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

Liberalism has always been animated by a vision of how humans “ought” to live, but it masked these normative commitments in the guise of neutrality. Like its competitor ideologies, it called forth a massive political and economic apparatus to fulfill its vision - in the process both reshaping and damaging humanity.

One of liberalism's most damaging fictions was the theory of consent, an imaginary scenario in which autonomous, rational calculators formed an abstract contract to establish a government whose sole purpose was to “secure rights.” This view of consent relegated all "unchosen” forms of society and relationships to the category of “arbitrary” and thus suspect if not illegitimate.

Liberalism takes the fundamental position that “consent” to any relationship or bond can be given only when people are completely and perfectly autonomous and individual.

I recall a chilling conversation when I was teaching at Princeton University about a book that had recently appeared about the Amish. [Following a ritual period of separation from Amish life an] overwhelming number [of young Amish adults], approaching 90 percent, choose to return to be baptised and to accept norms and strictures of their community that forbid further enjoyment of the pleasure of liberal society.

Some of my former colleagues took this as a sign that these young people were in fact not “choosing” as free individuals. One said, "We will have to consider ways of freeing them.” Perfect liberal consent requires perfectly liberated individuals, and the evidence that Amish youth were responding to the pull of family, community, and tradition marked them as unfree.

Liberalism renders such ties suspect while papering over the ways in which it has shaped its own youth to adopt a particular form of life, set of beliefs, and worldview; these are never subject to appraisal by any standards outside liberalism itself. The traditional culture of the Amish (one can also think of other examples) gives its young a choice about whether they will remain within that culture, but only one option is seen as an exercise of choice. Acquiescence to liberalism, however unreflective, is “tacit consent,” yet membership in a traditional community is "oppression” or “false consciousness.”

Under this double standard, religious, cultural, and familial membership is an accident of birth. Yet for modern humanity in the advanced West and increasingly the world, liberalism is equally an unwitting inheritance, and any alternatives are seen as deeply suspect and probably in need of liberal intervention.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.188-90

I would like to suggest in 2021 that most people dislike the pressure and uncertainty of not knowing what they will do with their lives, and that there are significant costs imposed by the freedom to choose.

I wonder how much anxiety is induced by people feeling that they never found something they were good at; that they never found their niche in life; that they never achieved what they wanted to. This is the downside of freedom. I wonder how many would exchange the pressure, uncertainty and anxiety for the static, but relatively safe and stable situation of [the 1300s blacksmith].

[Academic Agent]
‘Issues with Libertarian Arguments Against Socialism, Part 3’

You will see very often that people divorce and remarry again and again and always make the same mistake. Then who ought to decide? Perhaps we might imagine that if something is wrong with a marriage, a psychiatrist should decide whether or not it should be broken.

There is difficulty there. I do not know whether it holds true of America, but in Europe I have found that psychiatrists for the most part think that personal welfare is the most important point.

Generally, therefore, if they are consulted in such a case, they recommend a sweetheart or a lover and think that this might be the way to solve the problem. I am sure that in time they will change their mind and cease to give such advice.

They can only propose such a solution if they have not been the trained in the whole coherence of the problem, the way it hangs together with the other tasks of our life on this earth; and it is this coherence that I have been wishing to offer for your consideration.

[Alfred Adler]
What Life Could Mean to You, Chap. XII ‘Love and Marriage’

The laws abolishing corporations exemplified liberal ideology in its purest form: “There are no longer corporations in the State; there is no longer anything but the particular interest of each individual, and the general interest. It is permitted to no one to inspire an intermediary interest in citizens, to separate them from the public interest by a spirit of corporation.”

Faced with an all-out assault on organisations that regulated the price of labour, arranged funerals, and helped out members in hard times, artisans “found the corporate idiom … entirely appropriate,” Sewell explains, “as a framework for organising practical resistance to the atomistic tendencies of the new system.”

The “new socialist vision” advanced by workers in 1848 “was founded on a very old sense of craft community.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p. 214

The symbolism of the melting pot - “this great new continent that could melt up all racial differences and vendettas” - made quite explicit what had always been implicit in the ideology of progress: the dependence of progress on amnesia.

The “enlargement of political units” in the modern world was an eminently desirable development, since it broke down the "emotional feeling of the solidarity of the group" and led people “to recognize equal rights for all individuals."

The mass migrations of modern times, culminating in the latest wave of immigration to the United States, had the same effect. The "masses in our modern city populations, having known nothing of the "conservative influence of a home in which parents and children lived a common life," had escaped the "unconscious control of traditional ideas."

Cultural pluralists agreed with Zangwill and Boas in condemning racial and ethnic intolerance, but they objected to a definition of democracy that laid so much stress on uniformity and the eradication of group memory. Bourne's 1915 essay, "Trans-National America," though directed against a cruder version of the assimilationist ideal, implicitly questioned more refined versions as well.

Unlike Boas, Bourne did not see the disintegration of "nationalistic cultures" as a positive development. In his view, it produced "hordes of men and women without a spiritual country, cultural outlaws, without taste, without standards but those of the mob." 

The melting pot brewed a "tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity."

Boas thought that men and women uprooted from tribal loyalties had a chance to become individuals. Bourne thought they became the “flotsam and jetsam of American life, the downward undertow of our civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.354-5

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