[Speaking of the early 20thcentury American labor movements of working class people]…One of their main slogans was a condemnation of what they called the “new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” That new spirit…they regarded as a violation of fundamental human nature and a degrading idea.
— Noam Chomsky, On Anarchism
I’m on my way to Europe to work for awhile…because I can get more work there playing my own music and because if you try to do anything different in this country, people put you down for it.
— Eric Dolphy, notes to Out To Lunch, LP(1964)
A few weekends ago, our little nonprofit jazz venue in Utica NY, The Other Side, hosted a performance by the Joseph Daley Tuba Trio, a group of experienced musicians – Warren Smith on drums and a variety of percussion, Scott Robinson on saxophones and flutes, tubist Daley – on tour paying tribute to the free jazz compositions of the late Sam Rivers. The band had contacted us needing a place to play on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. We were the only venue that said Yes, due to Orin’s having done a quick research on the musicians and to his being so impressed he said “we have to.” Maybe due to the unusual nature of the music, or maybe from the courage of the musicians – two black and one white – in bringing far out improvisational jazz outside of hip metro areas into parochial upstate towns, but, in the end, the musicians left behind them something priceless: a waft of that energizing spirit of freedom so missing here in the everyday enveloping bourgeois reality of life in Utica or I suspect, Anywhere, USA.
When Joseph Daley, right at the start, counseled the audience to let go of our “pre-conceptions and assumptions” about what we might hear, he asked of us something that sounds simple but isn’t. For the space of an evening we did our best, inhabiting a room together where freedom, sound improvisation, and friendship were dominant. We learned the three musicians have played together for years, their music a “conversation” between friends. In fact this tour was conceived of to help Joseph get back on his feet after the death of his wife. Thus one might even say that love was also dominant in the room that night.
Like other people, we Uticans aren’t necessarily ready to have our expectations disturbed. Living on the margins of the empire as we do, in a place irrelevant to global free market capitalism, we form habits and routines that “get us through the day,” with the help of a few craft beers. But, beyond the question of whether or not we “liked” the music (some – mostly younger – did, some didn’t), it brought us something important and necessary. Having our expectations challenged, though we may resist strenuously and cling to what we know, allowed us a peek at that broader view – the opened doors of perception – that connects the local to the global and universal and even the eternal.
To me, such an experience reveals the prospect of the freedom those of us trapped inside bourgeois identity desperately need. Day-in-day-out adaptation to the ways of empire and its assumptions makes freedom strange, distasteful and dangerous. I’d go so far as to suggest that people who identify as “liberals,” (not excluding myself) though they may be surprised to hear it, feel that danger especiallykeenly and are highly susceptible to it. The liberal’s position within corporate-dominated American politics is shakier, less capitalism-approved, more inherently suspect than our Republican brothers and sisters. Though professing libertarian attitudes, to survive in our hostile competitive free market environment, the liberal is likely to separate her public self from the convictions of her personal soul. So close to marginality herself, wanting always to be on the side of the marginalized but never joining them, the liberal is terrified of crossing that boundary that comes with the embrace of her own truth. Liberals who must prove ourselves as being as lovable to Capitalism as our Republican brethren, then, must in turn limit their activism to the approved and the ultimately inconsequential. Really, the oligarchs are little concerned if we hate Trump and think he let the Russians help determine the election; they are alarmed only insofar as we retain our human souls and the (anarchist) unity of our individual integrity, which stand utterly opposed to oppressive, totalitarian premises of corporate capitalist imperialism.
The supreme gift of the evening for Orin and me came as we sat at the bar across the street, after the performance. Saxophonist Scott Robinson had recently been on tour in Pakistan. He told us our little venue reminded him of the last place he’d played in Pakistan. The difference, he explained, was that the owners in Pakistan were doing something forbidden, which could have cost them – I assume he meant literally – their heads.
Hearing this, I marveled: all the difficulty and strain, the suffering I can only call existentialwe undergo in keeping the doors of our small anarchist establishments (the coffee shop and The Other Side) open, suddenly made sense. As our Pakistani counterparts do, we do something subversive in Utica. It will not, however, get us in trouble with the repressive state; our subversion is irritant to the dominant horizontalbourgeois (and fear-driven) mentality, whose chief “weapon” is invisibilizing others. We – that is, Orin and I – can do what we like, be as radically pro-arts and pro-humanity as we please, we will neither be disapproved of nor approved of. This is the form white supremacist oppression takes against anti-fascist white people in liberal America. The powerful weapon of invisibility is applied to that aspect of behaviors, deeds, enterprises that defies capitalist conventions that prioritize profits over compassion, beauty and truth: its subversion, its anarchism, simply will not be seen. Thus, the attempt to liveaccording to anti-capitalist principles puts one involuntarily on the side with the poor, the black, all the marginalized and others, and will result, despite white skin, in sharing the invisibility of that side of the cruelly imbalanced world we inhabit together, the part of the world outside whiteness and invisible to it. Though a far cry from losing one’s head, the threat of being rendered invisible, of being banished from neoliberal shared reality, is real and very effective.
Everyone knows the story of tax-resister (against the Mexican War) Henry David Thoreau, spending his single night in the Concord jail and being seen through the barred window by his friend, Waldo Emerson. Emerson is supposed to have asked his friend, Henry why are you in here?And Thoreau to have replied, Mr. Emerson, why are you notin here?Apocryphal or not, it depicts a distinction between those who act on their moral discernment and take the consequences for so acting, and those who may share the moral perspective but draw the line at taking the risk of “outing themselves” to authority.
The current situation for activism in America is the reverse of the Thoreau story. Around us in Utica the local resistance activists are highly active; for this they can hardly be faulted. In fact, there are so many directions in which to put their action, i.e., unseating our horrendous U.S. Representative Claudia Tenney, Women’s marches, Me Too, the March for Our Lives, etc., that they are kept constantly acting. Meanwhile, the little group with whom I’ve begun to meet, most of us newly identifying as anarchist, though some are wobblies and antifa, mainly, for the moment, just read and talk. Implicitly we share certainties, partly spoken and partly felt, that are our bond. One such certainty: were we to commit to the Citizen Action group that efficiently organizes the local resistance actions, it would be but a matter of time, before we would have to ask them why they limit their activism to the feasible, to the terms that are given? Our newly minted anarchist group is joined in an implicit agreement: we no longer can go along with the charade that won’t deplore the capitalists, the oligarchs and plutocrats who are running our country and are responsible for making a mockery of democratic processes, for ongoing war, unchecked environmental destruction, horrific income inequality, mass incarceration, unchecked gun violence, etc. Implicitly, we know that our participation would be tolerated only as long as we joined the pretense that the change we need is putting Democrats into office.
In effect, though in Utica the liberal progressives are for the moment the politically active ones and might well ask of uswhat we’redoing “staying inside,” our question to them must be, but why are you not out here on the margins with us? Just because Capitalism is too big to fight? You mean you’d rather fight a battle you have a chance of winning, i.e., applying the doctrine of lesser evilism, even if its the wrong fight?
Hiddenness and marginalization, not of our choosing, is imposed on those who ally themselves with the most vulnerable, putting their activism on the side of the common good rather than on the side of electing the Democrat. Those who are libertarian socialists, anarchists and anti-fascists are going to be made invisible and had better prepare ourselves, imaginatively and spiritually, to be non-rich and non-famous, just in case! Neoliberalism, uncomfortable with the exposed quality of “extreme” political positions, whether of right or left, is naturally uncomfortable facing a conviction differing from those certain truths of bourgeois capitalism. However, even more daunting for the freeing of the anarchist soul than distancing by the liberal brethren, is the disapproval of the “neoliberal white person” enthroned within. The colonized soul conditions each person, stripped of a humanly supportive culture, to dissemble, to evade the truth of his/her own being. We’re far indeed from the “strong rich American culture” of the late 19th -early 20thcentury working class, largely European immigrants, that ended up, in Chomsky’s words, “crushed by violence.” Several generations later, the soul-deep certainty of this old, lost culture (i.e., that well-being is ultimately a collective matter) still exists “deep down” in every person. But in our proudly Christianity-professing society it is nearly insurmountably difficult to “out” oneselfas an integrated whole, one’s individual identity intact, and thus to openly cherish the spiritual truth of interdependence, unity, the belief that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
I do not know what lesson, if any the Tuba Triointendedto impart. But surely it must be important to have occasions when people are asked to let go of pre-conceptions and assumptions, to trust, and to begin to feel what freedom, improvisation, and friendship really feel like. For, in the end, the unifying experience of trust and love feels better than fear and hate, but people have to be able to take that leap. Those who take it must be ambassadors for a region that is largely and officially disbelieved in, forced always to rejoin the dominant, bleak and dispiriting reality where the “good fight” to be human is made invisible. But if we knowthat other reality, and if we are, as much as possible, instruments of its creative and energizing life, we are obligated, whether in Pakistan or here, to attempt to bring it to others, to testify to its existence in our art and all we build, make or maintain, and accept the consequences.