In “The Postmodern Condition” the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard painted a picture of the future neoliberal order as one in which “the temporary contract” supplants “permanent institutions in the professional, emotional, sexual, cultural, family and international domains, as well as in political affairs.” This temporal relationship to people, things, institutions and the natural world ensures collective self-annihilation.
– Chris Hedges, The Rule of the Uber-rich….
People who are capable of dissent but incapable of disobedience are often uncomfortable challenging the very legitimacy of that authority to wield power. In contrast, genuine anti-authoritarians are comfortable with both dissent and disobedience when they deem authority to be illegitimate.
– Bruce E. Levine, Vital Ignored Truths In Milgram’s… Studies
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground….The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both, …but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will….
– Frederick Douglass (quoted in Zinn’s People’s History)
When I taught public speaking I frequently had students view a commencement address given by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Though I’ve not read her books, I knew many students knew Harry Potter through books and movies. It made a decent speech for discussion as it was so highly organized around two points, failure and imagination, as well as being genuinely interesting and inspiring. Her ingenious idea was to talk to Harvard graduates, many of whom had likely not yet failed at anything, about the value, even the necessity, of learning from failure in order to live a larger life, with compassion for others and self.
The message was spot on, but highly unlikely to have inspired anyone listening to seek the wisdom of failure for themselves, either at Harvard or at the state college where I taught. The idea of failure bears the hiss of the snake and its hideous rattle; to be avoided for dear life. That this is so is no accident, for those who learn the deeper wisdom of failure will likely come to feel that success on capitalism’s terms is failure in human terms. (For this reason, the poets, artists, prophets and anarchists who can teach us the wisdom of failure are marginalized, i.e., to appear as failures.)
Going further with the idea, learning to fail may in fact provide the basis for a revolution that begins with overthrowing the dominant neoliberal worldview that thrives on the illusion reality can be controlled and predicted, and on our terror of acknowledging our true condition, i.e., powerlessness. There’s much agreement on the left that no way exists out of the ongoing catastrophe driven by global capitalist hegemony, other than mass disobedience. Therefore, I suggest the most radical call to disobedience that could be made to liberal middle class white people is to refuse, en masse, success on capitalism’s terms, just say “I prefer not to,” i.e., to fail.
Revolutionary refusal of success includes refusing the prized freedom of lifestyle that dresses up capitalism and to which society is addicted. This freedom to live within temporal arrangements has disastrously distorted the meaning of liberty and so weakened our wills that we no longer can act decisively, courageously, purposefully from our deepest humanity. When “freedom” means relativizing the connections of life that “humanize,” that ennoble our lives with meaning and purpose, the worth and value of which cannot be supported by science or reason – then such a freedom must be refused. I refer here mainly to the relationships that bind the individual in family and community, with the land that is one’s ground, and to one’s creative work. If freedom has come to mean the individual freedom to succeed materially, which clearly leaves out the majority of people, who don’t even get up to bat, let alone be born on third base, revolution begins in refusing the path to success and its rewards. Refuse the schools, refuse the family diasporas, refuse the relocation for better pay, the nice suburban neighborhood, the vacation home, the white collar salary and perks, the technology upgrades, etc. As well, refuse the hierarchical notion of “jobs,” that make manager superior to worker, principal a step up from teacher, etc. Refuse a shallow freedom by which commitments freely made, such as to marriage and to a place, are abandoned with no one ever the wiser as to what such “permanencies” are for, and where they can lead if the human “stakes” are properly understood. Much humanity-sustaining knowledge having to do with “standing in” in traditional and satisfying solidarities has been lost already. There’s much to relearn, but this learning is in reach of every person, a new type of heroism that sacrifices for the sake of re-embodying love.
To disobey in these ways is to move from “dissent” to actual disobedience that can, in the sense Bruce Levine describes, disempower illegitimate authority. To stand in such a radical disobedience, the disobedience of failure, leaves one seeking a different loyalty beyond the accustomed reassurances of bourgeois neoliberal reality. There has to be a reliance upon a different knowing, a different and higher truth that is blocked from awareness in the modern, secular liberal context, but for those who can admit failure, is inexhaustibly available. To radically disobey, the postponed meet-up with “God” within, the one we’ve avoided since we smartened up in high school or college, and that’s bypassed in our context of scientist supremacy, is no longer an option. The only legitimate authority is located in the imaginative soul whose wisdom, serving positive desire, can sustain the authentically heroic passage past habitual obedience to radical struggle.
Obedience to legitimate authority challenges the hegemony of routine temporality, alluded to by Chris Hedges in the epigraph above. Temporality explains not only the absence of fellow-feeling among the “uber-rich,” but among us all, an isolation we cannot accept. For too long we’ve gone down the path of caving in to the temporality imposed upon us. Way too readily have we divested ourselves of the familial, communal, and place-based ties our ancestors handed down to us as a kind of common sense foundation, to them probably the most important thing, something they could take for granted as a shared value, as we no longer can. However, even as mass protest and mass demonstrations are being made increasingly impossible under the corporate state, each individual is yet free to commit to desire for the creative spirit itself, which thrives in the soil of the local, familial and communal, and following which we can threaten capitalism, so smugly confident of our consumerist obedience, to its foundations.
I will not argue we should go backwards to serve tradition in order to restore a rigidly hierarchical universe, as religious fundamentalists do. But if, as Hedges suggests, temporality has taken the place of the permanencies of the heart and caused the “uber-rich” to compulsively accumulate wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else and of the earth, we hardly have a place to stand when we have given ourselves over to the same.
Is it not possible that the revolution now must consist of people saying no to everything we’ve been taught is the proper, smart, successful, way to live? Isn’t it now possible that we really are called to live differently? I’m not necessarily suggesting Paleo-anarchism, or Walden Pond back-to-the-landism, to “Luddhism” or to some specific “Golden Age” to which we ought to return. But could we not make our intention be to consciously withdraw from this system that after all serves not our interests but those of this tiny circle of loathsome uber-rich who care only about themselves? Could we not take up civil disobedience against unjust civilization itself, that must have its lopsided preference for scientific positivism as against the unprovable but entirely knowable reality thatispermanent and unchanging?
To voluntarily down scale, to smash the machine, one must have in place the coherence of a thoughtworld, a foundation in imagination, without which defying the “wisdom” of one’s own age isn’t possible and will never be undertaken by more than a handful. Even were we to restore Paleo-anarchism (for instance), we would still face the difficulty of regaining the lost permanence, of finding the meaningfulness underlying the restored bonds of community and family needed to compensate for the restriction on personal freedom and material comfort that would be demanded. Meaning will not simply reappear because living arrangements are changed. And without a positive basis for meaning, people will not willingly simplify; impoverishment, like a diet, is merely deprivation. Thoreau did not take to the woods as if removing himself from civilization were just a matter of building a “tiny house,” giving up material commodified goods and so on. In fact, his actual “lifestyle” changes (I understand his experiment was not permanent, and that he was not fully “off the grid”) were secondary to the thought world he inhabited as a writer and poet, to his faith in invisible spiritual reality that allowed him to live in abundance while living simply.
Please don’t take my word for this. In fact, as I’m saying, the struggle to restore the rule of love against the rule of the machine that works ceaselessly on behalf of the “uber-rich” at the expense of everyone else will not be taken on until/unless people experience metaphysical reality for them (your)selves. That is, until people discover within the authority by which their lives are ordered. Such a discovery, that through the soul we are connected to the Divine and to each other, is a confirmation of something already known that has come to appear suspect, doubtful, make-believe, under the dominant temporal nihilism.
The implication here is more than just that people have a spiritual experience of “Oneness,” which countless Westerners have had. If such experiences are to be more than bourgeois window dressing, if the purposes of personal integrity and social integration are to be achieved, a politics of resistance is demanded of those so blessed. Spiritual/shamanic experience finds its natural expression in anarchist resistance to the machine whose lie is, everything is temporary and separate. The core of resistance to neoliberal reality, that has forsaken the human in favor of the Gospel of progress and the soullessness of the machine, lies in restoring permanence, commitment, stability, continuity in this life relationships in families, communities, and with the land, right where we are. If this sounds heartwarming, be advised: it is the path of failure. You will not survive its trials except by means of your art.