“Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics (dialectical thought), is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature.”
– Fredrick Engels Dialectics of Nature
Linda has lived since we’ve known her on a sparsely populated two-lane road in an area which is the closest we have around Utica to “fox-hunt” country (though here, x-country skis replace horses and hounds). Her picturesque cottage is a few country miles from the quarry pond where her father, a doctor, once located the family’s summer residence; in that sense she has chosen to live on in “the idyll.” Now 71, she faces two threats to her rural retreat from an invasion of new neighbors whose uncivil behaviors hint at lawlessness, Stolen Election resentment, and guns. Her quiet life has been overturned, a mutual friend tells me, by both the noisy inconsiderate across-the-road neighbors, whose late-night truck back-up beeping din and powerful spotlights keep her from sleeping, and by the remoter neighbor whose aggressively loud voice easily reaches her house. He, a self-declared former Blackwater-type mercenary, when Linda walked over to ask him to keep his voice down, I was told, threatened her with garrotting, using a slang term for the act.
If the scene had been handled by the Coen brothers, the confrontation might seem gallows-funny. With Quentin Tarrentino directing, we might appreciate its irony. But the horrific chill in such a true story can be felt, the same chill we collectively felt on January 6 watching our screens as the Capitol was overrun by lawless hooligans. Although race does not overtly figure in this scene, I assert there can be no clearer, more graphic illustration of what is occurring in America because liberal, race-tolerant minds still cling to the safe harbor of “white supremacy.” Liberals’ use of this term is meant to convey awareness of the prejudice deeply dyed into the fabric of our social beings. But white supremacy is the social consequence of egoic supremacy, the psycho-spiritual illness that prohibits individuals from transformation, and is not exclusive to rightwing extremists. Although Linda surely hates racism, and has probably spent some hours in psychologists’ offices, she cannot see how her life “choices” depend upon ego’s jealous insistence that its hegemony be upheld!
That is, the unconscious privilege (entitlement) that neither black suffering nor black protest has been able to penetrate, by which people complacently seek residence in all-white enclaves, is hitting a wall. Counterintuitively, terror for the liberal mind comes now not from those different in race and culture who’ve long been subjugated and, besides, are divided from us by miles of suburban streets and country roads, but in the kind of person represented by Derek Chauvin. These angry whites who share our capitalist context and its antithesis to truly in-common culture, like ustend to idealize the good life as the relative isolation of rural settings rather than the teeming multicultural urban ones. But, unlike us, they incomprehensibly love Trump and hate Biden (Obama, Hillary, etc.). We call them fascists as if what we fear is their persecuting black people, immigrants, and Jews, but what they trigger in us, in their unsettling belligerence, their hatred for the liberal reality in which we have placed our trust, is fear of lost control, of ego’s annihilation.
Acknowledging respect for the danger of “a little knowledge,” (I’m no yogi!) I do know this fear of ego annihilation – a concept we’ve learned from eastern spirituality – can be faced by ordinary people; the transformative rewards of doing so, both personal and social, are very real. During the 1980’s “me-decade” of intense spiritual explorations I participated in several process-oriented workshops which were, I now realize, based in dialectical principle. They were intended to process the conflict that would be stirred up by the workshop’s content among naïve people who knew nothing of conflict, nor of Engels’ “motion of the opposites everywhere reflected in nature.” Stupendously naïve as I was, these experiences brought me my first experience of liberation from the hegemonic control of ego and were life-changing.
In the intensity, workshop attenders sometimes “walked out.” Among those who stayed to take in the entire experience, I don’t know what use they made of it afterwards. But for me these personal ”earthquakes” shook me to a level below the comfortable that felt like annihilation. By means of this process, I became acquainted with my Unconscious, my imaginative soul that speaks in poetry. Biblical language, for instance, “Knock and the door will be opened unto you” was suddenly lit up from within – I understood! Although the consequences that allowed imaginative reality to break through into consciousness were due to the personal (“me!”) focus of the workshops, they did not end with the personal. Rediscovering my other, deeper ground in creative imagination allowed me, over time and still working at it, a place to stand outside bourgeois reality and outside whiteness in a way much more profound than my one-level leftward political and feminist identity, devoid of the imaginative dimension, had done.
Watching Raoul Peck’s movie The Young Karl Marx (2017) brought back to me these long ago experiences I’d had of “dialectical process.” The movie was exceptional in that, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his review for the NYTimes, it gave a “ highly individualized picture of the authors of a doctrine of collective struggle.” The individualized and human pictures of Marx and Engels make it possible to draw relevance from the story – relevance otherwise lost on people like me who haven’t studied Marxism and its origins. The film was not focused on the common working people whose struggle Marx and Engels supported (although the context of oppression is clear from the start), but on a group of the educated and privileged, who used their immense intellectual and spiritual gifts to be on the side of humankind.
What interested me particularly was seeing the dialectical method in action; that is, the movie shows us how Marx’s rather mystical (Hegelian) idea actually worked in people “from bottom up,” in the early days before Communism was an ism. This happens in several scenes, but most dramatically in Marx’s victory at the meeting in Belgium of “the League of the Just” that by its end was renamed “The Communist League.” We see how the conflict already present in the group, instead of being swept under the carpet in order to preserve a specious and doomed unity, is made the subject. (Think: the way the DNC does not function!) In the tense scene, where Marx argues for direct confrontation instead of pie in the sky, the disgruntled people, perhaps many, walked out on him. But others, awakened to new and formerly inconceivable hope, gained for Marx’s ideas an enthusiastic, incredibly influential popular movement for common humanity.
In our time, the way of dialectic and its potential for personal and social transformation appears to have been forsaken. The majority conform to liberalism’s need for benignity, for the unshakeability of our pet ego-buttressing vanity, faith in progress. In effect we’ve “paved over” nature and put up an identity-politics/cancel-culture “parking lot.” Inasmuch as nature’s rules still apply to human life, despite the fact middle class existence saves us disproportionately from the plagues, famines, and inconveniences of earlier times, the social relevance of dialectic has not been subdued, and can’t be “disappeared.” It goes deeper, even deeper than the class struggle of the proletariat against the capitalists, down to the human root located in the soul.
Besides the history of class struggle, dialectic is the story of the becoming of each human individual limited by the necessity of a body. Nature’s “law” proclaims itself throughout biological life – down to the immaterial life teeming in the wilderness of the Unconscious – and no body is spared. As history’s direction is toward the classless society, so does the individual have a direction of inclusiveness and integrity – destiny – given within the organism. To fulfill the individuality seeded in the creative soul (and universally repressed in discontented civilization), the relationship with the ego must be conscious, not the unconscious subjugation of heart to egoic “realism” demanded in industrial society.
One has to be prepared, that is, for one’s life to have in it tension and struggle both within, and in relation to proximate others, not to be made up of pre-defined “lifestyle choices” These choices do not disturb the ego’s supremacy, and, for the sufficiently affluent, their problems can be managed. That is, living dialectically is not the relatively frictionless life that rewards those who obey capitalism’s prerogatives (those priorities that result in barbaric punishment for the vast majority of human beings and destruction of the in-common earthly matrix). But the friction that comes with conscious participation in the dialectical process of becoming is largely self-contained and “self-centered;” the tension taken on is suffered within the person, rather than unconsciously passed on, interpersonally and interculturally, to innocent others.
Those of us reared in liberal reality must give up the compulsive need to believe in our benignity. We can do so only when we unmask the normalized-but-abnormal repression we practice upon our poetic, desiring, inarticulate natures (because we can!) in order to uphold a monstrous death culture. This “paved over” conflict is the one in our hands. Meanwhile, the fires of working class white rage are now so numerous we will not be able to put them out. Our calls for help from the local authorities will not be responded to for they resent us too! It should come as no surprise when what’s swept under the rug comes out twice the size and six times as angry! Liberal blindness to the anger aroused among outraged proto-fascist evangelistic white people, those who don’t agree the world will be nice as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House – is one with our naivete that misses our own part in the conflict; indeed, can recognize no conflict whatever. This denial amounts to a refusal of life on life’s dialectical terms; beginning with the war against the creative, unsubjugated root of the human in ourselves; being anti-life at the root, the left cannot meaningfully differ from the right!
Banality the Denial of Dialectic
Marx and Engels won the League-of-the-Just dispute not because Marx preached violence, but because he spoke from the materially real condition of working peoples’ oppression, and from the realism of dialectic. That nature is made up of oppositions ever in conflict, bringing about change, meant revolution simply was going with, not against, the movement of history; its anti-authoritarianism, established in nature, was legitimate; the oppressive rule of the oligarchs, behaving as if they could control history, was not.
The wisdom of dialectic, the awareness of the truth of the opposites, of nemesis and antithesis, of yin and yang, of consciousness and its shadow, is needed to overcome the evil that is banal. It is hard to imagine a world any less open to the awareness of all that it finds repulsive, threatening, dangerous, unacceptable, etc., or any more full of its own irrefutable, unassailable justification for remaining in its bubble, than our dominant liberal bourgeois reality. No matter how neurotic, sociopathic, compulsive/addictive this refusal makes us, we hold fast to our Titanic; it must not sink!
Because the liberal context is banal, watching the young Marx’s confrontations with his opponents fascinated me. Banality isn’t challenged by faceless Facebook venting of opinions; in providing a way to avoid making the conflict the subject, social media rather ensures its triumph! Have we gone too far to use the power of dialectic, i.e., of working the way nature works – in order to heal society? Of course, I’m not calling for convening peace-making meetings between Trump-followers and Biden-ites. Nor, as earnest (naive) lefties so often do, am I calling for getting to know our Trump-following “neighbors” and their grievances, and reaching understandings that way.
The first step before any such reaching out is even remotely workable is that liberals must trust in something “greater” that will allow them to come down “off the high horse,” and aim not for fox-hunt country, but the commons. People who fancy themselves free – as opposed to those who’ve struggled for it – are unknown to themselves. Those who have not first made peace with the repressed creative“other” of their own individual voice cannot leave the safety of white supremacy. They will not be able to identify the real enemy of our humanity – unfettered capitalism – against which we must struggle for the sake of the in-common.
Otherwise, there’s only inevitability, chickens coming home to roost – the belligerent fascist neighbor, the Capitol riot, the Trump successor. We will continue in ways that further erode the basis for our humanity, enhancing our separateness in isolated, mediated realities, out of reach of the humility of interdependence. If society is to move in the direction of the truth of the in-common, the humanly supportable and the sustainable, all the “no-brainer” consumer and lifestyle choices that sustain and buttress bourgeois reality must face the test of dialectic, the struggle which at its root is between egoic supremacy and the heart. The material class conflict – evident in the contempt for the black community, in the polluted and desecrated earth, oceans and rivers, in the stunted lives of third world factory workers, is perpetuated by bourgeois denial of dialectical truth. White liberal consciousness can change only when – if – the spiritual flow of dialectic is entered via restored allegiance to the creative soul, the muscles of thought no longer disconnected from the authority of the heart.