The Anxiety of Freedom

Paul A. Rahe, author of Soft Despotism: Democracy’s Drift relates political behavior to human nature. Rahe argues that governmental policies regarded by some as manifestations of a tyrannical, overbearing “nanny state” inducing individuals to happily succumb to a state of servility are primarily caused by a disturbing sense of anxiety or inquiétude associated with social freedoms.

It’s a rather charming theory, but one that I suspect works quite painfully backwards from a preconceived ideological conclusion.

As usual, the complete discussion is available here.

Advertisements

18 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

18 responses to “The Anxiety of Freedom

  1. Damn R/T.. another great post.

    I’ve only watched three of the chapters, but the discussion resonates with me completely.

    And the thing I love is it really isn’t (at least overtly) coming from the perspective of a partisan or political angle – it’s more academic, trying to explain what we see going on around us, without judging it, particularly.

    To be “free” is to be personally responsible for your own welfare, as compared, for example, to communism, which contemplates the state taking primary responsibility for your welfare – at least in theory.

    His suggestion that society has moved away (at least in democracies) from a fuedal state or from autocracy, and it has also moved away from religion as a “nanny” if you will about what we should or shouldn’t do. I think he might get to it, but I would suggest the reduction in the strength of nuclear family, both through divorce and through mobility of our citizens now being spread apart, has left us with little but our own selves to guide us.

    That creates anxiety.

    And, as he suggests, smart people (like you and I I’m sure) have a tendancy to want to “help” those who are “less smart”.. and our citizens are, to a great degree, willing to take us up on that “help”, and to submit themselves to a system of rules and regulation that diminishes their need to make decisions for their own welfare.

    It’s really a fascinating discussion.. and I’ve never heard it or read it laid out like that.. usually it’s from a clear “perspective” like “Liberal Fascism”, which touches on the same notions, but from a much more suspicious and less open point of view.

    The question remains, however, is this really in our collective best interests? Being more secure and less anxious by way of reduced personal freedom may have its appeal, but are the risks of giving the state that much authority, and are the losses of personal investment in our individual welfare worth it?

    Would be a great topic over a couple pints, I think.

    Good post R/T!

  2. Ti-Guy

    Bollocks. I lasted two minutes and then they started confusing “nanny state” (which for Americans means anything and nothing) to Russians being overwhelmed by consumer choice.

    Inquiétude manifests itself in a variety of different ways. I can imagine with the dog-eat-dog “liberalism” of a geographically- and climatically-pleasant, wealthy, powerful country like the US causes an inchoate, ill-defined and gorgeously abstract yet profound sense of insecurity that, in other, less fortunate countries, is related to much more mundane issues, such as personal and community safety, getting enough food to eat or having roof over one’s head. Thus, in the US, the remedies applied are equally abstract and usually irrational and grandiose (busing, government cheese and food stamps, public housing projects to permanently warehouse the poor, free money, etc. etc.), whereas in most other places, they’re really not that exceptional.

  3. TG.. you are compelely correct regarding the anxiety of responsibility being the luxury of the well-off. But I think that’s consistent with the discussion in the clip.

    If your motivation from the moment you wake to the moment you fitfully sleep is to find some scrap of good to keep from starving, your sense of fearing freedom is pretty much non-existent. Because, really, you have no freedom. Your life plan is simple and outside of your control. Find food or die. Pretty simple.

    But the notion of the majority of our citizens being comfortable and fed, and those of most industrialized countries does create this.. and that leads to a more in depth notion of the philosophy of government and why we choose what we choose.

    Most of the worlds advances in deep poltical thought came from socities where there was sufficient standard of living to allow deep thinkers to, well, think deeply about issues beyond just surviving.. Greeks, Romans, French, British.. and while we may look back on the folly with which their societies failed to meet their potential, we are indebted to this “deep thought” they left us.. things like, well, democracy comes to mind.

    To me the central, and interesting question raised (ignoring the loaded term “nanny state”) is how much freedom do we, as a society, really want?

  4. Ti-Guy

    But the notion of the majority of our citizens being comfortable and fed, and those of most industrialized countries does create this…

    No, I don’t believe this. Western Europe is as well-off as North America is and its populace is not seized with this kind of free-floating Angst, which is really the result of loss of community and the decay of the middle class, rather than anything as esoterically and intellectually impressive as inquiétude, something only bored American elitists living in gated communities have the time to come up with.

  5. Ti-Guy

    To add:

    To me the central, and interesting question raised (ignoring the loaded term “nanny state”) is how much freedom do we, as a society, really want?

    This is an interesting question though. The follow-up question is: “Freedom to do what?”

  6. “No, I don’t believe this. Western Europe is as well-off as North America is and its populace is not seized with this kind of free-floating Angst, which is really the result of loss of community and the decay of the middle class, rather than anything as esoterically and intellectually impressive as inquiétude, something only bored American elitists living in gated communities have the time to come up with.”

    I agree. Rahe is concerned with the idea of the “nanny” here – based on the assumption that any cultural anxiety which follows some vaguely defined notion of “freedom” is the result of people simply not being able to (or not wanting to) cope with being free to make their own decisions, and to live with the consequences of those decisions. People are, in essence, children.

    What about “freedom” itself, however? Freedom ought to be more than the ability to make a broad variety of choices at the grocery store.

    I wonder if a great deal of North American anxiety is the result of seeing a vast abundance of some of those very limited types of choices (which food to eat, for example), coupled with a rapidly shrinking set of “freedoms” in other sectors. Political and economic democracy are in sad shape. I have a plausible choice of just three (four, if I’m in Québec) people to vote for in a federal election, and Americans have just two. And the implicit social message is that I should be happy with that choice, since there are really no viable “choices” for political action aside from voting and, if your particular agenda doesn’t seem well-represented, attending a meaningless rally or two.

    I could extend this to economic life, which I imagine is more important to many people in this age of apathy. People feel their choices being constricted there, too. Not necessarily in what they can buy, but in the jobs they can take, and in the future of those jobs. Outside of several limited areas where consumerism flourishes, our choices can be surprisingly limited. The very existence of a gated community suggests the fear that restricts people’s perceived freedom and ability to choose.

    Of course, I’m committing a cardinal sin here by rendering sweeping judgements on the basis of only listening to this single clip of Rahe’s thoughts.

  7. Ti-Guy

    I wonder if a great deal of North American anxiety is the result of seeing a vast abundance of some of those very limited types of choices (which food to eat, for example), coupled with a rapidly shrinking set of “freedoms” in other sectors.

    You’re sort of zeroing in on the issue here, although its causes aren’t really political; they’re cultural, or socio-economic, or in the anthropologist’s view, related to how we live our lives.

    Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity examines how this kind of inchoate Angst is a symptom of late modernity, in which most activities are commodified and detached from the real world around us, leaving us mostly unsatisfied in the experiences of everyday living and craving something else all the time. Those of us who get away from it periodically to cook our own food over a campfire or wood stove or to read by candlelight or to cut our wood to heat the place in the dead of winter understand (although not necessarily consciously) how important these things are to give our lives real, substantive, lasting meaning.

    Late modernity has seen the commodification of even more human activities…gourmet cooking that requires no cooking skills, creating music that no longer requires playing an instrument, singing a song that doesn’t require voice training or practice or even a decent voice (let alone any knowledge of musical theory), painting that requires no knowledge of paints, or brushes or canvasses, etc. etc.

    The endless choice among barely distinguishable things is a response to that craving, but one that doesn’t really address the need people have to engage in purposeful, meaningful experiences, which increasingly, are only available to the wealthy.

  8. Ti-Guy

    *sigh* As usual, fuck the tags.

  9. Guzzeuntite

    Interesting. Bauman apparently reduces inquietude to bourgeois bumptiousness. Rahe says it’s more from the distress over choosing how to live one’s life.

    Rahe: 1; snob: 0.

  10. Ti-Guy

    Bauman apparently reduces inquietude to bourgeois bumptiousness.

    Hey, ya got one. Mazeltov!

  11. Damn R/T.. another great post…Good post R/T!

    Don’t forget the left cheek, Rob.

  12. You’re right of course, Ti-Guy. Unfortunately I’m kind of hard-wired to think of things first in government/political terms, but naturally it’s far broader than only that.

    I will, however, cling to my assertion that one of the cases of what you call “endless choice among barely distinguishable things” is what passes for contemporary Canadian politics.

    And I think I may call you on something else, too. As someone who is woefully ignorant of European culture — what about the role of commodification across the pond? As you noted before, they aren’t suffering from American cultural angst.

  13. Ti-Guy

    As someone who is woefully ignorant of European culture — what about the role of commodification across the pond?

    For one thing, their communities are pretty intact.

    I lived in Germany for two years in the early 80’s and even then, I noticed a radical difference in urban planning. Germans zoned housing development around existing town centres; suburbs spread out in circles around an existing town, rather than the strip development we’re used to in North America, where two podunk towns are joined with a strip of malls, gas stations and fast-food joints. Also, suburbs were zoned to allow people to operate kiosks (which were really just add-ons to residences), in which everything from beer to cigarettes to milk to basic foodstuffs were sold, ensuring that most people were just about a five-minute walk from doing most casual shopping. Participating in those localised activities meant engaging with a small subset of neighbours, which you got to know quite well.

    I could go endlessly about how less commodified life is there..cooking, growing food, enjoyment of the outdoors, etc. etc… For a Canadian from Northern Ontario like me, it didn’t really impress me much until I lived in Southern Ontario. After that, I noticed the difference and couldn’t help concluding that, despite my coming from a rather primitive place, I had more in common with them than I do (and ever will) with urban Canadians.

  14. Thanks for your thoughts, Ti-Guy. I’m afraid I never lived in rural Canada. But my limited experiences there certainly agree with yours that community is much richer there.

  15. Navvy

    I don’t know about that Ti-Guy. Big cities are big cities, even in Europe. I’ve lived in Dublin, Berlin, and London and you can certainly be isolated from the community in those cities. On this side of the Atlantic, you can find strong communities in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. You’re right about the importance of community centres in small stores and public houses, but those certainly are not specific to Europe. Likewise, ugly and boring suburbs certainly are not specific to North America.

  16. Penny

    Ti-Guy – re German small towns. I’m sure that may still apply to small towns there, but it also applies to small towns in NA. I spent time in Brussels in the late 60’s and even then large shopping centres were evident. My parents in law live about 10 from Metz, France and complain that all of the little shops on their street have ceased to exist. As their generation (late 70’s) have moved into retirement homes and a younger generation has taken over the homes, people no longer participate in community activites as they once did. I believe this has much to do with both parents working and the obsessive need to acquire more toys. In addition, many are 2 car families now & huge shopping malls with big box stores have opened outside small towns/villages in many areas of France. BTW, we visit and travel throughout France and neighbouring countries at least every 2 years & have seen the difference over the years.

  17. Navvy

    I believe this has much to do with both parents working

    I think it’s less to do with how much they’re working and more to do with where they are working. Sitting in a cubicle is a good deal different than working at a brewery or shipyard.

  18. jkg

    I think Rahe and Bauman’s perspectives are not mutually exclusive. How to choose how to live one’s life when exposed to vast permutations, which are indistinct can be distressing because the mere choosing of a particular path in life means limiting the material rewards of others. Since materialism is the scion of capitalism, it is not surprising the weltschmerz experienced. However, this is not so much aggravated by commodification but rather technological innovation coupled with the ease of accumulating material wealth. The fact of the matter is people are used to acquiring material things at much more startling rate. This type of efficiency creates unrealistic expectations for people, even in the upper middle class simply because for most of their existence, they are used to instant gratification.

    However, for a lot of people, they had no choice but to learn independent life skills, and even in this modern technological setting, they have not succumbed to this inquiétude because of the increased sense of self that arises from hard work and accomplishment.

    In the larger scale however, increased liberal individualism is hostile and antagonistic to community level interaction. Some are well meaning, but a materialist and consumer oriented society will be largely concerned about increasing and preserving their capital. Since the onus is more on the individual, then any sense of duty to the other as it were is severely reduced.

    It is odd because Ti-Guy mentions his connection with his small town. I grew up rural Eastern Ontario, and I volunteered in my community up until I left for university. However, by the end, most volunteers were just overworked because people would complain endlessly yet no one would come forward to pick up the workload. When I left for university, the Scout troop I used to lead folded. There are still events, but it is mostly fractured and sporadic since it is more of a bedroom community; its members are just as much removed from activities like chopping wood, growing food as the urbanites (though I have been finding in Ottawa the trend of community gardens, which I think is great). It is as you suggested, Ti-Guy: It is really a matter on how the members are spatially distributed, which will ultimately define how they interact. In certain cities, they are vibrant communities whereas some rural ones have become wastelands and vice versa. There can be no better testament to the importance of municipal planning.

    Europe may have mitigated this effect by ensuring that through a more community or collective environment, individuals can benefit. The problem is that it may be more effective Europe because it is not as individualistic relative to North America. Still, I think it is an environment x individual interaction in which the composition of the community varies with how they are spatially oriented and vice versa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s