I had no idea who Marianne Williamson is before Thursday night’s Democratic debate. But I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have.
We’ve been seeing her for nearly thirty years, occupying that liminal space that is marginal but still mainstream, crank but still credible in the post-kombucha world.
She is the voice lecturing an exhausted Whole Foods worker from the pages of a yoga magazine.
She is the kind of person who sees crisis and opportunity as the same thing because she still thinks that they actually are the same word in Mandarin.
She is Gwyneth Paltrow’s sentient second head; the one that we have all secretly dreaded in our nightmares.
I have seen Marianne Williamson before. We all have. She is a certified organic outgrowth of American culture and politics.
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“Heal the soul of America” is the motto on her website. And though it and her untethered tweets won’t likely deliver her a presidential nomination, her motivational poster tone is at home with the vagaries of American politics pulling against their own rudderlessness and a liberalism very bad at covering up its elitism. They also tell us something about the darkness that can come out of such directionless drifts.
She is obviously and commendably right about plenty of things. She has showed up at demonstrations against the concentration camps. Her website contains rhetoric against union-busting and more. She is anti-war. And there is a worldview in which these can sit comfortably next to a history of neo-Victorian “self-help.” In such a worldview there are certain actions that don’t count as union-busting, things that can be “healed” rather than repaired, gaps in the societal infrastructure that are filled by nothing but sentiment and aura.
Let’s be clear: on an individual basis there is no problem with meditative or spiritual practices. I meditate twice a day and shudder to think of how my anxiety would overwhelm me if I didn’t. You go to an acupuncturist? Do yoga? Put crystals by your bed? Whatever you have to do to hold on to your sense of subjective self in an objectively bleak and devastatingly cruel world.
In a system that overwhelms us and inserts itself into our thoughts every chance it can get, we do whatever we have to in order to get a sense of quietude, reflection. There is a gap between the work we are coerced into and our actual desire to labor with interest, to use our creativity, that can only be called inhuman. And it is why so many artists who rely on a seemingly odd spiritual practices are able to so deftly find unexplored angles of daily existence in a world that we are told should be a certain way.
There is, after all, a whole history of left-wing and Marxist sympathy with the deep exploration of the self, of attempts to “disalienate” it. Not to mention serious left-wing engagement with theology that have boosted and supplemented our understanding of history. It’s why the declarations of “just focus on your activism” from so much of the boorish left regarding mental health not only fall insultingly flat but ignores significant portions of Marxist cultural thought.
What “wellness” philosophies offer is something altogether different. In fact they far more often achieve the opposite of the exploration of self and subject. These ideas and practices, paid for and exchanged, take on the character of anything instilled with the logic of commodity. They are one-size-fits all and disregard psychological and physiological nuance. They promise more than they deliver, and invite us to rearrange our identities around them, leaving us feeling less fulfilled and whole than we did before.
And then there are the outwardly harmful ideas. “Functional medicine,” anti-vaxx, even HIV denialism (all ideas that Williamson has skated dangerously close to). There is of course a wide gap between downing a shot of wheatgrass every morning and refusing to vaccinate your child. But the overarching conversation of what is “natural,” completely unmoored as it is from any notion of accountability or rigor, is underlying every transphobic troll asking about “who is a real woman.” It is in every proto-eugenic discussion about which developing country deserves to drown in a flood.
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All politics at some point has to confront the process of how the subjective becomes the objective. And when meditation is promoted in lieu of universal healthcare, when “mindfulness” becomes an excuse for companies to abuse and overwork, there is likely all manner of manipulative pseudo-philosophies afoot.
Hell, capitalism itself is based on the phantasmic notion that wealth simply creates itself. So really we cannot be all that surprised that this type of ideological filler is rising up into the cracks. Labor does not create wealth for Marianne Williamson, it comes from “self-actualization.” Never you mind that her and any version of self-actualization requires some amount or another of resources. Resources that cost money. Money that evidently comes from the ether of good vibes.
The world is an unsafe and painful place. Warsan Shire’s description of what the atlas answers when she asks where it hurts – “everywhere / everywhere / everywhere” – is impossible to deny.
Britain: two terror attacks in just about as many weeks. Both claimed by ISIS, both during an election campaign in which a leftwing, anti-austerity candidate with a solid anti-war record looks set to surpass the ghoulish status quo.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Manchester would mean a safe victory for Theresa May. Conservatives are experts at exploiting fears of insecurity after terror attacks, using them as a cudgel to beat anti-racists and peaceniks alike. It backfired this time. May’s move of putting the army on British streets merely set up Jeremy Corbyn to say what most had known for some time: that fifteen years of a war on terror had made the world dramatically less safe.
Now, another attack. This time on and near the London Bridge. It further proves Corbyn’s point. One may be tempted to be generous to May and think she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, but her ineptitude and that of the Tories may yet surprise us again.
Consider the backdrop. May, the Tories, and much of the political and media establishment have been hammering Corbyn over the past weeks about his somehow dangerous insistence that he would not push the infamous red button initiating a nuclear attack. Commentators are now made “nervous” not by the specter of nuclear holocaust but by a politician’s refusal to initiate it. In the midst of terror attacks revealing just how far out of control the imperial project has spun the planet, the world’s rulers seem to be implying that if they can’t have it, nobody can, like a petulant four-year-old who would destroy their toys rather than share. Corbyn is chastised for being the adult in the room.
In reality, there is a great amount of consideration in what the establishment are saying. Even in their blinkered intransigence, there is cold calculation. Just because they are desperate doesn’t mean they lack motives. Method in madness, all that. Sam Kriss, in a characteristically thought-provoking blog post that went up just today, suggests that the harsh rationality of the nuclear age is more or less concomitant with the calculus of power and profit:
This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.
There is, unavoidably, a cruel absurdity on the other end of this common sense.
This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.
An observation: in today’s world, “pretentious” is normally code for “this is something I would rather not think about and therefore I am going to judge it harshly without considering it.”
During the 2016 American presidential election, a poll was conducted that jokingly included an option for a giant meteor. In other words, it was asked whether potential voters would rather a massive asteroid collide with the Earth than any available candidate become president of the United States.
The poll found that 13% of those surveyed preferred the meteor. Hillary Clinton received 39%. Donald Trump – the eventual victor, as if we need reminding – got 35%. The meteor got a higher percentage than any of the third party candidates who actually appeared on the ballot.
On the surface it’s comedic. In that bitter, sardonic kind of way. It naturally says something about the unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump and the intransigence of the American political system (now might be the right time to reiterate that had the Democratic establishment not been so characteristically terrified of the specter of socialism, Bernie would have indeed won). But in my estimation it says something even broader and more fundamental.
Apocalypse is no longer something in a far-off, speculative future. It is an undeniable part of the now. Beneath the insufferable shiny-happy insistence of advertising, “official” politics, and the fantasies of billionaire moguls, the notion of an unfolding/ongoing catastrophe is woven into just about every facet of culture and common logic. Attempts to cover it up just make it that much more unavoidable and dark.
In 1890, William Morris published what is arguably the first successful example of modern communist speculative fiction: News from Nowhere. As much propaganda as pulp literature, it was written as a direct response to Edward Bellamy’s technocratic socialist vision Looking Backward. In it Morris reimagined London through a radical lens that as free of pollution, poverty, and theft of time.
There is plenty in the book that we would find simply outdated, in particular its portrayal of women. But News from Nowhere was a sincere and creative attempt to pivot from the degradation of industrial capitalism. It was naturally imbued with the romantic Morris’ nostalgia for pre-capitalist pastoralism, but it also self-consciously avoids unproductive wistfulness that pines for turning back the clock. The radical’s view of history as an overlapping and cumulative process is what allows the book’s incorporation of sustainability and egalitarianism come alive. News from Nowhere personifies the Marxist’s ambivalence toward modernity: savvy to how its productive capacities made possible real equality and solidarity, horrified at how its hierarchies produced unprecedented degradation
The book’s very title was a nod to its first-glance infeasibility: “utopia” being translated literally, prior to Thomas More, as “nowhere.” As in “nowhere exists this type of world.” But Morris’ sly trick was to pull this out of the realm of absolute fantasy by adding a subtle “yet…”
There is, of course, an adjacent apparent impossibility to cobbling together a utopian vision with a dystopian reality; two conjunctures that cannot coincide. Indeed at first they seem diametrically opposed. But there was also a time not so long ago when the dystopian seemed equally far-fetched and far-flung as its mirror opposite.
Reality has intervened, and not for the better. Climate change has accelerated, making food scarcity, droughts and devastating floods a fact for huge swathes of the globe. We know that we have already crossed the point of no return for a warming planet. The degradation of soil, should it continue, will leave the planet with perhaps 60 full harvests.
Mass refugee crises, never-ending war and the shuttering of borders are casually woven into news coverage and polite conversation. The line between the unimaginable and reported reality disintegrates.
Insipid morning show hosts might try to soften the blow, telling the inspirational story of the exceptional suburban mom doing food drives for refugee kids, or move quickly from coverage of the UN’s latest predictions for climate catastrophe into that day’s guest celebrity chef. But cultural awareness never takes things at face value. Deep down, we know we’re fucked. Remember ten years ago when Children of Men seemed more an eerily prescient warning and not a portrayal of the world as it is? Fun times…
In other words, catastrophe is everywhere. Giant Meteor 2016 isn’t just an instance of dark comedy. It is, indirectly anyway, a reflection of the connection between persistent devastation and the persistence of a political and economic system whose pretense of a plentiful/prosperous future is on very shaky ground. It is a 21st century version of Amadeo Bordiga’s reminder that rich people also drowned with the Titanic. If we can’t stave off impending doom, at least we can take solace in the fact that mismanaged capitalism will eventually overtake those who have subjected us to the fallout of mismanagement.
Of course it’s never that simple. The rich passengers aboard the Titanic disproportionately were able to get to lifeboats, unlike the poor folks in steerage. Should the planet become uninhabitable, it’s entirely plausible that the ruling class will be able to construct their own Elysium. That’s precisely the motivation behind such projects as Eko Atlantic in Nigeria and others like it. More often than not they will find a way to shield their selves and their lifestyles from consequence. We, as always, get the wreckage.
The dystopian is already a reality. The impossible has once again proven possible. Any kind of useful realism must, therefore, take this dynamic into account, seeing the utopian not as a dream, but as a demand.
So did the writing on the walls remind us in Paris, 1968. This blog is an attempt to cobble together – sloppily, perhaps self-indulgently – one aspect of a dys/utopian praxis: the vivid radical imagination; one that isn’t so much an escape as it is an escape plan.
What I am here calling “dys/utopian” is hardly groundbreaking. And I can’t take credit for it. There are other writers and publications on the contemporary Left who have been exploring this for at least a few years prior to my starting this blog. Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse comes to mind. So does much of the work of the recently and tragically departed Mark Fisher, whose notion of “the slow cancellation of the future” has been essential in forming the ideas here.
Enzo Traverso’s recent book Left Melancholia attempts to salvage the dreams of a fractured Left in the midst of capitalism’s perpetual false starts. And, as long as we’re using the term, I can’t pass up the chance to mention the always-indispensable journal Salvage.
All of the above are brilliant attempts to forge some kind of intellectual and material praxis for a Left that has had the reset button hit on it. It’s my hope to add to this in a constructive way.
The enumeration of the above atrocities has normally provoked a familiar refrain: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” True of course, but insufficient. Is another world possible? It is unquestionably necessary, but its feasibility is by no means a given. The planet has already passed several points of no return with climate change, which in turn brings each future turning point closer with increasing speed.
This quickly approaching mass historical moment is ironic considering the past few decades of capital’s trajectory. Ever since the collapse of “actually existing communism” we have been stuck in a kind of momentous feedback loop. Neoliberalism’s adaptability means that its undead husk can keep shuffling on indefinitely. As long as it does, its cultural logic – the declaration that the new can never really be new – drags along behind it. The pressure for us to be “flexible” with our time, to accommodate more of our lives to accumulation of profit, grows greater. Crises worsen, but they don’t stop happening. Disasters stop being benchmarks and start being daily occurrences folded into our routine.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming: the problem with “the end of history” was always that it wouldn’t be able to stop starting.
The question (a very open one in fact) is whether the Left, that contingent who historically have fought the hardest for things to not be this way, can manage to break out of the feedback loop. Whether it can get creative and do things differently. Whether it can gain the wherewithal to soberly assess the already-existing wreckage around it and figure out how to repurpose it, to become the coming catastrophe so that it is only society’s rulers caught up in it rather than ourselves. Either we continue to allow the monuments to be built on top of the rubble with us inside it, or we figure out how the build our own from the same refuse.
Others have said that the Left’s present state is one of devastation. This is obviously fitting given the general state of things. Just as the working class has had its coherence and institutions robbed of it, so have Left and revolutionary organizations found themselves sidelined and treading water. For sure, there are green shoots of hope for those who wish to end this state of affairs: the election of Corbyn as head of the Labour Party in the UK, some victories for Leftist parties in Europe and elsewhere, the Sanders campaign in the US and the explosion in popularity for socialist ideas in its aftermath.
These are the most hopeful signs for radical renewal in decades. They are also not enough, and are emerging in the midst of odds that remain slim. Can socialism be won and built when half the planet is a sacrifice zone? We may have to address this question in real time, and we will not be able to do so by relying on the same answers we always have. A level of cultural sophistication and vision – the kind which has not been so much lacking as it has been forgotten in the midst of the great neoliberal shakeup – is urgently needed.
Now the inevitable question: will this be a project of doom and gloom? To a certain but ultimately limited degree it has to be. It is not, however, melancholic. I would rather characterize it as being grounded in the thought of Marxist writers and activists whose sensitivity to culture opened them up to a practical revolutionary pessimism: Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Anatoly Lunacharsky, André Breton, José Carlos Mariátegui, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, Pierre Naville, Raoul Vaneigem, Frantz Fanon, Michael Löwy.
All of these figures possessed zero faith in the possibility of capitalism to provide any salvation. All knew that the act of mourning, of recognizing just how much we have lost and just how bad it has gotten, was an unavoidable step in grasping radical social change.
All knew that reforms were only a delay of the inevitable. All saw revolution (to borrow from Benjamin) as the handbrake preventing history from careening off a cliff, partaking in revolutionary thought and action not because it filled them with optimism but because it was the only way path toward basic survival.
Finally, all saw in artistic expression the ability to psychologically straddle the gap between the real and the visionary. A widening of the field of imagination, revealing the machinations of capitalism as intrinsically corrupt but also for a more vivid notion of revolution.
Culture is an expression of the economic and political substructure of society, but this does not mean it is static. Its relationship is, in fact, quite far from the Manicheanism that has plagued Left frameworks on arts and culture for decades. Being able to put aside this wooden, almost caricatured method allows for the dynamic to be revealed. For the possibilities, however dim, to animate. For contradiction to cease being just something that merely exists and to become the key to rupture and liberation.
I would contend – and will do so repeatedly on this blog – that we are surrounded by contemporary cultural artifacts that reveal this multifaceted character: marked simultaneously the brutality of the past and present, and the fading prospects for a future worth living. Much like Morris’ time-traveler, our starting point must be now, but if we aren’t daring to rigorously think through the implications for a radical vision, then there isn’t any real reason to ponder in the first place.
Or, on the other hand, maybe it really is all just pretentious. But pretense is a right, not a privilege. And sometimes a giant meteor is just a giant meteor.
This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.