Rousseau’s Chains

The whole of the progressive agenda originates and is summed up in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous and oft-quoted line, “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.”

If you were to sum up the religious belief and commitment of Modernity, it is belief in and commitment to “Progress”. Who can possibly argue with that? Progress means advance, betterment, improvement. Surely there is always room for improvement, therefore there is always a need for progress. This is so bleedingly obvious that it is a wonder more people don’t recognise how utterly trite it is. The question is, not whether progress is desirable, but what counts as progress.

If you claim to be “progressive” and your opponents as “reactionary” or “regressive”, you have simply smuggled in the implicit claim that your idea of progress is right and theirs is wrong. In the absence of any concrete instances, the general principle, as a principle of quasi-religious belief, devolves into the basic view that change is good and stasis is bad. If we believe in progress, obviously we have to keep moving.

Although there is a certain commitment to constant change, or in its extreme form, “permanent revolution”, mere change is too empty a concept to provide any definite sense of direction. Even progressives recognise that there are changes for the worse as well as changes for the better. They need a rule of thumb in order to distinguish between the two. Which is where Rousseau comes in.

Whatever changes are unfolding in society, they are bad if they add more chains to people and good if they break them. Human progress on the Rousseauian view is the progressive removal of the chains imposed by society on otherwise free individuals. Thus it would more accurately be called “progressive liberationism”.

Rousseau saw that the Catholic Church was a repressive institution. People therefore had to be liberated from the church. This meant they had to be freed from the external control and influence of the priests and functionaries of the church, but ultimately meant that they had to be freed from their inner slavery to the restrictive beliefs instilled by the church from early childhood.

The same logic applied to all social institutions, to educational institutions, government, the legal system, and ultimately to the family itself. Were not the original chains placed on the innocent, unsuspecting infant forged in the nursery by mother and father? All external authorities and their internalisations had to be expunged if man was to be truly free. In England, William Blake sang to this same tune in his lyric poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Clearly, this is a powerful, emotive idea and it dominated the Romantic movement throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Revolution was in the air, and revolution meant freedom from the chains of all societal strictures and restrictions. This movement reached its apotheosis in the swinging sixties. “Free love” was the slogan and the dream, and for the first time since Rousseau wrote those fateful words, seemed within the reach of liberated libertarians everywhere. The hippies were poised to take over the world, not with guns, but with flowers in their hair.

The sixties saw the confluence of several strands of “liberationism”, creating a perfect storm of progressive frenzy. First, there was the social Darwinist legacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which gave a metaphysical justification to the idea of irresistible progress. Then there was the Marxist call to emancipation from class oppression, the Nietzschean call to emancipation from false consciousness and slave morality and the Freudian call to emancipation from the nasty super ego, which we had mistaken for “conscience”.

The combined promise of all these intellectual giants of Modernity was that, for the first time in history, we could utterly smash the mental shackles that kept us chained to the past. We could throw off our chains. We could rise up free and glorious and stride naked into the new dawn of the New Age of Aquarius.

But it didn’t quite turn out like that. Why not? It turned out that Rousseau’s “noble savage” was more savage than noble. Freed from the chains of familial piety, respect for authority, religion, education and morality, people found themselves enslaved in a different way.

There was the problem of addiction. People got hooked on drugs and sex. They became slaves to their passions. There were the twin problems of ignorance and delusion. People ceased to be properly educated in the liberal arts and humanities, but filled themselves with all sorts of strange and exotic liberationist propaganda, from Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to Jean Genet and Michel Foucault.

The Paris riots of 1968 are the iconic moment of this liberation movement, which, appropriately enough, since it all started with the French Revolution, was spearheaded by French intellectuals. But the movement was quickly translated and soon came to dominate the Anglosphere as well.

The smashing of the chains of bourgeois society resulted in a host of societal ills and psychological problems through the nineteen seventies and into the new millennium:  higher divorce rates, higher suicide rates and self-harm, increases in anxiety and depression, domestic abuse, violent crimes and homicide.

What went wrong? The hippy dream seemed to have turned into a nightmare. Where was the “noble savage”? All you could see were vain and self-centred divas, ignorant muggles, delusional muppets, insatiable addicts, disconsolate victims and murderous demons. People seemed more enslaved than ever before.

Was Rousseau wrong? Were our chains necessary for our own sanity and safety? Chains have positive uses as well as negative ones – they connect as well as restrain. Perhaps cutting all our attachments was not the best way to achieve social and spiritual progress. Perhaps the surge of enthusiasm for Buddhist non-attachment, which underpinned all the other liberationist streams was misplaced?

As a psychotherapist, I was always looking out for the underlying need of my clients. Did they need help loosening up? Were they too repressed and emotionally cramped? Did they display obsessive traits? Did they have too much order in their lives? Were their chains too tight? Or did they need help tightening up? Were their emotions all over the place? Did they need to take control of their lives? Did they need more structure and discipline? Were they too chaotic? Were their chains too loose?

There is no simple answer to the eternal conundrum of human freedom. Sometimes we need “loosening up” and sometimes we need “tightening up”. Sometimes, as a culture, we veer too far in one direction and sometimes in the other. There are times and generations which need an antidote to excessive order, and times and generations where what’s really needed is an antidote to chaos.