international context. ‘… [T]o care deeply about something or someone is to open ourselves to the frustration and suffering that comes when things do not go as hoped’, writes Martinez. ‘[T]he urge to turn away from what we cherish can be overwhelming at times’ (p.236). In order to ‘break the stalemate’ (p.237) of the current ‘chains of obedience running up and down society’ we need to allow for ‘creative freedom to develop and flourish’ (p.237), he writes.

Martinez covers the issue of climate change, touching on themes of intersubjectivity and interdependence: ‘We are not separate from the world around us’, he writes. ‘It’s health is our health … the more this dependency is acknowledged, the more we empower ourselves’ (p.345). Furthermore, ‘our future depends on the recognition of our interdependence’ (p.380). Within the chapter ‘Empathy’ The author advocates that we look back at historic events such as the Holocaust, the Slave Trade, and the Rape of Nanking, in order to develop an understanding of how such atrocities have been allowed to happen (p.352). Personally, I feel that society at large often confuses understanding with condoning, and have had experiences of discussions whereby participants seem to assimilate the two. Thus I felt a resonance with Martinez’s statement that ‘[i]t may be sickening to attempt to see things this way, but understanding the roots of such behaviour is essential if we are to avoid repeating it’ (p.352).

What struck me most about the text was the way in which Martinez pulls together an abundance of ideas, notions and threads of thought, initially creating what feels like a tangled web of ideas with little in way of coherence or linkage, that seem to suddenly connect and come together to form strong arguments and rationale for the author’s stance and recommendations, comparable to lightbulb moments. Endorsed by the likes of Russell Brand, Susan Sarandon, Brian Eno and Helena Kennedy QC, this highly readable and relevant book, striking in the raw anger and rage that underpin the entire text, makes for an energising read. It also serves as an example of the potential therapists have for linking therapeutic thinking, ideas, and theories to the wider world, and contributing to change and betterment from within the heart of our profession.

Beth Glanville is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and EMDR Practitioner at Transport for London’s Counselling and Trauma Service. She has a small private practice in NW London, and is also the Reviews Editor for Contemporary Psychotherapy.