What Haunts Us II: Ghosts of an Imagined Freedom, Composing, 11/11/2015

Continued from previous . . . You see, this Utopias manuscript I’m working on, which I spend a lot of blog space writing about the research for, is fundamentally about freedom. That’s the political message of any utopia worth calling such, this declaration, “When we achieve this, we shall at long last be free!”

And the project is basically exploring what that means. Part of what it does – in the early bits that I haven’t been researching or posting much about recently – is challenge the approach that academic philosophy takes to the problem of freedom.

Unfortunately, one of the most successful popular images
of science is the one the encouraged us to think of
everything science described as the gears of a clock
fitting precisely together and moving with perfect
regimentation. It turned out totally wrong, but it caught
on so easily that too many still think of science this way.
Those early chapters will tear down how the mainstream of respectable academic philosophy treats the problem of freedom. That respectable vision of the freedom problem is the either-or of freedom and determinism (or mechanism). 

The notion survives in strange forms in political contexts. Remember what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when I was reading Leo Strauss denounce social science. Social science, he said, presumed to seek the mechanisms behind political action. 

In other words, he thought that a scientific understanding of society and politics would necessarily imply that the political doesn’t unfold through the free action of men.* The realm of human action to secure our freedom would itself not be free.

* And with a perspective like Strauss’, it is always men.

That metaphysical exploration of what we think freedom is, what it actually is, and what it could be, leads to a confrontation with the modern West’s strongest voice for freedom above all else. Libertarianism.

Our politics has many progressive movements whose goal is freedom: Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and modern feminism. They have the advantage of using social science and sociological philosophy to build the core concepts to understand the systemic oppression they target.

But the modern era has a curious paradox at the heart of these liberation movements. A powerful reactionary force against them is the libertarian movement. These are people whose political philosophy is the most thorough individualism conceivable. 

Hayek's influence similarly lies with his popular
impact, through the Readers' Digest serialized
version of his Road to Serfdom, how it was first
released in the United States shortly after the
end of the Second World War.
That individualism inherited the right-wing hostility to social science. It's a hostility toward any way of understanding the world that accepts the reality of causes bigger than individuals’ choices and actions. 

That perspective sees any organized community action as collectivist, collapsing the unique desires of each individual to a single political program, universal to anyone. Put like that, it sounds reasonable. But what about when I say the key example Friedrich Hayek had in mind of community action becoming totalitarian was a trade union?

It's an individualism whose refusal to see causes beyond each person’s own choice even blinds them to racism. Not the racism of the self-consciously hurled insult. I mean systemic racism, the responsibility we have for our unconscious presumptions about people, or the disproportionate impacts of institutions.

Here’s an example from some libertarian friends of mine. Because George Zimmerman was afraid for his life at the moment he pulled the trigger, his killing of Trayvon Martin couldn’t have been influenced by racist beliefs.

Those beliefs, and the social atmosphere that makes young black men a presumptive object of suspicion, conditioned the shooting. But a libertarian couldn’t see that, only the beliefs that motivated that precise choice.

At least, two libertarians couldn’t see that. The famous C & G. When they broke their friendship with me, my post about it blew up. It still has more pageviews than any other post I’ve written. 

The main reason that post blew up was because I stuck a link on Reddit, in its Libertarian forum.

They were living examples of the right-wing tendencies in libertarian thinking that helped solidify my analysis. They were very ordinary, quite doctrinaire libertarians. And even though they made a show of their liberal-minded openness to different ideas, the break in our friendships came when they realized that I couldn’t be converted. 

A moment from the terrible Atlas Shrugged movie series.
A common joke was that the films' libertarian funders
contradicted their own principles in bankrolling the full
project. The first film was a colossal financial flop, so a
true liberal capitalist would never have financed a
second film. But the producers were more interested
in demagoguery than living by their principles. Says a
lot about Ayn Rand too.
I was no longer worth talking to after that. It demonstrated the hypocrisy of the modern right in miniature. They cared a great deal about protecting freedom of speech, but had no tolerance for the notion that others were right. 

I’m not about to judge much from the example of two libertarians among a political identity that includes millions across North America. But my friendship with C & G was a year-long case study in libertarian thinking and discourse styles. 

More than a research case, they were also friendships that broke after two years, a long time to talk to someone pretty much every week. I never agreed with them, and never did, but when I see libertarian arguments in video or writing, I hear their voices, even though they never spoke with me face to face.

They’ve become characters, as distinct as any that Virginia Woolf or Mordecai Richler might draw. Characters that stick close to me as I research the philosophy of the modern right. Haunting me.

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