I don’t know when it happened that I became entirely at odds with “progressive values.” I guess it is my deepening understanding that progressive values are not revolutionary, and in fact are a stall tactic against revolutionary values for people who cannot or will not think so deeply into our social, political, and ecological predicament. At any rate, when I see a yard sign or someone wearing a T-shirt that proclaims: “In our America, All people are equal, Love wins, Black Lives Matter, Immigrants and refugees are welcome, Disabilities are respected, Women are in charge of their bodies, People and the planet are valued over profit, Diversity is celebrated,” my response is visceral. I know I am in the presence of a kind of liberal fundamentalism as ominous as the rightwing kind. As my friend Ed, a Presbyterian minister says about bumper stickers of either persuasion, the “fuck you” is implicit.
Liberal “good-doing,” in the way the liberal class once functioned, as Chris Hedges pointed out in The Death of the Liberal Class, i.e., running interference for the disadvantaged against the rich and powerful, opposing U.S. imperialism and mass incarceration, etc., is finished. Liberal progressive values are meaningless against the siege of radical evil (as Hedges calls it) that prevails under late stage capitalism and which undermines not only the rights of oppressed groups, but the intrinsic worth of human beings. As the awareness of human disposability grows apace, the contempt for humanity ever more terrifyingly real, it may be harder than ever for the liberal class to identify “downward,” even though this is exactly what must happen. The fight now is for our humanity itself, endangered not only by climate disaster and dehumanizing free market forces, but by each person’s abandonment of the struggle to retain her/his own human soul and to preserve the conditions for a human-supportive (communitarian, familial, place-based, rooted) way of life.
The conditions of radical evil have rendered the old liberal way of doing good, – i.e., identifying with the struggle of victims of prejudice and oppression – i.e., of those on the bottom – into the disingenuousness of the privileged. The battleground in the fight for humanity has moved in a very de-centralized way to the soul of each person, an alarming change for those for whom this interior struggle calls up images of, well, of religion! But in contemporary liberal reality, without a centralized religious faith, the continuing struggle of good against evil has moved to its authentic location in the individual’s “individuality.” This is good news for anarchists! At this stage of the fight, each person must embody “the bottom” – and enter the struggle on behalf of his/her own threatened human worth, the only legitimate authorization for which lies in the creative soul. Here on the bottom, in alliance with one’s soul, tasked with expressing the soul’s perspective, one is freed at last from the compulsion to seek legitimation in the privileged bourgeois reality that relativizes human worth. On the basis of identification with the “no account” soul, one is returned to the “realm of the disenfranchised” wherein unity and reconciliation matter; wherein injury to one is injury to all.
Impossible as such a reversal sounds, if we cannot embody the bottom, we will be stuck in this futile battle of slinging “fuck-yous” for which there is no end but “mutually assured destruction.” Once ”en-bottomed,” the ideals of communitarianism, peace-making and reconciliation, never popular for “walking the talk,” and less so today, may be seen as the underclass can see them, as the dream worth living and dying for. Even as people have become ever more isolated from each other under the zeitgeist of capitalism and its promise of growth, prosperity, affluence, rising expectations, material well-being, etc. – amounting to our being now separate realities who are incomprehensible to each other in many ways – the effort must be made to unite the separate realities we’ve become, rather than to deny the separateness under the false unity of consensus liberal reality.
The fact that we now inhabit separate realities cannot be altered; it is existentially given in the post-metaphysical world. Just think for a minute of all the people in your own social world whose behaviors are inexplicably self-contradictory, perhaps self-defeating, weirdly antithetical to professed goals of racial justice (i.e., while residing in all-white suburbs) peace (while not questioning the divisiveness of militantly pursued gender politics), harmony with the environment (A trip to Greece, Scotland, Paris, or Barbados, anyone?), sympathy for refugees and immigrants (while lesser-evil Obama, who deported more people than the hated Trump is embraced), etc.
Recognizing the true hopelessness of our situation, beginning to suspect, even from inside the sound-proof neoliberal bubble, that the bubble will not exempt us from fascistic excess nor from mass extinction may be the necessary crisis for those who can’t otherwise find their way outside of the false unity of consensus liberal reality. Forced to look for signs of life within one’s “separate reality,” the opportunity is presented to access at last the deeply rooted and “radical” “otherness” belonging traditionally to the underclass, and in the creative expression of artists, poets and prophets whose practices of temporary separation (solitude) make them natural revolutionaries and comrades.
To identify with that other within, so excluded and despised in neoliberal reality, is to ally oneself decisively on the side of the human; i.e., on the side of one’s own human worth. It is to declare for the reality of connection, which liberal reality has so demeaned. This new radicalism will begin its activism in up-close relationships, in rootedness and proximity, and move out from there, such that freedom no longer means the freedom to avoid or deny the problems of relationship but to live improvisationally in and through relationships with others.
Under the rationalist supremacism that’s been so supportive of the dream of individually achieved material prosperity and its companion technological Progress, we have learned to make sacrifices that for most of human history would have been unthinkable – i.e., family proximity, community, living in place on the land where one’s ancestors lived and died, preserving our cultures, educating our children, all the things that keep human beings rooted. All customs and traditions are optional under unbridled capitalism. Only rootlessness, and the distraction of the ongoing spectacle, are non-negotiable.
At a Christmas party we attended somewhat dutifully, knowing we were unlikely to find any kindred souls – i.e., mad poets or anarchists – in the crowd, I made a point to talk to someone I considered approachable, a guy retired from teaching at the local community college, a longtime union activist with a friendly demeanor. He was standing alone by the bountifully loaded table, eating, in the familiar party quandary. For his conversational opener, he confessed the fact he’d been watching the impeachment proceedings continuously. Immediately thinking Uh-oh, I confessed to him I have not watched and cannot bring myself to watch them. To my relief, he immediately switched the topic. Looking past me, out at the kitchen where my daughter Molly, his former student, was working with the caterer, he said, you have your children and grandchildren all here in Utica, don’t you?
In turn, I asked him about his family. One child’s family in Milwaukee, one in Baltimore, something like that, making complicated plans for Christmas, and forcing him and his wife to travel. It came out, that he, like Orin, is ethnically Italian. When he said to me “I really envy you for having your family all close by,” I heard feeling behind the words. I guessed he’d been raised in a community in which family proximity was taken for granted. For the ethnics of his generation, that way of life now exists mainly in memory, as it had already disappeared for “non-ethnics” like me generations earlier. His sadness is “archaelogical” evidence of the painful loss of community. Everyone suffers at first, but over time, responding to the zeitgeist, we (those of us who are “fittest,” that is) become hardened to it.
I wish I had said to him, he being a labor unionist, that holding things together is my activism. With him, with someone who still feels the loss of community rootedness, and who identifies with workers, I might have been able to venture into talking about this different kind of “downwardly mobile” activism, of “being” this underclass of connectivity. It might have gone somewhere. But in all likelihood, it would not. Lacking the imaginative base of either religion or art, those inside neoliberal reality cannot take a stand outside it.
Captive in liberal reality, walled off from the inconveniently disruptive creative soul, even sympathetic people cannot be automatically aligned with the struggle against dehumanizing forces in our own time, the struggle which, in all times, is directly experienced only by the underclass. Recently Orin and I watched the movie Ned Kelly (1970), directed by Tony Richardson and starring Mick Jagger as Kelly. The movie was good; I could hardly believe it had escaped my notice for so long. Curiosity led me to google for Kelly’s biography. After the movie’s portrayal of the outlaw Kelly as a hero to the poor Irish underclass in 19th century Australia, I was somewhat taken aback by its careful neutrality of the information that came up on the Internet. Not surprisingly, wikipedia reports that opinion in Australia is completely divided between those who see him as Australia’s Robin Hood and those who view him as a “murderous villain.” Briefly I wondered, had I been swayed by the movie’s “romanticized” portrayal? Dismayed by how easily the conditioned liberal in me could be influenced to see Kelly as a mere criminal, after I had just been awakened to him as a newly discovered working class hero, the question became, who do we believe – the tinseltown artist Richardson or the “objective” online source?
Those of us stranded in the apolitical bubble of white middle class America, with little-to-no background in the politics of history, dependent upon top-down media for our information, bereft of our natural identification with the never-ceasing struggle of the relatively poor, weak and powerless vs. the government-backed, better-armed and powerful, will see a figure like Ned Kelly passively, as the historical “authorities” present him. If we get to hear of such outlaws at all – and it is only because of their extraordinary popularity that history has been forced to include them – we will see as ambiguous the “nobler” aims of Ned Kelly, John Brown, or Ned Ludd. The reputations of men like these remain in suspension for their temerity in acting retrogressively against the preferred historical narrative of the successful, progress-oriented men of good character who shaped the future. As with the case of the historical Jesus, the liberal narrative can deal with them only by either blackening them as criminals or lawless people, or by elevating them to sainthood, not by encouraging people in each generation to find their way to join them, as their duty and their right, in the ongoing struggle for humanity.
The situation can be saved only by the imagination of artists that, happily, is available for free in every human soul. Without it, neither I nor anyone else can recognize a genuine “people’s” struggle. We can begin to think outside privileged bourgeois reality only when we challenge it from the bottom up, by each one using her freedom to enter the artist’s struggle to express her essential humanity and thereby obtain the perspective of the underclass. Though its a truth hidden from almost everyone in the liberal class, and if anyone in that class still cares, the genuine project of peace and justice starts inconveniently at the social bottom. As such, it begins in mediacy, face-to-face with one’s personal family, impossible neighbors, in the dismayingly degraded places of America, in voluntary encounter with the separate realities we are and cannot avoid being in neoliberal reality. For this we will need, besides vision, new social tools for “conviviality.” In each refusal to relativize affectional bonds and so contribute to the human erasure being carried out under neoliberal banality, lies the way to put faith in love, rather than in empty pronunciamentos about “In Our America, love wins.”