Bread and Freedom

Following the successful overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt the western media continue to report demonstrations and unrest throughout much of the Middle East.  The commentators and politicians often suggest that the primary demand is for freedom and democracy, but my own hunch is that these demonstrations are also being driven for something just as essential – food.

In country after country, the ruling elite have amassed fortunes, while the quality of life for millions has not improved.  Now they are dangerously at the edge.  Food prices and unemployment are ballooning for not only the poorest but for the educated middle classes.

I’m not sure that the internet and social networks alone can bring about a revolution.  I’m not sure revolutions cannot still be stopped if the military is determined to attack its own people.  And I’m not sure that a desire for freedom alone will sustain a revolution for long enough and among large enough numbers to succeed.

None of us, after all, have absolute freedom.  It’s not just the constraints of physical existence that limit us.  It is often the laws and customs and constraints of society.  Only we don’t most of the time tend to think of these constraints as impinging on our basic freedoms as human beings.  We agree with many of these customs and constraints and are outraged when criminals and psychopaths violate them.  And if we get angry enough, we can toss out one government after several years, and if we don’t like the next one, we can vote it out too.  But mostly we have enough to eat.

The fight for freedom that is going on in the streets and squares of the Middle East today is real and significant.  And I agree that we don’t live by bread alone.

But we don’t live without bread either.  As the American revolutionaries knew during the War of Independence against the British, even taxing tea so that the common man cannot afford it is more than the human spirit will bear.

Which is why I think today’s demonstrations are motivated by the need for both food and freedom.

It may also point to a reason why the global environmental change we are experiencing might be more destructive than most people expect.  About which more on the next post.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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