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The ceremonious dance of freedom and tyranny

  • 06 October 2022
Thinking in large abstractions often generates more heat than light. When individualism, Catholicism, Communism, Neo-Liberalism, Democracy and cognate words are brought together, and events like the Sixties, the Cold War, Woodstock, and the Dismissal shaken in, for example, they can usually prompt polarised and opinionated discussion. As in a kaleidoscope they can be shaken and turned to produce different patterns. Missing in the patterns are the contingencies that shape our lives — personalities, antipathies, accidents, conflicting commitments, and forgetfulness, among others.

Though keeping in mind that warning, I would like here to reflect on the connections between the apparently opposed phenomena of authoritarian behaviour by the State and our cultural emphasis on individual choice. In an article last week, I explored the license the Federal and State Governments have given themselves increasingly to limit freedom of movement and association. Their actions appear to have won popular support or at least to have escaped notice.

Governments, however, have also with little opposition passed laws that privilege individual choice on issues related to abortion, contraception, gender equality and marriage. On the face of it the priority given to individual choice and the imposition of more harsh restrictions of individual freedom within the justice system seem to be inconsistent. Yet the State Governments that are most active in legislating to endorse individual choice in matters of personal morality are equally active in limiting individual and communal freedom in areas of health and of crime. This suggests that far from being contradictory these two trends may be complementary.

If we wish to play the game of historical abstractions we might argue that the movement to canonise individual choice began in the 1960s as a reaction to the social constraints of the Post War period, and was coopted and monetised in the neo-liberal economic capture of the 1980s. The inequality and stagnation to which this led was recognised at the turning of the century, and in turn led inevitably to the authoritarian reaction of the 2020s. In this account authoritarian government would not be the weedkiller that killed the plant of individual choice but the flower of that plant.

Whatever the relevance of this potted history, it is certain that if we regard unrestrained individual choice as the fullest expression of human development, we shall necessarily relativise and erode social bonds. When we focus on the choices that will create our unique self, and if we regard the associations that we form