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To be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak.. That is, it creates a vision of the world that puts into the limelight the social misery that is usually hidden or concealed by the dominant viewpoints of a society.
Cornel West, Chekhov, Coltrane and Democracy
Neoliberalism, like the ‘spectacle’ it evolved from, mediates all social relations. It reduces them to performative, choreographed transactions in the service of an ideology that dare not speak its name for fear of inviting unwanted scrutiny into the void at its center. It has the vampire ability to elude reflection. Put a mirror in front of it and you’ll end up with a selfie that bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘The Scream’.
Jennifer Matsui, Neoliberalism: The Ideology That Dare Not Speak Its Name
My recent discovery of and interest in the 19th century movement in revolutionary Russia aimed at social honesty (nihilism) stirred up an embarrassing memory. In the late 70’s, when I was in Divinity School, Orin and I were guests at dinner hosted by our loquacious friend George, a fellow div student and liberal Catholic, and his wife. The other guest, a priest friend of George’s, was feisty, not at all fearful of challenging liberal composure and putting the “religious liberal” (me) on the spot. Apropos of nothing I recall, he put to me a theological question. I no longer remember the question (maybe something like how can there be salvation if there’s no sin.) But I remember my answer: I had none. As a Unitarian liberal, I was not required to ponder theological fine points. It strikes me now that, equally, I had no notion that theology had something to do with important matters, i.e., human birth-to-death life and how people are to live meaningfully in the span of years we’re given in our time here. Here was I, cloaked in my thin agnostic apparel, in a quite superior way figuring I could do without acquainting myself with the history of all the thinking – not to mention the courage and sacrifice – that has gone into attempting to limn Supreme Value. His question caught me in my own dogmatism, providing me an opportunity to question it, which I was too fragile, too shaky in my div school status to take him up on.
As far as I knew then, and my experiences since then have not contradicted it, the quintessential liberal church – and I extrapolate from this – liberal bourgeois society as a whole -does not pertain to “life on the ground.” Just as the liberal church does not stoop to the humiliation of surrender to a particular creed, instead pretending to honor them all, liberals are allowed, inasmuch as they are inclined, to exist in a “green” zone where the problems of existence are intellectual, maybe spiritual, but never an existential-level personal “struggle” They are freed from identifying with the human survival-level struggle for “bread” in which Kropotkin based his anarchism. The assumption works fine as long as one is not immersed in catastrophes, afflictions, torments, for which, like death, there is no solution, that is, as long as one does not suffer. As long as one can stay in the consensus bubble wherein life’s problems are resolved or potentially resolvable with the application of earnest work and a positive attitude, keeping one buoyed in the given social reality, liberalism will do.
Dan Berrigan’s words, “The difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything,” sit on my refrigerator door. The message is so simple it doesn’t easily register in the way a more eloquent, more poetic or pithier Emersonian quotation might. However, great pithy quotations from wise men or women are simply more consumables; we snack on them for that boost of good feeling gained by a knowing reference to a “higher nature” without our having to actually stoop to discover the truth of it, of who we are – another way to evade scrutiny of the void at the center.
The Berrigan phrase is particularly apt today, when I know so many people who have allowed themselves to be convinced it is better to do nothing than something; that is, who can face neither the insoluble darkness within nor without that “doing something” requires. They do not seem to realize that action, to be action, will always be “radical” and disturbing to others; it affirms individual integrity against neoliberal “equilibrium” at all levels, beginning at the bottom, within the individual, and within families. Though wrong by prevailing social standards, genuine rock-the-boat action feels deeply, unifyingly right to the individual – a sense of completeness that is inward and spiritual in nature, not dependent on corroboration from outside.
In particular, the “doing something” that’s “everything” is that true action, in the way Cornel West puts it, that ”allows suffering to speak.” True boat-rocking action begins in the soul, in allowing the soul, the faculty that suffers, to speak. The dominant viewpoint leaves out not only social misery, but also the silent suffering of the denied soul with its craving for truth, beauty, and poetic meaning, in each individual. In our heads we think about suffering – that sad misfortune that happens sometimes to others; only by means of an alive soul can suffering be experienced, wept out in tears, transformed back into the basis for inter-personal empathy and connectedness. Only one who suffers can allow suffering to speak. This fact explains the great emptiness, the great void at the center of liberal consensus reality.
The unvoiced soul in each individual, that intimate “other,” once allowed to speak, answers to the social misery caused not by Trump, or even by rightwing extremists, but by the structures and systems that form neoliberal capitalist reality. It answers to the terrible and terrifying planetary distress, not by talk of reform and technological “solutions,” but understanding the industrial society’s way of life must undergo revolutionary change (a central tenet of the current headlining Extinction Rebellion movement). Liberal bourgeois society, in its collective refusal of suffering, allowed disasters to fester and grow over centuries while the disasters appeared to affect only “others.” Now they reach into each formerly “elect,” safe and snug suburban middle class life. In a way, this is simple justice.
However, such a justice is too terrible! We cannot bear to think of our planet becoming unrecognizable, perhaps uninhabitable, a toxified wasteland, to think of losing our fish, trees, our coral reefs, our songbirds, our unpolluted soil and clean air and water, all unthinkable. If only there had been another voice capable of reaching us in those innocent years when we celebrated with such undiluted glee every technological achievement – the wonders, for instance of electrical appliances – a voice that would have cried out from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia that were being sheared off in order that we might have electricity! If only our imagination had allowed us to include the “others” of mountains, rivers, forests, instead of their being more excluded from our awareness (though less maligned) than immigrants and poor people!
The only authentic answer that now can be made by the liberal educated class to the current multi-level and multi-front crisis facing everyone on the planet, is to admit powerlessness; they must stop “using” the energy of outrage at the rightwing nemesis, step down off their throne of righteousness and enter their own “otherness,” which, like the miracle of grace, still exists as an option. The faux partisan political fight has no possibility of being won, and promises to change nothing, only to allow the structures and systems to continue that are bringing life on our lovely planet, the possibility of living in peace, sustainably, with enough for all, to an end. Is the fight worth it? Can’t it just be dropped, like the fight between the Sneetches with stars on their bellies and the Sneetches without stars? In the Dr. Seuss tale, the Sneetches’ bitter and pointless enmity simply enriches the guy who owns the machines that can take belly stars off and put them on again, and impoverishes themselves. Can peace be allowed to prevail and apocalypse averted??
Maybe, though the “bad guys” are frustratingly still out there, profiteering off these endtimes, seemingly bent on Armageddon, we must peel our eyes away from the guys we hate and do what’s right – i.e, save our unvoiced souls by giving voice to them. In so doing, we might join the human world made of “others,” and allow suffering to speak.
The illusions of “green zone” safety that sustain liberal bourgeois reality succeed in one way: they constrain our true human fighting strength. Only the identification that comes with“stooping” down, joining with the common-as-dirt “others” (sinners), including “dirt” itself, can save us, if not from looming collective disaster, then from our enslavement to the denial of suffering. This change in narrative, at first “tough to swallow,” is liberatory, the gains more than making up for the innocence lost. That is, what liberal reality vigorously defends against, shielded by its illusions, is positive, healing, liberating news from the individual’s deepest being – from his or her otherness. This primary liberation is the basis for all others: in solidarity with one’s otherness, the individual has at last the strength to contradict (disobey) the undermining and self-condemning inner voices woven into bourgeois identity, those most intimate and private enforcers for ego-syntonic, centralized, top-down neoliberal reality.
The souls of every man and woman raised in bourgeois liberal society register experiences of unspeakable pain, from the thwarting of their soul’s absolute need for the expanded reality of imagination-based meaning. To reclaim the full range of our being – reduced now to “consumer” and “employee” – we’ve just this one painstaking way. Neoliberalism is both the cause and the consequence of a heartless environment, of mass denied suffering. It is the diabolical system born of collective unconscious effort to avoid bringing old pain to consciousness. The result: a joined, consensus reality in which no one is or can be an “other;” no information, however dire the media news, can unsettle the willed and terrifying complacency of neoliberalism. The consequence of the mass refusal by individuals to find out if there’s more to our being than we’re given to understand in the reductionist, positivist, imagination-refusing reality (the refusal to suffer), is that trauma which is being passed on to the world, like the shit sent to Kenya in Jennifer Matsui’s CP essay.
The only way this cancer can be stopped is to stop being hosts for it, to, instead, be the true human being each person is, the soul’s immunity restored, with so much life in our being that we become a hostile environment for the messages of belittling and self-hate that are the main enforcers of neoliberal totalitarianism. I sound, even to myself, like a midway barker at the Floyd Field Days – “Step right up folks!” but how much longer can we wait to restore immunity and regain our enlarged and strengthened being?
The memory of that long-ago embarrassment to my fragile 28-year-old identity came back to me as I contemplated the problem of liberal complacency. No doubt conservative rightwing complacency is a reality as well, but not being one of them I do not presume to speak to them. I speak to one side in the Sneetch war. At the time of the priest’s question, I was aware enough to realize he’d asked me something about which I ought to have an opinion. Without it, I was an imposter and mere membership in the exalted Yale community did not exempt me. For several more years I clung to my imposterhood, convinced as I was that this reality was all there was until the pain of upholding that illusion dragged me down, and I was forced to acknowledge the reality of “the other within.” All of us caught in liberal reality ought to pray ceaselessly to have our imposterhood pointed out!