Anyone who’s raised children knows that of three basic freedoms – to say “no,”, to relocate, to choose friends – the freedom to say “no” is the earliest to manifest. As an element of basic freedom, animal life has said “no” from its very beginnings.
Acceptance and rejection are essential lifesaving skills. “No” emerges as an intimate response to environment and plays a vital role in survival. This can be seen at the microscopic level of an amoeba, a single-celled animal inhabiting watery realms, that accepts or rejects substances while feeding. Such primitive functions underlie the formation of more sophisticated organs and senses like taste, smell, and sight that may result in our feelings of disgust, unpleasantness, dislike, and rejection – i.e.: saying “no.”
Presented with options, people make choices based upon experience, memory, trust, and habits. How options are presented is critical; life offers choices all the time and those offered by people we know, like, or love are easier to accept. Over time, our experiences and memory are enough to sustain the basis of our choices. The more distant or unknowable the sources of options become, the more challenging become matters of choice.
Dominance, coercion, threat of violence or harm by others – things we instinctively dislike because they limit our freedom to choose – nonetheless force our hands. The instrumentality of systemic administration neatly falls into this category, namely bureaucracy. Basically, we don’t like being told what to do, when to do it, how to think, where to live, and with whom to associate; call it our amoeboid legacy. The social history of humankind can be seen as a primal struggle between individual choice and systemic demand.
Psychologically, this struggle has been characterized in various ways. Freud placed it into the realms of Id, Ego, and Super-ego, roughly corresponding to how individual choice arises, is expressed, and is suppressed. We can apply a comparable framework to the reality of modern social life and the imperatives of politics. As the late Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill famously proclaimed, “All politics is local”; it doesn’t get more local than the intimacy of personal choice.
The constraints placed on choice and personal freedom by bureaucracy are a daily reality; such constraints govern nearly every aspect of life. The tension of this this dissonance fuels all sorts of intimate feeling and reactions. We gripe, complain, and begrudgingly follow rules, largely unable to divorce ourselves from the systemic forces imposed upon us. Some go further and actively disobey rules, living as outlaws and finding self-expressive freedom by dominating others or assertively rejecting the law.
The force of “no” is powerful, and in adults can produce terrifying displays. Akin to the tantrums of toddlers, volcanic episodes of anger and violence, such as outraged “Karens” and the violent turmoil of the January 6th insurrection, are current examples; yet, all such displays can be seen as expressions of the intimately primal “no.”
In this way, human socio-political history can be viewed as a struggle between the power of “no” and the power of bureaucratic domination. This struggle is well-documented in Graeber and Wengrow’s recent book, The Dawn of Everything. Empires rise and fall. Politics shift and sway. Conflict arises, and then settles down for a while. The inherently intimate nature of freedom – the choice to say “no” – remains a most potent and determinate factor of human reality.