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You Say You Want a Revolution?

“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.”

— from The Man Watching, by Rainer Maria Rilke

As CJ Hopkins pointed out in CounterPunch, “… we are not yet capable of conceiving a credible alternative system [to global neoliberal capitalism], or a way to get there.”

Or maybe we conceive alternatives, but the canopy of globalization has grown so wide that it stunts their growth. The media’s floodlight shines only on a sucker’s coin of allowable alternatives: Regressive Revolution — a rabid demand for the nation to be “great again”; and Patriotic Reform — a “gentler” allegiance to American exceptionalism. Both sides of the coin bank on what no longer exists – a sovereign nation.

The first choice, as Hopkins points out, is a convenient boogeyman for scaring many of us into remaining loyal to the gentler-looking second choice. And the second choice is a Trojan horse disguising the reality of the world’s new corporate power structure.

This trap makes it hard to call out the idiocies of “national interest” without sounding like an apologist for globalization. And equally hard to criticize globalization without sounding like a nationalist.

Revolution as a Revolving Door

Philosophical traps like these reduce our range of vision. So we submit to living under national brand names – as Americans, French or Chinese. And we still think about world problems in the reduced framework of The Great Game, as if nationalities were a reality, and not merely our imagination run amok.

The trap ensures that any rejection of nationalism would leave us in an even more reduced reality, as consumers in some Great Corporate Game. So nationalism keeps simmering, not only because an illusion of flag-draped nobility is necessary to muster armies to keep markets “open” for neoliberalism, but because we fear the absence of these identities.

My thesis is that this trap extends to include political and economic alternatives as well. A summary might sound like this:

A focus on systemic solutions presumes the need to organize human relationships from the top down. Old fragmentations are then built into every new system.

At first the fissures are almost invisible, because the revolution operates under a wider horizon of empathy than the old system operated – not as manipulators of others, but as good-intentioned guides.

Wide or narrow, however, empathy remains limited because systemic solutions still speak for others (just as representative democracy presumes to do). And this inability to speak for ourselves (Kant’s “Unmündigkeit”) leaves us no choice but to howl barbarically in resistance as systems strengthen into self-perpetuating authorities. This howl has echoed down the ages — an Us perpetually hunting Them, and then becoming the hunted in their own turn.

That’s why so many historians have repetitive stress syndrome, as the freedom-loving heroes of one generation become the oppressive villains of the next.

Some see progress in these turns of revolution. A gradually expanding horizon of empathy emerging through struggle. Yes and no. Our progress traces a line of thinking about “us and them” which is infinitely progressing towards a limit that can’t be crossed.

But it’s this line of fragmented thinking that is limited, not the human species. This persistent opposition to others — this national interest, revolutionary righteousness and profit motive — is not a sign of some unchangeable feistiness in “human nature”, but a sign of the persistence of a misguided vision of reality.

National, social, ethnic and religious divisions, after all, are not facts of nature, requiring solutions, but facts of the imagination (what our assumptions have created), requiring a broader perspective.

If we see this, then there’s no need to have a “credible alternative system” before abandoning the sucker’s choice of nationalism and neoliberalism. The “way to get there” is by dismantling these reductive visions of reality. Whatever emerges to replace neoliberalism emerges by default, as the blinders come down, and a richer imagination begins to manifest more subtle possibilities in the world, which are not yet visible to us.

This starts by at least momentarily dropping our immediate concern with neoliberalism in favor of an even more immediate issue, which is how our visions of reality contribute to a revolving door of conflicts that life on earth can no longer withstand.

Kant’s Self-Incurred Tutelage or “Unmündigkeit” (the Inability to Speak for Ourselves)

Let me lay out a point of view that perhaps nobody will accept: Racism, nationalism and internecine capitalism don’t represent some innate evil in humanity (although these conditions have objectively evil consequences). Racism, nationalism and greed are logical consequences of a delusional metaphysics.

What’s more, racists, nationalists and neoliberals have merely been driven to extremes by delusional elements of a metaphysics tacitly shared by humanity as a whole. It’s a vision of reality that breaks the world up into imaginary fragments. A vision that projects an alien beyond our horizons of empathy.

Sometimes I feel this, for instance, with regard to Cheney, among others. I imagine some frankly superstitious “nature” of evil clinging to his blood and bones. This is gratifying because it allows me to feel entirely innocent in comparison. But it loses sight of the fact that Cheney and I are both captive to invisible metaphysics — opinions posing as certainties. “Thoughts run us,” as the physicist David Bohm used to say. At least as long as they remain unquestioned.

One way of questioning hidden certainties is by suggesting something so contrary to conventional wisdom that it invites ridicule. For instance, if we believed humanity was capable of living more fully and humanely we wouldn’t set up political or social systems (like patronizing guardrails against inevitable failure). We’d trust human society to form orderly patterns without top-down guidance. We’d be vigilant that no such hubs of control formed. Even our schools might develop free-roaming curriculums driven by a child’s desire to learn (similar to the way schools are developing in Finland).

This seems naive because a need for control is taken for granted. On the right, the “uncontrolled” chaos around us is seen through the prism of rugged individualism (the mythical “law of the jungle”). What the left identifies as the chaos of institutional racism and colonialism the right takes as a measure of their own individual worth (their booty as kings of the jungle). It’s an inherited entitlement interpreted as personal achievement.

So on the right, the oppressed are those who can’t speak for themselves out of some failure in character or capacity. The inferior “nature” of the other is the chaos that must be controlled. On the left, systems must be invented to control the chaos of the oppressors, while paternally speaking on behalf of the oppressed. It’s the same mistake NGOs make in seeing themselves as saviors of undeveloped communities.

But distrust of the free-range human is shared across the board. Essentially it’s a fear of the Other within us and without. But in fact it’s not a problem in those on the left or on the right. It’s a problem in the diabolically mundane metaphysics of everyday life.

How We Got Hoodwinked into a Reduced Reality of Fragmentation, an Inanimate Earth, Wars of Elimination and Radical Self-Interest

Perhaps the easiest way to question this mundane metaphysics is by taking a brief historical detour.

The great insight of the age of Enlightenment was that we could free ourselves by taking a closer look at the world, without the blinders of church authority. This gave great impetus to science, with its power to analyze the world into objects and fragments.

Prior to the Scientific Revolution this focused vision was probably a “submissive trait.” That is, it was a contextual necessity that served activities like hunting, gathering and toolmaking. But a sense of wholeness may still have been primary.[1] This is evident even today in some native cultures that weren’t entirely obliterated by the age of science.[2]

Hierarchies in culture had begun as far back as our first farming civilizations. But after the Scientific Revolution, the observer became radically alienated from “the observed”[3], accelerating a trend towards top-down systems of control.

This transformed the sometimes helpful, sometimes delusional, capacity to look at the world as composed of separate and competing pieces (us and them) into a dogma of its own[4]. Science essentially switched to a new creation story. The creation of technologies for utilizing this new world of objects in a utilitarian manner. That’s when Pan truly died.

But now we’re being forced to confront the incoherence of this fragmented vision because of the blowback of environmental catastrophe. Our alienation is a delusion. After all, we share ancestors with every tree and bird and mosquito. We’re an aspect of shape-shifting life that is schizophrenically flailing about on a planet, which is itself.

Perhaps only a few aboriginal cultures have fully absorbed the fact that life is not a collection of separate pieces obligated to perpetually fight tooth and claw. Tooth and claw happens, but it’s not aimed at wiping its prey off the face of the earth. As if they were not fundamentally the same shape-shifting body. There is a difference between that wider vision of life and death, and the one we have learned to hold, which finds apotheosis in the war of elimination that global capitalism has become.

Look at the irony: A revolution against “self-incurred tutelage” unleashed a power to learn very fast. But when this power is wielded through an objectifying lens, then the “objective observer” (Self) becomes the alienated center of the universe. Humanity knocked an image of God off its pedestal and replaced it with an image of itself — staring down on all the “things” of the earth, who were widely seen as mere automatons.

So we arrive at the Age of Self-Consciousness, an alienation even from ourselves. Essentially a superstitious belief in a heart of human darkness, a separate “nature” – an Other within us — against which our better angels are perpetually erecting futile controls. Controls which only strengthen alienation and conflict.

And that’s probably why this revolution of science led to a very aggressive age, at least in the West. We would refashion ourselves out of the dust raised by the industrial revolution into “world conquerors.” A search for self-importance to fill that empty alienation within. And this required converting people and lands into controllable commodities.

So now we’re back where we were before the Scientific Revolution – with a need to free ourselves from the self-incurred tutelage of this new dogma of fragmentation.

Self-Organizing Systems

So long as these tacit dogmas operate in daily life we’ll never form societies that are free of authoritarian tendencies and internecine competitiveness. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also block pipelines or oppose the storage of gas on Seneca Lake, etc. These refusenik actions are necessary rear-guard steps giving us time to unlock our “mind-forged manacles” (Blake).

It’s hard not to think in terms of social planning. It seems so harmless. But it’s a link in the manacle itself — a desire to control the course of creativity. And creativity is an embrace of uncertainty.

The formation of a new society involves the same force of spontaneous creativity that has given birth to all this shape-shifting life. Every ecosystem is a miracle of unplanned ingenuity and with no end in sight. An uncontrolled genius evident in the Big Bang, and in all the little bangs that open new worlds through insight.

If creativity is blocked by divisive ideas, then people will form a fractious and competitive society. But if people are free of these poisonous delusions, then by default the world is whole, and the society that forms will be as healthy as any intact ecosystem.

As, for example, when people in a village in India came together to bypass the bureaucratic control of water supplies. Everyone in the village contributed in restoring a sustainable supply of drinking water, which was an accomplishment beyond the jealous power of authorities.

When this happens the structures of society that form remain provisional, don’t harden into self-perpetuating institutions. And then the unbranded human becomes paramount, speaking for himself, swearing no allegiance to party, nation or corporation.

Jeff Shampnois’ blog is called “Negative Geography”.

Notes.

[1] A Revolution on the Periphery discusses this more thoroughly.

[2] Both Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade describe somewhat similar changes in focus and consciousness. Berman speaks about changes in perspective originating at the Scientific Revolution and Eisler about a much earlier transformation from “partnership” to “dominator” cultures.

[3] Jiddu Krishnamurti speaks about the fragmentation between observer and observed with tremendous clarity.

[4] See geneticist Rupert Sheldrake’s banned Tedx Talk, “The 10 Dogmas of Science.”

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