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    detail of artwork of a woman made with quilled paper

    Broken Bodies Break Liberalism

    A Perspective Based on Dependence

    By Henry George

    October 13, 2021
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    Henry George responds to Leah Libresco Sargeant’s article, “Dependence.”

    There has been a wave of interest in what some call post-liberalism: the idea that liberalism as an ideology does not describe our human reality and is therefore antithetical to the good life. In an essay for Plough, Leah Libresco Sargeant considers the possibilities for what she calls an “illiberalism of the weak” and raises some important points concerning liberalism’s deficiencies, not least of which is its assumption of independence born of physical strength, health, and autonomy. She approaches the matter from the perspective of motherhood and the dependence this brings. In response, I’d like to approach this subject from another direction, one similarly based in dependence but with even more negative connotations.

    Being disabled doesn’t make one unique, even if my genetic fragile skin condition, recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, is exceedingly rare. The five hundred of us with this particular subtype of a condition with five thousand UK sufferers join 14 million disabled people in Britain of all ages, backgrounds, and degrees of severity. Life costs more when disabled, both economically and emotionally. You’re less likely to be in work or education, more likely to be in poverty, and more likely to be isolated, lacking the connections that add meaning to life. Abuse and neglect, casual or premeditated, are all too common. The austerity measures of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010 to 2015 fell disproportionately on disabled people, while the current government’s National Disability Strategy shows that over half of disabled people worry about insults or harassment when out and about – in the street, on transport or in public environments. Meanwhile, disabled children aged 10 to 15 are almost twice as likely to be victims of crime than other children.

    artwork of a woman made with quilled paper

    Yulia Brodskaya, Amethyst Image used by permission

    If the mark of a good society is that it secures a decent life for those in the dawn and twilight of existence and those consigned to live perpetually in the shadows, then Britain today leaves much to be desired. I’ve dealt with the impersonal face of the modern state in the guise of welfare officials checking to make sure I’m not defrauding the state through specious benefit claims. This, along with all the other arms of the state a disabled person must deal with and rely on, is a perfect example of the liberal paradox that Patrick Deneen articulates. Liberalism prioritizes individual emancipation, but this depends on a powerful state to contain the fallout. The maximization of autonomy is liberalism’s promise, but it is one laced with poison.

    As O. Carter Snead argues, Anglo-American law and culture are oriented to what Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart called an anthropology of “expressive individualism.” In other words, we are isolated individuals, “identified with and defined by the exercise of [our] will – [our] capacity for choosing in accordance with [our] wants and desires.” Cognition, rationality, and autonomy are therefore primary for personhood and membership in the human community.

    It’s hard to imagine anything further from the lived reality of disability than a self that is independent of attachments, loyalties, and external obligations. What Michael Sandel calls the “unencumbered self” is an illusion to begin with, and even more so for disabled people. How can cognition, rationality, will, and choice take precedence over our embodied nature when for most people with disability there is no chance to ignore the body?

    Liberalism is, as Alisdair MacIntyre says, forgetful of the body. The fragility of my skin and the physical pain it brings makes such forgetfulness an impossibility. How do you forget your body in favor of untrammeled will when the pain you experience as a result of your bodily brokenness is so intense that it is sometimes difficult to breathe? Ignoring the limits of physical reality is impossible when your eyes are so fragile the surface is sanded away in the night by your eyelids. The brute fact of physical infirmity or mental incapacity repudiates this individualist forgetfulness of the body’s central place in who we are, disabled or not. I might want to do such things as open a bottle or walk through a wood dappled with spring evening light, but am prevented by my condition.

    The maximization of autonomy is liberalism’s promise, but it is one laced with poison.

    Being disabled can be a lonely experience. The constraints of a broken body often preclude a normal social life, and others often feel uncomfortable around disability, even when they are not hostile as shown in the figures cited above. However, disability also reveals in certain ways our shared nature and striving for something higher. Our universally fallen and broken nature is revealed in the particulars of our lives and their sorrows. The concrete universality of pain and suffering is sharpened by the experience of disability, something I can testify to in my own life, not only from the physical pain that scars the soul as much as my skin, but from the grief that settles in the hearts of those around who cannot ultimately ease the suffering. This is what Michael Oakeshott calls the “predicament” of life, and it is one that we all feel, disability simply making the bearer feel this reality more keenly. MacIntyre puts it well when he writes that we all are subject to the body’s faults; we all exist on “a scale of disability.”

    The epidermolysis bullosa subtype I have has an unfortunate tendency towards highly aggressive skin cancers. I was diagnosed with one at twenty-one, and thankfully recovered. This brought an immediate awareness of the limits of our lives, which can be frightening, but to which I’ve become reconciled. Liberalism and its atomising individualism don’t lead to lives rich in thick connections; neither do they prepare us for the fact of our finitude. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said, if we “deem [ourselves] the center of [our] surroundings, adapting not [ourselves] to the world but the world to [ourselves] … the thought of death becomes unbearable: It is the extinction of the entire universe at a stroke.”

    This inability to accept the inherent limits and interconnectedness of our human condition is revealed most sharply in confronting mortality. For me, the day-to-day challenges, trials, and triumphs of life have meant most when experienced and endured with others. This sense of relationship makes us who we are, roots us in where we come from, and intimates to us where we will end. It imbues a sense of hope.

    Liberalism’s expansion of rights has been a boon for those less fortunate, myself among them. Yet the dissolution of the ties that bind can be disorientating, going against who we are at the deepest level of our nature. Acknowledging our interdependence and the reality of our finitude would go a long way to rectifying this. Being disabled doesn’t make one less selfish, but it has enabled me to see where our society has drifted. Our embodiment, revealed most sharply by disability, reminds us of our frailty, vulnerability, and dependence on each other for living and flourishing. There is great good in accepting this, if it leads to friendships that remind all of us, higher and lower on the scale of disability, that we are not alone.

    Contributed By

    Henry George is a freelance writer and researcher in the United Kingdom. He had written for Merion West, The Critic, Unherd, University Bookman, and Quillette.

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