Unless We’re Also Mad, We’re No Match for the Madness of Neoliberalism

The elders, the Old Ones, always believed that in the end, there would be justice for those who cared for and who had not forgotten the original teachings, rooted in a relationship with the land…Justice is sometime seven generations away. And it is inevitable.

– Joy Harjo,”Indian Country’ Gets Its Due,” NY Times, 7/15/20

Someone I read recently called neoliberalism “governance without governing.” These words resonate with me as we watch the senseless (mad!) mask wars raging, as we see leaders who, at their best, work at reforming a dysfunctional system (madness!) rather than leading the country in the radical, impractical, impossible direction of the good for all. Thus far, the liberal world, for lack of imagination, can’t stop looking “up” to leaders who cannot lead, for deliverance. I cringe when anyone brings up to me his or her predictable, cherished hope that we will “dump Trump” in November; sorry, such relief is cheap. There is no elected leader who can prevent our jumping off the cliff toward which the capitalist economy and its neoliberal thoughtworld is rushing us.

Frightening as the current reality is, paralyzed as we are in pandemic, our duty now is to want more, not less, for our world. For people whose hearts are still capable of functioning – no small feat in the neoliberal context that demeans imagination – and for those of us not hitting the barricades in BLM protests – this can mean one thing: utopia cannot be postponed, even for the pandemic. That is, utopia’s ours to build, in whatever ways that we – right where we are and with the people we’re among – individually and together can. What we can do now, in preparation of our imaginations for post-pandemic times is to clarify our intentions. Preparation is essential: putting oneself on the side of utopia, even if on the page it can look almost reasonable, calls for a departure from reason: any action we take to build the dreamed-of world is utterly unreasonable, in fact, it’s madness.

In particular, though it be madness, those of us raised to be bourgeois liberals now must part ways with the reasonable world of accommodation and assimilation to the neoliberal context – including with the accomodator in ourselves. We must say “good-bye” to that reasonably fair and just liberal political discourse in which the hotly contested issues of identity politics form the upper limit (“glass ceiling”) of political daring. Under neoliberalism’s abandonment of governance in favor of ceaseless politicking, whether or not the identity struggles will ultimately be solved by society’s becoming uniformly “progressive,” it will be humanly barren.

To preserve social conditions conducive to human health – that for which governance is empowered – that “glass ceiling” on liberal political daring must be stretched. For, if we look beyond identity, and to the degree our hearts are functioning, we can see that no matter who governs, or if even if we democratically govern ourselves, governance that disobeys the heart’s authority, will always require some people to suffer at the expense of others’ thriving. Our brutal and exploitative civilization has been built upon disobedience to that original authority which alone is reliably biased in favor of the good for all. Against the odds, heart-based knowledge has been resuscitated over and over by spiritual “zanies” like Christ, St. Francis, mystics and poets, a few subcultures and minorities. Now it is up to ordinary people to revive allegiance to our hearts, to radicalize for the sake of preserving and protecting what is truly sacred. No longer can the “heart work” be left to the “zanies.” Liberals’ constant obsessing over Trump’s madness perhaps must be seen as a defense; if we are to save “sanity,” we who are so integrated into the positivist and progressive direction of western civilization, the great bulwark against the heart’s supremacy, must perhaps be willing to let go of our pathological trust in the supremacy of reason and “go mad” ourselves.

During the pandemic isolation, when (speaking for myself) neuroses – depression, compulsions, obsessions – are so disturbingly near consciousness, to be advised to embrace our madness may sound awfully strange! But our perception of madness cannot be trusted when we’ve been so thoroughly conditioned to see alignment with the heart’s compassionate bias as weakness. “Madness” – and its modern clinicalized equivalent – “mental illness” – names an illness requiring treatment and confinement, perhaps the ultimate scape-goating or stigmatization of which our society is capable. The fear of going “mad” is so ingrained that we cannot see all the “otherness” that we reject! By madness I mean willing suspension of belief in the monarchy of reason divorced from the heart; in the eyes of imperial reason, this crime is so heinous it must be undertaken with great subtlety; it could, in fact, get you killed. Not, to be clear, in the way George Floyd and other black lives have been taken by police. In liberal rationalist reality, the threat to which comes from immaterial aliveness, not the physical body; the punishment precedes the crime. Under the rationalist rule that keeps body and soul separate, one real, the other not, only voluntary (creative) madness can prevent one’s individuality and dissent from suffocation under the banalizing blanket of liberal reality.

We have learned to fear and mistrust madness as a stigma of otherness sealing off the stigmatized from the social world as we know it. But risking disobedience to rationalist rule in the solitude of the heart – the madness that frees the individual’s “otherness” – saves, it does not destroy. The heart’s orientation toward compassion, kindness, safety and protectiveness makes such madness, not a sacrifice of the social, but a fuller realization of it. Socially, this mad allegiance to the heart is a downward movement that brings us into unity with the underclass, and into suffering – not into their suffering that has been imposed upon them by an unjust social order – but our own. For we can see: where the oppressed have not been destroyed by heartless racism and other forms of injustice, they have been left, through their suffering, with more intact, powerful hearts and with functioning , i.e., face-to-face, community – the very emblems of the madness we now seek. Can we at last trade-off our unwarranted white bourgeois privilege and entitlement for our fair share of struggle and sacrifice, and so redeem the basis for authentic authority and true sovereignty?

A recent op-ed piece in the NY Times by author Timothy Egan concerned his experience, having been quarantined with his out-of-town daughter and her family during their visit, living for an extended period as one intergenerational family. He called it “exhausting, kinetic, cramped and one of the few consistent joys in this awful time.” His conclusion is that such multi-generational living is not anachronistic, as we have learned to view it when we come across it in other, charmingly “backward” cultures, but “the future.” He may be pronouncing this as much longingly as prophetically: the daughter’s family now moved back to their home “a thousand miles away in a different time zone,” just the grandparents remain in a house now “still and aimless, three generations back to one, and we are left to wonder how so many of us can live like this.” Beautifully expressed, the essay ends where madness begins. To imagine the unthinkable, gathering three generations and more back into one community, forsaking the gains of career and esteem in the neoliberal world to rediscover and regain the priceless joys and emotional depth of living closely knitted lives, rooted in common ancestry – is madness. Nothing in the neoliberal context, so imaginatively reduced, can authorize such insanity, only the heart can do so. When will we once again obey?

One of the clues I’ve found that such madness – the “utter otherness” that is obedience to the heart – can be pursued “reasonably,” i.e.,without “going mad,” comes from the alternative life ways and spiritual outlook of traditionalist indigenous people relative to that of non-traditionalist, “casino” Indians. Esteemed by white liberal progressives as they are, traditionalist Indians would undoubtedly be considered mad, if we stopped simply admiring them and attempted to find in ourselves the basis for their certainty!

The indigenous world view embraced by traditionalists, such as it can be reconstructed by historians and as it is expressed in the writings of many native authors, looks much like the (non-idealized) utopian dream that’s been kept marginally alive in western consciousness for centuries, and mostly abandoned as impractical and impossible. Essential to indigenous peoples’ hope, maintained for generations under genocidally hopeless conditions, as I understand it, is faithfulness to the authority of their tradition. Obedience to that tradition keeps the people grounded in their relations with, as poet laureate Joy Harjo writes, the land, and each other, with whom they are essentially interdependent. The traditionals’ departure from assimilationist, progressive-oriented Indian culture does not entail negation; it is not a rebellion, but faithfulness to the truth alive in the heart, which could be any heart; the heart is quintessentially indigenous.

This writing has made me think: though I have not called myself a feminist for perhaps 30 years, I might be a traditionalist feminist. Comparable to a traditionalist Native American’s difference from his more assimilationist Indian brethren, my traditionalism in relation to my heritage as a woman separates me from assimilationist feminist neoliberals. In my loyalty to earth-centered, heart-based, nurturing, and deeply spiritual matriarchal-type (hippie!) values, I’m mad in relation to the pragmatic, feet-on-the-ground Hillary-voting type of feminist. Assimilationist feminists, though they function effectively in the establishment as I cannot, pay a price in having to compromise the wisdom and authority of the heart. That compromise, that relativizing of the values known to the heart, allows women, as well as men, to conspire with this brutal civilization instead of dissenting.

Our coffeeshop business in Utica, Cafe Domenico, which I mention so often, that just passed its 18th birthday, is, in the utopian sense I’m talking about, a traditionalist small business. Its values of face-to-face community, localism, and support for art and culture-making, refusal of credit card machine and televisions are thoroughly utopian. We were mad to start it, and mad to keep it going for the length of time, as our son Nick noted, it takes for a baby to reach adulthood. Right now, as the business continues to face the challenges of Trump-inspired divisiveness in our community, as well as of the pandemic that has forced so many businesses to close, in order to keep our business alive we need more than ever to stay connected to the heart-based authority that has brought us so far.

Lately I read with interest and sympathy accounts of restaurants and other businesses attempting to re-open amidst coronavirus spikes and changing ordinances. The NY Times, reporting on the grim situation in states like California and Texas, interviewed a karaoke club owner in Texas who decided he’s “had enough.” After spending $1000 on “perishable goods and protective gear” in anticipation of the coming weekend, he decided abruptly to close for good and dumped everything he’d just bought into the trash! His manner of wording his plight is telling: “We did everything we were supposed to do. When he shut us down again, and after I put out all the money to meet their rules, I just said, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ “

Much as I sympathize with the plight of small business owners – whose situation in the pandemic is practically hopeless – the man’s petulant action and his tendency to blame authority, at least rhetorically, points to his having the American problem deeply rooted in “the problem with authority.” Without a deeper (mad) sense of one’s authorization to run a business than bourgeois neoliberalism, the business owner has only resentment and victimhood or self-blame to fall back on in relation to “he” or “them.” Implied is a complaint against governance, which in this case, however ineffectively, is attempting to govern. To keep the Utopian dream of local economy real, “the authority problem” and the chaos of non-governance has to be resolved by our becoming, through obedience to the heart, governors of our own reality.

Owning a “traditionalist” business that’s not “too big to fail,” and is vulnerable to the demands of an economy that serves the rich at the expense of the poor has given me a bottom-up perspective I would not otherwise have had. Vulnerable to all the harsh and indifferent realities of life under capitalism, making no special case for ourselves, we, and other struggling local businesses are fully in, rather than above, the reality faced by the underclasses in America, especially now. This is our strength, not a weakness. Unless the small business chooses to identify itself capitalistically upward – to “sell out” – small local businesses like ours are – and ought to see ourselves radically as – on the frontline of America’s “other reality,” the one on the bottom where people face being discardable and replaceable every day of their lives. From the point of view of the madness that is obedience to the authority of the heart, the struggle of the small business to stay open is a humanizing one, and legitimately heroic. Though quitting is no sin, these local expressions of individuality and dissent are as crucial for social health as masks and social distancing are for protection against Coronavirus. It’s right they be founded on a different value than purely economic.

Endlessly, righteously deploring the madness of Trump gets us nowhere; it’s a delay tactic we – our souls – in this perilous time – cannot afford. Many people point out Trump is merely a symptom of America’s deeper problem. It’s possible the root of that problem is the liberal disdain for, and pathological fear of the madness that irrational, utopian, traditionalist choices, inconceivable to imperial reason but obedient to the biases of the heart, assuredly are.


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.