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Mandela and Autonomy

Friday, December 06, 2013
I've spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out how much control we have over our lives. Indulging in Stoic philosophy during times of emotional stress has become something of a habit, and beyond this I've been trying to reconcile my withdrawal from political life with my convictions and my psychological well-being. As far as I can tell, the nub of the problem lies in what sort of life you're living. We're restricted by our native capacities, be they intellectual, emotional, or physical, but of far greater import is the degree to which our immediate social context gives us meaningful opportunities. People from wealthy backgrounds always have considerable flexibility, but in modern middle-class democracies that freedom is extended much further. It seems to me that one of the real consequences of the depressed economy, to say nothing of the generation-long decline of middle class economic security, is the diminishing of those personal opportunities. One doesn't have time to take up the violin if one is working two jobs in order to stay out of poverty.

Parenthetically, I think that this basic realization - that freedom is contextualized by circumstances - has important consequences for how we approach the world. Take the discussion in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death. Joshua Tucker at WaPo argues that we should avoid "great man" theories of history and recognize the degree to which other factors shaped the end of apartheid. To quote:

But of course there are myriad factors that political scientists have identified that contribute to democratization in addition to the actions of particular individuals. These include:
- Broad structural factors such as socio-economic development in the country, especially focusing on GDP per capita
- The extent to which opposition forces in a country are unified and/or connected to or isolate from the broader mass public
- The extent to which the regime itself remains unified in the face of demands to democratize, or splits into different factions (often referred to as “hard liners” vs. “soft liners”)
- Pressure from forces outside the country — including foreign governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations like the European Union, and international financial organizations like the IMF or World Bank — to democratize, often as conditions for future aid and/or membership.
- Removal of external forces that had either directly exerted pressure not to democratize in the past (e.g., glasnost in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe), or that had previously restrained from criticizing an authoritarian regime because of geo-strategic considerations (e.g., the end of the Cold War)
What strikes me is that with the exception of the first one, each of these factors were not only exogenous forces. Mandela reacted to these objective circumstances, of course, but he also shaped them. What he did or didn't do had an effect on how unified the regime or its opponents were and the degree of international pressure. We have to recognize that it is precisely how a leader understands and works to change external conditions is precisely what makes that leader "great."

And it's the same thing in our own lives. We have to make decisions about what is feasible, and then choose how much we want to push against the world, to try to shift it just a bit, either for our own sake or for others. Where I'm beginning to part company with the Stoics is that it's not enough to say "the world is outside of my control, I can only choose how to react to it" because we are part of that world. How we behave within the bubble and trouble of life has something to do with what that world looks like. Whether it's choosing to sit on the top of a column and ponder the divine or zoning out in front of the TV are fundamentally unsociable stances towards the world. They are ways to alienate ourselves from life, and the more I consider the question the more I think that this is a terrible mistake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:56 PM

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