Boutique capitalism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2021

I’d gotten high on marijuana, hashish, LSD, MDA, cocaine, amphetamine, barbiturates, heroin, jimson weed, nitrous oxide, peyote, mescaline and psilocybin by 1972 living in Ventura, California. But I still hadn’t gotten drunk. I didn’t start drinking alcohol with any frequency until late 1974, over a year after I turned 21 and had already moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. But in the spring of 1972 I didn’t like booze. I didn’t like people who drank instead of getting stoned, and I hated loud bar scenes. So I was jealous and miffed when a friend regaled me with the news that “Hey, I was drinking at John’s At The Beach and John Lennon just showed up, jumped on stage and played ‘Norwegian Wood’.” And I was seriously annoyed to learn that Lennon returned two days later to play another brief set, this time backed by a few local musicians.

John’s At The Beach was a local restaurant on Seaward Avenue that offered surf-and-turf dining and a separate full bar with tap beer and live folk music all in a bohemian ambiance. John Lennon—under heavy scrutiny by the Nixon administration as well as by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI—showed up both times accompanied by Yoko Ono. I’d heard the rumors that John and Yoko were secretly hanging out in nearby Ojai to consult with Jiddu Krishnamurti. They’d been spotted eating dinner at the Ranch House restaurant in Meiners Oak and walking around in the secluded, toney East End neighborhood. Krishnamurti had lived in Ojai on and off, but he’d long disassociated himself from the Theosophical Society which had groomed him to be their next “World Teacher.” And Krishnamurti had been in Europe at the time so the gossip was false.

Today, Ojai is an upscale residential city, a bedroom community for professionals commuting to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and a retirement spot friendly to creatives and the spiritually minded. Long a tourist destination, Ojai has an ordinance prohibiting chain stores to encourage local small businesses and retain the city’s unique small-town flavor. Organic agriculture, farmers markets and eco-friendly art are promoted. Opportunities for hiking, camping, tennis and golf abound. With a history of cattle ranches and fruit orchards, cannabis cultivation was and is a major part of the local economy, augmented by legal marijuana sales. Ojai is often described as quaint and charming, but also as exclusive and very, very white.

Tucked away in the Western Transverse Mountain Ranges, the Ojai Valley was home to the Native American Ventureño Chumash before Rancho Ojai was established as a Mexican land grant. Once a part of the United States and initially named Nordhoff, the town’s climate gained a reputation for healthy air quality, becoming a popular wintering location for wealthy Easterners and Midwesterners. But Ojai’s repute as a spiritual center is longstanding. The Matilija Canyon hot springs were touted for their mystical healing powers and were the basis for several resort spas. The Theosophical Society established the Krotona Institute in 1926, which was initially home base for Krishnamurti before he broke with the Society in 1929. Artist, sculptor and ceramicist Beatrice Wood settled in Ojai in 1948 to be near Krishnamurti and was part of the burgeoning artists and writers colony there. Being a hippie haven in the ‘60s and ‘70s added to Ojai’s standing as a creative and spiritual locus. The city continues to call itself “Shangri-La,” alluding to the region’s idyllic health and spirituality-focused natural environment while referencing the 1937 film adaptation of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon about an isolated, mystical sanctuary.

I liked Ojai. I had friends and dope dealers who lived in Ojai. I regularly attended the Ojai Music Festival and I once hiked into the Sespe Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest for a mescaline-fueled adventure. I also visited Krotona for occasional lectures and events. The Theosophical Society was founded by Madame H.P. Blavatsky, considered an occult philosopher or a charlatan depending on one’s point of view. Theosophy is a wacky set of ideas, based on the teachings of Blavatsky, who believed in Atlantis and Lemuria, and who claimed to have discovered a secret, universal esoteric core of wisdom to all of humanity’s major and minor religions. In turn, Theosophy styles itself a synthesis of religion, philosophy, science and metaphysics. Theosophy was mystical, New Agey horseshit before mystical, New Agey horseshit existed. In the case of Ojai as a spiritual center, this horseshit was footnoted by conjuring up a sacred geography of Ley lines, vortices, the world grid of powerful energy meridians organized in a symmetrical pattern across the planet, even the big dragon and other mystical animals supposedly traced by Xuan Kong Feng Shui along the California coast from Point Conception to the Ventura headlands.

My Ventura days were my first experience with the confluence of eco-friendly artisanal localism, hippie counterculturism, and New Age spirituality that I call boutique capitalism. I ran into another scenic artsy-craftsy town similar to Ojai when I moved to Northern California and visited Carmel-by-the-Sea. Similar picturesque touristy enclaves exist in Taos, Marfa, Sitka, Beaufort, Galena, Edgartown, Stowe and St. Augustine. They all proclaim themselves ecologically-minded, artist-friendly, local-centric communities that try so hard at being unique they’ve become an alternate cookie-cutter mold for what’s oh-so-precious.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the ’60s counterculture I belonged to, in part because the hippie milieu was riven with contradictions. Communitarian and communalist sentiments warred with an individualism reminiscent of the Wild West, with communes intent on going back to the land populated by people wearing buckskins and preaching “do your own thing.” Decentralized organic food coops gave rise to global corporations like Whole Foods while the back-to-the-land/environmental/wilderness movements produced private companies like Patagonia. Stewart Brand started the Whole Earth Catalog, the quintessential resource for back-to-the-land communal living, before endorsing a high-tech libertarian capitalism that has become the foundation of Silicon Valley. When John Lichfield argued that the rebellious youth of the ’60s “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually,” it’s actually the rightwing libertarian currents that triumphed.

Finally, the New Age spiritualism I thoroughly despise was also a contradictory phenomenon. There were the guru/disciple communalist cults but there’s also an overpowering emphasis on the spiritual authority of the self, an “unmediated individualism” that sees the individual’s experiences as the primary source of spiritual authority. This is all wrapped in a vision of cyclical time that emphasizes discrete recurring historical ages, with our current age a time of spiritual decline and degeneracy. Such a belief is descended from the parafascist Traditionalism of René Guénon and Julius Evola that was cousin to Blavatsky’s Theosophy. In turn, the New Age has produced new gospels of prosperity and such oxymorons as “spiritual capitalism” and “conscious capitalism.”

These elements combine into a boutique capitalism that is in a highly coevolved relationship with what might be called “normie capitalism”—the dog-eat-dog capitalism of never-ending growth and ever centralizing power and wealth. The tourism and goodwill that such hip, cool enclaves depend on requires the excess wealth generated by the larger capitalist society. But if by some fluke boutique capitalism became the norm, that small-scale, individualist, conscious capitalism would inevitably evolve into some new version of corporate monopoly capitalism. That’s because of the exigencies of totalizing, self-perpetuating class dynamics generated around private property and the profit motive inherent in capitalism.

In other words, decentralized competitive capitalism develops into centralized anti-competitive capitalism by virtue of its internal logic. And efforts to curtail capitalism have invariably failed—from traditions of the commons, church anti-usury edicts and feudal reciprocity to the social democratic welfare state or the one-party rule and state nationalization of modern Communism. Cool boutique capitalism’s attempts to restrain that overarching violent, avaricious capitalism is also doomed to failure. Promoting boutique capitalism as some kind of alternative may assuage one’s conscience, but capitalism is the only and inescapable game in town.

As for John Lennon, the ex-Beatle who wrote “Working Class Hero,” “Power to the People” and “Imagine” was an abusive, rich, popstar asshole who hung out with other wealthy celebreties and occasionally went slumming. And all the drugs I took in the ’60s? Alcohol was the only one that truly kicked my ass and and took control. My 35+ years addiction to it required a year of therapy and ongoing vigilance to maintain my sobriety. It’s been said that, if you remember the ’60s you weren’t there. I was there and I remember.

POSTSCRIPT: The ’60s era was marked by small, socially conscious cities like Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Madison. They were student hubs for New Left protest that saw liberal city councils elected and were disparaged with the prefix “the People’s Republic of…”. That time also saw the evolution of Murray Bookchin’s post-scarcity anarchist communism into a libertarian socialist municipalism that has since taken root in Kurdish Rojava. Whether boutique capitalism can be transformed into a revolutionary municipalism may be the subject of a future column.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“John Lennon’s Ojai Weeks” by Mark Lewis (Ojaihub)
“Seeing Ojai Through the Dragon’s Eyes” by Lee Ann Manley (Ojaihub)
“Ojai, California” on Wikipedia
California’s utopian colonies by Robert V. Hine
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968” by John Lichfield (Guardian Weekly)
Capital v.1-3 by Karl Marx
Post-Scarcity Anarchism and The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism by Murray Bookchin

 

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Godless recovery: “What’s Left?” October 2018, MRR #425


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining.

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I stopped drinking on January 1, 2010. I did so under the guidance of Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. Right off, I went to meetings—physiology of addiction classes, AA meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, and appointments with counselors, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists. But once my body started to detox after 30 days, I got depressed. Real depressed. Clinically depressed. I did cognitive behavioral therapy for another eight months until I felt comfortable enough to call myself sober.

I was an atheist when I was a drunk, and I remain an atheist now that I’m sober. I crafted my sobriety out of various elements from the above list of recovery programs, not out of convenience but from what felt true. And the idea of a “higher power” never felt true. I could admit I had no power over my drinking, and I could surrender to my powerlessness. Just not TO anything or anyone. I was able to surrender to an impersonal universe, to my situation, to existence itself. I was able to say “I give up.” And that worked, without having to invoke a deity or “higher power” or any object/subject to which to surrender.

Actually, the act of surrendering works, with or without a “higher power.” The psychology behind this was clearly described by Gregory Bateson in his essay “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.” Our Enlightenment definition of “self” equates to the conscious mind, which we believe controls us, our body, through our will power. But it is absurd to argue that consciousness—a part of the mind that functions through ten percent of the brain, generously speaking—can possibly comprehend let alone control the remaining ninety percent of the mind/brain, not to mention the rest of the human body, and thus constitutes the true “self” capable of controlling the whole individual.

Little wonder then that the fictitious Cartesian duality of mind versus matter causes problems. In the case of alcoholics the disastrous assertion that “I can resist drinking and stay sober through sheer will power” can generate a dangerous alcoholic pride that in turn engenders suicidal risk taking. To repeat myself, it is ludicrous to argue that consciousness, which comprises considerably less than one percent of the individual, can control to any significant degree the rest of the individual. The act of surrender then is more than an acknowledgment of this lack of self-control and will power. “Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender,” Bateson wrote. “It is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.”

Giving up the illusion of will power and self-control allows the individual to begin the process of recovery. That means embracing the act of surrender, of no longer resisting, of giving up. It doesn’t mean believing in god, or a “higher power,” or some external authority. The Black Panther Party pioneered a type of drug rehabilitation in which the heroin addict would “exchange the needle for the gun,” thereby substituting the revolution for god. Unfortunately, when the guns fail or the revolution is inevitably delayed, relapse is more than likely. Surrendering to something external means there’s still something out there to rebel against. Just to surrender however—to give up the “self”—is to start finding yourself.

In rejecting this dichotomy between mind and matter, Gregory Bateson had a simple definition of what constitutes a single unit of mind based on the biology of the human brain. (1) A brain cell, a single neuron, is autonomous, capable of processing blood sugars into the energy needed to sustain itself and electrically fire. (2) The neuron operates on the basis of difference, the fundamental difference being firing or not firing, on or off, yes or no. (3) The neuron is connected via synapses with other neurons into circular or more complex firing patterns to form neural circuitry. Voila, mind! We have thought at its most elemental. From there we can take thought to the biological level (the body with its myriad cells), the social level (comparing how neurons operate in the brain to how humans operate in a social network), and the level of human consciousness (where neural circuitry evolves feedback loops to monitor other neural circuitry).

This model of human consciousness—of a limited self-awareness feedback loop monitoring the vast and immensely complex circuitry of the human brain and body—means that we are aware of only a very small part of our mental and biological totality. “From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity,” according to author J.D. Moyer. “If there’s a lot more ‘in there’ than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it? How do we ‘unlock’ the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds? […] How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?”


Queue up a couple of mental practices that I’m loathe to call spiritual. Zen is as close to atheism as a religion gets and from my limited experience sitting zazen I’ve benefitted from simple mindfulness, dhyāna (observing the breath), and shikantaza (observing the mind) meditation. I’ve mentioned I’m a recovering Catholic so part of what I’ve tried to recover is what good can be found in my upbringing. Marx called religion not just “the opiate of the masses” but also “the heart of a heartless world.” There’s something to be said for stripping god from prayer and making prayer into a deep form of talking to yourself. Paying attention to your mind and engaging in a conversation with it are the essence of a greater self-awareness.

Meditation, especially of the Soto Zen variety, is well understood. The same can’t be said of atheist prayer. How can something like prayer, which purports to be a form of communication, work when what is being communicated with (e.g. god) doesn’t exist? Against the original Cartesian fallacy—Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”—Bateson disciple Anthony Wilden proposed we use “We communicate, therefore we are” to account for both human individuality and sociality. If our individual and social identity is the product of communicating with others, then the “other” is crucial to that process. According to Lev Vygotsky, talking with our parents becomes talking with the “other,” which becomes “self-talk” and eventually “inner speech.” And while inner speech no longer resembles spoken language, it means that human thought evolves socially. Inner speech is learned through communication with others. What starts out as a communal conversation between people remains a social experience even internally because of our tendency to externalize our internal realities as a constructed “other.” As a constructed externality, a fictive “other,” it is intended to recreate our primal communal conversations so essential to our identity. We use this illusion of the “other” to talk to ourselves, for our conscious mind to interact with the non-conscious mind, for “me” to converse with “all-that-is-not-me” through prayer.

Prayer facilitated through a constructed “other”—whether a personal yet parental “god” or a more democratic pantheistic spirituality or even an impersonal, aloof universe—lets us feel less isolated, alone, and lonely. Prayer allows the conscious mind to query the non-conscious mind for guidance, inspiration, forgiveness, solutions to problems, improvements to life, and the fulfillment of emotional needs. Prayer permits us to express thanks and experience gratitude, letting us feel greater personal well being while sometimes “having our prayers answered” by the non-conscious mind in the form of innovative ideas and remedies, emotional fortitude and resiliency, and greater individual and social connectedness. Prayer without a god, without any spirituality is not an oxymoron.

The symmetry of denying the existence of a god while constructing an externalized “other” doesn’t mean slipping into a Cartesian solipsism, into denying the existence of the real world. Me, I surrender without a god to maintain my sobriety. But I also forego the need for constructed externalities. I frequently talk out loud, talk to myself, ask myself how I might help, how I might do better, or be better. According to Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I have no doubt that reality exists, albeit without a god or a spiritual dimension.