Progress is reaction. Civilization is its discontents.
– Peter Lamborn Wilson, The New Nihilism
…as Nietzsche said somewhere, one cannot understand disease unless one has been sick…this is the essential Nietzschean position : to have been sick and to have gotten better.
Mother, you had me
But I never had you
I wanted you
But you didn’t want me
So I just got to tell you
– John Lennon
Readers of CounterPunch are likely to be among the political cognoscenti who know that the “dollar-drenched inauthentic opposition party” representing the liberal class will not demand the real change that is now so desperately needed, to seriously address climate crisis, pollution, endless war, rising fascism, mass incarceration, etc. (If nothing else, the Democratic Party’s “anyone-but-Bernie” approach to finding a candidate to beat Trump should convince any doubters!) But even those of us on the radical end should not too quickly exempt ourselves from being part of the problem. In a materialist, capitalist society that values profits over people, and machines over human beings, unprotected from its dehumanizing influence, no person escapes the sickness of a society that’s lost its human bearings.
The intrinsic tragedy of liberal society unfolds in the privacy of the privileged home, befalling individuals, when each child learns that she, the brand new human being, will not be allowed to be a unique new beginning; she will be expected to adapt to a reality designed to support machines and not the unmachine-like needs of human souls. In infancy, in the best (middle class) homes, we learn to adapt our needs to the demands of a materialist way of life. We who never were reassured that our flawed, eros-driven, feeling selves were welcome “unconditionally” avert our eyes from the deep hopelessness that underlies the liberal bourgeois project, even though it is no more hidden than a psychosis that everyone but the psychotic can see.
For the most part, the “wound” goes unacknowledged and untreated, making it no accident that liberal society – including feminists – cannot recover from its deep ambivalence toward “the feminine,” i.e., toward nature, sex and embodied human life, body-centered irrational intuitive knowing – aspects one might call the human “bottom.” This ambivalence is reflected in the fact that unlike indigenous people, we cannot perceive the quality of “the sacred” and thus we accept a way of life that is blasphemous to the ecological whole. In our social world, that ambivalence is reflected in our relationship with the socially constructed “bottom:” i.e., our tolerance for rigidly segregated, drastically unequal lives, for bombing brown people, for a racist criminal justice system, for the Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns, etc., as long as its them on the bottom and not us.
The early pre-verbal “devil’s deal,” which called us to “protect Mother,” from, in essence, ourselves, effectively shearing off our consciousness from its depths, is essential for unanchored bourgeois buoyancy. Assisted by 24-7 saturation in media distractions and technology upticks, seamless, simple and effortless to maintain, the liberal zeitgeist supplants consciousness. Inside that totality of bourgeois meaning, we cannot see that the real reason we support inauthentically oppositional politicians like Hillary, or Obama or Nancy Pelosi, is not because they provide the saving fortification against the takeover by the worst, but because the worst has already happened!
This helps explain the puzzling fact that while our world is faced with the truly unthinkable “worst” – mass extinction, nuclear war, fascism – the majority of liberals have their eyes glued to the impeachment proceedings or the trial of the bastard Harvey Weinstein getting his just desserts. MSNBC apparently is their trusted friend, its smoothly coiffed and tanned talking heads chatting confidently away while “the unthinkable”rolls inexorably on.
The real “worst,” according to the perspective of our souls, happened long ago in pre-cognitive time. It remains out of sight and mind, a tragedy we each are stuck forever attempting to stave off, using all the “defense mechanisms” with which our psyches are endowed. My terror, as a child, of my stay-at-home, faithful, good mother abandoning me, served a purpose: my terror-driven compulsivities covered the fact that she was already gone emotionally. A lost cause indeed! The feminist uprising of the 1970’s that enlarged my mother’s consciousness, was fueled largely by women who came to realize the emptiness of their fettered, subordinated lot as conscripted housewives. The great and tragic error of feminism was in seeking redress for their grievance in the marketplace. If only, instead, they’d gone deep within to find the pro-social human basis for re-vitalizing and preserving homes and families and community that is life on the bottom!
Orin reminds me that I am not the only one who has perceived a link between feckless, smug liberalism and the early childhood “mother wound,” so courageously explored by John Lennon in the 1970’s. On the same album on which John sings out the pain of his childhood, he lashes out at those hoping there’s still “room at the top,” – “and you think you’re so clever, classless and free….” (Working Class Hero)
Discouraged as we are, in the capitalist economy, from valuing (our) humanity, it’s small wonder that only a miniscule number of people find their way to the deep inner healing attainable through transpersonal psychotherapy, as Lennon did. This process of “being sick and getting better” is the necessary initiatory ground of revolutionary anarchism for people (white liberals) raised “off the bottom” of society. Finding that deepest wound forces imagination awake, enlisting it in the defense of the conditions needed by human beings for their wholeness – their whole energy and agency. While in indigenous cultures, initiations may be undergone by every member, under capitalism, it’s left to certain artists and poets and mystics, (and in the 60’s, the psychedelically experienced) to launch themselves into the vast depths of the Unconscious and then report back to us from their altered perspective (and thereby marginalize themselves!)
Though the number having initiatory experiences may be quite a few since it includes people like me who underwent intensive/transpersonal psychotherapy ( in those days before mental illness came to be treated routinely with pharmaceuticals), radical consciousness remains too rare. Stripped-down secularized imaginations are vulnerable to individualist, materialist, and self-interested bourgeois reality. Few awaken to see the need to commit themselves to a social and cultural renewal of human-supporting conditions and values, the lack of which makes people sick. Most people decline the inconvenience of questioning the bourgeois premises upon which their life “choices” are based. Thus, sickness/recovery gets defined as a personal matter, and people miss the point: transformational initiation ( “the hero’s journey”) connects to the reality of the soul and its inherent anarchism. The social task awaiting the initiate is the heroic one of defending the “merely human” – including one’s own mere individuality – that which was/is grievously wounded in the dehumanizing capitalist system. A genuinely radical position must take into account the need for healing within every individual, including oneself, for to assume a wholeness that doesn’t exist is both callous and defeating toward any hope for revival of “the social.” Equally, the incredible good fortune (grace) of having found the means to healing in a society dominated by competition and casual cruelty (survival of the fittest) calls for a radical (anarchist) defense of the endangered human. Otherwise, the isolation and self interest that are the bases for sick bourgeois reality will not be overcome.
That is, to be a “hero of now,” the challenge before all of us in “liberal society” is to find our way back to the bottom, to living as ordinary mortals in the communal, interdependent, unmediated, place-based ways we have forsaken. Until we release ourselves from bourgeois aspirations, our “sick” wills are not free to serve the sacred (the biosphere) upon which human beings and all life depend. Due to the precarious spot the human world and the earth are now in, and because bourgeois life still monopolizes consciousness, revolution must be done in reverse: the ones specially called to undertake this revolution not the proletariat, as previously, but those of us who identify ourselves as being in the (“shrinking”) middle class. (In fact, the the shrinkage of the middle class should no longer be a “sore point,” used as a rallying cry against the rich; let it be our release from the system that is making us sick and destroying the biosphere; let’s race each other to “the bottom!” )
Though we in the middle class have less cause – speaking materially – to overturn the status quo, perhaps now, a few seconds before midnight, we can arise from our slumber! We can become properly skeptical of the American Dream, alluring as the promise of heaven, and every bit as deadening to the spirit of social change as pie-in-the-sky religion. The time has come to say we don’t need your stinking Dream (we want our own small ‘d’ dreams)!
In a way that makes me think of Anne Frank gazing out the attic window at her patch of sky, I have faith the yearning still exists in human hearts for something that cannot be met by expanding stock returns, nor can it survive in the brave new technocracy coming to be. Though its pulse is weak among the liberal class, the heart’s longing for the stability of human community in place over time, for roots and relationships, cannot be extinguished – my way of saying “People are still good at heart.” At the same time, having exchanged the alive culture and handed-down custom that provide human succor for liberalism’s pottage of buoyant optimism and faith in progress – we’ve become entirely estranged from “the bottom” – both the “bottom” of our own inward depth, and the bottom of poverty and the underclass.
The link I’m claiming between liberal goodness and motherlove/mother loss serves powerfully to keep consciousnesses enslaved in bourgeois reality. On my mother’s part, it was understandable and right that she would enthusiastically embrace the liberal thoughtworld that burgeoned in conservative Upstate NY in 60’s anti-war activism and 70’s feminism; it made the world coherent for her. Liberalism raised her consciousness, elevating her into a “higher” society of goodness and good people. At the same time, she accepted its 24-7 available flight from the bottom and the bottom’s reality; mainly through her, that same “flight”is offered to me.
While I now am capable of discerning the “inauthentic liberal opposition” at the top, over and over I am powerless against my reflexive deference to the representation of goodness and large-heartedness I meet in good liberal friends. Their mysterious power to make me want to be on their side is located in something sensed underneath what is represented. My undoing is in my attunement, since childhood, to the underlying sadness and vulnerability of the mother who cannot escape her ambivalence, whose need makes me a conscript on her side.
Access to spiritual reality via imagination is the only “solution” to this dilemma that has no solution. My struggle to inhabit “the bottom,” to revive a rooted, bounded way of life lacks the comforting self-satisfaction of liberal justification; it keeps me in near-constant uneasiness. The disquiet, in turn, is the source of the energy for my writing. As far as my writing is concerned, I want to be in no other place than here in “armpit” Utica and in fact, I cannot write at all when I am away from my home place. This ambivalence is truth, an honest place in me, and therefore I place my trust in it.
Life on the bottom can only be made, not found. In order to wean oneself off liberal bourgeois reality, its malls, screens, NPR-MSNBC mediated reality, its debilitating neuroses, there must be sustaining input from creative imagination. In this sense of art-making as the means to bear a “wholed,” rather than an eviscerated reality, I preach, like a throwback Romantic, an “anchored,” “married” kind of improvisational culture-building. Liberalism is not doing well, humanly, and it’s not Donald Trump who made this happen. As long as we board that liberal flight, delivering ourselves from the truth of our embodied ambivalence, our wills remain supine down in the bottom. Inside that liberal bubble, we can be “good,” but the earth, and all the “bottom-dwellers” that comprise the biosphere, including our souls, will be the objects of shadow forces we might as well call “hate,” even as we profess to love.