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

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snippets from label for 32 oz. bottle of
“Dr. Bronner’s Supermild 18-in-1 Baby-Castile Soap”

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.