There is no doubt that Žižek is onto something, even if I don’t happen to think that he’s thought through the problem enough. He’s kick-started thought processes … sometimes that’s the best that any of us can hope for. It is also not necessary that everyone has thought everything through; it is more important, I believe, that people who are thinking are also interacting and discussing and thinking some more, and, if things go really well, that they’ll also start acting on those thoughts.
And, we’ve got more than enough to think about, that’s for sure. Even here, so far, we’ve only given Žižek some thought, and I’ve tried to bring in a few additional ideas, but what hasn’t let me alone the past couple of days is the fact that none of what has been said really even begins to answer the three much more intense questions that Marco (@madrush) posed:
So, even if a progressive movement were to overthrow an existing neoliberal order, what would it put in its place? What large-scale models for structural transformation are available?
Do we have something other than planetary dystopia to look forward to?
and which I would spontaneously answer with “Nothing. None. Yes.” though I do feel a bit of explanation may be necessary. But, since I don’t have one ready to hand, allow me to simply do some thinking out loud in the direction of that explanation instead …
I like to think that most of you would agree that a large number, if not the majority, of our well-established and, at times even, cherished institutions are dysfunctional. The “planetary dystopia” has to start somewhere, and most of the institution we’re all thinking about just don’t work well, if at all, anymore. But, why do we think that they have to be replaced? If I were to take a narrow view of what is being asked, it seems to assume that replacement is possible. Those institutions that form the core of our current conception of how we (need to) live were instituted and developed and matured within a regimen of thinking that also doesn’t work anymore. We can call it Enlightenment Thinking, or we can go with one of the more intensive consciousness thinkers – like Gebser (with whom I’m most familiar, so I’ll simply stick with him for my own simplicity’s sake) – and say, perhaps, the Mental/Rational structure of consciousness. This mode of consciousness is all about models, and it was at this point that my own critique of Žižek took hold. I do believe that the efficient forms of each structure must provide us with something of value to take along when we transition to follow-on consciousness modes, but I don’t believe for a moment that having traversed the not-yet-completed, and hazardous, perhaps annihilative, rational structure that we can somehow “regress” or return to more halcyon days. If we’re going to go integral … and there’s been a lot of thinking and talking about that on these pages over the past year, to be sure … we need to start superseding models, even if we haven’t the slightest idea (yet) what the world beyond them looks like or what the development of such a world might entail. Though it was long thought to be so, our social-economic-political reality is not a machine in which defective components can simply be swapped out. I have the strong intuition that the time has come to let this thinking go. The big institutions were developed when needed, but they have served their purpose. They have played their part, but they are not suited for what needs come. We need to let go. What we know as the neoliberal order has turned out to be a fiction, and we can’t “replace” it with anything other than another fiction. If I were an alchemist, I would say that, if anything, what we need to do is transmute them, if such is even possible.
Along the same lines, I see the second question as a corollary to the first. If we don’t think that models are all that appropriate (which is what I’m thinking at the moment – and it could be that I’m the only one, but that’s OK for the purposes of thinking out loud), then while were not looking for models for new institutions I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time and energy looking for models of transformation either, especially structural ones. What I intuit here is the notion that structure can be designed, yet we all know, from pure experience , that natural structures are the most effective because they are the most adaptable. We’ve been neglecting nature at our own peril for the past few hundred years and it might be time to start taking more cues from Ma Nature. We’re not limited as we once were merely to those few individuals in our own immediate environment when we start thinking in terms of organization. I certainly don’t believe that the internet changes everything, but it has effects in places that we didn’t even know were places before. Consequently, we all belong to real-life, local communities and much farther-reaching virtual communities simultaneously, and those virtual communities are every bit as “local” as our physical ones. We no longer live an either-or reality, rather it is now more a this-as-well-as-that one. And taking this notionality a step further, it has not escaped my attention that in our maddening rush toward total and complete globalization, the forces of locality have not been sleeping. On a purely physical level, we’ve seen more countries “appear” on the world stage in the last 50 years than in just about any period of history (except for the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the shattering of Central Europe into a seeming infinite number of graviates and duchies). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that “the (or a) nation” is any kind of model to be following. I’m one of those strange types who believe that nation-states as we know them have most likely outlived their usefulness (like all other large institutions). It’s not that we should (or can) undo them, or that we can just simply let them go (like perhaps institutions), rather, perhaps it might be that the time has come to stop taking them as seriously as we do.
If I were a homeopathic medical practitioner, I’d say that it is certain that things are going to get worse before they get better. This doesn’t mean, when scaled up to our current reality, that only a planetary dystopia awaits us. The most recent planetary events – from the incessant murderous, terrorist, unjust wars through the blatant destruction of the climate and nature’s ecosystems through the unraveling of large-scale institutions (such as the EU), to the inescapably obvious subversion of political order (such as the most recent US elections) – have been anything but encouraging, but it’s not like we haven’t seen them coming. I’m fully aware that it is the most suspect thinkers among us who are constantly poised for the Final Total Collapse, so instead, the vast majority of us have simply been doing what we generally do best: we’ve all done a lot of looking-the-other-way. Nevertheless, it has been relatively clear to anyone with a modicum of intelligence and commonsense that a Day of Reckoning has been fast approaching.
Be that as it may, one thing we all know is that the past is the worst predictor of the future that we can possibly imagine. We can’t know what’s coming. If we did, it wouldn’t be the future. To even begin to intuit what the future might be, we need to look to the “now”, and by that I think of (a) what’s going on, being said, being spoken and thought concurrent with our accessing of such, and (b) what’s been said, thought, and done that is not time-bound, but remember now, I’m just thinking out loud.
Others in a similar predicament
What else is being said that might be worth listening to? Obviously, it’s not mainstream media, and it certainly isn’t the utterings and musings of the kakistocracy. But there are a few bright minds out there who are shedding light, not just spewing hot air. Two who immediately come to mind, of completely different generations, are Noam Chomsky and David Graeber. The former is very well known; the latter had a good day a few years ago when his Debt: the first 5,000 years came out (which, if you haven’t already read it, is well worth the time and effort it takes to wade through over 400 pages of well-researched, well-thought-out, and well-articulated analysis that is in several ways even enlightening).
So, what do these two fellows have in common? First of all, they have made it patently clear to anyone who is willing to listen/read that we’re being duped by the powers-that-be, regardless of how or who you conceive those power to be. There is no need for secret cabals, nebulous conspiracies, nor some new world order. Things aren’t, nor have they ever been, what they appear to be, but both of these gentlemen have gone to great lengths to inform us, each in his own sphere of knowledge and reflection, that we never get the whole picture, but what we do get is more than enough to admonish us to caution and serious reflection. It is not necessarily the best and the brightest who are leading the charge into the future, rather, we may be languishing under the same, old same-old. In other words, both of them spend most of their time merely challenging and trying to get behind the most fundamental issues that we take for granted, the assumptions and presuppositions that we take as givens (something that Žižek in his own way is prone to do). This is a great help, for it is something that most of us who could just don’t take the time to do. Engaging their thinking, however, does start reconditioning one to be more ready to confront our medially mediated presentations of reality that too often too blatantly try to convince us that things are better than they are. Truth be told (or felt), they aren’t. And, if things aren’t really getting better, the question regarding a future planetary dystopia is right on target.
What fascinates me more about both of them, though, has little to do with what almost all of us recognize as their line of argumentation in their addressing of current issues. No, what always gets me reflecting is the casual, almost muttered-under-the-breath description of both of them as “self-avowed anarchists”. I’m more than aware of how trigger-like such a characterization can be. Too many of us have been (Pavlovianly) conditioned to conjure up images of dark-bearded men throwing fuse-lit ball-bombs. But these guys aren’t disturbed by such images in the least, in fact they come across so benignly content in the face of such raucous imagery. They openly admit they are anarchists, and they do so in such a way that I think it is worth our while to at least reconsider the term.
While growing up in the USA, it was customary in most circles that if you couldn’t handle the argumentation being levied in a debate, you simply called your adversary a “communist” and you could walk away knowing that you had so discredited your opponent that it would take them a long time, if ever, to rehabilitate themselves. Lots of worthy adversaries fell for the ploy and spent more time attempting rehabilitation than delivering further arguments. (Though I’ll come back to him later, Macdonald, however, was of the same ilk as Chomsky and Graeber: if he wasn’t accused of being something, he’d willingly claim that he was and stay to discuss matters anyway; he stood his ground against McCarthy, for example.) When the communists-who-never-were ( and anyone thinking the Soviet Union was any kind of communism, especially in a Marxian sense has never read Marx, nor have they spent much time engaging modern history and economics, but that’s another matter for another day) became passé, the mantel of the derogatory fell quite naturally to “socialism” and “socialists”, which is how “they” (whoever the hell they are) tried to unhinge Bernie Sanders last year, but there were so many younger people listening to him – for better or worse, right or wrong, knowingly or out of ignorance – who had missed that whole damnation-by-verbal-association nonsense perpetrated by the anti-communists-now-anti-socialists and who didn’t give a hoot about things they were not in the slightest aware of. Maybe the time was ripe for thinkers like Chomsky and Graeber to simply state where they were coming from. Maybe they just didn’t give a care and decided once and for all to give the ol’ guilt-by-association trick a swift kick in the pants. I certainly like to think so. But I digress.
So, to get back to the current issue at hand, maybe we need to ask ourselves just what is an anarchist is, and what is anarchy anyway? In simplest terms, and it is certainly a starting point based on my reading of the two gentlemen, it is a state of society without government or law. I know the mere thought of such makes some folks go apoplectic, but if you stop to actually reflect upon it, at that level of generalization, you quickly come to realize that we’re living in anarchic times as it is. As the discrepancy between the “elite” and the rest of us and the gap of social inequality widens, as it becomes ever clearer that what “the people” want and what they can expect to get are very different things, as wars most of us are against are nevertheless waged in our names, as we witness almost daily that fake news and corporate propaganda replace much needed information and education, as we watch as social safety nets are shredded and we see how the poor, downtrodden and suffering are demonized while their corporate counterparts are heralded as heroes and have benefits beyond benefits heaped upon them, and how the long-touted slogans of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” ring increasingly hollow, just what “government” are we really talking about? Do we even have a government in the traditional sense of the word anymore? When we watch how our rights are co-opted in the name of alleged security, how our fellow citizens of color are increasingly oppressed, how hard-fought-for legal guarantees are ignored and dismantled, how brute, vicious, inhumane force is unleashed on fellow citizens who are trying to hold fast to and make good on the few rights we have left, how some of us are given draconian sentences for minor offenses while others can destroy lives and property with impunity but are shielded by an established system of courts and “deals”, we have to ask ourselves just what law are we abiding by, or if there really is any law worth the name anymore? More than once each day I find myself stepping back and wondering if I’m not already living in an anarchic state. The reality that I experience every day is certainly very different from the one that I get served up medially.
In a certain regard, then, it makes sense that Chomsky and Graeber, if nothing else, would rather be identified with something “horrid” than with what the rest of us still think we should identify ourselves with. When you listen more closely – and this is more true of Graeber than Chomsky – there is much they say about topics such as “direct democracy”. This is anything but a model, it’s more of a feeling, a tentative probing into possibilities, like those we saw earlier, and Graeber at least experienced first-hand in the original Occupy days. That attempt was thwarted, no doubt about it, but whatever movement began then has not yet died completely and whatever processes that were set in motion then are still moving, even if not as apparently as some of us would like them to be. Thoughts have been put out there, experiences have been had, content for analysis and reflection has been produced. Something is being sought, and it’s just not yet clear exactly what, which brings me back to Macdonald.
At the same time that Gebser was formulating his magnum opus, Macdonald was struggling to find something enduring in the chaos induced by World War II and the first taking-root of the notion of Empire. There were two forces vying for supremacy (the ol’ Capitalism-Communism/Democracy-Dictatorship models) and the failure of one made the other believe it had been right all along, whereas it had never been right at all (not even in the sense of “correct”, but that’s a different discussion for another day), if we understand “right” as a moral category. This is where I believe Macdonald actually “got it”, and it is what makes him all the more worth listening to today.
What Macdonald made clear, and what is as relevant now as it was when we he was writing, is that the most fundamental struggle of our times is one of values. Not the ones so often so maliciously bantered about and rammed down our throats, like God and Country (or The People and The State), like freedom (always with a small “f”), like wealth and privilege and democracy (the illusion of choice where there is none) or all the rest of the delusion we are expected to fight, and on command die, for. No, the values of which Macdonald spoke, and the only values we need consider at the moment are those which make us human. It doesn’t matter whether you think we humans are the pinnacle of creation or “just” another species of animal, and it doesn’t matter whether you believe some all-knowing, all-powerful God is behind the scenes urging us on or whether you believe we’re just some epiphenomenal freak of nature. What matters in the end is what we do about what we believe, and at the moment, I see a whole lot of believing going on in the world and damn little doing. Oh, there’s doing out there, no doubt about it, but not enough of it, and there are far too few of us out here who actually believe in what we’re doing.
The only values that matter right now, it would seem, are those that have to do with how we interact with one another. That is pure and simple, the human dimension of things. It has become starkly clear that all that Enlightenment dribble about “progress” and the “individual” was a shot past the mark. We humans showed up on this planet as social creatures, and that hasn’t changed a bit over the past 100,000 or 200,000 years of our presence on the planet. How we treat each other, what we do to each other, how we get along with each other, how we resolve our differences, how we synergize, how we solve problems, how we find ways to demonstrate just who we are in the grander scheme of things and in terms of everyone and everything around us, is what matters in the end. We know that we are embedded in a delicate eco-system or network of systems that interact with every other biological, climatic, geological, marine system in existence. And, at heart, we know that everything we do impacts everything that touches us experientially, yet we most often act as if we were isolated from everything else in the universe. That is, at least in my mind, just a bit schizophrenic, whereby I’m hesitant to say that for not wanting to insult true schizophrenics. We should know better, and I’m sure there are lots and lots of human beings on this planet who do know better as well, but what I’m missing are those overt actions that let me and everyone else know we know better. In my meager mind, this is the heart of the real values discussion/debate.
Right now, there’s a lot of talk and too little action. We could discuss, debate, and argue for millennia on how we can best express those values that Macdonald and all the rest of us know are right. In fact, that’s what we’ve been doing for as long as we’ve been able to talk to one another, but has it ever occurred to you that maybe we don’t need to formulate them once and for all at all? What we say is never as important, as poignant, as revealing or as convincing as what we do. In other words, we need to act as-if: we need to act as if these values were clear, we need to act as if we had a say in our common lives, we need to act as if organizations, institutions and everything else that is getting in our way weren’t in our way at all. The values we know to be right are not time-bound, that’s for sure, for they are what defines us as our particular species. Oh yes, we’re capable of the worst conceivable horrors and atrocities, but why should we think that this is our defining characteristic? We need to stop acting as if it were. We need to convince other by our actions, not by our words. We have to start small, direct … where we are, when we are … sort of like Luther’s alleged maxim: Here I stand, I can do no other. And, we need to act this way here, and now, and always.
We need to learn to do what’s right. We need to have the courage of our convictions, and we need to learn to say “no”. We have a long road ahead of us, to be sure, but we need to acknowledge that there is not a one of us who will be able to travel this road alone. We need to find what binds us and act upon that. We need to expect less of others and more of ourselves. We need to stop complaining about what’s wrong and start doing what is right. We need to remember and to remind ourselves and to keep in mind the very simple idea that if it’s good for everyone else, then it’s most likely good for us as individuals – not the other way around – or as I like to think of it, if I were an alchemist, we need to transmute the current paradigm: all the same factors and players are involved, but the outcome has to change.
Macdonald pointed to the humanist, the non-scientist, if you will, to the writer, the painter, the sculptor, the essayist, the artist as navigator in the apparent sea of chaos. It is those who still think and believe and hope and pray and do what is within their power to help others to do the same who are needed most these days. Yet, it is not enough that we simply “express” ourselves, we must also act and I think we all agree that the true artists of all ages have been those who have not only “said” (in whatever medium they felt most comfortable) but who have done; that is, who have gone on to live according the maxims that they believed were most suited to be raised to the level of universal truth (to poorly paraphrase Prof. Kant).
Each of us is called up to be and to act. What Gebser, Chomsky, Graeber, Žižek, and all the others are telling us is now is not the time to be silent and now is not the time to just sit back. There is much to be done and the we’re the only ones who can do it. Each of us has a sphere of influence – regardless of its size or perceived impact – and each of us needs to start acting within that sphere AS IF it made a difference …
he said, thinking out loud.