The Libido of Liberty and Blundering Social Bodies, by Richard Rieben
Humans are unique animals in several ways. One of the most interesting ones to me centers on our dual solitary and social natures. While it's rare for a person to want continuous solitude, almost all humans want or need to be alone sometimes; similarly, it's rare for an individual to want to be with other humans constantly, but even introverts and shy individuals will sometimes seek out the company of others. To be healthy requires some balance between the two poles. How do we achieve this balance? In his book Handbook for Liberty (previously reviewed), Richard Rieben presents a compelling argument for the destructive power of groups, and a way to minimize that influence. In The Libido of Liberty and
Blundering Social Bodies, Rieben again explores the relationship of individual to group, and also relationships between groups, with an eye toward increasing personal liberty.
The Libido of Liberty addresses physical health as well as psychological, or spiritual health, and the means to achieve them. It's divided into four sections: Human Design (epistemology); Human Perception (metaphysics); Human Expression (esthetics); and Human Relations (sexology). Although I don't recall seeing a reference to Ayn Rand in the book, I doubt the similarities to her philosophical structure are entirely accidental. His approach, however, is quite different, while still being individualistic.
Rieben reveals his starting point for thinking about human nature at the beginning of chapter two, titled The Invention of Human Nature:
Even though our perception of human nature is a free invention ... we still tend to believe human nature, of some sort, does exist and will-out [sic], if allowed or encouraged. But what if it doesn't? What if the first caveman didn't know what sort of animal he was supposed to be, so he looked around .... And he saw a number of ... characteristics, from a variety of preprogrammed mammals, reptiles, fish, fowl and insects .... [and] selected characteristics that seemed reasonable to him .... [I]t is likely that we have drawn most of them from our assortment of cohabiting critters ... and, then, wondrously, defined ourselves by them!
If this is the case, it may be that we don't have a nature of our own, after all. This is the morsel the existentialists have been chewing on for the past few centuries. This is the empty vessel of Zen and the uncarved block of the Tao. ....
The only sense I can gather from this possibility is, if the entire thing is made up anyway, why not use our imaginations, and make it up to be something better than earlier versions? .... [In] the very construction of the organism, we find our first clue that human nature, of a sort, may exist after all -- not in our programmed content, but in the way in which we can be programmed. (p. 6, emphasis in the original)
Despite the hypothetical nature of this idea's presentation, my impression is that Rieben proceeds to accept this idea as fact -- and thus begins my strongest difficulty with the book. Human nature, like any other animal's nature, has evolved over the course of our existence, and is largely passed on via our genes. Since Rieben cites works from as far back as 1975, I wonder why he didn't read books like
The Selfish Gene,
Sperm Wars, or
The Meme Machine as part of his research; they would have provided a firmer foundation for him to proceed from.
That isn't to suggest that there's little to value in The Libido of Liberty; its solidly pro-individual perspective is a refreshing change from so-called libertarian think-tanks' public policy pronouncements, and other group-based thinking that is only slightly better than our current society's at offering genuine solutions to challenging problems. Yet, nested within Rieben's individualistic perspective is a focus on "patriarchy", "domination", and "equality" that strikes this woman -- who isn't a feminist of any stripe -- as a view that is currently more socially acceptable than others, in many circles. An example:
Masculinity and femininity are, both, social constructs designed to enhance objectification and perpetuate an unholy domination system. Neither one describes reality, nor do they have bearing on maleness or femaleness, these being personal, biological possessions ....
If men really like frilly clothes, jewelry, and make-up (as most men apparently do, considering the gender stereotype they have created in women), I think they should simply wear these things, and leave women alone. This misses the real point that the female gender role has not been created to enhance women's appeal to men, but to subordinate them to men. (pp. 116-117)
Repeated references to
Irma Kurtz, and
Stevi Jackson aren't fully offset by references to Paine, Thoreau, and Locke, leaving me to wonder to what degree Rieben has, consciously or unconsciously, adopted a variant of American "programming" to frame his thinking. Rather than thinking in terms that encourage and perpetuate the "battle of the sexes", why not try acknowledging that men tend to be superior in some areas, and women in others, due to sex differences inherent in our biology that have evolved over time, and that still serve useful purposes? Why perpetuate battles based on group tendencies, instead of offering a vision based on individuals choosing to collaborate in ways that play to the strengths of each person involved?
The Libido of Liberty also includes an extensive examination of esthetics, and it's here that Rieben is at his best. He correctly points out that many more people have art in their being than they think, and that many are stifled from exploring it by accepting the limiting "standards" pushed by many purveyors (the movie and music industries being good examples). Creative activities can be intensely fulfilling. Yet Rieben seems to lean too heavily toward the solitary aspect of human nature, apparently finding no value in sharing one's art with any other:
People who sell or trade on art are little more than pimps and prostitutes of humanity's joy -- and consumers are little more than Johns who have to pay to simulate a relationship they cannot, through lack of personal development, create through their own talents. To give someone pleasure is, at a basic level, to undercut their ability and motivation to enjoy themselves and their own life. When one "gives" one's artistry to someone, one is taking away from them -- not for oneself necessarily, but simply from them. (p. 96)
Blundering Social Bodies is Rieben's take on sociology, or between-group interactions. It's an interesting subject for an avowed individualist to undertake, yet it's an important one. For good and for bad, we are social creatures, and to build better societies we need to understand group formation and group dynamics. Perceptively, Rieben identifies at the outset an important distinction in "ethnic groups" that is a base for today's political correctness:
An ethnic group can refer to any enclave of ethnic citizens, whether these are immigrants or not, but when that group is statically nonassimilating as a group, to the end of defining itself as a distinctive sociopolitical unit and seeking political (economic) powers as such, then it is not just a casual, amorphous "ethnic group" like any other. There are ethnic groups and then there are ethnic groups: the static sociopolitical group and the politically neutral cultural group. Common usage blurs the distinction, usually to the advantage of the sociopolitical groups (who on the basis of innocent ethnicity are striving to attain political clout). (p. 6)
One of my frustrations with much of Rieben's work is his tendency to offer general statements in terms of some undefined "we". This fairly common "mouse-in-pocket" thinking is disconcerting enough when encountered in individualists; to read Rieben ascribing necessarily individual capabilities to groups added to my frustrations. An example:
It is not the survival and well-being of individuals that is relevant to groups, but the survival and well-being of the group itself. No society has a body of survival solutions affording good survival to the members (or to the group in consequence).
A group or social body cannot make the mental leap of recognizing that its actual, tangible, real well-being as a group is a consequence of the well-being of its constituent members. .... The group wants to see its members healthy to its ends, not health in their own right or in such ways as do not benefit the group .... The measure of the health of its members is only a concern to the group in regard to its own survival qua group. (pp. 8-9, emphasis Rieben's)
Here, too, the themes of domination and subjugation repeat:
An ethnic body is a domination society, subordinating its members thereto. Its perception and understanding is that of a group human condition that restricts the individual in deference to the needs, priorities and preferences of the group. ....
To its own members, an ethnic body is a machine of entrapment and enslavement. Existing within a domination society, its members don't have much choice, since the larger society wouldn't allow them to join it even if they wanted to escape their ethnic body. (p. 13)
For many thinking people this assertion will fall flat, as they successfully avoid entrapment by ethnic bodies by focusing on individuality over nationality, ancestry, religion, or some other group-based trait. It's quite surprising to see Rieben advance such a claim, since he holds it as a point of pride that he has "deprogrammed" himself from much of American culture which he finds unhealthy. While others may not have accomplished it in a similar way or degree, they've probably done so in a way that suits their needs best -- and isn't that what liberty is all about?
Rieben also shines in Blundering Social Bodies in his three-chapter dissection of law and the judicial system. However, just 19 pages later, he offers a dismaying portrayal of anarchy that must leave most readers wondering what he's based his definition of the term upon.
A free market and freedom of belief are inherently anarchic. .... Political anarchy, however, means that we have no rights and no protection of those rights, except what we can wrest from others by force, manipulation, intimidation, propitiation, or other power strategies, whether on our streets or in our courts. ....
[E]very government body that has ever existed is an anarchic solution, not based on right (principle), but on might (force). ....
When people say "anarchy," they mean a condition where government is disorganized ... (p. 156)
Rieben's answer to the eternal question of how to create liberty-respecting groups among individuals relies heavily on the concept of polity; this frankly mystifies me. That's probably because the etymology of the word is closely linked to politics, and more ominously, police, and I'm unable to disassociate the terms. Perhaps I've failed to successfully follow Rieben's argument. Or, perhaps I'm making too much of his reliance on a term that has a decided collective tone, since he does make a strong case against group-based thinking and ruling.
Richard Rieben is a singular, highly individualistic thinker. In all three of his books I've read, I've found much to chew on. Even though I ultimately rejected some of Rieben's ideas, the mental exercise provided by reading The Libido of Liberty and Blundering Social Bodies was worthwhile. It's clear that he has critically examined many ideas regarding human functioning, and rejected much of it as being unhealthy for individuals. Yet, it seems to me that he has retained some ideas that are equally unhealthy, and perhaps conflated some of his uniquely individual problems and challenges with ones shared by many freedom-lovers. It would be most interesting to see how Rieben's views might change after reading some of Richard Dawkins' books or Butler Shaffer's works. I suspect Rieben would be in much the same position I am after having read his works.
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