Michael Kennedy: Goodbye Anxiety, Making Room for Trust in the U.S.

In my previous piece, “The Gap in American Political Philosophy and an Ethical Return,” I have argued that American political philosophy has bred antagonisms and self-interest rather than associated people through friendship. Greed and self-interest have infiltrated the highest political institutions by catering to these feelings. American democracy has increased the value of capital, which in turn has allowed the co-optation of democratic institutions to promote corporate self-interest. While the global neoliberal economic order has increased the power and influence of capitalists, the relationships of citizens within a democratic government has always elevated the importance of capital. Friendship as an approach of relation holds the potential to re-define political-economic relationships into more holistic, equitable, and meaningful ones. Before explaining how friendship is a solution to these issues, I will discuss the social and psychological modes of existence that have been built by the American political and economic system.

While ideally, the Democratic system of governance is the most egalitarian, fair, and presumably friendly, it is not without its form of social stratification. From the early stages of the United States’ solo venture into a democratic form of government, people interrogated its promise of equality in a post-aristocratic society. French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville (d.1859) produced some of the first analytical and critical studies of the United States’ social order. Joshua Mitchell’s essay “It is Not Good for Man to Be Alone: Tocqueville on Friendship” translates and highlights the foundational dilemma of the U.S. government replacing relationships of power and division rather than eradicating them.

In a democratic government, opposed to an aristocratic society, people were supposed to be equal under the law. This equality and the eradication of nobilities by birth should be assumed to bring people closer together, according to Tocqueville. However, Mitchell explains, “We have, then, something of a paradox in the democratic age… on the one hand, the collapse of social distance yields sympathy; and on the face of it, we have, through sympathy, a provisional answer to the question ‘How shall we be gathered?’… On the other hand, however, the same collapse of social distance that makes sympathy possible undermines the apportionments of honor and elevates the currency of money.”[i] According to Mitchell, the American society created a new sense of social worth that was based upon monetary wealth; this analysis is a fascinating theorization that may better explain the country’s trajectory to global economic dominance. It certainly helps to explain how Americans have felt significantly lonelier and have been antagonistic in the current neoliberal era of economic relations.

Similar to Mitchell’s reading of Tocqueville and American democracy, scholar Todd May provides a unique critique of neoliberal economics as a worldview rather than simply an economic system. The United States’ neoliberal policy is not just a theoretical economic approach but a mindset that values economic gains in all aspects of life. Stemming off Mitchell’s argument that American self-value is mostly monetary, the economic globalization that accompanied neoliberal practices has created deeply personal insecurities. In a system of consumer relationships, people are generally distrustful of others, fearing they’ll be “scammed,” “beaten,” or taken advantage of. May explains, “… one might argue that neoliberalism’s economic orientation, and its consequent discouragement of trust, helps it reproduce itself… In thinking of others strategically, we isolate ourselves from them… This individualism is reinforced by the loss of economic support characteristic of neoliberal economics. Everyone is on her own and so everyone is in competition with everyone else. This aloneness breeds a sense of insecurity… in a neoliberal society, where trust is not encouraged, [insecurity] leads to further distrust of others.”[ii]

The protectionism, xenophobia, and “nationalist” movements in the United States are vocalizations of these anxieties of distrust. As scholars like May and Mitchell argue, these anxieties are deeply personal and reflect fears the loss of social worth. Such social- and some degree psychological- anxiety upholds mindsets of competition amongst people of the United States and drives antagonisms across groups of difference. Thus, the solution to the problem needs to be that which is beyond institutional and political, addressing the social and personal problems that many Americans share. Rather than rejecting democracy because of its relationship to this problem, we should seek a new approach to relation that can help democracy reach its potential as an equalizer and uniter. As political philosopher Jacques Derrida (d. 2004) argued, “Democracy is a promise… it has ‘to come’ as a promise, as a duty, that is ‘to come’ immediately. We don’t have to wait for future democracy to happen, to appear, we have to do right here and now what has to be done for it… if we dissociate democracy from the name of a regime we can then give this name ‘democracy’ to any kind of experience in which there is equality, justice, equity, respect for the singularity of the Other at work, so to speak – then it’s democracy here and now…”[iii]

Friendship can be the means of creating trust and respect for the other in the American context with the potential to break the economic valuation of self-worth and its associated anxieties. Although scholars differ in their definitions of “true” or “close” or “deep” friendship, there are a number of similarities of theories that define a transformative relation of friendship. In this mode, two individuals recognize each other outside the realm of utility or pleasure; the recognition of the “other” is not a transactional relationship. Rather, through this relationship, individuals can be valued and value the other apart from their socio-economic condition. Non-transactional or consumer/entrepreneurial relations are recognized by May as necessary to reduce insecurity and gradually build trust. Deep friendships are built upon trust and create spaces for individuals to share, address, and take on their insecurities and anxieties. The unconditional aspect of friendship promise that sharing vulnerabilities will not change the value of the friend; it often increases it. These relations hold the potential to break down the systems of value that have shaped relationships to be transactional and stemmed distrust.

While it can be difficult to imagine what institutions would work best to foster relationships of friendship, I think the Twelve-step program for addiction problems establishes a workable model that builds trust, addresses anxieties, and allows individuals to make ethic-based changes in their mindset and relationships. One may seem easily surprised or even offended by comparing the problems of alienation, loneliness, and distrust to substance abuse. However, both are indicative of problematic ways in which people value themselves and interact/relate to others. Both are valid issues of social and psychological proportions that are extremely difficult (if not impossible) for people to address alone! Formed from a Christian tradition, the original Twelve steps are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.[iv]

Although secularists and some people from certain religions may find the steps involving God and higher powers problematic or non-useful, it is important to notice how many of these steps play into the process of undoing problematic worldviews of the self, being open and trusting of others, and restoring meaningful relationships through forgiveness and friendship. Here is a potential secular 12 step program for creating meaningful friendships:

  1. We admitted we were unhappy- our lives have become lonely and toxic to our well-being.
  2. Came to believe that transformative power (friendship) greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives towards meaningful relationships with others.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to make changes in our characters.
  7. Humbly approached relations of friendship despite our insecurities and shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had not been in good relations with, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we failed to value others fairly, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through meditation to improve our conscious contact with our own thoughts and maintained contact with our friends.
  12. Having had a moral and ethical awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other lonely people, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

[i]  Joshua Mitchell, “It Is Not Good For Man to Be Alone: Tocqueville on Friendship” in Friendship & Politics Essays in Political Thought, ed. Von Heyking and Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008) 274.

[ii] Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012) 107.

[iii] “Politics and Friendship: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida” Centre for Modern French Thought, University of Sussex, 1 December 1997. Web. http://www.dariaroithmayr.com/pdfs/assignments/Politics%20and%20Friendship.pdf

[iv] Bill W. (June 2001). “Chapter 5: How It Works”. Alcoholics Anonymous (PDF) (4th ed.). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Web. http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/alcoholics-anonymous

Bibliography

Bill W. (June 2001). “Chapter 5: How It Works”. Alcoholics Anonymous (PDF) (4th ed.). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Web. http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/alcoholics-anonymous

Joshua Mitchell, “It Is Not Good For Man to Be Alone: Tocqueville on Friendship” in Friendship & Politics Essays in Political Thought, ed. Von Heyking and Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008) pg. 274

“Politics and Friendship: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida” Centre for Modern French Thought, University of Sussex, 1 December 1997. Web. http://www.dariaroithmayr.com/pdfs/assignments/Politics%20and%20Friendship.pdf

Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012) 107

*Photograph allowed for non-commercial reuse.