I just finished watching What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire and I have to say - what a way to start the day (and I mean that both positively and negatively). The documentary is an extremely sobering look at just a few of the unresolvable problems our culture has created. Just as the Jensen Endgame talks floored me last week, this movie brings the wider themes together in a way that I am able to ignore even less.
It should go without saying that for every opinion in the world, I could find pieces I disagree with. So let me say that I don't recommend this movie because I agree with every detail of their thesis. However, what I find so moving about this video is that, like the Jensen one, it is evidence that other people are thinking along the same lines as I am. Even better, they're approaching this common analysis of our situation from a wide variety of starting points and mindsets. As much as I'd like to have original, groundbreaking ideas for which to take credit, I have to admit: it's more comforting to know the insights are profound enough that all sorts of people are coming to them. Not only are we finding something somewhat universal with all the different approaches and starting points and personal journies, but each perspective is bringing something unique and necessary to the table.
There's a very tiny bit of Earth worship and mysticism in the movie. I don't say that to slap a disclaimer on the movie, to distance myself from it, or even to indicate that I necessarily disagree with the message. There is a metaphorical sense in which I'm entirely comfortable talking about our need to listen to the wind, trees, and rivers: the idea of feedback. By engaging in our communities and building relationships with our neighbors, we acquire the data necessary to spontaneously coordinate ourselves in society without the need for a central governing authority. Similarly, if we begin to pay attention to our natural surroundings and simply acknowledging their condition, rather than isolating ourselves in our homes, cubicles, and television programs, we gain information that is crucially needed to coordinate ourselves within the ecosystem, instead of counting on the government to socialize and regulate our collective impact from the top down. It's all about acknowledging reality so we can adjust to it, rather than believing we can order reality to our desires.
With all that said, however, I find that I need to admit the even deeper level upon which this movie spoke to me. Yes, there is a sense in which we need to rediscover our place within the world or relinquish it altogether. Historically, that place is often expressed in terms of sacredness. It's unfortunate that we're so used to sacredness being a matter of participation in yet another system, of dictation from on high, rather than (at least starting out as) a primal, personal experience. While I'm inclined (conditioned?) to think that this concept of sacredness gets us into an entirely different conversation, I'm slowly, ever so slowly starting to wonder whether it is part of the central conversation, and I'm just not ready to acknowledge it's necessity. And, folks, this is coming from the guy who originally started a blog as a way for me to work out an integration of my spiritual and political beliefs, and even I'm having trouble coming to grips with this.
As I wrote about last week, we need to find a way to live differently if we are to survive. That alternative configuration will require different choices of values as well as the possibility of different ideas about what it means to be human and "civilized" (though the movie implies that civilization itself is part of the problem). The voluntary society we seek may not exist in a form that we even consider "desirable" - at least not without drastic changes in our core beliefs. We can think of these choices as guided by intuition, cosmic plans, and/or nature - or we can think of them as arbitrary and the product of human experience and pragmatism. I'm not sure there's a real difference in any of those dynamics, save personal preference. It is what it is, and to the extent that we're looking at what it actually is, however we model that reality in our minds is less important than acknowledging its actual consequences. Those consequences circumscribe the set of available responses, and it is in those responses that any solution lies, if any exist at all.
For we must change. This system we feel at home in, that we've lived in, whose values we've taken for granted as the way "it is" - it's not sustainable. Don't pretend to think that grounding that knowledge within your being is not profoundly disturbing - I don't think I've even gotten there yet. One of the most amazing feats of this movie was the way it tracked my emotional response to the gravity of these issues with a precision that scared me. The journey from confusion to inquiry to urgency and action to depression to resignation is one that everybody must go through if they are to be honest with themselves for once. Think of it as the emotional and mental "correction", just as a market gets unbalanced and corrects itself - only we're talking about the accumulated beliefs and premises of thousands of years of human identity.
This identity that has informed our every action and aspiration isn't going away overnight; not even for our individual selves, much less for society's collective identity. There is much that needs to be let go. There is much that needs to be discovered for the first time in a long time. There is much that needs to be consciously chosen, invested in, prioritized. And none of us has the single answer. So what project do we choose to become part of the admittedly gradual, collective change to a new society?
Whatever the solution ends up being in the end, one thing is clear to me: the basis for this change must be an acknowledgment of reality. If an individual is to make it happen, then it must happen on that individual's terms, in the individual's community and immediate surroundings. This reconnection with our environment - both nature and community - is absolutely vital and unavoidable, if change is to take root in something sustainable and authentic. It is the context in which a project, a life's work, will occur to the individual, and in which an individual will become who he really is, without the need for an artificial, diversionary, authority-defined identity.
I've written before about the way the system isolates individuals and appoints itself as the mediator of relations between them. This function doesn't need to be reformed; it needs to be made unnecessary, even overthrown. But in order for the system to leave, it must no longer fulfill a purpose; otherwise it will be replaced with yet another system. Humans must realize they no longer need to look outside themselves and their communities for leadership, for answers, for meaning. If we really believe that the leadership, answers, and meaning we get from the status quo are undesirable, it becomes necessary for us to demonstrate the alternative. If that is to occur as a product of one's own choice, as the movie makes clear and as has been clear to me for some time, the individual's discovery of the authentic self, the social self, the sacred self - a self that is integral to the task of self-governance and spontaneous coordination - must take place.
What I am saying is not that the first step to reconnecting with the nature outside of yourself is reconnecting with your nature within yourself. I'm saying that both of those explorations are the same thing; only our belief in disconnection and isolation has made them into separate disciplines. In anarchism and libertarianism we talk so much about revolution as the precondition for a desirable world, where we can be happy on our own terms. But I think the successful revolutionary is not so needy and immature. He does not project his own confusion, self-loathing, destructiveness, internal domination, competiting aspects of personality. These crazy qualities certainly make existence bearable with the confines of the engineered system, the distorted subset of reality, the artificial feedback loop in which we feel compelled to participate. Rather, the revolutionary who seeks an alternative society must be an alternative human being (dare I call him the original human being?). This sounds a bit like the marxist's idea of a "new socialist man" until you realize that, in a very real way, capitalism has created its own new kind of creature, adapted to its own ideological landscape and arbitrary inputs and structures.
The revolution eventually has to occur within, with the final investment in a vision of oneself that makes sense and cannot be shaken by the stimuli injected into society by the system. This vision of oneself, this internal work that solidifies the preconditions of meaningful life, does not promote ideology as if one set of ideas can solve every problem. Rather, an understanding of the immediate situation and what the next step is comprises the real, honest mindset of the revolutionary (the movie talks about how human short-sightedness is well adapted for primative, hunter / gatherer life). The revolutionary doesn't have it all figured out; he simply uses the discovery of his own nature as the engine for dealing with reality, whereever the chips may fall. The revolutionary does not work towards a future society explicitly; instead, he projects a vision that he sees and feels within himself, that he himself finds useful and meaningful, and offers this to others for their consideration. He revolts for his own sake, and he encourages others to join him for his own sake as well. He positions himself as another datum in the feedback loop, which people can choose to ignore but cannot wish out of existence. He sees himself as not providing answers but as a seeker of answers, refusing to reinforce the beliefs of others just to maintain their comfort, urging others to seek as well, making himself open to others if they wish to ally themselves with him.
It may or may not be useful for one who is interested in politics to think of this shift in identity as a revolution, but all one is really doing is being honest with oneself, of caring about one's self again. That necessarily implies letting go of concepts and beliefs that make us dependent on the system. It won't voluntarily change, or even decide to leave us alone. But to make a place for the new society, we must make a place for the new self, ultimately by letting those aspects of our identity fall away as they are no longer needed. We do that both internally and externally: internally by sitting with ourselves, conversing with ourselves, delving into painful memories, being honest about ourselves, thinking about our lives, histories, loved ones, and deepest beliefs; externally by talking to our neighbors, walking in our streets, participating in the local institutions, speaking up when there's a need for our truth. This reconnection itself is a revolution; what follows as a consequence of those connections, of those new flows of information, feedback, ideas, feelings, will be what it is - the resignation takes new meaning when one is being one's authentic self. That takes commitment, though. I find this W. H. Murray quote helpful in this regard (hat tip to Brad):
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
You can't really force this change, I've found - it has to occur slowly and naturally to make use of our full willpower and energy. We all have something unique to contribute, but this contrbution must come from our unique, authentic, realized selves. Just understand that you're really committing to that identity more fundamentally than any outside cause. It must be you, the authentic, actualized, imperfect but determined you. To put it in a sappy, overused way, you are being the change you seek - but on your own terms, not some hippie's preconception of what the right way is for you to change.
Let's start a fucking conversation about this. Am I just a new age wierdo, or does this resonate with you?