Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Church of Conformity

In the lobby during the intermission at classical music concerts, I almost never overhear conversations about the music or the performance. Indeed, observing such audiences mummified in their evening dress, with their vacant stares, suggests a certain shallowness of middle class interest in culture. The concert is more of an occasion to dress up and be seen, a sort of of class ritual. This isn’t very fruitful an insight, except that I immediately drew a parallel with going to church.

I like to think that I’m far from alone in remembering feelings of oppression and bewilderment when I was made to go to church as a kid. Five days of the week I was forced to sit at a desk in a school, enduring a great deal of boredom for the sake of very little actual learning. The weekend should have been a break, but on Sunday mornings I was dressed up in a suit and tie (hot and uncomfortable) and taken to church. “Sunday school” was not school in any meaningful sense. The little we were “taught” made no sense; mostly we were just baby-sat. As for church itself, if anyone remembers sitting on wooden pews, standing and singing horrid and incomprehensible songs, and listening to the pretentious babbling of a bore in a black gown as a pleasurable experience, I would like to meet him.

I always assumed that the church experience was meant to signify religious truth in some way. Being a precocious child, I set to work reading the Bible, and although I was often confused and disturbed—especially by the Old Testament—I sensed the titanic nature of the text, the assumption of overwhelming importance and gravity in almost every line. Subconsciously I felt a great distance between the goings-on in church and the world view of the holy book. Sunday service was quite patently mediocre and petty, even to a young mind, whereas the Bible had a huge, looming, dramatic presence that quite dwarfed anything ever said or sung in church.

Only much later in life did I see, in a way that the analogy with the classical music concertgoer makes vivid, that church was not experienced as significant in religious terms, but as a social event with a purely social meaning. Going to church meant that you were an upstanding, normal member of society. It signified one’s status as a conforming member of an acceptable group. It also reassured parents that their kids would continue in the path of normality. The “values” assumed under the rubric of religion were primarily general cultural values, such as obedience to authority, sexual restraint, and (to some degree) helping behavior. They were only religious in the most abstract sense. And to continue the analogy with the concertgoers, I never heard parishioners discussing religion on the steps after service. I got the feeling that it would have been considered embarrassing to do so.

I’m sure there were, and are, exceptions, but I think the exceptions prove the rule. My experience was with mainstream Protestantism. I didn’t notice much difference when I talked to my Catholic friends. I’m not sure how different it might be in the Jewish traditions. I suspect that it’s fairly universal, though, simply because the true religious impulse is not a common one. The idea that it could become common, that devotion to God, spiritual fervor of one sort or another, could become the status quo, has proven illusory. Most people just want to live their lives in reasonable comfort without bothering about the “big questions.” This has always been acknowledged at some level—in the ancient pagan traditions there were regular worshippers and initiates; in the Catholic Church the monastic orders were set apart from the laity, and so on. It’s only that the gradual advance of reason and science has made the forms of organized religions seem increasingly irrelevant to the real needs people have for social cohesion.

Fundamentalist Christianity was in many respects a “non-conformist” movement in the sense that it decried the lack of passion in the church, the lack of religious meaning in the church service. The fundamentalists brought enthusiasm back into the service for white Christians. (The black church is an entirely different matter—social and political conditions channeled spiritual passion there.) The Pentecostals and their like defied the upper middle class decorum of the mainstream churches, and in that respect seem like more of a lower middle class or sometimes even a working class phenomenon. On closer inspection, however, we find that fundamentalists are still wedded to a vision of social conformity, and that their religious doctrines follow from that vision rather than the other way around. There is a sense of great anxiety about liberal social change. The intense anger around feminism, abortion, and gay rights, for instance, is not centered on religious passion, although they think it is. The Bible has simply become the authority figure which absolves the worshiper of reason and responsibility—the written “word of God,” because it is does not require anything except obedience, is a handy tool for conformity to the social norm. For all their sound and fury, the fundamentalists do not mark a significant change in church culture. All they did was give it a sharpened political edge that isolated church members within their group through a shared sense of threat from secular forces outside. But when it comes to secularism, they pick and choose what to accept and reject—embracing the social Darwinism of predatory capital while fighting against scientific Darwinism because it threatens the centrality of man in the cosmic narrative.

I believe that all the stages of culture are present in any current stage. Children will always be pagans, and it is folly to bind them in suits and take them to church, and nothing less than cruel to deny them fairy tales, Halloween, and Harry Potter. For adults, however, I think that the church experience is becoming useless at best and harmful at worst. I have no idea what more healthy forms of social cohesion are going to look like, except that they will have to foster and reflect a more humane social order.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Immortal Soul

It was raining as I ran along the silent road. When I came to the crossing place I saw them. My mind spun, my body convulsed. Those piles of bloated flesh, reeking with stench, used to be my mother, my father, my brother. All the refugees had been lined up on the embankment and shot. The immortal soul.

You will never understand. You may turn away, or you may ask questions. You may be silent, or you may cry out. But you will never understand. We, the survivors, are now forever separate from you.

Whoever says the words “noble cause,” “brave men and women,” “honor,” “glory,” “victory,” or “not in vain,” you are lying to me. You who are standing in church with your hand on your heart, praising the lord of war, you are a gravedigger. Empty stone sanctuary, religion of the vultures and crows, you have nothing. Your holy whispers are useless and end in agony.

Because we survived this time, we think it’s all a story. My mother, father, brother, they say nothing. The survivors tell stories. We fools, we ragged jesters. We too are bloated, stench-filled piles. The immortal soul.

In the name of what, I ask, are living beings turned into things, just trash to be cleared away? Am I to believe that a child, nursed and loved by a mother, raised and taught and treasured for so many days of care, years of priceless cherishing; a living, breathing soul with a universe of feelings, thoughts, dreams, and dances contained in the heart and pulse and in the brilliant eyes; is all for nothing but to be pierced or crushed or suddenly blown to pieces by some stupid bomb? Do you really believe? What is the measure of our indifference? And for what—a piece of earth, a box made of gold? I reject your sacrifice.

I will not cheer your uniforms. I will not salute or wave your flag. Your monuments I will avoid. I turn my back on the parade. I walk away, without looking back, even when you call me. You must cross the gulf of silence between us on your own. I have no more stories to tell you, hopeless immortal souls.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

History Lessons

Of all the subjects taught in elementary and secondary education, history is the most primitive. For when it comes to history, we teach children the pretenses that man has given for his actions as if they were the substance, and for the most part communicate the truth only subliminally.

Beginning with Mesopotamia and Egypt, we follow a wearying succession of states, wars, and empires. The details can of course be entertaining, but the simplicity of the truth is obscured by the many names, dates, and actions. What is an empire, for instance? Why did Alexander bother to go on a rampage from Macedonia through the Middle East all the way to India? Wouldn’t it have been less of a bother to just stay home and enjoy life? The student would get a complex answer to this, I’m sure, but here is my answer: Macedonia saw the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions, so they did. A few centuries before, Persia had seen the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions in Greece, so they tried and failed.

The point is: it’s stealing.

Stealing is taking what you want by force. Applying this principle to political science in general, we see that states and kingdoms were based on groups of people forcing other groups of people to do what they want. Sometimes what they wanted was good, relatively speaking—a more peaceful and organized state rather than a chaotic warlord-type state, for example. The principle I’m laying out is more fundamental than whatever good or bad results you might get. It’s simply the principle of force. As the last line of defense, so to speak, in the social order, after persuasion, indoctrination, promises and agreements have failed, there is just force. We will force you to do what you don’t want to, or punish you by force for doing what we don’t want you to do.

Children understand this at a deep level, but it’s seldom spelled out so clearly. The parent will impose his or her will on the child through physical restraint or the infliction of pain. The parent also teaches morality of some kind, ideals and principles of good behavior. But when push comes to shove (how revealing is that phrase?) the child will be forced to comply with the parent.

However (and there are thousands of years of history contained in this “however”), the wills and desires of human beings are various, and with will and desire comes a sense of freedom and justice. I’m referring to the simplest kinds of feelings, not the great ideals fashioned later from these words. Freedom is the basic pleasure of action, of following my desire and perhaps attaining it. Justice is the sense that my freedom is respected and that my will is recognized by others. When someone else—who has will and desire as well, but also more power than I, more access to force—when someone else makes me do something against my will, or prevents me from doing something I want to do, it is experienced as the opposite of free or just. When someone takes something away from me by force, it is felt acutely as unjust, and this is perhaps the most basic experience of injustice there is.

The dilemma of humanity in the development of civilization becomes this: How can we have an organized society without bondage and injustice? This is often modified to mean: with a minimum of bondage and injustice. In a nutshell, the principle of force seems to contradict our humanity in essential ways.

The dominant school, today and for most of history, claims that force is not a contradiction at all, as long as it works efficiently. From monarchism down to fascism, this strain of thought vigorously persists. The competing schools of thought claim that the principle of force is something to be overcome, or at least reined in, so that higher principles (freedom, justice, love) can prevail in society.

What I find interesting is that even from the authoritarian point of view, force tends to be disguised in idealistic terms. Honor, glory, and fame have been the trappings of force since Homer, and they are still worn today. Heroism, bravery, courage—these describe the incredible risks of life and limb taken by those fighting in the cause of theft. In the modern age, the words are borrowed from the non-authoritarian traditions: we fight for freedom, democracy, human rights, peace. The old words have lost something of their power because of the memory of mass murders that boggled our minds, such as in the Holocaust. So these newer idealistic words need to be brought in for service. Our troops are fighting for our freedoms, right? If you say they’re fighting for oil, that’s considered an affront to the soldiers.

When a nation fights in its own defense, then the war is considered “just,” and rightly so from that relative point of view. World War II is considered a “good” war by Americans, because we were fighting against those who sought to enslave us. But if we are not to be entangled in our own rhetoric, we must acknowledge the big picture: World War II was started the old-fashioned way: a group of people (Germany, Japan) saw the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions, and they went ahead and did it. Notice, however, that the Germans clothed their murder and theft with idealistic words: purity, fatherland, destiny, and so forth.

The contradiction therefore remains, as evidenced by the need for those wielding power to disguise the naked character of force with ideas of a more exalted nature. So the child reading an American history book, at least in my day (there have been modifications since then), learns that Europeans “discovered” America, explored it, and colonized it. The English colonists eventually broke away from their mother country because they wanted political freedom. They owned black slaves in America, and eventually there was a Civil War in the United States that freed them. The implications of this history can only be sensed subliminally by the student, for the most part—a student with a critical and inquiring mind (a rarity) will intuit the meaning in the gaps of light darting between the obfuscating mists of the textbook.

My 7th grade history teacher made an effort to head such inquiries off at the pass—he told us that Africans were actually much better off in America than they had been in their miserable grass huts in Africa. There is a need on the part of the social order to turn history into a narrative in which everything is “ok,” at least in terms of “our” country, whatever that may be. Sure, there was slavery, but it was better than slavery in Brazil, and eventually it worked out and justice prevailed. This imperative of the social order manifests as a political pathology in which nothing can be “wrong” about one’s country. The authoritarian is invested in his country as “great”—better than other countries. The reality of power is minimized in order to instill pride. If you point out injustice in history, you’re being unpatriotic and denigrating the country.

A history book written from the sole point of view of force might be a very short one. A summary would perhaps be something like this: When people formed into cities and nations, they created structures by which groups of people forced the rest of people to do things the way they wanted them done. The more power was amassed by these groups of people, the more they needed in order to sustain power. So they organized more efficient ways of theft—mass killings and thefts known as wars. Some people got so good at this that they gained power over huge areas known as empires. The Romans developed methods of warfare that allowed them to steal on an unprecedented scale, and their empire lasted for many centuries. Other societies followed the same pattern, to a greater or lesser degree.

When the countries of Europe had developed their technology to a certain point, they discovered the existence of other countries in parts of the world of which they had previously been unaware. They saw the opportunity for stealing vast areas of land, and huge possessions, and therefore went ahead and invaded these countries. In order to develop these stolen lands more quickly and to greater profit, they enslaved millions of people from Africa and forced them to work on the stolen lands. A few centuries later, they went into Asia and Africa and stole every bit of land they could, dividing these places up between themselves so they could steal more efficiently.

Eventually the competition between the various thieving European countries proved to be so intense that they could no longer cooperate at all, and they got to killing and stealing from each other on a mass scale, which was known as the Great War. This didn’t really resolve the issue, so a few decades later there was another killing and stealing spree that was even more terrible than the first. This time Japan had caught the fever, and made a bid for big thief status along with Europe. Luckily the more humane countries ended up winning the Second World War, but by this time the people in the stolen countries had organized and decided to reclaim their lands and possessions. Gradually they succeeded, although there was a lot of thieving and bloodletting in the process. When the dust settled from World War II, the two countries with the most power left entered into a contest to see who would survive, and they used smaller wars to try to attain this. Technology had advanced to the point where the weapons could quickly destroy everybody in the world, so that made world wars much less desirable for stealing. Eventually the United States emerged as the most powerful thief in the world. Since that time, they have been struggling to consolidate and expand their stolen goods by maintaining a higher level of force than any other country.

This overview of the history of empires is of course very general. One must keep in mind that all the people everywhere, not just in Europe, experienced periodic instances of killing and stealing in order to maintain and expand power and possession. Moreover, by focusing on wars and conquests, it is easy to lose perspective on humanity as a whole. While all this was going on, people were also maintaining families and communities, enjoying themselves, creating culture, sharing ideas, and so forth. It’s just that the farther away from the individual we stand as an historian, the more we consider the actions of humanity en masse, the more important mass killing and theft becomes—the more evident, that is, becomes the principle of force.

Most people would be horrified by such a history book. I would imagine that a teacher who instructed students in this way would be hounded out of his or her job by enraged parents and politicians. There is an investment in hiding the principle of force. Such things as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” would be much more difficult to implement if a majority of people were to see through the language of empire. The entire narrative of military honor, honoring of troops, memorializing the war dead with parades and speeches, the very logic of war as an answer to our problems, would be terribly weakened if the curtain were lifted from empire.

In that case we would be faced once again with the question of how force can be reconciled with freedom and justice. We could at least consider this question together with a certain degree of clarity. Who knows what answers we would come up with? At least we would be asking the question again, the question with which philosophy, religion, political science, ethics, and art have grappled for thousands of years. But first we must acknowledge that such a question exists, and to do that we must clear our minds of attractive and comforting lies.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 3)

Most Christian philosophers in the centuries before Protestantism believed that faith was in accord with reason. Since God created reason, it was an offense to God’s wisdom to maintain that the truth contradicted logic. If we turn to that exemplar of scholastic theology Thomas Aquinas, for instance, we witness a rigorous definition of God that is almost wholly consistent with the process of Aristotelian reasoning. The logic and structure of Aquinas’ thought in this regard is impeccable. Drawing on Aristotle’s proof of the “unmoved mover,” Aquinas explains God as the absolute reality itself. And despite the traditional attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, this God of Aquinas is primarily conceivable in negative terms: without limit or condition of any kind, either in terms of time and space or the conditional abstractions of thought.

In doing so, Aquinas ends up with a God that, for all intents and purposes, is identical to what I call “reality itself,” the context of all conditions being unconditioned. Language and tradition still implied an entity or “Supreme Being” as the moderns came to call it, but it’s doubtful how seriously such an implication should be taken in Aristotelian terms, since such a “being” necessarily involves conditions. What is more glaringly obvious, however, is that language and tradition involved the use of the personal pronoun “He” and all that implies, with its historical background in the Bible, including the Lord of the Old Testament, the Father of the New Testament, and every other personal formulation in the Christian faith. Aquinas never pointed out the metaphorical nature of such language. We can only assume, based on the iron-clad nature of his logic, that he was aware of it, but there is no actual evidence of this. It would be impossible to point such a thing out at the time, because challenging the literal truth of the personal God would be dangerous, possibly heretical. As a man who was thoroughly at home in the culture of the Church, Aquinas would probably not be aware of a contradiction. The distinction between the truth of reason and the truth of revelation was a convenient boundary protecting the philosopher from questions regarding the role of metaphor in religion.

In any case, it doesn’t take a genius to notice, now that science and the secular have created some breathing room for our capacity to reason, that the god of the philosophers, the Godhead, Being itself, this ultimate principle, if you will, of reality, is not at all the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is in all respects a personality, with desires and moods and specific plans for specific nations and people. A better case could be made for the Father of the New Testament, who at least takes a more symbolic role in the theological drama, but then we have the very human figure of Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be God incarnate in the form of man or begotten Son. We not only have the tension between an impersonal and personal conception of God, as the 19th century Indian guru Ramakrishna liked to talk about, but a tension between God as absolute truth and God as a very specific personality. The personal Christian God is involved in history, like an actor performing an essential part in a cosmic play. And in this God’s relationship to his worshipers, a huge variety of human interactions and feelings are reflected.

Spinoza was one of the first to point out the difference between the mythical, cultural God of scripture, and the actual God, which he considered to be the same as Nature. Pascal, his contemporary, famously chose to have faith in the Biblical God rather than the philosopher’s God. By any rational measure, he was wrong, but it’s important to understand why such a great intellect would make such a choice. It is because the personal God allows the human as such, which includes the entire range of thought, emotion, and action, especially including love, to be experienced as cosmically valid, as real, significant, and meaningful. The God of the philosophers swallows the human up, along with everything else, in infinity.

I have taken this brief stroll through the struggles of western philosophy and Christianity in order to arrive at a central point. The creation of the God “out there” who watches us, the personal deity embraced by the theist in alternations of love and fear, is a product of a primeval form of alienation. The helpless subject confronted by the all-powerful and enduring objective world lies at the core of human duality. I argue that it is identical in origin to the idea of the soul trembling before the possible annihilation of death. When subjectivity recognizes that it is already not separate, when the absolute it seeks is realized to be already that which has been seeking, there is no more contradiction. The impersonal and the personal are the same. The “I and Thou” of the encounter is still present as a form of spiritual practice. At the same time, however, the entire superstructure of “literal” truth, with all its mythological baggage, is revealed as poetry. This is the point at which we will have to part ways with the orthodox of all stripes, because the insistence on “belief” is now meaningless to us, but still has an overriding significance to those who cling to the power principle and all the repressions of the social order.

Those of us who find that we are unable or unwilling to use the word “God,” or to employ theistic language in our spirituality, and I count myself among that group, need have no compunction about dropping personal deities from our practice and our daily lives. There is so much cultural pressure in the West around the “God” complex that it has become very difficult to separate oppressive structures and notions from our use of that kind of language. For one thing, there is a constant affirmation of male power with practically no corresponding affirmation of female power. In addition, associations from childhood or from abusive and addictive religious beliefs and practices can even block one’s ability to access an “I-Thou” form of encounter.

Buddhism is the one example of a world religion that did away with most theistic forms of thought, along with reliance on beliefs based on “being” of one sort or another. It is, however, a tradition with its own history, cultural associations, and problems. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a part of any religious organization or group in order to have a spiritual life. At the same time, I have learned from all the traditions, including the ancient and so-called “pagan” ones, insights and practices that are beneficial. Ultimately none of it matters unless I make the initial connection between “self,” subjectivity, consciousness, and what I call the unconditioned nature of reality. It is the “in here” and “out there” that constitutes the binding illusion, and it is felt as fear and denial of death. If the Divine is something separate from me, then that separation might as well be an infinite distance. “Something” with which I have no direct contact cannot have a real effect on me outside of the vagaries of abstract thought. When those vagaries are seen for what they are, one may choose to pick up one form of traditional metaphor or another, or let go of them all. It doesn’t matter. For the knower, for what we somewhat inaccurately call the “mystic,” the experience becomes radically simple, and the language with which it is expressed is often simple as well: love, consciousness, ecstasy, compassion, service, surrender, celebration.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Humanism For Dummies

Lawrence J. Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, was paid $193 million last year. If we go down the list of highest-paid executives a little, just for perspective, we see that no. 14, Steven A. Burd of Safeway, took home $67 million in a single year. On the list of richest Americans, choosing at random, we discover that Orange County developer Donald Bren, number 20, has a net worth of $12 billion. We also notice that positions 4 through 7 are occupied by members of the Walton family, those folks that gave us Wal-Mart, with a combined net worth of about $93 billion.

My initial reaction, my mental reflex, if you will, is “How unfair.” But if I stop and pay closer attention, a more interesting thought—a question, really—emerges: “What in the world could any one person do with that much money?”

Even allowing for the most fantastically excessive luxury—multiple homes, cars, and so forth—there is a limit to how much one can enjoy materially. I wonder, then, if the rest is simply saved for the perpetual comfort of the family—an inheritance to one’s descendants that will last for generations. But the huge amount of capital involved is grossly out of proportion to any such planned security, and the wealth still exceeds human desires even when divided up among progeny.

The real reason is simple, although it opens up wide avenues for thought. Wealth is not merely a means for possessing material things, but the means to power. And I’m not talking about personal power, the power of an individual to control his conditions. Nor am I referring to political power in the narrow sense, even though many rich people, such as Michael Bloomberg (no. 8 on the net worth list at $20 billion), choose that form of enjoyment. To be sure, people like the Waltons have only the most limited kind of private interest in mind when they act, but I maintain that they truly operate on a principle that is unconscious, and does not need to be conscious in order to be effective: power as the interest of their class. It matters little whether or not someone is born into a class, or in the case of the so-called self-made man, works his way “up” to it. The class system works according to its own laws because it is a principle of social organization that determines action, economic or otherwise, regardless of our intent.

Recently, for instance, we have seen the phrase “spreading the wealth” used negatively to characterize proposals to increase taxes on the rich in order to repair the economy. One could make a reasonable argument that a more even distribution of wealth would be good for business—consumers would have more income, and would therefore be able to spend more money on goods and services, which makes more money for corporations, therefore achieving greater stability in the system. The rich will still, for the most part, oppose such ideas, not only because the logic of “the market” always presupposes maximum short-term profit as the greater good, but because greater economic equality is a threat to class itself as a determining factor in society. When we internalize class as “the way things are,” anything that makes the class system more fluid threatens our sense of stability. The irony of “individualism” as preached by American conservatives is that it subordinates the diversity of individual goals to the blind mass of economic determinism. Power supports the stability and authority of the system. It does not support “freedom,” despite all the lip service paid to it. Individual freedoms are maintained only by the constant vigilance and effort of individuals who are aware of and find value in other principles besides power.

In the section of Capital entitled “The Working Day,” Marx enumerated the suffering, destitution, and death experienced by workers under industrial capitalism. The entire chapter has a tone of outrage and indignation, strikingly different from the analytical tone of most of the rest of the book. Yet Marx never bothered to explain why we should be indignant. He fashioned an ideology of “historical materialism” that ended up rejecting humanist values as impotent bourgeois sentiment and mysticism. Since economic conditions determine value, human beings are inevitably a means towards the achievement of economic ends—in Marx’s case, communism—and there is no explicit reason to be indignant about the historical process as it works out. Consequently, those countries that have attempted to use Marxism as an alternative social structure have merely created a different form of the class system. It never seemed to have occurred to Marx, for instance, that the party itself, and its military and police power, could constitute a ruling class, but we witnessed just that result in Russia and China. Without even the “bourgeois” notion of individual freedom to stand in the way of “progress,” the Marx-inspired governments committed murders and cruelties on a mass scale, while mouthing grotesque slogans of victory for the “people.”

This line of thought may seem like a diversion, but I have briefly discussed Marxism as way to make a larger point. Economics are only one aspect of the human as such. As the power principle that determines social organization, it is a failure. With money as the center of human striving, the reality of existing individuals becomes a mere means towards the maintenance of power. The reason we are indignant about poverty, hunger, and all their attendant sufferings, is not because of mysticism or “bourgeois” illusions. It is because human life as it is actually lived and experienced is in itself the only true end, encompassing all realms of emotion, relationship, affection, intellect, and enjoyment. Our environment, especially including the food that sustains us, is a gift from nature that belongs to us by right and not by the prerogatives of avarice, competition, or war. The same holds true for shelter and physical health, which are the inherent responsibilities of a human community. The subjective values of freedom of thought and movement, of self-determination and psychic well-being, also spring from a need inherent in human nature as such. Law is necessary to maintain the stability of care, respect, and nurturance as assumed values. Law became arbitrary and oppressive because power became the primary principle of society rather than a means towards these ends. In the end, the class system expresses an undeveloped animal instinct that has never matured into a truly human form of social organization. The perennial struggle for a just society is a gigantic attempt to evolve from a pre-human way of life.

I call my point of view, for lack of a better term, humanism. The daunting challenge posed by humanism is that it exists primarily as an aspiration in the hearts of men and women, and finds only fitful expression in religion, the arts, and other forms of culture, all of which have been infected at the same time with inhuman forms based on the power principle. Because the entire record of history is almost exclusively that of class, the humanist is always in a position of uncertainty, of a striving towards the unknown which is often only dimly seen. With dreams of utopia come the dangers of ideology—once again, we build a prison when we imagine ourselves as means towards an ultimate social end. The futility of the utopian enterprise leads the humanist, in the modern age, the age of arrogance, to the refuge of anarchism.

Anarchism has of course, been turned into just another scare word, a threat of social dissolution. But what is extremely valuable in anarchist thought is that it rejects the economic definition of the human being. An anarchist consciously maintains a subjective independence from class as a value. An important consequence of this is an affirmation of ourselves as we are now, in the present, as inherently valuable and important. As a leftist, I have often experienced a great weariness in the midst of a constant struggle towards social justice and equality—in the face of agonizingly slow progress in the long term and constant defeat in the short, leftists can become grim, humorless, and bitter. We often become obsessed with the “enemy,” consumed with anger at the opponents of freedom. It is easy to see how we can become that which we hate, daydreaming about trials and firing squads and the settling of accounts. I have heard progressives say that we should waterboard Dick Cheney, architect of the recent American torture policy, and they are not aware of a contradiction when they say it.

The anarchist rejects this joyless march to the future in favor of an affirmation of the possibilities of freedom, love, and enjoyment in the present. This does not preclude social action; rather, it grounds such action in a conscious awareness of human value and well-being as existing realities that can find expression today.

Another essential aspect of the anarchist view is the rejection of work as a dominant value. The class system assumes that two-thirds of our life should be spent working. What are we doing and creating that is so valuable that it takes up most of our time? We’re just oiling the machine so it will keep running. A majority of the labor is deadening to our faculties and devoid of pleasure. The class system creates a chimera of “prosperity,” an illusory wealth that goes largely unenjoyed. Anarchism takes a stance outside of work; posits work as a minor aspect of life that in any case should be a means towards actual well-being in the present.

The modern humanist, then, must take a radical position in order to validate the human as such. This is not an arbitrary choice—we either value ourselves as we are, or we don’t, and the affirmative choice is one of necessity if we are to be both aware and happy in our awareness. The bad news is that justice and equality cannot be imposed from “above” by rearranging power relations according to theory, although progress within the system in order to relieve suffering and provide a kind of “breathing room” is generally to the good.

The good news is that at least we know where the solution lies—within ourselves. We must understand, however, that “ourselves” does not refer to a mass of atomized individuals, but to the only reality that matters, and consequently the only value worth having.