Communizing Moments: “What’s Left?” May 2018, MRR #420

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We wanted to communalize our politics, our friendships, our minds. We were five anarchists who, having read Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism, decided we were an affinity group that wanted to take matters to the next level. We drove into Los Padres National Park and hiked a day into the Sespe Wilderness. Our plan was to camp, fast for three days, and then drop mescaline together. It was 1971, and even back then real mescaline was rare. It was probably LSD. It wasn’t just the times; we were a little nuts.

One of our company had to hike right back out due to medical issues, but the rest of us stayed bivouacked in a grove of shady trees near an icy mountain creek while we drank only water and avoided doing much else. The collective psychedelic trip was typical. Ego death. Oneness with all things. Direct communication with the collective unconsciousness and group mind. Seeing without eyes, talking without speech, traveling without the body. Becoming one with the transcendent. Oh yes, and lots of brilliant colors and mystical patterns. I never hallucinated independent visuals, but the drug made the unmediated kairos pushy, fiery, as if electricity raced through my veins. Much of what I felt was familiar thanks to a non-drug spiritual experience I’d had a couple years before. After what we considered were profound revelations culminating in collective consciousness, we broke our fast with Dinty Moore Beef Stew over a sparkling campfire in a percolating night. The next morning, we hiked back out.

Experimenting with drug-induced group mind was all the rage in the day, from the Trips Festivals of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the Weather Underground’s acid fueled criticism sessions. But the unmediated all-one spiritual experience of various New Age religions and communalist cults was just as prominent. Harvard professor, LSD guru, and psychedelic pioneer Richard Alpert believed it was possible to achieve the psychedelic moment without drugs, through spiritual means, and he wrote a famous book Be Here Now as Baba Ram Dass about the possibility of staying all-one all the time without the benefit of LSD. Even Dr. Bronner promoted the All-One mystical experience through his magic castile soap.

Beat poet and anarchist Kenneth Rexroth wrote a book, Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century, which circulated in manuscript form before being published in 1974. In it he laid out various examples of the libertarian communal tradition. For the pre-modern era he covered the neolithic village, early religious communities like the Essenes and early Church monasticism, the beginnings of open class warfare in various rural rebellions and peasant wars, and the apocalyptic/millenarian/quasi-communist religious movements of Münster, the Anabaptists, and the Diggers. The Russian peasant commune, early American utopian communes, and the beginnings of overt anarchist and communist political experiments completed his survey of the modern era. Rexroth nicely linked up the spiritual and political roots of communalism, and it wouldn’t take much to extend his analysis to the insurrectionary/communizing politics of today’s anarchist/left communist milieu.

This will be yet another essay critiquing Leftist practice and politics, except what I’ll be talking about are the promises and problems of what might be called the propitious communizing moment. Whether the experience is political, spiritual, or drug-induced, this is one polarity of the human experience that has been around for a long time, perhaps as long as there have been humans. I hate to use words like “trans-historical” or “human nature” because, first and last, humans are social beings. And to argue that such unmediated communizing moments are merely the product of human biochemistry is misdirected because all human experience is biochemically based. But what of the insistence that any such experience be made universal, all-encompassing, and 24/7?

Perhaps my most disturbing moment came when I once scored weed from a hippie house where the goal was to remain dosed on acid morning, noon, and night. They kept a bottle of non-chlorinated mineral water laced with LSD in the refrigerator and everyone drank from it throughout the day. The memory of the tranced-out zombie residents haunts me still. I remember both Ken Kesey and Wavy Gravy talking about the gaping holes in their memories where data and recollection simply disappeared from prolonged acid use, a black hole, a dark star, the “smokin’ holes where my memory used to be” in “the train wreck of the mind.”

I occasionally sit zazen at the San Francisco Soto Zen Center. Communally organized and hierarchically structured, the goal is to remain present here and now at all times even while profound incidents of immanence and transcendence are considered rare. Everyday mindfulness as opposed to perpetual nirvana. That the highly organized communalism of such spiritual institutions often degenerates into kool-aid cults organized by and around crazed gurus bent on mass murder or collective suicide is not at all surprising.

Which brings us back to politics. The demand in the the ’60s was not only for permanent revolution but REVOLUTION NOW. Raoul Vaneigem and the Situationists talked of the “revolution of everyday life” and Daniel Cohn-Bendit argued that “the reason to be a revolutionary in our time is that it’s a better way to live.” The manifesto for libertarian communism however was Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism. And his post-scarcity, post industrial, post Marxist anarchist communism was nothing if not utopian. He proposed decentralized, autonomous communes where divisions between theory and practice, freedom and necessity, individual and collective, town and country, industry and agriculture, nature and humanity, technology and ecology are merged into a revolutionary synthesis, an unmediated totality, a political all-one. From the decentralized communism of self-contained communes, Bookchin’s social ecology eventually broke with post-scarcity anarchism for a more practical, communalist libertarian muncipalism based on democratic citizens’ assemblies in towns, cities, and urban neighborhoods linked by regional democratic confederalism. That in turn has become the basis for the revolutionary Kurdish politics in Rojava.

I understood early on that daily psychedelic use was not advisable, but it took me longer to realize I preferred workaday mindfulness to everlasting nirvana, or practical libertarian municipalism to utopian post-scarcity anarchism. I would rather my propitious, unmediated communizing moments be less awe-inspiring and all-encompassing. I’ve mentioned the tendency in such spiritual experiences to degrade into authoritarian cults of personality with a propensity for murder and mayhem. Consider that the politics in question also have an affinity with fascism’s unmediated collectivism. To the old Soviet precept about the politicization of aesthetics, where art is subordinated to politics a la socialist realism, Walter Benjamin contended that the key element to Fascist regimes is the aestheticization of politics. Life and politics are conceived of as innately artistic, to be structured as an art form, and thus imbued with eternal spectacle. In turn, Fascism’s utopian fantasies are of an unmediated poetic space where direct communication is the howl of the dog that goes silent. Life, politics, and art can only be redeemed from fascist degeneration, according to Benjamin, by making them truly dialectical, a concrete form of praxis.

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Religion Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” March 2008, MRR #298

One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.

I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.

I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”

The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.

For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”

This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?

In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.

This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?

Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.

First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.

We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.

Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”

I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.

What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”

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