The 1% will always attempt to seize powerful technologies and institutions to pacify all of us—especially young people. To manage these technologies and institutions, the 1% needs technocrats, administrators, and guards; thus, what would help is what Howard Zinn called a “revolt of the guards.”
— Bruce E. Levine, “Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt”
“…there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency….Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me.”
— Rieux, in Camus’s The Plague
…[H]umility, the hardminded realism and rejection of drama…are essential to the survivor’s outlook. His matter-of-factness is rooted in the knowledge that survival depends on staying human.
— Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life In the Death Camps
It is as if amid the smoke of burning bodies the great metaphors of world literature were being “acted out” in terrible fact—death and resurrection,damnation and salvation, the whole of spiritual pain and exultation in passage through the soul’s dark night.”
Recently, at a party hosted by an artist friend and his wife, I found myself seated with Peggy, a woman probably in her late sixties like me, who’d recently taken a trip to Israel with a small group of our liberal friends. The woman who’d organized the trip, Israeli-born, and now head administrator of a large non-profit social service organization in Utica, was seated nearby. The trip occurred around the same time as the switch of the capital to Jerusalem blessed by our President and unarmed Palestinians were gunned down in Gaza. Knowing the visit was not planned as a gesture of support for the Palestinians, I had privately wondered if it were not akin to visiting Germany as tourists in 1937, or South Africa under apartheid, that is, could it be anything but a blessing of the Fascist status quo?
Seizing the opportunity to inquire, I spoke carefully; for my goal was not to establish my own moral superiority. But caution has its costs; I’m convinced some of what we think of as old age’s difficulty with memory and clear expression is the cost of too much liberal dissembling. Fumbling a little, I asked if during their visit any reference had been made to the Palestinian “situation.” Immediately, I felt the intensity in my question! The artists I know are without exception liberals, not communists, socialists or anarchists. Among these folks, unaccustomed to their bouts of fairly generous alcohol consumption ending in passionate and even angry political arguments, as in the parties one reads about that occurred in leftist artist circles in pre-WWII days, I had unexpectedly stumbled into the real.
I thought I caught the eye fleetingly of the Israeli-born trip leader; I wondered if she might speak, but she did not. Peggy answered without self-consciousness that the Palestinians had not been mentioned once during the 10-day trip; she was referring to their hosts, but implied was the fact that neither she nor any of her companions had mentioned them either. And that was that.
Here was lesser-of-two evilism exposed! Here is the bind so many are willing to endure; to hold onto a liberal (i.e., libertarian, progressive, anti-war, pro-environment) self- identity, and yet to be incapable of standing for it. To enjoy the flattering identity of liberalism, and yet, on another level, to know it’s better to be “caught dead than Red,” better to be people who can consume trips to exotic locations and enjoy good wine than to be like Orin and me, aging hippies living in the past eternally fighting lost causes.
I do see their point! But I can’t help feeling, now, as I sit here, just between me and my word processor, that that is how we’re supposed to be, that is, standing for something. We’re supposed to be mensches! But everything – everything! – in my social environment says, aw, why bother? When I am up and about and no longer alone with my computer screen, which obligingly shares my opinions and in fact goads me to go further with my anarchist thoughts, I am instantly assailed by self-doubt and self-recrimination. The inner fascist sneers at me, Who died and left you to play God? What makes youso god-a-mighty self righteous?
Bruce Levine, in his recent article for CounterPunch, points out the unlikelihood of a revolutionary motivation coming from millennials due to the many ways they’re being systematically convinced of their worthlessness. He calls for what Howard Zinn coined a “revolt of the guards,” that is, a revolt of people positioned in technologies and institutions, to subvert the dominant message of obedience to and compliance with the aims and dehumanizing values of capitalism. Inasmuch as parents are the first institutional “guards,” the first enforcers of the system that works to disempower, it’s clear to me theproblem begins with ourselves. Most of those in my generation know no more how to regain the personal dignity and the necessary spiritual energy for revolution than do the multiply-beset millennials Levine describes.
But how indeed to incite a revolt of the guards, those who, though conflicted, most benefit from the places granted them within capitalism? Here in Utica, normal days bring a predictability and sameness that invites, for me, almost overwhelming pressure to rejoin the suffocating dominant bourgeois narrative and co-breathe the fake shared air of the air-conditioned nightmare. Immersion in “life on the ground,” where America plays out in real time, makes the survival of an independent, anarchist, human perspective something constantly threatened, as challenged and battered as a Black American’s positive identity. When I am conscious of this reality and not directing blame at myself, I am aware of the “extremity” – the word used by Des Pres to describe the conditions of the death camps – under which we live today.
Such a reference may seem unwarranted and even offensive. But, like the survivors documented in Des Pres’ work we have been – are being – systematically robbed of the conditions that make living humanly, meaningfully, possible, including the possibility of revolt. In the wake of the mass and mechanized slaughter of the 20thcentury, in the context of increasingly reducing our humanity to fit ourselves into the economic system and its technological dream, we soldier unsteadily on; in some ways, our survival appears to depend upon how well we can deny and morally distance ourselves from atrocities and plunder that continue, many but not all in far off places, and from which our tattered and dying civilization obtains the means to perpetuate itself.
Its as if we cannot both and at the same time be aware of the monstrous brutality our lives, livelihoods, and homes are built upon, andpossess the basic confidence to live, think, act at all.
Reading Des Pres, this is the dilemma of consciousness and conscience faced by death camp survivors.
We who profess to care about our brothers and sisters are faced with the stark reality that today, humanity, to be retained, must be rooted in something outside our civilization. That is the problem. To me this does not suggest a specific program or system to replace the current one, not socialism or communism, or any precise envisioning of that perfected social order. The problem would not be solved by returning to hunting and gathering, becoming organic farmers or, like medieval monastic communities, dedicating ourselves to preserving the best of that civilization. To be based in an outsider “ground,” a seeming impossibility, is dependent neither upon living in the city or the country, in San Francisco or East St. Louis, but on the willingness to be rooted in one’s individual return to the ongoing, extremely humble process of becoming human, essentially the anarchist project, its outcome longed for but undetermined.
In this way, we who want to be good, humane, just, etc. are subjected, though in a different way, to the same choices faced by the holocaust and gulag survivors held up by Des Pres as heroes, facing “the slow, deliberate process of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.” Our heroism, like theirs, will not be the kind we’ve learned about. Neither will it be heroism like author Des Pres’s, who committed suicide in 1987. As an academic, he shared (I’m guessing) the modern liberal progressive attitude toward religion and “non-scientific knowing” generally, his imagination maimed in the modern way. Though in order to complete his work, he unflinchingly absorbed the facts of the horror inflicted upon those millions of others, perhaps Des Pres could not imagine himself as a sufferer except in the isolated, existentialist way that logically concludes with suicide. That is, he could not know his own suffering as the heroism understood in myth, or in “the great metaphors of world literature,” as that which isthe common destiny of men and women when freedom is differentiated from “the American Dream.”
The suffering that comes with living true to the erotic, innate, creative drive of one’s nature, to one’s principles, including mutuality, repudiates the absolute freedom from constraint falsely promised by technology and neoliberalism. It places one in the extremity wherein death is no longer a remote and denied abstraction. This ‘extremity’is our reality as conscious embodiment. For most white middle class people, the worst cruelty and oppression our society inflicts is usually occurring “off-screen;” their (faux) freedom is maintained by denial of the extremity and also of the brutality. On the other hand, conscious suffering in the extremity of our time is not possible to bear within the given, strictly and smugly rationalist basis of the capitalist order; another basis is demanded if one is not to become one of the “dead souls,” murdered in spirit, even though the body may be fit, nutritionally well cared for, and exceedingly well traveled.
To maintain that identity I am calling anarchist today, is, emphatically, a matter of living it out “on the ground” and in “real time.” It’s remaining skeptical of the koolaids and bromides that allow one to remain deaf dumb and blind to the extremity your life and mineare today lived under. It’s staying in place, within communities and families and localities over time amidst a dying natural world, exactly countering the call of virtual, disembodied freedom that lures us to further and more perfected dehumanization. Anarchist identity asks the unthinkable of the modern man or woman; to realize the true boundedness of one’s individual life, opening the door to the reality of death but also to the reality of freedom.
Metaphor, or art, makes possible what otherwise would not be – i.e., living consciously in relation to death. It places one’s consciousness in a “between” place in the manner of meditation. What religion once did, art must now do. When creative work is not the sovereign essential of one’s life, the social and financial demands of everyday life easily dominate, and the context – neoliberal, capitalist, competitive, profits-over-people, etc.- in which these needs are met, remains the supreme reality. Giving time each day to the useless, “self-serving,” solitary activities of reflection and art isthe outsider place upon which independent thought – i.e., free, human thought – depends. If no time is available for uselessness, for granting reality to the imaginary and the “not real,” the anarchist self becomes a will-o-the-wisp, a barely recalled and probably ridiculous notion; the guards, instead of revolting, keeping watch over the enslaved.
Des Pres’ survivors, those few who made it through the initial shock of finding themselves in the camps, made a conscious turn; many of them determined “I wanted to live to tell of this.” This was the call to art; having experienced it, “they now paid attention, not to the horror or their own pain, but to the development of conditions which had to be judged constantly in terms of their potential for life or for death. Survivors thus acquire a capacity for realism…and with it the ability to learn, to know, to fight back…” The capacity to exist in reality as it is, and to fight back, depends not on a courage parceled out to the few, but on the creativity that is everyone’s at birth and each one’s duty to take up.