Part 35 of Prisoners of the Real
We can't go back. The only route is through the current crisis and on to the next stage of human evolution. But we can only get there if we know where we want to go.
First and foremost, the impulses toward centralization, rationalization, absolutism, and hierarchy must be rejected as means toward personal liberation and global harmony. This is especially difficult at a time when the need for global control is so strongly asserted and threatens to erase the vision of free communities. Complicating matters further is the confusion between the concept of true community and the State. The more a group of people allows itself to be represented from outside, the less community life is left in it.
Community is the joint and active management of what we hold in common, a primary aspiration of all human beings. Survival itself depends on the use of community structures and institutions to promote genuine freedom and spontaneous social action.
Second, we must recognize that community isn't a rigid idea but instead a living form, shaped by daily experience. It must satisfy the demands of real situations rather than abstractions. Like any realization, community is not reached once and for all time. Every moment presents new challenges and calls for original answers. For the individual, community building requires the inner disposition to pursue a life in common, despite the prospect of adverse circumstances and anxiety, tribulations, and toil. What sustains it is spirit, trust and love.
Community begins when its members see their common purpose and relation to the whole, a living togetherness that is the essence of sister and brotherhood. In that sense, few true communities currently exist in our "post-modern" world. Most of our cities have no real centers, and we devote little time to defining what holds us together. That work has mostly been turned over to elected representatives and appointed bureaucrats. Their "rational collectives" leave little space for warmth or friendship in the press of political and economic reality. Visions of togetherness are usually viewed as romantic fantasy, conceivable at all only in terms of their concrete effects.
Dionysian collectives, in contrast, are the seeds of an organic commonwealth that place true solidarity at the center of social experience. Every act of true friendship, every moment of selfless aid in our rationalized "post-industrial" world, brings social transformation a step nearer. This is true community building, and it occurs whenever autonomous actions create dynamic unity.
The Dionysian path is known by many names – metaphysical reconstruction, holistic epistemology, deep ecology, and new age claptrap, among others. Critics rightly note that attacks on rationalism and "instrumental reason" often extend too far, ending in rejection of all forms of purposeful activity and a retreat into the mystical haze of nature worship and “magical thinking.” Wary of the cult of technique, cultural revolutionaries sometimes confuse technology with practice and reject all human inventiveness as wanton dominance. In truth, however, it is possible to make peace with nature even while acknowledging the separation created by our consciousness. As Christopher Lasch explained, "Nature sets limits to human freedom, but it does not define freedom."
Ecological and systems thinking provide a theoretical foundation for the Dionysian approach. The former encompasses the realization that structures that may appear rigid in nature are actually manifestations of processes in continual flux; the latter has moved beyond analysis of complex machines to an understanding of relationships and integration in living systems. After 2000 years of reducing the world to smaller and smaller building blocks, science has finally turned its attention to principles of organization. Every organism is an integrated whole, a living system. Families and communities exhibit the same characteristics of wholeness as cells and ecosystems.
Yet the metaphysical reconstruction implied by a turn to the Dionysian principle also involves reconciliation of two realms of experience that have long been viewed as separate and irreconcilable – the political and spiritual. Marx's claim that religion is the "opiate of the people" has been as debilitating as the notion that enlightenment is a purely personal pursuit, fundamentally incompatible with the "dirty" world of social action.
The keys to a synthesis have been found in ecological consciousness and the post-modern politics of Gaia. Together they form a new cultural paradigm – planetary consciousness. With roots in myth, Gaia re-emerged as hypothesis, out of research on the auto-regulation of the Earth as a living system. According to James Lovelock, originator of the hypothesis, "the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, can be regarded as a single entity." Studying the nature of Earth's atmosphere, he and other researchers discovered that it is not merely a biological product but instead an active system designed to maintain a chosen environment within the biosphere.
Since this initial research Gaia has developed as a theoretical and artistic context, embraced by social critics, articulated in music, and developed as an eco-social organizing principle. There is talk also of a Gaian mode of consciousness, one acknowledging that science has a myth-making quality. Closely linked to ecological concepts, Gaian consciousness recognizes that opposites can – in fact, must – coexist.
This emerging form of spirituality is politically consistent with certain strains of Green thinking, in particular deep ecology, holistic feminism, community-based populism, and bio-regionalism. All of these incorporate a subtle awareness of the oneness of life, the interdependence of its limitless manifestations, and its cyclical processes of change and transformation. The sense that we are connected to the cosmos as a whole is a spiritual revelation that ties together the disparate expressions of this new consciousness.
In The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics, Charlene Spretnak argued persuasively that Green concepts of inter-relatedness and sustainability open the way toward what she called post-modern spirituality. Human beings, she wrote, are social and interconnected, and the boundaries between us are more illusory than we normally think. Taking account of the nature reverence buried within most religious traditions, she concluded that a spiritual grounding can not only answer a deep hunger in modern experience, but also mesh comfortably with the Green tendrils that have sprouted around the world. Like others who are attempting to describe the next stage of humanity's journey, she found herself in a region where cosmic consciousness and political analysis meet.
William Irwin Thompson defined the current transition as a shift from the cultural ecology of the Atlantic, with its capitalist, industrial approach, to a new Pacific ecology that is more communal and balanced. On the spiritual level, this translates as a move from obedience to symbiosis. Working with a series of paradoxes, he noted that "Good at one level of order becomes evil at another.... In the age of mental understanding of doctrine (the current Atlantic era), obedience to law is evil, for it aborts the development of the mind. In an age of universal compassion (the new Pacific era), understanding of doctrine becomes evil, for it simply sanctifies murder in religious warfare."
The key to a new age, says Thompson, is the acceptance of difference, "the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal." The main danger, on the other hand, is what he has labeled "collectivization through terror," the stamping out of differences. Just as mono-crop agriculture does violence to nature, a mono-crop society – essentially the extreme of an industrial mentality – would be deadly to human nature. Even Green politics, which may yet develop an ecology of consciousness, could instead become a fundamentalist ideology, rejecting flexibility and promoting a Luddite contempt for innovation.
"The real secret of freedom," Thompson once wrote, "seems to lie in the ability to deal with ambiguity, the capacity to tolerate noise and yet hear within its wild, randomizing abandon the possibilities of innovation and transformation."
Next: The Eclipse of Free Expression
To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey