What I am concerned with is the fact that Socialism is losing ground exactly where it ought to be gaining it. With so much in its favor—for every empty belly is an argument for Socialism—the idea of Socialism is less widely accepted than it was ten years ago The average thinking person today is not merely not a Socialist, he is actively hostile to Socialism…
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
I believe that the present intensely stupid handling of the class-issue may stampede quantities of potential Socialists into Fascism.
The seven principles of conduct with this world are being content with what is at hand, preferring what is available to what is not, abandoning the quest for the elusive, hating over-abundance, choosing abstinence, knowing the evils of this world and abandoning any desire for them, and negating its dominance.
— Al-Sadiq in Essential Sufism, edited by Fadiman & Frager
George Orwell, a committed Socialist, in The Road to Wigan Pier presents a critique of the Socialists of his day taking off from the question of why the Socialists don’t grow in numbers, why so many people hate them when their goals are so good, etc. His critique could be lifted practically verbatim to describe today’s well-intentioned identity politics, a political effort that sounds right, but is so wrong, and so likely, like 1930s British Socialism, to drive potential sympathizers into the arms of fascist Trump supporters.
Orwell’s analysis, which contains many parts, gains much credibility from his honesty, his willingness to expose to the light of day his own class prejudice as a “lower-upper-middle class Englishman.” He suggests that the Socialists of 1930’s England were cut from the same cloth, and that socialism suffered because of the deeply held prejudice. The unconsciousness of the middle class do-gooders did not allow them to see their revulsion for working class bodies, which doomed their actions to produce the opposite of what was intended.
The same unconscious class loathing exists among America’s do-gooder liberals as was true then in England. (Think: what was it Hillary found deplorable about Trumpites?) Just as then, as crisis looms, the failure to become conscious of our own deepest-held repugnance is likely to open the door to the worst possible outcome. We are in fact worse off because we no longer even have a shared vocabulary of political ideas, no public shared thinking about how best we might organize society in a way that could bring relief to the most oppressed. And the most oppressed remains the lowest class, the black and white people on the bottom, men and women devoid of hope in this best of all possible free-market worlds that most liberals refuse to repudiate.
Among the people in Orwell’s England who were hostile to Socialism were those who were religious and conservative; their fear being not that Socialism wouldn’t work but it would work “too well.” With Socialists’ near- unanimous embrace of the increasing mechanization of society, many held back in dread of the Brave new World future that they were promoting, a world in effect serving technological advances at the expense of humanity.
My own critique of the obtuseness of the contemporary liberal middle class, unlike Orwell’s, includes a psycho-spiritual component missing from most ‘leftward’ understandings. My perspective enables me to speak to both of these problems that doom the liberal-left project in our day as they did Socialism in Orwell’s – i.e., contempt for the working class and disdain for religion – and makes nonelectoral-focused religious-based (mytho-poetic) anarchist radicalism a “sensible” perspective to take.
To most lefties such a suggestion is dismissible nonsense. And therein lies my point. The blindspots on the left are fairly the same as in Orwell’s day. Nothing will change until we open our eyes to them.
The prejudice against the lowest class is alive and well, influential, and denied as ever, an unconsciousness that is consequence of our ongoing refusal to be self-knowers, and in that way to come to know our anti-nature, anti-flesh, anti-eros, anti-human prejudice that is aimed first at ourselves, and then at others. Our do-gooding is tainted by our refusal to become acquainted with the source of real human strength, which lies in psychological integration, or integration of mind with body and the creative soul, and is thus rendered despicable by the despising of our nature. In part what I’m talking about is our inherited puritanism, but I’m reluctant to call it that. For the most part, anybody who acknowledges our puritan inheritance also shares the shallow and self-congratulatory opinion that “thank god we’re beyond all that, our sexuality freed, our right to have guilt-free fun.“
On the contrary. Among the many reasons people ought to refrain from joining the hysteria of the Me Too movement is its complete acceptance of the dominant attitude towards the body and toward sex, unchanged despite the “sexual revolution,” the multibillion dollar Internet pornography industry, the almost ceaseless appeals to our sexual nature to sell us everything, saturating TV and movies, magazine covers, the Internet. The young woman of today is arguably worse off than the maidens of pre-birth control yore who lived under the double standard that held what was good for the gander was fatal to the reputation of the goose. Now facing this world of “ sexual freedom,” the sexual jungle in which they are unprotected and have not been taught how to protect themselves, other than by abstinence, young women can do nothing with their inevitable shame but fling all of it back at the men who have “caused” them to feel badly about themselves, who are at fault for “2 thousand years of bad sex,” etc.
Other than the few instances of genuine predation, which most of the Me Too accusations are not about, we are looking at human sexual behavior devoid of any container of meaning whatsoever; sex that is about nothing but the right to have it no-strings, and seems to bring everything but pleasure. To join this movement seriously is to complacently take as inevitable and “better than it used to be” the horror we’ve made of this aspect of our nature removed from the bonds and the meanings provided traditionally through myth, religion and shared customs of communities everywhere. In a society ordered by the prerogatives of capitalism there’s nothing much useful to say to persons trying to figure out what sex is as a human matter, between human beings, not as a matter of social/economic equality between interchangeable entities that just have different genital parts. Most of us don’t want to go back to St Paul’s “better to marry than to burn.” Okay, I’ll buy that. But the alternative to the mess we’re in isn’t fundamentalism; rather it’s the connection to imagination such that ancient meanings of man, woman, sexuality, partnership, dignity and respect, can animate our lives and communities once more.
To return to the subject of class consciousness. Last week, after watching Whose Streets?, an effective documentary film about Ferguson, the message I took home was that the BLM movement’s significance lies in its challenge precisely to all the lies and pretenses holding us above, not fully identified with, the working class. What is the point, any longer, of hanging onto the meager thread of white middle class identity anyway? But, as Orwell so well described, that last step down is a doozy; nobody wants to enter that dark terrain, the life at the lowest rung, that, after all, our ancestry and our own lives have been dedicated to the effort to rise above. Our problem, and it’s not theirs, is that those of us under the rationalist enlightenment spell can think only literally; i.e., how can I possibly give up my identity, my preferences, my interests, my income, etc?
Visceral antipathy for the lowest class in our society must be overcome, but not in the way our fear imagines it. It must be overcome not only to bring about “justice,” but to accomplish a more intimate triumph as well. The revulsion for poverty, for the poor, for their obesity, their smoking habits, their love of Doritos and Dunkin donuts instead of healthy food, their unpolished speech, their mean streets filled with dilapidated decaying housing from a previous era, is based in a prior revulsion towards our own flesh, the implacable appetites, frustrating limitations, and unwanted pains that come with living in bodies. Downward class hatred is a chimera that living locally, in a way truer to instinct, intuition and common sense, may cause to vanish.
The disgust for those below us, I’m suggesting, is necessary for our collusion with the capitalist economic order that depends upon each of us being a house divided. With our nature dichotomized, we are no match for the virtual world we are taught to believe is more real than this local embodied, funky and ordinary, flesh and blood one. We want the transcendent reality offered via MSNBC or NPR, the grand futuristic promises of technology to remove from us the hassles and heartbreaks of incarnate lives.
By becoming working class, I don’t mean donning blue workshirts, and I certainly don’t mean taking a job at McDonalds if you can avoid it. This isn’t even a call to organizing among the working class, in that helpful, incredibly admirable, Bill Ayers-Staughton Lynd way. I do mean an absolutely clear and militant insistence on returning our lives to communities and to living fully, physically and imaginatively in the local. It’s time to forgive the hometown (if you happen to be still living in yours, as I am) and its people all of its/their shortcomings and hunker down and be there. Setting up autonomous spaces and talking “Big Talk” among ourselves, speaking and listening to each other, can restore the sense of each person’s subjective understanding, and make those understandings the basis for the inner unity and peace that is the only possible basis for radicalism.
At the last meeting of our little Sunday morning Temenos group in Utica the dozen or so gathered participated in a lively conversation, taking off from the talk I’d just given. After nearly 7 years of offering these monthly, sometimes bi-monthly talks (and many years before that of trying to start local conversations about the big issues), more people are coming consistently and the conversations are at last picking up a life of their own. People are asking their own questions. These are the kinds of conversations that can change people, I know it. The kind that stay with people throughout the week, that touch them in deep places within, that spark other ideas and the knitting together of new resolves and understandings to support the resolves. What I mean by becoming the working class is this; it is reclaiming our lives from the bottom up, reclaiming local lives, lives in families, neighborhoods and communities, and with that, the power to stand up like the people in Ferguson when other people who “don’t know us” try to come in and tell us what happened to us and what it all means. Support for Black Lives Matters may not mean joining the local BLM, it may mean you need to find out that your life matters, way below the white skin, at that level where you are most yourself, and most like everyone else.