Some of the most awful scenes from history or literature I can conjure in imagination are those in which a person who critiques the existing political structures – usually a story about Communist or other totalitarian society- is declared mad and sent to a mental institution where his claims to sanity fall on the horrifyingly deaf ears of sold-out doctors. “Oh, everyone here is “sane,” that’s what they all say, heh heh” The most frightening aspect of the current historical moment, with its multiple and terrifying threats, is the perception that I exist now inside this scene, completely under the authority of people I cannot trust, only the mental institution has been turned inside out, and the “enforcer” is perceived in the eye of my neighbors and even my friends! This is because, in general, though people can be trusted to be “good,” and they’re not actually spies or narcs, they will not, with very few exceptions, acknowledge the common enemy and thus, they will not be comrades. One is left to ask, if no one on this side of the institution’s walls shares my perception, then might not I be crazy?
The disorientation caused by this near-total abandonment of moral conviction is extreme. By what can I orient myself when the majority in my own and only social reality seem not to share the perception that something awful is being done to us, not only to immigrants and black people and poor people, but to white people who though we enjoy a degree of material security, lack an ennobling purpose, a cause “worth dying for.” Instead, our compelling choices are among unfiltered double IPAs and small-batch bourbons, or 500 cable TV offerings, or between two evils. The “intellectual life” of liberal society, appears to be fatally stuck in the enlightenment struggle against “superstition,” (meaning alternative bases for knowledge other than empirical science, authoritarian religion, and patriarchal hierarchy) – to some degree, a self-inflicted wound. Can there be then no “solid ground of truth” upon which to stand? Must we pretend that morality is inseparable from authoritarian religion (or from some other objectionable utopian fanaticism)? Must we be content to act as if moral clarity were impossible?
Surely, the “slipperiness” of the current cultural ground is one reason why people have stopped thinking, or, if they are among the lucky ones with a good job, good salary, health and retirement benefits, paid 2-week or more vacation, have limited their thinking to the bounds of the institution they serve, and to the range of discourse approved by NPR and The New York Times. Easier to jump into the waters of banality than to challenge institutional authority and wind up an obscure “other” without a job!
What I describe here is my experience of “inverse totalitarianism,” a term used by contemporary writers on the left, which, whenever I come across it, I have to think if I know what it means. If it is to be a term useful to social critique, people have to “get it,” as easily as one can “get” the awful power of czar Nicholas I when he demanded a disobedient soldier undergo the gauntlet of a thousand soldiers in two rows. What I take it to mean is that neoliberal society is as totalitarian and as cruel but less direct as any of its obvious predecessors. It maintains power by the fact that people, especially educated people, do not believe there’s a brutal power ruling us all; at most, a brutal aspect is revealed in its dealings with others; i.e., black people, immigrants, women, etc. Otherwise, to the degree we enjoy the incredibly reassuring comforts of bourgeois attainment, the power of capitalism is treated as if it were for the most part, benign. This disbelief that we exist under a brutal totality is disingenuous, but it makes it possible for the liberal class to require no top-down exercise of power from “tyrant” or police to enforce obedience; as many have observed, we now police ourselves.
Simply put, the thoughts of most people rarely stray as far as serious independent critique, rarely enter any sort of political “danger zone” because along the way to becoming smarter, richer and more technologically advanced and powerful, we made without realizing it, a major sacrifice having huge and unforeseen consequences: we forfeited the basis for our right to exist as human beings without which there is no blessing for our existence that can animate our private selves. To our human imaginations and emotions, this raw existentialism is extremely dissatisfying: Though clearly I am here inhabiting this individual consciousness of “me,” nothing I learn or am taught confirms for me why I am here! Who wanted me to be here? This dis-grace not only has befallen the unfortunates, the orphaned, the abused, and the immigrants driven from their native land by threats of war, starvation, etc., but, like God’s mercy, has fallen on everyone alike in industrial civilization.
We are left occupying a social context in which individuals cannot, either by means of a top-down (institutional religious) authority (i.e., the “bath water”), nor from a bottom up mythopoetic authority (i.e., the “baby”) be assured of her/his right to exist; every one of us is an “unwanted child,” that is, unwanted in her/his essential being (that essence Thoreau famously went to the woods to find!).
Comfort is the usual motive proposed as to why relatively affluent Americans do not organize against the 1%. But another, more potent cause for the automatic obedience and willfully limited politicism of the bourgeois liberal class lies in a failure of imagination that in turn is the result of the mass abnegation of human depth. For this dire circumstance, to the extent we allow ourselves to become passive, incurious and banal, we are to blame; the means to at least attempt escape is in our power. Though technology and technological progress are no help to us here, we have our intrinsic humanity, its memory stored in that most amazing human feature, the soul’s imagination – accessible for free but universally repressed and almost totally discouraged – to provide the help we need.
As long as one stays plugged in to the dumbed-down schooling, commodified social environment, 24-7 virtual electronic connectivity and media saturation – these loyal enablers of capitalism provide plenty of a certain kind of virtual belonging, a reality that is seamless and total. Anyone who doubts me, please do this: unplug from all devices, all talk radio and news sources, stop taking the anti-depressant, etc. Go on a real “vacation,” vacate your life for a week or more, and see what comes up.
Taking such a total retreat – (warning: this may be shatter your illusion of sanity and thus be conducive to your greater health) – is not entirely unprecedented. Aside from the many psychotropic drug users in search of alternate realities, other “weirdos” like environmental activist and author Edward Abbey, and Jesus have taken this path to moral clarity. Among the Desert Fathers of the early Christian era, St. Anthony became famous for his extremely vivid experiences with his demons. All of these spiritual pioneers connected with their nature at the level of being, thus opening themselves to the voices of demons. As well, they gained access to extraordinary powers and ways of seeing – and of critiquing – the zeitgeist of their times – risking for themselves both the charge – and the reality – of madness. This kind of “descent” into our nature, is something people in industrial societies are distinctly not meant to do. Being rationalist moderns, when we take on a “St. Anthony experience” (except within the confines of the psychotherapist’s office) we are at a terrible disadvantage. Lacking mythic imagination, we have no frame of meaning by which to grapple with the demons that surely will swarm in; we will be powerless to withstand their dominant message of self-loathing.
In other words, we will behold our true (utterly bereft) human condition in a society that rules out spiritual knowledge, and thus proscribes the knowledge of real belonging and worth coming from “the other within.” The message of self-loathing, because it cannot be unseated except in this kind of direct one-on-one, imaginal “combat,” is unopposed. Our few spiritual pioneers, our poets and prophets, contrary to religious teaching, did not/cannot do the work for us; they cannot convince the individual “me,” continually distracted as I am by a thousand things, of my essential worth as me, Kim. Though modernity has rejected our creative imaginations as sources of knowing, they do not simply cease to exist. Hidden from social others, they are each person’s own private, very real hell — its dangers as authentic as those of any extreme desert or mountain-climbing experience. Unopposed, the unconscious shadow holds human beings in thrall for lifetimes, afraid of their being, capable of living only inside the “safety” of illusion.
Capitalism did not invent this incredibly effective way to have the liberal class forge our own manacles by convincing us of our unwantedness. But how helpful it has been to capitalism’s thriving that we isolated consuming/competing units should be so convinced! How compatible with capitalism’s disregard for human beings that treats them/us as discardable and replaceable! And- most importantly – how effectively this unconscious conviction of worthlessness works against our being exactly what, for our sanity and our human dignity we most need to be – i.e., authentically individual, independently thinking human beings, strong and capable of agency. Just as, at the level of being, the demons of self-loathing must be met directly, so in the real “political” world, our critique of capitalism – and all political systems (i.e. neoliberalism) that disguise, enable and support capitalism, its inequalities and its brutalities, rather than promoting the common good – allows us to see the evil and not tolerate it.
Though I am being too “political” for most people if I declare that free and independent thought – to be authentically free – has to critique capitalism, there is no other way to get past the current stasis on the left. Surely this self-imposed, self-regulated limitation on truth-speaking that refuses to keep its aim on the evil at the top means that imaginations are in chains and people are not free and independently thinking! They are not free to be visionary. If we were to understand the truth of the situation as being a matter of a fake “freedom” (i.e., that allows us to say all kinds of things but never to seriously critique the powerful), vs. personal sanity, the decision becomes clear. Surely now it is up to individuals to confirm and maintain precious sanity for ourselves. If anyone believes in sanity anymore, if anyone desires to have the confidence that one’s ideas and opinions are in harmony with one’s innermost being – even if they appear unintelligible or risible or to one’s friends, even if they cause you to make a poor fit inside the institutions of the society – then each must be his/her own authority.
Recently we had an unusually large gathering for our “anti-fascist book club,” which was reading Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism. One in attendance was a retired philosophy professor and life-long political activist, Dave, whose career had been spent at an elite school. His long held, well-informed and well-considered opinions were welcome in our group. At one point Orin brought up identity politics, asking if this weren’t a distraction from the larger struggle, to which several people strongly disagreed. What came to mind for me was the wedding I performed in summer 2017 for a gay couple who had moved from Utica to Brooklyn 2 years before that, one to take up a social work position, the other, attracted by the Innocence Project, to attend Benjamin Cardozo Law School. During the 3-day wedding weekend, I learned – but was slow to take in – that Arthur had changed his plans and entered a corporate law firm. Both were now enjoying the good life that can be had by those with good NYC salaries. This news of their “defection” – I could not of course call it that – unsettled me. The significance of the marriage for me was not in its being a “gay marriage,” but in those wonderful ideals! Since the wedding, I’ve kept my disappointment to myself, in a kind of private, unspoken mourning. To my knowledge, none of Arthur and Jason’s friends have asked, What happened to the ideals our friends used to have? However, hearing my story, corroboration came instantly from Dave: “I’ve seen it many times with my students.”
Here, for me, was one of those rare glimpses of comradeship, a moment of grace amidst the zeitgeist of late-stage capitalism. If I had discounted my disappointment, if I had not been holding to some moral standard backed solely by inner authority, I would not have been able to receive that welcome confirmation of my “sanity” from Dave. Dave is a rarity among academics of my acquaintance. Marxism no longer popular, most of them have abdicated their intellectual responsibility to be social critics. This absence of critique makes it more difficult for “part-time” intellectuals like myself, who look up to genuine scholarship, to maintain a precarious sanity in these hard-hearted, other-blaming times. However, their abdication makes it clear: each of us who cannot share the implicit social critique of those who are “others” by birth, in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, poverty, geography, etc. (i.e., whose identity is white, middle class, heterosexual, U.S. born and raised), can if we choose, like the gender transitioners but without surgery or hormones, transition to our “otherness. ” Then we may join with all the “others” as comrades sharing both vision and critique, so that, if no one else will, we may mutually confirm our sanity.