July, 2011 Archives
by aragorn in personal
I’m thinking a lot about what we (in the US) get absolutely wrong in (anti)politics as I am traveling in Europe. My last piece was about sociability and the structural difficulties in working with other people in the US context of no commons, people passing through, and the near requirement to full time work for survival (in much of the country). This time I am going to talk about consciousness and the suffocation of radicals by moralism usually learned from the protestant upbringings of most of the US but also from the newer religions of secularism and counter-cultural politics. Consider this a draft of some ideas that I will try to expand on later.
More importantly it is a self-criticism and a break from my own past & choices. You can laugh as long as you are not sanctimonious about it. I still believe in drawing lines.
I spent a lot of time digging into the cultural implications of the religions of Europe. My review is cursory and based on the limitations of my contacts in Euro-radicalism but I feel confident on the level of observing some differences that are worth sharing without pressing too hard on any conclusions. For starters, most of the people I have met haven’t really even thought about the issue. Perhaps this is true in the US also but my experience growing up in the northern Bible Belt instilled a certain necessity of understanding the impact of religion on cultural & social life. I’ll be specific and talk about a couple generalizations from around the country.
The major protestant religions in the US are Calvinism, baptist, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. There are a scattering of Anglicans (although I’ve never met one), Amish, congregational, etc but these are the major ones. My specific history is with Calvinists (meaning I grew up around them but I’ve never even been to one of their services) and here is a nutshell on what differentiates them from other Christians.
- all people are depraved and incapable of following God on their own. They require guidance.
- predestination aka God already knows who is going to heaven
I’m sure they believed other things but these two things alone is enough to realize what a cold and formidable religion this is. As a result they created cold and formidable things in my town that largely dominated the psychic landscape. The children who broke with their religion (and eventually returned) tended to classic (aka boring) breaks; inebriated, sex starved monsters. Passionate moments to reflect on during later lives of monotony and cold, as shame is a warm emotion.
Baptists are creatures of a different suit entirely. Where the Calvinists are tight and disciplined in their impoverishment the baptists are fairly wild in theirs. Much of what we understand to be characteristics of the American personality are, in fact, Baptist traditions. Specifically the four freedoms (which most Baptists accept) which basically boil down to the idea that your soul and salvation are a reflection of your individual relationship with the savior (and your interpretation of the holy of holiest scriptures). Baptists don’t need anyone but their bible and Jesus which is about as American of a doctrine as I can imagine.
The orthodox & Catholics
These two religions vary wildly from the protestants. So much so that it is hard to believe they all are into the same zombie myth at all.
The Catholics are the original recuperators, taking whatever cultural artifact they encountered and rebranding it. The result is a conservatism that would be seemingly inherent in a 2000 year old institution. In Spain and France the role of the Church seems be entirely defending the cultural, social, and political gains it has achieved over that time. There is no real sense of a missionary zeal in these countries, only old buildings and a certain sense that the world is passing it by, but it doesn’t matter because it is the world-in-itself.
The orthodox are fascinating to someone who hasn’t been around their particular brand of archaic outfits and long beards. As exotic to someone from the US as the Muslims these people are the original Christians (the split was at the council of Nice and the composition of which texts were to be in the holy book we’ve been plagued with every since). A cultural artifacts that are notable with the Orthodox is the priest vow of poverty. This is also true with the Catholics but their thousands of years of hypocrisy make them a little harder to take seriously. With the (Greek at least) Orthodox this isn’t exactly the case and more importantly continues to be a social/cultural imperative. Greek society does not link wealth with holiness in the way that several Protestant sects do and the difference is real. Yes, it makes anarchists seem less crazy, but it also places the small business owner at the center of the Greek imagination.
Another example of this is to examine the prevalence of security cameras in each country. Greece has a very low number of security cameras with a generalized social repulsion to the idea that public space, and individual people in that space, should be recorded. This is somewhat related to a discussion of their tradition between the relationship between Idols and icons but as was described to me the Greek “face” (the actual human face of a Greek person) has a value that cannot be recorded. I can’t make this shit up.
Contrast this to Northern Europe, especially the UK where you cannot travel without being imaged by CCTV 300 times a day which likely correlates to the weakly ideological nature of the Anglicans requiring a process to verify trust. But also to the Calvinist Dutch who actually pedagogically believe that privacy is irrelevant because judgement is only possible from God who can see everything anyway).
Obviously I’m not painting enough of a picture here but the premise I’m working on is that both the Catholic & Orthodox are much older, sedate religions (even if they ostensibly worship the same bearded guy) than the Protestant one’s I know in the States. The impact resonates in the cultures themselves.
The even newer religions
I don’t believe that there will be a holy war led by these old religions. Not in my lifetime and probably never again. I would not say the same about some of the Protestants but I think it is quite likely that they will continue with their mainstreaming strategy (public participation in political and cultural crafting of the US) along with nurturing their lunatic fringe. I also will not say the same about other identity-religions.
Before I begin I’ll caveat. I believe I will make a stronger criticism of identity-politics another time. At this point I am scrabbling about myself, figuring out a way to distance myself from my own sense of false unity and self-betrayal that has surrounded my own participation the lie that we understand as identity. And the confusion we (in the US) have suffered from the secular mantra of the “personal is political” never realizing we were actually just repeating the gospel of Luke in different words (cite 1 and 2).
The formation of synthetic identity will be the new terrain for holy wars in this century. It may not be the vegans vs the paleolithic diet, instead it may be the equally fabricated Wahabi or Westboro Baptist Church that sets it off. What is important to argue is that the ideology of nation-as-identity is fading fast. I am not American and nearly no one on the globe is fighting for the glory of their own Nation-State (with a very few exceptions of course). But I have been, on the other hand, a handful of other labels that I was willing fight for yet didn’t have any tie to bind me but my own belief in them.
This auto-generation masks an existential point. We crave people. I craved some sense of place (meaning people) since there was no real place for me in the place I came from. In our search for place we attach ourselves to identity as a way to find a common vocabulary, a way to find people, and mission accomplished, we usually find them. It takes nearly a decade (measuring for instance the average lifespan of a punk, anarchist, or vegan) for most of us to realize that the unity that we have in these synthetic identities isn’t real connection, place, or enough to fill the loss. Especially since these new programs don’t have the infrastructure to fake real they have yet formed significant militias, creches, or old age homes.
A new moral framework with the added benefit of the illusion of Real Human Life ™. It also is a fair restatement of many substantial critiques of “the subcultural” which is why I want to be clear that what I’m saying is not a dismissal of people who participate in (sub, anti, or counter)-culture. I get it and I’m not trying to distance myself from the need that contra-culture represents. Instead I am saying that I realize now that this need isn’t possible to fill, not with one synthetic identity or another, not with religion, not with family.
This means that while I still have some connection with my contra-cultural past it is entirely on the level of liking the same music, sharing a preference for good food, and liking the same books. I am no longer set of terms but something else… perhaps just another person whose frustration with the language and so many of the people I have met along the way has just grown stale.
How I would rather put it is that the new post-secular religions haven’t improved on the source material in a significant way and draw far more from it than they would like to believe. Veganism isn’t going to change the world, end animal suffering, or much of anything at all except fill a different set of people’s pockets. DIY hasn’t made people particularly engaged with their own life, hasn’t slowed down the flow of products from China, and done much of anything except fill a different set of people’s pockets. Anarchist hasn’t created much anarchy.
So here we are, left in the rubble of Christianity. Anarchists have, by and large, avoided religion as a topic for criticism for the past 50 years out of some misguided tolerance but this has been a mistake. Religion, in the form of morality and Christianity, absolutely frames us. Our counter-cultures, our radical politics, our missionary zeal and our acts of contrition are all fruits of a poisoned tree. In the past I have called this tree European thought, but that is perhaps too abstract to be helpful. Perhaps this rant against religion and the way that it permeated everything that we believe is a little bit more grounded, but probably not.
by aragorn in personal
I have been traveling Europe for the past few months and have another month left before I head back to the States (and the large pile of collapsing projects that await me). Radicals in the US often have a great deal of envy regarding the social movements and general scale and quality of the actions that happen in Europe compared to the US. Usually this is attributed to the history, education, or continued maintenance of radical movements all of which I have found to be true and quite different than my experience in the US. I am not sure there is much we can do about these facts though, at least in the time I have left on the planet. I do think there is something that can be done with the other significant difference I have found between the US and Europe, which is social life.
To put it simply the Europeans (with notable differences in each country) have a healthier social life, than we do in the US, both with their comrades, families, and the strangers on the street than we do in the US. I will try to examine some of the reasons why I think this is the case but obviously I feel like I can only speak to what I have seen which is the social life between comrades and not the full range of Euroradical social life. I will also try to talk about what I think we can do about it.
Remarks on the US & me
American social life is horribly fractured and alienated. I don’t say this as some critique of this or that faction within my general circles but as a statement of fact. Most people experience others only in the institutions that shape our lives; school, work, and church. As one ages there is a certain trajectory that propels one to shed the relationships of the past and to grow more and more isolated. More orientated towards sociability through work or family than anything else. Of course many find themselves isolated from the very start–only meeting like-minded people online and not finding people in real life satisfying or close. Whether by the Internet or the adage that OPS (other people suck) the dominant social experience in the US is lonliness.
For political people1 this social alienation corrolates to our inability to oppose the impact of the institutions that frame our existance, to oppose those institutions themselves. If each of us has only a certain amount of capacity that we use to understand, criticize, and then possibly take action against the existing order it makes sense that to the extent that we are alone(ish) we are less potent than we would be with others.
I feel as though I have mixed up my priorities as I have devoted far more time to my personal intellectual growth than to social connections. This isn’t to say that I wish I had done more activism or gone to more clubs but I do wish that I would have seen this problem (of alienation) from a distance and started working on more relaxed social solutions a decade ago. Instead my work has been on tighter and more disciplined approaches to lonliness. I don’t blame the Internet for this, I blame the fact that I resolved to do my projects with or without other people. Instead I had to (and have to now) find a way to find other people who are interested in the same approach to radical activity that I have.
I’ll try to specify the problems I see in this work for me personally but also more generally in the US context. The traditional way that my friends have talked about this problem2 is to talk about the fact that either people are wrong, they are snobs, or they are passing through. Wrong usually looks like participation in the left in one of its variants: activism, puritanism3, or academia. Snobs usually look like (and I damn myself here too) taking extreme positions that while possible correct (like the post-left) are absolutely isolated positions. Passing through, which is the dominant form of radical alienation, looks like the process of enchantment, education, experience, disillusionment and exit strategies that we understand, and correctly name when we see it, but haven’t figured out a way to abate.
Perhaps starting from an analysis of the problem is the wrong way to work towards a solution. I think that the structure of the solution is very simple but the will and details are a problem. The solution to the problem of the deep alienation seemingly inherent to US radical politics is people, space & time. This couldn’t be a simpler solution but we can point to the ways that each of these simple things has been disrupted over time, what makes them difficult to reclaim now, and why we tend to just give up.
This can be seen particularly in Greece but all over Europe there is something you can call radical space and generally there is more area where people can be together without buying shit than in the US. Greece, particularly Exarchia, is amazing with its squares, reclaimed parks, and even public benches used to meet, discuss, and even particularlize conversations. This can’t be overstated as an incredible boon. In the US the only place where we can meet is in an area of commerce, at work/school, or in a private space (a home or clubhouse).
Regaining space is a serious problem usually thought of as an isolated project. Often we (usually some variant of a couple or cult) find a way to buy (or just rent) a space together–at best creating a private space that a slightly broader definition of we can use but that doesn’t particularly attract anyone outside of our direct experience. The slightly more radical option is to be part of a social struggle that fights for and reclaims a space. This could be a squatted park or a house (or series of houses). It could be using an abandoned space (like a warehouse) for a meeting or dance party and then walking away from it. The US makes this project particularly difficult as property has a value greater than any other (including human life) and even abandoned property is usually assumed to be worth defending by the state against any encroachment.
Second in importance to space is having the time to spend in space with people. Time is a wonderful abstraction as it only exists in order to commoditize it but here we are spending it (buying it) entirely on paying off the security guards that defend property, that allow us a place to stand or lay our heads.
In Europe there is still, largely, enough of the social democratic arrangement in place that most people can find a way to not, or barely, work. In some places this means that there are large bodies of people sitting around drinking beer. This is fine, I don’t have a particular problem with how other people spend their time, but my larger interest is that this arrangement also means some people spend their time hatching plans, conspiring.
I like people. I don’t need them to be revolutionary robots or to even particularly agree with me. As a matter of fact my favorite people are agents of chaos who disagree with me in ways that tickle my fancy. The individual people around me are both entirely unimportant3 and entirely necessary. In the US social life has become increasingly filled with lists of “friends” that we can quantify and measure but whose qualities and lack of reproducibility is entirely forgotten.
I have seen in Europe that the strongest political groups begin with groups of friends whose political life looks like a daily life that includes each other. This looks like intentional living and daily meetups in public space. In the US we are together, as radical subjects, only as long as our shared living space or clubhouse lasts and no longer. Our friendships tend not to have political relevance or when they do they are the relevance of cliques.
To restate the problem in a word: isolation. The solution simply put is people, space & time. This is all highlighted by the way in which my European experience demonstrates the ways in which the US is flat in comparison to the topography of relations in space over time. We have, in comparison, some bursts of activity in nearly random places on occassion. This may be an intractable problem and definitely speaks to my deeply pessimistic attitude towards social change or even social relationships with people I would feel comfortable calling comrades. I would like to believe there is still potential so I’ll wonder aloud.
There is not a chance that there will be social democracy in the US in my lifetime or that the American attitude towards property will shift towards a balanced perspective, not to speak of an abolitionist one (which is my preference). This means that the simple solution to the problem of social fracture will probably not come from an easy solution like squatting more homes, finding more cracks in the welfare state, or even ending the invasion of hipster cliques into the project of shattering this world.
Here is where I think there is potential and my future projects will lead:
- keeping a balanced approach (individual alienation can only be combated by a trinary approach) rather than focusing too much on 1/3 of the solution
- tactics should look like one part dance party in squated warehouse (space & people) and one part weekly event in rented space over years (time & people)
- if people aren’t capable of being friends4 we probably shouldn’t do close political work with them
- We have to return to kitchen table politics with more discussion in small informal settings that nourish the body as well!
That’s all I have for now but suffice it to say that I think that there is plenty of room for experimentation in this potential and once that runs dry, I can always go back to Europe for a few more months.