Cutting Ties

Free                    -                       Tethered
Shallow              -                       Deep
Short Term         -                       Long Term

Liberalism tends to place the emphasis on the individual and on the universal collective that contains all individuals. Groupings - those intermediary levels between the individual and the global collective - are generally deemphasised, or discouraged.

By its nature a group is exclusionary, defining its identity as much by what it is not as what it is. The more vivid the identity of the group, the firmer its boundaries. Because liberalism is predicated on the notion of individual freedom and autonomy, and on the free flow of goods, services, ideas, and people within a universal, global market, it must work against anything that may inhibit this flow. In this context, groupings - with their localised customs and norms - act as circuit breakers, impeding the wider flow.

Accordingly, liberalism tends to focus on the restrictive aspect of groupings, characterising them as systems of oppression that place unnecessary and tyrannical inhibitions on the individual. The project of liberalism is to dissolve the boundaries of the group and to set the individual free within the global market - in other words, to maximise flow. Groupings are permitted to the extent that they do not impede this flow in any serious way.

Liberalism points out that groupings are artefacts of culture, rather than nature, and that our natural state is as autonomous individuals. Groupings are, in other words, constructions. They may once have served a purpose, but most are old relics that can be deconstructed.

When the idea of the group loses its positive meaning then to be ensconced unthinkingly within a group becomes pathological - ‘groupthink.’ The modern person must seek autonomy and is encouraged at all times to 'think for themselves', independently of custom and local norms, and to question received wisdom. 

We see this in the work of many twentieth century psychologists - from Jung, to Laing, to Berne, to Winnicott - whose theories of psychological development were all grounded in the liberal, progressive mindset. In their view an optimum, healthy person is unencumbered by group-ties, which are generally seen in only their negative light, as shackles to be thrown off.

[…] not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him: it throws him back for ever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

[Alexis de Tocqueville]
Democracy in America, part 2, book 2, chapter 27

During the last four centuries political thinkers in the West have concentrated mainly on limiting [wider] claims. They have put genuinely heroic efforts into cutting bonds. They have managed to free people from endless forms of oppression, both political and domestic, and of course this has been a splendid achievement. The difficulty is just in seeing what it leads to now.

Freedom itself is a negative ideal. Its meaning depends in each case on what particular bonds it frees us from.

The reformers who fought each special kind of oppression were always led by a vision of a particular kind of freedom that would replace it, a special way in which society would be changed when they had cut a certain kind of bond. But it has gradually become plain that this bond-cutting sequence is cumulative, which means that it cannot go on for ever.

Humans are bond-forming animals. When all the bonds are cut - when the various kinds of freedom are all added together – when a general vision of abstract freedom from every commitment replaces the more limited aims - then, it seems, we might be left with a meaningless life. It begins to seem doubtful whether any kind of human society is then possible at all.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.21

Pintupi concepts of the emotions constitute a subjectivity that recognizes a significant identify with important others, such that these others are represented as part of the self.

The self is not an aggressive, self-contained, egotistic, or entirely autonomous individual. Rather, one must be malleable to others, not "hard.” One should be moved, not stolid in willfulness.

Going through initiation provides the means by which young males become able to exchange with older men, a step in the direction of equality. Initiation entitles them to take control of the sacred knowledge that is necessary for the performance and direction of ceremonies.

This control is a token of their personal autonomy, but the central theme of Pintupi sociality remains, that one cannot be autonomous by oneself. "Freedom” requires the help of other men. 

When a young man at Yayayi tried to assert himself as free of obligation to others, older men chastised him in a revealing way: "Did you become a man by yourself? We grew you up. We made you into a young man!"

[Fred R. Myers]
Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, p.124, 174

While there is no basis in subsistence production for inequality among adults, this is not true of the larger process of social reproduction. One can feed oneself, but it is easier to do so in concert with a larger, cooperative group - a "band."

Furthermore, living with a larger group offers some protection from the danger of attack. Finally, the division of labor makes it important for men and women to have access to each other's labor. Thus, marriage is desirable.

All these activities require sustaining one's relationships with others.

[Fred R. Myers]
Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, p.254

In the same way that courses in economics claim merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors, but in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds.

Not only are all political and economic relationships seen as fungible and subject to constant redefinition, so are all relationships to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion.

[…] the default basis for evaluating institutions, society, affiliations, memberships, and even personal relationships became dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of individual self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one's choices upon the community, one's obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God.

Liberalism encourages loose connections.

[Patrick J. Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.33-4

Tocqueville points out that the constant movement of Americans from place to place and from one profession to another deprives people of their ties to one another.

It causes them to abandon their friends and families and makes the people in each profession “strangers to one another, each indifferent and almost invisible to all the rest.” This compounds the severing of connections between individuals in democracy that makes them “at once independent and weak.”

It also changes men’s relationship to their work. When people are frequently changing their professions, few experience the satisfaction that comes from long mastery of a craft or art. There is, Tocqueville reflects, “something unexpected and in a sense improvised about [Americans’] lives. Hence they are often forced to do things that they barely learned, to speak of things they scarcely understand, and to engage in labors for which no long apprenticeship has prepared them.”

Thus, democracy makes it harder to take satisfaction from work, even as it puts paid work at the center of men’s lives.

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.450

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