Human constructed physical structures, from roads and channeled rivers to walls and buildings, are the templates of social and psychic structures. This is the foundation of social construction and constructivism, upon which superstructures are built. Julian Jaynes suggested this operates linguistically by way of metaphors, helping to create analog structures (e.g., inner mind-space). Whatever the mechanism, the underlying theory is that we can tell a lot about a society by the kinds of structures they use, inhabit, and speak about.
For Jaynes, he seems to have limited his speculations in this area to that of the container metaphor. That makes sense. It’s not only that actual containers (pouches, jugs, jars, barrels, boxes, etc) became more common as civilization developed, beginning with the agricultural revolution and later increasing with surplus yields and wide-scale trade. All structures, from temples to houses to granaries, became more enclosed and hence more containing.
In contrast, there is the example of the Piraha with their animistic mentality (the term offered by Paul Otteson). At first, Marcel Kuijsten, the editor of many collections of Jaynesian scholarship, suggested that animistic mentality was a subset of bicameral mentality; but he clarified that his suggestion was tentative. We weren’t certain at first and we’re now leaning more toward distinguishing the two. The reason precisely has to do with the container metaphor.
The Piraha don’t seem to make or use containers. They rarely store food, except occasionally smoking some fish for trade. Even their shelters are as simple as possible. The few objects they trade for (e.g., metal axes) are treated with little sense of value and no sense of possession, just left lying around for anyone to use; or else simply to be forgotten. It’s unsurprising they have an extremely uncontained sense of self, not to mention an unstructured social order.
To be accurate, it’s not that the extreme end of non-WEIRD mentality is actually unstructured. Rather, it is structured more according to the natural world. Hunter-gatherers often have a sense of self that is shaped by the immediate environment and sensory field. For the Piraha, they live on a river and so maybe it’s unsurprising their very conception of reality is one that flows and shifts, that appears and disappears as if going around a bend.
The Australian Aborigines offer a middle position, as they already had basic agriculture, including granaries. Like many tribal people, they had highly structured the world around them, though early Westerners couldn’t see it. The whole world was a garden to be tended. The Aborigines managed water, fire, and animals; similar to Native Americans. Aboriginal Songlines were a geographic mapping of psyche, based on landscape markings, seasonal patterns, ecosystems, and ancient trails.
So, in reality, human experience is always structured. But maybe that isn’t quite right. Structure implies a struction, something that was constructed. Not all societies spend much time constructing, if there is no society that doesn’t construct something. Even the Piraha make basic things as needed, albeit on a limited scale, heavy emphasis on the latter point. The Piraha go to the extreme of not bothering to make jewelry or ornamented clothing. Neither do they construct stories, in having no storytelling tradition, although they’ll sometimes repeat the stories they’ve heard outsiders tell.
Still, the Piraha do build things, such as shelters, bows and arrows, etc. But there is something unique about building containers, an object of little use to the Piraha. The archaic bicameral mentality, according to Jaynes, likewise wasn’t modeled according to the container metaphor. Yet the structures that had developed by the time of the Bronze Age were much more containing, in the proliferation of enclosed spaces. And containers proper were becoming more commonly used.
In this context, voice-hearing also seems to have become more structured, as opposed to the egalitarian and non-hierarchical voice-speaking (i.e., spirit ‘possession’) of the Piraha. The first permanent structures were not houses to be lived in, granaries to store food, or any such thing. They apparently were ritual sites, that is to say houses for the gods, god-kings, and ancestors. The mummified bodies or skulls were literally housed there, presumably because they were maintained as an aid in hearing the voices of the dead or of hearing the voices that spoke through the dead.
Animistic tribes like the Piraha don’t do any such thing. There is no individual who permanently possesses or is possessed by archaic authorization. Spirits and the dead can speak through any number of people, as there are no authority figures of any sort, no shamans, healers, chiefs, or council of elders. As such, when any given person dies, it’s no more relevant than any other death. Access to the voices isn’t threatened because they are free-floating identities — one might consider them communal theories of mind.
All of that changed with the agricultural revolution, and so that is what begins an important distinction. Bicameral mentality not only with temples and later urbanization but increasingly with their walled city-states and emerging empires was more contained than animistic mentality, if far less contained than Jaynesian consciousness. The difference was communal-containment versus self-containment, but still a containment of sorts in either case, as contrasted to animistic uncontainment.
Both the bicameral-minded and the consciousness-minded had hierarchies, separating them both from the extreme opposite end of animistic-minded laissez-faire egalitarianism. Since the Piraha don’t have any authority figures at all, hierarchical or otherwise, there is no one in a position to monopolize and control voice authorization. Hence, no enforced authoritarianism, although plenty of tribalistic conventionalism and conformism that is maintained merely through shared identity.
We could speculate that authoritarianism had already appeared, if barely, among the earliest bicameral-minded societies, following the agricultural revolution, since that was the beginning of new forms of extreme stress: overcrowding, resource competition, malnutrition, famine, infectious disease, etc — indeed, research shows that such large-scalle stressors are precisely the conditions of authoritarianism. Whenever it first appeared, we certainly can safely assert that full-on authoritarianism was taking hold by the end of the Bronze Age.
We lean in the direction of the initial wave of bicameral-minded societies only having been partly and temporarily authoritarian, as conditions changed. But is partial and temporary authoritarianism actually authoritarian? We sense that it is not or at least not in how we understand it. Humans can collectively respond to threats, sometimes in oppressive ways, but without forming permanent authoritarian social orders. The threat response is built into the human psyche, as it’s an evolved survival instinct. Authoritarianism isn’t merely the threat response under normal conditions for it only appears when stressors continue indefinitely without the option of resolution or escape — it becomes stuck in the on position and so takes exaggerated form.
The entrenchment of authoritarianism as overwhelming and pervasive stress, in inducing mass anxiety and trauma, might be the very thing that was undermining bicameral mentality by the end of the Bronze Age. Maybe bicameral mentality required the lingering traces of the non-authoritarian animistic mentality. The problem was that bicameral mentality required the control of animistic mentality in order to control ever larger and unwieldy populations, but this kind of social control is anathema to animistic communalism and egalitarianism.
If we accept that view, we could interpret bicameral mentality as a very long transitional phase from animistic mentality to Jaynesian consciousness. In a sense, it was never a stable order because it was built on an internal conflict. Over time, it demanded more and more authoritarianism, which undermined the very voice-hearing that held the society together. The bicameral-minded societies were the earliest attempts at making agriculture a sustainable social order. It was an experiment and no one knew what they were doing.
The container metaphor might offer us a central insight. To contain something is to control it. Hunter-gatherers often have little need for control, depending on how much or how little stress they are under. But once agricultural settlements become permanent, control becomes necessary for continued survival. Farmers can’t simply move on and go their separate ways. That was ever more true as urbanization increased, food systems complexified, and trade became interdependent. There was no second option. When drought or famine occurred, most of the population simply died. The containing structure of civilization sometimes became a death trap.
That could be what also distinguishes early bicameral mentality from late bicameral mentality. The earliest structures were apparently ritual sites that were visited, not places of settlements. And even the first settlements were typically temporary affairs. It took many millennia for permanent settlements to have become more common, as large populations became dependent on agricultural foods. There was no turning back, in the way that was previously possible with small city-states that regularly dissolved back to herder and forager tribes.
Maybe what we mean by Jaynesian consciousness is simply civilization finally hitting a tipping point, the ending of the transitional phase of bicameral mentality. The pre-agricultural practices and cultures had finally and fully been forgotten from living memory or somehow no longer valid and applicable to altered conditions. When the Bronze Age collapse happened, this was a crisis since there was no other option remaining, no option of a return to animistic mentality. Large urban and farming populations can’t easily transition back to tribes of any sort.
That was a period of catastrophe, as the great empires fell like dominoes when hit by a series of natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, wildfires, climatic changes, etc) that led to famines, refugees, and marauders. Vast numbers were suddenly forced out of their settled, stable, and secure lifestyles. What little they brought with them were containers of goods. It was the one structure they could rely on when all other structures had been destroyed, lost, or left behind. It was an obvious step for the container metaphor to become psychologically potent.
Self-containment was something entirely new, but it was built on the psychic structures of the prior age. It meant the final and complete suppression of the animistic mentality as a social order. Yes, the bicameral-minded social order, as a transitional phase, was over; albeit the animistic mentality could never be completely eliminated, however suppressed and distorted it became. This is maybe why some associate modern authoritarianism with a return of the repressed bicameral-minded impulses with its late stage authoritarianism: stratified hierarchies, centralized power, expansionary imperialism, standing armies, long-distance warfare, brutal oppression, genocidal slaughter, mass enslavement, written laws, court systems, moralistic norms, etc.
We were thinking about this in reading an interview with Brian J. McVeigh, a student of Julian Jaynes, in the collection recently put out, Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind edited by Marcel Kuijsten. He was talking of the need to increase self-control to stabilize and optimize consciousness. We’ve come across him talking similarly in an earlier talk he had with Jaynes, from Discussions with Julian Jaynes. That meeting with Jaynes took place on June 5, 1991. So, this is a longstanding view of McVeigh, going back more than three decades, spanning his entire professional career, since that was the same year he got his doctorate.
This commitment to a control-orientation was probably something he picked up from Jaynes himself, as the two seemed in agreement. That perspective is understandable. As a society, we’ve become committed to Jaynesian consciousness. Our entire society is ordered in terms of it and so, at this point, it might be pathway dependence. The only way might seem to be forward. But one might wonder if there is an inherent contradiction to Jaynesian consciousness, as happened before with bicameral mentality, an intrinsic and irresolvable conflict that will worsen over time until it becomes an existential crisis.
The success of Jaynesian consciousness might end up being its doom, specifically as complexity leads to stress, anxiety, and trauma that would elicit increasing threat responses. To contain means to control, initially at a communal level, and that is precisely what predisposed bicameral mentality over time to worsening authoritarianism. That then made empires possible, if empires ultimately can’t operate according to bicameral mentality. It was an impossible situation that made collapse near inevitable.
Out of the wreckage, Jaynesian consciousness created a new order of control, but it came at a high price. Over the millennia, civilization has been on a boom and bust cycle with some of the busts being doozies. So, what if we are in a similar situation or else will get to that situation sometime in the future? We think of self-containment as self-control in making autonomy and independence possible. But maybe this is more of a perception than a reality. Only the controlled would imagine freedom as yet more control.
As a side note, the etymology of ‘freedom’ originated among German tribes, probably when they still were animistic. This word is cognate with ‘friend’. To be free, in this sense, meant to belong to a free people, uncontrolled and uncontained for the identity was shared and not enforced. It’s all about relationship, not individualism. So far, humans have never found a way to have individualism without authoritarianism for individuals act individually and hence need to be controlled for social order, collective action, and public good. This is made clear in how Germanic ‘freedom’ is opposite of Latin ‘liberty’ that, under the Roman Empire, simply meant not being being legally enslaved in a slave-based society.
This is the reason Southern slaveholders fought for liberty, not for freedom. They could make statements like, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Liberty only applied to those who owned themselves. Then again, all the way back at least to the Stoics, there was the beginning of a concept of self-ownership that even slaves could claim, as no one else could own one’s soul. This sense of individualism was in compliance with authoritarianism, as the liberty of self-identity didn’t require liberty of the body. This remains true with modern wage slavery. Unlike animistic and egalitarian tribes, modern humans have little freedom to do what they will, as we live under the constant threat of hunger and homelessness if we don’t comply with and submit to the system of control.
Do we really control ourselves at all? Benjamin Libet’s research would indicate otherwise, as we apparently only become conscious of our actions after they are initiated. Control is a narrative that we tell ourselves for comfort. Self-ownership of the propertied self, what a strange thing — as if the individual could be removed from the public sector and made into a private corporation. We know that the self can never be made into an actual object separate from enmeshment in the world and relationships. Yet self-ownership clothed in the Burkean moral imagination is ideological realism at the highest level. It’s so compelling, a hypnotic trance.
But one might suspect it’s a cognitive trap, a dead end. Isn’t this a metaphorical internalization and ideological interpellation where the ego-self is made into a tyrant and slaveholder of the psychic realm, a demiurgic and archonic overlord? It seems to be an odd self-enforced authoritarianism, where one part of the psyche comes to rule over the rest; or else merely made to appear so, in acting as a puppet dictator who rationalizes the forces actually outside of his control. Exactly who is owning and controlling? Who is being owned and controlled?
Is inner authoritarianism an improvement over external authoritarianism? Or are they mirroring each other? Aren’t they ultimately of the same cloth? Is this why so many authoritarian regimes, from the Nazis to the Stalinists, rhetorically praised the individual soldier, worker, etc? Is there ever the light of individualism without the shadow of authoritarianism? How is one free when inside a container one cannot get out of? If we truly seek freedom, we might want to consider a new metaphor, and that would require new structures from which to form new identities. But it’s unclear, at this point, that we are capable of transformation without collapse.
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As an additional thought, we have doubts that Jaynes’ emphasis on metaphor is sufficient. That is the point of why we pontificate on actual structures. All metaphors begin in the physical world. But we are still left with explaining why some structures become common metaphors and why some common metaphors become internalized as identity. To this extent, we were building upon Jaynes’ own theorizing. And we could refer back to other thoughts we’ve had along these lines. It’s not only that structures of buildings and containers potentially shape the psyche. The most major factor might be how a key component of the civilizational project is the reshaping of the landscape, particularly in light of how central landscape has always been, such as with the earliest mnemonic systems of oral cultures, from the Australian Aborigines to the archaic Greeks.
This brings us to agriculture, as control of the earth itself (Enclosure of the Mind). But that is not how it began, in the earliest glimmers of the agricultural revolution. Even many millennia later into the post-bicameral dark age, agriculture remained a rough and primitive endeavor of weedy fields. The cultivation of grains, at the time, wouldn’t necessarily have looked much different from wild grasslands. It took the Axial Age to bring on systematization of farmland and farming practices (e.g., weed and ergot control) that would eventually make possible large and dependable surplus yields. Land reform, during modernity, took this to the next level as a nationalistic reform agenda to enforce what Brian J. McVeigh calls the ‘propertied self’. Every aspect of the landscape fell under greater control, from the plutocratic enclosure movement to technocratic land and water management. Nothing was left to remain uncontained and uncontrolled. Even ‘wilderness’ was to be carefully managed as part of bureaucratic park systems and national territories.
As external control has increased, so have the demands of internal self-control. Authoritarianism is ever more introjected. We can’t escape the oppression because it’s infected us, to such an extent we’ve become identified with the parasite. We can’t imagine anything else because our imagination is also contained, in having spent our entire lives within contained landscapes, especially with mass urbanization and city planning. It is near perfect epistemic closure; an all-encompassing ideological realism; a totalitarian interpellation. For all that tells us about our predicament, it’s still left to be determined what made it all possible, what motivated it in the first place, and what continually compelled humanity across millennia. The rarely discussed component is not just agriculture as a system and social order but what it produced.
This is seen right from the beginning of agriculture when the state of health plummeted, under the pressure of malnutrition and pestilence. The complete alteration of the human diet with farming, in particular, was one of the most profound changes humanity has ever experienced, maybe only equal to the megafauna die-off that immediately preceded it in causing the initial loss of nutrient density that turned humanity toward increased intake of plant foods. But it wasn’t only what was lost. In grains and dairy, there were substances that had not previously been a central part of what humans ate. Some of these substances appear to be addictive, along with affecting neurocognitive development (The Agricultural Mind). On top of that, it was what was being replaced
As many have written about, there was a unique, profound, and dramatic transformation that happened across many civilizations, maybe initiated by the Bronze Age collapse (c. 1200 BCE) but not culminating until later in the following millennia (from Athenian democracy to Hellenism; also Buddhism) and lingering still further many centuries beyond that (e.g., Isis worship in the Roman Empire, one of the models for Mariolatry in particular and Christianity in general). This is what some refer to as the Axial Age, after which human society and culture would never again be the same.
Out of this era of tumultuous change, there would develop distinct categories of politics, religion, philosophy, science, etc that would proliferate in complex new understandings often in conflict and competition, particularly as distorted and co-opted by the emergent reactionary mind. But underlying it all, there were similar ideas and ways of thinking, a basic ideological worldview. As differently and partially as it came to be articulated and institutionalized among various populations and traditions, this set of beliefs can be somewhat fairly summarized and generalized as the following:
Although each of us may be a distinct expression or manifestation of individuality shaped by separate inner and outer conditions, but with independent selves, autonomous souls, and free psyches; in essence and value, we are all equal members, maybe even in some ways fundamentally identical beings (beyond false egoic identities, superficial personality differences, socially constructed social roles, etc), of a unified humanity with a shared human nature and human rights that exist within a common reality, holistic cosmos, and singular universe; an orderly and comprehensible world of natural or supernatural laws and systems where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; as originated from the same source to which everything ultimately returns or from which nothing ever actually departed.
This is the counterbalance between three main principles, as understood in human terms:
Liberty and freedom (negative and positive; from and toward; in theory and in reality; opportunities and results; possibilities and actions; resources and availability), guaranteed rights and protections (autonomy, security, and safety); the anti-authoritarian basis of civil society and social liberalism as part of a democratic republic, particularly more direct democracies and social democracies, including democratic socialism such as anarchosyndicalism (e.g., worker-owned-and-operated businesses).
Egalitarianism and fairness; respect, support, and tolerance; in the context of what is universal within the universe or at least within a given society, such as universal civil or human rights that are expected to be applied to all equally and fairly, maybe even as an expression of natural law or otherwise a cultural inheritance of shared values; with pre-Axial origins in archaic humanity, as demonstrated by many anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical hunter-gatherers through the common practice of meat-shaming and meat-sharing in order to discourage individualistic pride and sense of separation.
Fraternity, solidarity, and class or group consciousness; communalism and collectivism, mutuality and interdependence; shared compassion, care, and concern; brotherhood of man, family of humanity, and citizens of the world; similar to a specific people as the body politic and the kinship of the faithful as Body of Christ, as well as feudal commoners with common rights to the Commons; the idea that with freedom comes responsibility, that is to say we owe others in the living generation or even in future generations (Germanic ‘freedom’, meaning to be a member of a free society, to be among friends who will support and defend you).
One example of the above is what some consider the original baptismal creed of the earliest known Christians. It bluntly states that we are, in reality, all equal; that social positions and roles are unreal, including ethnicity (Jew or Gentile), legal status (slave or free), and gender (male and female). It is one of the most radical and absolute declarations of egalitarianism of any recorded text in history, and it was far from being mere words. The man who wrote it down, Paul, also described the practices of his fellow faithful. They lived, acted, and worshipped as if they were all literally equal before God, on Earth as it is in Heaven. The evidence of this being an already established creed is that Paul obviously was not writing about his own personal beliefs, considering he had doubts not shared by many others in the early churches.
As embodied by the communitarian and sometimes collectivist Christians, the first wave of charismatic and zealous radicalism was later violently suppressed, expunged from the Church, and the memory of it largely erased. The only evidence we have of the first generations of Christians are the Pauline Epistles, as the Gospels were written after all known living witnesses of that era were dead. The memory of the previous radicalism, nonetheless, lingered because of Paul’s awkward placement in the New Testament — thanks to the inclusion of the Epistles in the first New Testament canon created by the Pauline Marcion, a Church Father who was later slandered as a heretic.
Intriguingly, Paul never speaks of a physical and historical Jesus. His salvific figure appears to be the Cosmic Christ, more of a visionary and gnostic experience than a literal human that walked on the earth. This might be the significance of why Jesus, after asserting his own divinity, then points out that according to the Bible we are all gods; indicating that his divinity was not unique and isolated (as told in the apparently Gnostic Gospel of John). Now that would be some mind-blowing egalitarianism. This message is emphasized by Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God is all around us, not in some distant and rarified Heaven. That is to say the divine and spiritual is commonplace, is in and of the world. A priestly class is not needed to reach God.
More than a millennia later, some Christians took this kind of crazy talk quite seriously. It inspired, among the peasantry, multiple class wars and political revolts across Europe. That set the stage for the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War, and the Enlightenment Age. Some consider the English Peasants’ Revolt to be the first modern revolution in its violent and organized challenge of caste and class, privilege and authority; in its demands for equality of rights and economic reform. This would establish a pattern of rhetoric that would revive ancient Christian radicalism.
The reverberations would be felt in the early modern revolutions of America, France, and Haiti. In echoing the Axial Age prophets, many revolutionaries proclaimed themselves citizens of the world. That was not an entirely alien concept, since Paul’s letters had saved that pre-heresiological belief in a greater common identity. It was the seed of an ancient utopian ideal finally taking root, if it still to this day has not yet fully come to fruition. The radical challenge remains. In a sense, the Axial Age has not yet ended for the transformation is not yet complete.
The following is more thoughts on the contrast between Germanic ‘freedom’ and Latin ‘liberty’ (see previous post: Libertarian Authoritarianism). The one is a non-legal construct of a more general culture, whereas the other is specifically a legal construct that was adapted to other ends, from philosophical ideal to spiritual otherworldliness as salvific emancipation. One important point is that liberty is specifically defined as not being a slave according to the law, but freedom is not directly or necessarily about slavery since freedom is more about what you are than what you are not. Though Germanic tribes had slaves, they weren’t fundamentally slave-based societies in the legal sense and economic structure of the Roman Empire.
Furthermore, the distinction is partly that ‘freedom’, as a word and a concept, developed in a pre-literate society of Germanic tribes, from which it was imported into England and carried to the American colonies. This freedom was expressed in informal practices of proto-democracy such as out-of-doors politics where people met on the commons to discuss important matters, a tradition that originated in northern Europe. Latin, on the other hand, was a language of literacy and the Roman Empire was one of the most literate societies in the ancient world. Our understanding of ‘liberty’ is strongly influenced by surviving ancient texts written by the literate elite, but the more common sense of ‘freedom’ was, in the past, mostly passed on by the custom of spoken language.
On a related note, Hanna Arendt was on the mind recently. She spent her early life in Germany, but, as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she had strong opinions about certain issues. By the time Arendt was growing up in 20th century Germany, I’m not sure how much of the premodern Germanic notion of freedom remained, but maybe the underlying culture persisted. It meant, as noted, belonging to a free people; and that was part of the problem, as the Jews were perceived as not belonging. The old cultural meaning of freedom was not part of formal laws of a large centralized nation-state with a court system. One was either free as being a member or not, as it was defined more by sociocultural relationships and identity.
What was lacking was the complex legalistic and political hierachy of the Roman Empire where there were all kinds of nuances, variations, and complexities involving one’s sociopolitical position. Being a Roman slave or a Roman citizen (or something in between), as a legal status, primarily was defined by one’s relationship to the state. Liberty was also an economic matter that signified one owned oneself, as opposed to being owned by another. The metaphor of ownership was not a defining feature of Germanic freedom.
The problem the Jewish people had with the Nazis was a legal issue. The civil rights they once possessed as German citizens suddenly were gone. The civil rights, Arendt argued, that the government gives could likewise be taken away by the government. Something else was required to guarantee and protect human value and dignity. Maybe that has to do with a culture of trust, what she felt was lacking or something related to it. The Nazis, though, were maybe all about a culture of trust, even if Jews were not in their circle of trust. Mere legalities such as civil rights were secondary as expressions of culture, rather than culture being shaped by a law system as part of legalistic traditions and mindset.
Arendt may never have considered the difference between liberty and freedom. It would’ve been interesting if she could have drawn upon the cultural history of the ancient Germanic tradition of freedom as community membership, which resonates with the older worldview of a commons. Liberty, as originating within a legalistic mindset, has no greater authority to proclaim outside of law, be it actual law (the state) or law as metaphor (natural law). Even invoking natural law, as Stoics did, can be of limited power; but it was used with greater force when wielded by radical-minded revolutionaries to challenge human law.
A deeper understanding of culture is what is missing, both the benefits and the harms. Maybe the Nazis were going by that culture of freedom and the Jews, as a perceived different culture, simply did not belong and so were deemed a threat. In a culture demanding a sense of belonging to a shared identity, difference could not be tolerated and diversity not allowed. Certain kinds of legalistic systems, on the other hand, can incorporate multiculturalism as seen with the Roman Empire and Napoleon’s French Empire, the military of the latter having consisted of soldiers that were primarily non-French. One can legally have citizenship and civil rights without having to share culture.
Also, it might be similar to how different ethnic groups can belong to the same larger Catholic Church, while Protestant traditions have more often been ethnic or nation specific. Catholicism, after all, developed directly out of Roman imperialism. It is true that Catholicism does have more of a legalistic structure to its hierarchy and practices. It was the legalistic view of buying indulgences as an economic contract with the Church as representative of a law-making God that was a major complaint in the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, concentrated in Northwestern Europe, preferred religion to have a more personal and communal expression that was concretely embodied in the congregation, not in a churchly institution of rules and rituals.
Like the Germans, the Scandinavians (and Japanese) have also emphasized the cultural approach. This common culture can allow for effective social democracies but also effective totalitarian regimes. Maybe that is why the American Midwest of Germanic and Scandinavian ancestry was the birthplace of the American Melting Pot, sometimes a cultural assimilation enforced by violent threat and punishment (English only laws, Second Klan, etc); and indeed some early Midwestern literature portrayed the homogenizing force of oppressive conformity. To the Midwestern mind, American identity too often became a hegemony (even making claims upon Standard American English), but at the same time anyone who assimilated (in being allowed to assimilate) was treated as equal. Some have noted that American-style assimilation has allowed immigration to be less of a problem than seen with the more common practice of housing segregation in Europe.
So, it might not be an accident that Southerners always were the most resistant to assimilate to mainstream American culture, while also being resistant to Northerner’s notions of equality. The hierarchical society of the South does to an extent allow populations to maintain their separate cultures and identities, but does so through a long history of enforced segregation and discrimination of racial laws. That is why there is still a separate black culture and Scots-Irish culture of the lower classes, as separate from the Cavalier culture of the ruling class — it’s separate and unequal; i.e. liberty. Assimilation is not an option, even if one wanted to, but the nature of the overall culture disinclines people from wanting it, as seen in how Southerners have continued to self-segregate themselves long after segregation laws ended.
The Southern emphasis on individual liberty is because it’s generally the individual who relates to the state and it’s laws. The communal aspect of life, in the South, is not found in governance so much as in kinship and church. That is the difference in how, particularly in the Midwest, the Northern attitude tends to more closely mix community and governance, as communal is more seen as cutting across all groups that are perceived as belonging (maybe why kinship and church is less central in the Midwest; and related to the emphasis on the nuclear family first promoted by the Quakers from the Scandinavian-settled English Midlands). Ethnic culture in the Midwest has disappeared more quickly than in the South. But this greater communal identity also defines individuality as more cultural than legal.
Legalistic individuality, in the modern world, is very capitalist in nature or otherwise expressed in material forms. Liberty-minded individualism is about self-ownership and the propertied self. To own oneself means to not be owned by another. That is why Thomas Jefferson saw individual freedom in terms of yeoman farming where an individual owned land, as property defined freedom. The more property one has, the more liberty one has as an individual; because one is independent by not being a dependent on others but rather to make others dependent. This relates to how, during the colonial era, the Southern governments gave more land based on their number of dependents (family, indentured servants, and slaves).
That is why a business owner and others in the propertied class have greater individuality in having the resources to act with less constraint, specifically in legal terms as money and power have always gone hand in hand, particularly in the South. A factory owner with hundreds of employees has more liberty-minded individuality, in the way did a plantation aristocrat with hundreds of slaves. Inequality before the legal system of power and privilege is what defines liberty. That explains how liberty has taken on such potent significance, as it has been tightly controlled as a rare commodity. Yet the state of dependence is more closely connected to liberty in general, as even aristocrats were trapped within societal expectations and obligations of social role. Liberty is primarily about one’s legal status and formal position, which can be a highly structured individuality — maybe why Stoics associated the ideal of liberty with the love of fate in denying free will.
As African-American culture was shaped in the South, this legalistic mentality might be why the black movement for freedom emphasized legal changes of civil rights, initially fighting for the negative freedom (i.e., liberty) of not being actively oppressed. They wanted equality before the law, not equality as assimilated cultural membership — besides, whites were more willing to assent to the former than the latter. This same legalistic mentality might go the heart of why Southerners are so offended by what they describe as illegal immigrants, whereas Northerners are more likely to speak of undocumented immigrants. This is typically described as being ideological, conservatism versus liberalism, but maybe it’s more having to do with the regional divide between the legalistic mind and the cultural mind where ideological identities have become shaped by regional cultures.
There is also a divide in the ideological perception of protest culture, a democratic phenomenon more common in the North than the South. To the Southern mind, there is an old fear about totalizing ideologies of the North, whereas their own way of life is thought of as a non-ideological tradition. Liberal rhetoric is more grounded in the culture of freedom as more all-encompassing ideological worldview than coherent ideological system as embodied in Southern legalism. This makes it more acceptable to challenge laws in the North because culture informs the legal system more than the other way around; that is to say, law is secondary (consider the living, as opposed to legalistic, interpretation of the Constitution that has it’s origins in Quaker constitutionalism; a constitution is a living agreement of a living generation, not the dead hand of law). That is maybe why there is the conservative pushback against a perceived cultural force that threatens their sense of liberty, as the culture of freedom is more vague and pervasive in its influence. The conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism is maybe the conservative’s attempt to grasp this liberal-minded culture that feels alien to them.
Liberty and freedom is part of an old Anglo-American dialogue, a creative flux of ideas.To lop off one side would be to cripple American society, and yet the two remain uneasy and unresolved in their relationship. Sadly, it’s typically freedom (i.e., positive freedom and sociocultural freedom) that gets the short shrift in how both the left and right too often became caught up in political battles of legalistic conflicts over civil rights and court cases, even to the point that the democratic process becomes legalistic in design; with the culture of freedom and democracy being cast aside. Consider the power that has grown within the Supreme Court to decide not only political but also economic and social issues, cultural and moral issues (e.g., abortion). As democracy has weakened and legalism further taken hold, we’ve forgotten about how freedom and democracy always were first and foremost about culture with politics being the result, not the cause. The gut-level sense of freedom remains in the larger culture, but the liberty-minded legalism has come to rule the government, as well as the economy. That is why there can be such clashes between police and protesters, as each embodies a separate vision of America; and this is why property damage is always featured in the corporate media’s narrative about protests.
The ideal of freedom has such power over the mind. It harkens back to an earlier way of living, a simpler form of society. Freedom as culture is a shared experience of shared identity, maybe drawing upon faint memories of what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind. When the Bronze Age was coming to an end, a new kind of rule-based legalism emerged, including laws literally etched into stone as never before seen. But the mentality that preceded it didn’t entirely disappear. We know of it in ourselves from a sense of loss and nostalgia we have a hard time pinpointing. That is why freedom is such a vague concept, as opposed to liberty’s straightforward definition. We are haunted by the promise of freedom, but without quite knowing what it would mean to be free. Our heavy reliance on systems of liberty is, in a sense, a failure to protect and express some deep longing within us, the simple but undeniable need to belong.
Libertarianism is a strange creature. It originated as part of the European workers movement, alongside Marxism, communism, and anarchism. But in mainstream American thought, this history has been forgotten and, in the public mind, it’s become entirely associated with right-wing ideology. Most American libertarians, sadly, don’t know this history either.
Typically, this idealized socipolitical order, too often entwined within the neo-feudalism of social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy and plutocratic capitalist realism, is portrayed as being the polar opposite of authoritarianism, such as shown on the popular political compass. And many right-libertarians like to portray progressive-minded liberals as among the worst and most dangerous of authoritarians, in the accusation of their being covert fellow-travelers of communists and Marxists, Stalinists and Maoists. This is the propaganda of the Cold War and the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism, with its origins in ant-leftist (and anti-semitic) fascism.
In any meaningful sense, is that distinction true, the proclaimed opposition between libertarianism and authoritarianism, as either theory or practice? It depends on how one defines libertarianism, and also if it is libertarianism as means or end, the reason many leading libertarian thinkers and advocates can be accused of hypocrsy in sometimes appearing to be inconsistent between their principles and the application or rather enforcement of their principles. A shocking number of right-libertarians openly oppose democracy, sometimes even when it seems to mean betraying the moral standard of liberty itself. Yet, without democracy or some other egalitarian system akin to democracy, authoritarianism would be inevitable. It often comes down do libertarian rhetoric as another way of talking about power and privilege, that is rights for me but not for thee.
Some libertarians claim to be fine with this, as they see it as a necessary evil. For example, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek supported Augusto Pinochet’s regime that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands. Likewise, Ludwig von Mises praised Benito Mussolini as the savior of European civilization. Why? Because these self-identified libertarians argued that it was necessary to temporarily and violently force liberty in defense against oppressive majoritarian democracy and and public mandate, popular will and populist demand. The people must be saved from themselves — only a paternalistic ruling elite and enlightened aristocracy could step in to establish freedom, specifically the freedom of markets and capitalists, not necessarily anyone else’s freedom.
That demonstrates a key difference and division. Liberty can be forced. Freedom cannot. So, what kind of libertarianism is it that, temporarily or permanently, results in authoritarianism and other forms of oppression and unfreedom? And, if we are to give legitimacy to this ideological ideal of libertarianism, upon what basis is it portrayed as inherently, fundamentally, and absolutely opposite of and opposed to authoritarianism when, in the repeated actions of numerous self-avowed libertarians, this obviously is not always true? What is the relationship or distinction between freedom and liberty? How did our political tradition of ideological rhetoric develop?
In American thought, going back to the colonial era, freedom and liberty became mixed and sometimes conflated, allowing for a slippage of meaning. This is because the English language and Anglo-American politics was shaped by two separate linguistic cultures. Knowing the details of history and etymology would help. The word ‘liberty’ comes from Latin, whereas the world ‘freedom’ comes from German, with the same root as ‘friend’. The latter means to be a free member of a free society, but the former does not require this larger social context of meaning. In the Roman Empire built on slavery, to have liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while others were enslaved. So, freedom is about the relationship between people (i.e., a free people) while liberty is about the relationship of the individual to the state (i.e., civil liberties).
The Romans upheld liberty but not freedom or democracy and so Roman Emperors could be described as libertarian dictators. Libertarianism simply requires the bare minimum potential or maybe just the theoretical possibility of not being a slave and of having full rights protected by the state, though not guaranteeing it. So, by that definition, many dictators like Pinochet could be called libertarian in this broad sense. There is no doubt that there have been many infamous examples of leading libertarians supporting or praising dictators. There are also some that make the case for libertarian monarchism, which would mean an anti-republican libertarianism, although a constitutional monarchy could be democratic like the United Kingdom.
All of this seeming strangeness can make sense within the conventional discourse of American right-libertarianism. There is the typical distinction between freedom and liberty, although the terms get conflated in American English. So, right-libertarians will often condemn the positive freedom (real world results of lived experience, civil rights, political power, and economic freedom) of progressive liberalism and the radical’s rebellion to gain it, while praising the supposed negative ‘freedom’ (theoretical opportunity as abstract ideal) of classical liberalism, as first articulated in Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.”
Of course, there were early progressive and egalitarian liberals like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine or even Adam Smith, all of whom criticized high inequality as being contradictory and destructive to a free society, all of whom opposed slavery (although by law, because Jefferson was in debt, he could not free his slaves even if he wanted to for any attempt to do so would have meant his slaves would have been immediately seized as payment to his debtors; maybe part of the reason Jefferson worked so hard to legally dismantle the binding and oppressive aristocratic order that he, along with the slaves he inherited, was born into). But that is not the kind of person right-wing libertarians are referring to. Instead, they mean those like John Locke who obsessed over property rights, to the point of defending the ownership of humans in formulating a justification for slavery in writing the Carolina constitution.
That brings us back to the origins of liberty in Roman slave society. There is a reason slaveholding aristocrats looked back to Rome for inspiration in declaring liberty. This sense of narrow and selective legalistic liberty was emphasized in contrast to the British Empire, in their fight against the American colonists, having promised freedom to slaves. The slaveholders were advocating negative freedom, the potential of freedom in that slaves theoretically could be released or buy their freedom, as was also true in the Roman Empire. The British Empire, on the other hand, was offering American slaves a guarantee of positive freedom in the living present, not merely a theoretical opportunity of a future possibility of freedom, although it would take a while for abolition to be enacted in British politics.
At the same time the British Empire threatened freedom for all in the colonies, while radicalism and revolution was in the air, the American slaveholders wrote beautiful words of liberty in defense of their way of life. But liberty had long been an inspiraton of high-minded rhetoric. In Rome, the Stoics reinterpreted libertas as a spiritual state, that one could be enslaved in body but that, in mind and soul, one could never be chained and oppressed, forced and commanded. The Christians inherited this understanding, which rationalized their acceptance of outward forms of enslavement because of spiritual promises.
This might relate to why Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity a slave religion. Indeed, Christian tradition, theology, and text formed a strong wall buttressing the institution of slavery in early America. There was never a contradiction, in principle or in practice, between liberty and slavery — they were two sides of the same coin. In the rhetoric of Stoicism and Christianity, such spiritual liberty, disembodied as it was ungrounded and unworldly, is basically the same as the secularized abstract liberty modern libertarians have since proclaimed as negative freedom, a strange freedom that never has to prove itself by the evidence of results, never has to guarantee that all are actually free in practice.
Liberty always has been just another noble ideal, as pretense and fantasy, to be trotted out by the the comfortable classes of the privileged and respectable. There is a reason that libertarians are the wealthiest ideological demographic in the country. It’s a belief system of the monied elite and those who aspire to elitism, along with the temporarily embarassed millionaires, as true today as it was in the past. Libertarianism, like Stoicism, was never constructed for the poor and oppressed, the landless peasants and the slaves, the dirty masses and the working poor, the proletariat and the permanent underclass.
Unlike freedom that is a right of all, liberty is a privilege of the few for, otherwise, it would lose it’s value within the libertarian worldview, within the moral imagination of capitalist realism. Within the rigid hierarchy of power and privilege, liberty is a precious comodity because of its violently enforced scarcity, constrained and delimited by a faith-based ideological determinism. There is no such thing as a universal promise and guarantee, full enactment and implementation of liberty. Without slavery or other forms of unfreedom, liberty would not hold such value in the eyes of those who exclusively possess it in being able to deny it to others.
Consider the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius who wrote of “true liberty.” His words on life and society have inspired many libertarians and similar thinkers, not to mention having been a favorite philosopher of many an American slaveholder. As emperor, Aurelius had the power to end slavery but chose not to do so. He did protect the rights of slaves, for whatever that’s worth, but not the right to not to be a slave. To be fair, the Stoic Epictetus, having gained his own liberty from his former enslavement, did recommend against enslaving others and yet never argued for manumission of all slaves.
That is largely because, in the philosopy of Stoicism, liberty as a spiritual state was not a birthright but something individually earned or achieved, such that the Stoic’s liberty was assumed to be the result and expression of spiritual worthiness, not entirely unlike how outward good fortune proved and demonstrated one was of the Calvinist elect or enlightened aristocracy, not to be obtained by most because of their presumed low moral character and weakness of mind. That is to say, only good and wise men, a spiritual elite, could be spiritually free in holding to a harsh, narrow, and demanding vision of liberty that few could ever hope for. This rarified state was a prize to be won through hardship and struggle, not something to be freely given as civil right, much less birthright.
This was a view that would resonate with Christian original sin that justified submission to a divine-mandated social hierarchy of clergy and theocracy, even as it posed the blind faith in the otheworldly principle and delayed promise of equality before God in the afterlife. Later in the Middle Ages, following the Black Death and the beginning of the enclosure movement, some peasants and serfs began to question this theology for, if they were truly born equal in the sight of the Creator of the world, why was inequality of power and wealth enforced by a worldy ruling elite whose behavior contradicted any moral justification. This led to the English Peasants’ Revolt, what some consider the first modern political revolution and class war, although it would require later Enlightenment thought to bring this moral impulse to its fullest form.
The ancient Stoics, obviously, did not envision that a free and democratic society was possible; as their view on slavery was philosophical, not political. Choosing for or against slavery, even in Epictetus’ slightly more generous version of liberty that morally condemned the enslaver to be wrong and unjustified, was still left to the personal choice of the enslaver with the enslaved having no legal right or moral standing to an effective opinion and empowered action on behalf of himself or herself, beyond the confines of his or her own isolated mind. The slave-based order itself, as legal system and social institution, remained safely in place without any principled position and moral claim to challenge it. Natural law, as such, would remain impotent as a rhetorical and political force to threaten unjust power until being reinvisioned by post-Enlightenment radicals and revolutionaries who articulated an entirely new deistic natural law of secular self-governance that opposed and undermined the traditional theocratic divine law of the Church and state.
To the Stoics, liberty went hand in hand with fatalistic resignation and acceptance, not to fight for freedom or against oppression but to find peace of mind and contentment of soul by not resisting, like a possum playing dead in the hope that the predatory class and the powers that be would leave one alone. As opposed to invoking the archetype of the rebel and radical, Stoicism was the origin of the tradition of martyrdom as romanticized victimization and noble victimhood, a mythologized narrative of victory in defeat and liberty in oppression only later adopted and popularied by early Christians. The supposed freedom from oppression, as in negative freedom, is in reality a freedom within oppressive order in that, according to ancient Stoics and right-wing libertarians, one has no presumed freedom toward any actionable guarantee, socially supported and legally defended, of freedom’s result in lived experience of private rights and collective expression of public good as part of a free and democratic society as upheld by social norms and culture of trust, mutual respect and common vision.
The inner liberty that was articulated did not even include free will but instead a love of fate and so there was no point in hope of progress and betterment, much less personal freedom as member of a free people in a free society. The physical and legal, economic and political condition of slavery was taken as an irrefutable ideological realism of the social order, if not a natural state by natural law, such that liberty as a rare privilege meant acceptance of enslavement for the masses, although theoretically any individual might gain the wise libertas of the Stoic philosopher in the way the hope of ending bondage and servitude was dangled before the slave as a solace for their suffering, a salve for the chafing wounds of their chains. For all of its vaunted idealism and noble wisdom, the Stoic’s individualistic liberty has never inspired a slave revolt and universal suffrage, a civil rights movement or democratic reform.
There are those on the right that declare the United States is a republic, not a democracy. This is ideological trolling, of course, and can be dismissed on that level. On the other hand, there is a genuine point that can be made along these lines. Although many Americans have sought democracy since the American Revolution, it’s questionable if we actually have a democracy even now. Full suffrage only happened about a half century ago and yet voting rights remain constantly under attack. Combined with an anti-democratic ruling elite that controls the electoral process, it’s easy to conclude we now live in a banana republic.
Yet, going by the original meaning of liberty, this country could fairly be called libertarian. It may be true that some have more liberties than others based on wealth, but anyone might get rich and gain such privileges. That has long been the argument of meritocracy in its social Darwinian form. American right-wing libertarianism has never promised equal rights and freedom in practice and in results. This kind of liberty, as with wealth in capitalism, has to be earned. No one is born deserving it. That is what distinguishes libertarianism from democracy, and liberty from freedom. They are two very different worldviews that sit uncomfortably together within American thought.
Why is the ideal of liberty so strongly associated with economics? And why is it used to rationalize oppressive systems of hierarchy? What does it mean to use the language of liberty to favorably frame social Darwinism, plutocracy, and inverted totalitarianism? What kind of liberty is it when the Trump administration pushes for reopening the economy during a pandemic, even early on when potentially millions of deaths were predicted by leading experts around the world? What is this liberty? One thing is clear. Liberty is not freedom. It is about me getting mine; or else someone getting theirs. We must ask ourselves, when the mantra of “liberty or death” is repeated with real or implied threats of violence in watering the tree of liberty, whose death is being offered up on the altar of whose liberty.
Originally, in the Roman Empire, liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while living under the threat and oppression of a slave society, an authoritarian hierarchy that imposed varying degrees of unfreedom. Or if a slave, according to Stoics and early Christians, it was the otherworldly faith that one’s soul was not enslaved even as was one’s body. This etymological and historical context offers a better understanding of what is meant by negative freedom as opposed to positive freedom, a pseudo-freedom of opportunity that rationalizes away the harsh reality of results and consequences. That is to say it’s not freedom at all. Genuine freedom is the complete opposite of such liberty, but the defenders of privileged liberty co-opt the rhetoric of freedom and, in conflating the two, degrade the very meaning of freedom, making it even more difficult to imagine an alternative.
When the American colonists demanded liberty, the context was their situation as imperial subjects in having been treated as second class citizens. A significant number of them were or descended from landless peasants, convicts and indentured servants, often not far above slaves. Earlier in the colonial era, most of the poor sent off to the colonies never lived long enough to know freedom, such as paying off the debt of their indenture; instead, they were typically worked to death. Inequality of wealth and power lessened to some degree by the late 1700s, but it was still quite stark and the majority were treated as cheap and expendable labor. Most of the colonies, after all, were established as for-profit ventures organized under corporate charters and so they were never intended to be free societies, much less democratic self-governing communities. Their only relative freedom came from the indifference of a distant imperial regime, as long as trade continued and profits kept rolling in.
By invoking liberty during the American Revolution, there was no necessarily implied demand of freedom for all, as few could even imagine such a utopian vision. It was the individual’s liberty at hand and only the liberty of particular kinds of individuals — primarily white men of the propertied class and mostly Protestant Christians at that; not women, not blacks, not Native Americans, not the poor, not the landless. Only a few radical rebels were actually demanding a genuinely free society, as an expression of a faint memory of the once independent tribes that formed the British ancestry prior to the Norman conquest. Freedom, as from the Germanic tongue, is etymologically related to friend. To be free means to belong to a free people, to be among friends who would defend one’s rights and fight on one’s behalf. It is the idea that the individual good was identical to or at least inseparable from the common good. In the American tradition, such freedom has always been subjugated to liberty, often by law and violent force. And the legacy of liberty retains its privileged position within the ideological order, what is proclaimed as reality itself.
This ideological realism continues to limit our public imagination. Yet it was always a weak foundation and the cracks have long been apparent, most of all during times of shared crisis. We see that now during this COVID-19 pandemic. The conventional frame of understanding is a conflict of extremes between the perceived authoritarians and the self-identified libertarians, but the social reality is more complex than the ideological rhetoric would allow. “This ambivalence is not a red-blue split. It is internal to both. On the right, laissez-faire economics chafe against Christian cultural intolerance, isolationism against imperialism. On the left, the Stalinists are still at war with the anarchists, the nanny-statists with the hippies, and a taste for utopian direct democracy, as in the Occupy movement, strains against a hunger for big government” (Judith Levine, The Pandemic Brings Out the Authoritarian and the Libertarian in Us All. Can We Meet in the Middle?). It’s a divide in the American soul and it makes our society schizoid.
There is a reason why hyper-individualistic societies that hold up liberty as an ideal so easily turn to authoritarian measures under stress. Even among self-identified libertarians, it is far from unusual for them to make anti-authoritarian arguments for authoritariansim, sometimes related to what some call libertarian paternalism but taking other forms as well, based on the self-serving conviction that most people have to be forced into ‘liberty’ against their will. In practice, this once again means liberty for the supposedly deserving and oppression for those who would threaten the liberty of the deserving — it just so happens that those with the most wealth, power and privilege, those who own the corporations and the government get to determine who is deserving and not. And so, in reality, this reactionary ideology is no different than the privileged elitism of the past, even if proclaiming a slightly different variety of ruling elite — Corey Robin discusses this reactionary mentality in great detail, in how it challenges old hierarchies so as to replace them with other authoritarian regimes.
Theoretical liberty of hypothetical choice, in its lazy slogans of apathetic submission to injustice, easily trumps the demanding awareness of real world harm, the uncomfortable knowledge of how oppression grinds people down and makes them bitter and cynical. And so to speak of freedom for all as a fully functioning social democracy, to speak of not only a government but a society and economy of the people, by the people, for the people gets dismissed as communism or worse. Oppression in society is preceded by an oppression of the mind, of radical imagination. What gets sacrificed is not only the public good but democracy itself, the supposed tyranny of the majority. So, instead, it becomes a contest between one’s preference of which minority should get to control all of society. Right-wing libertarians, like Randian Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists, can find a way to convince themselves that they’d make the best tyrants (The Moral Imagination of Fear, Freedom From Other People’s Freedom, & The Road to Neoliberalism).
Yet we shouldn’t dismiss the fears about authoritarianism. The problem is that there are cynical demagogues who will use those fears of authoritarianism to promote their own brand of authoritarianism. Historically and ideologically, liberty and authoritarianism are two sides of the same coin and it’s vital that we understand this, if we ever hope to build a fully free society. The equal danger is that, in too heavily focusing on the hypocrisy of liberty rhetoric, we open ourselves to the hypocrisy of those who wave away the real concerns about the loss of what freedoms we do have. Both competing groups heard in elite politics and corporate media are too often agreeing to attack freedom but from opposite directions, while the majority is being silenced and excluded from public debate. Being for or against liberty tells us nothing about one’s position on freedom, especially when the two are falsely invoked as the same.
This pandemic has shown the fractures in our society. There wouldn’t be so many worries about the economy if most people hadn’t been experiencing economic problems for about a half century, as markets and governments were taken over by oligarchic plutocracy and neoliberal corporatocracy, friendly fascism and inverted totalitarianism. The United States government has put itself in permanent debt with the military-industrial complex, big biz subsidies and bailouts, and tax cuts for the rich. Then we are told the working class have to go back to work during a pandemic in order to save the economy, er profits. Do the ruling elite of the capitalist class own not only most of the wealth, property and large corporations but also own the entire American economy, labor force, and political system? Do the opinions of most American citizens and workers not matter in political decisions? Shouldn’t they matter? If this were a democracy, they would matter more than anything else.
Dogmatic absolutism is the opposite of helpful. Even during lockdown, 70% of the American economy has remained open and running, and many states didn’t even go that far. Among the informed, contrary to what the ideologues would suggest, reasonable debate was never about either total authoritarian lockdown of all of society or total liberty and death imposed upon the masses. It was declared that we can’t afford to have the economy shut down because so many are out of work and struggling economically. As fake sympathy was offered to the jobless poor, what has gone ignored is the trillions upon trillions of dollars stolen from the public every year, not to mention the trillions of dollars committed to the oppressive and anti-libertarian War On Terror in response to the 9/11 casualties that were lower than a single day of deaths from COVID-19. We can afford all kinds of things when the plutocracy demands it.
As the economy is reopened, who is being put in harm’s way of infectious exposure? Mostly not the politicians, CEOs, upper management, stockholders, bankers, etc; nor the white collar workers and college-educated professionals. It’s the low-paid workers who are forced to deal directly with customers and to work in close contact in crowded workplaces. These working poor also are largely without healthcare and disproportionately minority. Liberty advocates and activists are mostly whites among the comfortable classes, whereas those with higher rates of COVID-19 are non-whites and the poor. Some populations are experiencing infections and fatalities at rates similar to the 1918 Flu pandemic while, for other populations, it’s as if there is no pandemic at all. If the whole country was similarly affected at such high rates, we’d be in the middle of mass panic and all these right-wing whites would now be demanding authoritarian measures to protect their own families and communities.
“As the pandemic became widely recognized,” noted Judith Butler, “some policy-makers seeking to reopen the markets and recover productivity sought recourse to the idea of herd immunity, which presumes that those who are strong enough to endure the virus will develop immunity and they will come to constitute over time a strong population able to work. One can see how the herd immunity thesis works quite well with social Darwinism, the idea that societies tend to evolve in which the most fit survive and the least fit do not. Under conditions of pandemic, it is, of course, black and brown minorities who count as vulnerable or not destined to survive” (Francis Wade, Judith Butler on the Violence of Neglect Amid a Health Crisis).
The plan was to simply to let the pandemic kill off the undesirables, the excess labor force of cheap and expendable lives, as the professional class worked safely from home and the rich isolated themselves far from the dirty and diseased masses. Most Americans, minorities and otherwise, disagree with this plan by the upper classes to sacrifice the poor and working class. But minorities disagree most strongly: “According to a new survey from Pew Research Center, health concerns about COVID-19 are much higher among Hispanics and blacks in the U.S. While 18% of white adults say they’re “very concerned” that they will get COVID-19 and require hospitalization, 43% of Hispanic respondents and 31% of black adults say they’re “very concerned” about that happening” (Allison Aubrey, Who’s Hit Hardest By COVID-19? Why Obesity, Stress And Race All Matter). It turns out that people generally don’t like to forced to die for the benefit of others who make no sacrifices at all. What is being asked of these people is no small risk.
“The health divide is even sharper than the economic one,” writes Jennifer Rubin. “The latest Post-Ipsos poll found that “nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes were concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect other members of their household. Those concerns were even higher for some: Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work.” Even more frightful, a third of those forced to leave the home for work “said they or a household member has a serious chronic illness, and 13 percent said they lack health insurance themselves.” The sick get sicker in this pandemic and in the altered economy it has created. By contrast, half of those employed can work from home — and 90 percent of those are white-collar workers.
“In short, if you are poor, a woman, nonwhite or live paycheck to paycheck in a blue-collar job, you have a greater chance of being unemployed or, if still employed, of getting sick and dying. (We saw this vividly in Georgia, where 80 percent of those hospitalized with the coronavirus were African American.) That is as stark a divide as we have ever seen in this country. The longer the virus rages without a vaccine, the longer the economy will be hobbled. And with that extended economic recession, we will see the gap between rich and poor, already huge, widen still further” (Inequality is now an issue of life and death).
Think about all of the protests and actions that have come from angry whites demanding the liberty to risk the lives of others with their proclamation of liberty or death, including the death of others. Now imagine masses of poor blacks did the same by likewise showing up with guns at state capitals and blocked the entrances to hospitals, and imagine there were numerous cases of poor blacks violently threatening and sometimes attacking workers who asked customers to follow safety measures — if that were to happen, it would not be tolerated so casually nor rationalized away as the necessary resistance to dangerous political power. Think about whose lives are being offered in exchange for liberty, whose liberty is prioritized and privileged. The public, poor minorities most of all, is not being asked to freely and willingly sacrifice their lives for the public good of the national economy but being told that their lives must be sacrificed against their will for the profit of big biz and the capitalist class, to keep the corporate behemoth running smoothly.
With that in mind, one might note that a major part of what is going on is a lack of trust. What is interesting is that it is precisely those who have most benefited from government who now attack it. They have the privilege to attack government with the assumption that government should serve them. Poor minorities have never been able to make that assumption. And so it’s unsurprising that a privileged white elite that has led this attack of public authority in order to promote their own authoritarian authority. It is a crisis of public trust that has built up over generations, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s attack on public institutions that has continued with every Republican administration (although with no small help from conservative Democrats like Bill Clinton).
Interestingly, for all of this right-wing attack on governmental legitimacy, it is Trump that the American public trusts the least, whereas one of the few areas of majority support is found in the public trust of health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Despite all of the media obsession in reporting that makes the liberty protesters seem more numerous and significant than they are, the general public remains unconvinced that individual liberty should trump public health during a pandemic. Even most Republicans are opposed to a full, quick reopening of the economy. This position being forced upon us by certain elements of middle class activists, plutocratic elite, and corporate media does not indicate any actual public debate going on among most Americans. The average person does not see it as a forced choice between the extremes of liberty and death.
So, if not liberty, what is all of this staged conflict about? It’s not even about the actual mortality rate of COVID-19, in general or among specific demographics. This pandemic might not turn out as bad as expected or it yet might truly become a catastrophe — time will tell (Then the second wave of infections hit…). That isn’t the issue we are facing with an elite that is willing to sacrifice certain elements of society for their own self-interest and so as to maintain the status quo. This elite didn’t wait for the data to come in before deciding how many dead poor people and dead minorities would be the price they were willing to pay for their own continued prosperity, in ensuring their good life could be maintained. What we are dealing with here is ultimately a conflict between those who want freedom and those who don’t, and such freedom is about democracy and not liberty. Now, if well-armed angry white right-wingers were demanding democracy or death, freedom for all or death, then we could take them seriously.
But this does not mean that the government can do whatever it wants in the name of stopping the spread of a communicable disease. There is always a danger that government might use its power as an excuse for unnecessary restrictions on freedom. This has occurred during our current crisis in countries including Hungary, which canceled elections, and Thailand and Jordan, which have restricted speech critical of the government.
In the United States, a number of states have adopted regulations preventing abortions, including medically induced abortions that involve no surgical procedure at all. It is hard to see how such restrictions have a “real and substantial” relationship to stopping the spread of COVID-19 as opposed to attempts to use the crisis as a pretext for imposing additional limits on abortion.
And courts would probably look skeptically on banning a religious service if it involved people staying in their cars in a parking lot — a drive-in service, as some churches have instituted. Such gatherings present no valid public health threat, since they do not involve interpersonal contact.
Still, most closure orders are clearly constitutional. The right to swing your fist stops at another person’s nose. With coronavirus, your freedom stops when it endangers others by facilitating transmission of a highly communicable disease.
The rallies don’t represent public opinion. Three out of four Americans prefer to “keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed,” according to a recent Washington Post-Ipos poll.
The great majority of people understand that limitations that would normally be intolerable are justifiable in an emergency. No one, after all, objects to curfews and National Guard deployments in cities wrecked by hurricanes, floods or earthquakes.
Most Americans say saving lives by preventing the spread of COVID-19 should be the top priority for the U.S. government as the global coronavirus pandemic strains the nation’s health care system and social distancing measures ravage the economy, according to a new poll.
The Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll poll released Friday found the nation is becoming more accepting of drastic interventions to stop the virus’ spread, compared with a poll taken March 10 and 11. The increased support for restrictions comes as Americans believe coronavirus effects will be felt for the foreseeable future, the new survey found. […]
About nine out of 10 people now support canceling large-scale events, up from about four in 10 earlier this month. Nearly half of respondents now support grounding all domestic flights, when 22% had supported that measure. […]
Most survey respondents thought the crisis will continue for months, with 66% saying it will last “for a few months” or “at least six months.” Almost as many (55%)said they were prepared to put their normal lives on hold for those lengths of time. […]
among the majority (72%) of respondents who believe the government’s priority should be saving lives by stopping the spread of the virus, as opposed to sparing the economy.
Only about 1 in 5 said the government’s main priority should be saving the economy.
At the same time, the majority also believe the global economy and stock market are at a greater risk than their community or themselves personally.
To balance those concerns, more than 80% of those surveyed said they supported rebooting the economy slowly and carefully to avoid endangering lives.
Americans remain deeply wary of eating at restaurants, shopping at stores and taking other steps to return to normalcy, a poll shows, even as the White House is contemplating shutting down its coronavirus task force.
With several covid-19 models taking a wrenching turn toward bleaker death forecasts in recent days because of reopening moves in some states, most Americans say they worry about getting the virus themselves and they oppose ending the restrictions meant to slow its spread, according to the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. […]
Polling suggests that despite the economic turmoil, most Americans are far from ready for a rapid reboot of society.
More than half, 56 percent, say they are comfortable making a trip to the grocery store, something many Americans have continued doing, according to the Post-U. Md. poll. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a clothing store, and 78 percent would be uneasy at a sit-down restaurant.
People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort to those in states with stricter rules. […]
Americans continue to give Trump negative marks for his response to the outbreak, while offering widely positive assessments of their governors, a trend that has been consistent throughout the pandemic, according to the Post-U. Md. poll.
Trump’s ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago, while governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans and about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across party lines. […]
Americans overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci’s positive rating stands at 74 percent. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive. […]
Though the moves by some states toward reopening have been gradual, the Post-U. Md. poll indicates many residents oppose them.
The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).
The poll shows that Republicans are far more supportive of opening businesses than Democrats are.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents overwhelmingly oppose opening all types of businesses listed, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents range from mostly in favor of opening (61 percent for golf courses) to mostly opposed (59 percent for dine-in restaurants).
Fear of infection, the poll finds, has not abated at all in recent weeks.
In the survey, 63 percent of Americans say they are either very or somewhat worried about getting the virus and becoming seriously ill, while 36 percent say they are not too worried or not at all worried.
[A]mong the three “unalienable rights” enumerated by Jefferson in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the first right is “life,” not “liberty.” The purpose of government first and foremost is to “secure” the right to “life” of the citizens governed. The rights of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” are rendered meaningless if government abdicates its paramount duty to safeguard the right to “life” and, instead, gives deferential preference to individual personal liberty.
Consistent with this understanding is a variant of a well-known phrase: “Your liberty ends where my life begins.” This expression is relevant and useful in explaining the current imposition by our nation’s governments of closures of non-essential businesses, of restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and of requirements of self-imposed quarantines by citizens who know they may have been exposed to the virus.
The Declaration of Independence promised that people can “alter or abolish” their existing form of government to “effect their Safety and Happiness.” What happens when people believe a stronger government that infringes on some liberty is necessary to “effect their safety”? […]
These sentiments have again come to the fore during the covid-19 pandemic. A recent poll shows that 56 percent of Americans are more concerned about the public health impact of the pandemic than the economic impact. A slightly larger share, 60 percent, say that it’s more important for government to control the virus’s spread than to restore the economy. Even among Republicans, only a slight majority — 51 percent — say government policy should focus more on the economy.
This latter figure is consistent with decades of Republican voting preferences. As my co-author, University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, and I showed in our book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” movement conservatives are not even clearly a majority of the GOP. Other, less doctrinaire conservatives hold the balance of power within the Republican electorate, and they have voted against the movement’s preferred candidate in presidential primaries for decades. Even a majority of Republicans are mainly content with the large modern state.
President Trump must navigate these currents adroitly to avoid being swept out to sea with a movement conservative tide. If he tilts too strongly in favor of lockdowns and public safety, he breaks faith with the GOP’s most dedicated supporters. But if he tilts too much toward them, he risks alienating the larger — and more politically volatile — group of Americans who prioritize safety over liberty in the current crisis. Polls already suggest Trump’s pro-reopening rhetoric is hurting him among seniors, the demographic most at risk in the covid-19 crisis and presumably the ones who most favor safety over liberty. Trump risks throwing away the election by moving too rapidly or openly in favor of the noisy movement conservative minority who value liberty over safety.
Death overtakes us all at some point. However, we’re now being told to numb ourselves to mass casualties and the increased possibility of our own COVID-19 infections in order help a president win re-election. Or to help some stocks rally, or even save a business from folding. That is what is happening here. “If a majority believe that we got through this, they’re not afraid anymore about their health, the health of their family and they feel like the health of the economy is heading in the right direction, then I think he’s in good shape,” former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently told McClatchy. “If they have doubts on either or both of those, then I think it becomes really, really tough.”
The Republican rush to “reopen” is projecting a simulacrum of the American “normal” that existed before the pandemic. The genuine article needed improvement, seeing as the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our systems in health care, education, tech, criminal justice, and throughout our federal government supply infrastructure, just to name a few. And rather than noting how it has sought to unbalance and defund many of the very systems that have proven deficient during this crisis, the GOP has kept behaving as if the coronavirus’ calamities are part of some divine plan. As such, before they ever “reopened” a single state, Republicans were demanding that we willingly embrace a lesser life before we bow out early.
Many cultish movements have deadly culminations, so it only seems natural that some of Trump’s most avid fans might be willing not merely to use the fiction of what they understand as freedom, risking their health for Dear Leader. But whether or not that is true, Republicans offer this fraudulent version of liberty because their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom. It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them. They have profited from the vulnerable, whose literal freedoms are limited in various ways that, at times, overlap: communities of color, incarcerated populations, service workers, the homeless, disabled people, and others for whom liberals regularly advocate.
The right has built a thin veneer that looks like independence and freedom, but the pandemic has stripped away that myth in a matter of weeks. We can love our country enough to want to build it stronger than it was before, not paint some shoddy lacquer over top of it and call it brand new again. Why should we lay our lives down for a system this fragile and rotten, and for people this desperate?
The words freedom and liberty have been invoked breathlessly in recent weeks to bolster the case for “reopening.” Protesters of state public safety measures readily locate in the Bill of Rights the varied and assorted freedom to not be masked, the freedom to have your toenails soaked and buffed, the freedom to open-carry weapons into the state capitol, the freedom to take your children to the polar bear cage, the freedom to worship even if it imperils public safety, and above all, the freedom to shoot the people who attempt to stop you from exercising such unenumerated but essential rights. Beyond a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between broad state police powers and federal constitutional rights in the midst of a deadly pandemic, this definition of freedom is perplexing, chiefly because it seems to assume not simply that other people should die for your individual liberties, but also that you have an affirmative right to harm, threaten, and even kill anyone who stands in the way of your exercising of the freedoms you demand. We tend to forget that even our most prized freedoms have limits, with regard to speech, assembly, or weaponry. Those constraints are not generally something one shoots one’s way out of, even in a pandemic, and simply insisting that your own rights are paramount because you super-duper want them doesn’t usually make it so.
To be sure, a good number of these “protesters” and “pundits” represent fringe groups, financed by other fringe groups and amplified by a press that adores conflict. The data continues to show that the vast majority of Americans are not out on the hustings fighting for the right to infect others for the sake of a McNugget. Also, it is not irrational in the least to fear a tyrannical government capitalizing on a pandemic; it’s happening around the world. But even for those millions of people genuinely suffering hardship and anxiety, it’s simply not the case that all freedoms are the same. And it’s certainly not the case that the federal Constitution protects everything you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it.
In a superb essay by Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic this week, we’re reminded that there is a long-standing difference between core notions of what he calls freedom to and freedom from. The freedom to harm, he points out, has its lineage in the slaveholder’s constitutional notion of freedom: “Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing.” Kendi continues by pointing out that these two notions of freedom have long rubbed along uneasily side by side, but that those demanding that states “open up” so they may shop, or visit zoos, are peeling back the tension between the two:
From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm. Both freedoms were inscribed into the U.S. Constitution, into the American psyche. The history of the United States, the history of Americans, is the history of reconciling the unreconcilable: individual freedom and community freedom. There is no way to reconcile the enduring psyche of the slaveholder with the enduring psyche of the enslaved.
[…] We now find ourselves on the precipice of a moment in which Americans must decide whether the price they are willing to pay for the “freedom” of armed protesters, those determined to block hospitals, and pundits who want to visit the zoo, is their own health and safety. Polls show that the majority of Americans are still deeply devoted to the proposition that their government can protect them from a deadly virus, and that they trust their governors and scientists and data far more than they trust the Mission Accomplished Industrial Complex that would have them valuing free-floating ideas about liberty over the health and indeed lives of essential workers, the elderly, and their own well-being, despite the president’s recent insistence that this is what, all of us, as “warriors” must do. As Jamil Smith points out, this cultish view of “liberty” as demanding mass death in exchange for “liberty,” as in “freedom to” is an assembly-line, AstroTurf version of liberty pushed by those who are already very free. “Their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom,” Smith writes. “It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them.”
In the coming weeks, we will see some relatively small portion of Americans with great big megaphones and well-financed backers start to openly attack the selfsame health care workers who were celebrated as heroes just a few weeks ago. We will see attacks on people wearing masks and attacks on people lawfully asking others to wear masks. Some leaders will buckle under the pressure to rescind orders with claims that in choosing between liberty and death, they went with liberty. Others, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will respond by insisting that the brandishing of guns inside the state Capitol is not, in fact, “liberty,” and that if it is liberty and justice, it is hardly liberty and justice for all, but rather for a small minority of people who seek to define freedom as something they will seize and threaten and even kill for. A good rule of thumb for COVID-based discussions about “opening up” is that if someone is demanding it while threatening to hurt or kill you, you are probably not as “free” as they are, and that their project does nothing to increase freedom in America and everything to hoard a twisted idea of freedom for themselves.
When you hear someone demanding inchoate generalized “freedom,” ask whether he cares at all that millions of workers who clean the zoos and buff the nails and intubate the grandmas are not free. These people are cannon fodder for your liberty. The long-standing tension between individual liberty and the collective good is complicated, and as Kendi is quick to point out, the balance often tilts, trade-offs are made, federal and state governments shift clumsily along together, and the balance tilts again. Nobody denies that individual liberty is essential in a democracy, but in addition to parsing whether we as a collective do better in providing the “freedom from” while also offering some “freedom to,” it’s worth asking whether those making zero-sum claims about liberty are willing to sacrifice anything for freedom, or are just happily sacrificing you.
It may be hard to remember after the last four years of madness, but over the fifteen years leading up to Trump’s election, American conservatives spearheaded a successful campaign to reorient US domestic and foreign policy around waging a “war on terror.” After the attacks of September 11, 2011 left 2,753 people dead — a horrific number that now makes up just 3.5 percent of the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic so far, and is not much more than the number of Americans dying from the virus every day — the US right proceeded to pour absurd amounts of money and lives into counterproductive wars and various other initiatives aimed at preventing anything similar from happening again, shaming and attacking anyone who dissented as weak and even treasonous.
It’s hardly news that the Right are shameless hypocrites; they say whatever they need to say to achieve their political goals.
During the Bush era, those included funneling money to military contractors, building a security state to eventually destroy any future left-wing political movement, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as weak and dangerous, so bodily security and saving lives was the issue. Now, those goals have become keeping the wallets of all wealthy industrialists comfortably filled during the pandemic, preventing a sudden, mass contradiction of decades of neoliberal economic nonsense, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as tyrannical and dangerous, so freedom at any price is the issue.
The trouble is that America’s narrow political spectrum is dominated by two sides that flagrantly don’t believe anything they say and make little effort to pretend otherwise. One side spent eight years being the party of centralized government power for the sake of security, before spending eight years caterwauling about government tyranny, and now backs measures to tacitly murder tens of thousands of its own people. The other side spent eight years warning about the imminent, dictatorial danger of a centralized national security state, before quickly adopting and enlarging that same national security state for another eight years. It couldn’t even keep up the pretense that it stood forvoting rights and sexual assaultsurvivors for a mere three years before reversing itself on both.
It’s hard to predict where exactly a political system ends up when it’s dominated by cynical actors like these. But history suggests a growing army of people disillusioned and distrustful with an existing political order rarely goes well for the latter.
Considering this lack of leadership, what would a William James pragmatist do?
Virtually everyone except for Trump and his apologists understands the obvious: Reopening the economy requires, first, a national commitment to a robust testing program fully backed by the federal government. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed $30 billion in new emergency funding for a national testing strategy and called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act if that’s what’s needed to mobilize the private sector to produce the required tests.
Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has created an expansive contact tracing program to track the virus’s spread. It could become a national model. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Howard Bauchner and Joshua Sharfstein suggested giving the nation’s 20,000 incoming medical students a year off, with pay and health benefits, to contribute both to care and testing efforts. The AmeriCorps program could also be mobilized for this labor-intensive work.
What pragmatists know is that railing against formal distancing rules does nothing to solve the underlying problem. As several economist colleagues I contacted noted, the economy will not fully revive until Americans are given good reason to put aside their fears of infection. Yelling at governors won’t get us there.
“Even if the government-imposed social distancing rules are relaxed to encourage economic activity, risk-averse Americans will persist in social distancing, and that behavior, too, will restrain the hoped-for economic rebound,” Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist, wrote me.
“Will customers return in-person to the retail or leisure/hospitality businesses anytime soon?” asked Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Not if they feel unsafe, and not if their personal finances have been constricted by the downturn.”
Those who shout for opening the economy in the name of freedom don’t think much about the freedom of workers to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease. And employers do not want to find themselves facing legal liabilities for infected employees.
If the economy is substantially reopened without adequate testing, said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, the most vulnerable would include “low-wage workers, women, people of color, immigrants, and the elderly.” They are “concentrated in the riskiest jobs, with the least financial cushion, and the least likely to have employer-provided benefits or protections,” she said.
Sadly, in some quarters, mask requirements are being viewed as an unacceptable infringement on individual liberty. No rights are absolute, however, and personal freedom comes with a well-established philosophical superstructure.
Consider how John Stuart Mill, the preeminent philosopher of liberty, elucidated the idea of individual autonomy — and what he would probably say about face-mask requirements in a time of public health crisis.
Mill was adamant that individuals could do whatever they wanted as long as those actions affected them alone. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he wrote.
But even this fervent proponent of individual liberty carved out an exception when one person’s conduct could hurt someone else, writing that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Where would face-mask requirements, whether imposed by states, cities, or retail businesses, fall? Clearly on the side of justified infringements, since by not wearing a mask, a person can easily spread highly contagious COVID-19 to others. That’s all the more true when you consider that an estimated 56 percent of coronavirus infections come from pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers — and that for some who catch it, the disease will be a death sentence.
Thus the notion that these requirements are unwarranted or illicit or outrageous or unbearable by free people clearly doesn’t pass the test enunciated by the West’s great apostle of individual liberty.
A second great thinker, political philosopher John Rawls, also merits mention here, both for the helpful clarity his reasoning imparts and for a tragic aspect of his biography: When he was a boy, two of his younger brothers perished from diseases (diphtheria and pneumonia) they had contracted from him.
One of Rawls’s signal contributions is the “veil of ignorance,” a way of thinking designed to overcome the bias imparted by one’s own circumstances in life. To wit: As you consider what’s just or fair, assume that you don’t know your own sex, race, socio-economic status, abilities, and so forth.
In the matter of face masks, the veil of ignorance means not knowing whether you hold (or are likely to have) a job that requires you to interact frequently with the public or, say, are in circumstances that require your use of public transportation. Nor do you know whether you face a greater or lesser chance of death should you contract COVID-19.
From behind that veil, ask yourself this question: Do you favor or oppose the wearing of masks by everyone in the public circumstances outlined above?
All of this can be distilled to an exhortation not much more complicated than the Golden Rule. If the case for masks were presented by the president and governors and mayors and religious and community leaders as treating others as we’d like to be treated if in their place, I like to think people would overwhelmingly come to see them as an inconvenience all patriotic Americans can accept in these terrible times.
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Below are some articles on the demographic disparities, socioeconomic divides, and structural prejudices showing those most vulnerable to viral exposure, infections, comorbidities, death, lack of healthcare, and other health factors of concern during the COVID-19 pandemic and in general.
“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
~U.S. Declaration of Independence
“Democracy was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule…The basic idea of democracy is simple . . .
“Democracy is a word that joins demos—the people—with kratia—power . . . It describes an ideal, not a method for achieving it. It is not a kind of government, but an end of government; not a historically existing institution, but a historical project . . . if people take it up as such and struggle for it.”
~Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy
“It is that right to local self-government – a right that we’re told that we already have, but which people discover is not there when they need it most – that serves as the guide-star of this slowly gathering movement.
“To stop them, corporate and governmental officials will be forced to slay their own sacred cow – the ‘rule of law’ – which they have used since time immemorial as their own version of ‘God said so’” Thus, governmental and corporate officials will be forced to bring the power of the system’s own courts, legislatures, and regulators crashing down on them, in the face of clear and overwhelming evidence that our food and water systems, our energy systems, and our global climate are themselves crashing as a result of policies created by those very same institutions…
“These communities’ new rule of law – made in the name of environmental and economic sanity – believes that people and nature have rights, not corporations; that new civil, political, and environmental rights must be recognized; and that we must stop (immediately) those corporate acts which harm us.”
~Thomas Linzy, Local Lawmaking: A Call for a Community Rights Movement
“The main mark of modern governments is that we do not know who governs, de facto any more than de jure. We see the politician and not his backer; still less the backer of the backer; or what is most important of all, the banker of the backer. Enthroned above all, in a manner without parallel in all past, is the veiled prophet of finance, swaying all men living by a sort of magic, and delivering oracles in a language not understood of the people.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in Contour magazine
“The large extent of bank influence is not easily seen. We seldom see an identified bank or a money corporation candidate running for office; but when questions arise which affect them, the banks have agents at work, whose operations are the more effective because they are unseen.”
~William M. Gouge, Advisor to President Andrew Jackson, Editor fot the Philadelphia Gazette, Publisher of the “History of the American Banking System” and a “Fiscal History of Texas”
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
~Adam Smith, 1776, Wealth of Nations, book V, ch.I, part II
“[T]he basic problem of legal thinkers after the Civil War was how to articulate a conception of property that could accommodate the tremendous expansion in the variety of forms of ownership spawned by a dynamic industrial society…The efforts by legal thinkers to legitimate the business corporation during the 1890’s were buttressed by a stunning reversal in American economic thought – a movement to defend and justify as inevitable the emergence of large-scale corporate concentration.”
~Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law
“What did he [Bingham] think about the conversion of the Fourteenth Amendment from a protection of all constitutional rights for all citizens to a bulwark of corporate power against the protests of farmers and workers? Here we have a bit more information. Bingham later wrote that the amendment had been designed to protect natural persons, not corporations.
“That seems quite reasonable, particularly since the first sentence of Section one refers to persons ‘born or naturalized in the United States.’”
~Michael Kent Curtis, John A. Bingham and the Story of American Liberty: The Lost Cause Meets the ‘Lost Cause’, The Akron Law Review
(John Bingham was a Republican Congressman from Ohio and principal framer of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted due process and equal protection under the law to freed slaves.)
“I think we would agree to describe the reality that flows from this corporate power as anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-worker, anti-person and anti-planet…Given our relative consensus on this situation, what should we be asking and doing about the corporation?…To effectively begin the work of countering what amounts to global corporate tyranny, we’ll need to do two kinds of defining: what we wish to see in the future, and what we are seeing in the present…We’ll never move these corporate behemoths out of our way with the poking sticks and thin willow reeds available to us through regulatory action…Nor will we gain their everlasting mercy with pleas for social responsibility or requests to sign a corporate ‘code of conduct,’ or the pitiful pleading for side agreements on free-trade pacts…Our colonized minds make it difficult to cut through our experience and envision real democracy. We’ve got a ‘cop in our head,’ and the cop comes from corporate headquarters…What must be done?
“When those of us who believe in an empowered citizenship see corporations spewing excrement and oppression with ever greater reach, we need to ask, ‘By what authority can corporations do that? They have no authority to do that. We never gave them authority.’ And we must work strategically to challenge their claims to authority…”
~Virginia Rasmussen, “Rethinking the Corporation”, Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) principal, talk given during Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom conference, July 24-31, Baltimore, MD
Mainstream American thought sees them as oppositional. But maybe the common ground between them is fairness. There can be neither equality nor freedom in an unfair society, although there can be liberty in an unfair society. That goes off on a tangent, but keep it in mind as background info. A society of freedom is not the same as a society of liberty, and a society of fairness might be a whole other thing as well. Yet it has been argued that English is the only language with exact words for all three concepts (see Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness) — for example, George Fletcher in Basic Concepts of Legal Thought writes,
“Remarkably, our concept of fairness does not readily translate into other languages. It is virtually impossible to find a suitable translation for fairness in European or Semitic languages. As a result, the term is transplanted directly in some languages such as German and Hebrew, and absent in others, such as French, which is resistant to adopting loan words that carry unique meanings.” (quoted by Manny Echevarria in Does Fairness Translate?)
The difference between the two cultural worldviews and ideological systems is what led to both the English Civil War and the American Civil War. This conflict has been internalized within American society, but it has never been resolved. Americans simply have pretended it went away when, in reality, the conflict has grown worse.
Heller writes about the experience and work of Elizabeth Anderson. She has been, “Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice.” And, as related to the above, “She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society.” Freedom isn’t only closely linked to equality but built upon and dependent upon it. That makes sense from an etymological perspective, as freedom originally meant living among equals in sharing freedom as a member of a free people, at least a member in good standing (ignoring the minor detail of the categories of people excluded: women, slaves, and strangers; but it might be noted that these categories weren’t always permanent statuses and unchangeable fates, since sometimes women could become warriors or divorce their husbands, slaves could end their bondage, and strangers could marry into the community). Hence, this is the reason the word ‘friend’ has the same origin — to be free is to be among friends, among those one trusts and relies upon as do they in return.
Fairness, by the way, is an odd word. It has an English meaning of fair, handsome, beautiful, and attractive (with some racist connotations); nice, clean, bright, clear, and pleasant; moderate as in not excessive in any direction (a fair balance or fair weather, neither hot nor cold) but also generous or plentiful as in considerable (a fair amount). And in various times and places, it has meant favorable, helpful, promising good fortune, and auspicious; morally or comparatively good, socially normative, average, suitable, agreeable, with propriety and justice, right conduct, etc; which overlaps with the modern sense of equitable, impartial, just, and free from bias (from fair and well to fair and square, from fair-dealing to fair play). But its other linguistic variants connect to setting, putting, placing, acting, doing, making, and becoming; make, compose, produce, construct, fashion, frame, build, erect, and appoint. There is an additional sense of sex and childbirth (i.e., fucking and birthing), the ultimate doing and making; and so seemingly akin to worldly goodness of fecundity, abundance, and creation. The latter maybe where the English meaning entered the picture. More than being fair as a noun, it is a verb of what one is doing in a real world sense.
Interestingly, some assert the closest etymological correlate to fairness in modern Swedish is ‘rättvis’. It breaks down to the roots ‘rätt’ and ‘vis’, the former signifying what is ‘correct’ or ‘just’ and the latter ‘wise’ (correct-wise or just-wise in the sense of clockwise or otherwise). This Swedish word is related to the English ‘righteous’. That feels right in the moral component of fairness that can be seen early on its development as a word. We think of what is righteous as having a more harsh and demanding tone than fairness. But I would note how easy it is to pair fairness with justice as if they belong together. John Rawls has a theory of justice as fairness. That makes sense, in accord with social science research that shows humans strongly find unjust that which is perceived as unfair. Then again, as freedom is not exactly the same as liberty, righteousness is not exactly the same as justice. There might be a reason that the Pledge of Allegiance states “with liberty and justice for all”, not liberty and righteousness, not freedom and justice. Pledging ourselves to liberty and justice might put us at odds with a social order of fairness, as paired with freedom, equality, or righteousness. Trying to translate these two worldviews into each other maybe is what created so much confusion in the first place.
All these notions of and related to fairness, one might argue indicate how lacking in fairness is our society, whatever one might think of liberty and justice. Humans tend to obsess over in articulating and declaring what is found most wanting. A more fair society would likely not bother to have a world for it as the sense of fairness would be taken for granted and would simply exist in the background as ideological realism and cultural worldview. From Integrity in Depth, John Beebe makes this argument about the word ‘integrity’ for modern society, whereas the integral/integrated lifestyle of many tribal people living in close relationship to their environment requires no such word. A people need what is not integrated that is seen as needing to be integrated in order to speak of what is or might be of integrity.
Consider the Piraha who are about as equal a society as can exist with fairness only becoming an issue in recent history because of trade with outsiders. The Piraha wanted Daniel Everett to teach them learn math because they couldn’t determine if they were being given a fair deal or were being cheated, a non-issue among Piraha themselves since they don’t have a currency or even terms for numerals. A word like fairness would be far too much of a generalized abstraction for the Piraha as traditionally most interactions were concrete and personal, as such more along the lines of Germanic ‘freedom’.
It might put some tribal people in an ‘unfair’ position if they don’t have the language to fully articulate unfairness, at least in economic terms. We Americans have greater capacity and talent in fighting for fairness because we get a lot of practice, as we can’t expect it as our cultural birthright. Unsurprisingly, we talk a lot about it and in great detail. Maybe to speak of fairness is always to imply both its lack and desirability. From the view of linguistic relativism, such a word invokes a particular wordview that shapes and influences thought, perception, and behavior.
This is observed in social science research when WEIRD populations are compared to others, as seen in Joe Henrich’s study of the prisoner’s dilemma: “It had been thought a matter of settled science that human beings insist on fairness in the division, or will punish the offering party by refusing to accept the offer. This was thought an interesting result, because economics would predict that accepting any offer is better than rejecting an offer of some money. But the Machiguenga acted in a more economically rational manner, accepting any offer, no matter how low. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game,” Henrich said” (John Watkins, The Strangeness of Being WEIRD). There is no impulse to punish an unfairness that, according to the culture, isn’t perceived as unfair. It appears that the very concept of fairness was irrelevant or maybe incomprehensible the Machiguenga, at least under these conditions. But if they are forced to deal more with outsiders who continually take advantage of them or who introduce perverse incentives into their communities, they surely would have to develop the principle of fairness and learn to punish unfairness. Language might be the first sign of such a change.
A similar point is made by James L. Kugel in The Great Shift about ancient texts written by temple priests declaring laws and prohibitions. This probably hints at a significant number of people at the time doing the complete opposite or else the priests wouldn’t have bothered to make it clear, often with punishments for those who didn’t fall in line. As Julian Jaynes explains, the earliest civilizations didn’t need written laws because the social norms were so embedded within not only the social fabric but the psyche. Laws were later written down because social norms were breaking down, specifically as societies grew in size, diversity, and complexity. We are now further down this road of the civilizational project and legalism is inseparable from our everyday experience, and so we need many words such as fairness, justice, righteousness, freedom, liberty, etc. We are obsessed with articulating these values as if by doing so we could re-enforce social norms that refuse to solidify and stabilize. So, we end up turning to centralized institutions such as big government to impose these values on individuals, markets, and corporations. And we need lawyers, judges, and politicians to help us navigate this legalistic world that we are anxious about falling apart at any moment.
This interpretation is supported by the evidence of the very society in which the word fairness was first used. “The tribal uses of fair and fairness were full of historical irony,” pointed out David Hackett Fischer in Fairness and Freedom (Kindle Locations 647-651). “These ideas flourished on the far fringes of northwestern Europe among groups of proud, strong, violent, and predatory people who lived in hard environments, fought to the death for the means of life, and sometimes preyed even on their own kin. Ideas of fairness and fair play developed as a way of keeping some of these habitual troublemakers from slaughtering each other even to the extinction of the tribe. All that might be understood as the first stage in the history of fairness.” This interpretation is based on a reading of the sagas as written down quite late in Scandinavian history. It was a period when great cultural shifts were happening such as radical and revolutionary introductions like that of writing itself. And I might add, this followed upon the millennium of ravage from the collapse of the bicameralism of Bronze Age Civilizations. The society was under great pressure, both from within and without, as the sagas describe those violent times. It was the sense of lack of fairness in societal chaos and conflict that made it necessary to invent fairness as a cultural ideal and social norm.
It’s impossible to argue we live in a fair society. The reason Adam Smith defended equality, for example, is because he thought it would be a nice ideal to aspire to and not that we had already attained it. On the other hand, there is an element of what has been lost. Feudal society had clearly spelled out rights and responsibilities that were agreed upon and followed as social norms, and so in that sense it was a fair society. The rise of capitalism with the enclosure and privatization of the commons was experienced as unfair, to which Thomas Paine was also responding with his defense of a citizen’s dividend to recompense what was taken, specifically as theft not only from living generations but also all generations following. When a sense of fairness was still palpable, as understood within the feudal social order, no argument for fairness as against unfairness was necessary. It likely is no coincidence that the first overt class war happened in the English Civil War when the enclosure movement was in high gear, the tragic results of which Paine would see in the following century, although the enclosure movement didn’t reach full completion until the 19th century with larger scale industrialization and farming.
As for how fairness accrued its modern meaning, I suspect that it is one of the many results of the Protestant Reformation as a precursor to the Enlightenment Age. The theological context became liberal. As Anna Wierzbicka put it: ” “Fair play” as a model of human interaction highlights the “procedural” character of the ethics of fairness. Arguably, the emergence of the concept of “fairness” reflects a shift away from absolute morality to “procedural (and contractual) morality,” and from the gradual shift from “just” to “fair” can be seen as parallel to the shifts from good to right and also from wise (and also true) to reasonable: in all cases, there is a shift from an absolute, substantive approach to a procedural one.” (from English: Meaning and Culture as quoted Mark Liberman in No word for fair?)
Nathan Heller’s article is about how the marriage of values appears like a new and “unorthodox notion”. But Elizabeth Anderson observes that, “through history, equality and freedom have arrived together as ideals.” This basic insight was a central tenet of Adam Smith’s economic philosophy. Smith said a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality. It simply wasn’t possible. Full stop. And his economic views are proclaimed as the basis of Western capitalism. So, how did this foundational understanding get lost along the way? I suppose because it was inconvenient to the powers that be who were looking for an excuse to further accumulate not only wealth but power.
It wasn’t only one part of the ruling elite that somehow ‘forgot’ this simple truth. From left to right, the establishment agreed in defense of the status quo: “If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them.” For whatever reason, there was a historical shift, a “Post-Enlightenment move” (Echevarria), both in the modern meaning of fairness and the modern deficiency in fairness.
That still doesn’t explain how the present ideological worldview became the dominant paradigm that went unquestioned by hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans and other Westerners. Direct everyday experience contradicts this neo-feudalist dogma of capitalist realism. There is nothing that Anderson observed in her own work experience that any worker couldn’t notice in almost any workplace. The truth has always been there right in front of us. Yet few had eyes to see. When lost in the darkness of a dominant paradigm, sometimes clear vision requires an imaginative leap into reality. I guess it’s a good thing we have a word to designate the ache we feel for a better world.
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Fairness and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer Kindle Locations 596-675
Origins of the Words Fairness and Fair
Where did this language of fairness come from? What is the origin of the word itself? To search for the semantic roots of fair and fairness is to make a surprising discovery. Among widely spoken languages in the modern world, cognates for fairness and fair appear to have been unique to English, Danish, Norwegian, and Frisian until the mid-twentieth century. 40 They remained so until after World War II, when other languages began to import these words as anglicisms. 41
The ancestry of fair and fairness also sets them apart in another way. Unlike most value terms in the Western world, they do not derive from Greek or Latin roots. Their etymology is unlike that of justice and equity, which have cognates in many modern Western languages. Justice derives from the Latin ius, which meant a conformity to law or divine command, “without reference to one’s own inclinations.” Equity is from the Latin aequitas and its adjective aequus, which meant level, even, uniform, and reasonable. 42
Fairness and fair have a different origin. They derive from the Gothic fagrs, which meant “pleasing to behold,” and in turn from an Indo-European root that meant “to be content.” 43 At an early date, these words migrated from Asia to middle Europe. There they disappeared in a maelstrom of many languages, but not before they migrated yet again to remote peninsulas and islands of northern and western Europe, where they persisted to our time. 44 In Saxon English, for example, the old Gothic faeger survived in the prose of the Venerable Bede as late as the year 888. 45 By the tenth century, it had become faire in English speech. 46
In these early examples, fagr, faeger, fair, and fairness had multiple meanings. In one very old sense, fair meant blond or beautiful or both—fair skin, fair hair. As early as 870 a Viking king was called Harald Harfagri in Old Norse, or Harold Fairhair in English. In another usage, it meant favorable, helpful, and good—fair wind, fair weather, fair tide. In yet a third it meant spotless, unblemished, pleasing, and agreeable: fair words, fair speech, fair manner. All of these meanings were common in Old Norse, and Anglo-Saxon in the tenth and eleventh centuries. By 1450, it also meant right conduct in rivalries or competitions. Fair play, fair game, fair race, and fair chance appeared in English texts before 1490. 47
The more abstract noun fairness was also in common use. The great English lexicographer (and father of the Oxford English Dictionary) Sir James Murray turned up many examples, some so early that they were still in the old Gothic form—such as faegernyss in Saxon England circa 1000, before the Norman Conquest. It became fayreness and fairnesse as an ethical abstraction by the mid-fifteenth century, as “it is best that he trete him with farenes” in 1460. 48
As an ethical term, fairness described a process and a solution that could be accepted by most parties—fair price, fair judgment, fair footing, fair and square. Sometimes it also denoted a disposition to act fairly: fair-minded, fair-natured, fair-handed. All of these ethical meanings of fair and fairness were firmly established by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Fair play appears in Shakespeare (1595); fair and square in Francis Bacon (1604); fair dealing in Lord Camden (before 1623). 49
To study these early English uses of fairness and fair is to find a consistent core of meaning. Like most vernacular words, they were intended not for study but for practical use. In ethical applications, they described a way of resolving an issue that is contested in its very nature: a bargain or sale, a race or rivalry, a combat or conflict. Fundamentally, fairness meant a way of settling contests and conflicts without bias or favor to any side, and also without deception or dishonesty. In that sense fairness was fundamentally about not taking undue advantage of other people. As early as the fifteenth century it variously described a process, or a result, or both together, but always in forms that fair-minded people would be willing to accept as legitimate.
Fairness functioned as a mediating idea. It was a way of linking individuals to groups, while recognizing their individuality at a surprisingly early date. Always, fairness was an abstract idea of right conduct that could be applied in different ways, depending on the situation. For example, in some specific circumstances, fairness was used to mean that people should be treated in the same way. But in other circumstances, fairness meant that people should be treated in different ways, or special ways that are warranted by particular facts and conditions, such as special merit, special need, special warrant, or special desire. 50
Fairness was a constraint on power and strength, but it did not seek to level those qualities in a Procrustean way. 51 Its object was to regulate ethical relationships between people who possess power and strength in different degrees—a fundamental fact of our condition. A call for fairness was often an appeal of the weak to the conscience of the strong. It was the eternal cry of an English-speaking child to parental authority: “It’s not fair!” As any parent knows, this is not always a cry for equality.
Modern Applications of Fairness: Their Consistent Core of Customary Meaning
Vernacular ideas of fairness and fair have changed through time, and in ways that are as unexpected as their origin. In early ethical usage, these words referred mostly to things that men did to one another—a fair fight, fair blow, fair race, fair deal, fair trade. They also tended to operate within tribes of Britons and Scandinavians, where they applied to freemen in good standing. Women, slaves, and strangers from other tribes were often excluded from fair treatment, and they bitterly resented it.
The tribal uses of fair and fairness were full of historical irony. These ideas flourished on the far fringes of northwestern Europe among groups of proud, strong, violent, and predatory people who lived in hard environments, fought to the death for the means of life, and sometimes preyed even on their own kin. Ideas of fairness and fair play developed as a way of keeping some of these habitual troublemakers from slaughtering each other even to the extinction of the tribe. All that might be understood as the first stage in the history of fairness. 52
Something fundamental changed in a second stage, when the folk cultures of Britain and Scandinavia began to grow into an ethic that embraced others beyond the tribe—and people of every rank and condition. This expansive tendency had its roots in universal values such as the Christian idea of the Golden Rule. 53 That broader conception of fairness expanded again when it met the humanist ideas of the Renaissance, the universal spirit of the Enlightenment, the ecumenical spirit of the Evangelical Movement, and democratic revolutions in America and Europe. When that happened, a tribal idea gradually became more nearly universal in its application. 54 Quantitative evidence suggests an inflection at the end of the eighteenth century. The frequency of fairness in English usage suddenly began to surge circa 1800. The same pattern appears in the use of the expression natural justice. 55
Then came a third stage in the history of fairness, when customary ideas began to operate within complex modern societies. In the twentieth century, fairness acquired many technical meanings with specific applications. One example regulated relations between government and modern media (“the fairness doctrine”). In another, fairness became a professional standard for people who were charged with the management of other people’s assets (“fiduciary fairness”). One of the most interesting modern instances appeared among lawyers as a test of “balance or impartiality” in legal proceedings, or a “subjective standard by which a court is deemed to have followed due process,” which began to be called “fundamental fairness” in law schools. Yet another example was “fair negotiation,” which one professional negotiator defined as a set of rules for “bargaining with the Devil without losing your soul.” One of the most complex applications is emerging today as an ethic of “fairness in electronic commerce.” These and other modern applications of fairness appear in legal treatises, professional codes, and complex bodies of regulatory law. 56
Even as modern uses of fair and fairness have changed in all of those ways, they also preserved a consistent core of vernacular meaning that had appeared in Old English, Norse, and Scandinavian examples and is still evident today. To summarize, fair and fairness have long been substantive and procedural ideas of right conduct, designed to regulate relations among people who are in conflict or rivalry or opposition in particular ways. Fairness means not taking undue advantage of others. It is also about finding ways to settle differences through a mutual acceptance of rules and processes that are thought to be impartial and honest—honesty is fundamental. And it is also about living with results that are obtained in this way. As the ancient Indo-European root of fagrs implied, a quest for fairness is the pursuit of practical solutions with which opposing parties could “be content.” These always were, and still are, the fundamental components of fairness. 57
41. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “fair” and “fairness.” Cognates for the English fairness include fagr in Icelandic and Old Norse, retferdighet in modern Norwegian, and retfaerighed in modern Danish. See Geír Tòmasson Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Toronto, 2004), s.v. “fagr.” For Frisian, see Karl von Richthofen, Altfriesisches Wörterbuch (Gottingen, 1840); idem, Friesische Rechtsquellen (Berlin, 1840). On this point I agree and disagree with Anna Wierzbicka. She believes that fair and unfair “have no equivalents in other European languages (let alone non-European ones) and are thoroughly untranslatable” (“Being FAIR,” 141). This is broadly true, but with the exception of Danish, Norwegian, Frisian, and Icelandic. Also I’d suggest that the words can be translated into other languages, but without a single exactly equivalent word. I believe that people of all languages are capable of understanding the meaning of fair and fairness, even if they have no single word for it.
42. OED, s.v. “justice,” “equity.”
43. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, ed. David B. Guralnik (New York and Cleveland, 1970), s.v. “fair”; OED, s.v. “fair.”
44. Ancient cognates for fair included fagar in Old English and fagr in Old Norse.
45. W. J. Sedgefield, Selections from the Old English Bede, with Text and Vocabulary, on an Early West Saxon Basis, and a Skeleton Outline of Old English Accidence (Manchester, London, and Bombay, 1917), 77; and in the attached vocabulary list, s.v. the noun “faeger” and the adverbial form “faegere.” Also Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Tollen, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Based on Manuscript Collections (Oxford, 1882, 1898), s.v. “faeger,” ff.
46. Not to be confused with this word is another noun fair, for a show or market or carnival, from the Latin feria, feriae, feriarum, festival or holiday—an entirely different word, with another derivation and meaning.
47. Liberman, “No Word for Fair?”
48. OED, s.v. “fairness,” 1.a, b, c.
49. For fair and fairness in Shakespeare, see King John V.i.67. For fair and square in Francis Bacon in 1604 and Oliver Cromwell in 1649, see OED, s.v. “fair and square.”
50. Herein lies one of the most difficult issues about fairness. How can we distinguish between ordinary circumstances where fairness means that all people should be treated alike, and extraordinary circumstances where fairness means different treatment? This problem often recurs in cases over affirmative action in the United States. No court has been able to frame a satisfactory general rule, in part because of ideological differences on the bench.
51. Procrustes was a memorable character in Greek mythology, a son of Poseidon called Polypaemon or Damastes, and nicknamed Procrustes, “the Stretcher.” He was a bandit chief in rural Attica who invited unwary travelers to sleep in an iron bed. If they were longer than the bed, Procrustes cut off their heads or feet to make them fit; if too short he racked them instead. Procrustes himself was dealt with by his noble stepbrother Theseus, who racked him on his own bed and removed his head according to some accounts. In classical thought, and modern conservatism, the iron bed of Procrustes became a vivid image of rigid equality. The story was told by Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library 4.59; Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.38.5; and Plutarch, Lives, Theseus 2.
52. Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London, 2001), 171–84; the best way to study the origin of fairness in a brutal world is in the Norse sagas themselves, especially Njal’s Saga, trans. and ed. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London, 1960, 1980), 21–22, 40, 108–11, 137–39, 144–45, 153, 163, 241, 248–55; Egil’s Saga, trans. and ed. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (London, 1976, 1980), 136–39; Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Icelandic Stories, trans. and ed. Hermann Palsson (London, 1971, 1980), 42–60.
53. Matthew 25:40; John 4:19–21; Luke 10:27.
54. The vernacular history of humanity, expanding in the world, is a central theme in David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream (New York and Toronto, 2008); as the expansion of vernacular ideas of liberty and freedom is central to Albion’s Seed (New York and Oxford, 1989) and Liberty and Freedom (New York and Oxford, 2005); and the present inquiry is about the expansion of vernacular ideas of fairness in the world. One purpose of all these projects is to study the history of ideas in a new key. Another purpose is to move toward a reunion of history and moral philosophy, while history also becomes more empirical and more logical in its epistemic frame.
55. For data on frequency, see Google Labs, Books Ngram Viewer, http://ngrams.googlelabs.com, s.v. “fairness” and “natural justice.” Similar patterns and inflection-points appear for the corpus of “English,” “British English,” and “American English,” in the full span 1500–2000, smoothing of 3. Here again on the history of fairness, I agree and disagree with Wierzbicka (“Being FAIR,” 141–67). The ethical meanings of fairness first appeared earlier than she believes to be the case. But I agree on the very important point that ethical use of fairness greatly expanded circa 1800.
56. Fred W. Friendly, The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment (New York, 1976) is the classic work on the fairness doctrine. Quotations in this paragraph are from Carrie Menkow-Meadow and Michael Wheeler, eds., What’s Fair: Ethics for Negotiators (Cambridge, 2004), 57; Philip J. Clements and Philip W. Wisler, The Standard and Poor’s Guide to Fairness Opinions: A User’s Guide for Fiduciaries (New York, 2005); Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law (Cleveland, 1996), s.v. “fundamental fairness”; Approaching a Formal Definition of Fairness in Electronic Commerce: Proceedings of the 18th IEEE Symposium on Reliable Distributed Systems (Washington, 1999), 354. Other technical uses of fairness can be found in projects directed by Arien Mack, editor of Social Research, director of the Social Research Conference series, and sponsor of many Fairness Conferences and also of a Web site called Fairness.com.
57. An excellent discussion of fairness, the best I have found in print, is George Klosko, The Principle of Fairness and Political Obligation (Savage, MD, 1992; rev. ed., 2004). It is similarto this formulation on many points, but different on others.
It has been noted that some indigenous languages have words that can be interpreted as what, in English, is referred to as psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, etc. This is the region of the Dark Triad. One Inuit language has the word ‘kunlangeta‘, meaning “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” That could be thought of as describing a psychopath’s possession of cognitive empathy while lacking affective empathy. Or consider the Yoruba word ‘arankan‘ that “is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded.”
These are tribal societies. Immense value is placed on kinship loyalty, culture of trust, community survival, collective well-being, and public good. Even though they aren’t oppressive authoritarian states, the modern Western notion of hyper-individualism wouldn’t make much sense within these close-knit groups. Sacrifice of individual freedom and rights is a given under such social conditions, since individuals are intimately related to one another and physically dependent upon one another. Actually, it wouldn’t likely be experienced as sacrifice at all since it would simply be the normal state of affairs, the shared reality within which they exist — their identity being social rather than individual.
This got me thinking about psychopathy and modern society. Research has found that, at least in some Western countries, the rate of psychopathy is not only high in prison populations but equally as high among the economic and political elite: “Studies say psychopaths constitute about 1.2% of the general population. About 16% of the prison population are said to be psychopaths. A research study in Australia estimated that twenty-one percent of CEOs are psychopaths” (Tom Bunn, The People Who Govern Us: Are They Psychopaths?). My father left upper management in a major corporation because of how ruthless was the backstabbing, a win at all costs Social Darwinism. This is what defines a country like the United States, as these social dominators are the most revered and emulated individuals. Psychopaths and such, instead of being eliminated or banished, are promoted and empowered.
What occurred to me is the difference for tribal societies is that hyper-individualism is seen not only as abnormal but dangerous and so intolerable. Maybe the heavy focus on individualism in the modern West inevitably leads to the psychopathological traits of the Dark Triad. As such, that would mean there is something severely abnormal and dysfunctional about Western societies (WEIRD – Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Psychopaths, in particular, are the ultimate individualists and so they will be the ultimate winners in an individualistic culture — their relentless confidence and ruthless competitiveness, their Machiavellian manipulations and persuasive charm supporting a narcissistic optimism and leading to success.
There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First off, there might be something about urbanization itself or a correlated factor that exacerbates mental illness. Studies have found, for example, an increase in psychosis across the recent generations of city-dwellers — precisely during the period of populations being further urbanized and concentrated. It reminds one of the study done on crowding large numbers of rats in a small contained cage until they turned anti-social, aggressive, and violent. If these rats were humans, we might describe this behavior in terms of psychopathy or sociopathy.
There is a second thing to consider, as discussed by Barbara Oakley in her book Evil Genes (pp. 265-6). About rural populations, she writes that, “Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologist David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.” And she continues:
“But what about more urban environments? Cooke’s research has shown, surprisingly, that there are more psychopaths from Scotland prisons of England and Wales than there are in Scottish prisons. (Clearly, this is not to say that the Scottish are more given to psychopathy than anyone else.) Studies of migration records showed that many Scottish psychopaths had migrated to the more populated metropolitan areas of the south. Cooke hypothesized that, in the more crowded metropolitan areas, the psychopath could attack or steal with little danger that the victim would recognize or catch him. Additionally, the psychopath’s impulsivity and need for stimulation could also play a role in propelling the move to the dazzling delights of the big city — he would have no affection for family and friends to keep him tethered back home. Densely populated areas, apparently, are the equivalent for psychopaths of ponds and puddles for malarial mosquitoes.”
As Oakley’s book is on genetics, she goes in an unsurprising direction in pointing out how some violent individuals have been able to pass on their genetics to large numbers of descendants. The most famous example being Genghis Khan. She writes that (p. 268),
“These recent discoveries reinforce the findings of the anthropologist Laura Betzig. Her 1986 Despotism and Differential Reproduction provides a cornucopia of evidence documenting the increased capacity of those with more power — and frequently, Machiavellian tendencies — to have offspring. […] As Machiavellian researcher Richard Christie and his colleague Florence Geis aptly note: “[H]igh population density and highly competitive environments have been found to increase the use of antisocial and Machiavellian strategies, and my in fact foster the ability of those who possess those strategies to reproduce.” […] Beltzig’s ultimte point is not that the corrupt attain power but that those corrupted individuals who achieved power in preindustrial agricultural societies had far more opportunity to reproduce, generally through polygyny, and pass on their genes. In fact, the more Machiavellian, that is, despotic, a man might be, the more polygynous he tended to be — grabbing and keeping for himself as many beautiful women as he could. Some researchers have posited that envy is itself a useful, possibly geneticall linked trait, “serving a key role in survival, motivating achievement, serving the conscience of self and other, and alerting us to inequities that, if fueled, can lead to esclaated violence.” Thus, genese related to envy — not to mention other more problematic temperaments — might have gradually found increased prevalence in such environments.”
Knowing the causes is important. But knowing the consequences is just as important. No matter what increases Dark Triad behaviors, they can have widespread and long-lasting repurcussions, maybe even permanently altering entire societies in how they function. Following her speculations, Oakley gets down to the nitty gritty (p. 270):
“Questions we might reasonably ask are — has the percentage of Machiavellians and other more problematic personality types increased in the human population, or in certain human populations, since the advent of agriculture? And if the answer is yes, does the increase in these less savory types change a group’s culture? In other words, is there a tipping point of Machiavellian and emote control behavior that can subtly or not so subtly affect the way the members of a society interact? Certainly a high expectation of meeting a “cheater,” for example, would profoundly impact the trust that appears to form the grease of modern democratic societies and might make the development of democratic processes in certain areas more difficult. Crudely put, an increase in successfully sinister types from 2 percent, say, to 4 percent of a population would double the pool of Machiavellians vying for power. And it is the people in power who set the emotional tone, perhaps through mirroring and emotional contagion, for their followers and those around them. As Judith Rich Harris points out, higher-status members of a group are looked at more, which means they have more influence on how a person becomes socialized.”
The key factor in much of this seems to be concentration. Simply concentrating populations, humans or rats, leads to social problems related to mental health issues. On top of that, there is the troubling concern of what kind of people are being concentrated and where they are being concentrated — psychopaths being concentrated not only in big cities and prisons but worse still in positions of wealth and power, authority and influence. We live in a society that creates the conditions for the Dark Triad to increase and flourish. This is how the success of those born psychopaths encourages others to follow their example in developing into sociopaths, which in turn makes the Dark Triad mindset into a dominant ethos within mainstream culture.
The main thing on my mind is individualism. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, such as in terms of the bundle theory of the mind and the separate individual, connected to my long term interest in community and the social nature of humans. In relation to individualism, there is the millennia-old cultural divide between Germanic ‘freedom‘ and Roman ‘liberty‘. But because Anglo-American society mixed up the two, this became incorrectly framed by Isaiah Berlin in terms of positive and negative. In Contemporary Political Theory, J. C. Johari writes that (p. 266), “Despite this all, it may be commented that though Berlin advances the argument that the two aspects of liberty cannot be so distinguished in practical terms, one may differ from him and come to hold that his ultimate preference is for the defence of the negative view of liberty. Hence, he obviously belongs to the category of Mill and Hayek.” He states this “is evident from his emphatic affirmation” in the following assertion by Berlin:
“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense or else metaphor. To strive to be free is to seek to remove obstacles; to struggle for personal freedom is to seek to curb interference, exploitation, enslavement by men whose ends are theirs, not one’s own. Freedom, at least in its political sense, is coterminous with the absence of bullying or domination.”
Berlin makes a common mistake here. Liberty was defined by not being a slave in a slave-based society, which is what existed in the Roman Empire. But that isn’t freedom, an entirely different term with an etymology related to ‘friend’ and with a meaning that indicated membership in an autonomous community — such freedom meant not being under the oppression of a slave-based society (e.g., German tribes remaining independent of the Roman Empire). Liberty, not freedom, was determined by one’s individual status of lacking oppression in an oppressive social order. This is why liberty has a negative connotation for it is what you lack, rather than what you possess. A homeless man starving alone on the street with no friend in the world to help him and no community to support him, such a man has liberty but not freedom. He is ‘free’ to do what he wants under those oppressive conditions and constraints, as no one is physically detaining him.
This notion of liberty has had a purchase on the American mind because of the history of racial and socioeconomic oppression. After the Civil War, blacks had negative liberty in no longer being slaves but they definitely did not have positive freedom through access to resources and opportunities, instead being shackled by systemic and institutional racism that maintained their exploited status as a permanent underclass — along with slavery overtly continuing in other forms through false criminal charges leading to prison labor, such that the criminal charges justified blaming the individual for their own lack of freedom which maintained the outward perception of negative liberty. Other populations such as Native Americans faced a similar dilemma. But is one actually free when the chains holding one down are invisible but still all too real? If liberty is an abstraction detached from lived experience and real world results, of what value is such liberty? The nature of negative liberty has always had a superficial and illusory quality about it in how it is maintained through public narrative. Unlike freedom, liberty as a social construct is highly effective as a tool for social control and oppression.
This point is made by another critic of Berlin’s perspective. “It is hard for me to see that Berlin is consistent on this point,” writes L. H. Crocker (Positive Liberty, p. 69). “Surely not all alterable human failures to open doors are cases of bullying. After all, it is often through neglect that opportunities fail to be created for the disadvantaged. It is initially more plausible that all failures to open doors are the result of domination in some sense or another.” I can’t help but think that Dark Triad individuals would feel right at home in a culture of liberty where individuals have the ‘freedom’ to oppress and be oppressed. Embodying this sick mentality, Margaret Thatcher once gave perfect voice to the sociopathic worldview — speaking of the victims of disadvantage and desperation, she claimed that, “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.” That is to say, there is no freedom.
The question, then, is whether or not we want freedom. A society is only free to the degree that as a society freedom is demanded. To deny society itself is an attempt to deny the very basis of freedom, but that is just a trick of rhetoric. A free people know their own freedom by acting freely, even if that means fighting the oppressors who seek to deny that freedom. Thatcher intentionally conflated society and government, something never heard in the clear-eyed wisdom of a revolutionary social democrat like Thomas Paine: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” These words expressed the values of negative liberty as made perfect sense for someone living in an empire built on colonialism, corporatism, and slavery. But the same words gave hint to a cultural memory of Germanic positive freedom. It wasn’t a principled libertarian hatred of governance, rather the principled radical protest against a sociopathic social order. As Paine made clear, this unhappy situation wasn’t the natural state of humanity, neither inevitable nor desirable, much less tolerable.
The Inuits would find a way for psychopaths to ‘accidentally’ fall off the ice, never to trouble the community again. As for the American revolutionaries, they preferred more overt methods, from tar and feathering to armed revolt. So, now to regain our freedom as a people, what recourse do we have in abolishing the present Dark Triad domination?
* * *
Here are some pieces on individualism and community, as contrasted between far different societies. These involve issues of mental health (from depression to addiction), and social problems (from authoritarianism to capitalist realism) — as well as other topics, including carnival and revolution.
“[…] This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.” 12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1
“We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.”
What Kinship Is-And Is Not by Marshall Sahlins, p. 2
“In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.”
We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.
Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.
I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.
We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.
All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.
The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough, Kindle Locations 3337-3342
“And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.”
Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.
In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.
Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.
The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.
Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher, pp. 18-20
“[…] In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”
There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.
“The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”
[…] in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):
“[…] But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,
“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”
“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”
[…] what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.
This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):
“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”
The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.
This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):
There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?
I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.
“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”
A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.
And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.
This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.
The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?
In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.
I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.
That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.
Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.
Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.
It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.
A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?
Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?
If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?
With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.
In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence. […]
I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.
It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.
The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.
There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.
Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.
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As addiction is key, below is some other stuff in terms of individualism and social problems, mental health and abnormal psychology. It seems that high rates of addiction are caused by the same and/or related factors involved in depression, anxiety, dark triad, etc. It’s a pattern of dysfunction found most strongly in WEIRD societies and increasingly in other developed societies, such as seen in Japan as the traditional social order breaks down (e.g., increasing number of elderly Japanese dying alone and forgotten). This pattern is seen clearly in the weirdest of WEIRD, such as with sociopathic organizations like Amazon which I bet has high prevalence of addiction among employees.
Drug addiction makes possible human adaptation to inhuman conditions. It’s part of a victimization cycle that allows victimizers to not only take power but to enforce the very conditions of victimization. The first step is isolating the victim by creating a fractured society of dislocation, disconnection, and division. Psychopaths rule by imposing a sociopathic social order, a sociopathic economic and political system. This is the environment in which the dark triad flourishes and, in coping with the horror of it, so many turn to addiction to numb the pain and distress, anxiety and fear. Addiction is the ‘normal’ state of existence under the isolated individualism of social Darwinism and late stage capitalism.
Addiction is the expression of disconnection, the embodiment of isolation. Without these anti-social conditions, the dark triad could never take hold and dominate all of society.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri
“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer
The New Individualism
by Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert
Giddens tells us that reflexivity, powered by processes of globalization, stands closest to autonomy. In a world in which tradition has more thoroughly been swept away than ever before, contingency appears unavoidable. And with contingency comes the potential to remake the world and negotiate lifestyle options — about who to be, how to act, whom to love and how to live together. The promised autonomy of reflexivity is, however, also a problem, since choice necessarily brings with it ambivalence, doubt and uncertainty. There is no way out of this paradox, though of the various, necessarily unsuccessful, attempts people make to avoid the dilemmas of reflexivity Giddens identifies ‘addiction’ as being of key importance to the present age. As he writes:
Once institutional reflexivity reaches into virtually all parts of everyday social life, almost any pattern or habit can become an addiction. The idea of addiction makes little sense in a traditional culture, where it is normal to do today what one did yesterday . . . Addictions, then, are a negative index of the degree to which the reflexive project of the self moves to the centre-stage in late modernity.
Reflexivity’s promise of freedom carries with it the burden of continual choice and deals with all the complexities of emotional life. ‘Every addiction’, writes Giddens, ‘is a defensive reaction, and an escape, a recognition of lack of autonomy that casts a shadow over the competence of the self.’
We Americans like to talk about freedom and liberty.
We idealize the self-made man and the lone cowboy, the inventor who works in isolation and the hero who stands alone, the artist who creates from his own imagination and the rebel who through sheer determination fights the system, the independent thinker and the daring innovator. We praise the individual to such an extent it becomes not just a fantastical story but an abstract ideal.
But in reality, American society doesn’t create independent individuals and autonomous agents, much less self-responsible citizens. Instead, it creates dependence and even codependence based on fear and uncertainty, based on threat and punishment, and based on manipulation by those who hold power and control the fate of others.
This creates a mindset of clinging desperation and subservient obedience or else disconnected isolation. What it doesn’t lead to are healthy individuals, relationships, families, and communities—the foundation of a well-functioning culture of trust and social democracy.
Nordic countries have a different way of doing things.
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The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 861-895
A characterization of Swedes as the ultimate loners may seem surprising, especially considering Pippi Longstocking’s global popularity. But there is some truth to it— we Nordics aren’t known to be especially outgoing, and we probably deserve our reputation as stoic, silent types who can be a bit dour. That said, the stereotypical Nordic person would probably also be thought of as someone who, although perhaps not particularly talkative, is sensitive to the needs of his or her fellow human beings, especially since we’re sometimes believed to have socialist tendencies. It follows that we ought to have a collective mind-set and some solidarity, not be extreme individualists.
In fact, however, a powerful strain of individualism is part of the bedrock of Nordic societies— so much so that Lars Trägårdh felt it was worth dusting off the old question “Is the Swede a human being?” and taking a fresh and more positive look at Nordic individualism. After years of observing the differences between Sweden and the United States, Trägårdh identifies in his book some fundamental qualities at the heart of Swedish society— qualities that also exist in all Nordic societies— that help explain Nordic success. Indeed, Trägårdh’s findings tell us a lot about why the Nordic countries are doing so well in surveys of global competitiveness and quality of life. And for me Trägårdh helped explain why I’d been feeling so confused by American relationships, especially those between parents and children, between spouses, and between employees and their employers. It all came down to the Nordic way of thinking about love— perfectly exemplified by Pippi Longstocking.
Trägårdh and his collaborator— a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggren— put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as downright all-American thinking.
A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal. Even worse, as Trägårdh and Berggren explain in their discussion of the moral logic of the Pippi Longstocking stories, “He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic.”
In the realm of Pippi— who, let’s remember, is a strong superhuman girl living alone in a big house— this means that exactly because she is totally self-sufficient, her friendship with the children next door, Tommy and Annika, is a great gift to them. That’s because they are absolutely assured that Pippi’s friendship is being given freely, no strings attached. It’s precisely because Pippi is an exaggeration of self-sufficiency that she draws our awareness to the purity and unbridled enthusiasm of her love, and elicits our admiring affection. In real life, of course, a child Pippi’s age would still have a healthy dependency on her parents, the way her neighbors Tommy and Annika do. But Pippi illustrates an ideal of unencumbered love, whose logic, in Nordic thinking, extends to most real-life adult relationships.
What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.
Here is a common right-wing view. They’ll criticize democracy as mobocracy, apparently too much freedom for too many. And they’ll criticize anything left of that as authoritarianism, supposedly not enough freedom for those who deserve it.
So, they don’t want either an entirely free society or an entirely authoritarian society. It appears what they actually want, if they were to admit it, is a society that gives freedom to the upper class and authoritarianism for everyone else. That is to say the freedom of the ruling elite to rule over the oppressed masses.
That is the exact recipe of how fascists take over countries. Of course, once fascists have full power, everyone but the ruling elite loses power. When you take freedom away from others, you’ll eventually lose your own freedom as well. It’s one of the oldest stories around.
You’d think humans would learn after repeating the same mistakes and getting the same bad results.
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