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The Dreamworld of Libertarianism (Part 1 of 2)

I’m still thinking and writing about libertarianism, struggling not only with it – that is, to try and understand its origins and ramifications – but also against it. For me, these two things have become tied together. What surprises and alarms me in particular is its hold on some American Catholics; the Church just doesn’t seem to have an historical or conceptual framework that seems amenable to libertarian influence. It would be different and rather unsurprising to say, for example, that conservative evangelicals have a strong pro-capitalist position and libertarian political orientation. But Catholics? Why us? How have we become colonized?

I don’t have a clear answer yet. I am gaining a clearer picture about what libertarianism represents in an ideological sense, however. The more I work on political ideology, the more it strikes me as a struggle at the cultural level to make sense of a partially incoherent world. Contra Marx, I don’t think that the production of ideology is directly tied to economic production. There’s no question that the two are connected, but their relationship is complicated. Without getting too abstract or theoretical, it seems to me instead that the cultural production of political ideas is something like what the dreaming mind does.

As many good things do, this idea came to me after hearing a story on National Public Radio. It seems that scientists have determined that a vitally important part of the sleep cycle involves a working-through of difficult emotions, small traumas really, that happen to us on a daily basis. In Professor Matthew Walker's words,

...what's interesting is that REM sleep chemically, in terms of the anuric transmitters that swirl around the brain, REM sleep is perhaps the only time during the 24-hour period where a particular stress neurochemical called norepinephrine or noradrenaline is actually suppressed and it's completely shut down from the brain. And it seems to be that REM sleep is a perfect chemical environment, almost like a therapy session, where you can take emotional events from the prior day and perhaps just smooth the sharp edges off those experiences, and almost like an overnight soothing balm, as it were. (Talk of the Nation, Feb 08, 2013).

Sleep is not just like therapy, it is therapy: it is the mind’s attempt to cope with the incongruity and incoherence of the world around us. It helps build and sustain a world that makes sense. Without it, we as individuals can’t focus, nor can we maintain emotional equilibrium. Dreams are of course part of this process, and as Freud suggested, analyzing their imagery can divulge to us what kinds of conflicts we may be ignoring and/or suppressing with the conscious mind. As I will argue in Part 2, we can appropriate and apply this analytical method to the "dreamworld" of political ideology. The results are, I think, suprising and provocative.

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the Church just doesn’t seem to have an historical or conceptual framework that seems amenable to libertarian influence.

Clasically and historically that is true. However, as the Church begins to come to grips with certain strains of modern/postmodern thought, it is inevitable that libertarianism will be one of the challenges/opportunities for it. I consider myself quasi-libertarian and am not completely opposed to it. In this, there can be found support from intellectuals such as Simone Weil and Nikoloai Berdyaev, both of whom, while not strictly speaking are Catholic are nonetheless in the Catholic orbit.

I also think that the emphasis on the individual is important. In our world in which there are not a lot of external boundaries placed on people by the law or for that matter social conventions, individuals need to be able to make mature, informed choices. The Church would be well served to create generous spaces for individuals to explore thoughts and movements within the Catholic church without being assailed for being heretics. I have seen this charge levelled against Paul Ryan, for example or on the left politicians who do not support laws restricting abortion while at the same time championing pro-life as a voluntary, choice.

Simone Weil, it seems to me, summed up the problem that you posed in your story well:

 

The Incarnation of Christianity implies a harmonious solution of the problem of the relations between the individual and the collective. Harmony in the Pythagorean sense; the just balance of contraries. This solution is precisely what men are thirsting for today. The position of the intelligence is the key to this harmony, because the intelligence is a specifically and rigorously individual thing. This harmony exists wherever the intelligence, remaining in its place, can be exercised without hindrance and can reach the complete fulfillment of its. function. That is what Saint Thomas says admirably of all the parts of the soul of Christ, with reference to his sensitiveness to pain during the crucifixion.

The special function of the intelligence requires total liberty, implying the right to deny everything, and allowing of no domination. Wherever it usurps control there is an excess of individualism. Wherever it is hampered or un-easy there is an oppressive collectivism, or several of them.

The Church and the State should punish it, each one in its own way, when it advocates actions of which they disapprove. When it remains in the region of purely theoretical speculation they still have the duty, should occasion arise, to put the public on their guard, by every effective means, against the danger of the practical influence certain speculations might have upon the conduct of life. But whatever these theoretical speculations may be, the Church and the State have no right either to try to stifle them or to inflict any penalty material or moral upon their authors. Notably, they should not be deprived of the sacraments if they desire them. For, whatever they may have said, even if they have publicly denied the existence of God, they may not have committed any sin. In such a case the Church should declare that they are in error, but it should not demand of them anything whatever in the way of a disavowal of what they have said, nor should it deprive them of the Bread of Life.

A collective body is the guardian of dogma; and dogma is an object of contemplation for love, faith, and intelligence, three strictly individual faculties. Hence, almost since the beginning, the individual has been ill at ease in Christianity, and this uneasiness has been notably one of the intelligence. This cannot be denied.

Berdyaev also grappled with it. I think a certain libertarianism is inevitable moving ahead in our world. The only question is will the poor be rolled over by rampant individualism more than they already are. That would be unjust and I think we have a duty to ensure that does not happen but how I am not certain but am open to listening.

Thanks for the comment, George. I actually mention Weil in Part 2 of the essay.

“The only question is will the poor be rolled over by rampant individualism more than they already are. That would be unjust and I think we have a duty to ensure that does not happen but how I am not certain but am open to listening.”

As Catholic Christians are we not called to ENSURE that this does not happen?

Mt 25: 41-46

41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

42  For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,

43  a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’

44  Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

45  He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

46  And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I know that some will say that is our individual responsibility, not the government’s.  But as Christians, what do we do when not enough individuals take care of the poor …. Ignore them?

I simply cannot conjur a definition of libertarianism other than in terms of other -isms.  It seems to me it is simply an attempt to borrow what it wants and ignore what it does not want.  If it is truly an attempt to to value the individual it seems yet another needless attempt to recreate the wheel.  Democracy and Christianity at their purest do that very thing.  By their purest I obviously mean prior to being distorted by the near jibberish of ideologues. The Church does not need to learn to accept new ideas it merely needs to accept it exists on earth for earth and to leave heaven to God.  New ideas are part of that earth thing.  I am more than a little comfortable assuming God already figured it out.

 

Libertarianism's elevation of the self and its profession of unconcern for others seem so diametrically opposed to Christianity that I don't think the two are reconcilable.

There do seem to be a few points of commonality: an admiration of personal responsibility; and an aversion to neocon diplomacy-through-warfare. 

To a person with conservative tendencies, whose intuition is that government's share of social responsibility and its expenditures is too large and a distortion of subsidiarity properly understood, there is something seductive about Libertarianism's desire to shrink government.  My own opinion is that the commonality here is superficial, but perhaps Christians and Libertarians can be strange bedfellows in the project of right-sizing government.

Then again, on the hot-button issues related to sex and marriage - abortion, contraception, gay marriage, et al - the Libertarian, as near as I can tell, is all for a laissez-faire morality.