My Turn: Freedom extends only as far as our possessions reach

  • A couple hug during a sweep of a large homeless camp in Lincoln Park near the state house in Denver on July 29. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/6/2020 6:20:20 AM

Edward Burmila recently wrote an insightful piece in the Nation linking economic status with how free we are: People are only as free as they can afford to be. “For Americans, lacking guaranteed access to basic necessities like housing, food, health care … this is a constant dilemma.”

As a result of stagnant wages coupled with the ever-rising cost of living, working folks are often stuck in stultifying jobs they hate in order to keep health insurance coverage for their family. Many struggle on a precarious treadmill, living one step from disaster, lacking the savings to pay for even a $400 car repair: If you lose your job, you lose everything.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that some Americans cling to the only shard of individualism they have left, even if it is pointless and performative.

Burmila says it is these workers, the ones with diminished economic freedom, who are the most likely to refuse to buckle their seat belt or wear face masks. They are striking a blow for freedom, the only way they can, like a high school student burning rubber out of the parking lot after being told by the principal to tuck in his shirt.

I have been engaged in a deeper examination of freedom and the individual, after reading some of the work by feminist political theorist Jennifer Nedelsky. She digs down to find the reason why we emphasize individual rights to such an extent in Western democracies and explores why we persist in believing that we are “self-made and self-making.”

If we stop and think for a moment, the idea of such radical autonomy is impossible. The myth of the rugged individual contradicts both science and common sense. Quite the opposite: We are not separate atoms but social organisms. It is our particular social context we are born into that defines who we are.

“Some of our most essential characteristics, such as our capacity for language and the conceptual framework through which we see the world, are not made by us, but given to us (or developed in us) through our interactions with others.”

Nedelsky says that our radically separate notion of autonomy remains so ingrained within us because of the way our laws are written: Autonomy reigns supreme because it is protected by our legal framework, which has erected a wall of rights between the individual and those around them.

Going further, she asserts that this legal wall of protection, built around the individual, is built out of property rights. Property is the central element and the glue that holds together our rationale for rugged individualism: It “literally and figuratively provides the necessary walls.” The more property you own, the more security you have. But that has come at a heavy cost: “This vision of the autonomous individual as one securely isolated from his threatening fellows seems to me to be a pathology that has profoundly affected Western societies for several centuries.”

The greater the gap between those with property and those without, the greater the inequality. Those left out lose freedom: Without access to essential goods and services, it’s difficult to live a meaningful life with dignity. At the low end of the scale, individuals become wage slaves or homeless – and in extreme cases, forced into literal slavery, like African Americans before the Civil War.

Today we see the greatest inequality in wealth in America since the Gilded Age: The three richest Americans now own more than the bottom 50% of us. As a direct consequence, more and more of us are losing the economic means to control our destiny.

If we want to aspire to a fairer and more just society, we must reject the myth of the self-made individual. We need to disassociate autonomy from property rights. Thinking outside the box, Jennifer Nedelsky provides an alternative model that’s difficult to argue with: “The answer is not isolation, but relationships – with parents, teachers, friends, loved ones – that provide the support and guidance necessary for the development and experience of autonomy. I think, therefore, that the most promising model, symbol, or metaphor for autonomy is not property, but childrearing.”

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)


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