Beyond being “disrespectful,” the modern Western insistence on a mechanical universe delimits the radical imaginary in general. To refrain from telling the [spiritually-based] activist they are wrong (while continuing to think they are) simply because he or she is a person of color, is altogether different than deconstructing one’s colonial mentality, which treats the religious as Other in the first place.
Erica Lagalisse, Occult Features of Anarchism
…the fact that anarchists are often unable to recognize the subversive potential of religious sensibilities…is disturbing beyond the failure to respect the ‘difference’ or ‘identity’ of others…As Jacqui Alexander asks: What would taking the Sacred seriously mean…? It would mean that “the sacred would have to be taken as real and the belief structures of its practitioners as having effects that are real.” Ibid.
Note from the author: This piece was written last week, before we in Utica entered the full Covid-19 new reality. The Other Side has discontinued programming for a month, Orin and I are accustoming ourselves to sequestered living, and hardest of all, as of today the Cafe is closed (take-out only) by governor’s order. While airlines and other huge corporate entities ask for bailouts, we have no idea how we are to protect the Cafe’s survival; a bewilderment and fear shared by thousands of restaurants, bars and other “non-essential” businesses in NYS. My future writings will be from within this new reality.
According to the Autonomedia calendar of Jubilee (Anarchist) Saints that hangs in our Utica coffeeshop, Rosa Luxemburg, whose birthday was this month (March 5, 1871), was “martyred by the so-called Democratic left in Germany.” This fact has resonance for me as more than ever before, I see myself – my larger, truer, healthier, wholer and united self – as more offensive to those who are my friends, than to my supposed enemies.
For a long time, I have felt our beloved Cafe afforded me a kind of protective camouflage with the local community, service-industry identity keeping me legitimately outside the assumptions and cherished beliefs of the liberal class. The suspicion exists, I’m positive, that Orin and I are kind of weird, but not in a threatening or dangerous way. They can handle us by simply turning off our microphones, allowing their conversation to carry on uninterrupted.
During a conversation with an old friend recently, the subject turned suddenly to politics, possibly triggered by the bright-red knit “Bernie” cap lying in front of me on the table. At that time, before Super Tuesday and before Covid-19 reality took over, Bernie’s campaign was going strong. The friend said to me, “You know, I’ve heard people wonder about his record as a Senator, what did he actually do?” Her wording, oddly challenging, left me wordless. I’d been wearing the cap mainly because I was excited about Bernie’s challenge to the Democratic Party leadership, not as a true-blue Sandernista. My guess is she took this approach because, though she probably doesn’t read my Counterpunch essays, she knows I’m not a standard-issue liberal. On the spot, I certainly could not instantly look up the congressional voting record to refute this implied qualm about Bernie’s credentials. It passed through my mind, much could be said about Biden’s voting record, or Warren’s, that could make some people have reservations about them, too! The point, though, was the qualm, and the Trump fear behind it. Her last words to me, familiar and chiding, were, But Kim, just be sure in the end you vote Blue.
It seemed unlikely that she knew I had voted for Nader in 2008, since we see so little of each other, but clearly she felt I was capable of this kind of turn-coatism. And of course, she’s right in a way. Not until many hours later did my true response, come to me: “I must have my freedom to express my own ideas.” I may or may not get the opportunity to say this to her; something I’d prefer to say face-to-face, but to me, this is the essential conversation. Can I, despite the urgency of the Trump catastrophe, have my independent thought and my own precious convictions?
To be clear. I do not want Trump to be re-elected, I feel as desperate about this as anybody else. What I want more than anything, if we are speaking about politics, is that we not be limited to liberal consensus for which the only protection between us and the Apocalypse (or other unthinkable consequence) is the Democratic Party, that serves Wall Street not us.
I doubt my friend held a conscious agenda of challenging my dangerous wrong-headedness. But the exchange left me feeling as I do with some Christians always “armed and ready” to exploit an opportunity to proselytize, or fundamentalist liberals who come equipped with iron-clad rules about “cultural appropriation” or “political correctness” to impose on the conversation. There’s an unerring intuition involved in such evangelizing moments that is tuned to the “weakness” in the other. That “weakness” consists, simply, in being an “other” in a context dominated, top-down, by neoliberal conformity and sameness. Conversation must not be too free, even, or especially, “among our own kind.”
In this way, our on-the-ground social reality recapitulates power politics at the top in which, for instance, Bernie is vulnerable to being “weakened” by his principled refusal to support AIPAC with its racist anti-Palestine stance (making him an “anti-semite!”)
A reader echoed this theme to me recently, asking if there wasn’t danger in “soul facts” (i.e., unprovable convictions) being put to “Machiavellian” purposes by corrupt or fascist power-seekers. The answer is, that if a person’s principles make him weak/wrong, then, if there are to be principles whatsoever, certainty has to be sought in subjective ground, in the joy in one’s poetic, indigenous, soul-level unity that needs no proof or consensus, and that, because of its gratuitousness, one serves gladly. If, from the outside, we wish to know if someone’s subjective ground is Evil or Good, I’d say it must be “by their fruits” you might – just might – know them.
Recently, at a meeting of our anti-fascist book club, Orin was challenged by Aleta, an academic feminist/anarchist. During the previous week, he had put forth in an email, as we’d all been requested to do, a list of possible speakers to take advantage of a speaker grant the group has received. He mentioned that in the past we’d brainstormed in two categories: “big (pricier) names” and lesser known speakers. (His list, all male, included non-whites Cornel West (long shot!) and Darren Bonaparte (an Akwesasne Mohawk writer). Aleta shot back: “Big doesn’t mean white and male…a friendly feminist reminder.” Though I knew this exchange had rattled Orin, I was unprepared for the scene that night, after Aleta and Orin locked horns once again. Not to my credit, I desperately wanted Orin to remain calm, but he could not and did not. He behaved, in fact, like a guilty man, unable to stop himself from defending his life, – i.e., the “fruits” and “facts” of a life committed to living in and for an inter-racial urban community, walking the talk – in the face of one who’s benign goodness-championing occurs in the context of an elite school and the mainly white, middle class town it sits in.
The two of them might have been alone in the room so intense was this encounter between that beam of socially-approved (top-down) righteousness, and the “weak spot” it hit upon in the individual on whom a sentence had been pronounced. Aleta asked for confirmation from the rest of the group of her good, minority-protective motive; they, mostly young people like her, not surprisingly agreed with her. She appeared oblivious to the fact she had wounded Orin to the quick, that his “bellows” were the sounds of a fellow creature in pain. However, the train wreck caused by hidden cruelty did not matter. In this encounter between liberal rigidity and the accused, the soul of the other is left out of the picture.
Following Erica Lagalisse’s work dissecting the gate-keeping on the anarchist, radical Left that belittles “non-rational” kinds of knowledge, Aleta’s righteousness may be an example of “undeconstructed colonial mentality;” for which the soul, like “the religious” isn’t real in the first place. At all costs, the “colonial mentality” must remain unconscious of its own soul which would – like Bernie’s principles – subvert everything. The only “real,” for that rigid, defended mentality is the righteousness of its defense of (the approved list of) victims; thus, defending victimhood is the closest liberals can get to defending souls. In this serious breakdown between would-be comrades, I see an inkling of the animosity in Rosa Luxemburg’s liberal allies that led to her death at their hands. Surely such righteousness is far from an example of the “tools for conviviality” – tools based in commitment to mutual respect – that were the subject of Ivan Illich’s book we were then reading!
I must here say a word about the difficulty of a commitment to mutual respect at the level of the soul (i.e., Otherness), of which Illich was such a staunch, even saint-like, defender. It is near impossible in the industrialized, secularized neoliberal context to imagine a world based upon mutual respect for the soul of the other. When parents have curtailed their souls to the demands of the corporate marketplace and its interdependent systems of imperialism, militarism, cultural appropriation, colonialism, etc., and in turn make the same demand of their children whose souls accumulate tangles and knots; when children’s souls are forced to conform to mass compulsory schooling and its sorting of human beings; when souls are treated with medications to iron out our problematic (erratic and individualistic!) behaviors; when souls are given no clue, in our rigidly secularist, dogmatically scientific society as to their real existence – in such a world the liberation of souls is a difficult, long-term, process.
By now the depositories of generations of painful neglect, our souls are left to get sicker and sicker (and sickness increasingly normalized in part because mental illness in all its manifestations – unlike corona virus – is not dangerous to capitalism!) In most cases, the initiation of a soul under these hostile modern conditions is a lifetime journey, not a few years of psychotherapy, some months at an ashram, and voila, all good! Thus, the respect called for has to respect (i.e., forbear) the actual process of human becoming in every social encounter when actual physical harm is not being threatened.
Contrary to the American mantra of “ freedom,” authentic individuality is a lifetime’s work and a communal, “whole-village” process. It will unfold only inasmuch as individuals remain intimately interconnected in committed, stable, conscious families, communities and fixed places over time, under strict conditions of respect for the otherness of every “other.” The neoliberal world which has relativized all the relationships upon which human nurturance depends, must be reversed, individual by individual, family by family, community by community. In a world threatened by rising fascism, climate collapse and mass extinctions, nuclear annihilation, dumbed-down ignorance and now corona virus, there’s no time for such soul saving, but where will the energy come from to save a world in which human beings have lost their humanity?
Although soul recovery/liberation is an inner, individual process, the needs of the individual soul require that it remain, as in the process of alchemy, within the complicating oppositions (heat!) that come with connections with others – in intergenerational human communities and families, and in interracial, inter-class, inter-income-level communities and neighborhoods, that remain in proximity over time. Such a nouveau traditionalism is needed, not for the sake of preserving “the way it was,” but for the sake of recovering a humanity strong enough to hold “otherly regard,” that is, reverence, for fellow creatures. Holding to bonds of affection and commitments provide not a simplistic “one big happy family” but a container for the human friction that’s been lost under individualist, survivalist, careerist, secularist neoliberalism and bourgeois horizontal siblingism that has turned everyone into deeply frightened neurotics who can’t bear to look within for meaning, purpose, or identity. Instead, they must turn to pharmaceuticals and experts (“institutionalized knowledge”) to manage their lives. They can object to “authoritarianism” and (be manipulated to) see it in every instance of “male dominance” or privilege, but their wills are left servile to MSNBC-informed neoliberal totality. Because nonconforming individuality is a threat, they will unconsciously act to crush it – i.e., otherness – when it rears its head.
It’s beginning to appear to me that what Orin and I have done, in living “downwardly and in reverse,” transitioning over time to the identities to which each is called, is to make ourselves into indigenous Others, occupying a separate (counter-) culture in which the soul and its longings are taken seriously, as if they were sacred. Based in this “occult” spiritual reality, the Utica coffeeshop we co-own and the non-profit arts and community space we maintain were the taking on of visions, in the anarchist sense of building the new world beneath the old. Thus, over time, Orin comes closer to being the poet he desired to be in youth. Over time, through my writing, I have cut the ropes one by one that keep me paralyzed in neoliberal reality.
In conscious reference to gender transitioning, I am calling this transitioning “ontological;” one is becoming not the gender, but the being which was imaged in the soul at birth, essentially oneself, and essentially one with all others (no surgeries or pharmaceuticals required!) This “freer,” more integrated, “artwork” of self is different ontologically from the self that is the consumer and servile employee of neoliberalism, left unimaginatively to choose between the Republican and the Democrat, both of whom serve oligarchy, not the common good. At the same time, our poetically indigenous counter culture makes us “weak” in relation to practitioners of the bourgeois“good politics” Lagalisse writes about, that hides class power behind pointing out the “bad politics” of others. If one must be weak in order to find one’s true strength, I would say, subjectively, its worth the price. Though I’m unworthy to invoke her, I feel Rosa Luxemburg might agree.