That the IWW produced and inspired more and better poetry than all other unions combined…tells us a lot about the kind of world it was trying to build.
–Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture
...the history of every creative man (sic) is always close to the abyss of sickness; he does not…tend to heal the personal wounds [by adapting to the collectivity] His wounds remain open, but his suffering from them is situated in depths from which another curative power arises, [which] is the creative process.
–Erich Neumann, Art & the Creative Unconscious
Franklin Rosemont’s magisterial work on Joe Hill brings Wobblyism – that powerful manifestation of the anarchist spirit that peaked early in the twentieth century – alive. His interpretation leaves me with a distinct idea about what made the Industrial Workers of the World such a threat in the eyes of the authorities and the “respectable” people back then. For how was it possible a public enemy could be made of an itinerant poet/songwriter – by all accounts his main ‘crime,’ besides Wobblyism, to have been one of society’s throwaways – bringing him to arrest, long confinement, a sham trial, and execution by the state of Utah, his defense left mainly to Wobbly supporters? And from there on he remains, though his memory’s kept alive in song and some circles, essentially a missing figure in mainstream American history.
Useless to ask how the American public could be so flimflammed that they could not recognize heroes – other than soldiers, police and firefighters – in their own time; flimflamming ever being the chief function and raison d’etre of our media. Just think, in our time, of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange or of the Palestinians’ nonviolent efforts to gain a hearing for their cause. Rosemont’s work exemplifies how interpretation is everything; a brave spirit can be erased so easily simply by interpreting him/her according to the limited color palette of colonialist, imperialist, bourgeois consciousness (likewise, the colonialist-settler zeitgeist keeps figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Christopher Columbus preserved in unimpeachable godhead-like amber for generations).
With Rosemont’s different “palette,” more colors available, an essence is released, the invigorating spirit to which Joe Hill was true. By “different palette,” I do not simply mean a perspective that’s in “sympathy with,” or “biased” toward the Wobblies. I mean one that is inclusive, due to the interpreter’s individuality and largeness of spirit, the palette obtainable to a fellow poet rooted in imagination. That essence, released by the portrait of a poet by a poet, is the spirit of “One Big Union,” of the brotherhood of man, of all God’s children, of common humanity, interdependence, inclusivity, love, etc. – the only dream powerful enough to live on past all auto-da-fes, witch burnings, genocides, pogroms and judicial executions, and that cannot, ever, really be killed.
For this reason of our “limited palette,” I see the problem facing the white progressive Left in America as the condition of imagination itself, which is desperate. Our imaginations are so thoroughly subjugated that we no longer can interpret the world in a way that connects us with the enlivening in-common spirit. Rather, the left depends on people responding to mediated “memes,” to word associations based in assumptions about what are the response triggers for people on the left. Green. Sustainable. Woke. BLM. Essential Workers. MeToo. And the red flags: Trump. Fascists. MAGA hats. Voter ID laws. The inspiration of One Big Union, of injury-to-one-is-injury-to-all, cannot be a matter of politically correct alignment, of being on the ethically “right side” against the extremist, wrong-sided Republicans. And although united opposition can be built by direct action “in the streets,” without the inclusive spirit based in a Dream, the Left is left, more or less, with faux electoral politics, and “more and more barbarous forms of capitalism.” (Rosemont)
Revolution Is In the Heart
The difference one can see between the Wobblies and the other revolutionaries (Socialists and Communists) of their day, if one’s interpretive palette is large enough, was the former, as hobos and poets, had a revolutionary basis that was not materialist, but imaginative. Their union, as I gather from Rosemont’s depiction, depended not upon a shared idealism only, but upon the feeling in the heart, the intuition of oneness, attainable through singing, poetry, lively talk, dance, etc. that in itself is a non-material critique of capitalism and capitalist assumptions.
When you come down to it, the root source of revolutionary hope is the heart. In white progressive America today, as throughout our racist, genocidal history, the heart’s authority is not recognized. The contradiction lives on however, never completely extinguished, in the individual hearts of men and women; the heart perceives the truth is “One Big Union,” and it never is fully extinguished. This means a foremost intention of top-down governance, mainly successful thus far, must be to train hearts to qualify, equivocate, temporize, above all, to understand their subordinate place.
This marginalization of hearts is so effective that while barbarism is happening, people cannot refuse it. Albeit with some incredibly heartening exceptions, generations of genteel white Americans lived with the slaughter of buffalo and of Indians, the inhumanity of slavery and of racist Jim Crow policies, as the liberal class lives now with obscenely unjust and inhuman national priorities by relativizing the voice of their hearts. How does one, we reasonably suppose, take on problems so large, against which what can one person do?
To that question, one person’s heart has the answer, but it’s not a reasonable one! Looking within first, rather than helplessly outward, I am no longer helpless; my freedom is intact. I can choose, unreasonably, to be a poet and a hobo; the poet’s practice to develop, maintain and express my personal voice, the hobo’s choice to refuse a place in the establishment mainstream. These choices, taken together, remove one from the mainstream, liberate one’s mind from the shackles of neoliberalism, and prepare one for the revolutionary project of building the new world in the shell of the old. I follow them as best I can.
The thrilling words of martyred Myanmar poet Khet Thi, (“They shoot at heads/But they do not know/That revolution lives in the heart.”) were quoted on the front page of the NYTimes (5/25/21); they met the Times’ “fit to print” criteria. Joe Hill, executed without evidence, suffered Khet Thi’s horrific fate in America. That the mass of the public could be sold on Joe Hill’s execution as the fulfillment of justice tells us he represents something more threatening even than labor agitation. That America has never “exhumed” Joe Hill and allowed Wobblyism into official, established history is because his words threaten to inspire Americans to connect to the revolutionary Dream of the in-common world. Everywhere the Dream surfaces from its long mainly underground existence it agitates the hearts of men and women in the direction of desire, its direction informed not by intolerance, hate, or assumed rightness, but by the powerful unifying (revolutionary) force that is eros.
The poor substitutions for genuine vision offered by establishment liberal “realists,” are just more elaborate enclosures against the commons. The vision of a genuine commons can come only from those most unlike our (bourgeois, liberal) selves, not an identity difference but a difference in rank. The riffraff’s Dream of the in-common good with its simple but spirited motivation, accepts nothing less than the good-for-all. In contrast, when worker struggle is limited to negotiations over hours and pay, working conditions and benefits, matters remain within the comfort zone of the powerful. When the Big Dream is set aside to concentrate on “realistic gains,” dreamers are bought off, as they’ve largely been since the the peak years of Wobbly activism, excepting, importantly, the 1960’s.
A New”Hoboism” for “OCD” America
The threat Wobblies posed to the materialist Dream, recalls the threat to the powerful made by the poor itinerant poet Jesus, tortured and executed for preaching Love your neighbor, Forgive your enemies, two millennia previously. The larger “palette” allows us to see Jesus’s purpose came from his imaginative, improvisational re-interpretation of the orthodoxy of his day (i.e., poetically), and from his extremely lowly, no account position in society (as hobo). It allows us to see the real enemy of the One Big Union dream is entrapment in the orthodoxies of ones’ time, incapable of being free in imagination.
Full entrapment in One Capitalist Disunion (shall we call it affectionately OCD?) America goes with being fastened to a career path that promises fulfillment of the individualist dream. While I can’t claim this enclosure makes having an imaginative, heart-authorized basis impossible, for there are whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors working inside the system (think: Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky) the challenges are monumental. Seeing this perhaps allows us to grasp the advantages in “hobo-dom,” that is, in being free of the self-deceptions of being “white,” “free,” or having “made it” that keep the OCD going, illusions less maintainable for “footloose workers, students, poets, the unemployable, misfits, and dreamers of all kinds,” i.e., “ordinary folk.” (Rosemont)
People caught inside the OCD context – as all of us are, no exceptions – can be reached by the legitimate in-common Dream, but by one voice only, that coming from the source of creativity in the soul of each person (i.e., be a poet). Following that voice is possible if one lets go of the delusive materialist American Dream (i.e., be a hobo). (Further, though it is perhaps unnecessary to say it, hearts adapted to OCD reality cannot be converted virtually! Screen readers can all too easily consume “influencers” that agree with our own dissatisfactions and never find the ground for resistance in the personal heart.)
As for literal “hobodom,” with its freedom from responsibilities to family and in-place community, it should be required– along with forgiveness of student loan debt – but for youth only, and for a limited “vision questing” period. Surely, the reappearance in American life today of the romantic hankering for a moratorium of vagrant drifting would be a great relief from the sight of young people scrambling for bullshit well-paying mainstream jobs!
However, hoboist freedom and independence, as anything more than a “time-out” during an important stage of individual development, must be re-imagined. My loyalty to in-place relationships of family, community and place is a “conservativism” that appears to be in conflict with hobo/outsider anarchism. However, it as well puts me at odds with liberal establishment consensus which relativizes the commitments, loyalties and social practices that make stable communities, hastens the disintegration of family and community, and allows the relationship with Mother Earth to be for most a mere abstraction.
As an “unrealist” with a poet’s heart, if not a “bo,” I’m very much a no-account in relation to contemporary liberal consensus truth. Though the reclamation of familial, communal and place loyalty appears to be conservative backwardness, as an absolute condition for conscious humanity, it is deeply revolutionary. Just now, as divisiveness appears to be winning the day in OCD America, aided by that incredibly effective technological support system for perpetually adolescent individualism (i.e., social media), the movement to reclaim relatedness must not be afraid of its own “conservative” radicalism. As liberalism continues to pride itself on its “freedom,” an “individualism” largely made possible by affluence, compatible with OCD, not in opposition to it, we become ever less free, ever more enslaved to capitalist dominance.
Make no mistake, the revolutionary force is “love,” and love insists the bonds between people in community are real; true individuality(freedom) is only ever attained within that relatedness, a necessary human struggle, its attainment only possible inasmuch as we insist on not being free from the claims of community and relationship. This may not sound like “hoboism.” But loyalty to the absolute values of the heart will thrust one as far from the conventional attitudes and shared beliefs as it is possible to be in bourgeois America.
Back a couple of decades ago I had freshly found a spiritual “home” in the gnostic tradition that gives an authoritative place to imagination (gnosis = direct experience of divine nature). I conceived that if people would only take their persistent, nagging sense of “not fitting,” of somehow being out of place in society, to its true conclusion, they’d know themselves to have a positive (welcoming) home in a perfectly valid, though ostracized and incredibly marginalized spiritual tradition, i.e., gnosticism. That is, our imaginative souls are, fully legitimately, not at home, negated, in this environment of spiritual death that orients us, always, to take our truth from outside ourselves, from the collective cultural canon or accepted (neoliberal) dogma.
The other day, I found myself thinking the very same thoughts in regards to Wobblyism. For people justly scornful of the political “choices” offered in America, a “positive” home exists in the tradition of poetic anarchism that bloomed joyfully in our own history in the Industrial Workers of the World. In the context of OCD supremacy it is impossible for a sentient person to escape a feeling of existential self-negation – wrongness – that is, wrongness even below, and not limited to the social marginalizations of OCD America. Customarily, and perfectly logically, we hush this disquieting, disruptive inward clamor, in order to ”pass” in OCD society. Often, we hush it so effectively we convince ourselves creativity is a gift of the genius few, not a gift in-common. What would happen if instead of hushing that “ no-account one” that threatens to blow my cover and fatally expose my illegitimacy to the “real” world – I allow the “bum” her voice through creative expression? Identified with the derelict , we could sing in company with Joe Hill and the Wobblies, Hallelujah I’m a Bum, and find ourselves back in the in-common Dream!