Living Dangerously, Miserably and Unconventionally

CONSTANTINE TSOUCALAS

How far can or should societies go to protect their members from hazards? What exactly is meant by ‘hazard’, who does it concern and who is threatened by it? How is the issue of personal liberty connected to the moral and statutory limits of a person’s undeniable and existential entitlement to choose those hazards s/he wishes to risk? On what basis can the state justify ‘safety measures’ that serve to protect those who wish to act (or even think) dangerously? To what degree and with what qualifications is it legitimate to enforce upon people a model of behaviour that complies with general(-ised) ‘health and safety’ imperatives?

Today, more than ever before, these questions are profoundly pertinent. Scientific and technological advances have not only multiplied the range and kinds of lurking hazards; they have also made them unpredictable, invisible, generalised, indivisible and, therefore—and precisely for these reasons—statistical. Consequently, because human destiny can be interpreted neither by reference to holy intervention, nor as a result of contingency, the handling of hazards has been elevated to an issue of major political and moral importance. In contrast to the old fatalistic ‘societies of hazard’, we are currently heading towards free and rational societies of risk-taking.

It is remarkable however that, although reliable answers to the aforementioned basic questions cannot be given, we all seem to act and think as if they could. Take as an example an overwhelming problem of our modern societies: that of illegal substance abuse. It is an issue that, precisely because of its intensity, tends to be handled without even endeavouring to provide reliable answers to these elementary, yet fundamental, questions.

Indeed, statutory and political regulations and social changes are enacted atop a philosophical and ethical void. Evil with a capital ‘E’ must be defeated on account of it simply being evil. Nobody seems to be asking who is defeating whom, why, with what purpose and on what premises. The State shies away from designating and qualifying its stance except fragmentarily, sporadically and obscurely. So long as it is taken for granted that drug (ab-)use can have destructive side-effects for the users themselves, these people must be punished; if not for any other reason, then as an example to others. Laws, ‘common sense’ and the media converge: society must defend itself against this phenomenon, and that’s the end of the argument.

This formula is—to say the least—simplistic and it is so from a number of perspectives. I shall not press the point—which is simple and obvious and, anyway, of secondary importance—that the so-called ‘soft drugs’ (hashish and marijuana) are, as is commonly admitted, much less addictive and harmful than legal substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, medicines etc. I will also proceed past the equally unquestionable fact that the international conglomerate of criminals—producers and traffickers of narcotics—is financially and politically much more powerful and influential than the pharmaceutical industry. And it goes without saying that the Internet has significantly thwarted any attempt to adequately defend one’s borders against the increasing and readily available offer of these destructive substances, networks and information. Finally, I will not discuss the issue of the way in which the wholesale and careless prosecution/persecution of users and victims of drug abuse only serves to reinforce the state’s oppressive mechanisms, as well as the control, visibility and limitation of those socially marginalised and, therefore, ‘dangerous’ classes.

I intend to focus my remarks on two wider subjects. First, on the unmistakable moral contradiction between a constantly growing social deregulation of economic choices (such as minimum salaries or working hours) and the equally constant regulation of personal choices. And, second, on the broader right of a person to choose, if s/he so wishes, the path of (self-)destruction.

The first issue is socio-political and directly linked to the continually shifting regulatory frame of the Welfare State which, until recently, seemed to determine the relation of the individual to society. The claim for at least a minimal guarantee against unemployment, sickness, misery and malnourishment was inscribed at the centre of social and political discourse. And to the extent that the social and financial cost of dealing with dangers appeared too burdensome, it became necessary to constitute rules that would secure against deviation. The right of free agents to toy with danger was, subsequently, questioned. When society is called to foot the bill, it can claim for itself the right to impose certain ‘health and safety’ regulations. This was precisely the logic behind enforcing the use of seat belts.

The Social State that cares for all seems to be in decline. The defenders of free-market liberalism are tirelessly preaching that the individual is entirely responsible for his destiny and welfare and that society plays no part in his comfort, except as a final fallback. Any financially, productively or developmentally impracticable interventions on behalf of the State and to the aid of lazy, invalid, stupid or just unlucky individuals must be minimised. People, they tell us, cannot achieve salvation unless it comes from their own efforts as free, prudent and responsible agents.

If it is so or, at any rate, if it must be so—if, in other words, people are asked to face the burden of their existence in solitude and without help, if neither employment, housing or medical cover is offered to them—then it is worth asking ourselves on what moral or logical grounds can it be legitimate to prosecute and condemn those who opt for the forbidden fruits of artificial paradises or look in virtual worlds for the things they are deprived of in the real one, as a way of overcoming or momentarily forgetting their frustration and despair. As it’s been said, the proletariat had nothing to lose but its chains. The modern social delinquents have nothing to lose but their growing despair.

It is precisely at this point that the profound moral hypocrisy of the ruling cultural model can be witnessed. Society might have in the past abstained from aiding but it equally as much abstained from protecting and subduing. The Social State might have protected and subdued, but only in order to aid. Modern societies, however, seem to subdue without having the slightest intention to aid. People are perfectly within the regulatory constraints of the free market when they starve, but not when they risk self-destruction or death, thus opposing the ruling ethic. The same happens in the army—self-injury is considered a provocative offence—with the only difference that the army, at least, provides a daily meal. Reality resembles a collective enlisting in a chimera of common wellbeing and success that, nonetheless, remains perpetually elusive. Like Tantalus, people are forced to believe in the fruits that they will never manage to touch or taste. Thus, everyone is obliged to look the part of the good citizen, obedient employee and conventional paterfamilias. Even if sick, people must look healthy and act vigorously; even when marginalised, they have to function as if they were members of the society; even if unemployed, they have to protect their strength and fitness in the name of a productive mechanism that has completely forgotten them.

The question that we asked at the beginning must, then, be put forth again: how does society constitute and limit its intervention in people’s free choice to self-destruct? And, even more importantly, how can we distinguish between oppressive and prohibitive regulatory condescension (even when benevolent) and repressive cultural totalitarianism? The paradox is interesting: at times when multiculturalism is unconditionally praised, it is only those expressions of cultural practices that are in line with post-modern functional fitness-obsessions that are actually allowed and promoted.

There is nothing peculiar about a society inventing, promoting and favouring certain values and ways of life over others. Liberalism, however, has been the first attempt to relativise the validity of society’s own symbolic certainties; this, incidentally, was its biggest historical contribution. The liberal subject is, primarily, entitled to decide in an unrestrained manner and think sacrilegiously. This happens particularly when these choices concern nobody else but the agent himself and his ultimate possession: his own body. It is, then, not by mere chance that even if the social rules of ‘appropriate’ public behaviour are very rigid, regulatory ‘privacy’ appears to be strenuously guarded. Any imaginable self-inflictions, self-indulgences, self-degradations, self-injuries or even suicide remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the individual. All that is required is that others are not taking part, aiding or abetting.

From a different perspective, however, it seems that liberal regimes do not differ all that much from others. Against their own rhetoric, they are obliged to articulate binding regulations and devise symbolic ‘transgressions’ and ‘offences’ in order to cement and reproduce the terms of their own sovereign strategy. And it is in this sense that all organised regimes are, by definition, conformist. The concern of disciplining the individual towards the laws and norms of collective power is always intertwined with a tendency to fetishise prominent value-ridden regulations. A totally permissive power would be a contradictio ad rem.

Therefore, what distinguishes liberal authority is neither its leniency nor its discounted discipline: instead, it is the values that it stems from. Instead of tradition, transcendent certainty or cohesive social expression, the permissible and desirable are defined through ‘common sense’, consensus, scientific research, profitability and instrumental weighing of social priorities. This is, then, how an unprecedented fetishisation of functional rationality, longevity, physical potency and mental/emotional stability has surfaced. It is no less than the duty of any wise citizen to maintain and manage his life, his soul, his body and his uncertain future rationally. We may, indeed, be only at the beginning of an ever-safer behavioural conformism. The fate of illegal drugs could soon be shared by substances such as tobacco, alcohol, fatty foods, salt, eggs, Turkish delights; activities such as swimming, climbing, hunting, maybe even riding motorcycles and driving fast cars.

Moral pressure is already felt everywhere. Those that are desperate or mentally ill; the smokers, the drinkers, the gluttonous, the overweight and the unfit—’failures’ in one way or another— produce a curious juxtaposition to the smiley stereotypes of our newfangled conventional wellbeing. And, whenever and wherever the marks of irrational choices can be externally observed, they produce a distinct stigma. In the coming societies, the mainstream, prudent and fortunate will also be happy and successful. And, more than just being so, they must also be visible from afar.

Even indirectly, then, we are being driven in the direction of a widespread and generalised moral and aesthetic totalitarianism. Together with the marginalised and desperate people, those that do not conform to the rules and imperatives of this functional rationality tend to be automatically categorised as irrational rejects and, therefore, negligible, with all the political and ideological consequences that this might carry. When misery, misconduct or lack of self-restraint is considered deviant, or even criminal, it becomes easy to overlook or even blatantly ignore the consequences of the ‘nanny state’. Being miserable is not only aesthetically repulsive and morally condemnable, it is also dangerous for our values and against our Civil Code. The circle is closing in. The best possible world is the one that rejects and punishes those who are not unconditionally convinced of its harmonious necessity…

  • About

    Constantine Tsoucalas was born in Athens in 1937. He studied in Athens, France, Germany and the United States. He is emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Athens.


    His essay 'Living Dangerously, Miserably and Unconventionally' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 3/ Life & Death, available here for purchase.