Words by:

Raoul Martinez is a busy man, and his list of achievements is enough to turn the stomach. On leaving school at 17 he trained to paint portraits. At 19 he began did so professionally, and his work has since been exhibited by The National Portrait Gallery. In 2012 his film The Lottery of Birth was released, as the first episode in a series called Creating Freedom. The follow up has yet to appear, but before you jump on that as evidence of his humanity, consider the book he released in 2016.

Also titled Creating Freedom (with the first section also called The Lottery of Birth) the book dives much deeper into his chosen subject matter, which falls somewhere between philosophical musing, environmental call-to-arms and political manifesto.
Martinez will be speaking at The Information at The Downs Festival Bristol this weekend, and rather than butcher his ideas by trying to explain them ourselves, we caught up with him over Skype to ask him to tell us what it’s all about in his own words.

Hi Raoul, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Would you like to begin by telling us about your book, Creating Freedom?

Sure, the scope of the book is pretty broad actually, it looks at everything from the history of our civilisation, to the emergence of democracy in western society, and I have a fairly deep critique of the prevalent notion of liberal democracies. The uniting theme is freedom.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the limits of our personal freedom, exploring the idea of the lottery of birth. The main idea is how little control we have over the forces that shape our identity. So everything about us, the architecture of our neural circuitry manifesting in our values and beliefs are shaped by forces that we don’t control. So in an important sense we are much less free than we like to think. Notions of responsibility, which we believe make people worthy of blame and reward, I think are actually incoherent. I explore the implications of this with regard to the criminal justice system, and in our economy.

The second part of the book looks at the limits of freedom politically and economically. Over the last 50-`100 years or so is a system in which freedom has been used as a pleasant mask to conceal a very unequal, unjust and unsustainable political and economic system. So I look at the various interactions between elections, media and markets and how these various areas have co-opted a superficial notion of freedom.

The final part of the book looks at what can be done to deepen and expand freedom, given the inherent limits. I look at ways of democratising the workplace and the economy and the way money is produced, and also tackling the issue of sustainability and growth. All freedom is grounded in the soil, the oceans and the air which sustain us.

Would you say the book is quite optimistic?

My aim was to be as honest as possible I could about the extent of the crises that we are facing. I think that’s necessary to empower us to do something about it. I talk about what I think can be done, and the various inspiring, viable, practical solutions to our problems. They exist.

I used to think maybe that was the issue, that we didn’t have viable alternatives. But in researching the book I had to conclude: that’s not the issue. There are so many better ways of doing things. The real issue is building the power to implement and experiment with these viable alternatives. That’s been the sticking point, it’s a question of power.
I’m optimistic about there being alternatives, and I believe that if we found a way to constructively come together, then we could really move society in a far better direction, and there have been promising developments heading in that direction.

So when you do talks of this nature, as in the one you’re doing at The Downs Festival Bristol, what do you hope to get out of them?

The aim when you write a book, when you arrive at ideas that you think have value, you want to share those ideas, and be part of that discussion about how to improve our situation.

I hear your good friends with Brian Eno. How do you guys know each other?

Well I didn’t know him before I wrote the book, but my publisher sent him a copy. He’s since been incredibly generous with his support of the book. From the time I’ve spent with him he’s been incredibly lovely and generous, and he’s really into politics. He’s incredibly famous and well respected but he hasn’t been afraid to stand up and be counted for the causes that he believes in: issues relating to Palestine, and stop the war. It’s not easy to do that, you get a lot of criticism when you do that in his position. So yeah I have a lot of respect for him.

He’s obviously well known in several disciplines, a trait you share. Most of your early work was in portraiture.

Yeah I still do that. So the room I’m in right now is the room I paint in. I started professionally painting portraits when I was 19 and it’s still my most reliable source of income and I very much enjoy painting still yeah.

I wonder how much, if at all, doing that kind of work influences this kind of thing.

Well painting was the first thing I taught myself to do. I spent my childhood drawing and painting and that really changed the way I thought about education. It gave me the confidence to feel that I could teach myself. So when I was 17 I left formal education with the explicit intent of devising my own curriculum. I’m not sure I would have believed that I could do that had I not developed the self-discipline and self-belief that came from developing as an artist.

And you’ve had success in making films. Do the three parts of the book correspond to three films?

Well the film certainly explores some of the ideas that the book does. The book just goes much deeper. So they are related, they’re part of the same project. But I’ve only made one film so far. I plan on making others but I’ve been busy. But yeah the film came first, and was a very useful of developing lots of ideas, talking to lots of interesting people, and get attention to project which allowed me to garner interest for the book.

Raoul Martinez speaks at The Downs Festival Bristol this weekend.