Introduction to ‘Echoes of Autonomy’
This is no time to ignore Warnings/This is no time to Clear the Plate/ Let’s not be sorry after the fact and let the past become our fate/This is no time to turn away and drink or smoke some vials of crack/ This is the time to gather force and take dead aim and Attack/This is no time for Celebration/This is no time for Saluting Flags/ This is no time for Inner Searchings/ The future is at hand/ This is no time for Phony Rhetoric/ This is no time for Political Speech/ This is the time for Action because the future’s Within Reach/ This is the time (Lou Reed , ‘There Is No Time’, CD New York 1989)
The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us. (T.W. Adorno).
These essays are born of various contemporary tensions. Today, we live in a historically remarkable kind of tension. On the one hand it is business as usual. Our everyday lives pursue their habitual ways, our personal concerns and worries always at the forefront of our attention, as has been our wont since the first hominids evolved in African forests. The family, work, making ends meet, personal relationships, these are the familiar seas we sail on our little leaky boats, eyes to the compass of habit and tradition, weathering the occasional storms, soldiering on, the only certainty our death at the end of our journey. This is where we invest most of our energies and find our primary sources of meaning. This is where most of our personal and cultural narratives are situated.
On the other hand, we are, however dimly, also constantly aware of a wider reality just beyond our private horizons. We are aware of a wider story, of the world and the mounting urgency of its problems. The media enmesh us in a daily frenetic rush of news ‘grabs’ and sound bites, of mediated events. We are global citizens whether we like it or not. Despite widespread public denial, at some level we all know the world is ecologically and atmospherically endangered. We know that weapons of mass destruction could still be used at any moment. We know that the only certainty these threats carry is the certainty of civilizational collapse and the death of billions. At the same time, all is not always doom and gloom and some of us, at times many of us, may occasionally even sense that another, altogether different and better world is indeed possible.
We thus lead double lives. We lead everyday private lives and yet also have this public awareness, this however shadowy awareness of possible ecocide and the whole realm of ‘politics’ in the widest sense of that word. Some of us may dimly sense that we are at some kind of turning point in human history and planetary evolution, that what we do or do not do now will severely impact the lives both of our own descendants and billions of other people and life forms on the planet. We know billions may unnecessarily die or suffer, and at the same time we know we now have enough knowledge, wealth and resources to finally institute the old human dream of a ‘good society’, a participatory democracy, a socially just distribution of wealth, a self-managed and ecologically sustainable economy living within the planet’s means, bread and roses for all, One World on One Planet. All it would take… And yet…
Mostly we are unaware of all this as if such a full realisation would be simply too much to bear. We seem to lack the drive to act in ways commensurate with the depth and radicality of the problems. As the information constantly floods in and threatens to overwhelm us, we are caught in spectatorship, catastrophe consumption, compassion fatigue or else willingly allow ourselves to be ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). We feel utterly powerless. We turn back to our harried, increasingly time-poor private lives to regain some sense of control or we might engage in helpless displacement activity such as party politics, clicktivism or litter clean ups. Meanwhile industrial capitalism and oligarchic state machines continue to lead the planet towards the abyss.
These essays are a product of, and reflection on, such a double life, on this tension between the private and the public narratives, the powerlessness and potential for self-power and autonomy that makes up the very texture of life in the 21st century. Added to, and often overlayering, this tension are perhaps more personal ones such as those between poetry and prose, feeling and intellect, right brain and left, the Trickster and the scholar activist, urgency and letting go, politics and mysticism, the recurring sense of being both totally within this world and yet not of it. Mirroring these kinds of tension, the essays are necessarily spread out along a kind of fuzzy spectrum that ranges from the dot-point factoid list, social analysis and manifesto to autobiography, the personal reflection and poem, and combinations of both extremes.
These essays are also based on several core assumptions which lie outside what most current mainstream opinion would consider ‘politics’. All of them lie within the tradition of thought and action that can be broadly called that of the anti-authoritarian, libertarian left. The first three assumptions are similar to those postulated for critical social science by Brian Fay:
– That humans are typically unfree, dominated by social conditions and oppressions which they neither understand nor control, a situation of alienation which results in their leading unsatisfactory lives
– That human life need not be this way
– That an increase in knowledge linked to transformative collective action is the way the alienated and oppressed can liberate themselves and thereby better their lot
These three assumptions in turn are implicitly based on a further assumption, namely a deeply humanist view of humans as inherently – both originally and potentially – autonomous and interdependent beings, i.e. as beings desirous and capable of making up their own rules about living together in free association without the need for top-down (heteronomous) order-givers.
The latter condition of collective autonomy is also known as participatory democracy, self-management or ‘anarchism’, the condition of being without rulers (Greek an-arkhos). It is also known more simply as human dignity. As this is a posited transhistorical human trait, it thus knows no borders or cultural walls and is universalist by definition. By this criterion, the prevalent unfreedom in all contemporary societies thus consists in the systemic denial of this inherent autonomy or dignity by both the socio-economic conditions and inequalities set up and maintained by, and in the interests of, the powerful and wealthy AND by the people’s own ‘voluntary slavery’ or psychological alienation from their autonomous selves. The latter point is necessary to avoid both structural determinism and any facile romantisation of potentially dangerous abstractions like ‘the people’, ‘the proletariat’ etc.
If these assumptions are in any way valid, then the collective historical project of freedom, autonomy and participatory democracy automatically raises the question of how we can even begin to confront and transform this overwhelming power of alienating socio-economic conditions and the powerlessness of our voluntary slavery? This is the key question many of these essays ex- or implicitly circle around. ‘Both Progress and the Primitive’ contains the following attempt to briefly answer that question:
For most of us this may seem utterly impossible. The power and violence of the power elites seem too great, the general acquiescence and levels of consciousness too dispiriting. However, the open secret of critical political theory is that the power and legitimacy of the ruling elites is, in the end, based on our acceptance, obedience, conformity, collusion, tacit consent, our voluntary slavery and ‘fear of freedom’ (Erich Fromm). This obedience is thus their Achilles’ heel, the critical fulcrum where we potentially have the most potential leverage for deep yet non-violent social change. The practical key to deep transformation is thus mass civil disobedience and resistance, the retraction and refusal of consent, individual and collective (organised) self-activity and constructive autonomy.
If widely practised, this would be a cultural revolution, a slow, at times accelerated, spreading of anti-authoritarian, independent attitudes and radically democratic, alternative institutions throughout society until they reach a social critical mass and seek, or spread, their own embodiment in new or renewed social institutions and behaviours at all levels. The end result would be a liberated, radically democratic, self-managing society that has integrated the best of capitalist progress and the best of the pre-capitalist past.
Reading this, it may become apparent that I am not really saying anything new. The libertarian, anti-authoritarian and universalist view of humanity and the project of human liberation is the core faith of a great transcultural tradition which stretches from Lao Tzu, Buddha, Diogenes and Socrates through Meister Eckhardt and Winstanley to Blake, Whitman, Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Wilde, Landauer, Goldman and present day libertarian socialists, anarchists and social movements for autonomy, greater equality and self-management.
This tradition belongs not only to philosophers, mystics, poets and artists. Wherever common men and women throughout history have stood up for human dignity, social justice and freedom, have stood up to unjust authority, heteronomy and oppression, this tradition has been materially embodied. These essays are deeply in debt to this seldom mentioned yet living legacy and indeed wish to contribute to greater public knowledge of its existence. Its view of progress, unlike that usually taught to the young, is centered neither on technology nor on great individuals, but on the inherent human capacity for autonomy, for disobedience. In the famous words of Oscar Wilde:
Disobedience in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.
Where I differ from the purely materialist, rationalist and humanist versions of the great libertarian tradition of autonomy is in the latters’ claim that this voluntary slavery and alienation are purely a function of repressive social conditions, and that human liberation is thus purely a matter of social and political liberation. In contrast, most religions, metaphysics and wisdom traditions posit a primal or originary alienation or estrangement from ‘the origins’, from ultimate reality (or ‘God’) and from one’s true identity, an estrangement which is given with the very fact of being human itself. In the radical, mystical version of this perspective, the seeming very essence of human identity, namely language and thought, are also the very means of estrangement from one’s true nature beyond our social persona or ego, beyond history and time. The assumption here is thus that, as Charles Péguy once remarked, although all things may end in politics, they definitely start in something like ‘mysticism’.
The latter term, like that of ‘spirituality’ or ‘socialism’ and ‘anarchism’, is of course now in some disrepute, and for some very good reasons. However, as with the other terms, the danger of uncritically following linguistic fashions or what Freudians call ‘reaction formations’ is always that some very worthy babies may be thrown out with the stagnant or polluted bathwaters.
‘Mysticism’ in the scholarly, philosophical sense is not at all the New Age mumbo jumbo or obscurist spiritualism commonly associated with the word in the public sphere. Some of the modern Enlightenment’s roots are in fact to be found in mystical ‘enlightenment’ traditions. Mysticism in this sense is an experiential metaphysics, a transpersonal psychology and practice not outside science, politics and rational thinking but both within and beyond them, a universal, transhistorical and transcultural field of experience of ultimate reality or truth from which both rationality and religion or poetry in fact emerge and into which they may in turn issue when they have exhausted all their own possibilities of language and symbolism. It is the silence at the heart of all our activity, including the political, the still point of the turning world beyond optimism and pessimism, the mystery of the original freedom within, and without which we would not be able to perceive and reject unfreedom, suffering and alienation whether within or without. When expressed within the inherent limitations of words and ideas, it is necessarily the realm of either negation or paradox. It is as far from politics in the usual sense as you can get, and while a mysticism without politics may be yet another form of elitist escapism from the suffering of the world, a politics which totally ignores it will most likely do so at the cost of shallowness, activist escapism and eventual self-defeat.
To conclude: if, as French poet Paul Valéry argued, optimists write badly, there may be some hope for avoiding too much negative critique of these essays. However, the challenge these essays have set themselves is to succumb neither to a facile optimism nor an equally facile pessimism, but to persevere in maintaining, and trusting, the inherent tensions of life (and poetry) that manifest in unpredictability, ambiguity, irony, humour and paradox, right in the midst of the actual and potential horrors of ecocide. Go figure.
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 13, 2014.
Posted in critical theory, essays, social change, social theory
Tags: anarchism, autonomy, critical theory, essays, libertarian socialism, participatory democracy, progressive mysticism, social theory