First, apologies for the provocative title. In part, I refer to Chris Hedges’ book The Death of the Liberal Class. In part I refer to my own experiences with the frustratingly moribund quality of all undertakings by those who perpetuate the liberal identity, which includes most of my friends. It will be a great day when those who self identify as liberal, secular progressives can let go of the ruling and defensive assumption that, when all’s said and done, life is better now than it was. This assumption merely ensures banality and the impossibility of mounting a genuine “resistance” to corporate-ruled capitalism which is killing the planet (or even to that HEEP of iniquity, Donald Trump). They fantasize they can practice resistance without a genuine, compelling moral basis, without a vision, and it cannot be done.
A remarkable novel by Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March, set during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, brought me face to face with how an end of an orderly structure to human existence looks/feels to those experiencing it, to those for whom, in significant ways, “life was better then.” I am intrigued because growing up post-WWII, I experienced no “before and after” as was the case for those who grew up before WWI. I know nothing of such a stable, orderly, univocally patriarchal and unironical world as that of Europe pre-1916.
Although I’m no idealizer yearning after a mythicized, more golden, “never-was” past, neither am I a believer in this – what we have – as “the best of all possible worlds.” I am frankly interested in a better world than this one. It astonishes me to think about a time in which lives were not constantly fed with junk of one kind or another, and were lived within human-dimensioned parameters of custom and tradition in which grace, beauty, passion, dignity, honor were still meaningful concepts. I understand that the better life was limited to the affluent and aristocratic few, but even the many, facing nasty brutish and shortened lives, had less of this autonomy that – highly prized as it is – human beings seem so – and are – unprepared for. A world that must allow democratic and humanistic values in its order is far more complex and confusing than one ordered by monarchical and religious values; those who feared democracy were right about that. Rather than having learned to work through the energizing tension of differences peacefully and democratically, our public life is chaotic and dysfunctional. Most confusing of all is the fact that underneath the talk of democracy the world is actually ordered hierarchically according to economic values, capitalist ones, unfettered by any other competing values or considerations.
Harkening back to another time in history, different customs, traditions and values, including the anathematic “religious” ones, in order to appraise the environment we are supposed to now be content with, or at least deferential to, is increasingly valid, no matter how “unrealistic” and irrational it may be to do so. Since we know no other reality, have reduced our traditions of memory and are so poorly educated that we really are limited to the present moment, we are as unsuited for such appraisal as – using a famous example – a fish is for evaluating its watery environment.
In The Radetzky March, the civil servant Herr von Trotta, after much inner anguish, writes to his son who wants to leave the army, the life his father preordained for him:“I have decided to leave the responsibility for your future with you.” When he reports to his friend what he’s done, Dr. Skovronnek replies, “I think that’s right! You can’t bear responsibility for another human being! No one should do that.”
“My father was responsible for me,” said the District Commissioner [von Trotta], “and my grandfather was for my father.”
His friend the doctor replies, “Things were different then…It was easier then! Every stone was in place. The roads of life were properly paved. There were stout roofs on the walls of the houses…” The friend goes on to tell von Trotta how strange his own children are to him, in whose sleeping faces he detects cruelty, “the cruelty of their time, the future…I don’t want to live to see that time!”
He refers to our time, of course, to WWII and what has followed. Nothing separates me so sharply from my fellow travelers on the liberal progressive left as their apparent failure to feel their alienation from what is so emphatically a cruel environment, or, if it is felt, failure to push through the defense mechanism of angry cynicism to despair. Cynicism is defeat; despair is human, we are equipped by nature to handle it. Feeling one’s despair gives way to the imaginative realm which can lead to reclaiming moral vision. Without taking this inner route, laid down for centuries in myth and religion, the modern liberal is without the means to inhabit either his/her own vitality or a genuine counter culture.
This is why I list “religiophobia” as the major obstacle to there being real opposition to the neoliberal corporate dehumanizing project, followed closely by, failure to practice an art; that is, to live creatively. (Following close upon these two are careerism and television). Without an independent, outsider cultural basis upon which to stand, as religion or idealism provided in the past, genuine adult refusal, in the manner of Thoreau’s famous disobedience, is impossible. The religious right attempts to re-establish a moral ground by vainly and disastrously re-applying the traditions and forms of that pre-WWI world, tailored to fit the banal consumerist materialism of our time while the liberals by and large remain clueless as to the world they have actually inhabited since those distant times when “every stone was in place and the roads of life were properly paved.” In fact, when pressed, they admit that to them, this world is best of all, due to the increased “freedom,” scientific – especially medical – advances and the amazing technology; or, it would be better if not for the sexism, but for which Hillary would have won, and the racism, but for which Obama could have gotten so much good accomplished. My jaw drops; but this is what we have. If one is experiencing the felt environment, what living in these times actually feels like in one’s soul, the reality of the cruelty and violence committed in our name, none of which began with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Rex Tillerson, then one struggles daily with despair and hopelessness.
If for so many, the spirit of opposition has been ‘saved up’ for the advent of Trump, what does this tell us? It tells me they (which includes all of us to a degree) have adapted to a soulless environment by repressing the alive soul, by simply acting collectively as if the soul does not exist. Refusing the pain within, the darkness of despair, we are stuck playing a game of fake opposition the rules of which have been made by the corporate powers that be. Tepidly and mechanically we support the humanities, the arts, not as if humanity itself were at stake and these precious practices, the insistence on beauty committed to in a religious way, must be undertaken or we will perish, but banally, nihilistically.
A customer who comes almost daily to our Cafe, a retired and by all accounts lonely man who sits at what Orin calls “the Italian table,” is known for his obstinate upholding of capitalism. For some reason which none of us fathom he patronizes a business that many who share his allegiance might consider a “commie stronghold” in Utica. Every once in awhile, some hapless customer gets caught in Ed’s trap, and enters an “argument” with him. Arguments with Ed always have the same outcome The arguer eventually becomes so irate – I have seen this with even the most mild mannered – that they say something “regrettable.” Then Ed pronounces himself wounded by the lack of civility on the part of the hapless arguer, etc. I call it quicksand and, when I can, warn people against “going there.” Ed follows a simple line of argument: he upholds the “captains of industry,” above everything and everyone else. No matter what, they are right and we are wrong if we attempt to throw roadblocks or objections in their way.
The other day, I understood Ed’s simple-minded defense of capitalism differently. Ed understands what the liberals do not; that is, that capitalism is in charge. For the most part they don’t get it because they cannot see how their jobs – many of them very good ones – are seamlessly adapted to the capitalist environment; like the fish who doesn’t know what “water” is, they cannot see or name their own environment. I sympathize; I attribute the capacity Orin and I have to “breathe” outside the capitalist system, in part to our being independent shopowners. I liken ours to poet/engraver William Blake’s position as a tradesman in 18th century London; among the tradesmen was “exactly where a robust…radical independency was located.” (E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast)
Social historian E.P. Thompson, in his interesting book about the sources of Blake’s countercultural “witness” in the movements of radical religious dissent of the 1780’s and 1790’s, attributes these religious ideas as providing significant support for Blake’s independence of thought. Such a background, Thompson argues, gave Blake “an uncrackable doctrinal defence, a profound cultural resource in faith, a presumption of spiritual superiority over the Rich and the Great. What most distinguishes these pockets of radical dissent among the trades,” writes Thompson,”is a stubborn lack of deference, both social and intellectual.”
What the liberal of today cannot do is free her/himself from the habit of deference inculcated by the very “institutions and disciplines” by which we construct our intellectual culture. While Blake is held at arm’s length by mainstream literary tradition, it may be we now could gain much from his very independence, his learning gained in the autodidact fashion, his comfort with anti-rationalist thought, his mysticism, his imagination-based “presumption of superiority over the Rich and the Great.”
If the secular left continues to be defensively, phobically incurious about the nature of the soul, that is, of the individual soul, genuine counter culture will remain impossible and the great leveler nihilism will necessarily prevail. We cannot and would not “turn back the clock” to a “better” time and world, but we can stop hanging on for dear life to the one (material) reality we know. We need now to learn what religions have always taught: how to achieve the wisdom, the largeness of heart, the strength of character to build the human alternative in the midst of ongoing catastrophe.