The Dreamworld of Libertarianism (Part 2 of 2)

It is of course rather easy to think of political language and imagery as something irrational. What this leaves out, however, is the function of that imagery, as irrational as it may be. Here, we can instructively circle back to the arguments made during the 2012 election, as well as some of the points that continue to be made by the Tea Party and others on the libertarian right. We see the obsessional focus on the possessive individual. We hear about “makers and takers,” fantasies about encroaching socialism and the dependent “47 percent,” and so on; all of this departs clearly (and often cruelly) from the real world. But what function does it serve? The answer may be simpler than we thought.

According to Freud's analysis in places like the Interpretation of Dreams, children dream just as adults do, but the content of their dreamworld is different. In one case that Freud discusses, a child dreams of eating a bunch of cherries he had picked. Earlier in that day, in the waking world, he had in fact picked cherries and given them to an uncle. Another child tells of being on a daytime hike with an adult relative. They are unable to reach the top of the hill because of impending nightfall. Later, the child dreams of reaching the summit. In both cases the link between the real world and the imagery of the dreamworld is relatively clear: the child has very little control over the events in his life, and the dream represents gratification. In Freud's words,

All of (the dreams) fulfilled wishes which were active during the day but had remained unfulfilled. The dreams were simple and undisguished wish fulfillments (On Dreams, W.W. Norton, 1952, p. 21).

You may guess where I’m going next: If ideology is the dream that late modernity dreams about itself, then character or tenor of the libertarian dreamworld is like that of a child. It is essentially puerile. Its elements are as easily resolved as the dream of the boy who ate all the cherries he picked. Real obstacles are magically overcome.

To develop this point, there’s nothing new or challenging about the awareness of the claims others make upon us, in the name of individual rights. As Simone Weil pointed out, every articulation of right that comes from another person impinges upon me. As adults, however, we acknowledge these sometimes burdensome obligations as bonds that tie us together and which constitute us collectively. We may differ on the particulars of family, church, and community, but we comprehend these things as part of what make us fully human.

Libertarianism represents a rejection of those bonds; it fetishizes my actions and accomplishments and imagines a world without mutual obligation. Its logic is reminiscent of the dreamworld of a child, or at the very best an adolescent; its narrative order sometimes reads like the script of an action film in which all conflicts are fantastically resolved by hypertrophically masculine heroes. Such stories are fine in their context, but as Freud suggested, the dreams of adults are different. They take place in strange places, reflect complicated nuances of meaning, and are peopled by characters in unpredictable situations. They are full of subtlety and sometimes tragic difficulty. They cannot be easily resolved. They resist facile analysis.

I would suggest that this illustrates why libertarianism excercises a baneful influence on our collective political imagination. It represents a collective blockage that prevents us from maturing. It works like a kind of atavistic adolescence, a return to a dream-stage that most of us have grown out of. Asking any ideology to fully represent reality is asking too much. In a political sense, however, I would argue that we deserve to dream like adults.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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