Disruption of Power Begins In the (Most) Local

Photograph Source: FaceMePLS from The Hague, The Netherlands – CC BY 2.0

Many mass movements, because they failed to implement hierarchical, disciplined, and coherent organizational structures, were unable to defend themselves ….Revolutions require skilled organizers, self-discipline, an alternative ideological vision, revolutionary art and education. They require sustained disruptions of power, and most importantly leaders who represent the movement.
Chris Hedges,
Why Our Popular Mass Movements Fail

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”                                                                                                          – Karl Marx

Art contains the rationality of negation…it is the Great Refusal—the protest against that which is.  The modes in which man and things are made to appear [in art], to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking and recreating their factual existence.  But these modes of negation pay tribute to the antagonistic society to which they are linked.
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man

In the essay cited above, Chris Hedges points at the failure of mass social uprisings, including “Arab Spring,” to organize effectively in order to confront  the economic elites that have all the power apparatus on their side.  He disapproves the current mode of activism that attempts to act without leaders or an ideological vision, decision-making by consensus only.   This impasse of leadership has been evident for decades in the gridlocked Congress, where mistrust between parties is the basis for near-total dysfunction.  Now it’s pointed out in the left’s failure to organize, as if movement can go forward only with an eye to making everybody happy.  Either way – entrenched enmity or too much need for accord – nothing can happen.  Decision-making, resolution, is impossible.

This ruinous impasse was prophesied decades ago in poet Robert Bly’s book The Sibling Society (1996), the full title of which is The Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood.   His prophetic claims were based upon his perception of verticality, (a word he used instead of hierarchy) or the ordering of relationships established in tradition and ancestral respect that constitute a social order. The book, based more in intuitive poetic understanding, Jungian archetypal psychology, and, importantly,  in his recovery from personal trauma as the child of an alcoholic, was not backed with science. Hierarchy, understood either poetically or as a condition of deep, myth-based  psychology, is not enemy to social equality.  Terms like “kingship” “throne,” “lord,” “father,” as they refer to a function necessary to human wholeness, are not reducible to being just hardened patriarchal gender hierarchies.  They are a clue to how a toxic culture can move beyond its repetitious dysfunction and become once more human supportive, peace-loving and just.   

My understanding is that verticality, though historically abused by the powerful to coerce obedience, is not merely a support for ego-centrism.  The inward hierarchies of mythic (archetypal) imagination, gods or God that developed organically out of our pre-history as biological beings, are means for guiding the protection of  human development in a way that will keep society in balance within and with nature.  Some of us can readily grant that mythic dream reality, in its multiplicity and its wildness, is key to the sustainability we now prize. Ears not entirely deafened by the demands of the dominant economic reality and its culture industry may also agree that dream reality is accessible not just to Poets, Philosophers, Artists, and Prophets, but to the (suppressed) genius in every human being. Without verticality, the intuitive, imagination-based dream world would be expressed in this world by very few except the chosen geniuses.  At any moment, connection with the truth of verticality, discoverable personally, may claim justice for a disempowered creative soul.  In so doing “history” and history’s long ordainment of exceptionalism of the few, vs. misery for the masses is disrupted. 

Since hierarchy exists in the body’s mythic memory, it cannot be killed off with a revolution or a beheading. Held now under deep suspicion in liberal reality, verticality, alive and well, undermines covertly. Privately, everybody suspects that behind liberalism’s smiley egalitarian face, lies the demand for obedience, supported by armed police if necessary.  Hidden from view, unconscious hierarchy effectively disarms/disables voices coming from alienation, voices pointing to the Emperor’s blind spot, etc., and it does so, now thoroughly internalized, beginning within individuals who learn early to snuff their own dissenting (adult) voice against monotheism within.

The marvelous vision that guided youthful souls in the 1960’s and 1970’s was based in the kind of poetic, intuitive understanding that Bly approved, but which he also understood as naivete needing correction.  That correction, provided by initiation into experience, is the pain and the terror of returning to the body; a path traverseable with the aid of the vertical dimension. (For example, verticality functions program for 12-step recovery that “works if you work it,” and in the knowledge and experience of the psychotherapist, both stand-ins for the elders’ role in indigenous society.) Without the correction, the youthful visionaries lacked the stamina for making a long haul of it.  They never learned there were limits that can, in a helpful way, shape a person to an adult capable, in turn, of shaping a human-supportive family and community.   Uninitiated they did not learn the truth of contradiction: i.e., the world is not made to agree with their intuitive ideals, but, in an important way, is their antithesis.  

I reflect on all this as I read Gabor Mate’s book, The Myth of the Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing In a Toxic Culture written with his son, Daniel Mate.  It is, so far, a remarkable book.  Although the authors do not reference the 60’s experience directly, they back up with science many of those intuitive understandings shared back then among the naïve youth caught by a completely enchanting vision of how society, families, child birth and childrearing, education, the growing of food, handcrafts, businesses (small and local) etc., ought to be.  Fifty years later,  there’s much science to back intuitive truth.  But the establishment still rules, experience is off  the”bucket list,” and the world careens perilously toward some disastrous, human-made end. Dr. Mate is to be applauded for looking the hopelessness in the face, as Robert Bly did many years ago, and verifying trauma as the baseline experience. Though universal in western society, trauma still is seen in dominant liberal reality, though real in its effects on war veterans and victims of blatant abuse, as unreal for me

Naivete, the absence of experience, continues to be fostered in liberal reality beyond the age when it’s appropriate; in that reality the necessary contradictory truth – life is what should not be – will not be taught.  That the larger, fully inclusive reality contains absolutely intolerable, contradictory truths no sane person can stomach and will flee in terror given the chance.  But the unwanted truth Herbert Marcuse expressed as “unhappy consciousness of the divided world, the defeated possibilities, the hopes unfulfilled, and the promises betrayed,”  are true, while the illusions we cling to in order to avoid the depth experience of our bodies, are not. 

Society cannot change until those having the power and status of whiteness and relative affluence come down into the truth of the actual experience of our bodies.  Although that truth is also historical truth, agreeing with Marx’s observation, it cannot be gained intellectually but only through feeling it – the trauma –  in body memory. This experience, initiatory as hell, resets the balance between ego and the totality of the self.  It allows other suppressed knowers in the body to come forth and speak, liberating them. It cannot happen without verticality, which can be partially supplied by healing entities like psychotherapists and 12-step groups, as stated earlier.  But ultimately, the step toward full individuality (adulthood) in the absence of initiating elders, requires that verticality be supplied by the individual who is willing to serve imaginative, intuitive truth and the soul’s demand for a voice.

For this step, art is required. Art and trauma are a necessary pairing. Marcuse wrote that art is a “rational, cognitive force revealing [the] dimension of man and nature which is repelled in reality.”  Without art, trauma remains unrevealed and “other,” at best a subject taken seriously by a few holistic psychologists, at worst, buried in the souls of humankind, directing the show, driving illness and social evil. Without the dimension of trauma, art is banal, a non-dissenting cog in the commodity culture, having nothing to say to it.  Thus, the  subjective judgment that one possesses the right – the authority – as well as the obligation – to speak from one’s creative voice is a necessary transgression of the rule against contradiction.  One’s singular voice, which most of us are taught early to repress in favor of being good,  is the voice of leadership, now speaking on behalf of the wholeness, the completeness of oneself, the visionary self that is ego and “other” partnered. 

The resurrection of leadership, then, calls for not the abolition of hierarchy, but for obedience to  intrinsic hierarchy in one’s deep self.  Americans by now no longer expect any elected leaders to do anything to make life better for all people (to lead). It’s as if we’ve lost the will to make a distinction between false leaders and true.  But,  in case anybody’s serious about it, the place to begin the restoration of leadership is not in the voting booth ( too late), but within oneself and in one’s most local circumstances.  The willingness to take up a life that expresses what should not be (i.e., staying in place where one was placed, marriage that is open-eyed to its own impossibility, perhaps starting a business that is small, local, refusing the bigger-is-better imperative, downscale living instead of upscale, etc.), making of it a song (or an essay!) aligns one with the truth of wholeness. Until one has allowed the “good voice,” the true voice of the heart to speak in one’s own life, to lead, how can it be perceived out there? Without knowing the leader in oneself, without having made commitments calling for personal trials and personal courage, the false leader talking convincingly about “change” and “hope” is as good as the true – better, actually, because then we can keep blaming the rightwingers for the fact nothing changes. Reclaiming verticality is a slow build, but worth it in terms of the possibility of a humanly supportive culture, and the sense it makes possible to the soul that’s deeply wounded but by no means dead!.


I listen to my 6 year old granddaughter Cora, currently adjusting to first grade, explaining to her 5-year-old friend ‘A’ the meaning of being given a detention and why being bad must be avoided at all costs.  (A, it turns out, cut from a different cloth – perhaps one of a different gender? – in a matter of just a few weeks into his kindergarten year has already served a detention!)  Cora continued her lecture with me, her words coming out in a fast-moving intense stream, explaining how important it was never to be bad, only good.  

Suddenly I see why Cora has so enthusiastically embraced the Pippi Longstocking stories I’ve been reading to her and her brother lately! They are compensatory. Pippi, a nine-year-old who lives alone without parents is so independent-minded it would not be farfetched to call her a little anarchist.  Her manners, when among the world ordered by adults, are atrocious.  She tells fantastically tall tales, so outrageous they almost force you to decide – am I on her side or on the side of the polite grownups trying to ignore her? 

Thus, Pippi’s  spirited anarchism springs as if naturally from her “orphaned” or at least “guardian-free” circumstance.  It agrees with commonplace liberal  understandings of freedom as freedom-from verticality.  It doesn’t do so well with reality, however, for until we come up with a replacement for families that would actually produce independent-minded Pippi Longstockings rather than cannon or prison fodder (or corporate management position fodder) families are what we’ve got.  The children fortunate enough not to be suffering from racism, forced emigration and poverty need protection, too, as they face all sorts of hazards, including those of replaceable families, bombardment by popular culture and compulsory schooling!  So many compromises a child must make to adapt to a fragmented society and generationally traumatized elders, what other rewards are there besides consumerism, video games and being good?

I would at least grant that Pippi’s an imaginative move beyond the soul-antithetical world circumscribed by school rules. But I would fault Pippi’s story for its failure to account for the trauma that is the invisible enemy of individuality (and likely the real consequence of Pippi’s abandonment by her parents that she blithefully explains through her yarns!)  In sibling society parents are expected to be “weak,” to abandon their children to the dominant consumer, screen-addicted culture, without trace of the verticality that would  protect the vulnerable.  Traditionally the father’s role, in any case, protection (of the child’s soul) needs the function of judgment without consensus.  Lacking the strong parent who can speak from alienation, from contradiction, the child is left without inner resources to be legitimately defiant.  In minimizing the darker side of truth, as for example  a fairy tale like Hansel and Gretel does not,  Pippi denies the unsettling trauma buried deep inside every child reared in banal liberal society, affirming consensus reality over the child’s intuition and experience. 


Only delusionally can one abandon who one is, the influences, history, people, and, crucially, the trauma that (mis)shaped one’s being.  The most radical identification white liberals can make is downward into each one’s real experience.  Those who take up art in its authentic role of negation will find trauma abides there, standing like Cerberus at the entrance to the underworld of feeling, memory, ancestry, the blood.   

We cannot anymore delude ourselves that history will be altered by simply taking up the righteous cause on behalf of history’s victims.  To escape history’s inexorable trajectory – “one single catastrophe which keeps piling up wreckage upon wreckage” (Walter Benjamin)  requires an act of will placing one’s life on the side of the truth abiding in one’s personal wounded soul.  Such a downward identity is a deepening into the ancestral self, the wisdom-growing self, the traumatized self that can bring one at last to the true in-commonness with all other human beings.  Moreover, with verticality and its protection of the vulnerable soul restored, one no longer is so afraid of leadership, of discipline, or of “judgmentalism” that one cannot be a leader oneself, or appreciate it in someone else.  This is how white liberals, despite the huge disadvantage of our history that has separated us from our souls,  can be “just people,” and just. 

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.