Autonomy and Self-Rule
By Greg Guma
In the quest to reclaim equality and freedom in the marketplace of ideas, and along with them, the personal right of self-expression, we inevitably must grapple with the concept of autonomy. Liberty of expression, widely valued for its contribution to the search for truth and the functioning of a self-governing society, also involves a conscious choice by each person exercising this freedom. Without this basic form of self-management, democracy can’t exist.
In truth, there is actually no such thing as total autonomy. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our existence is influenced by our bodily needs and impulses, cultural norms and values. Without air we perish, and without love we become the brutes that Hobbes claimed we were. Yet autonomy is a real and powerful aspiration, pulling us toward self-sufficiency, moral courage and the full development of our unique inner selves. It is the quest for identity, the search for self-actualization that has been studied and debated by psychologists, theologians and social theorists.
Kant saw autonomy as the spontaneous action of a mind molding experience and choosing goals. In political terms, it is self-government, the sovereignty of the group, community, or people. Autonomy doesn’t ignore or defy the needs of an organized society; rather, it is tied to the belief that social stability depends on diversity. But diversity must be channeled when necessary to prevent destructive fragmentation. In essence, autonomy incorporates the concepts of self-regulation and equilibrium. Any society that values equality and freedom must encourage the autonomous participation of its citizens.
The original Greek idea of autonomy was self-rule. In more recent times, it has been stripped of its ethical content and defined simply as a form of independence, usually economic in nature, or as an institutional attribute. This is especially deceptive, since selfhood is very much linked both with individual competence and with a person’s claim to power within society. Philosopher Murray Bookchin relates this idea to the civic concept of self-management. “Self-rule applies to society as a whole,” he writes. “Self-management is the management of villages, neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The technical sphere of life is conspicuously secondary to the social. In the two revolutions that open the modern era of secular politics – the American and French – self-management emerges in the libertarian town meetings that swept from Boston to Charleston and the popular sections that assembled in Parisian quartiers.”
When people lack a sense of self-worth and dignity, however, pious talk about the value of self-government takes on a hollow ring. Citizens who don’t, or believe they don’t, have the right to self-expression and meaningful choice will not indefinitely remain active in democratic processes. In this context, we must ask whether it is mere coincidence that the era of growing media influence in the political process has also been a time of declining political participation. It is chic to conclude that people are simply “fed up” with politics. In Why Americans Hate Politics, E.J. Dionne, a journalist himself, defined the situation as a revolt against public debate that avoids real solutions to problems. From his privileged vantage point, Dionne apparently couldn’t see the possibility that what really turns off voters is being excluded from the debate.
Courted by politicians, advertisers and pollsters solely as objects of persuasion, most people are left with the distinct impression that nothing they say could have much value or impact. The problem is that a sense of self-worth grows from successful social interactions. When self-expression fades as a personal right, so too does the belief in democratic self-government as a functioning reality. Thus, the failure to respect and support the autonomy value that underpins freedom of speech has become a major source of eroding faith in democratic government.
In place of personal autonomy, a new value has been promoted over the last several decades – institutional autonomy. The progressive mechanization and centralization of social and political affairs has combined with the notion that institutions, whether corporations, unions, or special interest groups, can claim rights once reserved for individuals. Economic entities demand protection of their speech rights either as representatives of the public or because laws grant them the status of “persons.” In the case of the institutional media, the argument rests on their role as private guardians of the public interest.
Most of these institutions claim a dedication to the preservation of diversity. And yet, without a wide variety of self-expressive speakers who bring a stream of new ideas into the marketplace, diversity becomes an illusion. Institutional autonomy instead creates a closed market in which ideas, like prices, are fixed.
Almost without noticing it, we have permitted the foundations of self-government to be undermined.
This an excerpt from Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey. Greg Guma is a long-time Burlington resident and the author of Dons of Time, Spirits of Desire, Uneasy Empire, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.