A genuine revolution of values means…our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their societies.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
…the employed, the somewhat privileged are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails…[which] will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable… Howard Zinn, A Peoples’ History of the U.S.
The first thing that strikes me on hearing a Misfortune having befallen another is this. “Well, it cannot be helped.–he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit,” and I beg now, my dear Bailey, that hereafter should you observe anything cold in me not to put it to the account of heartlessness but abstraction.” John Keats, Letters
The hermit said: “Because the world is mad,/The only way through the world is to learn/The arts and double the madness. Are you listening? Robert Bly, Listening
I first heard of Howard Zinn’s idea of a “revolt of the guards,” last April in a Counterpunch piece by Bruce Levine (“Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt Against Being Screwed”). The idea fascinates me, being myself in that class of the “slightly privileged,” at its lower end, and understanding the powerfully effective impasse we make to the revolution from below when we fail to realize that our wan and “wussy” “neutrality,” our refusal to pass judgment on neoliberal evil is evil. Due to the unlikelihood of insurgency sprouting among the non-needy, which he surely could see, Zinn’s idea must have been as much prayer as prediction!
What are the chances for this revolt, 20 years after Zinn made his prayer/prediction, there being so little evidence of it among the liberal guards, who, rather, continue to look for saviors? (The latest iterations of which are evidenced in the joy and hope surrounding the recent elections to public office of indigenous, Latino and other minority people.) We asked this question in our Anti-fascist Book Club as we finished reading Zinn’s Peoples’ History together. One of our young group members said she thought this guard revolt could happen with the young people who, like her, face a world of lower expectations with less privilege to go around. But according to Levine, young Americans don’t revolt despite the fact they’re being screwed. In fact, he suggests that the young, increasingly “pained and weakened by multiple oppressive forces” need help from the older people, i.e., from fully engaged, non-neutral older people , whose interest is in the larger good. This means that, this time around, we older ones cannot look to the young to lead, as happened in the 1960’s. Then, many older liberals, though casting votes for anti-war candidates, became self-interestedly rebellious, survivalist and sometimes silly (parodied so well by Peter Sellers in I Love You Alice B. Toklas), rather than genuinely anti-authoritarian and communitarian. They never admitted their “alliance with the elite,” as their aging children, now similarly allied, for the most part also don’t admit.
The responsibility to revolt is ours who actively keep the system going with our loyalty; it cannot be passed off. To withdraw our loyalty from the system is, however, at the same time to initiate a crisis that few-to-none among those of us risen to be the guards of technology and institutions have been prepared for. The refusal of the guard role, and the stepping up to the role of what must be called eldering, are just the beginning of a life-long process. The knowledge of what it is to be human, lost over generations of the white liberal bourgeois class who have gone along with increasing mechanization, blind faith in progress and unlimited growth, and the successful destruction of religious imagination, must be painstakingly regathered. I speak from some experience: Twenty years ago my husband left his high school teaching job in large part because the role of enforcing obedience was personally too painful for him. He quit just at the 10-year mark, a move that was inexplicable, eccentric, and probably alarming to our friends. I persisted as an adjunct college instructor for over 30 years, the last 20 of which were in full awareness of my role, if not as institutional guard, as one of Blake’s priests, “binding with briars their joys and desires” (in particular, my own).
For both of us, the guards’ revolt meant equally the re-establishment of the primacy of “joys and desires,” a more formidable, long-term task than quitting the job, but, it is very true, a task not possible to pursue fully when still performing even part-time in the guard role. Even part-time, the necessary and unconfessed resignation to joylessness as one plods through classes and semesters feeds the passivity and obedience. While a teacher might ruefully confess that she’s aware she serves the education industry, preparing people for jobs rather than providing an education, she’s unlikely to make a more life-altering admission that can be made only if she has changed her innermost loyalties. Thus it is that primacy of joys and desires to which I direct my “revolutionary” efforts, for I believe the guards can sustain genuine revolt only insofar as their first cause is their bliss, not altruism.
In imagining a revolt of the guards, we’re not meaning the scenario we’ve heard of, in which the police or the military, called in to put down a rebellion, refuse to fire on their friends and neighbors who are revolting, but something more complicated and harder to visualize. By now, our communities are so successfully fragmented and divided that in most cases we cannot even appeal to that neighborly kind of loyalty. Moreover, our institutional guards do not oppress with guns, but with their (our) own unconscious obedience to illegitimate authority whose first “victim,” ourselves, is such that inner authority, because so unused, may as well not exist.
The other day, a friend and customer, Charlie, a man our age, talked to us about the movie he’d watched the previous night, Lucky. Actor Harry Dean Stanton’s last film, apparently (we have not seen it), his character confronts death in an unblinking kind of way. Charlie, who on many occasions has confessed his outsized fear of personal death, was clearly shaken up. His manner suggested to me his upset was something I’d naturally share (for who does not fear death?). But instead, it caused me briefly to wonder if he might be referring to the larger death we face as planetary citizens, i.e., to the common threat we face together. For a moment my heart quickened: was Charlie edging over to a more radical perspective from the liberal round he and his friends doggedly persist in? But that wasn’t it after all. It was just his old death obsession kicking up; it’s life, not death, he fears.
Loyalty to that punitive “God” that commands the suppression of joys and desires is our in-common conditioning, and its guardianship is far more effective than guns. Infiltrating all of our social contexts in the guise of our friends, including friends dear to us, its subtle persuasion comes silently, unconsciously, an ongoing insinuation of doubt seeping in as one struggles to maintain independence of thought. That doubt is reinforced a thousand-fold by 24-7 media propaganda, entertaining us while the toxic unspoken message – i.e., human beings have no intrinsic worth – gets slipped into the drink. How, in the context of friends, does one address this unbridgeable chasm in understandings? Functionally, activist friends motivated by anti-Trump animus (and Lesser-of-two-Evilism), are guards. But are these people – so complacent and untroubled in their unconscious loyalty, effortlessly distanced from “unrealistic” people like me, wholly unconcerned by the possibility they might be wrong – my friends? As I wage daily my personal struggle to maintain my orientation amidst the intensifying neoliberal fog, I must struggle as well to keep the compassionate thought foremost: the liberal who cannot question her truest loyalty is her own enemy first.
Though those calling for nonviolent mass resistance are right, and though there may be no time for a slow-cooking kind of paradigm shift, the needed revolution is not only, or at least not first, the one of “hitting the streets.” If it’s true that “wherever you go, there you are,” then its equally true that whatever your activism, you bring only you to it. In that sense, those who mistrust activists and activism are justified; by which I mean, if they were asking (though they are not) how will the new revolution provide the safe and approving context for one’s soul, so hideously and de-humanizingly absent under neoliberalism, the question is legitimate. What’s called for, to disobey illegitimate authority, is not a rebellious attitude, but one of determined compassion toward one’s creative alive self. The souls of liberal white people have been held in detention for several centuries; the first task of the revolution is to invite and approve the longings that are essential for human vitality.
My limitation as a revolutionary is I can advocate only for a revolution which concentrates first upon restoring the extremely endangered humanity in individual human beings. One can no longer predict a positive outcome for a revolution led by people with diminishing memory of (and skills necessary for maintaining) reliable community, true interdependence and mutual aid. For most white liberals. evidence of cooperative human nature are at best glimpsed during halcyonic interruptions such as provided by blizzards or power outages. Thus the revolt of the guards depends as much upon a restoration of proper loyalties as upon a rebellious spirit.
I am writing in mid-January, possibly the bleakest moment in the calendar year for central New Yorkers, when winter can be expected to continue fiercely and unrelievedly for a good three more months, for which there is no solution except the snow bird escape to Florida or Arizona, or the skiing and snowshoeing that rely on a degree of affluence. If we can call January a Keatsian “misfortune” befalling all of us in northern climates, then we might, first, refuse to reinforce weakness by escape or denial. Instead, we might use the opportunity to “try the resources of our spirit” and shift our consciousness to a basis other than the dogmatic rationalism we’ve been standing in since the Enlightenment triumph.
Reading January’s bleakness imaginatively, the harsh season that has no “solution” points in an analogous way to the unpaid, invisible, unrecognized, probably unrewarded effort of downward and inward (underground) focus on the process of being human. Here, now is the chance to find and strengthen the basis for oneself, distinct and separate from all the entangling others, an opportunity to individuate towards one’s own character and “anarchist” being, to restore the larger, realer loyalties that will make possible the revolt of the guards.
Failing in this humanizing project, the guards cannot revolt; their activism, though purposeful, is made absurd/ impossible in the context of the larger and criminally insane corporate system, with its impoverishing of the majority, its militarism, imperialism, fascistic direction, etc. Disobedience to the illegitimacy ruling our lives can come only by stepping outside it and “doubling the madness,” by being a loyal servant of the creative Spirit. It’s time to cease doing “good,” cease “helping,” and “caring” insofar as these activities substitute for and keep us from “trying the resources of the spirit.” This is not heartlessness; it is change, in the direction of indigenousness, of regaining the lost capacity to know that human life and community are intrinsically of worth (sacred), and intrinsically interconnected with the land, air, rivers, oceans, creatures large and small, that we must protect, defend and serve the whole. We cannot look to the Native Americans entering public life to “save us,” nor to a revolt of the young, nor to the next Democratic Presidential “hopeful.” It is time to get our wills out of neutral gear and engaged with Spirit.