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Social Studies for the Pandemic

The moment of clarity [in the pandemic shutdown], expressed in climate and consciousness, will pass and progressives will resume their regular, but now carefully washed, handwringing.

– John Davis, Visions of a Post-Covid-19 World

Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life [Reconstruction period] we began at the top instead of the bottom, that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill, that the political convention of some teaching had more attraction than starting a dairy farm or a stockyard.

– Booker T. Washington

In capitalist systems we’re not meant to feel joy.

– Kelsey Cham C., in Joyful Militancy, by Nick Montgomery and Carla Bergman

The push to re-open, get the economy up-and-running has the momentum behind it of people who’ve been starved for normal socializing, outings and cultural events, and even, if not felt in the same way, from the routine of going to work. But, for those willing to see, at the top where the decisions are being made by leaders who are supposed to have the peoples’ welfare front-and-center, the cold-hearted evil of neoliberal capitalism is being blatantly exposed. There’s no smiley-face on it when leaders are offering COVID-19 responses like the “herd immunity” approach (UK’s Boris Johnson) to essentially cull the old and vulnerable while the rest – in theory – develop “herd immunity.” But not only the evil ones – Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, etc., are to be held accountable. Does anyone believe we have in our representative government any who will fiercely oppose the too-rapid opening process, and stand up for the people being told they must go back to work or lose their job and unemployment payments? Who will take up the hopeless task of arguing for the good of all? And, more to my point, can we expect leaders to take up a (social) cause we (the people) have largely abandoned?

In the top down, profits-over-people neoliberal context we exist in, communal bonds have been drained of their meaning, all relationships made relative. However, for there to be resistance, no matter how shredded the bonds, no matter how corrupted our hearts, there must be unity. We must now turn back to the commanding value of relatedness, after decades of learning to be tolerant of America’s systemic atrocities and acceptable “collateral” cruelties. Only in unity can the neoliberalism that toxifies all relatedness – social, inter-species, inter-cultural, environmental – be resisted. Just as the evil of predatory capitalism is nakedly revealed in the pandemic, the multiple horrific collapses threatening all life on the planet are also unmistakeably revelatory; in this case, of a joyful truth: All beings are truly interconnected. The “social movement” that calls us now is to a complete transformation of relatedness – the expansion of the social to include the entire “web of life” – beginning at the bottom, where we are.

Starting at the bottom is important. Until we can have the unifying experience coming from toiling in that particular social garden that is ours, such that the social is once again real for us, we will have nothing to defend from neoliberal authority, no compelling personal reason to resist. We can bail out the super-rich over and over, be under full-time surveillance through our devices, be treated like faceless ciphers in the labyrinthine “healthcare system,” pay more for ever-crappier goods, be insulted in hundreds of ways, over and over – including being exposed as no other country has been to the ravages of covid-19 – but we cannot find our motivation to disobey. Incapable of political clarity, we get lost in banal confusion about whether we’re “bad” if we fail to eat the right nutrition, get fat, drink too much, fail to exercise, smoke tobacco or are unhappy with the way we look in the mirror, obsessing over regrets or guilts, we swirl around in a neurotic moral vacuum. Worried about our “goodness” in these picayune, win-lose, obsessive-compulsive, neo-puritanical ways, we remain far away not only from the joy of “now,” but also from the specific joy of relatedness – the goodness – of solidarity in defending all that is human and interrelated against the destructive forces of capitalism.

The problem for white middle class people’s participation in the reality of interdependence – though an attractive concept of which liberals are very fond – is its demand for life ways – local, face-to-face, place-based communities, stable over generations. Such a “bottom life”we emphatically reject. Problematically for us, interdependence is essentially a refusal of progress and a bowing to constraints. As such it is antipathetic to liberal industrial society. Realized interdependence, as little as we know of it, is limited to indigenous cultures and the Amish (and to nature!) Though we qualifiedly admire these cultures that understand limitation, their interdependence is largely responsible for what we consider their backwardness. No way do we wish to emulate them!

In individualist, competitive capitalist society, existing more or less comfortably, acquiescently, banally, as separate “samenesses,” we’re ignorant of the aspect of interdependence that could actually persuade us toward “downward” mobility. Without knowing the joy that accompanies a unity of othernesses, when the normal condition of polarization and separateness is transcended, the lifeways of interdependence can only be perceived negatively, as deprivation or poverty. This transcendence is not of the sports arena or political rally kind. Those are unities of sameness (closer to mobs), not of othernesses. The expansion of the social we seek has to challenge the illusion of separateness that guarantees only sameness, and its intolerance of difference, or otherness. Lucky for us non-indigenous people who must find our white middle class suburban conforming way to the interdependent reality, there is a way; though narrow, it is entirely navigable by any human being who is drawn to joy

Through the process of committed relationships, westernized people, reared on firm belief that only materiality – that which we can see, touch, hear, bomb, exploit, etc., – exists, may come to experience the immateriality of interconnection. This is joy. People who attain it – as seen in the case of mystics, poets, prophets, etc. – will sacrifice even the ideals of progress and the bourgeois life way – to follow it. In case the poet does not seem an example of social relatedness, that is only because we make a false distinction between relationships between people (the social), and relationship with inner creative reality. Interdependence, the unity of othernesses, includes and must have both kinds.

The crisis of pandemic with its heavy cost of involuntary seclusion, is a “custom-made” opportunity to retrieve the social, to consciously address the shattered bonds both outwardly and inwardly. In seclusion, social transformation is aimed not toward an ideology, nor toward the liberation of others. Instead, in shutdown, we face the ones we don’t think of as others, those who are actually inside Noah’s ark with us: partners, spouses, households – maybe a few beyond. Whether urban, working class, rural, or bourgeois suburban, the work can only begin where we are, with the company we’ve got. With the brakes on, the revolution now is exactly about being where we are, in cooperation with the invisible forces of transformation, a revolution going “down” into matter, as well as “up” toward goals of unity and brotherhood. Here, in constraint, we can have our postponed reckoning with fate; the crisis of the other.

Being white, middle class, public-schooled, and liberally reared, I had never consciously experienced unwanted constraints upon me until the twin, related crises of my marriage and the “shutdown” of mental illness caught up with me in my 40’s. Through this suffering, undergone as a psycho-spiritual transformative process – I regained a priceless relationship with “the other within” that strengthened my fragile sense of self in the marital “communion” of two othernesses. Emerging from that earlier “shutdown” crisis, and constantly practicing my writing, a kind of allyship developed between my ego and my creative soul. This allyship allowed me to be unified, for the first time, with my own truth. At the same time, I was an “other” in relation to liberal bourgeois reality, (and our marriage a kind of bottom-up insurgency of localism). Because the interdependent, heterogeneous reality I had discovered within needed my fierce protection, I had no choice but to be consciously and personally resistant to repressive, conforming liberal sameness. In a bottom-up political way, I needed to defend my hard-won, infinitely precious unified self. In knowing both my suffering and my need for redemption I had became like the people on the bottom who are routinely subjected to trauma in racist America. Because of that transformative experience, both intra- and inter-personal, I hear a different message out of the dark event of pandemic; beneath its catastrophe for the economy it holds liberatory potential for the ragged remnants of our hanging-by-a-thread in-common humanity:

In post-enlightenment, liberal society the door that opens onto human depths is supposed to stay shut, a rule to which we are largely obedient. Because of our obedience, the crisis of the unknown within oneself “stays in Vegas.” We don’t pry there. Without intractable other person(s), close enough to disturb our uneasy, fragile self-confidence, we remain in our bubbles of isolated sameness, provoked to no self-awareness, remaining that particular kind of well-intentioned, friendly, loquacious, often clever American that is also hollow, a monster with a corrupted heart. We are conditioned to separateness, to measuring by “face(book) value,” to in essence being conned and conning others in all our “relationships,” accepting such shallowness as “better than nothing.” We rarely linger long enough in the discomfort of relationships to deepen them. Thus, a significant radicalizing opportunity is lost. This is why the social in America, though cause of much “handwringing” on the left, is by now well-nigh irretrievable.

Speaking to white, liberal, progressive reality, that being what I know, I argue for the social circumstance not of one’s choosing. The illusion of freedom, any shred of hope of an “American Dream coming true for me” must be shed. Because of the toxic faith in progress we’ve been conditioned to, in order to force ourselves “back,” we must give up the wishful thinking that we can change our circumstances. The beginning point for change is not freedom from constraints but recognition of them. To the point, not of passively accepting harmful abuse within the patriarchal or colonialist structures and systems, but of framing “abuse” within a process of inner transformation. This process is the passage from neoliberal dehumanization to interdependent human beings, from meaningless suffering under capitalism’s treatment of people as discardable, to suffering that is meaningfully grounded in humanly attainable goals of wisdom and joy, the chief of these being the joy of knowing one’s creative efforts are the same as the efforts of divine love (i.e., bottom-up, interconnective, and reconciliatory).

Being involuntarily constrained by the COVID-19 threat, having the freedoms of social and consumer life we thought were non-optional taken away from us, has forced us to live in a way that is less polluting of the biosphere; that is, our constraint frees Mother Nature from our relentless assault. Those who voluntarily take up the imperative of constraint will more easily accept the fact of “original constraint,” i.e., our “animal nature” constrained by the biological limitation of birth-to-death cyclicality. Rather than clinging to the illusion we can escape biological limitation, which leads to assaulting the earth exploitatively and extractively, we can align ourselves with biological reality. By voluntarily accepting the bonds to the people in our lives, extending outward from parents, spouses and children, to local extended family, to the community in which fate has placed us, to the place we’re from, we move into harmony with biological processes. Most people reading this will already have been removed from the family and community of origin. Many will be removed from one or more marriages, and from familial bonds. No matter; constraints will find you once you stop where and with whom you are, making it an autonomous space that honors the invisibles of connection outside the deadening separateness and individualism of corporate neoliberal society.

Writing about voluntary constraint made me recall something that struck me years ago as I read about black educator Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute that taught practical “vocational” skills to former slaves. In advice that became controversial, Washington urged graduates, rather than to aspire to the top positions of rank and status in the country, to remain in the South, in their existing communities, to “cast down your buckets where you are.” To 21st century Americans, who believe in progress and advancement by education, and know the history of racism in the South, sickeningly brought to mind recently by the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, Washington’s advice sounds wrong. But I hear it differently. To me, his advice speaks not for capitalism’s need for people to enter the competitive race to the top, but from the powerful spiritual ideal of interdependence that can occur only in communities that eschew “progress” and build from the bottom up. Not solely applicable for black Americans, or to the south, it speaks relevantly to white progressive liberals today. It urges valuable constraint for people who truly aim to reclaim their hearts rooted in in-place community, the interdependent unity-of-othernesses that exists as an archetype in the soul but needs our allyship to be realized.

More articles by:

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.

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