Posted 4 months ago on Oct. 8, 2014, 12:08 p.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
You are invited to attend:
A lecture by Micah White, PhD
October 20, 2014 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio
The paradigms of contemporary protest are undergoing a period of crisis. The global forces that impact our collective future stand outside the reach of traditional forms of protest that were developed to sway liberal democracies. The influence of money on democracy exacerbates the crisis by rendering it increasingly difficult for the people to influence their elected representatives toward an inclusive and peaceful society. And yet, there is reason for optimism: the end of protest is a new beginning. On the horizon are increasingly complex and sophisticated social memes that will emerge in a bid to breakthrough the political stasis and reorganize the existing social order.
More details: http://miamioh.edu/cas/academics/programs/its/about/kirk-lecture/index.html
A lecture by Micah White PhD
October 23 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio
The greatest achievement of Occupy Wall Street is what it teaches us about the nature of social change and the future of peaceful global revolution. We learned, for example, that the dominant theory of revolutionary change is too heavily influenced by materialist analysis. Social change materialism cannot fully account for postmodern spiritual insurrections like May 1968 and ultramodern uprisings like Occupy Wall Street. Nor can it explain pre-modern paradigm shifts like the epiphany of St. Paul and the conversion of Constantine that ushered in the Christianization of Western Civilization. Ultimately Micah White calls for another approach to social activism: an inquiry into the political power of metanoia (epiphany).
More details: http://www.antiochcollege.org/news/college_events/beginning-protest-public-lecture-featuring-micah-white
Micah White, PhD is the former editor of Adbusters, the American creator of the Occupy Wall Street meme and the inventor of the innovative debt-activism tactic known as Rolling Jubilee.
Posted 5 months ago on Sept. 22, 2014, 10:38 a.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
This article was originally published at The Democracy Journal
Foundations and philanthropists do much good, but these unelected actors have acquired enormous power to shape policy. Should they be reined in?
Though this is not the way I would usually describe my career, one way of looking at it is that I spent my first 20 working years trying to raise money, and the next 15 trying to give it away. The transition, which took place when I left Human Rights Watch in 1996 to found the United States Programs of George Soros’s Open Society Institute, was a challenging one.
On the one hand, having dealt with foundations over the years as a supplicant, I felt I knew their ways—and in particular, ways of behaving that I was eager to avoid. On the other hand, suddenly becoming the gatekeeper to many millions of philanthropic dollars altered most of my collegial relationships, and many of my personal ones, infecting all but a few of them with a new power dynamic. I found myself—as various wags have observed about philanthropy staff over the years—a great deal smarter, wiser, funnier, and probably handsomer than I had been only months before.
I managed that personal transition as well as I could. I vowed not to internalize the importance others now ascribed to me. What power I held was derivative and temporary, and I tried not to forget that. I think I was mostly successful in remembering, so my recent transition out of philanthropy, with the accompanying loss of certain kinds of power and capital, has been that much easier as a result.
For the better part of those 15 years, I oversaw grants made by two of the world’s largest foundations, both with engaged and active donors, probably to the tune of about $3 billion in all. So I’ve had more experience helping to direct the largesse of the living rich than almost anyone, aside from Patty Stonesifer, Jeff Raikes, and Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the former and current CEOs of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through that experience, I’ve been a vocal and persistent advocate for a certain kind of philanthropy, one that eschews simple charity—worthy but palliative measures like supporting a soup kitchen or personal gestures like providing a scholarship—for attention to policy, to the root causes and structural conditions that result in hunger or lack of access to education in the first place. I’ve preached to my philanthropic brethren the virtues of support for advocacy on the leading social-justice issues of the day, and tried in the positions I’ve held to model that in the hopes that others would follow, or in any case find it safer territory to explore. The grant made by Atlantic Philanthropies during my tenure to Health Care for America Now, the grassroots organizing campaign for universal health coverage—at $27 million, the largest advocacy grant ever made by a foundation—was perhaps the most prominent of many such examples.
And yet it was during that campaign, ironically, that I began to have my first real doubts about the legitimacy of philanthropy in its engagement with the democratic process. You’ll recall that one of the many attacks on President Obama’s health-care bill was that it would bust the budget, and the President was careful to state from the outset that this major social-welfare advance would be revenue-neutral, not adding to the deficit, and indeed saving money over time.
That meant finding a combination of savings and new revenue to finance the bill. One proposal from the Administration would have capped the income tax deduction for charitable contributions at the level it was during the Reagan Administration, 28 percent. Almost without exception, the organizations that purport to speak for foundations and the nonprofits they fund rose up in opposition to the proposal.
There are credible arguments on both sides about how much effect a change in the deduction would have on charitable giving in the United States. I tend to believe the studies—such as those by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University—that assert that there would be a modest effect, if any. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the effect would be more than modest—that wealthy Americans in particular would open their checkbooks for causes dear to them a bit less often without the incentive of a tax break. Is that a price worth paying?
I think so. We had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance universal health care, benefitting many millions of uninsured Americans, saving lives, staving off bankruptcies, and indeed saving public dollars that would otherwise be devoted to emergency-room care. We had a means of helping to pay for it by a slight alteration in a tax break used by the most well-off—and, undoubtedly, the most generously insured—members of society. Yet the collective leadership of American philanthropy—a leadership, by the way, that had been with few exceptions silent about the redistribution of wealth upward through the Bush tax cuts, silent about cuts in social programs, silent about the billions of dollars spent on the wars of the last decade—found its voice only when its tax exemption was threatened, and preferred to let the government go begging for revenue elsewhere, jeopardizing the prospects for health-care reform, in order to let rich, well-insured people go on shielding as much of their money as possible from taxation.
As you can tell, this steamed me up a lot, and it did again later when the same script played out during the fiscal cliff crisis. What that situation made plain to me was not just that philanthropy is quite capable of acting like agribusiness, oil, banks, or any other special-interest pleader when it thinks its interests are jeopardized. It helped me to see that however many well-intentioned and high-minded impulses animate philanthropy, the favorable tax treatment that supports it is a form of privatization. Money that would otherwise be available for tax revenue that could be democratically directed is shielded from public control for private use.
As Rob Reich, co-director of the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, wrote in a 2013 cover article in Boston Review, “What Are Foundations For?”:
Philanthropy in the United States is not just the voluntary activity of a donor. Philanthropy in general, including the work of foundations, is generously tax-subsidized. The assets transferred to a foundation by a donor are left untaxed in two respects: the donor makes the donation more or less tax-free, diminishing the tax burden she would face in the absence of the donation; and the assets that constitute a foundation’s endowment, invested in the marketplace, are also mostly tax-free. …[F]oundations are partly the product of public subsidies. They are created voluntarily, but they result in a loss of funds that would otherwise be tax revenue. In 2011 tax subsidies for charitable giving cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $53.7 billion. So foundations do not simply express the individual liberty of wealthy people. We all pay, in lost tax revenue, for foundations, and, by extension, for giving public expression to the preferences of rich people.
I can already hear the arguments that will be made against this view on the political right. They don’t believe in a strong government role in the economy and social welfare, and certainly not the taxes that support it. They prefer to let the private market deal with health and income security. They don’t view wealth as presumptively subject to taxation, and they think the idea that favorable tax treatment constitutes a subsidy turns the world on its head. I don’t agree with them, but I understand their worldview, and they have credible arguments that flow from it.
I do wonder, though, about my progressive friends. They believe in a strong government, in a fair tax system, in a robust social-welfare system, and in a vibrant democracy where all voices count equally. Why are they are not more concerned about the undemocratic and largely unaccountable nature of philanthropy? Why are we—since I too have failed, for years, to ask these big questions—hypersensitive to the dangers of big money in politics, and the way it perpetuates advantage and inequality, but blind, it seems, to the dangers of big philanthropy in the public sphere?
It wasn’t always so in our history. When the titans of their day, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, sought to set up trusts to spend some of their vast wealth for charitable purposes, Frank P. Walsh, a progressive lawyer who chaired a congressional inquiry into industrial relations, called the new Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation “a menace to the future political and economic welfare of the nation.” In that period, 100 years ago, the foundations’ endowments surpassed what the federal government, in the pre-New Deal era, spent on education and public health. Walsh called for the “democratization of private benevolence” through more progressive taxation.
In testimony before the Walsh Commission, Morris Hillquit, the labor lawyer and Socialist Party leader, said that large foundations like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage “represent in the domain of philanthropy just what trusts represent in the industrial field.” Edward P. Costigan, who would later represent Colorado in the Senate, called the Rockefeller Foundation “a supreme example of the philanthropy which deadens, by its large benefactions, a public criticism which otherwise would be as formidable as inevitable.” Even feudalism and slavery, Costigan went on, “boasted of their occasional generosity.” The Reverend John Haynes Holmes of the New York Church of the Messiah, who would serve for two decades as chair of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, called foundations “essentially repugnant to the whole idea of a democratic society.”
In 2013 you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone close to the mainstream of American civic life and political thought raising those kinds of fundamental concerns. Is it because 100 years of practice has erased them? Or because philanthropy has deadened criticism, as Costigan warned, with its “large benefactions”?
Read the rest of Gara LaMarche's expose at the Democracy Journal
Posted 5 months ago on Sept. 17, 2014, 10:25 a.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
Over the last few days, over 2,700 Everest College students woke up to find that someone had paid off their private student debt.
This was no act of goodwill by the government, which is currently suing Everest parent Corinthian Colleges for its predatory lending practices. Nor is it a gift from Everest itself, which is expected to shutter its doors and possibly leave 72,000 students out of their time and tuition.
Instead, the disappearing student loan debt is the second major piece of financial activism by a group of Occupy Wall street activists.
To inspire Americans with student debt to unionize, the Rolling Jubilee Fund, a project of Strike Debt, has purchased and abolished a portfolio of private student loans issued to Everest students.
Strike Debt is also launching a new initiative – The Debt Collective, which will “create a platform for organization, advocacy and resistance by debtors”.
“Solutions are not going to happen if we just wait for Congress to do it,” says Thomas Gokey, one of the organizers “We need a social movement. We need debtors to unite to exert collective power.”
The portfolio was valued at – to be exact – $3,856,866.11 in student debt.
In the vast scheme of things, $3.8m is barely a drop in the bucket as the student debt owed by Americans has now surpassed $1tn.
The gesture, however, is meant to be symbolic as it proves that debt can be conquered – and at a discount. Rolling Jubilee bought the $3.8m worth of student loans for a total of $106,709.48 in cash. That’s about 3¢ for $1 of student debt.
“The Rolling Jubilee doesn’t actually solve the problem. The Rolling Jubilee is a tactic and a valuable one because it exposes how debt operates,” says Gokey.
“It punches a hole through the morality of debt, through this idea that you owe X amount of dollars that the 1% says you owe. In reality, that debt is worth significantly less. The 1% is selling it to each other at bargain-based prices. You don’t actually owe that.”
The 1% in this scenario are the companies issuing private student loans and the debt buyers, who often purchase student loan portfolios like the one purchased by the Rolling Jubilee.
Read the rest of the story at The Guadian and explore the movement history of the Rolling Jubilee.
Posted 6 months ago on Aug. 22, 2014, 11:32 a.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
Written by Micah White, PhD
Contemporary activism begins from the realization that for the first time in history, a synergy of catastrophes face us. Our physical environment is dying, our financial markets are collapsing and our culture, fed on a diet of junk thought, is atrophying -- unable to muster the intellectual courage to face our predicament.
While some may caution against immediate action by pointing out that societies often predict perils that never come, what is remarkable about our times is that the apocalypse has already happened.
When we compare the anxiety of our age to that of the Cold War era, we see that what differentiates the two periods is where the threat is temporally located. During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear destruction was always imagined to be in the future. What terrorized the Cold War generation was the thought of life after a nuclear holocaust. Anxiety was therefore centered on what life would be like "the day after" the future event, which was symbolized by the blinding light of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Thus the post-apocalyptic narrative was deployed in a series of nuclear holocaust science-fiction stories either to mobilize fear in the name of anti-nuke peace -- the exemplar of this tactic being the horrifying and scientifically realistic 1984 BBC docudrama Threads in which civilization collapses into barbarism -- or, like Pat Frank's 1959 novel Alas, Babylon, convince a wary public that winning and happily surviving nuclear war is possible, given resourcefulness, discipline and patriotism.
But for those of us alive today, the catastrophic event is not located in the future. There is no "post”-apocalyptic per se because we are already living in the apocalyptic. And although we can anticipate that life is going to get starker, darker and hellish, the essential feature of our times remains that we do not fear the future as much as we fear the present. We can notice this temporal shift in the work of James Lovelock, whose Gaia Hypothesis is gaining traction inside and outside of the scientific community. According to Lovelock’s book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, even if we were to immediately cease all C02 emissions, sudden and drastic climate change will still occur. In fact, Lovelock argues that a drastic decrease in emissions would trigger climate catastrophe immediately whereas continuing emissions will trigger climate catastrophe eventually and unpredictably. This realization -- that the line into a post-climate-change world has already been crossed -- fundamentally changes the temporal and spatial assumptions underpinning activist struggles. And the first aspect of activism that must be rethought is our notion of temporality.
The typical activist project is inscribed within the horizon of a modern conception of temporality. The modernist activist acts as if we occupy a present moment that is a discrete point on the linear progression between a mythical, ancient past and an either utopian or dystopian future. But if we accept this model, then the goal of the activist can only be to change the future by preventing the dystopian possibility from being realized. This involves pushing for changes in laws and behaviors in the present that will impact our predictions of how the future will be. But activism based on this temporal model -- which as John Foster points out in The Sustainability Mirage: Illusion and Reality in the Coming War on Climate Change underpins "green capitalism" and "sustainable development" -- inevitably fails. For one, unable to accurately predict the future, we constantly play the game of basing our actions on rosy predictions while the future grows increasingly gloomier. Another problem with relying on linear temporality is the assumption that time moves in only one direction. Without the freedom to imagine going backwards, we are left the task of steering the runaway train of industrialization without hope of turning around.
Of course, linear time is not the only way to understand temporality and some models can have even worse political consequences. Take for example, the notion that time is cyclical. For the Roman Stoics, time was marked by a series of conflagrations in which the world was razed and a new one formed only to be razed again. In times of adversity when resistance seems impossible, such as the build-up to World War 2, a watered down version of cyclical temporality sometimes enters the cultural consciousness. It infected Nazis who cheered total war and anti-Nazis who used the spurious argument that only by a catastrophic Nazi triumph would a communist state be realized because only then would the people rise up. A similar line of thought was pursued by Martin Heidegger in a letter to Ernst Jünger in which he wondered if the only way to "cross the line" into a new world is to bring the present world to its awful culmination. Unlike the linear conception of time that calls the activist to act in order to realize an alternate future, the cyclical conception is often leveraged to justify inaction or worse, action contrary to one’s ideals.
To escape the problems of linear time and cyclical time, activism must rely on a new temporality. Perhaps the best articulation of this new activist temporality is in the work of Slavoj Žižek. In his most recent book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Žižek blames the failure of contemporary activism on our assumption that time is a one-way line from past to future. He argues that activism is failing to avert the coming catastrophe because it is premised on the same notions of linear time that underpin industrial society. According to Žižek, therefore, a regeneration of activism must begin with a change in temporality. Paraphrasing Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Žižek writes, "if we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of this 'historical' notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time." This new notion of time is a shift of perspective from historical progress to that of the timelessness of a revolutionary moment.
The role of the activist should not be to push history in the right direction but instead to disrupt it altogether. Žižek writes, "this is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement. An act of 'divine violence' would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress." To accomplish this act of revolutionary violence involves a switch of perspective from the present-looking-forward to the future-looking-backward. Instead of trying to influence the future by acting in the present, Žižek argues that we should start from the assumption that the dread catastrophic event -- whether it be sudden climate catastrophe, a "grey goo" nano-crisis or widespread adoption of cyborg technologies -- has already happened, and then work backwards to figure out what we should have done. "We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny -- and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past." In other words, only by assuming that the feared event has already happened, can we imagine what actions would need to have been taken to prevent its occurrence. These steps would then be actualized by the present day activist. "Paradoxically," he concludes, "the only way to prevent the disaster is to accept it as inevitable."
Žižek is right to suggest that activism is at a crossroads; any honest activist will admit that lately our signature moves have failed to arouse more than a tepid response. The fact is that our present is being swallowed by the future we dreaded -- the dystopian sci-fi nightmare of enforced consumerism and planet-wide degradation is, day-by-day, our new reality. And thus, activism faces a dilemma: how to walk the line between false hope and pessimistic resignation. It is no longer tenable to hold the nostalgic belief that educating the population, recycling and composting our waste and advocating for "green capitalism" will snatch us from the brink. Likewise, it is difficult to muster the courage to act when the apocalyptic collapse of civilization seems unavoidable, imminent and, in our misanthropic moments, potentially desirable. Žižek's shift in temporality offers us a way to balance the paralyzing realization that our demise is inevitable with the motivating belief that we can change our destiny. By accepting that as the world is now we are doomed, we free ourselves to break from normalcy and act with the revolutionary fervor needed to achieve the impossible.
The question for would-be activists is therefore not, "how does one engage in meaningful activism when the future is so bleak?" but instead "how does one engage in revolutionary activism when the present is so dark?"
Corresponding to the necessary temporality shift is a spatial change in activism. The future of activism will be the transformation of strictly materialist struggles over the physical environment into cultural struggles over the mental environment. Green environmentalism, red communism and black anarchism will merge into blue mental environmentalism -- activism to save our mental environment will eclipse activism to reclaim our physical environment.
Activism is entering a new era in which environmentalism will cease viewing our mental environment as secondary to our physical environment. No longer neglecting one in favor of the other, we will see a push on both fronts as the only possible way of changing either. This will involve a shift away from a materialist worldview that imagines there to be a one-way avenue between our interior reality and the external reality. Instead, recognition of the permeability of this barrier, an exploration of the mutually sustaining relationship between mindscape and landscape, will open, and reopen, new paths for politics.
This movement toward an activism of the mental environment is based on an ontological argument that can be stated succinctly: our minds influence reality and reality influences our minds. Although simply stated, this proposition has profound implications because it challenges the West’s long standing Cartesian divisions between internal and external reality that serve to ignore the danger of mental toxins. Whereas traditional politics has assumed a static mind that can only be addressed in terms of its rational beliefs, blue activism believes in changing external reality by addressing the health of our internal environment. This comes from an understanding that our mental environment influences which beings manifest, and which possibilities actualize, in our physical reality.
At first it may seem like a strange argument. But the imaginary has been a part of environmentalism since the beginning. Most people trace the lineage of the modern environmentalist movement back to Rachel Carson’s 1961 Silent Spring. Carson’s book argued that the accumulation of toxic chemicals in our environment could work its way up the food chain, causing a widespread die- off. It may not have been the first time the bioaccumulation argument had been made, but it was the first time that it resonated with people. Suddenly, a movement of committed activists and everyday citizens rallied under the environmentalism flag.
Looking back on Carson’s book from the perspective of mental environmentalism, it is significant that it begins, not with hard science as we may expect because Carson was a trained scientist, but with fantasy. The first chapter, entitled “A Fable for Tomorrow,” reads like a fairy tale: “There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” She then goes on to describe an idyllic, pastoral community known for its abundant agriculture and wild biodiversity. She writes of foxes and deer; laurel, virburnum and alder; wild birds and trout. However, the beauty of the place is not permanent – an evil, invisible malady spreads across the land. Birds die, plants wilt and nature grows silent. The suggestion is that the land has been cursed; if this were a different story perhaps the farmers would have prayed, offered sacrifices to the gods or asked their ancestors for help. Instead, Carson shifts the blame away from transcendental forces and back to the materialist domain of man. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life on this stricken world.” Carson concludes, “The people had done it to themselves.”
Some literary critics have argued that the reason “Silent Spring” resonated with the larger public, sparking a movement of everyday people is largely due to this opening fable. They explain that Carson’s story takes Cold War era fears of radioactivity (an invisible, odorless killer) and redirect them into a new fear over environmental pollution that is, likewise, an invisible, odorless killer. This is a compelling interpretation that explains the rhetorical power of Carson’s story but it misses the larger point. Namely, that at its origin, environmentalism was grounded in a mythological story about a cursed land. Faced with a choice over whether to continue in this fantastical, narrative vein or enter the domain of scientific facts, environmentalism tried the latter. Environmentalism has thus become a scientific expedition largely regulated by Western scientists who tell us how many ppb of certain pollutants will be toxic and how many degrees hotter our earth can be before we are doomed. But here we see again the linear temporal model cropping up again which may explain the inability, according to James Lovelock, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict the rising temperatures we have experienced. In light of the failures of the exclusively scientific approach, it is worth considering another option.
What if Carson had written about how the disappearance of birds was accompanied by the appearance of flickering screens in every home? What if she had drawn a connection between the lack of biodiversity and the dearth of infodiversity? Or the decrease in plant life and the increase in advertised life? To do so would necessitate a new worldview: a blue worldview that acknowledges the interconnection between mental pollution and environmental degradation, spiritual desecration and real-world extinctions.
Keeping one foot within the domain of imagination, environmentalism could speak not only of the disappearance of the wild birds due to physical pollutants but also their disappearance due to mental pollutants. We could wonder at the connection between a culture’s inability to name more than a handful of plants, and the lack of biodiversity in the surrounding nature. And instead of assuming that the lack of biodiversity in external reality caused our poor recognition skills, we would entertain the opposite possibility: that the fewer plants we recognize, the fewer plants will manifest.
Blue activism begins with the realization that internal reality is connected to external reality and then wonders at the relation between pollution of internal reality and the desecration of external reality. The primary pollutant of our mental environment is corporate communication. It is no longer controversial to claim that advertisers stimulate false desires. Any parent knows that after their child watches the Saturday morning cartoons they will suddenly "need" new toys, new treats, new junk. But the effects of advertising go beyond, what the marketers call, “demand generation”. Advertising obliterates autopoesis, self-creation. It is an info-toxin that damages our imagination and our world picture, essential elements of our mental environment. Activists must work on the assumption that there is a connection between the level of pollution in our minds and the prevalence of pollution in our world. At the most basic level, this is because when our minds are polluted, and our imaginations stunted, we are unable to think of a different way of doing things. At a more complex level, it is because our mental environment dictates, to a certain extent, whether certain beings manifest in our physical environment. Naming calls beings into existence and when all the words we know are corporate-speak, the only beings that will manifesto are corporate- owned.
To understand how the pollution of the mental environment can impact the manifestation of beings, consider the story of the Passenger Pigeon. In 1810 one of the great American ornithologists, Alexander Wilson, observed a flock of Passenger Pigeons so plentiful that it blacked out the sun for three days. On another occasion he documented a flock estimated to be two hundred and forty miles long and a mile wide and comprised of over a billion -- 1,000,000,000 -- birds. A century later, the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1, 1914. How do we explain this alarming extinction of the Passenger Pigeon?
If we take a materialist activist position, then we will argue that their sudden demise is due to a combination of forces, all of which are located outside the psyche: overhunting combined with unenforced laws against killing the birds in their nesting places was exacerbated by the telegraph which was used to track the birds over hundreds of miles. The species death of the passenger pigeon is thus interpreted as a tragedy of specific technologies: guns, nets, laws and communication systems. Of course, this account is not wrong; it would be mistaken to argue that these technologies did not play a major factor in their extinction.
But physical environmentalism boils down to conservationism. It is allopathic, only able to treat the symptom, the disappearance of the birds, without considering the root cause. By focusing our attention exclusively on material forces, we are confined to certain activist tactics: a spectrum from reformist gestures of calling for greater enforcement of environmental protection laws, courageous tree sits and militant ELF arsons. And while these actions are commendable, and with open acknowledgment that a diversity of tactics is necessary, the focus on a secular materialist politics is limiting our success. Under this model, Ted Turner is considered a philanthropic hero because he is the nation’s largest landowner and maintains the largest privately owned bison herd. What we do not need is a rich patron of endangered species, but instead a world without endangered species. That requires more than money, it necessitates a paradigm shift.
The unexplainable extinction of the passenger pigeon is a symptom of the state of our mental environment. Species facing extinction can only be saved if we take their disappearance as a symptom and address the root cause of their disappearance. Because of an over-reliance on a secular, materialist conception of politics, scientists dictate the aims of activists. The irony is that our exclusive concern over the physical environment renders us unable to save it.
The curious interplay between our imagination and external reality gives credence to the argument that the struggles over the mental environment are the future of activism. The future of activism begins with the realization that only with a clear mind, a clean mental environment, do we approach the possibility of a clean physical environment.
Dispel immediately the notion that our mental environment is unique to each individual. Just as we share our natural environment, we also share our mental environment, which is crafted through the culture we consume – the television shows we watch, the websites we frequent and the symbols and concepts that comprise our thoughts. Thus, the mental environment is not something entirely within us but is instead something that is outside of our complete control and shared collectively.
Activism of the mental environmentalism is not a politics of solipsism, or an attempt to dodge the imperative of direct action. Instead, developing a politics of anti-consumerism and anti-materialism, places the role of imagination back into the forefront. Denying corporations the right to dominate our mental environment is the most effective long-term strategy of insurrection in the twenty- first century because it directly influences the manifestation of our natural environment. By targeting the mental polluters, vandalizing billboards and blacking out advertisements, we do more than clean up urban blight -- we clear a creative space for a revolutionary moment.
This article was written by Micah White and originally published in Reconstruction 10.3
Posted 6 months ago on Aug. 17, 2014, 10 a.m. EST by MicahWhite
As righteous people, how can we live in a world that is poisonous to our souls, harmful to our minds and at odds with our ideals?
Common sense counsels us that we have only two options: either imitate or hate the world. But if we remain stuck within this binary opposition, we will lose ourselves: if we imitate the world we sacrifice our spirit; if we hate the world we succumb to being reactionary and lose the positive passion that grounds our affirmation. What then can we do? This is the question that Seneca, the great Stoic sage, posed nearly two millennia ago. And his answer speaks to today’s struggle of being true to oneself in a corporatist society.
Roman imperial culture was as ruinous to Seneca’s ideals as endgame corporatism is to ours. In a well-known letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca writes that exposure to crowds and the entertainment they consume ought to be avoided because within the crowd we lose our inner resolve for living a good life. “To consort with the crowd is harmful,” Seneca writes in Letter VII of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, “[because] there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” To prove his point, Seneca tells of his experience watching a gladiator death-match and returning home feeling “more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous and even more cruel and inhuman” than before.
In our era, Seneca’s observation will often be rejected on the presumption that his critique of mass culture is based on an aristocratic or antidemocratic philosophy. Proponents of this position will argue that Seneca’s dislike of crowds is due only to a prejudice toward common people and that his position is therefore not worthy of consideration. But this argument misses the deep philosophical insight that Seneca opens for us—there is a correlation between the culture that surrounds us and our inner life. If Seneca is correct then each of us has a legitimate reason to be concerned about involuntary exposure to violence, pornography, and lies because these cultural forms are destructive to our spirit. In other words, Seneca’s stoic philosophy provides another way to understand spiritual insurrection.
The pressing concern is how to resist the dominant culture in such a way that our ideals remain intact and our will to fight stays strong. And it is on this question that Seneca is most articulate. For Seneca, we must be on our guard at all times. He writes: “much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it!” But Seneca refuses to accept that we ought to either imitate or loathe the world.
Instead, Seneca proposes that we develop a parallel culture in which we commune among ourselves to strengthen our opposition to the dominant culture. Seneca’s counsel is simple: “Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve.” While this advice seems simple, it is actually the most difficult to accept because it foregoes the principles of mass participation and mass culture that underlie the majority of contemporary politics.
It would be a mistake to assume that what Seneca has in mind is a politics of neutral moderation. For a stoic, moderation fails to address the root cause of society’s ills. Instead, the art of stoicism is to live within the tension of two extremes without seeking the middle path of unprincipled moderation. Stoicism challenges us to live an affirmation amidst the world as it is, to maintain our inner resolve in the face of temptation and to teach resistance by way of personal example. It is a difficult task for which Seneca offers only one suggestion: decrease your desire.
Seneca writes that the key to attaining happiness, pleasure, riches and anything else of value is, paradoxically, to lower our desires. He relates the story of Epicurus who when asked by Idomeneus how to make his friend Pythocles rich replied, “If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” This wisdom does not only apply to wealth, Seneca argues, and he goes on to give further examples of what Epicurus could have said: “‘if you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires’; ‘if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure for ever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires’; ‘if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.’” And I think Seneca would agree if we were to add one of our own to the list and say that if you wish to make a spiritual insurrection, do not wait for many people to join, instead subtract from your desires.
Seneca challenges us to imagine a positive cultural movement that is built on the shared practice of a radical decrease in desire. He suggests that we first build small friendship networks of resistance that are impervious to the influences of mass culture because their highest ideal is a life without consumption. Seneca encourages us to be like the wise man, who when asked why he devotes his life to a philosophy that may reach only a handful of people replied, “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”
— Micah White, PhD lives on the north coast of Oregon. Follow him at @BeingMicahWhite. A version of this article originally appeared in Adbusters