We have difficulty imagining authority as a sense of strength and weakness we build… [Merely] exposing the illusions of authority has not…led us to imagine new forms of authority in society, to create after we have negated.
Richard Sennett, Authority (1981)
Negation is no longer creative.
– Octavio Paz
I have long thought…that our over-specialized culture would profit if amateurs were more daring in treating matters usually left to experts…
– Dwight MacDonald, The Root Is Man(1946)
MacDonald captures the necessity for a restored imagination, a renewed capacity to envision the world that makes the very idea of revolt meaningful… [and asserts that] if the oppressed are to ever rule themselves we must reignite the utopian spark that mass society relentlessly seeks to subvert, co-opt, or destroy.
– Kevin Coogan, Introduction, The Root is Man (1995)
As the pandemic life of seclusion, distancing and masks wore on in Utica, our household experienced additional complications: On a Monday in late June, after a newspaper disclosure (3 days earlier) that a Covid-positive person had been served at our family-run Cafe and learning (2 days earlier) that our daughter tested positive for Covid, (this followed by the flurry of several family members to get tested, then by the decision to close the Cafe for 2 weeks) Orin and I lost our landline (phone and Internet) connection at home. Since, in our “Luddite” way, we have no cell phones, our coronavirus retired folks’ seclusion was complete. We were sealed up tight as in a veritable tomb, a confinement worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.
This was our second such “telecommunications”crisis that could be laid at the feet of our “Luddism.” We knew the drill. We would have to tackle the “giant,” Verizon, through very likely repeated trips to the (now closed) Cafe to use the phone there. Getting back our service, and thus facing all the frustration and hopelessness that accompanies the importuning of faceless, indifferent authority now was our lot.
Orin’s first call to Verizon was greeted with the company’s pandemic message. When the robotic voice asked if he’d had contact with anyone testing positive for COVID-19, he answered in the affirmative. This honest answer came back to haunt us when he was told a few minutes later by the customer service rep that due to pandemic precautions we may have to wait 30 days to have a technician come to the house (despite the fact they knew the problem was in the wires outside our house!)
I will spare readers the details of this and successive calls beseeching Verizon over the next four days. The system is dysfunctional; its malice hidden behind its autonomy and its automatons. I could seethe, despair, gnash teeth, twist on the spit, but to no avail. Moreover, the entire ordeal was the fault of my own ”pointless” rebellion! We did not succeed in getting service restored until Friday afternoon; that morning we were connected to a manager, a “good cop,” whose assurances, finally, bore fruit.
Before it ended, this confrontation with corporate bureaucracy unraveled me horribly. I felt victim of a particular kind of cruelty caused by indifferent, impersonal authority that erased my individuality.
One morning, a couple of days into my suffering, a different “voice” entered my consciousness. For several precious moments, I wasn’t thinking like a victim. It came to me these two ordeals undergone two-three years apart against the Verizon behemoth, were my choice. That is, I could avoid such crises by simply submitting, like everybody else, to the reality of cellphones and wireless connections. To do so, as my comical brother-in-law Frank likes to say, would not “make me a bad person.” More than Orin, I am susceptible to social pressures. Because some of our decisions are incomprehensible to pretty near all our friends, and the rest of the world we know about besides, it is easy for me to lose sight of such an ordeal having been the result of a principled decision to “draw a line,” to limit our obeisance to technocracy.
Back when cell phones were just becoming ubiquitous, people would say “Good for you!” when I confessed to not having one. A scant couple of decades later nobody has a clue anymore as to why anyone would make such an eccentric choice, nor do they even wonder. Thus is illegitimate authority, in its modern inverted iteration, brought to bear on dissent. As we cave to the social pressure to be in step, we will less and less know if our lives – and particularly our individualities, that is, our intact and functioning imaginations – matter. Thus are people drawn without resistance into ranks of Facebook-likers and selfie-takers, and I would argue, into the non-recognition of individuality – that of one’s own as well as of others’ – as it is expressed in authentic dissent. And with that frictionless transaction, an opportunity for authorization of one’s own individuality is lost.
Lots ‘n Slots
Is this claim too sweeping a generalization? Being possibly the sole member of my tiny uncredentialed sub-minority, I have no illusions about how dismissible are my ideas! But I’ll say it anyway: The illegitimate authority to which we in the liberal/neoliberal world are obedient dictates not so much that (our) white liberal lives don’t matter, though this is true, but that our individualities are insignificant. The great advantage for neoliberal totalitarianism is in the fact that our individualities – not privately, but in the freedom to express our souls creatively and socially – do not matter to us either. Once having entered the dominant bourgeois reality that rules out imagination and recognizes sameness only, we forget completely what we were supposed to defend. We forget, too, the necessary communal conditions by which individualities can be nurtured, protected, and cultivated, which includes being challenged and initiated. We cannot make up our minds if we are worth a good, safe-feeling, kind and convivial life among friends and family, stable and interconnected within an imagination-based unity. Such a life, circumscribed within our “lot”- as in “she was contented with her lot” – would demand of us that our relationship with authority be transformed, for such a life has to be protected. The result of such socially-sanctioned transformation: A self-authorizing adult consciousness that understands its role as protecting and defending against the neoliberal context in which individualities do not matter.
To liberal ears conditioned in anti-authoritarian negation, the suggestion we have something called a “lot” sounds like being told what we can and cannot do. In defense of an illusory freedom, we live not within our lots, but inside the“slots” predetermined for us in neoliberal establishment reality. We’re isolated and disconnected instead of communally interdependent with others. The separation brings with it definite benefits, but also enormous costs. Escaping our lots by means of our illusory freedom, outside the limitations nature and a finite planet impose, we put our faith in unsustainable growth and progress. “Anti-authoritarians” all, we cannot demand limitations of others (think: anti-mask protests!) even to save lives! In effect, we have traded in the old “boss” ( paternalistic authority, now psychological and internalized) for the new ( external, autonomous, faceless, impersonal). Without transforming our relationship to authority we can be only victims – however rebellious – or masters, however subservient.
My Verizon story, to me, is about the nature of dissent in the neoliberal (inverted) totalitarian context, the price one pays for insisting that one’s individuality matters. Because our individuality is so endangered, it might make as much – possibly more sense – for white liberals to stand up for our own liberation from pointless anti-authoritarianism as to fight for black lives mattering! It’s possible to see the liberal preference for “identity politics” as a way of sidestepping the gordian knot of authority. De rigeur liberal championing of oppressed victims – intended or not – serves as a hedge against having to stand up and make politically disastrous no-win demands for peace, for the environment, for species survival, for ending mass incarceration, for abolishing the barbaric death penalty, for all the measures that could ensure the protection of an inclusive society and healthy planet, that can be made only in resistance to illegitimate neoliberal (capitalist) authority.
Left with unresolved authority “issues” we liberals have no way to confirm our subjective worth except as granted – or not – in the dominant bourgeois narrative. For many individuals like myself who struggle with shame and self-condemnation, our struggles remain personal “esteem” problems unconnected to any larger picture. They have no social meaning, and certainly no political meaning as far as we know. But should a person chance to grasp that this personal low self-worth is not inherent in her humanity (white liberal lives matter!) it becomes possible to see the fragile sense of worth society grants us depends on there being class and race differences. Without being supreme over somebody, no lives matter! Since this is an intolerable fact for a liberal consciousness to absorb, the easiest way to avoid it is to stick with our narrative: keep on the “good” – i.e., liberal – side and never stray from it. No matter what, no matter if they want you to agree Joe Biden will save society from the sickness of racism – stick with your story! Never let on you’re not so sure.
An Equality of Insignificance
It is fascinating to me, here under the thick oppressive cloud of pandemic social deprivation, isolated in a rustbelt city that’s a “destination” only for refugees, NYS Thruway motel seekers,and Dunkin Donuts franchises, to watch the latest liberal world media-driven auto-da-fe get started, sweeping everything into its path. First #MeToo, now BLM. I’m not speaking here to the direct resistance against systemic injustice and police brutality, but to how, in the hands of liberals and corporate liberal media, the cause becomes as dangerous – though in a different way – as what it purports to fight against. To reassure others of our loyalty, directors of non-profits arts organizations like me feel pressured to include BLM-supportive statements in our communications. To prove their ferocity, zealous liberals will throw into the fire (male) artists and their art, guilty-until-proven-innocent abusive husbands, parents who oppose their teenage children’s “right” to switch their gender, etc. And now, in the controversy over a mural at the University of Kentucky that includes a depiction of black slaves, a valuable historical work of art may be destroyed and with it, a contemporary mural by a black woman artist.
Far from the “power centers” as I am, and since I rarely tune into NPR or MSNBC, there’s no way really for me to get it. My perspective is rooted in this grittier, unmediated reality in which I live, right down to the unfashionable city street where our house sits at a ‘T.’ My mainly working class neighbors, no more than 5-6 houses away in three directions, are Ukrainian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Bosnian, Thai, Somalian, Jamaican, Italian-American, African American, and generic white, that I know of. I live here among people who, by and large, do not matter, me included. Wouldn’t it be more comradely if we knew we were all in the same boat, if we were conscious that our individualities exist in an equality of insignificance underneath the indifferent, impersonal, unseeing eye of a systemic illegitimate authority sustained by materiality, racism, and me firstism?
Inasmuch as we liberals live obediently inside neoliberalism, refusing our more earth-bound and rooted lot, we confirm our “slot” in the systemically racist society, effectively nullifying any support for BLM. How otherwise do we explain the fact there is apparently no demand upon liberals like us, many of us believing ardently in the interconnectedness of life, to change our personal lifeways, i.e., to sacrifice our freedom “to do anything we want?” And we’re educated; we know what systemic means: It’s impersonal. Its full of slots that mesh together in a machine-like way so there’s a kind of logical purposefulness in it. On the horrific end, “systemic” means we may be like “good Germans” in the Nazi era, obedient to illegitimate authority, but satisfying ourselves we can distinguish the good (or at least “less evil”) Party from the bad Party. Are we remotely prepared for the changes necessary to end racism, interlocked as it is with capitalism as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out many years ago, changes that go far beyond including BLM-supportive statements on our organization’s website?
In The Root Is Man, Dwight MacDonald, in his critique of Marxism, suggested that Marx’s crucial error was his failure to clarify the (non-material) vision or inward authority upon which his scientific materialism was based. Leaving his source ambiguous, while it permitted greater popular acceptance of Marx’s ideas, in turn, allowed logically for the development of ruthless Stalinist totalitarianism in Marx’s name. In other words, by omitting to clarify the authority (conscience or consciousness) in which his morality was based, its spiritual basis (for what else can one call it?) was rendered ‘less “real” than the material environment, and the individual less “real” than society.’ (MacDonald). In other words, if our “revolt (or dissent) is to mean something,” we must break with the dominant narrative that denies two realities – two authorities – that are one: the spiritual and the individual. Despite our conditioning in negation, we must be able to discern, and consciously obey, the legitimate authority that is rooted in man and woman which will protect the individualities, though their worth can only ever be confirmed in imagination, of everyone.