“Red tape and foolish effort, William, are what this outrageous, moribund and postliterate society demands from its elders, while what we should be giving is our wisdom.”
– Hayden Carruth, Doctor Jazz
“Lawyers and laws and courts and penal systems are nearly immobile before a shaken society, which is making civil disobedience a civil (I dare say a religious) duty. The law is aligning itself more and more with forms of power whose existence is placed more and more in question. … So, if they would obey the law, [people] are being forced, in the present crucial instance, either to disobey God or to disobey the law of humanity.”
– Dan Berrigan, quoted by Chris Hedges, The Age of Radical Evil
Chris Hedges, quoting Hannah Arendt, calls the system in which we live, which depends for its survival on the disposability of human beings, “radical evil.” This system is a total conditioning reaching into the being of every individual, making individuals and institutions existentially sick. When everyone has been conditioned to disregard – even to despise – their subjective being, then the source of totalitarianism is within and has to first be resisted there. MLK’s fully necessary but long avoided “revolution of values” (we display the quotation on a banner at our Cafe in Utica) must begin with a near-impossible feat of defiance: the authority located in the system of top-down power must be displaced by the authority present in the life-giving roots of connectedness and meaning within the individual soul. This is why, in a post-religious age, the practicing of an art is vital; in its restoration of the missing spiritual dimension, it is quintessentially disobedient to neoliberal totality.
Further, in practicing one’s art consciously as a “partisan” act on behalf of the otherwise doomed creative soul (rather than as one’s career or profession), one finds, even if one has not much thought about radical politics, that one has a political philosophy after all! The act of embodying the soul”s perspective as if it were sacred makes a natural alliance with anarchism’s refusal of obedience to top-down power structures. Since it is demanded of everyone in industrial, neoliberal society that we reject that highly disposable “other,” (the soul), activism taken on by ones who refuse that abandonment, though the forms it takes may not be uniform, will always be anarchist. They will be aimed at rebuilding a human-supportive, small-scale, unitive and interdependent culture inimical to top-down authority, a utopian vision nowhere to be seen except in indigenous cultures. The foundational relationship with that “other” voice, brought into life through art-making, though it be expressed through my word processor or your paintbrush or trumpet, is the sole basis for social relationships that can resist radical evil.
The fact that this inward “other” is totally “other” cannot be overstated. People who are averse to religion and to “God,”must finally get it: without “wrestling” with metaphysical reality, access to which is inner and imaginative, one is left serving the master provided for us by neoliberalism. We can hold our nose in disgust at the noxious Trumps and Boris Johnsons, but we serve the same master as they – as do Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Bernie Sanders – unless/until we serve the alternative. Creative activity is non-trivial, revolutionary activity, the necessary pre-condition to a revolution of values that can overturn the powerful and restore the human-scaled, community-supportive society.
To back up this claim, I have only the fact of my writing itself. I took it up in a kind of end-run around my father’s unspoken but archetypally resonant claim to be the sole artist in the family, which had left his children to deal with an unusual “elephant” in the family living room: this “elephant” was the truth of bliss, the joy the creative spirit bestows on those who practice an art, joy that is every human being’s birthright. Naming the elephant freed me to see that art-making was Dad’s gift to his children, even though he could not present me with it himself. He was unaware that the joy of creativity becomes abusive if monopolized by one or a few “chosen” people. On the other hand, to have had to unseat my father’s hegemonic rule over access to the creative spirit, is not something I could wish to have happened otherwise. The struggle to have what is mine, the pearl-of-great-price that did not come wrapped up under the Christmas tree, I’m convinced, was step one in the revolutionary struggle to retain my imperiled humanity. Under radical evil, neoliberalism will not be overthrown unless/until the human is restored.
Even people who are not children of artist fathers like mine face a silent interdiction against picking up a creative art and practicing it seriously. Their obstruction not perhaps as classically Freudian as mine, still most people I know dither and hedge around any idea they might take up an art, at least until they retire. Three weekends ago, at my 50th high school reunion, I listened in as two women classmates conversed avidly about painting techniques they’d found online – that involved no drawing or representation whatsoever, just messing around with paint. In retirement, they are discovering the joy of giving some voice to the creative soul.
It is too late for them to learn the radicalizing effect of pursuing art seriously as if joy, (not adherence to joyless identity politics!), were one’s destiny. Too late as well for them to learn that the joy of creativity, practiced as duty to one’s alive soul, brings suffering (the truth of Blake’s “joy and woe woven fine”). Too late for the art they may make to have its full anarchist meaning, for, rather than signaling the artist as one of the chosen, entitled to a kind of special rung above the common lot, devotion to art-making serves the truth of oneness/interdependence – the joyful truth the soul is rooted in. It joins the artist to the commonest of the common. In this respect, too, the artist is perforce a revolutionary.
We did not say all of this in the talk Orin and I gave in early October at the local community college, titled “Two Old Hippies Start A Coffeeshop…So What?” (the title refers to a remark made privately that had gotten back to us) We did, however, make the case that taking seriously one’s utopian ideals (as we two “old hippies” have done) revolutionizes one’s attitude in relation to the top-down, centralized “propertarian” society in which we live. People who have been conditioned to think of art as optional frosting, rather than required practice for retaining one’s humanity have something in common with people who fail to commit to their utopian (anarchist) ideals: for them, the radical evil of the capitalist system remains hidden and thus is not resisted. That is, the capacity for seeing the truth of capitalism is withheld from people for whom inner, imaginative, creative reality is not real and who, therefore, do not realize they are answerable to that “other” reality.
Liberalism’s incapacity to resist radical evil is precisely the consequence of spiritual ignorance, the failure to complete or continue the spiritual change begun in, but also ending with the LSD-dropping euphoria of the 1960’s. While it can be argued that activism can be – and is – effectively engaged in by pragmatic, rationalist atheists, most liberals cannot go further than being troubled by the inequalities. Relatively prosperous, and preferring their middle class comfort, they cannot and are not moved to identify with the people on the bottom. However, basing my surmise not in research but in my own experience, despite ourselves, we liberals can come to feel the quite intolerable pain of our own real oppression. We can grasp the true cost to our humanity of being content with relative comfort, such that we can decisively and meaningfully break with the guiding bourgeois assumptions of neoliberal society – the salvific, progressive career-professional ladder, the alluring abundance of consumerism, the anxiety of competing for that limited number of “plum” jobs. One thing alone is required: recognition of the person’s right to joy. Not to contend with Michael Pollen’s (and others) case that mushrooms (i.e., psilocybin, etc) are trying to save us through providing us a taste of bliss, another way exists – that is to take up and practice the art that is yours.
I’ll admit, to speak about “joy” is outlandish in a time when we’re being told by a U.N. panel we have 10 years to respond to the climate crisis in order to avoid complete irrevocable environmental destruction, when hate appears to be on the rise, and reconciliation, love and understanding alarmingly on the decline. When citizens who are still attempting to behave responsibly are driven mad as hatters by the bureaucratized and computerized system with which they must interface, really, what’s joy got to do with it? The word today sounds foreign, or at least highly anachronistic, no match whatsoever for the absurdity – or the hopelessness – of our situation.
In fact, however, the lack of felt joy is oppression! We’re powerless to act in a time of radical evil without access to joy that is neither a crowd phenomenon, nor shallow. Not champagne bottles popping or joints passing, not mesmerized swaying to the cover band singing Uncle John’s Band, not receiving just the gift you wanted for Christmas. Never mind pollution of the environment, stresses of modern living, even over-indulgence in “bad” substances like alcohol or tobacco – the health of people, mental and physical, is attacked daily in our rigidly rationalist, consumerist and electronically glamorized world. Without access to the inexhaustible resource of imagination, people cannot resist infection by the dominant – and toxic – neoliberal totality. We are left dependent upon mechanical or science-based explanations to answer ( “solve”) the perplexities and pains of living, plus a plethora of distractions – solutions which the top-down power structures buoying up the 1% are only too happy to provide for a price. In contrast, Utopian, anarchist idealism is based in a real, existent aspect of every human’s total being, available for free. To suppress it or refuse to manifest it in one’s own creative expression, means one has to be sick.
From personal experience I know accepting a diagnosis of sickness according to official medical categories – whether or not one is in fact ailing – suggests a finality to which most of us resignedly but pragmatically adapt (it is what it is!). However, in the soul’s terms, such finality does not exist. From that inward (mythic) perspective, only the constant, ceaseless flow of life, the cycles of birth-death-life, transformation and renewal is real, while resigning oneself to a medical diagnosis, or a set of rules that define the “unhealthy lifestyle” for us, is unreal. This immunizing force that can resist invasion by radical evil works only in individuals who trust in this “other within,” in its truth and sufficiency as guide for one’s life. Such a life will be necessarily improvisational, challenging to the one living it and incomprehensible to most of one’s contemporaries. It will neither be perfectly “happy” nor lightly troubled, nor will it avoid the diseases to which industrial society makes us prone. Though not necessarily impoverished, it will not serve corporate neoliberal reality unquestioningly. Rather, to the extent it is put to work serving a job and/or a career path, it will be troubled by questions. What we need in place is a culture big enough to allow for wisdom, that can encourage those questions to be heard, felt and responded to, rather than dismissed.
Under neoliberalism’s radical evil, we are enlisted, well before any age of consent, to serve in the war against our humanity. Although when the world is facing extinction, leadership-by-individual-soul does not sound like a recipe we’ve time for, it is the only one that can work if we are to proceed as a mutually respectful diversity of human beings resisting the in-common evil. This is the “long-run” alternative to the usual short-run “vision” of bottom line-capitalism. If it is too late for the planet, it is not too late to, at last, favor means over ends, to undo the spell of capitalism and reclaim the autonomy which is our health. It takes each one demanding her joy.