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From Daniel Pinchbeck: Life During Wartime

September 13, 2007

From the September 2007 Whole Life Times Prophet Motive Column:

Since my early memories of watching the Watergate hearings on my grandmother’s couch when I was a kid, I always felt alienated and disenfranchised from the political process. Although I participated in the occasional protest, even that activity seemed like a meaningless and almost nostalgic gesture to me. My impression of politics was of a rigged spectacle of manufactured consent, a system that only allowed for compromise or capitulation to the corporate and financial interests that pulled the puppet strings of power. From this perspective, the rise of George Bush seemed natural and inevitable.

After the dissolution — by many accounts, the targeted destruction — of the Radical Left in the early 1970s, many progressives abandoned any hope of transforming the system and turned to other pursuits, from Buddhism to academia to business to literary and creative endeavors. Younger people like myself followed in their footsteps. Despite our uneasy awareness of the destructive effects of U.S. policies across the world, many of us felt that the most meaningful and important work we could do was to change ourselves and actualize our individual potential. Seeking personal and spiritual fulfillment, we abandoned the sphere of politics to the bureaucrats, PR flacks and corrupt sycophants who seemed to thrive in it.

In recent years, we have witnessed an accelerating degeneration of the U.S. political system, from rule of law to rule by force. Most of us have avoided confronting the shocking meaning of this change. As Al Gore writes in The Assault on Reason, the executive branch, with the complicity of the legislative and judiciary branches, has dismantled much of the separation of powers carefully guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, we have embarked on a “War on Terrorism” that can never be won since our enemy is not a state but potentially anyone who chooses violent means of resistance, along with seemingly unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are facing a new situation, and it is critical we understand the full parameters of what is taking place. The bestselling Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, offers a valuable analysis of current sociopolitical trends. Negri and Hardt are bidding to be the Marx and Engels of our time. Beneath the current crisis of political legitimacy, they see an enormous potential for liberation: the possibility of constituting a global democracy, a planetary “society without a state,” with a new set of institutions, legal codes, and social systems.

Hardt and Negri base their analysis on a number of factors. Following Marx, they believe that changing forms of material production shape human consciousness. In recent times, there has been a shift in emphasis from industrial goods — cars, food, clothing, etc. — to the “immaterial production” of software, media, ideas, images and affective relationships. Immaterial production tends to be a collaborative and communal process, and one that directly impacts and reshapes our social reality. For instance, a software advance in computer networks or mobile phones gives us new ways to connect with each other, while a popular new film might imprint a new style of interacting. Realizing that conditions have changed since Marx’s vision of class struggle and a revolutionary proletariat, Hardt and Negri postulate a global multitude of individuals that communicate through the shared space of the commons and could organize themselves through distributed networks.

Our increasingly networked society points toward a new global orchestration that would eliminate the need for a centralized state apparatus. For this to happen, the multitude would have to realize a shared political project — not just demonstrating against the powers-that-be, as in the massive international protests against the Iraq war, but self-organizing into a truly constitutive body. Although they admit they do not know how this takes place, Negri and Hardt theorize that “insurrectional activity” is no longer divided into successive stages, as in the revolutions of the modern era, but “develops simultaneously.” They note, “Resistance, exodus, the emptying out of the enemy’s power and the multitude’s construction of a new society are one and the same process.”

The sudden fall of the Berlin Wall showed that power structures collapse when the multitude swarms against them. Unfortunately, without advanced planning, such opportunities do not lead to positive outcomes. If we are approaching a similar breakthrough in the West, we require an alternative vision and practical systems that support a shift to a healthier way of life. Some stirrings in this direction include movements like Transition Town in the UK, where local communities are preparing themselves for the effects of peak oil and climate change.

Many of us cut ourselves off from participating in a hypocritical society’s power games in order to seek spiritual or creative fulfillment. However, at a time when war has become a “permanent social relation,” and the planet’s life support systems are in jeopardy, we need to rethink our priorities. Ultimately, our commitment to self-knowledge and our responsibility to society cannot be separated. Reinventing politics through human connections and community actions is a true spiritual path.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway Books, 2002) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). His features have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Wired and many other publications.

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