[Under liberalism} Our main political choices come down to which depersonalised mechanism will purportedly advance our freedom and security—the space of the market…or the liberal state.”
– Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed
In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies [fascism and communism] liberalism is less visibly ideological…[and] more insidious: it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping souls under its rule. It ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions and attractions of freedom, pleasure and wealth….our containment [in it] remains invisible to us.
It must be that now, at last, I’m “old.” Over and over, I find myself having “old people” conversations, about cholesterol, physical therapy, hips and knees, the importance of walking, eating right, etc. Comforting as such friendly talk can be, confessing the challenges each other is facing in this relentless process of disintegration, we “old” and “aging” people must be careful we’re not making “getting old” in the conventional western way, inevitable. Though our energies may be diminished, our memories not what they were ( but rather, different), signs of body betrayal on the rise, we must be careful not to collude with the mainstream identity that – not kidding ourselves – would as well slough off “surplus population who no longer contribute significantly to the GNP except as cancer patients. We well know the terms given in liberal reality do not have human well-being at heart; by contrast, measured humanly, the good is and can only be in the good that includes each different one in the whole.
Awareness of age is a good perspective from which to see liberal freedom, that includes freedom from social bonds and bonds to places and the anchoring of memory, has an unacceptable cost. It frees us from developing that which only can be forged in relationships over time – the reassuring human world of characters and personalities. In acquiescing to our freedom from bonds of affection, we enlist ourselves in the world drained of intrinsic worth, in our own irrelevance. Being liberally freed from social covenants, and adopting liberalism’s carelessness towards places, including trees, rivers and the land, besides desecrating nature, has antagonized our souls that are the gardens for cultivation of personal identity and individuality, for they must have connection.
The problem deeply affects our politics. Based in “depersonalised mechanisms” instead of in persons, politics are dysfunctional. However – and it’s the soul’s insistence I heed in this matter – an option exists for reclaiming relevance. Properly understood as human relevance, relevance to our kind, in particular to our young, relevance means saying No! to those substitutions provided us in liberal reality for things real in imagination. Making oneself relevant involves an act of trust in things unseen, in meaningfulness, purpose, rootedness, agency, in the past and the future, etc. It’s a bid for real independence, the vital independence of interdependence.
This is elder work. Fittingly it begins – can only begin – in “repersonalisation, ” in reclaiming relevance by being present locally, in families, communities and places, as though this, not the workplace, is one’s place. That is, repersonalisation cannot happen top-down, its’ “re-commoning” begins within the person and between persons, in unmediated intercourse, respectful of tradition, and determined autonomously, from the soul up.
For people whose imaginations have atrophied under liberalism’s “easy liberties, diversions and attractions,” whose capacity for imaginative understanding is degraded after years of serving the job and being largely informed by one’s media of choice, elderhood is a kind of martyrdom, to take it on barely conceivable. In fact, for one who cannot trust her genius, the imaginal (soul-based) confirmation for identity, the task of autonomous determination truly is impossible.
And so I admonish: liberal reality is not biologically wired in. It is not existential necessity. In ordinary consciousness, it’s not simple to see oneself as being obedient to an ideology never consciously adopted, nor as being afraid to disobey. Lacking the authoritarian trappings we think of as “ideology,” liberalism appears to be just-so reality, benign if one is white, middle class, with health and retirement benefits, perfectly comprehensible and sane-seeming under the spell cast by liberal media. Shorn of imagination’s “seeing eye,” we don’t perceive the bargain we make with the devil.
Recently, Orin and I watched Wolf Hall (2015), the “high-brow” BBC-produced TV series about Thomas Cromwell, trusted minister to King Henry VIII, mastermind of the annulment that allowed Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. The fascination drawing us back into each episode, besides the appeal of soap operatic glimpses of the ‘lowness’ of the high-and-mighty, is that of human personalities, their clashes, couplings and connivings. The attraction for this very human element, lavishly dished out in such programs, is due I surmise to one’s being starved for personality in liberal reality. Other than on the “screens,” the very thing that most interests us in other humans – individual character – goes now mostly unexpressed.
Only gradually does one see the trap laid by the incredible smorgasbord of such film-watching opportunities employing the most talented people in the industry, that beguiles us to lay aside critique in order to enjoy some of liberalism’s very best “diversions and attractions.” Bravo for us we no longer burn heretics at the stake and no longer are we subject to the whims of a murderously fickle all-powerful monarch. But if we understand those stirrings of liberating liberalism in Henry’s bid to be free of Rome as the acorn stage for the ideology that’s now dominant, perhaps our relief should be more qualified! Liberalism is now the tyrant, the freedom it grants a new set of chains. In order to remain in its graces – the implicit threat of loserdom looming behind its freedom – we make a very bad bargain: we consent to the worthlessness of our human being. Rather than seek distinct and individual identity autonomously in a personal destiny, requiring faith, we seek it in a safer way, in the brand (Liberal Democrat! Anti-Trump!)
The very fact we don’t believe in personal destiny tells us about the evil hidden in liberalism. Liberal insistence on the purely rational, scientifically verifiable basis for knowing (even after science itself has veered off into the mystical), leaves no basis for belief in knowledge available by other means, through poetic imagination or practice of art. That is, by dismissing any possibility of an individually-sourced knowing sufficient to guide one’s life and way of life in freedom, liberalism keeps human liberty merely illusion. Were more people based in their own knowing, no longer would it be just the facts of the unfortunate collateral damage done to people and peoples’ cultures, not to mention to the biosphere, that reveal the cracks in that ideology. It would be us, the so-called “shrinking” middle class, containing the most numerous beneficiaries of the ideology and thus being most loyal to it, saying “Uh-uh. I’ve got better things to do than vote for Joe Biden or obsessively follow attempts to bring down Trump!”
This is why, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, I stress: even quality BBC-produced entertainment is entertainment, it’s purpose to allow us moments of undiluted satisfaction. It has no obligation to acknowledge the real pain of living in a reality that cannot tolerate difference, nor reflect peoples’ lived truth. For viewers who have no countering perspective coming from autonomous identity based in belief, (the kind of difference which in Henry VIII’s day one might have paid for in a horrible way) such “art” is not benign. Though not itself evil, it functions to bewitch. Whatever the intent of the film makers to present “realism,” TV culture is junk food for the imagination. And, just as with McDonald’s or Walmart’s, few of us want to be the person that draws the line of abstention against it, all morally reproving and no-fun!
Most of the characters in Wolf Hall – courtiers and clerics – clearly know on which side to stand in order to avoid wrath of either Church or King. But the movie’s (or author Hilary Mantel’s) historical narrative includes two men who stepped outside the unspoken rule of saving one’s skin, stood up as individuals for their belief, whose deaths became eloquent protest. James Bainham, having read an English translation of the Bible, cannot recant what he now believes, even under torture and facing execution by burning at the stake. His stand is protest against Catholic hegemony, but it is also a stand for his own integrity: “What I believe.”
For refusing to be more loyal to the King than to the Pope and to his God, Thomas More was beheaded. Although the movie portrays him in his full moral ambiguity, due to the persecutions More himself had conducted against protestants, nobody can miss the integrity in his declaration to Cromwell (paraphrased): “My belief is the ground on which I stand, I cannot be removed from it.”
Liberal reality assures us modern heretics (i.e., Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, who dare to defy that reality by revealing it as ideology) receive less barbarous punishment than their 16th century forebears. But what is truly different in liberal reality from Henry’s day is this belief-free world (free that is, of belief in any dream great enough to die for), has made heresy inconceivable for most people, the ultimate sacrifice thinkable only in relation to war! It’s not easy to see what individual stands of integrity and courage – such as Snowden’s or Assange’s – are for. While on the left we worry about takeover by belief-driven fundamentalists, theocrats, and fascists, we have no faith to defend against them. Without belief, what is it we defend? It appears that the vast majority of us are faced with either social irrelevancy or….or what? No glory can be gained by making a stand with integrity, so why would anyone do it?
Days ago I received an email from a younger woman, a Bosnian immigrant and longtime customer of our Cafe who’s on a short list of people to whom Orin forwards my Counterpunch essays. Her note appeared hastily written, full of feeling, by one who evidently doesn’t write much. It begins: “I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you guys properly for being so open and honest. You are a portal for an open and honest world…. I did not realise [when I was younger] that friends or people with an actual backbone and completely stable and standing in their truth would be so rare as you get older.” (sic)
She sees me as this, as having integrity, as walking my walk. But until she walks the walk herself, she does not – cannot – see the truth I stand in which is presented to me in the privacy of my soul, invisible in the one mirror – liberal reality – she and I share. Liberal reality is so total I must be that mirror for my soul. Just as for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the really interesting world is through the looking glass (the imaginal world), the soul’s “mirror” my own creative expression.
Being one’s own mirror makes possible for others to see, to the extent they can – a person standing in her truth, one whose visible deeds are clearly not for money, maybe for love! Not the same as daring to hold heretical belief in Henry VIII’s day, still, self-expression is heresy; it must be dared. The woman wrote to me of the confusion caused her by political discussions with friends. Because of the distress she feels when her friends do not want to hear her say, for example, she sees no difference between the two political parties, she largely chooses to stay out of them. The choice between friendship and speaking her truth undoes her.
All souls in the liberal world suffer this confusion. That one’s friends now serve unintentionally and unconsciously as ministers of tyranny makes the elder function, taking the soul’s part, incredibly necessary. More important than knowing how – or if – to respond in “political discussions,” the inward link must regularly be restored, for the tyrant speaks in private, the very most effective way to undermine confidence! I take such private harassment as evidence that following the demand of my soul is heresy in liberal reality. The hellhound will always be on my trail, tearing away at my confidence, my peace, the only answer being to draw upon the other (soul-fortifying) power. In this way, despotic liberalism can be resisted, by keeping my head in contact with my soul, and not letting the devil have it.
Though I miss far more quality TV movies like Wolf Hall than I will ever watch, without seeing them I know the realism is spot on, the acting superior, the monsters likable or fascinatingly wicked or both. Many times the the better ones will try to say something without really saying it. A cultural critic writing for the NY Times (3/27/23) fears that viewers watching the popular series Succession, about an obscenely rich family that controls a media empire, won’t get its significant “sociopolitical point,” which is,“When those with money and power lose themselves in a trauma spiral it’s often everyone else that gets damaged.” I would call that a fair description of liberal reality at this moment, richer by far than ¾ of the planet’s population, all its people significantly traumatized in a cruelly depersonalized, inherently abusive, extinction-threatened faux culture, in our fear unintentionally brutalizing others near and far. This point seems more significant, one no reviewer for the Times will make.
Those of us electing the heresy of elderhood instead of merely getting old probably ought to reduce our consumption of such popular fare. Like hidden sugars in your food, the tastiness belies the real intent. At that point when you turn off the screen (and/or I would add, leave the job) is when your own distinct life can escape liberal bewitchment. The system will not survive when people simply disengage, go local, and become interesting co-persons, enlivening to ourselves and each other again.