Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Part 3)

Mendocino County

Parts |1|2|3|

August 28, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

In the East, Gandhi was assassinated, as was his dream for India. Vandana Shiva has described so poignantly what is happening there at this moment, but not just there. I don’t believe that we have any hope in reversing this in our own present governmental context. Is it not evident that we need a revolution. But, how so? As Thoreau finished his essay, “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. … All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. … But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.” I urge you to read “slaves” as “illegal immigrants, many working for slave wages”. Who but Thoreau can say it better? Thoreau scared people – and still does.

Those in power in this country and increasingly in the world have no respect for hard physical labor; accordingly, following our leaders, neither do Americans at large. So, we depend upon the mostly illegal Latinos to do the physical work to feed us. A distant acquaintance from this group, who has lived here many years, has a fine family, and has a responsible job running field machinery for a farmer that is a far distant giant global corporation, had to return south because of this mother’s illness. It took him months and much money and danger to get back across the border. Now the government wants to punish companies that hire individuals like him. Who, then, will do the work?  Meanwhile, our schools concentrate on college prep, i.e. corporate prep, and, because of budget constraints, on elimination of any skilled trade classes such as in gardening and horticulture. Those who can’t make it there can always get a job in the military and see the world – or camp under bridges. We can guess what Thoreau would think of this or our military and CIA incursions into not one but many other countries.

In 2008, Uri Gordon published his PhD thesis, “Anarchy Alive: Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory”. Most anarchist literature dates from not much later than the Spanish Civil War. Chomsky writes interesting material – see the collection “Chomsky on Anarchism” – but by his own admission he is wedded to his wealth and privilege much as Tolstoy was; both were also city bred, which is a vast hurdle. Gordon, on the other hand, has taken part in many demonstrations around the world and brings us up-to-date. He is a pro-Palestinian Jewish Israeli who spent time in a kibbutz, which leads to many fascinating tales – the earliest kibbutzim constructed in Palestine in the early twenties followed Kropotkin’s recommendations and were emphatically not Zionist. Palestinian Jewish anarchists fought side-by-side with Arab anarchists in Spain. I won’t write a detailed review of Gordon’s book; your assignment is to read it.

Gordon notes that many who could be so described refuse the a-word, for whatever reason. The Nation Magazine, beginning in the on-line version on March 4, 2009, began printing as series of articles, with the first setting the stage:  “Rising to the Occasion: Reimagining Socialism: A Nation Forumby Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher Jr. But, wait, what can they mean by socialism? In a later essay on May 6, “Change Socialists Can Believe In,” they tell us: “But we are both socialists, which means, fundamentally, that we believe in the human capacity to solve our common problems collectively in an egalitarian, participatory and democratic fashion. As we wrote in our original essay, we share the conviction that the time has come for so-called ordinary people to step into history and take control of their own destiny.” This is not only reimagining socialism, it is redefining it as anarchism, which it emphatically never has been. With one exception, classic socialism in all its forms focused on relieving economic ills, usually at a cost to freedom if only consequent of exorbitant taxes; anarchists have insisted that if freedom and community come first, economic problems will take care of themselves.

Actually, during the nineteenth century, one version of anarchism was called libertarian socialism, but this term has now become archaic and highly misleading. While strongly antigovernment, “libertarian” now represents defense of “property rights” at any cost and however the property may or may not be used, screw everyone else and screw the world. This is deeply offensive to anarchists. The word “anarchism” was used only pejoratively until the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an admirer of Godwin who is now regarded as the founder of Continental anarchism, adopted it in his controversial study of the economic bases of society, “Qu’est ce que la propriété?” (“What is Property?”), Proudhon argued that the real laws of society have nothing to do with authority and property but rather stem from the nature of society itself, and he foresaw the eventual dissolution of authority and the emergence of a natural social order: “the centralist system is all very well as regards size, simplicity and construction: it lacks but one thing – the individual no longer belongs to himself in such a system, he cannot feel his worth, his life, and no account is taken of him at all.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “as individualism is the primordial fact of humanity, so association (that is, community) is its complementary term.”

Indeed, the quest for property has become a madness with multinational corporations, Monsanto leading the way, attempting to patent the seeds, indeed the genes, of all the world’s useful plants. Please read Vandana Shiva’s probing “Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace.”

It was reported on the SF Chronicle, June 30, that Modoc County, far in the wild northern woods, pays the least taxes per capita while receiving more state taxpayer dollars than any other county in California. Its residents want the state to continue sending road, school, and medical care funds, but no strings, especially none of those environmental ones. “We own this land and we’ll do with it as we damned well please.” It is highest in Republican registration and recorded the highest anti-tax vote percentage of any county in the last election. This appears to be the libertarian Right writ large – the giant banks and multinational corporations couldn’t have said it better. The Right reminds me of a spoiled recently just-out-of-the-nest irresponsible brat insisting that no one can tell him what to do – but send money and bomb those who are bugging me.

On the other wing, the neoliberal Left has a Big Daddy complex: we will too tell you what to do, we know what is best for everyone, (in a lowered voice) sort of. Don’t be distressed, my wayward children. Here is your money. We’ve sent Sam off to beat up those bullies. We will take care of you. Anarchists see no cooperation toward building a common wealth in either. Fie on both your houses.

Uri Gordon outlines in some detail three characteristics that he finds central to the modern anarchist movement, all of which can be traced back to Kropotkin, a century before to Godwin, and much further even to Gerrard Winstanley and others in seventeenth century England:

  • Anti-authoritarian, against all forms of domination, especially Capital in all Its versions, including representative democracy and all forms of Marxism and democratic socialism. This often precludes rule of a majority and insists on decisions by consensus. Thus, anarchist groups refuse to blindly follow charismatic leaders, while listening to wise ones; yet, testing, always testing.
  • Actions result from strategies that are embryonic representations of an anarchist social future. “We are not just saying no to [C]apital, we are constructing a different a different concept of politics, a different set of social relations, pre-figuring the society we want to build.” We behave now in ways that will be appropriate in an anarchic future.
  • Strongly open-ended with diversity as a central anarchist value, endorsement of pluralism and heterogeneity in anarchist approaches: to dictate an acceptable future is a form of domination. We can’t know what will be appropriate at any time and place for anyone else nor even in our own future.

Sometime ago, a Quaker Meeting considered adding a porch to their meeting house. One person disagreed and the idea was shelved. This was repeated thirty-nine more times (more or less) annually until consensus was reached to build. Consensus decision-making is a key feature of the anarchist approach. If a community acts by majority, some may find themselves always in the minority, which is an unacceptable way to care for others. Wisdom can come in many guises. This means, however, that communities can’t be too large; everyone must be heard by all preferably by active listening. Joanna Macy has much to teach us here as described in her and Molly Young Brown’s invaluable “Coming Back To Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World”. Macy isn’t Quaker; she is Buddhist, but the  practices aren’t specifically. She also regards herself as a deep ecologist, and many of their practices are so related.

In the emerging complexity sciences, a pattern has been recognized: diversity promotes complexity of interrelationships, which in turn engenders innovative, creative we might say, adaptations to a changing world, resolutions of perceived hurdles. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Mao intoned, while in true authoritarian style keeping his fingers crossed.

Uri Gordon speaks of one group that is especially prominent in northwestern United States, which he calls anarcho-primitivism. They also refer to themselves as green anarchists and anti-civilization, i.e. anti-city. He summarizes their beliefs:

  • Very strong political, ecological, and spiritual antagonism to industrialism, technology, and hyper-modernity;
  • Love of the wild, eco-feminism consciousness, and Earth-based/non-Western spirituality;
  • A “maximalist” anarchist critique of hierarchal civilization, and its His-story of domination and destruction from the beginnings of domestication, agriculture, and the state;
  • A re-appreciation of hunter-gatherer societies as sites of primitive anarchy – equalitarian, peaceful, leisurely, ecstatic, and connected to natural cycles.

Unlike myself, Gordon is not very sympathetic to these ideas – I was hooked when I was yet a child wondering freely over that depression era farm, but only realized the extent much later. While I much appreciate hunter-gatherer cultures, there are few game animals and edible wild plants left – they have been overwhelmed by humans and their weed, animal, and disease introductions and general destruction of the Earth. Also, guns wear out and they and ammunition is technically expensive to manufacture. With few exceptions, if some of us humans are to survive coming days, it must be as skilled agrarians.

Peter Kropotkin’s footprints are here as well  –  in his heart, in memory of his childhood and years in wild old Siberia, proto-ecologist Kropotkin yearned for the old decentralized village commons of Medieval Europe, with a few up-to-date trappings. Many are thinking about and discussing what these trappings may be, To go there would take scores of books. One thought seems increasingly clear: intensive cereal grain and soy farming are so damaging to the Earth that their future is, must be dated. As a place to start getting your head on straight, I recommend “The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and Land” edited by Norman Wirzba and dedicated to Wendell Berry.

Green anarchism is more complex and the movement more widespread than Gordon appreciates. The Ecovillage movement, which germinated at Findhorn Foundation in Scotland and is spreading around the world, expresses many of these beliefs. Please note that such communes are also being successfully established even in the darkest inner cities such as in Caracas and Oakland. The problem every community must face is the “property” hurdle, fences everywhere surrounding prime agricultural land that remains inappropriately used or wasted and priced beyond the reach of most.

Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is preservation of the world” – not wilderness. “Wildness” in the sense he may have intended and as many use the word today refers to freedom from authoritarian constraints. It also suggests an unconstrained intimacy with the primordial living Earth, especially rooted in one’s place. It appears clear to me that, that as anarchists live according to the above principles, to prefigure the society and world as they intend is a profoundly spiritual process. Also, as was waved in front of the bull in the seventeenth century, Western primitive spirituality has deep roots that are seldom explored in institutional settings. Findhorn provides a seminal long-standing example. As they state on their website,

The founding principles of the Findhorn Foundation and community have remained at the centre of all our activities over the years, they are

  • deep inner listening, and acting from that source of wisdom
  • co-creation with the intelligence of nature
  • service to the world.

How we express these principles through our activities, continues to change and grow, reflecting both the evolution of the consciousness of the community and the needs of the world around us, locally and globally

Meditation in its various forms – such as sitting quietly, singing, dancing, being in nature, working – is practised at Findhorn as a means to connect with and listen to our inner source of wisdom. Before group activities commence, we stop, attune to the wisdom within, attune to each other and to the task, and then move forward. By doing so, we contact the part of our consciousness that recognises our unity. From this comes a sense of shared motivation and purpose which can result in action that serves each individual, the group as a whole, and life itself. Tasks are often achieved with ease, peace, joy and beauty, and sometimes with new and unexpected solutions to problems.

One purpose of such activities is to develop a level of empathy among members of a “tribe” and with their surrounding world to the extent that feelings of separateness melt; doing harm will feel like one is doing it to oneself. One doesn’t need enforcers. Rather, the “tribe” relies on common stories with multiple metaphorical meanings, often illustrated by rituals, that tie it together with a common intention, vision. Out of these practices, community emerges. Surely nonsense, except just such practices were central to indigenous villages throughout the world and going deep into the past. Jesus instructed that we must become as little children; I would add before they have been tamed. Of course, none of this is easy for most of us who have been nearly drowned in this modern civilized culture.

In 1936, Quaker Richard B. Gregg wrote an essay for The Friends Society’s Pendle Hill Essays entitled “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity”. It still is available on their web site. A few quotes:

“Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. …

“Exploitation of human beings is an ancient evil, older than capitalism. It existed under European feudalism, and probably in most of the older forms of economic and social organization in every continent. It goes on today all around us, and practically everyone of us shares in it at least indirectly. The first step I can take to cut down my share in exploitation is to live simply. …

“The athlete, in order to win his contest, strips off the non-essentials of clothing, is careful of what he eats, simplifies his life in a number of ways. Great achievements of the mind, of the imagination, and of the will also require similar discriminations and disciplines.”

Gregg was much influenced by Gandhi and had discussed the issue with him. His hang-up was books, as is mine, but Gandhi advised that when he found something of more importance, this would naturally fall away. The reason I’ve referred to Gregg’s essay is to attempt to impress you further that an anarchic lifestyle requires dedication and discipline – and, maybe, beatings, jail time, or worse. The exploitations endemic in the modern food production, processing, distribution, and waste removal processes, for example, blow the mind; every time we go to a supermarket, no matter how “healthy”, we are complicit. There is nothing truly free here as long as the present corrosive economic system continues, but we needn’t play; we can simply cut loose every way we are able – many are the intervening fences.

I’ve only touched on a great story, filled with heroes and heroines, going back a very long way. In our industrialized world, stories now have little value except as motivational devices; only numbers really count. In old tribal village days, stories were invaluable guides, filled with vision and healing. Let us tell stories. Let us dance and sing and drum and wear and paint them. Let us live them. Let speech become poetry as once it was in pre-literate times. Let us care and share. Let us listen and watch and rejoice in our natural world. Let us always remember who/what we are.

It now seems that this world is running out of the resources needed to keep it operating, yet it somehow continues to exist simply by passing around money, figures in accounts, as if the economy were a gigantic computer system detached from reality. Probe as I might, I can find no heart. How long can this continue?  Computers invariably fail and this one is increasingly behaving erratically. Can we find a way out, a way back, in time? As I hope you’ve seen above, my recommendations: waste no time attempting to change government or fix the greed economy at any level; rather, build sustainable equalitarian communities as detached from Capital as possible beginning with food security.

Think how miserable “their” lives must be continually counting and worrying that the numbers won’t balance and be sufficient for some ephemeral scheme or another. What contorted horrible prospects, stuffed in civilized boxes, dark woolen suits, white shirts, ties, sculpted hairdos – what torturer invented those things? What would happen if we refused to feed, cloth, and house the bastards, if we turned our faces away from their money? Let us be compassionate, but not codependent. May their wealth, greed, and money float away like leaves in the coming storm. Let us have a great laugh and contract Earth-based lives lost in the wild where they will never find us.

You must henceforth be the moon.
You must shine at night.
By your shining shall you lighten the darkness
Until the sun rises again
To light up all things for men.

Thus ends Laurens van der Post’s The Heart of the Hunter: Customs and Myths of African Bushman, a message from the beginnings. And so ends this essay. But, this is only a first chapter or even introduction. If we are to build a truly free future, we must begin acting “as if” and learn how to create living self-sustaining cooperative communities adapted to place. I contend we must also become skilled at shucking modern civilized lifestyles along with our Indian corn ears and discovering the jewels hidden underneath, of becoming untamed, wild. Many thoughts are bubbling up; many words awaiting writing; many works to be done. Please join me.