What is absent in inverted totalitarianism is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies…
– Sheldon Wolin
When Louie Gohmert or Marjorie Taylor Greene says something outlandish, you can almost always assume they actually mean it. When leading Democrats say something that makes perfect sense to you, it’s safe to assume they’re trying to con you.
–Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch
…’poetry is something more than a “means of expression”— it is an activity of mind.
– Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill, the IWW & the Making of a Workingclass Counterculture
“Inverted totalitarianism,” the term invented by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin to define neoliberalism, has intrigued me since coming across it in a Chris Hedges piece. I felt it might help explain why we have totalitarianism but don’t know it. According to Wolin, “inversion” implies a totalitarianism that serves unfettered capitalism; it makes “all politics all of the time but politics largely untempered by the political;” that is, using Wolin’s own words, its politics are ‘untempered’ by the commitment to the common good.
The hope he offers, that of “citizens themselves learning anew to exercise power at the local level,” brings us to a problem: it’s precisely in us the vision of the common good has become blurry, the commitment to the good for all so utterly absent, or at best contingent. It seems to me, if totalitarian authority now works invertedly, and we agree that those on the very bottom are not to blame for the inequalities, unfairness and relentless dehumanization under capitalism, then is it not time for the “liberal class” to look in the mirror? – to take seriously our part in it? What is “our part” in the fact that we’re “conned” by our Democratic leadership precisely inasmuch as their words “make perfect sense to [us]?” Is the liberal’s part in keeping America headed full-tilt toward collapse precisely our succumbing to the temptation to let our “bleeding hearts” be seduced by the pleasing exterior of politicians “untempered by the political?”
Full confession, I write as one ever-tempted by the seduction of hearing honeyed words I want to hear. My training, as a sheltered girl child raised in protestant liberal 50’s whiteness, was to favor and maintain relationships, ( the right kind, of course), over being even remotely adversarial. This tendency, more survival strategy in a spiritually fragmented social environment than coming from a commitment to heart-based values, has its uses. But seeing how it works on the larger political scene, where the old venalities, power imbalances, prejudices and cruelties are still played out as rawly as in the Old West or in the worker struggles of past centuries, I see this passive “idealism” as a significant cause of liberal blindness to the common good.
In overlooking what is really happening in every human interaction, micro or macro, where personal interests are at stake, this naivete guarantees one’s fate as a “sucker.” Thus, while I’m better at maintaining relationships than my husband, he is far sharper at recognizing when he’s been conned, as he recently was by a local HVAC company that installed a “minisplit” unit undersized for our Cafe. Being far slower than he to take the offensive, I still, after 44 years, watch Orin’s quick-kindling anger with amazement. But I realize his readiness to spot a con, which he attributes to his Sicilian ancestry, motivates him to face this matter down, run it to the ground, make the guy give us satisfaction or he doesn’t get paid, etc. People like me, trained in “bleeding-heart liberalism” to ignore the sordid money-exchange level of social intercourse are equally conditioned to be conned, to fall for a deal (i.e. Biden) that betrays the heart; though hearts can break, they cannot compromise.
In the face of con-men and women, the far greater virtue for people like me would be in maintaining our skepticism – precisely when it is “unnatural” to do so, but only as an act of keeping conscious faith with our hearts. For, to remain legitimately skeptical, liberally-raised, naïve minds must avoid the traps of cynicism, apoliticism and apathy – the traps of libertarian individualism – a difficult feat for someone neither indigenous, nor working class (nor Sicilian!). If one is like me, who through no fault of my own finds it difficult to kick the habit of falling for cons, one’s capacity for skepticism must be rooted in a culture that supports it. For this, to find such roots, one has to go much deeper (contemplatively, creatively, psychologically, poetically) than lukewarm liberal idealism allows, down to the bedrock of culture in the imaginative soul.
Daring to enter the unknown of oneself, it’s possible to discover the reality that’s as real as the materially real social torments and abuses that afflict and define the lives of the underclass, cruelties that, though I deplore them, do not directly afflict me. In contrast to liberal compassion that goes just so far, once having contacted the alive heart, the desire to defend its immaterial reality of oneness and interdependence is resurrected. This desire is revolutionary; it never can succumb to the illusion of individualism that sustains capitalism. Though “poetic truth ‘ may not bestow the visceral anger of a working class consciousness that knows instantly when its being conned; it allows one to know which side one is on, and to be as skeptical toward the cons of the left as to the right.
Since the 1960’s the crisis on the left, in the face of the intensely focused reaction from the right, is its powerlessness to reignite the fire of the in-common dream. However, it’s possible this failure may not be correctable, that collective identification with a cause such as “peace” is unsuited to our current predicament. We who now are pandemically experienced, who see collapse coming in horrific heat waves and water shortages in the southwest, in forest fires on the west coast, in housing bubbles and sand tar feeding frenzies, who understand we live in extreme times, need to turn in a different direction to find the “common good.” We need to know ourselves as common, a truth not discoverable in social movements, but in committed, creative solitude and expression. The existential fact of our isolation in individualist/materialist society, which much of our history has been the struggle to attain, leaves us with one path to connective meaning. Rather than in the company of others whose identities have equally been determined by the individualism capitalism favors, that path is inward and “downward.”
Inverted totalitarianism has to be met and resisted at its bottom line which is the human soul of citizen you and citizen me.
Put another way, to be on the side of the in-common, one has to be able to feel hopelessness and despair in relation to our legitimate want that is illegitimately denied in neoliberal reality. For those of us whose basic physical needs arebeing met, and who can comfortably assume they will continue to be met, the object of “want” has to be imagined. This is not “make-believe!” “Privileged” individuals have to ask: of what fundamental, non-optional human goods am I being systematically deprived in this best of all possible neoliberal worlds? Through awakening imaginations lulled by the clever manipulations of our individualist tendencies, we feel the injustice of the media con going on 24-7; inasmuch as we fall for it, we’re robbed of our humanity, condemned to living without poetic voice and without beauty in our lives.
Soapboxing & Revolutionary Politics
According to Franklin Rosemont, whose book about the Wobblies as poetic revolutionaries has risen to the top of my list for authoritative information about them, “soapboxing” was an oft-used and effective organizing tool for IWW Fellow Workers (and for socialists and communists in the heydays of union organizing). Its means was spontaneously coattailing people on the street, grabbing peoples’ attention and keeping it, in order to interest them in joining. In the case of the IWW, ‘the union’ was “the One Big Union;” in effect they pushed for the interdependence we now like to say in liberal circles is the true, this-world heavenly goal.
Of necessity, soapboxing contained an element of education as well as “evangelism.” The education part was needed to awaken the demoralized dispirited workers locked inside the individualized isolation of capitalism, so difficult to see through. Their situation as workers in capitalism’s closed system upon which their material existence depended left them alone and essentially in competition with every other worker, hopeless except for the “hope” offered by religion to improve their lives in the by and by.
The challenge for the soapboxer was to reach out “blind,” and establish through spoken word the common ground that could be recognized as such. I say “blind,” because under capitalism the common ground was/is not a given even in the context of the objectively oppressed lives of the lowest paid workers; it had to be established improvisationally, by words and imagination. So the excellent soapboxer was an artist, a spellbinder with the gift for oratory and eloquence who could awaken the sense of injury, but also the dormant sense of kinship, of being Fellow Workers, in some, if not all, passersby.
Today, at least in global economic sacrifice zones like Utica, we can only mourn the loss of the urban sidewalk traffic and common spaces needed for the traditional practice of soapboxing art. Moreover, vain belief that the commons can be replaced by Internet connectivity – its “community” predicated upon denial of the hopelessness of the liberal heart – calls urgently for that aforementioned skepticism!
Soapboxing for the soul
Inasmuch as they’ve abandoned connection to a living spirit, liberals have lost the motivation of authentic hope. “United” through corporate-owned mass media rather than in a culture, imagination is minimized, the real danger unfelt, awareness of common ground ever more out of reach. None of us intend to be guardians of capitalism against the interests of those on the bottom. However, perfectly encased in individualism, lacking the awakened imagination that allows one to recognize Oneness is truth, individualism false, each person obediently occupies her place in the liberal class. Heart broken, she functions for those in her social class as a de-centralized“gatekeeper” for neoliberal control. Unintentionally, we police, or rather, “con,” each other. We become accustomed to there being no clue in each others’ eyes or words that there is some other way than this (individualist) way. Ever more, our chief struggle is with “managing stress,” which is the unnatural stress of individualism.
Could it be that interruption of the private, subjugated minds of people unintentionally serving the side of the oligarchs instead of the common good, is on some unspoken level longed for? That the social occasions and affiliations we have in our locally lived lives among the unconscious gatekeepers of the liberal class are a space for soapboxing that responds to the need for a politics fully “tempered” by commitment to the common good?
I maintain, the common ground such soapboxing must establish, more necessary than (but not instead of!) reminders of collective imperilment, is the more difficult “interruption;” i.e., the “educational” reminder of the “One Big Union.” Liberals raised in materialism and individualism have been conditioned, upon penalty of expulsion (losing the job), not to believe in that Oneness. Uninitiated into the spiritual reality of the heart, they never “graduate” from the self-centered adolescent stage that, past adolescence, hardens into defensive individualism. If one is to be a “soapboxer for the soul,” one must act on a faith that others share with you the hunger for wholly imaginative OBU reality even though they betray no evidence of it. The soapboxer reaches out blind to establish that common ground.
On occasion, I soapbox, a task I pick up always with dread. But rather than waiting to be conned by the next swindler,I must defend the immaterial reality of my heart by making spaces habitable/hospitable for it. Following this motive, we established our coffeeshop in Utica, a kind of commons. People feel it even if they don’t understand it as manifestation of the Dream. Likewise, soapboxing is the creation through words of a safe space for the heart, a test demanding creativity and courage. Guided by no council of elders but only by the truth of communality within, it is initiatory; it validates immaterial communal truth. Its “success,” I’ve found, can be measured only in the changed vibe in the room. Speaking from the heart, you’re heard, but rarely will be told so in words.
From experience, I know what the “non-ordained” soapboxer/interrupter is up against. Although a few will pay token heed to professional “preachers,” liberally emancipated society has an unwritten rule against “soapboxing” among your “equals.” It suggests “moralizing” for which liberalism has no tolerance. Overwhelming compliance with this rule has made liberalism’s “leveling effect” unassailable. This leveling, not of “the playing field” between rich and poor, means no one is to stand out or up for a higher authority (i.e., to “preach”). It is ontological leveling, or nihilism. Therefore, to take the risk of soapboxing, of tossing poetic truth out in social gatherings otherwise uninterrupted in their unintentionally groupthink horizontal flow, may be the way to resist totalitarianism in its most comfortable residence, the imaginatively crippled liberal individualist mind.
“Soapboxing” is poetic work. Making common ground with the unconscious hopelessness of the liberal’s individualist heart can be done only by one who has been converted to the authority of his/her heart, who practices the art of soapboxing to save her own wounded heart first. No longer can this work of living in the Dream consciousness be left to indigenous shamans and genius poets. It has to be taken up, however unprepared I may feel, however conditioned to passivity, in being willing to trust and follow the communal voice that “speaks” solely through me, where “power at the local level” originates.