A Safe-Word Theory of Social Liberation

Leunig Human Evolution to Suicide

Leunig Human Evolution to Suicide

There is something terrible, ridiculous, outrageous going on, but it’s not clear whether you are even allowed to acknowledge it, and it’s usually even less clear who or what can be blamed.
— David Graeber

Would you follow me into this metaphor - where today’s capitalism is becoming a heartless dominatrix who sustains herself by beating the vitality out of our bodies - if only for curiosity’s sake? 

Neglecting the traditions of BDSM culture, capitalism as a dominatrix abandoned safe-words, and we’re subject to her black leather whip, backed into a corner with no way out. Despite our cries, our flailing from her lashings of debt and drudgery, of existentially vacuous labor and toil, when backed into a capitalist corner, there is no alternative. No safe-word. We wind up limp, gashed and gored, yet somehow alive, only less so than before, dulled, and we pick ourselves up, and drag our feet into the office under her watchful gaze. 

Most alarming of all, we do not show others, who are all also recovering from lashings in their own respective corners, our scars. We keep quiet about these things.

It’s this unspoken of state of affairs that I believe anthropologist David Graeber means when he writes: 

“There is something terrible, ridiculous, outrageous going on, but it’s not clear whether you are even allowed to acknowledge it, and it’s usually even less clear who or what can be blamed.”

Drawing comparisons between the sado-masochist tendencies of capitalism and the safe-word policy of BDSM culture may help us acknowledge a few things, consider who or what is to blame, and perhaps even pick ourselves up from the corner. In the 21st century, as so many times before, it is time for a mass rising-up from our bloodied corners.

Our Safe-Word: Wealth

A ‘safe-word’ is used when stress transgresses tolerable boundaries during BDSM play - itself a culture that thrives off relations of power and dominance. One may simply say “tulip”, or whatever the agreed upon word is, and the atmosphere reconfigures from hostile to supportive. The aggressor becomes the care-taker, because the entire affair is predicated, at bottom, upon the nourishment of one’s well-being. 

For life in industrial capitalist societies – a subculture also juxtaposing relations of power and dominance – there’s an absence of safe-words. When life’s stressors transgress tolerable levels — people falling into insurmountable heaps of debt; single parents working interminable hours for their families; millennials trapped in jobs they hate to pay off predatory student loans; even that unstated malaise of modern living, where we yearn to ‘soul search’, but rarely find the time or money for it — no matter how heavy the physical or emotional burden, these trenches rarely offer a way out. One cannot simply say “tulip” to an oppressive livelihood. 

If there were a safe-word in capitalism today, it’d be “wealth”. With wealth, one can afford to quit an undesirable job, leave an undesirable relationship, or reconsider an undesirable life. But wealth is a privilege of, and perhaps wasted on, the few.

For the majority who remain without excess wealth, ‘opting out’ of an excessively exhausting or displeasing life is an inaccessible fantasy. Our lives harden into fixed games we’re forced to cope with, because what else is there to do? 

“Just work harder!” goes the American mantra. That swathes of humans living in both the wealthiest time and nation in history have little choice but to persist in vitality-draining drudgery, feeling trapped in their toil, seems odd.

David Graeber’s Safe-Word Theory of Social Liberation

Anthropologist David Graeber’s searing book —Bullshit Jobs: A Theory— speaks to this vexing state of affairs: the unspoken malaise of present-day capitalism: 

“I would like this book to be an arrow aimed at the heart of civilization. There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves. We have become a civilization based on work…as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assistance…It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement.”

The greatest irony in this arrangement — an enslaved proletariat filling the wallets of an arcane 0.1% — is that it’s a game we all consent to playing: 

“Every morning we wake up and re-create capitalism. If one morning we woke up and all decided to create something else, then there wouldn’t be capitalism anymore. There would be something else.”

Graeber’s an unapologetic anarchist, but even he acknowledges the problem isn’t ‘capitalism’ on the whole, but as it stands today. The modern fusion of economic and political imperatives distorts and distances the system from any vision laid out by Adam Smith, Ludwig Von Mises, or Milton Friedman (whose popular work, it should be noted, is titled “Free to Choose”). Today’s capitalism is more like an unweeded, overgrown garden than a thoughtfully constructed landscape. 

If society is an ongoing collective agreement, he takes the point a step further:

“Together we create the world we inhabit. Yet if any one of us tried to imagine a world we’d like to live in, who would come up with one exactly like the one that currently exists?”

Why do we accept a world that drives our fellow humans into debt, depression, and despair? Yes — joy, love, abundance, and opportunity also exist in today’s milieu. Mindful presence is always available regardless of outer circumstances. But the emerging capitalist regurgitation of yogic practices will do little to mitigate student debt crises, the imbalance of returns (and taxes) on capital versus labor, or the neglected roots of mental health. 

As Benjamin Franklin writes, “it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.” The balance we find ourselves with appears neither sustainable nor desirable. It can, and should, be altered.

Does Pinker’s point that progress is occurring just fine stifle our imagination for social reform? This would be ironic, given that it’s largely political upheavals and social reorganizations that have sustained this long arc of progress.

The project of returning a healthier balance to our economic, psychological, even spiritual landscapes can learn from the BDSM safe-word model.

Our safe-word could be Universal Basic Income (UBI). It might form the foundation for what Graeber calls a ‘safe-word theory of social liberation’.

The theory extends from Michel Foucault’s late discovery of BDSM, and the influence this might’ve had upon his distinction between power and domination. Where he saw power dynamics as an inevitable aspect of social life, domination is not. 

Foucault describes power dynamics as occurring between two liberties, where participation is voluntary. Parties are always ‘free to choose’, to utter a safe-word and opt out if discomfort escalates beyond tolerable levels. In relations of dominance, there’s no way out, no choice, no safe-word. 

“…unlike actual BDSM play, where there’s always a safe-word, when ‘normal’ people fall into the same dynamic [economic sadomasochism], there’s never such an easy way out.”

UBI could raise ‘normal’ society to the level of emotional care already present in BDSM by providing a way out of dominant relations. 

Free to Choose: Reimagining a Starved Conception of Freedom

It’s easy to imagine how the implementation of an economic safe-word (UBI) might ripple out into psychological and spiritual (not to mention entrepreneurial, creative, and communal) spheres. If much psychological distress derives from economic insecurity — a hypothesis well-supported by Maslow’s hierarchy — the policy has robust ameliorative potential.

“…a safe-word theory of social liberation. Because this would be the obvious solution. It’s not so much that certain games are fixed — some people like fixed games, for whatever reasons — but that sometimes, you can’t get out of them…How do we create only games that we actually feel like playing, because we can opt out at any time? In the economic field, at least, the answer is obvious.”

If within our abilities (if UBI can be sensibly funded), why not make society’s relations ones of power, rather than dominance? Why not provide everyone with a choice? 

It’s conceivable that we’re now witnessing a consequence of society’s overbearing dominant relations in the surge of public shootings. Our systematic neglect of mental health (and common sense gun laws), and the role our social arrangements play in aggravating anxieties, may force trauma out through whatever backchannels available (so long as guns are readily available, they remain an open avenue for suppressed trauma). 

Moreover, this neglect is dual-pronged. We’re neglecting both earnest treatment of mental afflictions and earnest appraisal of their causes (not unlike the current American medical system). Antidepressant SSRI’s do not heal, they numb. This might be why psychedelic therapy is undergoing such a renaissance (ignited by Michael Pollan’s latest book) with its unprecedented therapeutic, psychological, even spiritual benefits. We’re so entrenched in our ways of thinking that only total reboots — trips out of our usual minds — offer the requisite space for reconsidering our calcified habits, perspectives, and lives.

If psychedelic trips relieve past traumas, UBI might mitigate future formations. Participation in our affairs could become increasingly voluntary. We might enjoy greater choice and autonomy in everything from jobs to relationships. 

But as things stand, our economic project of delivering to each citizen the ‘freedom to choose’ is failing. For a time, particularly in the mid 20th century, this wasn’t so. Now, we’re nursing a starved conception of freedom that no longer serves us. We’re clinging to ideologies that delivered us here, rather than adapting to new environments. Rousseau’s old indictment applies now more than ever: 

“All ran headlong for their chains in the belief that they were securing their liberty.”

If social liberation is the target of economic ascent, its efficacy follows a similar arc as Google’s usage graph for the word:

We’ve slumped. Worse, many of us feel there’s no way out of our slumps. UBI, a safe-word to extricate ourselves from soul-deadening drudgery, could afford us the time, space, and vision to raise our sights and re-chart our course, both individually and collectively.  

It’s tempting to imagine a UBI-driven renaissance in art, entrepreneurship, and community. But we cannot hope to foresee all the ways in which implementing UBI might upend the economy, society, and life as we know it. The question then becomes: are we willing to find out? Or is the status quo — this starved conception of freedom — worth preserving? 

Further Reading

To dive into some problems swimming around our capitalist system, read Graeber's book. To learn more about UBI, consider Rutger Bregman's book, Utopia for Realists, or Guy Standing's book, Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-MindedSam Harris did a great podcast on UBI with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whose platform is built upon UBI, and who wrote a book on the subject.I've also written elsewhere about the philosophical case for UBI, using Albert Camus' Sisyphus parable.