Chosen Cells

“If the agent chooses bundle A over bundle B, where both bundles are available, it is revealed that he directly prefers A over B.” —Paul Samuelson, “A note on the pure theory of a consumer’s behavior,” Economica, 1938.

“Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another […] the one sole original, inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.” —Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals,1797.

1. Sign Here!

“I am sorry for the rough treatment. You are a good boy and did not deserve this. But you know, these are treacherous times and my men are on edge. Forgive them. Just sign here and off you go. With my apologies.”

The secret police officer seemed sincere and Yiorgos, the twenty-year-old Athens University student he was addressing, was relieved that his ordeal at the hands of the lowly security men, who had apprehended him on the steps of the Chemistry Department, was at an end. But then, as he began to read the statement the officer was asking him to sign, a cold chill ran down his spine. The typewritten page simply stated, “I hereby denounce, truly and in all sincerity, communism, those who promote it, and their various fellow travelers.”

Trembling with fear, he put the pen down, summoned all the gentleness of the French Enlightenment-sourced liberalism that his mother, Anna, had instilled in him over the years, and said: “Sir, I am no Buddhist but I would never sign a state document denouncing Buddhism. I am not a Muslim but I do not think the state has the right to ask of me to denounce Islam. Similarly, I am not a Communist but I see no reason for being asked to denounce communism.”

That conversation took place in the fall of 1945, at an Athens police station gearing up for the impending second phase of the civil war that marked Greece’s postwar history so indelibly. Thus, Yiorgos’s civil liberties argument stood no chance. In his defense, he had no way of knowing, having only recently arrived from Cairo, where he was born and raised in the bosom of a Greek community that enjoyed all the trappings of middle-class affluence denied to the Egyptian masses and, indeed, to the Greeks living in Greece.

Having given up a cushy job at a Cairo bank, so as to study chemistry in the land of his Greek father, Yiorgos arrived in Athens in January 1945, only a month after the conclusion of the first phase of the Greek Civil War, which was the Cold War’s first episode. A fragile peace deal between Left and Right prevailed upon his arrival, giving him a false sense that his decision to migrate from the bourgeois vestiges of Cairo to an Athens reeking with tension and hunger was not too foolish.

This illusion was further bolstered on the first week of the semester when he was approached by student activists of both the Left and the Right who saw in him an ideal compromise candidate for president of the students’ association, untainted as he was by either side of politics and a potential symbol of the prevailing truce. Lured by the ‘honor’ of being endorsed by both sides of student politics, he accepted. And when, shortly afterward, the university authorities doubled tuition fees at a time when students wallowed in absolute poverty, Yiorgos paid the rector a visit, arguing as best he could against the fee hike. As he walked out of that meeting, students working for the secret police manhandled him into a waiting van.

The young student leader’s reluctance to sign the denunciation document incensed the officer who summoned his underlings for a fresh round of beatings. With every blow the pain and terror pushed Yiorgos deeper into the contradiction of, on the one hand, craving to succumb while, on the other, feeling increasingly unwilling to sign. With every strike, every swearword, his signature on the denunciation document appeared to him less and less feasible. The longer the torture continued, the less at liberty he felt to do as he pleased—to sign, end the pain, and go home the same day. Thus, it was not for another five tortuous years, in a variety of cells and concentration camps, before Yiorgos would step out of his incarceration, into a grim society that neither knew of his peculiar choice nor really cared.

2. The Cells of Preference

With stories like Yiorgos’s littering my mind, my career as a student of economics, decades later, in England, was doomed from the outset. “If one chooses A over B,” professed my microeconomics lecturer in the first semester of my undergraduate experience, back in 1978, “it must axiomatically be true that one directly prefers A over B.” 1 “No it does not, you fool!” I wanted to yell at him.

Perhaps my whole career since, as an unbelieving economist, boils down to that violent clash between the economists’ professional obsession with the idea that our free actions reveal our preferences and my conviction that our humanity’s penchant for liberty is reaffirmed from the odd occasion when they do not.

Yiorgos had no preference for any feeling of righteousness caused by torture, incarceration, or humiliation reaped in the defense of liberal principles. He had no desire to waste his youth in concentration camps in order to uphold the right of a citizen to keep his or her political beliefs from the state. Indeed, if he had any preference, it was to escape his cell and return to the Chemistry Department that he had left the shores of Alexandria, in the good ship Corinthia, to join.

“But does this not simply mean that some weightier desire trumped Yiorgos’s desire to walk out of his cell?” I hear the utilitarian reader ask, echoing my fellow economists’ standard retort. “Is it not just a case of a preference for upholding a liberal principle over freedom itself?” they might enquire. “In the end,” they are most likely to conclude, “Samuelson’s dictum, that a choice of A over B reveals a strong preference of A over B must, surely, be axiomatically true.”

“No, no, and no” is my answer. When in the supermarket, my free choices are, indeed, preference-driven. As I fill my shopping basket with assorted stuff, it makes perfect sense to assume that a choice of chicken breasts over chicken wings reveals a preference for the former. But life is not like a supermarket, at least not in its entirety. There are some terribly rare instances when, faced with desperately hard choices, we have a capacity to act on some principle that is radically irreducible to preference. We do not exercise that capacity often, perhaps ever, but we are shaped, as a species, by its availability.

Indeed, it is this capacity that marks us out from serpents and thermostats; moments when the indeterminate possibility of autonomy makes us do the right thing for no reason other than because it is the right thing. For the hell of it, to be blunt. Naturally, the cynic believes that our righteous deeds are, deep down, no such thing but mere moments of enlightened selfishness, underpinned by a complicated calculations of desire and anticipated long-term preference satisfaction.

The cynic is right, on most occasions. But she is profoundly wrong in thinking that all righteous choices must boil down to preference-driven computation. And the cynic is philosophically disingenuous when falling back on the argument that, in the end, principled behavior is satisfying, therefore providing proof that we are, ultimately, preference-satisfying machines. The fact that it is possible for humans to escape the prison-like realm of preference, and act upon reasons external to one’s desires is what makes a free and virtuous life possible, even if exceptionally rare. Indeed, it is what enables the imposters to feign ethicality and righteousness in the pursuit of wholly desire-driven and preference-determined purposes.

Of course none of this is new. Kant’s point that “freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another” is relevant here and matters independently of whether one desires such freedom or weighs most highly the consequences of its pursuit. Freedom is an “inborn right” and, as we should know (but often forget), “right” is at odds with “desire.” Indeed, the “right to vote” is meaningful only because its bearer is compelled to keep it even if he or she would like to sell it to the highest bidder.

The rarity of moments when this deeper freedom is possible, and the even greater shortage of its exercise, is inversely related to the magnitude of its significance. Moreover, it is fortunate that these moments are few and very far between. It is, indeed, a godsend that most of us were never called upon to make anything like Yiorgos’s choice. But it is a curse to downplay the significance of his choice regarding our capacity to opt for the tyranny of a cell instead of the tyranny of preference, which our commodified societies have confused with free choice.

3. Meta-prisoner

Two years after the police station incident, Yiorgos was wasting away in a frightful concentration camp on Makronisos, a windswept desert island off the coast of Attica. Anna, his French-educated mother, had raised heaven and hell to secure an audience with the German-born Queen Frederica of Greece, hoping to petition successfully for his release. The queen consented. Equipped with a royal decree demanding Yiorgos’s release, Anna was possibly the only mother to have ever been allowed to disembark on Macronisos’s fatal shore.

Confronted with the queen’s seal, the camp’s commander, a man who loved to put his sadism on display whenever an opportunity arose, summoned Yiorgos to the gray office building, from the tent that he was occupying with eight other inmates, who had also refused to sign the same denunciation. Struggling to ignore her son’s pitiful appearance, fashioned by regular beatings on a body whose mass had fallen below 40 kilograms, Anna conjured up all the joy she could muster, telling him:

“I have come to fetch you son. The queen has instructed that you are delivered to me on condition that we return instantly to Cairo. Your ordeal is over.”

Yiorgos rejoiced. For a moment he allowed himself a glimpse of a life outside his ‘chosen’ cell. Alas, the moment was shuttered when the commander, smiling slyly, turned to him, wielding a familiar piece of paper: “That’s right. Your mother has come to fetch you. Sign here and you are off.” It was as if a sheet of darkness had enveloped him afresh, extinguishing instantly the rays of light that he had permitted himself to see. Mobilizing whatever reasoning powers were left in him, his eyes constantly moving between his mother’s ashen face and the commander’s grin, he asked:

“Don’t you see that, by making my signature, which always sufficed as a ticket to freedom, a prerequisite for releasing me, you are rendering your queen’s decree meaningless?”

“Shut up and sign!” was the commander’s uncomplicated reply.

Anna, who had been largely responsible for Yiorgos’s moral compass and liberal principles, broke down and begged her son to set them aside this once, and sign. Asking the commander to be taken back to his tent cell was, Yiorgos thought, the worst moment of his life. But he was wrong.

Two months later, after his broken-hearted mother had returned to Cairo, the leader among his comrades in the concentration camp took him aside one day and ‘ordered’ him to sign, so as to return to Athens, spread the word about the atrocities in the camp, and join the underground Left, which had been badly depleted in the meantime. A cause greater than his own had been invoked, by the leader of his fellow signature-refuseniks, so that he would do precisely what the torturers had failed to compel him into doing: To sign!

Consenting to this unexpected directive would have robbed him of his last two possessions: the pride of having opposed the secret police at great personal loss and the camaraderie among his fellow prisoners, who would be spitting in his face as he left the enclosure, unaware that Yiorgos had signed at their leader’s request—their sincere disgust helping to convince the commander that his ‘repentance’ had been genuine.

In saying “no” to his leader, he immediately became a meta-prisoner, imprisoned in a shell of denunciation within a prison camp, imprisoned by an authoritarian state and an outcast among his comrades, whom their leader instructed to shun Yiorgos as an untrustworthy, recalcitrant bourgeois. It was as if both authorities, the torturers and the inmates’ leadership, had conspired to get him out of the cell at the price of his real freedom.

Yiorgos spent another eighteen months in the camp, a lonely, dejected, fading young man. Until a general amnesty of those who refused to sign brought his release in 1950. “All I had was that signature. And the knowledge that I had withheld it,” he told me once.

4. Epilogue

Choosing one’s cell so as not to betray a principle is not, on its own, a sign of virtue. Rudolf Hess, the Nazi leader who died in Spandau prison because he would not legitimize his accusers by petitioning for his release, is a case in point. Closer to home, Dimitrios Ioannidis, the ruthless nazi military officer central to Greece’s 1967–1974 dictatorship, and a man who had worked as a torturer on Makronisos, also chose to die in prison rather than ‘honor’ the courts that had imprisoned him with a plea for clemency.

While a principled decision to stay in a cell for years cannot fail to impress, whether it is virtuous or the manifestation of anti-humanist fanaticism depends on the principle motivating it. In the case of Hess and Ioannidis, their principle was rotten to the core; radiating hatred for the other, a deep-seated belief in their ‘right’ to do unto others that which they would never want to be done unto them. In Yiorgos’s case, however, the principle in question was one that, in Kant’s terms, everyone would want to choose if it were to be universalized.

Was it worth the sacrifice? Not even he knows for sure. His subsequent life would be unimaginable without the fruits that grew on the tree that took root in his chosen cell, fertilized and tended to by the memory of the days and nights spent among many others who, like himself, had also chosen their cells, when they could have all walked away by adding an ‘inconsequential’ signature on a dotted line.



None of the above can be described as the product of historical scholarship. For Yiorgos is my father and his story is one that I have been picking up, in dribs and drabs, over the past fifty years. Whatever its broader relevance, it has alerted me to the crudeness with which contemporary culture has been handling the concept of freedom.

My father ended up as a chemical engineer, working to this day in Greece’s steel industry. Like Primo Levy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics proved invaluable while in the concentration camp. “Thinking about nature’s truths,” he told me “made my incarceration seem of minor significance.”

Alas, human freedom, while finding solace in the study of Nature’s ways, is anything but natural. As in art, it is an artifact that we make up as we go along, without a manual, textbook, or even a well-defined set of preferences to guide us. Sometimes, it is best nurtured inside despised constraints that, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, liberate. Cells, in this reading, can become the extreme choice foisted upon the free in ‘interesting’ times.

By Yianis Varoufakis

August 2014