Indigenous Identity: a Way Out of the Neoliberal Quagmire

The power of mind is not mortification, but life.  But come forth, thou curious child! Hither, thou loving, all-hoping poet!  Hither, thou doubting, tender heart, which hast not found any place in the world’s market fit for thee; any wares which thou couldst buy or sell—so large is thy love and ambition—thine and not theirs is the hour.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson,  The Method of Nature

The old religious faith gave our forefathers the stoical habit of drawing their life-energy not from external conditions but from within.  That they called this power, welling up from inside themselves by the name of ‘God’…is no reason to desert the living well-spring of magic within us.  Never mind the name!  The point is we have the power of re-creating the universe from the depths of ourselves….

J.C. Powys, Autobiography

The gender neutrality of my name had not occurred to me in years until, several weeks ago, a Counterpunch reader called me up in part to congratulate me on a particular piece, and in part to confirm my gender.  I mused on this a little: Perhaps the fact that I tend to scourge contemporary liberal feminism helps the obfuscation of my gender  – except I know few men who would dare to do that publicly!  And, more musing:  I doubt that there  is such a thing as “writing like a man” anymore (I’m tempted to say by either gender!) if, by “writing like a man,” (i.e, with “balls”) we mean placing the value of “self-assertion” over that of staying within the boundaries of acceptable speech in the dominant liberal, secular, identity-fixated,  capitalism-defending, never-call-things-directly-what they-are context we now inhabit.

By “self-assertion” I mean the expression of truth – subjective, of course – coming from the level of the soul, the bottom-most depth of conviction in the individual.  If most Americans spoke and acted from the quiet authority and the imagination-based wisdom of that place in themselves – or tried to do so consistently –  we would be capable of building the society that respects the dignity of all people within it, of all people globally, and the earth and all of its constituents, living and inanimate. Speaking for myself, it took me years to allow the well-conditioned good liberal woman, that is myself, the one willing to take up all good causes except the cause of my own interior oppression, to step aside and allow that other absolutely marginalized voice to assert itself.  My struggle for self-assertion may have been intenser than most due to my artist father.  Though unusual in terms of his profession, he was socially  conforming and apolitical.  In 1953, he placed his family in an extremely modest suburban tract development, in which all the identical 3-bedroom ranch-style homes faced the same direction in relation to the street except ours, which was situated sideways on the lot.

The lesson, I guess, was that being different was limited to aesthetic choices within an extremely limited palette, except in the case of my father himself, who in his art achieved a high degree of distinction.  However it came to  pass, the most vexing problem of my life was that of being the individual, Kim.  Though I was influenced and inspired by early feminism in the 70’s, this matter of individual identity came to supercede all others.  Perhaps my crowning achievement to this point, if it can be said to be one, is that at great expense, I have kept chiseling away at the rock to find the truer form of my individual self within.  This has not been primarily a political struggle, but an inner and creative one, though my “liberal, progressive“ sympathies have always been clear enough.

Recently, I  had begun to begun to read some literature on the Zapatista movement, the much admired and globally followed indigenous revolutionary uprising that arose in the 1990’s in Chiapas, Mexico. The reading was to make myself ready for the talk on Zapatismo  that we heard last week at our little non-profit space.  That talk and the slight bit of reading I’ve done lead me to recognize this path I have followed, continuously beset by crushing doubt and plagued by the anguish of loneliness due to the rarity of mutual recognition coming from my fellows (that is, from anyone who might say, yes, that is my experience too!) as the one made by walking.   This, I learned, is a phrase employed by Zapatistas to describe their process building the new society underneath the old.

Only very recently has it seemed that I may have entered the stage where this ongoing personal quest for my identity,  and the historical phenomenon of the politics of anarchism seem to have converged.  Unaccustomed as I am to this fit with a thought system that still has adherents and visibility (unlike the severely marginalized gnosticism I embraced a decade ago) the struggle within me continues between the liberal woman and the anarchist within, though my deeper sense of “home” is with the latter.

It’s possible that anarchism has its continuous existence in popular awareness, however totally marginalized, maligned and misunderstood, because it is a politics, conducive to action more than to contemplation.  Ongoing admiration for Wobblies, based on that very early 20th century moment of their ascendance in the world of labor union activism,  confirms this. Our society displays a decided preference for action over sitting still by Walden Pond.  But my very presence at this anarchist table is due entirely to my having placed contemplation – the act and the art of my writing – before my otherwise default tendency to conform.  If I once set down the writing, get too engaged with all my  irreproachably worthy responsibilities, the anarchist vanishes like a soap bubble in the breeze – poof!  For me, anarchism must first be my perspective, and then a name for what I am.  The writer in me, the one who speaks through me and is more clearer-sighted, perceptive and shrewder than the well-adapted, socially conditioned me, is the anarchist.  It is nearly impossible for me to conceive of someone reaching the convictions of anarchism without having found and helped clarify that seedling of an anarchist within, that has such a struggle to become viable in our modern resolutely anti-imagination social desert that I call by the extreme, but I think accurate term, religiophobic.

I will forgive myself for being only remotely aware of the Zapatista uprising when it occurred January 1, 1994.  That was, almost to the day, the date of a mental breakdown that threw me into intensive psychotherapy lasting over 7 years.  But there may have been a cosmic parallelism at work.  For that breakdown made possible the capacity I found to become a vehicle for the independent, singular voice that I had resolutely forsaken very early in my childhood.

That I write so personalistically (or is it confessionally?) is because it is the only prayer I have of making myself understood as a whole; I must speak about the repression of myself against myself, and the fact that I am clear that the entire “neoliberal” secular progressive context aids and abets this repression, else I immediately cross over to the “oppressor” side myself.  That all the parts of an ideally diverse pluralistic society must be able to protect the rights of our black, brown, transgender or questioning brothers and sisters, is an aspect of the larger, transcendent  problem of allowing the soul its existence through the kindness and tolerance of our individual selves. We see with dismay the burgeoning of suicides and of depression and mental illness among our young.  The bleak future of the planet, the reduced hope in young lives is a huge part of it of course, but if we cannot lift the boot off the neck of our own imaginative soul, then the creation of an accepting environment for these kinds of differences will be, if not “off the table,” then irrelevant.  Individuals who lack connection with their deep interior, who cannot stand up for their personal, indigenous souls against their colonized egos, who continue to suppress the artist, mystic, prophet, truth-sayer within their own perhaps lily-white bodies, will not bring about a diverse society.

Since most of us do not speak for our indigenous souls, we mainly fall back either on traditional activist left politics, which flounder and fail to capture minds and hearts, or on complacent adaptation to neoliberalism wherein all goods are commodified goods; worth becomes something measured by a solely materialist standard: accumulation of wealth, power, and/or consumer goods.  To do otherwise, to embrace a path set forth in one’s own soul’s destiny and its fated nature, to genuinely prize other goods than those approved of by materialist capitalism, is to be consigned (for a long time or a short time – no one can tell us!) to a terrible loneliness among one’s own kind.   In conventional understanding, one is not supposed to “literally” walk according to that famously different drum, only to use that soaring language as a form of self-congratulation, as if it were possible to achieve the distinctly individual life without forsaking the expectations of the only reality one knows.

The Zapatismo idea of “making our road by walking” is interestingly different from the phrase popular among us: “walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.”   The former suggests there is no road until we walk it; one might say ‘walk it blind,’ except for being led by….by what?  It seems to me one who is making her road by walking is being led exactly by that inner voice of conviction, the road to that imagined better world for which my soul longs, and therefore for which I long.

In his excellent talk, the speaker, a young Utica anarchist named Brendan, made it clear that one of the contributing elements to Zapatismo’s emergence was liberation theology.  Showing us a slide of a church in the town where he stayed, he suggested that Catholicism had connected fruitfully with an indigenous kind of religiousness (through liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor”) and was no longer institutional in the way we think of Catholicism.  Of course, to be Zapatismo, religion would have to refuse the rigid hierarchy of such an hierarchical organization.  On the other hand, it seemed to me, that there is no such thing as Zapatismo without that religious attitude, its openness to religion’s imaginative, mythic reality.

Because of its basis in the religious attitude, Zapatismo can challenge all rigidified hierarchies of power with a horizontal ordering of society and governance.  This is not the bickering quagmire horizontalism of liberal society – accurately named  “sibling society” by the poet Robert Bly – that renders us incapable of vision or change.  Zapatismo’s horizontalism has underlying it the myth-based  narrative context for initiation into adulthood, making it possible for both freedom and authority to exist in balance.  In our rudderless society no longer aimed at producing adults,  few are capable of taking on the “unpopular” role of making decisions for the greater human and planetary good; rule is left where it tends to stay in a top-down power arrangement that has no opposition – with the oligarchs and plutocrats.  Zapatismo, it seems to me, achieves what many of us admire not in spite of its religious component, but absolutely because the individuality it protects is based in the indigenous soul.  This is the individuality each must now seek, making our unmapped and unmappable path by walking.


More articles by:

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious.

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