The paradox of autonomy

Nowhere is the modern world’s preference for form over content more apparent than its obsession with “freedom”, its belief that the value in human action resides choice rather than the things that we choose. This belief is used to justify all manner of aberrations that any sane society would immediately identify as perverse and which revolt most of us even now. It underlies the ferocious zeal of the feminists, the homosexualists, the “transgender” lobby and almost every movement that adheres to the cultural zeitgeist.

The great “liberations” of the last sixty years were supposed to be victories for individualism, a triumph of free, heroic men and women over the stagnant, tie-wearing conformity of bourgeois society. Consequently they went in hand-in-hand with a total upheaval in dress and manners. In reality, however, they have achieved the complete opposite.

Reading any of the literature produced before the middle of the twentieth century, it is very apparent that we could then imagine a far wider range of human types than we can now. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is a vivid tapestry of human weirdness, from the schoolmaster Deadyawn, so bone idle that he is wheeled around in a special high-chair, to the morbidly obese, viciously sadistic chef Swelter. Dickens’s characters are similar does but less grotesquely Gothic, whilst Herman Hesse’s “steppenwolf” wanders the streets of Berlin in a state of agonised alienation we would now treat with citalopram.

Orwell, in his journal of slum life in Paris, relates the story of Roucolle the miser, a near-millionaire who wore sack trousers, ate tinned cat food, and finally died of a stroke after being cheated of six thousand francs. Exaggerated or not, no one could invent or believe this now. People are more similar than ever in their tastes, habits, attitudes and beliefs. If our external behaviour is evidence, our inner lives seem to be converging more and more into the same shape.

Allan Bloom, writing in the late 1980s, described the new conformity wonderfully (though we should add religion to literary genius as a source of awareness of diversity of character):

The psychological obtuseness of our students is appalling, because they have only pop psychology to tell them what people are like, and the range of their motives. As the awareness that we owed almost exclusively to literary genius falters, people become more alike, for want of knowing they can be otherwise. What poor substitutes for real diversity are the wild rainbows of dyed hair and other external differences that tell the observer nothing of what is inside.

The student revolutionaries of ‘sixty-eight were deeply influenced by thinkers like Marcuse, Althusser and Horkheimer, who believed that capitalism was repressing humanity’s higher aspirations, degrading our culture and leaving us hollowed out, “one-dimensional” men and women incapable of critical thought. The sexual freedom the new movements demanded in the ‘sixties was supposed to be part of a wider restoration of human wholeness, which would also challenge capitalism, imperialism and inauthentic modern culture. Sexual repression was identified as the most pressing site on which to fight modernity’s stunting of human potential.

Their revolution succeeded in its goal of destroying bourgeois morality but little of the wider transformation they desired has occurred. In part, this was because capitalists quickly realised that bourgeois morality was no longer really necessary for bourgeois society, and single women, liberated into the offices of bloated multinational megacorps, actually made excellent employees. However, it was also to do with the new culture that liberation created.

Charles Taylor describes the shift as one from an “age of mobilisation”, in which our pre-reflective idea of humanity was centred on self-discipline, to an “age of authenticity”, where it is centred on self-expression. The problem with self-expression as a cultural ideal is that it has no content. I am to express my “self”, but which of the thoughts that flicker through my consciousness are important to it? And since my actions can obviously effect the thoughts I will have in the future, which of them should I seek to encourage and which should I seek to suppress? Every day we are faced with a myriad of choices that our very thin code of public morality, which amounts to little more than refraining from directly harming others, can give us no guidance in.

Hedonism has not filled this gap. The sexual revolution has not led to a society that values sex. Only about 3% of British adults identified sex as the most important part of a romantic relationship in 2016. The “hook-up culture” of our university campuses actually leads to young people having much less frequent sex than those in stable relationships.

Driven by the desire to express one’s authentic self, but with no guidance in how to identify or to form it, the only feasible way to live is to conform to whatever everyone else happens to be doing, because it is the only way to supply our dominant ideal with content. Bloom’s students were the first generation to have no memory of the old culture. What did they do with the freedom their parents only dreamt of? They certainly didn’t live lives of unbridled pleasure-seeking. They chilled out, went with the flow, died their hair green and expressed – what? We still don’t have an answer.


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