I have ripped Leftists endlessly on this substack.
The Left has, by and large, not only adopted autonomy as a (the?) core good guiding its politics, but intensified it. Bodily autonomy is invoked to defend transgender rights, abortion, sex work, sexualities, etc. Perhaps the sex work debate is most readily obvious, since calls of "anti-moralism" tend to be the most explicit there (in my experience). Either one supports sex work because of bodily autonomy, or one opposes sex work in its current form because of the exploitation.
But note: "exploitation" and "domination" tend to be just indirect ways to affirm autonomy. They smuggle the value of "autonomy" in through the back door.
Autonomy demands atomization because any bond that is not chosen represents a limitation on one's free actions. I have been forced into accepting some situation. We see variants of this belief in calls for family abolition and "collectivizing" the youth: "They don't belong to anyone!!!" Furthermore, in the same way that one doesn't choose what family one is born into or what race one is, these things cannot have meaning if autonomy is our most core value. And if they cannot have meaning, we cannot identify with them, since (as Charles Taylor explains) how we identify/what we identify with, reflects the values we hold and what we perceive is meaningful. Any bonds that are not chosen must be dissolved. To identify with them is to appeal to some value outside of autonomy that must (at least in some case) overrule autonomy. And this cannot stand.
If we believe that autonomy is the core good in the world, then it is the final justification. It is the final arbiter of right/wrong. Something is good if it allows for individuals to express their autonomy, and bad if it does not. "Personal relationships", so far as they exist in a world that worships autonomy, only persist so long as the people in them want them to. In other words, at the bedrock of every personal relationship, every supposedly "non-commodified" connection, is utility. Everything is governed by the logic of the market and its central tenet: "value". There can be no "unconditional love". Everything is conditional, and it's conditioned on value.
Autonomy demands atomization, which forces everything (including your very identity) to be governed by market logic. It is as hypercapitalistic as it comes.
People "become" an individual in the eyes of another when they meaningfully interact with them and care about them.
The networks we operate in have simultaneously become broader and shallower, and I believe this is deeply detrimental to our lives (and I think the data on friendships, suicides, and mental health all support that claim).
We are all embedded within networks we had no choice in. We didn't choose where we were born or who our biological parents are, etc. We never consented to these characteristics that were thrust upon us. We didn't even consent to being thrown into the world in the first place!
And so, it is reasonable that when our society's core value runs up so strongly against the nature of our existence, our society rebels against "nature" itself.
As we engage in a society that opposes embeddedness, it should come as no surprise that empathy falls as well. As people have fewer and fewer deep relationships, it becomes harder and harder to conceive of others as full Persons.
That our impoverished social lives lead to impoverished inner lives:
If you only engage with people on a shallow level, what is the point of cultivating those inner depths that make life so rich and meaningful? There is nothing left but the surface: signaling and pleasure become the highest goods.
The endpoint of Autonomy is, ironically, the abolition of our inner depths. In some ways, perhaps, an abolition of the Self. In its place, we witness the emergence of a terrible new order: collectivism without community, alienation without actualization.
Our society becomes little more than a shallow sea of nodes: each one thinking the same thoughts, desiring the same things, and consuming the same products. The freest man in the world is the NPC.
And our impoverished inner lives end up "justifying" the most horrendous commodification of all: the commodification of our very Selves:
Commodification of the body is so heinous because it demands an individual detach "themselves" from a part of themselves. It is a psychological amputation, a mutilation of your full being. It renders us mere ghosts in a machine. You and I are embodied. We are not machines. We are not spirits temporarily trapped in a decaying piece of meat-clay.
This profound disenchantment of the world is "justified" by calling others moralizers or maintaining recourse to "it doesn't hurt anyone." Pay no attention to the fact that these individuals in their disenchanted worlds tend to be far less happy than those who accept and embrace the deeply spiritual aspects of our existence and do not deny them for fear they will lay down some obligation.
It is ironic that our main ethical stance, the background ethos of our age, demands that we strip away the very things that make life worth living in order to satisfy an abstract goal of "freedom." We embark on a broad project of instrumentalizing everything around us, including people, in pursuit of autonomy or pleasure and then wonder why we are so unhappy. Is it any surprise that a world of instruments is so cold?
And the Left embraces it wholeheartedly. Of course, huge swaths of the Right embrace this as well, but we'll get there in a moment.
I attack Leftists so consistently largely because...I've always been on the Left. It's a family feud, rather than a good natured fight.
“The first and fiercest punishment ought to fall first on the traitor, second on the enemy. If I had but one bullet and I were faced by both an enemy and a traitor, I would let the traitor have it.”
I certainly overlap with the Right on a number of issues (notably abortion and immigration), but I'm on the Left at heart in a variety of ways (prison and drug reform, gay marriage and adoption, gender, workers rights, death penalty, etc). I used to identify as Post-Liberal Leftist for a reason: I wanted to recover a substantive moral ground that justified the various policies I held to (or at least as many of them as I could, as some simply couldn't be salvaged, like my previous pro-choice position). Perhaps I will return to it in the future, if I see a possible opening for an actual Post-Liberal Left beyond me trying to make my substack into something serious.
But what I have confirmed over the past 10 months of being in the political wilderness is that the Right has utterly failed on its own merits to build a system that meaningfully escapes the Center of American society: Liberal Capitalism. Those who are building institutions are aligned with the system they claim to oppose, and those who genuinely oppose these systems are doing nothing beyond accumulating "clout."
Ignoring the various ethical differences I have with the Right, I held some hope that the Right, apparently disillusioned with various American institutions and demonstrating some anti-Liberal and even anti-Capitalist tendencies, might birth the first true Post-Liberal movement in the U.S. Even when I discussed my reservations about the anti-corpo positions of the Populist Right, I still held hope. This hope was misplaced.
So let us discuss what an actual Post-Liberal movement might look like. What it has to reject in order to even have the chance of having the revolutionary energy necessary to escape to Post-Liberalism.
What the Right must Reject
Conservatism is the abused and battered wife of capitalism. Its allegiance to Capital in the face of every piece of evidence Capital opposes conservatism is deeply unfortunate.
Conservatives operate under the delusion that Capitalism is "freedom" when it is deeply coercive:
There is nothing more or less free with Capitalism in that sense than with any other economic system. In every single one, the Sovereign establishes the norms necessary for the system to function.
So when we talk about “economic freedom", what do we mean? It seems to be "free association" but this particular implementation of capitalism doesn't seem to even do that very well (see above). So is there any further defense of it? And does that defense hold up to criticism?
Hayek attempts to argue that Capitalism provides negative freedom, first and foremost. But there is no real distinction between negative and positive freedoms, and his own claims are insufficient to defend these. In fact, as Lafollette puts it,
Therefore, to introduce negative general rights and duties, as the libertarian does, is to admit that there are non-consensual limitations on freedom. And these limits — as I argued — are sometimes significant and far-reaching. They arise — and this is crucial — without consent; each person has them simply because he is a person. Now if one’s freedom can be limited without consent by negative rights, then it is unreasonable to hold that these are the only limitations on freedom which can legitimately arise without consent. This is particularly apparent when we realize that in a number of cases the limitations on freedom imposed by negative duties are more — even much more — than limitations which would be imposed if some claims of positive rights or duties were recognized.
(from “Why Libertarianism is Mistaken” by Hugh LaFollette)
So, if we simply take "freedom of association" to be a good, we can't even say that the "capitalism" we live under does a good job of providing this. Yes, in any system you will be limited by material realities and necessities to some degree. But it is clear that this system we live under does far more to limit freedom of association than it claims. Instead, it is a deeply coercive system.
And as I just explained in detail above, Capital seeks to obliterate anything that stands in the way of commodification. Tradition, the Family, Religion, etc. All will be annihilated at the altar of capital.
A society animated by capitalist principles would find scant value in goods that cannot be monetized and commercially exchanged.
These are not the words of a progressive, but an avowed conservative.
And if you don't take my word for it, perhaps you should take Adam Smith's, who notes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that "in the languor of disease and the weariness of old age", people repudiate the illusions of wealth and greatness. Perhaps it is no mistake that Smith's insight comes from his focus on those who approach their end, to whom many cultures turn to discern the meaning of life. This anti-materialistic insight has been lost on the vulgar productivists who call themselves capitalists and the religious adherents of egalitarianism who seem entirely pre-occupied with the distribution of material goods.
Ultimately, capitalism and its insatiable pursuit of profit will devour anything it cannot commodify and replace it with a commodified alternative. The immaterial goods of family, love, belonging, community, etc. can be shared without being diminished (unlike material goods). In fact, the "value" of a community frequently increases as the community itself grows (up to a point).
Capitalism takes one of two approaches towards these goods that make life worth living: either it doesn't care about them (and will therefore toss them away the moment it can institute a commodified alternative with a sufficient rate of return), or it openly despises them.
My critique of the Left has been that the "communism"/"socialism"/"class reductionism" of the Left is nothing more than Autonomy-worship and is only anti-capitalistic on the surface. It demands commodification. Ironically, this rebellion is nothing more than calling forth the next form of capitalism. The value-form not only persists but is intensified. Ever more spheres of life are brought under the governance of the law of value and utility.
Bill Sewell (2008) observes that capitalism is an economic and social formation that continuously changes its concrete historical form while at the same time remaining perpetually the same. Capitalism is both hyper-eventful and invariable.
For the most part, the fictional expectations that are pursued in the capitalist economy express no utopian aspirations for individuals or for society, nothing that reaches beyond the demands of capitalist accumulation.
This mixture of creativity and destruction was described many decades ago by the German-American theologist Paul Tillich in a single word: demonic.
(From Imagined Futures by Jens Beckert)
The "Populist Right" should not, can not, be taken seriously so long as it remains a devout defender of capitalism. Property norms, markets, etc. All of these are tools to bring about the Good. Economics is embedded in politics which is embedded in ethics. Questions of efficiency and production must always begin from the question of the Good. Market efficiency isn't even necessarily a good thing in the first place!
Pareto-efficiency, by definition, is not equal to what is socially optimal. Considering, as we have discussed, that all economic systems are embedded in a moral framework (who deserves what, etc), Pareto-efficiency fails as a guiding metric.
Pareto-efficiency can be reached at almost any distribution of income, including ones where one person has everything and no one else has anything. And again, since all economic systems must be based on an ethical principle, pareto-efficiency is as nonsensical a concept in economics as the concept of “liberty” is in politics.
Abolishing slavery was a Pareto-inefficient move. If we were to follow pareto efficiency, the abolition of slavery would not have been justified.
“Slavery was widely seen in the North as being unethical from a deontological perspective, but a policy alternative of ending slavery would make slave owners worse off than under the status quo, and thus would have failed the Pareto efficiency criterion” (Hackett, 2001: 26)
Ironically, rather than allowing the market to instrumentalize various spheres of life, we must instrumentalize the market itself. It must be wielded as a tool to bring about the Good. (And no, it does not do that on its own)
So what is the Good? We cannot even begin to approach this question without dealing with the second severe delusion we face.
Autonomy demands alienation. Alienation demands endless commodification which obliterates everything worth living for, including everything that the Right supposedly stands for (tradition, hierarchy, the family, the nation, etc.). Allegiance to "freedom" or "liberty" (or even "equality" or modern versions of "dignity" and "privacy") is reducible to Autonomy-worship. Either you generate a more substantive moral ground, or you lose. Everything.
There is no neutrality. The State is always enforcing one set of norms or another. You may not see this enforcement/coercion because your interests/values/morals are aligned with the State's, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Simply that it is invisible to you. The reality is that coercion is omnipresent. When you say a country is "free," what you are really saying is that the country throws the right people in prison for the right reasons. Everything comes down to what is "right." And “autonomy”/”freedom” (and the degenerated versions of “privacy” that reduce to them) provide no answer to this.
This is true with capitalism as well, which is not some "emergent, natural system." It is an enforced one, established via property norms put forth by the Sovereign:
Furthermore, the Sovereign always sets the rules, including for property norms. The idea that capitalism or markets or any system escapes this reality is nonsense. The Sovereign sets the rules, and justifies them either ethically or through a pure imposition of material power:
“The relation between property and sovereignty is contested. The protection of both persons and property are two core government functions. These functions come into conflict when the exercise of a property right harms others. How do we determine when that exercise is legitimately viewed as a self-regarding act that does not affect others, and when such an exercise does harm others and thus comes within the legitimate sphere of government regulation? Property norms help answer this question by orienting us in a moral universe through background understandings that define legitimate interests. Norms orient us, first, by telling us who is an owner with regard to any particular entitlement in a resource, and second, by telling owners when they are obligated to take into account the effects of their actions on others. In so doing, property norms define which externalities we must pay attention to and seek (if possible) to prevent.”
(from “How property norms construct the externalities of ownership” by Joseph Singer)
Of course, abandoning Liberalism is particularly difficult in America: a nation founded on Liberalism.
And is it any surprise that as America becomes an "idea," people hold to the supposed ideals of its Founders more tightly?
Whatever supposed blood & soil "American nation" existed, if it ever existed as a unified nation, disappeared a long time ago. We're a "proposition nation" now:
Whether or not America was founded as a blood & soil nation is irrelevant. If it was ever meant to be a blood & soil nation, that nation disappeared a long time ago. We live in "America as proposition nation" times.
The problem we must now deal with is whether we believe America is a nationat all, or if we are nothing more than a glorified strip mall for international Capital run by hostile elites. We have been reduced to mere consumers instead of citizens, and our chief moral imperative is to be optimally productive and to consume just the right amount to keep the machine going. Unfortunately, the machine was never designed for you and I. It was designed by, and for, the elites who plunder this country.
America is not a nation of citizens. It is a fandom of consumers.
In the absence of an American nation, to reject the idea of America, Liberal Capitalism, is to reject America.
And this is okay. A Post-Liberal, Left or Right, must be Post-American. There is no American nation to salvage, and the idea of America is fundamentally broken and rotten.
Revolutionary Potential (or lack thereof)
As I mentioned earlier, I was tentatively optimistic that the Right possessed the energy and direction needed to meaningfully shift into a Post-American mindset (perhaps in all but name). Instead, its allegiances to Liberal Capitalism (and its idol, America) will mean it serves as nothing more than an engine to bring about the next form of the constantly mutating yet always the same Liberal-Capitalist/Americanist concept. The failure to escape this nexus in various ways (Boomers with America, Leftoids with Autonomy, Rightoids with Capitalism) means you will change nothing.
So what does revolutionary potential look like?
It should come as no shock that as decision-making has become more abstract and obscured, our theories reflect this. Some of the most prominent theorists in economics and sociology have a tendency to see the role of agency as insignificant compared to these supposedly extra-human forces. Capital or Sovereignty or various other forces that somehow define us from the outside. Weber, Marx, Schumpeter, Bourdieu, and many others are guilty of this. We begin to see Systems instead of Men. Of course, these Systems are incomprehensible, fully impossible, absent the actions of Men. Man is not wholly determined by the Systems he is born into. We are shaped by our context but then our own creative agency allows us to reshape that context. The structures we inhabit are reshaped each moment by our decisions. Our behaviors cannot be reduced to structural forces, cognitive wiring, or rational calculation. A recognition of the importance of agency as building, maintaining, and transforming the structures we live in is crucial.
A properly revolutionary movement understands that systems are not sentient. A significant reasons the Left is a profound failure is that its analyses of Systems doesn't prove individual agency doesn't matter - instead, all it does is obfuscate the agency of the elites further. There is no sentient thing called Capital or Sovereignty going around being nefarious. "Capital" refers to a series of incentive structures generated from objective social relations. Of course, whether or not you respond to those incentives or identify with those social relations is not determined by the System, but by YOU:
Individuals face various different interests in their roles and they must decide which role is most relevant and therefore which corresponding interests weigh most heavily on their actions. We IDENTIFY with the roles that matter most to us.
Systems are shaped by People. In many cases they are created wholesale by people. You cannot understand a sustem absent Agency. No one enters their workplace and becomes mindless.
Yes, it is true that the impact of agency scales with the Power one has (due to position, wealth, charisma, etc), and that Systems differ substantially in their strength and fragility (both historical and counterfactual). (Yes, Strength and Fragility are two different things)
But no System identified in any analysis is sufficient to fully shape a person. Especially not in any kind of predictable fashion. Maybe there's correlations among aggregates, but this doesn't disprove agency nor does it disprove the scaling power of agency. Elites can direct nations as they see fit.
I've beat the drum of alternative institutions endlessly. Ultimately, you must generate institutions that provide an Exit from America and an entrance into Post-America. The education system, credentialing and employment, finance, media/information. All of these are areas in desperate need of alternatives. Alternative institutions must be started and then stitched together into a parallel society.
These can only be built by PEOPLE taking charge of their own lives. Systems will not save you. All empires fall. All Systems die. The most serious "internal contradiction" is the existence of opposing incentive structures, and the possibility of agents to meaningfully oppose the System. And yes, Capital can absolutely be meaningfully opposed.
The Left is an utter failure at building truly alternative institutions. The Right will fare no better if it continues to pledge allegiance to Capital, Liberalism, and/or America.
Staking my Ground
I'm not on the Right. I'm no longer on the Left. What am I? Anti-alienation. Anti-commodification. Pro-worker. Pro-family. Anti-bureaucracy. Anti-managerialism. Pro-embeddedness. Pro-balance. I support being connected with Others via empathy and across time and space by understanding our place in our community and history. I believe in acheiving balance between our individual subjectivity and creativity and our embedded place in society. I understand that we require a more substantive morality than Autonomy.
I have explained many of my positions already. Anti-Alienation/Commodification and Pro-embeddedness in the quotes and linked pieces above. Anti-bureaucracy. Anti-managerialism. I intend to build out these positions into a more systematic description of my views soon. I hope you join me on that journey.
I commend you if you made it all the way to the end.
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