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In Search of Moral Energy in the Neoliberal Wasteland: a Preferential Option for the Poor Soul

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Do you know what you become when you [move your children about keeping them busy, rather than remain in and come to know a particular spot]?  You become a god-killer, you sprinkle the poison gas of your vulgar novelty-hunting on the heads of all those little gods that are children’s best guardian angels.  And you atrophy for life their power of imaginative play; you murder their power of vegetative contemplation…

— J. C. Powys, Autobiography

What I did was bring to these victims of the unbelievable “Wasteland” the healing sense that all the noble spirits of antiquity and the Middle ages, all the subtle and penetrating intellects of the human race, were on their side and lifting their voices to them, all the way through the centuries; assuring them that they might bow as low as they pleased in the House of Rimmon as long as in secret they served the true God.

— Ibid

Still making my slow way through the writer (and anarchist sympathizer) J.C. Powys’s autobiography, I continue to be caught by ideas that, despite the oddness of his character, are so like my own. In effect, what he does is make the case for pluralism that indeed includes all, especially the “misfits,” those inclined to be despised by the “well-constituted and successful.”   Most emphatically this not only includes his own neurotic, obsessive self but begins with that wholly rejectable self.  It was with the misfits, who do not receive “one drop of encouragement or one breath of sympathy”  in the “moral normality” of America, that Powys – who lived here for 25 years – was convinced true originality resides.

There is resonance in Powys’s “preferential option” for the poorly made– i.e., the failures, the abject and the ill-adjusted –  not only because it echoes a strand in Christian, especially Catholic tradition, most recently manifested in Liberation Theology’s prophetic stance biased in favor of the poor, in the manner of Jesus.  Radicals who’ve been influenced by liberation theology, such as Staughton Lynd, speak of accompaniment,  being with society’s victims – whether laborers, prisoners, or soldiers – in a revolutionary way that assists them in resisting their oppression. Powys  is saying the same, but with a difference; he sees ‘the poor’ in those individuals who in the vast spiritual wasteland of modernity, get no encouragement for their originality; speaking potentially, this is all of us.   He is able to authentically make this case because he never strays far from his own “sins,” which today as then, consensus would deem sexual perversion if only in thought.

The lectures Powys gave over a period of 15 years in the early 20th century in this country left him with the sense of being the “passionate interpreter” of the “thousands and thousands of imaginative men and women who had no other hope;”  that is, he spoke for the truth of their own souls and for the truth of pluralism that needs only its ratification in the “polytheistic” soul.  Knowing himself to be a wretch, a ‘ninny,’ a neurotic, and even a pervert in his innermost being, his message yet was “Resolve to live in the Whole, in the Good, in the Beautiful.” (Goethe) What Powys knew is that no one who is unacquainted with his own unacceptability, his own worthlessness, can speak authentically and unhypocritically for “the whole, the good and the beautiful.” Thus the preferential option for the poor as well as for the poorly constituted begins with the individual’s relation to her own soul’s knowing and its perceptions,  which in nearly every case have been rejected in favor of the morally normal, of bowing in the House of Rimmon.

I wonder how many who deplore the dehumanization and robotization that go along with industrial capitalist society think about where the process of dehumanization starts?  And how many of us harbor the assumption that dehumanization always is something that has happened to someone other than oneself?  Maybe such questions gain some new life when a man with no criminal record  opens fire on a crowd at a music festival, maybe not.   The forces that dehumanize, that feed us fantasies of violence, revenge, domination, patriotism, etc., these out-of-control fires of fear-fueled rage that ultimately are stoked by those blinded by lust for profit over concern for people, are very real, as pointed out by many excellent writers and analysts of our modern predicament writing during this “late stage” of capitalism.

Those forces hastening the dehumanization process depend on an inside accomplice, which is ourselves.  My suggestion at this stage of catastrophe (a catastrophe that is not new, did not begin with Trump or the Clintons and certainly not with Mr. Paddock) addresses individuals not with the question what will you do (i.e. to “resist,”  to join the revolutionary movement) but when will you at last insist upon the life for which you, personally, long? The foremost obstacle is not the “impossibility” of the dream, not the economy,  but in oneself. If it be the case that it’s a young person reading these words, then be clear you are not “to blame,” in that way we are manipulated  – in the capitalist, each-man-for-himself context – to feel individually responsible for the success or failure (read: material success) of our lives.  But as individuals you and I have to “hold fast” in order not to be flagged off the only path worth taking, the one we make by walking it, the path motivated by desire in utter refusal of the Big Lie of the one Capitalist neoliberal reality.

The process of dehumanization is constantly working and depends, for its ultimate victory, upon its success within each individual in each capitulation to and acceptance of her/his need for “salvation” from without; i.e., from the meanings and terms put forth by the One Neoliberal Reality that has us caught in it from birth to death,  flies in a spider’s web.  The fight for one’s own humanity against the scourge that says you are worthless, demands constant, daily effort, like the work of bailing out a boat with a gaping hole in the bottom.

Taught as we’ve most thoroughly been to ignore our interiors, to treat as non-real all promptings, imaginings, longings, dreams, attachments and ideas coming from our own insignificant selves, we’re sitting ducks for the project of global corporate capitalism which is running the show.  Though we’re not to blame for what we don’t know, we must seize every opportunity to take ourselves off the road leading to perdition.  Fortunately, though the alternative road is sparsely traveled,  others are walking it, and the need is great for still others, especially young people,  to be encouraged to embark upon it. However, even if you never meet another living person (besides myself) who encourages you, the call is still out to put yourself on it. One has to be that person for oneself first, and that is the point!!

It’s crazy to expect people who routinely deny their own longing for transcendent meaning, for satisfying work, for a stable community of mutually trusting friends and family, for the treasures of memory, for the “gods of a particular spot” –  to have access to moral outrage about the world!  We tend to see this mess we’re in as consequence of greed, materialism, consumerism, which are certainly contributors!   But far more than these is the contribution made individual by individual, each continually adapting to ever shrinking possibilities for human well-being.  What is longed for, deep in the breast of each one is safety, trusting relationships, stability, a sense of place, of being at home imaginatively (with the “little gods”) in this world.  That this is not a simple thing to achieve is due not only to the abased circumstances of modernity but to a failure to choose what we want, ultimately, the  creative, indigenously restored, rooted, community-based lives that can bring tangible comfort to being human.

In order even to  know the signs of dehumanization in oneself, contemplation, that activity which brings one down into embodied life not up and away from it, is necessary.  If instead of turning inward, we choose escape from the frustrating, fixed, unsolvable, inconvenient, obstinate, circumstances of real embodied life, escape made so simple by the multiple distractions provided for us, we will simply be made into people engaged together in the same crazy behaviors while the world fit for humans collapses.

Recently I  was party to a conversation about, essentially,  whether or not universal healthcare is a human right.  A woman at the table declared (in summary) that single payer healthcare simply is not realistically going to happen at this time, thus it only makes sense to go after the pragmatically possible. A young man present insisted that because we are talking about the real suffering of people this is a moral matter, not simply one to be decided pragmatically.  Late comer as I am to a more radical political view, I am slow to size up the arguments in such “real time” occasions.  Plus I have a dread of hurting feelings. Instead of joining in the argument,  I tried to understand where the woman was coming from.  The clue that gave me the “light bulb” was her mentioning Obama’s Affordable Healthcare act;  I saw that for her this is a partisan argument, limited to the terms I’ve come to know as neoliberal, which places profits over people.

The constant “boat-bailing” activity required to keep me conscious as I exist perilously between neoliberal reality – which is our shared reality – and the maverick alternative residing in my own alive soul – tends to make me a poor activist, especially conversationally. (On my behalf, I will say that many very smart people have not even arrived at my arduously maintained level of awareness!) But perhaps a good is materializing beyond what I can even see from my ‘boat’ and constant bailing activity.  The young man who admirably stood up for moral reality in the conversation would say – does say – he’s been influenced by my husband and myself.  Together, Orin and I have held a space here in Utica in which it is possible to return to human-measured standards of the good and the beautiful. This is far from a boast; the effort is ongoing, the water always rushing back inside the boat threatening to dump us into the drowning sea.

Now 40 years along,  marriage, too has for us been a piece of our anarchist aspiration, a road we made by walking, a resistance to neoliberal reality.  The dogmatically optimist America that teaches us that all “misery is optional,” a piece of pseudo-wisdom which can make so much sense in moments of crisis, transfers power to the forces of dissolution:  Why not just end it and swim away?  Instead we have learned to walk through our crises; what gets dissolved then is not our bond, but the something in ourselves that had seemed necessary but which we find we can let go of and be freer for it; these alchemical sheddings begin to constitute the humus, the ground underneath our feet, our Archimedian vantage point, the handmade culture that allows us to exist as ‘originals’ outside the one neoliberal reality.  Through the continuous “bailing” activity of our creative writing, the marriage, our coffee business, The Other Side, we make our anarchist expression in the world, an anarchism that includes freedom and unity as its necessary conditions based as they are in the template of the soul’s mythic reality, more than in theory.

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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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