We cannot be careful enough in refusing to act as splitters (i.e., like the Nazi doctors) or in refusing to live a split life in that sense. And yet, in many circumstances, we cannot avoid acting as economic men and women of our time, performing certain professions and thus maiming our hearts.
— Ivan Illich In Conversation (David Cayley, editor)
We need a practical kind of “mystical anarchism”…a democratization of shamanism.
— Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, etc.
What mysticism really tries to surmount is [not the ego but] false consciousness, illusion, Consensus Reality, and all the failures of the self that accompany these ills.
The mystical experience, or the realization of the unique self…engulfs and erases all duality, dichotomy and dialectic. It carries with itself, like an electric charge, an intense and wordless sense of value;it “divinizes” the self.
I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake.’
— D.H. Lawrence
In the wake of the Florida school shooting there’s been much talk about the culture of violence, much searching for its causes, (and some talk about gun control). In the aftermath, we seek to comprehend the conditions that make monsters out of human beings who otherwise are like you and me. Also, and rightly, since we of the left are committed to our view of humanity as not inherently evil, if not fully good either, we look for the causes of these human aberrations in our government’s evil commitment to imperialism, militarism and world domination in service to capitalist oligarchs.
Not being a journalist, I work on the problem of violence from another angle than that of seeking evidence for the corruption of our government and the wickedness of policies driven by a for-profit, materialist system. The writers who provide such informed critique, who substantiate the perceptions of me and others like me who keep a skeptical stance toward the smiling, benign faces of bourgeois neoliberal reality – are incredibly valuable. However, the laying bare of horrifying facts proving the catastrophe we’re in cannot motivate the vast liberal middle class in terms of moving them beyond a resistance of pussy hats and the election-focused Indivisibles to one that is stirring, unifying, visionary.
The continued dominance of bourgeois reality is assured if by nothing else, by the careerist jobs that link each person up to the for-profit capitalist enterprise, forcing most of us to take on and take up its alien neoliberal Weltanschauung, values and purposes as our own. In this way, my consciousness remained split until my retirement 2 years ago. Until retirement settled in, I never fully understood why the quality of my interior life has so persistently been a war in which my sharper writer self – against my otherwise strongly conformist tendencies – leads the charge against the secular (neo)liberal establishment of our day. For this reason, in that sense of “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” the meetings recently begun in Utica under the banner of the “Anti-fascist Coffee Club,” have had a profoundly unifying effect on me. Under the tutelage of 3 young anarchists/Wobblies, who have assumed this role in relation to the rest of us novices, I am able to identify myself as the anarchist I’ve been, as I announced to Orin one recent morning, “since birth.” Some agony is involved in this long delayed (67 years!) realization. The metamorphosis is not fully complete. But the fact that it’s happening is due to a cause way below the radar for most adamantly secular liberal progressives.
That morning I announced I’d been an anarchist ‘since birth,’ Orin’s immediate response was, “we’re all anarchists at birth.” That my writing embodies the struggle to achieve an anarchist identity, rather than one already fully formed, suggests to me it may offer something to the majority who do not know their true ontological anarchist condition and who thus, like me thoroughly conditioned to bourgeois expectations, cannot reconcile the split in themselves. My personal struggle against this unnatural, consuming “Mother” wearing the reassuring face of neoliberalism, expresses something likely true for others who may not be in position to recognize it. Few of us who are so imaginatively disempowered by the scathing thoroughness of triumphant secular rationalism, escape the colonization of our souls by the neoliberal context. Some few, born within still functioning human cultures, are armed against it from birth or a very early age. But for most of us, this isn’t so. We adapt from an early age; with no anarchist peoples’ history education to counter it, no humanizing mythology, we come to at best embody the splitting observed by Robert Jay Lifton in his studies of the Nazi doctors and their horrific experiments. In this way, most of us, bereft of the imagination’s power to identify, as the Wobblies did, that an injury done to the poorest of our brothers and sisters is “an injury to all,” are monsters in the making.
In the modern neoliberal context nice white people are faced with a choice most do not even see; that is, to be either monsters-in-the-making, blindly adapting to the neoliberal project, or humbly, often invisibly and at times hopelessly working as damaged humans to preserve the human “project.” Some few of us are both.
Fifteen years ago, when Orin and I started our coffee shop in Utica, we tacitly understood it had something subversive about it. Although as a business it participated in the profit-driven “market economy,” as an establishment equally devoted to community-building it defied the rules. One or two friends at the time understood it this way; maybe they saw, as we could not back then, the Cafe’s true anarchist motive. Our friend underground film maker Lech Kowalski, for instance, called the Cafe “revolutionary, in a way.” Its revolutionary “aura” arising not from a political motive per se, but from the fact that the business was built upon, based in, a “mystical” vision of oneness; it had behind it that ‘electric charge’ the writer Hakim Bey points to. Our little urban Cafe’s attractiveness for many people is not mainly a political identification; it’s based in the Cafe’s embodiment of the archetypal “One-and-Many,” that includes community, connection, reconciliation, mutuality – things so “ordinary” that no one bothers to notice they are aspects of endangered humanity, they exist rarely and precariously in our shared neoliberal world, and they are deeply anarchist.
Thus anarchist without knowing it, our activism as we’ve long understood it was keeping the Cafe and The Other Side, our nonprofit arts space, going; these have pre-occupied us while others occupied Wall St. In so doing, Orin and I followed a mutually understood division of labor: I was the dreamer, the shaman keeping us connected to the electric charge, to the vision. Orin was the one whose large personality, practical know-how, Italian taste for good things, and Sicilian cunning put the legs underneath the air castle. Both kinds of labor were equally valid and valued in our community of two.
Besides our being preoccupied with keeping our projects going, our reticence to ally with traditional activism and radical identification had another cause. The dogmatic rationalism that reigns among secular progressive “lefties,” (and which now we might discern as the reason there is no left left), was personally offensive to me. Because my spiritual experience was real and had been gained at a cost, I found the smug atheism of my leftie friends intolerable. On the other hand, the fact that most of our customers cannot appreciate the Cafe’s “mystic” origins has a simple and forgivable cause; their imaginations cannot extend beyond the dominant, given bourgeois (neoliberal) reality which is also secular and hyper-rationalist. They have not reached, and do not seek, the kind of awareness I found through undergoing an intense psycho-spiritual crisis and a process of recovery informed as much by myth as by psychotherapeutic technique. They have not had the “electric” experience of direct “mystic” encounter which is at the foundation of religions, and which also is passed on in all eras to the wider culture via the shamanic experience of poets, artists, and musicians. Though such experience is supra-ordinary it is also common as grass and democratically available to everyone. That is, neither state nor institutions, including religion, can proscribe the individual from having such experience. Unfortunately,in our times repression in the old top-down way is no longer necessary; the path to individual identity, born in freedom of – and authority in – imagination, is blocked by unconscious enslavement to dominant bourgeois reality from which, I stress, there is no other escape.
Some readers may see what I’m saying as conflating two phenomena that should remain distinct: that is, direct mystical experience such as is gained through hallucinogenics, intense spiritual discipline, or intensive psychotherapy as in my case, and the conviction that one is a free being in the committed political, anarchist sense. The fact that thousands of hippies who experienced God through tripping on acid, then went on to become Wall St. bankers or liberal academics would seem to confirm this. Such splits routinely occur. The fear of being a “loser” under the terms of the economic order, fear of no longer belonging in the majority, of dropping into marginality – is prohibitive, it is too close to death.
Few of us can entirely avoid jobs and the psycho-spiritual splitting they cause, but we can, all of us, avoid unconscious barbarism. If this seems like a spurious difference, recall Malcolm X’s famously saying he’d rather deal with a southern bigot than a northern liberal because at least with the former he knew where he stood. Besides, only if one is consciously ill (we speak here of spiritual illness), can one’s illness be treated. Allowed to linger unconsciously, the illness wreaks consequences of barbarism unchecked, continuing the monstrous splitting that has made us so violent and destructive. Surely choosing consciousness is the better path, and if suffering is involved, as increased consciousness surely does involve, we can console ourselves that, in taking back the suffering that’s rightfully ours, in some measure we refuse any longer to inflict suffering unconsciously on others, as we have done consistently throughout our long history dominated by racism, greed, conquest, imperialism, exploitation, and will continue to do as long as we cannot change our relationship, as free beings, within the economic order.
If I had $100 for every time we heard, back in the early days of our Cafe, from someone who’d once had a similar dream, but did not act on it, I’d, well, I’d have a few grand in my pocket. It’s time we ordinary rustbelt flyover Americans considered how we might take upon ourselves the human preservation project, which happens also to be the anarchist project, the anti-fascist project and emphatically, the mystic’s project. One way, for sure, is through taking up one’s art, not “for art’s sake,” or even for the revolution’s sake, but, as D.H. Lawrence proclaimed, “for my sake,” the sake of each one’s fully endangered human being that needs (yours, my)active and ongoing commitment to its preservation. Upon this basis, and only this basis, can human-supportive conditions, in local businesses, in activist groups and organizations, communities, and families be built, and proper social roles be re-established in mutuality and trust. Truly, all we have to lose are our golden chains of bourgeois reality.