Reassembling Autonomy

by Tom

Hegel claims that the path of philosophy is not the “common way a man can take in his dressing-gown.” Instead, “[t]rue thoughts and scientific insight can only be won by the labour of the concept [Arbeit des Begriffes].” Concepts, so characterised, are both material and tools: philosophy brings concepts to bear on concepts, tracing their logical structure, interconnections and development. Thus, philosophy can be depicted as conceptual labour. But concepts themselves can also be understood as a kind of labourer [Arbeiter]. Like other workers, concepts do not come ready-made — they must be reproduced and sustained within a suitable environment, and they are only likely to thrive when they stand in fruitful relationships with others in their community. So too, as with other workers, they can become overworked and enervated as a result of the jobs they perform, as well as diseased from noxious working conditions or pestilent co-workers.

Autonomy is in danger of becoming such a fatigued and sickly concept. For one, it is required to do work of Stakhanovite proportions. Even when restricted to personal autonomy, the term has countless meanings — everything from liberty, moral responsibility, self-legislation, non-fungibility, reasons-responsiveness and mental capacity, to name only a handful. This semantic plasticity means that virtually any action, thought, person or social formation can be lauded as autonomous or condemned as heteronomous, thereby making precise analysis very difficult without a continual revalidation or recalibration of the meaning of terms. Like a precarious worker at a temp agency, the concept of autonomy finds itself deployed in all sorts of heterogeneous settings, with little ability to shape the jobs it is tasked with performing, and the expectation that it will not bring any potentially disruptive history or politics with it from its previous workplaces. Indeed, autonomy as an ideal is so frictionless that whatever your cause — radical social justice or tax cuts; national liberation struggles or imperialist military intervention; survivors of psychiatry and disability movements or conservative social policy — then some autonomist justification can be confected for it. But if your rallying cry strikes fear in no-one’s hearts, then it’s worse than useless.

The deeper problem, however, is not merely formal — that autonomy can be co-opted by almost anyone — but that it has been co-opted by some pernicious political and philosophical forces. In short, autonomy’s neighbourhood has been gentrified and most of its friends are complacent liberals. Mired in talk of abstract rights, authenticity, choice and decision-making, it is hard to locate any genuine critical or elucidatory potentiality in the concept. If anything, its predominant philosophical deployments now do little more than reinforce a narcissistic form of individualism. You need only look to the soporific preoccupations of its champions: the merits of ‘life-planning’; how lowly drug addicts are; oppressive communalist tendencies within Islam; the opprobrium that lack of restraint at the dinner table deserves; and so on. Telegraph-fodder, basically.

What then is to be done? The concept of autonomy, or merely the term ‘autonomy’, could simply be abandoned. Similar temptations arise with notions like democracy that have been subject to conceptual capture by forces of reaction, despite the latent radicalism and unadorned beauty of the idea. Autonomy might be jettisoned for being equally tainted and functioning as a dampener rather than a catalyst of thought. But that would be to relinquish important logical and linguistic territory. Losing battles over contested concepts such as freedom is part of the reason why, for instance, markets that immiserate millions of people in underdeveloped economies can so seamlessly acquire honorifics like ‘free’; at the very least, this ground ought not simply be ceded without a fight. Moreover, concern for autonomy already saturates philosophy, medicine, psychiatry, social care, law and political economy, and so can be seen a beachhead as much as a quagmire. In sum, the concept of autonomy ought be revitalised rather than repudiated.

First, and negatively, the elements of authenticity and decision-making capacity that loom so large in its contemporary usage should be offset. The tacit metaethics underlying this usage is one which invariably crowns individual desires and choices as sovereign, such that autonomy becomes a psychological capacity to enact plans for preference-maximisation — which is, in turn, understood as the only thing we could ever have a reason to do. Whilst the struggle for human autonomy should ultimately be oriented by the prospect of achieving a non-alienated affective and volitional relationship to ourselves, establishing this as the primary criterion of autonomy feeds a myopic and conceited individualism which suppresses the possibility that freedom requires a radical change or reassembly of our present self. Autonomy can be neither an affable psychological equilibrium nor cod-existentialist anomic willing nor the pop-therapeutic idiocy of a quest for our ‘real selves’.

Second, and more positively, the concept of autonomy needs to be yoked to more apposite kinds of human independence than those that currently trouble most philosophers, lawyers and psychologists. For Kant, it was ossified institutions like those of traditional religious life which impeded the kind of self-determination that the public use of reason can win for us. Lacking the courage to use one’s own understanding meant relying on a ‘private’ use of reason: one bounded by the parochial assumptions of such an institution. However, in reanimating a concern with the place of the free, rational individual within contemporary social formations, we must look to other structural forces. Most obviously for anyone on the left today, there has to be a recognition of those threats to self-determination that come from outside of the comfortable circle of bourgeois consensus: tyrannous concentrations of capital and the neo-liberal states that are subjugated by them, which together dominate the economic and social landscape; limpened forms of political governance, compounded by structurally typhlotic news media, which are incapable of drawing out and enacting the popular will and interests; and the assault upon the welfare state, including education and basic welfare payments alongside psychiatric, medical and social care provision that foster the capabilities and opportunities that individual self-determination depends upon. Clearly, these are first and foremost political harms, which you do not need a philosophical analysis of autonomy to identify. Yet, these threats should orient a conception of autonomy, which ultimately may be able to sharpen an understanding of what would, concretely, be needed for free human agency to be realised. If the concept of autonomy is rehabilitated in this fashion, then it may once again return to the most useful kind of work.