It has become a truism: every election is the most important of our lives. Is this any more true of the 2020 presidential election? Of course it is! As we approach what is already shaping up to be another prolonged and contentious primary season, I want to offer an autobiographical preamble to my ongoing commentary and campaign involvement. Our political opinions do not arise in a vacuum, as though the product of purely rational reflection on universal human nature. They are steeped in the circumstances of our upbringing, in our dreams and ideals, in our adventures abroad and the calamities that befall us at home, and in the company we keep and that keeps us. I’m sharing my personal story with the hope that it provides context for my perspective on the 2020 election.

In 1996, I was the ten year old child of divorced middle class parents living in Hollywood, Florida. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were running against one another for the presidency. I remember waiting in the lunch line at elementary school talking with a friend. He asked me who my parents were going to vote for. I said I wasn’t sure. With a look of sympathetic superiority, he informed me that Clinton was one of Satan’s henchmen and that only Dole could help America realize God’s plan (his parents were evangelical Christians). I should warn my parents right away, he said.

Something felt off about my friend’s opinion, but at that point I had little basis upon which to question his perspective. I didn’t warn my parents, who were and remain largely apolitical (my mom’s Christianity is mostly private, and my dad, an agnostic Jew, lost his 60s idealism waiting out the draft in Mexico). They never spoke to me about politics as a kid. My friend’s warning is one of my first explicitly political memories. I can recall earlier memories of CNN’s coverage of Gulf War 1: being impressed by new laser guided bombs accurate enough to fly into exposed air conditioning vents on building rooftops in Bagdad, being frightened about Saddam’s chemical weapons landing in my backyard and poisoning me and my family, and so on. I was only six, but having already watched my fair share of action movies, I had the vague sense that all this war business seemed awfully theatrical and made for TV. It was an early hint of the way the dominant political order was fabricated and maintained.

But it wasn’t until the 2000 Bush vs Gore election that I really began to feel the uniquely American frenzy first described by de Tocqueville that overtakes our nation during election season (“As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads…The whole nation descends into a feverish state…“). Though I was just entering high school and still wasn’t old enough to vote, the electoral college fiasco, the recount chaos that unfolded just north of me in Palm Beach, and the Supreme Court finally interceding, all left a lasting impression. I watched George W. Bush’s inauguration and wondered if the country could ever unify behind him. Then, 9/11 happened. The images, emotions, and conversations of that day remain etched in my mind with great clarity. War was upon us, this time much closer to home. I was suspicious of how quickly the country lined up to support their commander-in-chief, and of the rush to seek revenge on the “evil doers.” I was especially struck by images of Bush standing on a pile of rubble in NYC, with his arm around a fire fighter and a bullhorn in the other hand through which he shouted promises of revenge over chants of U-S-A U-S-A!! I can’t say I didn’t feel pangs of patriotism in my chest as I watched this. We were under attack, after all. But again, the way the whole thing seemed staged and made for TV kept me from succumbing to these feelings.

It was in the aftermath of these events that my intense interest in politics began. I enrolled in advanced courses in European and American history at school, and at home began reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. The discrepancy between my history textbooks and Zinn’s People’s History was a stronger hint that in politics, neither truth nor power lies on the surface for all to see. I was still too young to vote when I came to the conclusion that our nation’s “democracy” was more of an ideal than a realized state of affairs.

I started offering my political opinions as editorials editor for The Nova Vue, my high school newspaper. Most of my op-eds were standard liberal takes, anti-Bush and anti-war, pro-gay marriage, etc.; nothing too radical. I watched as Bush went after the Taliban in Afghanistan first, a bombing campaign I didn’t cheer but didn’t protest much, either. Then, with some WMD sleight of hand, Bush worked to convince the nation that a full-scale invasion of Iraq was necessary to bring all the evil doers to justice. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was launched with little protest from anyone in congress or the US press. Having read some of the policy papers from the neoconservative think-tank the Project for a New American Century that propelled Bush into the White House, I knew that the plans to invade Iraq and recolonize the Middle East were put in place long before the 9/11 attacks. I also read about the recent history of the region, how the US installed Saddam Hussein and trained and funded the Taliban and al Qaeda back when they were the enemies of our enemies. I read about the more distant history of British colonial rule and the artificial drawing of the map of Iraq, which somehow was supposed to include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias within a single national identity. In the run up to war, I began to entertain some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. I don’t know what really happened that day, but it seems clear enough that the official story is suspect. US history is full of false flags, so why should 9/11 be ruled out? I am not a true believer or “9/11 Truther,” but nor can I dismiss or belittle the folks who are. I simply do not know. What I do know is that Americans have a special talent for ignoring history when forming opinions about the present.

I was a college freshman at the University of Central Florida when the 2004 primaries wound down and John Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee. I now had my first opportunity to participate in the civic ritual of voting, an exciting experience that was clouded by an inner conflict I’ve since grown all too familiar with: lesser evilism. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and other establishment Democrats, voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002. I preferred him to Bush, of course, but my heart was with the independent party candidate Ralph Nader. But I knew he could not win and that, practically speaking, a vote for Nader was a vote taken from Kerry and given to Bush. The cynical part of me viewed the whole electoral process as merely symbolic anyway, akin to Catholic transubstantiation: through the miracle known as representation, my vote was supposed to allow me to partake in the democratic selection of my nation’s leader. In reality, my vote was but a tiny drop in a giant lake whose damn was ultimately controlled by the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. I remained conflicted until I walked into the polling place on election day. My heart told me Nader, but I didn’t want to throw my vote away and unintentionally assure the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war machine another term in the Oval Office. I voted for Kerry.

Image result for bush kerry debate handshake

The frustration of lesser evilism, not to mention Bush’s re-election victory, squashed my budding political idealism. I was dumbfounded by my country’s decision. The war propaganda machine was too powerful to subvert: prime time coverage of “shock and awe” bombing campaigns followed by Monday Night Football kept the country in line. The faux debates between the puppets of the corporate duopoly were too carefully curated and narrowly defined for genuine democratic self-governance to be possible. I started turning away from politics and corrupt worldly institutions and instead immersed myself in the study of existentialism, depth psychology, and Eastern spirituality. I read Nietzsche, Alan Watts, Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, and Sri Aurobindo. I became fascinated by the 1960s counterculture, especially Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass’ experiments with psychedelics. I discovered Terence McKenna’s books and video lectures on YouTube (Leary once called McKenna “the real Tim Leary”). I gave up on the lost cause of American politics and decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

I became convinced that the real revolution would be an inner one, an evolution of consciousness rather than a revolution of political order. Only when people “woke up”–not “woke” to class or racial identities, but to divine identity–would real democracy be possible. I started thinking seriously about selling my car to fund a one-way trip to India where I hoped to meet my guru and live out my days in an ashram exploring the realms of the human unconscious. Allen Ginsberg’s integration of revolutionary politics and psychedelic spirituality was a helpful corrective to my one-sided otherworldliness during this time, but his bodhisattvic commitment to the suffering of this world was not enough to bring me back into earth orbit, much less down onto the ground.

It would take another few years to lure me back into the political fray. The first important influence occurred in 2005. I was invited by Hillel, a Jewish student organization at my university, to travel to Israel for two weeks as part of a “birthright” trip funded entirely by the Israeli government and Jewish-American philanthropists. It wasn’t quite India, but it fed my hunger for spiritual roots and promised a dangerous adventure that the pages of books and the shopping plazas of suburban Orlando could not match. The trip indeed proved to be spiritually nutritious, particularly a pair of mystical experiences, one at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, and another alone under the stars in the Negev desert. My time in Israel also re-ignited my social and political conscience. I had read enough Chomsky to be critical of Israeli militarism and to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people. I was still unprepared for the onslaught of Zionist propaganda that greeted my young tour group at every step of our journey across the tiny but proud nation. They wanted we Americanized Jews to realize that we were part of a sacred tribe, that we belonged in Israel, and that God and history were on our side. The government even offered to help pay for our marriage (to another Jew) and find a house if we moved to the country and accepted citizenship. For anyone under 26, this also meant a year or two of military service in the IDF. The offer stirred a primal desire in me to belong to a people and a place, to feel special, exceptional, chosen. I was tempted, I admit. But the identities of “Jew” and “Israeli” felt too small for me, too fake. And the evils of the occupation weighed too heavily on my heart.

In 2008, there was no Democratic presidential primary election in Florida. If there had been, I probably would have voted for Dennis Kucinich. After watching a few Republican primary debates, I decided to temporarily register Republican so that I could vote for the anti-war candidate Ron Paul. Despite the worsening quagmire in Iraq, Paul, Mike Gravel, and Kucinich were the only true anti-war candidates that year. Gravel and Kucinich were largely ignored, but Paul got some attention because of his fundraising success. US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex were the issues that stirred the most passion in me, so his outspoken opinions about the immorality of the Iraq invasion and the “blow back” theory of terrorism got me fired up. I loved seeing him attack US imperialism on the debate stage next to hawks like McCain, Romney, and Huckabee.

Back in the first decade of the 2000s, social media was just beginning to impact political discourse. But it wasn’t yet the main outlet for debate. By 2007, however, I was posting videos on YouTube about politics (and about philosophy and religion). Ron Paul was the first to inspire this sort of engagement. His battle with the US war machine was short-lived. It didn’t take long for me to grow disenchanted with him due some of the less inspiring aspects of his ideology, including his belief in the magical “invisible hand” of the free market and the taint of racism.

In November 2008, as the global economy convulsed, I was just settling in to San Francisco to attend graduate school. I voted for Obama over McCain, of course. I wasn’t entirely convinced he could bring about real change, but his message was way closer to my ideals. I watched the election in a dive bar on Market Street. When Obama won, everyone spilled out onto the street to celebrate. Cars honked enthusiastically as they slowly weaved through the growing crowds. Strangers high-fived and hugged one another. Obama wasn’t as outspoken about it as Paul, Gravel, or Kucinich, but he was against the war resolution in 2002 and promised to withdraw troops as quickly as possible if elected president. His other progressive positions, including his commitments to campaign finance reform and addressing climate change, excited me. I was truly hopeful when he was elected. I thought the system might change.

Alas, Obama became the president of Wall St. bailouts, drone strikes, domestic spying, and oil production booms. His major accomplishment during his first term was the Affordable Care Act, but despite having control of both houses of congress, the Democrats capitulated to the for-profit insurance industry and didn’t even include a public option in the new law. I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by saying the White House changed him. I believe he went into office with high ideals and that the office killed them. The weight of the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, the US intelligence establishment, corporate lobbying, etc., were too much for him to counter. So he went along with what was expected of him. He still talked smart on TV. He showed genuine emotion in tragic moments. He seems like a good guy. But behind the scenes, he continued the corporate sponsored, imperialistic status quo.

In late 2011, the Occupy movement was born. I didn’t live at the San Francisco or Oakland encampments, but I joined in defending them on several occasions, and participated in marches and direct actions, including a general strike that shut down the Oakland port. I also tried to keep some spiritual perspective on the events: “Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop.”

Occupy raised my awareness of the extreme economic inequality present in the United States and globally. Alongside American foreign policy and militarism, political economy now became one of the most crucial issues for me. Neoliberal capitalism is a religion, a political theology. Opposing it makes one an iconoclast. (Here’s a taste of how I have come to view the importance of political theology with help from process theologian Catherine Keller.)

Lesser evilism prevailed again in 2012 when I voted for Obama over Romney. I needn’t comment on my reasoning, as it should be obvious. I became even more cynical during Obama’s final term, criticizing his allegiance to the military-industrial complex and his support of neoliberal theology. I began to fall back into the somewhat escapist perspective of my late teens, the idea that progressive politics was pointless because real change could only unfold because of transformed human hearts. Obama was the most progressive president I could imagine winning office, and yet even he continued largely to defend and maintain the same old neoliberalism and militarism.

In mid-2015, I decided to take a chance on Bernie Sanders and hitched myself to his presidential campaign. He carried forward the spirit of the Occupy movement by rejecting the entire neoliberal establishment. It was obvious from the start of the 2016 Democratic primary that Hillary Clinton had already been chosen by Democratic power players. Nobody expected Sanders to make a dent. I made calls for him in state primaries all across the country. These phone conversations taught me how little most Americans kept up with the economic and political issues affecting them. It was discouraging. But I also realized the importance of authenticity to capture the attention of those who’d given up on politics. Even in places I thought would be solidly conservative, like West Virginia, people were open-minded. They were also very kind!

I won’t re-hash here what I’ve already written about the 2016 primaries as they unfolded (“Hillary v. Bernie and the Future of American Democracy,” “Democratic Socialism or Corporate Cronyism,” “In defense of other possibilities“). I will just say that it was clear enough to me as the primaries wound down that Clinton was the weaker candidate against Trump. The country was in the midst of a populist uprising and there was no way another (particularly unpopular) neoliberal corporate-funded centrist was going to win. Sanders spoke to the pain of the poor and working class people who didn’t trust Clinton. His authentic populist firebrand was the only antidote to Trumpism.

As recent events in France make clear, the populist uprising continues to unfold. Bernie is older and by no means the perfect candidate. But I have not seen anyone else yet who I believe can (a) win an election against Trump (or a more articulate right wing populist should Mueller’s investigation bring Trump down) and (b) at least begin the political revolution necessary to achieve the economic, social, racial, and ecological justice that this country and the world so desperately needs. Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Kamala Harris are possibilities, but I have nagging questions about each of them (Warren has voted for Trump’s military budgets, Gabbard seems to have a homophobia problem, and Harris hasn’t yet proven she is willing to follow through on crucial policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal).

12990934_10207946457633531_7623808910263098164_n

It’s mid-April, and the 74-year-old democratic socialist senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders is not only still in the race for the Democratic nomination, he is in the midst of a spring surge to overtake the most inevitable candidate in modern political history. On Wednesday (April 13th), Bernie held a rally in Washington Square Park in NYC that drew somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 people. That’s a few thousand more than Barrack Obama at the same location in 2008.

berniewsq-84.jpg

Earlier this week, thousands of people marched on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. protesting capitalism’s takeover of democracy. More than 400 people were arrested for refusing to vacate the area. According to Rolling Stone, “close observers of Washington activism say it may have been the largest [mass arrest at the Capitol] since the Vietnam War.” Tomorrow, only three days before Tuesday’s all-important primary, #Occupy Wall St. will reboot to march through NYC’s financial district in support of Bernie’s campaign. As of today the march’s FaceBook event page lists 12,500 as attending and 25,000 more as interested. I hope the march is yuuuge.


I must admit, I’m a bit disappointed by Bernie’s performance in the debate last night. He was nervous in the first several minutes of the contest, letting Hillary policy-bite her way to sounding like the policy expert on Dodd-Frank and breaking up the banks. For those who lean toward Bernie, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Hillary is leaning way further left today than when she started this race, no doubt in a thinly veiled attempt to attract actual progressives to her neoliberal cause.

On gun control, Bernie’s responses were also underwhelming. I am rather confused as to why he doesn’t rebut Clinton’s accusations by pointing out what every Bernie supporter (including me) was screaming at their TV at this point during the debate:

Hillary Clinton is the biggest international arms dealer in modern history.

According to the International Business Times:

Under Clinton’s leadership, the State Department approved $165 billion worth of commercial arms sales to 20 nations whose governments have given money to the Clinton Foundation, according to an IBTimes analysis of State Department and foundation data. That figure — derived from the three full fiscal years of Clinton’s term as Secretary of State (from October 2010 to September 2012) — represented nearly double the value of American arms sales made to the those countries and approved by the State Department during the same period of President George W. Bush’s second term.

USAF_F-15C_fires_AIM-7_Sparrow_2

A big chunk of that $165 billion in arms went to Saudi Arabia in the form of Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle fighter jets. Not long before Hillary became Secretary of State and approved the deal, Saudi Arabia donated $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. Boeing donated $900,000. After Obama appointed Hillary in 2009, the Clintons reluctantly agreed that their Foundation would not accept money from foreign governments while she was serving as Secretary of State. Apparently they feel no need to avoid the perception of undue influence now that she is running for president, since the ban on accepting money from foreign leaders was lifted the moment she stepped down from the State Department. Will the ban be re-imposed if she takes office as president? I wonder whether Hillary would be for legislation allowing Boeing and other defense contractors to be sued for civilian deaths caused by their weapons overseas?

After losing the congressional election in 1988, largely as a result of his support for an assault weapons ban, in 1990, Bernie had to make a deal with the gun lobby in Vermont to become the first socialist elected to congress in decades. He didn’t try to hide this fact during the debate. He continues to stick to his guns. He refuses to apologize or pander on the issue. But why has he let Hillary win the moral high ground on this issue when her private business ventures and State Department decisions (is there a difference for her?) have so obviously contributed more to world-wide gun violence than all the other presidential candidates and currently serving congresspeople combined? It’s as if Bernie’s been told by the party bosses that the transnational military-industrial complex is off limits during the primary campaign. He’s not allowed to mention it in earshot of any of the major media networks. At least, not as long as he wants to remain a member of the Democratic party.


USA_2009._Percent_of_adult_males_incarcerated_by_race_and_ethnicity.pngBernie and Hillary agree that many of our nation’s public and private institutions bear the scars of a racist past. Where they differ is in their prescriptions. Hillary offers platitudes. When challenged, she remains defensive and dismissive. Bernie’s response to the mass incarceration of 2.2 million Americans is universal public education from K through college and a thorough cultural overhaul and demilitarization of the criminal justice system.


On the ecological crisis (mentioned for the first time an hour into the debate and discussed for about 10 minutes), Hillary is arguing that fracking is part of the “bridge” to renewables. She’s refusing to take swift and decisive action to disempower the fossil fuel industry on behalf of future generations.

Bernie is offering the only adequate federal level policy response to climate change. He is the only candidate who is openly recognizing the “unprecedented urgency” of the crisis. He is the only candidate calling for a carbon tax. He is the only candidate with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to rebuild the American energy grid to run on renewable energy in 10 years. Bernie quoted Pope Francis during the debate, who has described the industrial growth economy of global capitalism as “a suicide course.”


Grant Maxwell   grantmaxwell    Twitter

Some Hillary supporters have been decrying the sarcasm they detect in Bernie and his supporters. Sarcasm is one of the only authentic responses to the sort of condescension the Clintons are directing at young people. We are the next in line who are going to have to deal with the inaction, negligence, and impropriety of the present generation of leaders. Excuse us for not being patient enough for your austerity incrementalism or trusting enough in your crony capitalism, Hillary.

 

A few good posts on the polis recently.

One by Adam Robbert.

Another by Bill Thorn.

Re-thinking politics is something most Athenian citizens never had to do. They had common categories to guide them in the agora, as well as comedy and tragedy to form and re-form their feelings for them at the theater. But then Socrates started taking philosophical walks along the Ilissus with the city youth, asking them about Love and the Soul. He started asking about Goodness and drinking wine with them, telling stories about Beauty. He inspired a generation of intellectual critics of the city’s traditional ways. The comics laughed at him. The courts did not. He found himself called to testify. He was convicted of atheism and sentenced to death.

Philosophy is inherently disturbing to the ruling classes of all but the most ideal societies. It under-minds the politician’s sense of identity by forcing him to consider the ground of his own powers of persuasion, to reflect upon his own reasons for exercising power. This throws him into conflict with himself, a crisis of consciousness as well as conscience. Politicians always have to pretend not to have internal conflicts, not to have contemplative thoughts. They are to be creatures of immediate action only, of instinctual oughts.

Socrates was accused of being a sort of magician, a pharmakeus, charming the young with his psychedelic speech. I think philosophy, if it is to remain relevant and effective, must play a similar role in politics today. It is risky, of course. Bruno was burnt at the stake for practicing political magic. Cornel West was chased out of Harvard by Larry Summers for practicing theological sorcery on behalf of the poor and working classes. Not many academics and intellectuals take magic seriously anymore. Politicians and business leaders certainly do, which is perhaps why they have all the power in our society.

Wisdom bombs threaten to persuade people not to shop, to organize in public places for the purposes of self-governance, to protest the material conditions of their spiritual imprisonment. Philosophy is lobbing gnosis grenades into public places as often as possible. Philosophy bears the torch and is the light of every free mind. Philosophy shares with the polis a secret, that the ordered motion of the stars above is a sign from heaven, there to remind people what is Beautiful and Good here on earth below.

Last fall, I expressed my frustrations with the “black bloc” tactics of some anarchists after attending the otherwise successful General Strike in Oakland (HERE and HERE). Now they are at it again, only this time in San Francisco’s Mission district.

Across the country in NYC, there have been reports of white powder being sent to the mayor’s office, corporate banks, and various media outlets.

All of this is further hampering the Occupy Movement’s attempts to gain respect and draw mainstream attention to the social, ecological, and economic injustices that have become the norm in America. Instead, it is becoming easier for the media to dismiss the whole thing as a juvenile temper tantrum and for the US government to begin using anti-terrorism tactics against it.

Is there anyone out there who might be able to explain the motivations behind these kinds of actions to me? I’m having trouble understanding the logic…

 

When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when to pay for the Vietnam War Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the reserve currency of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased around $3 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector?1 When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth’s ecology. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, in order to sustain its constant growth, the techno-industrial machine within which our daily lives take place must extract ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.). The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth’s ecology.

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant claim in 1992 that neoliberal capitalism had brought the “end of history,” our increasingly dire ecological situation, as well as the recent financial crisis, are forcing human civilization to entirely re-imagine its future from the ground up. Congress’ response to the financial crisis made it clear that government as we know it is no longer capable of serving the people. Politicians, it seems, are bought and sold like any other commodity in the market. By using tax dollars to bail out the banks, the US government in effect admitted that, while the 99% have to suffer the consequences of their risks and pay their debts, the super rich do not. The values of “democracy” and “capitalism” appear increasingly antagonistic, since the market has now completely swallowed the political sphere both in America and abroad: a consortium of transnational corporations, rather than the nation-state, now governs world affairs.

As the Occupy movement of late 2011 exemplifies, the result of Congress’ response has been to make revolutionaries out of average citizens, as more and more people are now beginning to reject the status quo to imagine radically new possibilities for human life on planet earth. In this essay, rather than attempting to wield the jargon of econobabble against global capitalism, as many ecological economists have tried,2 I will turn to emerging discourses within anthropology and cosmology in an attempt to put the current crisis in a larger historical context.3 Truly imagining a world after capitalism–a system which was created and is maintained largely by violence and the threat of violence4–will require thinking with entirely new categories. Without seeking out our roots in human and cosmic history through acts of counter-memory, we remain at risk of continuing to define ourselves according to the colonial logic of master and slave (as “owners of ourselves” and “masters of nature,” etc.) and to the capitalist logic of worker and consumer. To imagine the future, we must first remember the past.

It was with the publication of On the Wealth of Nations in 1776 that Adam Smith effectively brought the modern discipline of economic science into existence.5 In order to distinguish economics from politics and ethics, he had to argue that property, money, and markets existed before governments and provided the very foundation of human society. In other words, in order to establish the autonomy, and indeed the priority of the economic sphere over all others (cultural, spiritual, political, etc.), Smith first had to argue for a peculiar theory of human nature based on

“the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes [and] Locke about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forth-year-old males who seemed to have sprung from the earth fully formed, [having then] to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”6

This is the infamous “social contract” theory, which supposes that human beings are essentially isolated, self-interested profit calculators who relate to one another primarily via the logic of exchange. The role of mothers in raising children is entirely ignored, as are familial and communal relations, since they do not operate according to the law of exchange. Society is said to have arisen only because of some primordial contract between otherwise atomized individuals, and government only to protect the soundness of money and contracts. Smith even went so far as to reduce conversation and language to a logic of exchange, a reduction later parodied by Nietzsche, who suggested that, if modern bourgeois values were made fully explicit, human thought itself must be understood to have emerged from our desire “to set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalences, to exchange things.”7

According to David Graeber, anthropologists have been trying to point out the utter falsity of this account of the origins of society for more than a century.8 In point of fact, contrary to the “just so” stories told by Smith and all economists since, we have not always been capitalists.

Smith argued that the market began with individuals bartering with one another, each hoping to get the better end of the deal: “I’ll give you three beaver pelts for 6 of your chickens.” Due to the problem of the “double coincidence of wants,”9 so the story goes, money was soon invented to make such exchanges easier. One would expect, based on Smith’s account of primitive barter societies, to find indigenous peoples across the world engaging in such exchange. But as early as the 1850s, anthropologists had already dispelled Smith’s make-believe portrayals of indigenous societies (he made up several erroneous stories about Native American bartering). Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, published descriptions of the economic practices of Iroquois Six Nations peoples: tribes stockpiled most goods in longhouses to be distributed according to need by councils of women.10 A stronger contrast with what was going on back in Glasgow would be difficult to imagine. Economists (aside from Marx and Engels) to this day continue to pay no attention to libraries full of such anthropological data.11 “Why?” asks Graeber:

“The simplest answer would be: for there even to be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes…it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that…simply does not exist.”12

Before he could claim to say something scientific about the objective nature of markets, Smith had to invent the subjectivity of the human beings who participated in them (much of this work had already been done for him by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke). He imagined human beings in the most abstract way possible, as disembedded individuals with no ties to culture, community, or land (other than that which they owned) and barely a trace of even having been born through a mother or into a family. This picture has little to do with how humans have lived for the majority of our species’ history.

Despite the more recent individualizing effects of money on human consciousness, we remain fundamentally social creatures who make decisions based upon a complex tapestry of interwoven value spheres, the economic/material only one among them. These individualizing effects began as early as 600BCE when coinage was invented simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, and they increased severalfold since the colonial era began around 1500CE. In our own era of globalized consumer capitalism, where money now mediates almost every one of our interactions with other people and the world, individuals are more likely than ever to buy into capitalism’s master narrative of exchange. But a closer look at history reveals that a counteracting tendency has always been in place.

In each region where money and markets first began to enter everyday life around 600BCE, one of the world’s great enduring wisdom traditions arose to challenge it: in India, Buddhism; in China, Confucianism; in Greece, Philosophy. Again, around 1500CE, as Europe left the Middle Ages to begin the planetary era of the capitalist empires, the Reformation emerged, at least initially, in opposition.13 It seems that religion and philosophy, as we know them, emerged as spiritual counter values in response to the increasing influence of the more materialistic economic sphere.

For the first time in history, popular uprisings during the Axial age were intellectually and/or spiritually motivated: “those opposing existing power arrangements did so in the name of some kind of theory about the nature of reality.”14 The poor weren’t simply angry about being put in debt, they felt they had moral knowledge of the injustices and therefore the ignorance of their oppressors, and were prepared to argue as much on rational and/or theological grounds.

On the other hand, religion and philosophy have also played into the hands of the logic of exchange by adopting its categories of thought. In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as “[comparable] to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”15 Primordial debt theorists like Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans go so far as to argue that debt itself began as a religious concept.16 They point to the Vedas as some of the earliest recorded reflections on the nature of debt. In the Satapatha Brahmana (composed around 700BCE), it is written:

“A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.”

Ancient Indian brahmins were already conceiving of human existence in terms of a business deal. The gods created us, and so we owe them a debt which can only be repaid with our lives (which is to say, it cannot possibly be repaid). We are in a similar situation with regard to our parents, according to the Vedas, and so must have our own children and be kind to strangers in order to have any hope of paying off our debt to them. The Brahmins, of course, were kind enough to accept taxes from the people on behalf of the gods.

The complicity of religion in tightening the stranglehold of the logic of exchange, despite its spiritual ideals, seems to present a problem. The transformative power of spiritual values like love, generosity, and reverence (etc.) seem to be among the few remaining counter values to the greed encouraged by the market, but how can the religious worldview be enacted outside the logic of exchange? In our postmodern context, spirituality has been even further co-opted by the market, as religion is increasingly treated as just another brand-name consumable meant to express our unique individuality. Not only has money corrupted politics, it has infested religion and spirituality, as well.

Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society through the mediation of monetary instruments. This mediation begins primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Max Weber’s analysis of the link between Protestantism and the capitalist work ethic are well-known, further problematizing the role of religion in countering the market.

While the traditional religious response to the market can still be edifying, it seems our current situation calls for a radical re-visioning of religion’s cosmological basis. We must re-imagine the human being’s relationship to the cosmos as it has been conceived in the modern age. During the 19th century, mechanistic science analogized physical energy to the activity of the proletariat, defining it as the ability to do work. Carrying the analogy even further, it was supposed that energy must always pay a debt, due to heat loss, back to the cosmos. The thermodynamic concept of entropy is no doubt a crucial component of any critique of techno-industrial capitalism’s fantasy of unlimited growth on a planet of limited means, but the utilization of such socioeconomic metaphors by physicists betray the far reaching influence of the market even on science. In a society whose highest aspiration was not work, but play, one would expect to find descriptions of the activity of energy not only in terms of entropy, but also in terms of centropy. Energy would be, not blind toiling, but, as Blake suggested, “eternal delight.”

Religion and society themselves can be understood as having emerged from the human being’s innate proclivity to play. This is precisely the perspective offered by sociologist Robert Bellah in his recently published 700-page account of the Axial turn in the evolution of religion.17 The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival and economic exchange. In the course of daily life–the so-called serious world–we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements.”18 In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment.

One way to apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it suggests about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socioeconomic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. Gobekli Tepe, a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs by domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.”19 The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure that provided the people who constructed it with a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.

Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day. Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the Axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.

Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects upon its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was understood to be related to primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests had the free time for ritualized play. As we’ve seen, it was amidst such injustice that the religious instincts of humanity erupted in the form of the great Axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha).

Play is symbolic because, as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working.”20 The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life–of working–by pointing to an immortal realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.

Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani recently spoke to conservatives at a meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement: “How about you occupy a job?,” he said. “How about working?”21 Giuliani went on to compare the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity (i.e., industrial clock-time) before it can be monetized.22 The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).

One of the core cosmopolitical issues behind the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:

“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time…the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity…It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”23

Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything is symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, as Weber suggested, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. Until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various Occupy encampments represents a non-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working with its logic of exchange and monetary idolatry.

Footnotes

1 This was the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world.

2 i.e., by commodifying the community of life on earth in terms of “ecosystem services,” etc.

3 “History” should here be read in both its sociocultural and evolutionary senses. See Big History (2008) by Cynthia Stokes Brown or The Universe Story (1992) by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme for examples.

4 David Graeber (366, Debt: The First 5,000 Years) suggests that the only thing holding the current global economic structure together is the threat of U.S. military power.

5 25, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

6 210, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

7 2.8, Genealogy of Morals

8 21, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

9 The person whose chickens I want may not want the beaver pelts I have to trade him.

10 29, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

11 395, n. 15, Debt The First 5,000 Years (2011). Most economics textbooks still account for the emergence of money according to some variation of Smith’s “myth of barter.”

12 33, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

13 The Catholic Church’s writs of indulgence were arguably the central grievance listed by Martin Luther in his 95 theses, written and posted in 1517. These writs were sold by papal representatives to those who wished to reduce their stay in purgatory by paying down their debts to God. In other words, the logic of exchange was so pervasive it even crept into our conception of the heavenly economy.

14 248, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

15 18:23

16 56, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

17 See Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

18 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011). (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz)

19 See the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins

20 8, Religion in Human Evolution (2011).

21 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=lQsqlA3nS1E

22 See the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

23 3,9, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich speaks at Occupy Cal in Berkeley yesterday (Nov. 15th):

One thing that really sunk in: if the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, then our government must also protect the rights of ordinary Americans to speak, and indeed, to speak in non-traditional ways (i.e., with their bodies in public tent cities) that enable them to garner the large audience necessary to make them capable of competing with corporate advertising.

At the center of Robert Bellah‘s 700 page account of the axial turn in the evolution of religion (Religion in Human Evolution, 2011) is a theory of play. The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival. In the course of daily life, the so-called serious world, we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements” (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz on p. 2). In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment. “Play,” says Bellah, “emerged in the evolution of mammals as a sphere sheltered to some degree from selectionist pressures, having its end internal to its practice, however much it may have proved adaptive in secondary and tertiary forms” (p. 112).

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Gobekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides us with a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.” The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.

Bellah quotes Plato:

“I say that man must be serious with the serious. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly and play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present… For they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name which are the things we deem most serious. Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can. What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play. Playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies and win in the contest” (Laws 7.796).

As we can see, for Plato and for Bellah, play is quite a serious matter. Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day (the Greeks established schools, the Buddhists made monasteries, etc.). Perhaps the best examples of such renouncers in our own Western tradition are Socrates and Plato: they were both “in but not of the city and also criticized it from the outside,” says Bellah (p. 575). Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.

Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects on its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was somehow related to the primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests were permitted the free time for ritualized play. Amidst such injustice, the religious instincts of humanity erupted once again in the form of the great axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha…).

Play is symbolic, because as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working” (p. 8). The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life, of working, by pointing to a transcendent realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.

Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Watch former mayor of NYC Rudy Giuliani speak to the conservative crowd at a recent meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement:

“How about you occupy a job? How about working??” Giuliani goes on to compare the occupation of Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity, namely industrial clock-time, before it can be monetized (see the work of Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin). The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).

One of the core cosmopolitical issues beneath the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:

“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time. Some people can’t stand to live in it at all–they used to be sent to mental institutions, but today in the United States they can be found wandering the city streets. All of us leave the world of daily life with considerable frequency–not only when we are sleeping and dreaming (the structure of dreams is almost completely antithetical to the structure of the world of working), but when we daydream, travel, go to a concert, turn on the television. We do these things often for the sheer pleasure of getting out of the world of daily life. Even so we may feel guilty that we are shirking our responsibilities to the real world. However, if we follow the analysis of Alfred Shultz [mentioned above], the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding [Kenneth Burke’s term], that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances”(p. 3,9).

Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything becomes symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. I would argue that, until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various #Occupy encampments represents a pre-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working.

I am still struggling to understand what motivates the black bloc vandalism of the anarchists. I gather that they believe the big banks of the world have lost the ability to communicate with anything but monetary ammunition. It’s true, the bank’s way of transacting with the world is inherently violent, since their modus operandi is always to seek the most self-profiting relationship they can with their “customers” (though it is not immediately clear who is serving who).

It could be that the only effective way of communicating with a bank, or corporation more generally, is to break the windows of its storefronts.

But I don’t want to communicate with corporations. They are not real people. They have no face. Corporate storefronts, like their souls, are mere idols. When the anarchist throws a hammer through a window, he feels as though he’s wounded and defaced the corporation. But he is worshipping (by hating) a false idol. He hasn’t touched the true substance of corporate ideology, since it lives not in buildings or billboards, but in the hearts of the people who wake up every morning to go to work inside a corporation for a living.

A corporation has no life outside its workers (of course, nor do the worker-citizens of our democracy™ have much of a life outside corporations). We are not fighting a war against corporations. We couldn’t possibly be. They do not speak our language and so remain unfazed by even our most biting slurs. We are fighting an alien ideology that has taken up root right amongst us. If our goal is to awaken ourselves from our roles as worker and consumer, it makes no sense to throw things at the businesses where we make our daily living. Inevitably, within a few business days, “workers” (i.e., us) will dutifully replace the windows and repaint the walls. The food factories, banks, etc., will soon be back in commission and we will soon be shoppers once again. If we want to have a deep effect on the continuity of the system, we must attack it at the level of dreamtime, where play reigns and the only wage earned is measured in wonder.

The true challenge is to awaken the imagination slumbering in the human heart so that we have the faith and the creativity to bring forth a new world. Until we can do that, we will still be praying to walls, stimulating the growth of the same capitalist economy we despise by breaking replaceable windows. If you stop and look before you throw that hammer, you may see your own reflection in the unbroken pane.

A few classmates from CIIS and I attended Occupy Oakland’s General Strike on Wednesday. I meant to report on my experience earlier (in today’s fast-paced world, news gets old within 2 days), but I was unable to gather my thoughts after the day’s (and evening’s) events unfolded. As an intellectual and an introvert, I am usually a bit anxious whenever I get involved in mass movements: nuanced cosmopolitical critique can quickly become lost in the emotionally incendiary uproar of ten thousand marchers. The General Strike was a success overall, but the message of peaceful protest sent around the country and the world would have been that much clearer if it were not clouded by the violence and vandalism of a few asocial anarchists.

Here is what the scene at a local Whole Foods was like on the ground:

Protesters dressed in plain clothes can be seen trying to encourage non-violence while the anarchists dressed in black attacked them, shouting “the peace police must be stopped!”

Here is an NBC video of the scene from the sky.

The extent of my frustration with this small faction of anarchists is hard to express. They succeeded in tainting the symbolic power of Wednesday’s march by giving the main stream media exactly the sorts of images they needed to denounce the movement as chaotic and violent. Is capitalism a violent and oppressive economic system? Yes. But we will never critique it successfully by trying to fight it on its own terms. Only peaceful resistance has the moral power to transform people’s hearts and minds in the way that is needed. Capitalism rules over us because of the alienation, fear, and social fragmentation it encourages. This alienation, experienced by so many “consumers” and workers in this country, is only strengthened by the infantile temper tantrums of anarchists. What is their mission, really? I remain confused and disgusted by their tactics.

Earlier in the day, I personally encountered the group of black-masked anarchists while peacefully occupying a Wells Fargo bank in downtown Oakland. About 50 protesters had already successfully forced the bank to close its doors for the day.

The anarchists were leading a group of normal protesters in the direction of the Whole Foods they would eventually vandalize. Just before passing Wells Fargo, they smashed the windows at the Chase bank next door. Luckily, the peaceful morphic field we had established at the Wells Fargo was enough to discourage them from employing their tactics there. Just prior to their arrival, several of us had started washing the graffiti off the bank’s walls.

Despite these early signs of the violence that would eventually erupt as night fell in Oakland (see the second half of the first video embedded above), the spirit of the march on the port was uplifting and heartfelt. The lack of diversity at the San Francisco march on City Hall several weeks ago became all the more apparent to me as I marched beside people of all colors, classes, and ages.

 

 

 

 

This was not a spoiled white student march; this was the poor and marginalized standing up and giving voice to their oppression.

 

 

It would appear that the Pharonic phase of Western civilization is nearing its end.

At 4pm, after a series of rousing speeches at the general assembly of the Occupy camp in front of City Hall, thousands of us began marching toward the Port of Oakland. The scene upon reaching the overpasses leading to the docks was surreal.

I’ll have more reflections on the economic and political implications later this evening. For now, I leave you with some words of poetic wisdom from PCC‘s own Drew Dellinger:

the total thrust is global justice

The total thrust is
global justice
so we gotta fix the politics
and put a check upon its economics
or before you know it, a warrior-poet
may try to upend the
corporate agenda that’s
got ’em blind to the real bottom line.
It’s intense when you sense the only interests
on the docket
are fat cats with Republi-Crats
in their pocket.
It’s crooked now
just look at how
the pundits are funded.
They’re devious at CBS and, yes,
they’ll choose the news that fits the script unless
I play tricks on the matrix.
(In case you can’t guess shit,
I’m not to be messed with.)
The folks know my art form
comes straight from the heart for ’em.
A lyrical storm that departs from the norm
and transforms as I’m giving
rhymes for the minds in the times that we live in.
I can’t hang with the anguish
and I don’t want my language to languish
’cause there ain’t nothing like Drew’s
hip hop haikus
I got a mandate
to disturb
the urban landscape.

We got tyrannies
right here in these
States,
and you never know
when they’ll go
right back to some tactics
like COINTELPRO.
If we could see through the lies
see how they brutalize
and get cops
to beat speech in the streets
and guard sweatshops.
I’m ending these industries.
Please can we factor the
effect of the
trajectory?
This whole place is racist
and sexist from North
Dakota down to Texas
with the twenty-first century’s
youth in penitentiaries
and the night never seemed this dark
but now half of the stars
are behind prison bars.
Oh say can you see?
But if we can dream a new day it may be.
You had to know the baddest bro
with the phattest flow would shake up the status quo
with my adjectives and adverbs and ad libs.
Like Gandhi
protest is my modus operandi.
It’s like Malcolm and Martin’s
evolution with art
and revolution
’cause the total thrust is
global justice.

I walked to the top of Grand View Park here in the Sunset district of San Francisco. I wanted to clear my head by ascending to the mountaintop, where place expands into space and time transforms into history. History, as we know it, has a beginning and an end. Civilizations, and the cosmopolitical habitats they enact, are always a temporary affair. Their spatial constructions of time into the civilizing myths of liberation from “nature,” “the gods,” or “barbarism,” however, are falsifications of time (see Jean Gebser‘s Ever-Present Origin). As scientific cosmology has tried to suggest, it turns out that time has no beginning or end. Time is creation itself. Time is Origin, in Gebser’s terms. Time is “a moving image of eternity,” in Plato’s terms.

From up there, thoughts were produced in me that conceptually crystalized the Occupy movement. I believe I can see more clearly now that it is a planetary movement that did not begin a month or two ago in New York City; it has been in the works in an occult form everywhere forever. Occupy camp activism is a form of occult amplification: the silenced, the unheard, and the invisible are being given a voice, made audible and visible. What had been privatized is being made public again.

Some complain that Occupy remains a leaderless and somewhat amorphous movement. I do not think it is so much amorphous as polymorphous; and it is precisely this protean and processual nature that defines its demand. Its demand cannot be listed like legislative proposals, since the movement is apolitical at heart (at least in the sense that contemporary “politics” survives in the market-subsumed polis of the global corporatocracy). Occupy rejects all political solutions as part of the problem, since they are made only within the context of techno-capitalist civilization. The economics of this civilizational system have been just as deficient as its politics, since the accumulation of money has now come to supersede the exchange of actual energy in importance. We have an economy designed for Empire and corporations, unfit for Earth and its creatures.

Occupy is rejecting this late industrial capitalist “system” from the ground up. The message the movement is trying to articulate is bound up with the question it is attempting to formulate. It goes something like this: “The civilization of old has failed; now, how are we to (re)make the cosmos?” Answering this question is the ultimate creative act, and amidst a world in decay, it requires the utmost courage.

I do not know to what extent my own cosmopolitical (even cosmotheanthropic) angle here could be readily extracted from polling a sample of Occupy supporters, but to my mind, it is cosmic change that is being demanded, rather than cosmetic re-legislation within the existing order. I phrase the question above as one of creative remaking because I believe our task to be at least partially religious in nature, in the sense of the Latin religare, “to bind.” Our task is profoundly artistic, but we cannot create ex nihilo and expect to flourish within the long established ethos of the Earth Community (see Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story). The ecological catastrophe brought forth by industrialism has already shown the dangers and limitations of any supposed “second nature” created atop the first. Kant suggested that “to know the world we must manufacture it”, thereby neglecting the extent to which, both culturally and biologically, we are creatures of the past, shaped and nourished by the words and worlds we inherit from our ancestors, human and -non.

The re-interpretation of tradition is just as important as the critique of tradition. Perhaps it is true, we needed a good dose of nihilism to fully realize the severity of our collective wrong turn, our civilizational sin. The military horrors and political failures of the 20th century, and the coming trauma of ecosystem collapse (due to the compound crisis of climate change and mass extinction), all continue to remind us of the persistence of chaos and injustice. But I think what would be more helpful at this point is a healthy dose of theology, though theology in the interests of re-establishing a humane cosmology. We need constructive philosophy (like Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology, Enactivism, and Process-Relationalism), but not just that. We need a renewed aesthethical orientation, a sense of the Good and of the Beautiful that corresponds with and even informs our understanding of the True. Metaphysics must be thoroughly soaked in aesthetics, but also in prophetics (i.e., something like the cosmo-ethical cries of the Jewish prophets).

Occupy is not just the protest of a dying kingship, it is also the prophecy of a living kinship to come. It is time to descend from the mountaintop, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to proclaim that Empire is dead, and that Earth is dying. We are responsible for their demise, but can also resurrect and re-imagine a new Heaven and a new Earth. As Amos prophesied, “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth (9:7)…[because] they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…they…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth (2:7). “But,” he continues, we are learning to “let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

I went down to the #Occupy camp here in San Francisco earlier tonight after reading rumors on Twitter about a possible police raid.

I arrived at about 11:30pm, after walking several extra city blocks to Justin Herman Plaza due to the closure of the closest MUNI station at Embarcadero by police to prevent an influx of protestors to this side of the bay from #Occupy Oakland. A rally was held earlier in Oakland in support of those who were violently evicted on Tuesday evening from Frank Ogawa Plaza.

There were about 300-500 people at JH Plaza when I arrived. It was a festive atmosphere. I burned some rosewood incense in support. By 12:30am, there were closer to 1,500 people. Several dudes walking around sending out live feeds with their tablets and laptops. Mic checks. We began practicing forming human chains to protect the camp. Some people offer tips on avoiding tear gas by dousing a towel with vinegar to breathe through.

By 1am, after two false alarms warning of an immanent police attack and several brief announcements of support from local politicians and mayoral candidates, people slowly begin to leave. Crowd shrinking. I decide to head home.

Twitter had been full of rumors all night regarding a police build up on Treasure Island and near Potrero Hill (rumors with photo evidence). The police never showed up at Justin Herman Plaza. Did the people’s show of support (~1.5-2k of them) keep authorities away for one more night? I can’t say for sure what the SFPD had in mind tonight, but for now, #OccupySF lives on.

keeping everyone's batteries charged and wifi connected... #occupy is media ecology at war
tent city.
human chains

Some NYT coverage early Thursday.