met James Poulos many years ago, at a bar on K street in Washington DC. He was studying political theory, but contemplating a move back to Los Angeles and away from graduate studies. He spoke in an intoxicating, discursive way about Tocqueville, Napoleon, and current conservatism. It was clear that academia was the wrong fit.
Poulos now writes for outlets as varied as VICE and Forbes, finding an audience in territory alien to the Right. He takes popular culture much more seriously than most conservatives, partly because our era is something new, he argues. As likely to quote Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga as Descartes or Rousseau and sometimes all at once, alongside The Big Lebowski and the Kardashians, his prose has a distinctive voice. His residency in Los Angeles, a postmodern, low-culture city where individuals confront questions of what to do with their abundant freedom, is in this respect crucial.
Poulos first came to widespread attention through the blogs Culture11 and Postmodern Conservative. In an interview after Culture11’s demise, Poulos reflected on the “predicament” of the individual: “convincing people—especially younger people—that a life in which political liberty has been readily surrendered in exchange for great cultural or ‘personal’ freedom is not a good life, either individually or socially.” Surrendering political liberty, it turns out, releases new communal pathologies that transcend our usual left-right spectrum. Poulos edges toward a “postmodern conservatism” that wrestles with the decadence in contemporary life.
A series of essays in 2014 argued that we are living in “the pink police state”—not an Orwellian dystopia, or a Communist workers’ paradise, or even a Tocquevillian soft despotism, but something new:
a robust regulatory state that pursues health and safety at the expense of liberty in the context of a culture that demands robust interpersonal freedom. Rather than stamping out hedonistic pursuits and pleasure-centered living, 1984 style, the new statism creates a “safe” space for their “healthy” experience. Yet, rather than expanding the project limitlessly, Brave New World style, so as to make all pleasure official, the new statism tacitly acknowledges that our most potent appetites can never be fully domesticated, even with all the tools of force, surveillance, and coercion at the government’s disposal.
For this new age, a new criticism is needed, one Poulos now presents in The Art of Being Free.
Tocqueville is again Poulos’s guide, because as the first and greatest interpreter of the new, democratic era, he understood the pernicious effect of equality. We, as the inheritors of American democracy, do not grasp the meaning of equality in our individual or collective lives. This era is crazy, in Poulos’ terms, and threatens to drive us crazy as well. Being Free traces our insanity to the “Great Transformation” from an aristocratic age to a democratic one. Contrary to what we may think, the transition to the democratic age is not complete. Even though our personal lives change quickly and drastically, the larger culture’s movement is a “slow fade-out of the first and slow fade-in of the second.” Tocqueville is the perfect guide to this transformation because he “understood better than anyone how the dramatic craziness of life was a constitutive, baked-in part of Americans.” Tocqueville’s insight is that in this new age we believe that the quest for individual, personalized equality is more crucial than political inequalities.
Poulos understands the self not as a what but a how—an adverb rather than a noun or adjective. He wants us to explore how we are “crazily, selfishly, and melodramatically” at the core of our individuality, dimly aware that our being has a quality of arbitrariness. We are cast into “a kind of internal motion that feels beyond our power to control, not just because our relationships often have that effect on us but also because, deep down, we know that not really being in charge of ourselves is part and parcel of the life we live.” We can no longer take comfort in the past’s certainties, yet the wonders of the future promised by the Enlightenment have yet to arrive.
In other words, political freedom in a liberal democracy isn’t enough. Poulos wants us to be “freely,” that is, “experiencing our freedom, which is always already a part of all our relationships, chosen and unchosen, including with any of our supposed selves.” Here Poulos draws a line between our over-medicalized identification of mental disorders to our longing to escape our craziness through identifying with others who are like ourselves. He argues: “[i]nstead of confronting us with the unsolvability of life, throwing our spread-thin selves back on our stretched-thin resources, disorders give us concrete problems that we can wrap our minds around—and that science in the form of prescriptions, can throw its massive resources into.” Poulos contends that the diagnosing hinders rather than helps: “Allegedly, we Americans are more autonomous than ever. Many of us intuit that, in other ways, we’re more tethered than ever to our debt, our baggage, our issues.”
After setting up the problem of the self, Poulos confronts what it means to “live freely” when faced with questions such as change, money, God, sex, death, and love. This is not a political book, he stresses. He calls it sociology, but it’s really more like social psychology.
Consider money, a common medium of exchange not only of goods but of values. In aristocratic ages, money was ignoble and disdained. But in democratic ages concentrated wealth causes cultural unease. As Tocqueville writes, rich democrats may try to ape their aristocratic forbears, making the rest of us feel insignificant by comparison. What “we fear most of all,” writes Poulos, “is that money is so powerful that it can, by a horrible magic, resurrect the aristocratic age, returning the true and scary difference of human kinds, obliterating our diverse but united humankind with its equalized, nonthreatening multitude of superficial human equalities.” But this would be a kind of oligarchy, since aristocracies are based on heritage and unchosen affiliations. Money reflects value in the age of equality, so oligarchic rule assumes that the rich are better than we are in obtaining the goods and values we would deserve … if only we worked harder or were more attractive. Money fuels our insanity. Fortunately, by acknowledging money’s importance but also by requiring us to develop civic associations where we can live freely without succumbing the lures of the art of the deal, Tocqueville shows us a way out.
The Art of Being Free is not the standard conservative critique. Many conservatives want to go back, either to the autonomous self, uncontaminated by radical equality, or to some other imagined premodern world. Poulos’s view to them is simply a surrender to the spirit of the age.
But Poulos is crafting a new way of reclaiming an authentic humanity in a world where the old certainties are fading or becoming only one choice among many. In the late Zygmunt Bauman’s phrase, in a world of “liquid modernity,” we must find a different path. But Poulos goes one step farther. Only by acknowledging that craziness can we begin to reclaim those things that make us human and free. His places the mystery of grace at the center of our experience of God, for example. That experience is important in an age suspicious of mystery. Mystery cannot be controlled. It allows us to deal with our uniqueness and commonality, our eternal destiny and cosmic insignificance.
The Art of Being Free is a book for our age: messy, a little crazy, and luminous.