Those who call for a restoration of the local, settled, affection-based and face-to-face way of life (and I am one) as the means to cut off the corporate capitalist beast from its supply of consumer blood, face a nearly impossible challenge, wherever they live. But those who live in “flyover country,” as I, home-based in upstate New York, do – face a special challenge compared to those in “fly-to” country. Utica and other Mohawk Valley cities and towns were long ago passed over by the global corporate project except as promising sites for chain stores that can pick over the carcasses of once lively communities. Our home areas abandoned to the dangerous armies of roving rabid red dogs, we who live in Trump country with an idealistic earth-people-and-humanity agenda that still has a pulse, must be seriously utopian; that is, we have to be dreamers, and, moreover, we must know we participate in a larger reality and deeper truth than that provided by the corporate culture, one that is transcendent. Or else we’re just finished before we leave the starting gate.
When your home town is a place where everyone with promising life prospects moved out or were expected to, where people eagerly await the next great nationally advertised chain store, and talk incessantly about “jobs,” where, with imagination replaced by TV and other virtual realities, most people cannot summons the energy needed to dream of and invest in an alternative to the One We Know, it takes being capable of an extreme act of imagination to live not demoralized, dehumanized, dejectedly, resignedly, or cynically, but with spirit.
I confess to being only so-so successful with this undertaking, though I doggedly plug away at it. Partly what keeps me going is knowing that it takes that alternative source of vitality to live humanly in America anywhere, not just here in flyover land. The millions of people now traumatized by the shock of Trump’s election, having had, in my view, their self-protective rose-colored glasses knocked off, have joined us flyovers in Trump country. Stripped of the reassuring face of smart and articulate Democratic neoliberalism, those in this new, unforeseen pain are face-to-face with the grimmer, real conditions we have faced in Utica for decades if we looked. The choice is clearer now: either men and women individually find their way to a deeper base of values that can keep them working in their own way for the juster, more peaceful and more ecologically sane world – now that neoliberal/corporate capitalist power wears its truer, nastier face – or they go, to a lesser or greater degree, insane.
The effort to remain in denial, including keeping faith in the leadership of the Clintons or the Obamas against all the evidence of their lying neoliberal loyalties, is already a form of insanity. My hope is that some of those who are feeling really deranged, shaken, traumatized will take on the full meaning of their disturbance; will see that their need to close their eyes and vote for lesser evils is driven by fear so deep it cannot be acknowledged consciously, fear so deep that a psycho-spiritual container large enough to handle real existential terror is now needed. The “upside” to facing this disturbance head-on is that it holds the key to the reassuring knowledge that you really are connected with all of humanity and with the cosmos; the key to health for individuals, communities and the planet. Unacknowledged, the fear makes a wall between yourself and the “others” that ensures extra suffering for them, especially for the those who cannot speak for themselves, the poor and non-white, other species and the earth, and makes you dishonest. This denial is the way of continuing the disease that characterizes Left and Right equally at this point.
When acknowledged and suffered through in the right way, the fear can become the door to the experience of unity, the kind of transcendent experience that becomes authoritative for living, that provides a context of meaning to replace the destructive narrative of capitalism; I’m talking here about the experience of one’s religious nature. True utopianism is grounded in a religious vision that makes clear that one must choose to be human; its not something that happens to all creatures born homo sapiens. It is this prolonged refusal to choose, as we’ve allowed ourselves to be carried along in the dream of capitalist materialism and its promise of freedom from want, coupled with the advancing marvel of technology – that has brought us to this shocking new political reality.
I make a point of calling this experience “religious” for this reason: the single most determinative factor in the widespread cluelessness about the true nature of neoliberal corporate capitalism and the ever greater impotence of the opposition to it, is pervasive religiophobia cultivated for generations and never acknowledged for its necessary role in the global capitalist project. Religiophobia is the silent partner in the devaluation of all the “soft” areas of human culture: the arts and humanities, caring for the sick and the vulnerable, making peace instead of war, caring for the earth and protecting the ecological balance, etc. These aspects of a human culture make no sense according to the law of profitability, only to a basis of compassion and love.
Religious, that is, non-rationally based knowing, is the only knowledge base that can provide an authentic alternative to capitalism. People who reflexively associate religion with The Problem, and there are many, must understand this reflex as convenient and as defensive. Technophiles are so fond of saying of their favorite fetish, “Technology’s not the problem, it’s how it is used;” we can also say that religion is not the problem, the problem is with the user. In both cases, because of the power inherent in these humanly devised “operating systems,” the problems caused by unconscious use are dehumanizing and destructive.
Don’t get me wrong: I do fear the irrationalism on the Right! Yesterday my husband Orin and I bumped into the guy who fixes our espresso machine who, after 15 years of helping us stay in business, is also a friend – in a restaurant in Syracuse. We were there to enjoy a meal, he to fix their espresso machine! The place was empty, as we’d arrived between main meal hours. When Orin left to find the bathroom, Charles came up to me, exploding about the latest Trump outrages, of which he’d already delivered an earful to Orin over the phone earlier in the day. “And Pence, “ he went on, “Don’t talk to me about Pence! That guy genuinely believes the earth is 6000 years old – he’s our vice-President!”
Listening to him, I am supposed to think about Pence and his awfulness. Instead, I think about the phenomenon of Charles’s outrage. Twelve step addiction recovery groups had a word for this kind of state in which one is hooked upon the words, behaviors, attitudes of another person over whom one has no control. It was called being “triggered.” It is a mild form of insanity but it can be habit-forming.
That is, denying evolution is a form of insanity, but so is the inability to take one’s eyes off the “news feed,” that is making you apoplectic. What I see around me is that few people are able to take their eyes off the 24-7 news feed, nor to prevent its rocketing them from 0 to 150% percent outrage instantly. Outrage is a kind of high, preferable in many ways to feeling nothing, or one’s fear. What strikes me most is that people have no other place to go with their imaginations. And they do not see themselves, in their utterly righteous outrage, as being yanked around by the puppetmaster (Bannon), who clearly knows how to make people crazy.
In calling for a new utopianism, I do not ally myself with the insane irrationality of the Right. But neither am I allied with the insanity of the so-called rational people whose dogmatic faith keeps them largely incapable of original thought or action. Fundamentalist rationalism has played a commanding role in bringing us collectively to crisis and impasse (unless we want to blame religion for failure to stop climate change, mass incarceration, American Imperialism, etc.) We seem incapable of challenging this belief in the supremacy of the mind that keeps us reliant upon the opinion of all these mysteriously “smarter” others, writing for the New York Times or NPR, or publishing a best-seller, etc., who are in a position to broadcast their opinions via mass media. (And now, even “dumber” others can hold us in their sway through their access to the media and to us!)
Paradoxically, the Religious Right may hold a kind of key for those of us faced with staying in our left- behind places, rather than futilely attempting to keep up with the ever-ascending capitalist project. Flyover places like Utica, inconsequential in the schemes and dreams of global corporate capitalism, are now prominently associated with conservative religions whose members are passionately pissed off at being ignored by the establishment that looks down on them and ignores their needs. Energized by their largely justified anger, but also likely because they have a religious basis, they have developed a political power that far exceeds their actual numbers. Disturbing as their current success is, there may be a lesson here for those of us who believe that building the alternative reality means returning to living local, affection-linked, face-to-face lives. Although the right wing allegiance to place may not be “indigenous-identified” in the counter-cultural way we think of it, but nostalgically white race-and-capitalism-identified, their independence reactionary, not revolutionary, the Trumpees have no problem living in these “left behind,” places and in fact have come to characterize them.
Religiophobes in their hair-trigger antipathy to the religious fundies may miss the fact that religion – even the conservative evolution-denying kind – is a way of applying an imagination-based program to enlarge the meaning of everyday committed life in families, in communities, stable over lifetimes. Religion – not theirs but yours, mine – the inner adventure that must be taken on – is key to the very project we are interested in: halting the unstoppable barbarism of corporate capitalism allied with American militarism and imperialism, and restoring a way of life that supports generativity, caring, neighborliness, and the pleasures of humanity-affirming culture. For those of us who cannot return to dogmatic theocratic faith, the alternative must be to seek within, individually, for an imagination-based context for living, a narrative that can restore the capacity to re-establish settled, in-place, “conservative” communities and local economies whose larger interest is the common good.