With his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn launched the concept of paradigm shift which could be applied to a variety of historical cultural changes as well as desired future ones. Increasingly people are calling for a worldview shift to address our crises with climate, capitalism, social life and more. Because the modern way of life is breaking down, and changing everything requires such a shift, we do well to revisit Kuhn’s analysis to aid us in achieving the transformation.
Although critics argued that he blurred the lines between a total scientific revolution, a paradigm shift in a single area and mere evolution of scientific understanding and practice, there is one unequivocal instance of a paradigm shift that amounted to a revolution. This was the shift from Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the heavens to Copernicus’ heliocentric scheme that overturned the relation between normal human experience and the scientific account of the world.
The Copernican Revolution asserted that what we see isn’t the reality, for we see the sun moving across the sky, but the reality is that the sun is fixed, and it’s the earth that is moving. Of course understanding observed motion as relative to the frame of reference is nothing new; as we walk we see the scenery pass by. Yet of much greater consequence than the change in the map of the heavens was the method employed to produce it that measured phenomena and constructed a model to account for the data.
Newton subsequently created a model of the world composed entirely of elementary material bodies acting in accordance with his laws, again claiming that they are the reality and not the objects of our common experience. According to his paradigm not only is what we see not the reality, but neither is our seeing itself what it appears to be, that is, a distinctly conscious function, but is rather some dance of material particles in our bodies which too are conglomerates of such material elements.
Enlightenment science monopolistically replaced the previous paradigm of Aristotelian science in which everything is a vital essence that we intuit as such, and the difference is illustrated by Kuhn’s comparison of the philosopher’s and Galileo’s approaches to falling bodies. For Aristotle the stone has a particular nature that it seeks to fulfill, and its falling is aimed at coming to rest in its natural place which is on the ground. Galileo redefined the falling stone as a material body having the measurable properties of mass and velocity and for the observed action of which he undertook to find a universal mathematical formula.
We do indeed perceive the weight and movement of objects and can measure them as Galileo did, but what we don’t directly experience are the natural laws that science tells us govern those things and our seeing itself. The basic method of science is to redefine things in the world in such a way that natural laws can be derived from the appearances they present to our senses. That method is epitomized by Emile Durkheim’s invention of the science of sociology in which he proclaimed the existence of “social facts” – previously unrecognized collective human phenomena that cannot be reduced to individual behavior and for which deterministic patterns or laws can be found.
The principal application of all science is to manipulate and thereby control nature, and using it humans have redirected natural things into an endless variety of products and processes including our society. Edward Bernays developed the science of manipulating people with advertising which is akin to that of ideological indoctrination perfected by authoritarian regimes, while models created by theorists practicing the “dismal science” of economics have been imposed on nations and now global humanity. Antonio Gramsci used the term “hegemony” to describe the total system of cultural control exercised by the power elite over people. Such control is a product of science which also forms part of the hegemony.
Our view of the world in the scientific age is that of things whose sensory qualities we perceive but which ultimately consist of entities defined by science as objects in theoretical models that operate according to imperceptible deterministic or probabilistic laws. The invisibility of the commanding forces is especially problematic in the areas of economic, social and conscious life where human control has superseded that of nature.
Kuhn avers that the largest role of theories is to direct scientific activity, and the same is evident in how they figure in culture as a whole: people act as if these things that they don’t see constitute the world, themselves included. Another aspect of science that he brings up is the fundamental belief in its progress. Although the potential for scientific research is endless, more knowledge is not necessarily better either for humanity or the world, yet part of the modern cultural paradigm is faith in scientific and technological progress.
According to him a scientific revolution comes about when applications of the prevailing paradigm encounter contradictions such as measurements at major variance from the geocentric model of the heavens. This sets off a crisis in which scientists frantically search for a resolution of the contradictions and that ends with the development of a new model that satisfactorily accounts for the anomalous observations.
Comparing our culture’s worldview to a scientific paradigm it is clear that the former has run into grave contradiction in the undeniable fact that the age of human progress is over, and we have entered a period of regression with runaway environmental degradation, massive wealth inequality, increasing violent conflict and authoritarianism. As in a scientific paradigm crisis people are now wildly searching for a replacement. However there are these differences: first, science requires a firm model and second, it defines specific puzzles for that to solve. In contrast, the quest for a new cultural worldview is wide open and lacks specific questions for which satisfactory answers might be found. In addition, science seeks a single theory of everything – the goal of the total scientific project. Human culture overall lacks such unity, even as an ideal, and its participants are divided into countless groups with different outlooks.
Nevertheless, because of the urgent existential threat of global environmental catastrophe, much of the search for a new worldview and culture is directed at nature, particularly bare naked nature rather than reductionist conceptions of it. Increasingly people are focusing on experiences of unity with natural things and immediate awareness of their life, and such consciousness is precisely intuition of Aristotle’s essences.
One hundred and eighty-one years before Kuhn wrote a German philosopher used the phrase “Copernican Revolution” to describe how he transferred natural laws from the material world into the operation of human consciousness. Immanuel Kant utterly destroyed human communion with external natural objects, declaring that our consciousness is confined to phenomena upon which we impose the structure. All subsequent phenomenology is basically his scheme, while empirical science also denies direct conscious communion with natural things, explaining experience as mediated by stimuli in such forms as light and audible vibrations plus neurological processes.
For Kuhn a new paradigm serves the needs of scientists to resolve particular contradictions as well as to support and advance their enterprise. With a shift back to Aristotle’s naturalism we reclaim nature as an object of direct experience and our selves as organic parts of it. This is precisely what we want: to live in an integrated fashion within nature, to directly know that we are doing so and that this is the fulfillment of our purpose in life. Making the shift does not exclude science, but rather accepts it for what it is – theoretical models for manipulating nature which we must utilize with care.
While certain Eastern and Indigenous spiritualities offer awareness of universal life Aristotelian essentialism directs attention to our intuitions of the lives of individual things and our unity with them. Also defining people as essences it provides specific guidance for how we should live, especially insofar as human collectivities are also considered essences of which individuals form organic parts. People are united with other people and things in spatially extended collective essences with respect to specific functions that include those of a community as well as consciousness. Although our attention may be more focused on instrumental, material and sensible rather than essential aspects of things, there is no veil of perception: the world is exactly what we immediately experience it as being. It consists of things and collectivities of them whose essences we immediately intuit and the sensible qualities of which we perceive as we are functionally conjoined as intuiting and sensing subjects with the intuitable and sensible natures of objects. Our lives are extended into their lives, while theirs are extended into ours, and immediate awareness of such unity with things moves us to act for their good and our own.
That humans are primarily driven by self-interest is an eternal axiom, but what is the self and what is its interest? As we agonize over the harm caused by people’s pursuit of wealth and status, let’s take a moment to reflect on these questions. What if we were to find that people’s individual self-interest is identical to the interest of all humans as well as that of the whole world? Readers of this article probably already believe that their individual self-interest consists in living in a just society on an environmentally thriving planet. Our challenge is convince everyone else that this is also true for them. Just as we define healthy and unhealthy states for our bodies, it stands to reason that there are analogous conditions for our selves that either minimize or maximize them. This is not an unfamiliar notion: we all at times feel diminished or elevated, and my article explores these states, starting with Christopher Lasch’s 1984 study The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. It then proceeds to review some representations of full, maximal lives or selves in works by James Baldwin, Henry Miller, bell hooks and Wendell Berry. Adding some further philosophical and spiritual considerations yields a conception of the maximizing self which humans by nature aspire to and that consists of vigorously acting in all of their capacities to achieve the ecological civilization.
Exhibit A of the minimal self is for Lasch those victims of the Holocaust who were paralyzed by fear and therefore rendered unable to responsibly act. Moving beyond this phenomenon he reviews several ways in which people’s selves were minimized in his time that include fear of nuclear war and environmental devastation, lack of autonomy in work and domination by media, especially visual forms that replaces the world of things with images. His work belongs to the tradition of analyzing the impact of modern life on the self that has distinguished a variety of aspects: Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” According to Jean Baudrillard people’s identities consist in the status significations of their consumer choices; Kenneth Gergen claims that we are bundles of many selves while some Eastern spiritualities maintain that there are no selves at all anywhere.
A more common sense view is expressed by James Baldwin, who said that Blacks want to be recognized as men, that is, human beings, adding that as whites diminish Blacks, they diminish themselves. His writing is a passionate effusion of his self, his own and collective histories, in all of which places also figure. The factor of place in a self is highlighted by Henry Miller’s portrayal of a Greek man in The Colossus of Maroussi, of whom he wrote, “A more human individual than Katsimbalis I have never met.”* He was of the kind that “…come to you brimming over and they fill you to overflowing…When I think of Katsimbalis bending over to pick a flower from the bare soil of Attica the whole Greek world, past, present and future rises before me…The Greek earth opens before me like the Book of Revelation.”†
In Belonging: A Culture of Place bell hooks describes the maximal self as embedded in an ecosystem of family, community, place and traditional culture. Her fellow rural Kentuckian Wendell Berry expands this idea in The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, asserting that wholeness, which he considers to be true freedom, consists in the life of the small, self-sufficient farmer. For him dependence on others to do one’s own work, industrial capitalism and government is slavery which, as it diminishes the people performing these functions also diminishes one’s self.
Combining these authors’ conceptions of the self gives us an ideal to which we can assent: the self is a vigorous individual human life which is also a part of its history and the place it inhabits. Further, it is an organic part of so many social and nonhuman natural wholes – a family, community, polity, by nature an ecosystem and finally the biosphere. All these are so many diverse identities indivisibly united in an individual, and the maximal life involves functioning in them all to achieve the well-being of one’s individual and collective lives.
A person’s individual life is a particular configuration of the universal life, and one of its essential functions is to temporally and spatially extend. Thus it perpetuates its existence into the future and physically reaches out to things around it with which it becomes functionally conjoined. Those objects do the same, initially in their sensible capacities. Thus, as I first see the apple and am conjoined with it in consciousness, I reach out, touch it to be physically conjoined with it, and finally eat it for a nutritional conjunction. While I act, so does the apple by presenting its sensible qualities to me, then nourishing my body. As it serves me, ultimately I also serve it by planting its seeds. All interactions between things are of this nature, forming conjunctions in which each thing is extended into the other and which serve or not the natures of one or both. In my example there is mutual benefit, while if I bump my head on the tree it remains as it was and my head is injured. The maximizing self seeks mutually beneficial relationships with other things, and multiple benefits from each one. Thus, as I plant and nurture the tree then harvest the apples, it provides the fruit, shade, flowers for pollinators and many more indirect benefits for me. My varied relationships with the tree are so many functional conjunctions of its life and mine, and these all enhance and enlarge my life. Conversely, harming or neglecting the tree diminishes my life to the same extent.
What I have just stated is the basic wisdom of regenerative agriculture and ultimately ecology which I now wish to extend to human relationships. James Baldwin’s observation about racism is a universal truth: as we diminish other lives, we diminish our own, and as we enhance others, we enhance our own. Just as in a regenerative spirit we approach nonhuman objects for manifold mutual benefit, so we must approach other people as human beings for the maximization of all of our lives. For, as Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better,” and conversely, as John Donne wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Living in fear and concentrating on personal survival is the extreme of self-minimization. Functioning as a unit of human capital in the global neoliberal political economy that oppresses all of humanity and devastates the environment is also self-minimizing and ultimately self-destructive. Humans have the multiple natures that I have listed along with a material and spiritual nature. Fully living means actively functioning in all of these identities, and at this time we are urgently being called to do precisely that. It is no sacrifice, as being fully human, belonging, wholeness and maximizing our selves is what we truly desire.
Our life is extending effusive impulsion which continually reaches out to surrounding things and persons to serve our individual interests and, as far as possible, theirs as well. All the wonderful life on earth is not a constant paradise for each part but rather innumerable cycles of coming to be and passing away, however real degradation does exist, principally as the consequence of bad human judgement. Therefore while we want to live exuberantly and in all of our identities, we must use good judgment to coordinate all our functions for total maximum benefit.
By acting in our natures as rational and political animals we may serve all the interests of our manifold selves. Maximizing our selves therefore means acting in all of our capacities, making our identity as citizens primary, ideally in local participatory democracy and robust representative democracy in more comprehensive jurisdictions. Acting together as citizens everyone serves to maximize each other’s selves along with the wellbeing of all human and nonhuman entities, and such collective action is exactly what is needed at this crucial moment in history in order to avert radical minimization of all our selves and life itself.
Fully living is not only what we by nature desire, it is also what we are fundamentally driven to do – at once maximizing our selves and the rest of life, while it in turn does the same for us. Failing to do this mimimizes our selves and all else, so live!
As crises in the world multiply people are receiving the contradictory messages that you’re on your own (YOYO) and that we are all inextricably caught in the single material and ideological web of the global political economy. So they’re faced with the questions of how can they escape the system and its downfall while also overcoming their isolation, which comes down to, what can they do? Answering this question requires an understanding of human agency which in turn depends on the definition of the self. Our current situation tells us both that we are dissolved in the whole, having no distinct self at all, and that we are absolutely independent free agents of self-determination. To resolve this contradiction and move forward we need to first find out what we are and then not just what we can do, but more importantly, what we should do. Over the ages people have held a variety of conceptions of what the self is both in terms of quality and quantity, thus, substituting “soul” for “self” we have the terms “magnanimous” and “pusillanimous.” While people generally fancy themselves as being great rather than small in spirit, sociologist Christopher Lasch explored how false this belief is for most people in his 1984 book The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times.1He identified several cultural factors that reduce people’s characters to minimal selves, thereby continuing a tradition in his discipline that went back decades. In this essay I review various interpretations of the phenomenon then turn to some works expressing and portraying expanded selves which were written precisely to resist and escape the conditions and forces that minimize the self. I then offer a view of the maximal self derived from the systematic philosophy presented in my Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action2 and augmented here with a new account of spirituality. As I define the maximal self I also explain that it is the natural fulfillment of human life, which is to vigorously act in maximal service to its self and the world to bring about the well-being of both.
The Minimal Self
In The Minimal Self Lasch explores how, in many ways individual human agency and identity are reduced, sometimes even obliterated, in modern life, with the nadir of minimization represented by the condition of the most restrained victims of the Holocaust. He cites Bruno Bettelheim’s observation that “systematic terror can force men and women to ‘live, like children, only in the immediate present.’”3 Yet he faults that psychologist for failing to account for “why ‘millions walked quietly, without resistance, to their death,’ why ‘so few of the millions of prisoners died like men.”4 A lively debate on this subject was going on at the time Lasch wrote, and it centered around survival as a core human value, motivation and strategy. One social scientist, Des Pres, claimed, “The survivor’s ‘recalcitrance’ – his refusal to give in to despair or to accept the role of a helpless victim of circumstance – reaffirms the ‘bio-social roots of human existence,’ a will of ‘life itself.’”5 Another researcher, Neusner, objected, saying
It is the survivors who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment…they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live.6
In popular culture Des Pres’ position triumphed, as seen in the incredible 1982 success of the song “Eye of the Tiger” by the band Survivor. Lasch traced the survivalist mentality of the time principally to threats of nuclear war and environmental destruction, and while these justifiably inspire fear, he found people further minimizing themselves by seeking subsistence livings far off the grid and by ignoring or denying the dangers. By the first means people radically limited their participation in society and the world, while practicing the latter they similarly closed their minds to crucial realities.
Since the eighties mainstream culture has proceeded largely with business as usual, the way, Lasch reminds us, of Anne Frank’s family which, for Bettelheim was “‘neither a good way to live, nor the way to survive.’ ‘Extreme privatization’ failed in the face of adversity. ‘Even all Mr. Frank’s love did not keep [his family] alive.’”7 Expanding that psychologist’s thoughts, Lasch continued
On the other hand, those who managed to escape from Europe or to survive the concentration camps understood that ‘when a world goes to pieces, when inhumanity reigns supreme, man cannot go on with business as usual.’ They understood, moreover, that even death is preferable to the passivity with which so many victims of Nazism allowed themselves to be treated as ‘units in a system.’ The concentration camps could not deprive courageous men and women of the freedom to die defiantly, ‘to decide how one wishes to think and feel about the conditions of one’s life.’8
Although several elements of the stress suffered by Holocaust victims contributed to their psychic shrinkage, there is one in particular that we can relate to because it remains ubiquitous. This is the fear that inhibits action, that makes people freeze like rabbits when they sense danger. There are diverse additional aspects of business as usual that serve to minimize the self, and I will address them shortly. For the present, though, I want to mention a few other notable works that deal specifically with the factors of fear and anxiety.
Lasch was one of many analysts who recognized the major cultural shift that commenced with the election of President Ronald Reagan. Another was Barbara Ehrenreich whose 1989 Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class9traced the movement of baby boomers from being 1960s-style counter culturalists to a herd of Babbitts. Economic turmoil in the 1970s that included the OPEC oil crisis, stagflation and the Volker shock was a reality check for young adults who had grown up taking their economic security for granted during the post-World War II boom. Now they were learning that middle class status is not inherited, but must be won and continually preserved by each individual in what had become the neoliberal YOYO economy. With the wholesale off-shoring of industries, leveraged buyouts and more, workers up and down the food chain became disposable. This was the antithesis of the life-long secure careers that their parents had enjoyed and was therefore traumatic, mildly comparable to the Holocaust victims’ ordeal and triggering a proportionate response. The trend has continued unabated, as not only is the job security of the 1960s gone forever, but people today frequently move about between different kinds of work, with technology and businesses undergoing constant transformation. Now it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place and avoid falling behind, falling down and out of the middle class with its illusion of security. Fear of downward mobility has now spread to the upper middle class, as noted by New York Times writer Ross Douthat in a January, 2023 article.10
Ehrenreich’s book continued a tradition of social scientists analyzing the middle class and its frailties. One classic, The Lonely Crowd,11 published in 1952 by David Riesmann, described the self-minimizing “other-directed personality” of people who take their cues for acting from others around them in order to gain their approval. Like some of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s characters, they “live their lives outside of themselves.” As they succeed in winning others’ acceptance, the researchers found that these people were also afflicted with anxiety. A few years earlier Erich Fromm had defined a related characteristic, naming it the “marketing personality” of those who engage in constant self-promotion.12
Returning to The Minimal Self, Lasch identifies a number of additional ways in which the self is minimized in current society, one of which is industrialization that has destroyed the craftsman model of production. The most serious consequence of this mode of production today is the concentration of management in the hands of a small minority of administrators, technicians and now owners as monopolization grows. Consumption, the other side of the production coin, is meanwhile similarly managed by the marketing-media complex. Organizational psychologists and advertisers alike manipulate people, while their discontent is treated by therapists. Politics has the same character – controlling elites offer marginally-differentiated consumer choices, while the public opinion industry shapes rather than records popular sentiments. For its part the education industry serves to program and sort people into their roles in the total system where people see themselves rather as helpless victims. Freedom in the system is, as Milton Friedman insisted,13 the freedom to choose between a variety of jobs and products, while the nature of the system itself is non-negotiable: “There Is No Alternative.” Defenders of the system assert that it does furnish affluence for some and the opportunity to attain it for all plus major technological benefits such as those of the latest medicine. We do very much value the latter, but as Lasch points out, we are now absolutely dependent on the modern medical system which at least in America has become a hospital-pharmaceutical-insurance juggernaut. Indeed, we depend on the total financial-corporate-government system for virtually everything, and this radically reduces our autonomy.
The fundamental underlying assumption of the whole system is neoliberalism’s definition of the self, according to which it is a unit in a total free market where it competes with all the other units, a bundle of human capital constituted by all of its material assets, experience and skills and finally an agent of rational choice, necessarily picking the options most economically advantageous to itself. Its violation of the rule that a definition must not include the term it defines reveals that the neoliberal self has no original character but is rather an empty receptacle into and out of which qualities enter and exit. In any case people are entrepreneurs and therefore marketers of themselves in all circumstances of their lives.
In recent decades sociologists such as Lasch and Zygmunt Bauman14 have focused on people’s transient identities in consumer culture in contrast with earlier commentators who examined the more enduring ones of their times. Erving Goffman15 studied the multiple roles that were either imposed upon or adopted by people, while Frankfurt School psychologist Karen Horney traced our inner conflicts to “ideal types” which were our standard model visions of ourselves.16 Oscar Wilde quipped, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Over a hundred years have passed since Babbitt extolled “the standard American man,”17 yet assertions of individual identity notwithstanding, standardization still figures significantly in the conceptions we have of our own and other people’s selves.
Most discussion of the self assumes that there is ultimately only one for each person, although its character may not be constant. This is not the only view, as some hold that we all have many selves, and others maintain that there are no selves anywhere. While Eastern spirituality tends toward the latter position the opposite follows from David Gergen’s notion of the “saturated self.” As we interact with a great number of other individuals in different situations, these varied relationships entail so many versions of our selves, making our single self merely the bundle of all these disparate selves.18 This in fact is what Riesmann’s other-directed personality had become by the final decade of the twentieth century. Yet with the advance of information technology the self has subsequently come to be represented as a node in a network, while, going further, some thinkers now claim that the self is no thing at all but is constituted entirely by relations.
Not only do individuals seem to be colonized, so to speak, by other people, Jean Baudrillard has described how their identities are defined by consumer objects.19 In our consumer culture these things are above all objects of choice among a range of items located along a spectrum of social status created by advertising. The object is used, eaten and so forth as what it is, but it is consumed as a sign of status that tells the consumer who they are. In his book The System of Objects he refers to the novel Things: A Story of the Sixties by George Perec20 which describes a yuppie couple, Jerome and Sylvie, whose life is entirely defined by the status signification of the objects and people around them. Eventually burning out on this mode of existence they move to a village in Algeria that had not yet been invaded by global capitalism’s glut of stuff. In this fairly subsistence economy of a quite homogenous community people’s needs were satisfied by local producers and vendors all providing virtually the same basic items. Lacking the status differentiation conferred upon them by advertising, these things were not consumer objects, but rather bare naked products grown and processed for people to eat and use. There the couple was bored stiff, so they returned to their old life in the fast lane among their things and friends in Paris.
As media defines the status signification of consumer objects it is itself a species of consumer object that had the greatest impact in Lasch’s time with images. He says the consumer knows the world “largely through insubstantial images and symbols that seem to refer not so much to a palpable, solid and durable reality as to his inner psychic life, itself experienced not as an abiding sense of self but as reflections glimpsed in the mirror of his surroundings.”21
While Baudrillard’s consumer objects have a mass psychological rather than material nature, they are attached to physical things which have a degree of permanence in people’s lives, and this is why Perec opens the novel with a detailed description of the décor, furnishings and ornaments in Jerome’s and Sylvie’s home. Bemoaning the triumph of images, Lasch cites Hannah Arendt’s observation “…the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that….men, their everchanging nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.”22
Now, as in the second decade of the twenty-first century our world has become overloaded with stuff, media has moved beyond print, TV and film, and the marketing industry pitches a world of virtual consumer objects. The intangible and ephemeral nature of the items of information technology gives the selves of today’s consumer culture an even more insubstantial character which is compounded by extraordinary physical and social mobility. Formerly describing vertical movement, this last term now mostly refers to lateral movement not only for periods of time, but more or less all the time as we surf through virtual contacts with individuals and groups who still continue to define our status in the system of consumer objects. The staggering quantity, variety and pace of virtual consumer objects in our lives makes them an ever-changing cacophony of status signals.
Through advertising the status signification of objects becomes both common knowledge and practice, which means that people’s consumption of consumer objects must be displayed in order for that signification to register with others. While people’s consumption of many virtual objects is publicly displayed, as with social media posts, much is not. Reading certain online journals defines people as having the status associated with them, but no one else may know it. They may acquire vast information about the world but ultimately be the antithesis of those who live their life outside of themselves, being rather, as consumers of virtual information, ones who live their lives inside of themselves. This is the condition of a growing number of people. It may also be noted that as the network nature of human relations multiplies and complicates the status significations of virtual contacts it causes confusion and reinforces people’s habit of communicating in a depersonalized manner that further minimizes their selves.
Apart from the status aspect, the volume and pace of electronic communication tends to render the self less of a substantive node and more of a simple point of exchange in a vast and highly complex network. A recent New York Times article highlighted the practice of communicating on multiple platforms simultaneously in workplaces.23 Its quality recalls Bauman’s earlier observation that the primary purpose of ceaseless social text exchanges is not to communicate information, but to maintain contact.24 Much Facebook activity consists of sharing media content that literally does nothing but identify the person doing the posting with that content – a digital version of the behavior Henry Miller described with the comment, “We do not talk – we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.”25
I have reviewed a variety of conceptions of the self and how it is minimized – from the paralysis of will caused by fear to external control and validation, standardization, identification with ideal types, being lost in a crowd of selves, dissolving into the One, stretched in many directions like an amoeba, being a formless agent defined by choices in the total capitalist market world, as a reflection of material and virtual consumer objects and finally as an unextended point in a network. These are some of the interpretations of the self supplied by experts over the past several generations and furnish a variety of mirrors in which readers can recognize aspects of themselves. At the same time there are literary treatments of the self that describe it much more broadly. I now turn to considering some such portrayals presented in works by James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Wendell Berry and bell hooks.
Some Models for the Maximal Self
In Nobody Knows My Name26Baldwin describes the diminished self of the Black American in the past and in his own time, laying bare the necessarily correlated reduction of the white self. The slave, he says, is not regarded as a man or a human being but rather as a creature inferior to white folks and whose life is accordingly limited. This Black identity largely persisted following emancipation, and Baldwin found it to have been adopted by many Blacks who thereby minimized themselves. As a matter of history, once Blacks were no longer slaves, that is, property and forced labor, they continued to figure in the American status hierarchy as its floor, above which all whites existed. So as Black selves were defined as dead last, white selves were defined as in some degree better and higher ranking. These designations, Baldwin says, also diminish whites, identifying them in terms of status and as deniers of the dignity of Blacks.
Black males, he asserts, want to be recognized as men, and Blacks in general want to be recognized as human beings. He doesn’t define these terms, assuming that readers understand them, but his writing, in which he pulls no punches, conveys so many ways in which Blacks and himself in particular were and continue to be treated as less than full-fledged men and human beings. The title of his essay speaks volumes, and he relates in it and other works how he was treated sometimes as rather an animal or as an exceptional Black. He also describes being a curiosity while he once lived in a snowy Swiss village. As times have changed Blacks are no longer consistently treated as invisible or worse, but structural racism remains, and overall, people of color, especially Blacks, suffer the most. At the same time, with persistent misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, winner-take-all celebrity culture, branded identity groups, cancel culture and the neoliberal war of all against all, it’s not unusual for people of all kinds to at times feel invisible, marginalized or that nobody knows their name.
This essay has explored different definitions of the self, treating it as a category. Baldwin supplies something of a generic definition, but his writing is mostly an expression, a passionate effusion of his own self, providing a specific example for that definition. He writes as a man, a human being and one with an individual and collective history which enters into and forcefully drives his ongoing activity. He said, “You write in order to change the world,” and with this noble purpose his past continues into his present through the strokes on his typewriter. As time is such a factor, so is space, or, more exactly, place. At every moment of his life he was embedded in a place that conditioned it at that moment and for all later time, as his presence conversely conditioned the history of the place. His early life was bound up with his home and Harlem, while later in Europe his connections with places were looser, allowing him to view them as well as America with some detachment. As with time, these places entered into and impelled his writing.
Baldwin’s identity was particularly affected by history, for his was, as expressed in the title of a book by Walter Moseley, a “life out of context.”27 Alternatively, some other selves are primarily conditioned by their places, an example of which is the Greek man Katsimbalis described by Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi. He writes
During the time I knew him Katsimbalis’ life was relatively quiet and unadventurous. But the most trivial incident, if it happened to Katsimbalis, had a way of blossoming into a great event. It might be nothing more than that he had picked a flower by the roadside on his way home. But when he had done with the story that flower, humble though it might be, would become the most wonderful flower that ever a man had picked. That flower would remain in the memory of the listener as that flower which Katsimbalis had picked; it would become unique, not because there was anything in the least extraordinary about it, but because Katsimbalis had immortalized it by noticing it, because he had put into that flower all that he thought and felt about flowers, which is like saying – a universe.28
Continuing, he says, “A more human individual than Katsimbalis I have never met.”29 He was of the kind that “…come to you brimming over and they fill you to overflowing. They ask nothing of you except that you participate in their superabundant joy of living.”30 Visiting Greece Miller came to deeply love that country which was for him embodied in his friend, and he wrote, “When I think of Katsimbalis bending over to pick a flower from the bare soil of Attica the whole Greek world, past, present and future rises before me…The Greek earth opens before me like the Book of Revelation.”31 People’s bonds with their places are related in countless stories, from the Hebrews and Israel to Gone with the Wind, but the portrayal of Katsimbalis is distinctive in recognizing his exceptionally full life as a fervent effusion of the total, indivisible and historically continuous life of his country.
Today it’s hard to imagine such integrated existence, as pre-World War II Greece and most other comparable places are indeed gone with the wind. Consequently in our pulverized, vaporized, increasingly lifeless social and material world, people especially seek belonging, commonly drawn to branded identity groups, as meanwhile the regeneration movement aims to unite people with the earth in particular communities. While these current efforts, like those described by sociologists, are still rather one-dimensional, a fuller account of belonging is provided by bell hooks in her book Belonging: A Culture of Place.32
Drawing on her upbringing in Kentucky she describes belonging as being part of a whole fabric consisting of the natural environment, its people, their artifacts and practices. This fabric, moreover, has a temporal dimension with the people’s history and the traditional character of their activities that make their time somewhat cyclical rather than strictly linear. She was one of six daughters in a Black family making a fairly subsistence living on a backwoods farm. With relatives nearby their life was quite socially and materially self-sufficient but not confined, as the countryside was open for hunting, fishing and roaming. So, rather like Katsimbalis, her life was an effusion of a total place, except that unlike his place – a country – hooks’ place was an island in the racist South, a haven in a hostile world. When the family moved into a town her idyllic life ended and became, with the exception of her extended family relations, rather like Baldwin’s and Moseley’s – out of context, fearful and minimized.
While Miller identifies Katsimbalis with his country and its full history, hooks focuses on the immediate place to which she belonged, the family’s past and the way they lived day-to-day as an effusion of that place and continuation of their history. The elders told marvelous stories of the past, recreated it as they grew and prepared their food and ingeniously preserved it in their quilt-making. This was a fine craft in which women incorporated pieces of fabric from outgrown or worn-out clothes into the intricate patterns of covers that provided comfort for the family as they slept. They lived and breathed in these creations, while the sewing of the quilts was akin to the Greek’s and the elders’ production of stories.
Emphasizing belonging, hooks provides several particular illustrations of it without identifying what they have in common or what they all add up to. That is wholeness – the family was a social whole that lived a whole history in whole place, forming a total collective whole life. This wholeness that she eulogizes is explicitly explored by Wendell Berry in his latest book, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice,33which finds him again wrestling with the conflict between his love for his Southern agrarian home and racism in America. As a privileged white man his fairly bucolic Kentucky life has continued for nearly a century, giving him insight into the culture of the Confederacy. While that essentially consisted of belonging to the land, family and tradition, he insists that genuine belonging requires personally working the land and caring for the family. Slavery, therefore, corrupted these otherwise worthy values, and he relates that they were most truly manifested by slaves themselves and, following emancipation, small black farmers. The biggest post-Civil War mistakes in American history have been, in his view, failing to secure small farm ownership for Blacks and whites alike and shifting to the big business model for agriculture and an overall industrial economy. Under slavery, it was, as Hegel asserted, really the masters who were dependent on the slaves, and Berry sees Americans today as almost all wage slaves dependent on global corporate masters, technology and a multitude of migrant farm laborers, foreign sweatshop factory workers and service employees cleaning and handling waste.
For him the fundamental need to be whole is fulfilled by agrarian life, specifically that of the small, mostly self-sufficient farmer. This is his definition of freedom, which does require individual land ownership, and being the opposite of slavery, further requires doing one’s own work and not having others to do it for them. The dignity of work, he insists, is destroyed by slavery of all kinds, but also by too much, too little, physically harmful, meaningless and unrewarding forms. So while work is central to his ideal, he is clear that it must be the right kind of work.
Still, the whole life extends to a small community of shared lives that includes mutual aid. Like Miller and hook, he highlights the value of stories of shared experiences, the common place and heritage. Living elders and ancestors are also vital, and he cites a story told by Ernest J. Gaines about a Black country man who pointed out the gaping hole in the fabric of his community’s belonging which was the absence of people who chose to live their whole lives there, growing old in it.34
Although religion and ethics are included in Berry’s portrayal of agrarian life, it is hooks who conveys how they figure in her culture of belonging. For her mother and grandparents integrity, of which courage is a part, was the supreme value, since living an honest and dignified life was the principal thing that distinguished them from white folk who were seen as infected with myriad vices. Virtue was consistently preached, while civility toward family and Black community members was demanded and enforced. This conduct was further bolstered by Christian faith and practice plus the spiritual unity created by these. Communion with Jesus was a feature of some of her folks’ lives and, for some, communion with natural creation.
Rather like Katsimbalis Berry is the voice of his place and its history, yet unlike the Greek, he has witnessed degradation of his place which continues and even escalates in the present. He speaks of mountaintop removal, the exodus of small farmers and, beyond, the overall environmental devastation of the earth. At no time has his place been an island paradise, and his whole life does ultimately encompass the world. As a lifelong crusader for environmental protection and racial justice, he advocates returning to a small highly self-sufficient farm culture. With this he assumes a particularly radical position in the decentralization and degrowth movement, for his vision could not possibly be realized for a long time to come and most likely never.
Nonetheless, Miller, hooks and Berry expand the conception of the self to embrace the universe, while Baldwin emphasizes its inclusion of history, with all of them giving voice to their respective sources. Doing this they exemplify particularly rich, vibrant and whole selves akin to that of Katsimbalis. They are fairly maximal selves, the pure type of which may now be generally described.
The maximal self, which is the standard by which all selves are to be measured, is, as Baldwin and Miller maintain, eminently human, fully actualizing their human nature by respecting the humanity of others, and further, for Miller, brimming over and filling them to overflowing. Their words and actions remain in the memory of others, becoming parts of those persons’ histories, which are parts of their selves. As a human life, it embodies its ongoing individual and collective history while also being indivisibly united with its place, the contents of which condition its actions in a cumulative fashion as that life continues over time. Finally, as Berry and hooks affirm, the whole self includes a spiritual dimension.
The four authors are moved by desire to maximize their own lives by sharing their ideals in writing – for human dignity, joy, belonging and ecological living. Looking at their different representations of self-actualization we find that the truly maximal self embraces them all, and as they desired to live according to their own visions, we desire a life that combines them all, in fact even more. So we come to the question of how do we go about fulfilling this desire to truly maximize our own lives?
Everything is broken, so we need to radically change the whole system, and this is why hooks and Berry seek to put the pieces together and achieve wholeness. In doing this they identify parts and dimensions of the whole, but provide limited guidance as to how each person can and should go about creating it. Although the task is herculean, it is necessary and urgent, so in what follows I present the new worldview that serves the purpose and which I laid out in Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action. As that work considered only the natural world and abstained from any discussion of spirituality, I remedy the omission in this essay.
On the most common-sense level the self is a particular human body, the organic unity of all of its parts that constitutes a living whole. In addition, by nature it is a part of a series of concentric and intersecting larger living wholes – a family, a community, an ecosystem, so many organic and inorganic natural systems, the biosphere and finally the whole universe. The individual therefore at every moment simultaneously functions in all of these capacities or identities, and this is the conception of human life in the essentialist philosophy presented in Being Alive.
My new world view is basically ecology incorporated into Aristotle’s understanding of nature. Unlike modern science, which is amoral, in practice often immoral, the earlier Western classical systems were known as moral philosophies, defining not only what humans are, but also what they ought to be. Consequently they weren’t reduced to elementary particles with their fundamental attribute of inertial motion, much less arbitrarily conditioned behaviors, uniformly hollow instances of homo oeconomicus or any of the other scientific definitions that have been put forth over time. Rather, humans were defined as whole living units possessing moral agency. Although insofar as religion was included in philosophical thinking it also entered into this agency, Aristotle concerned himself strictly with things and processes in the natural realm. Within this he found a highly rational order in which things exist as individuals of species which distinguish and define their natures. He accordingly defined humans as “rational animals.”
Above all he was a biologist who observed that the lives of organisms begin in forms such as seeds, eggs and infants then proceed to mature into adulthood. The maturation process is goal-directed, that is, teleological, aimed not at hitting somewhere on a target but the very bull’s eye. This fact aligns with the traditional Greek concept of arete – the excellence or perfection which was the goal or ideal for human endeavor, e.g., the perfect athletic body and the perfect sculptural representation of that body. Therefore Aristotle declared that the human telos is a virtuous life, the development of which was not to occur in a vacuum but in a human community in which education is crucial to the proper fulfillment of human nature. Being animals, humans also live in an environment from which they obtain food, shelter, clothing and in which they sexually reproduce to perpetuate their species.
For Aristotle an organism’s life, which is the unity of all its functions, is its essence that is strictly contained within the physical boundaries of its body, and unlike nonliving things, they possess organic parts whose nature is to function precisely as parts and never separately. My philosophy expands his essentialism to define larger organic units as essences, and these include human families and communities, ecosystems and the biosphere. This means that, in addition to being individual rational animals, humans are also organic parts of these larger living wholes and possess further identities as such parts.
An individual human is the totality of all of its identities, so fully living means properly functioning in all of their capacities. As the life of an essence consists of striving to achieve a perfect life, the functioning of their parts consists of striving to be perfect parts of a perfect whole. So by nature humans strive to be perfect individuals and perfect members or parts of perfect families, communities, ecosystems and world.
Of course none of these entities are or ever have been perfect, and this is due to the fact that the functions of essences inhere in material bodies which are subject to damage and destruction. Thus minor injury to a limb impairs its function, and mortal injury to the body destroys its total function or life. Still, in spite of their limitations and impairments, the lives of essences consist of striving for perfection.
Although Aristotle recognized only individual essences and no collective ones, he did assert, “Man is by nature a political animal,” meaning that government is a natural feature of human co-existence in communities. So in addition to the multiple identities I listed above, humans are by nature also citizens, that is, parts of polities which in my expanded essentialism are collective essences. As he ranked human functions from the lowest, the vegetable, next the animal and finally the uniquely human rationality, he further declared that the supreme human function is that of the philosopher-king. In today’s democracies the king’s functions are shared by all the citizens, so it follows that now the highest fulfillment of human nature is that of citizen.
The purpose of an individual human is to perform all of its functions – nutrition, growth, reproduction, motion and rationality, as all their parts perform their own functions in service to the whole. Similarly, the purpose of the family is to function as a social body within which those first three functions are primarily performed. In their identities as family members, which people have in addition to and alongside their individual identities, they perform their family functions also in service to the whole. These are carried on in a place – the home – so family functions include activities such as maintaining the house and producing goods for domestic consumption which further entail maintaining the means of that production, especially the natural resources. To the extent that the family is self-sufficient, the home is a whole of which the house, property and family are parts, largely fulfilling Berry’s conditions for wholeness.
Beyond the family the community is yet another social body within which people perform specifically community functions that serve the parts of the community and the whole, and their identity as community members is in addition to their individual and family identities. Similarly to the family, the community exists in a place from which it obtains resources, produces and exchanges goods while maintaining the conditions for those activities. By nature therefore the community is a whole consisting of the people and their natural place with all its resources. For migratory peoples their large territories or seasonal sites are enduring or intermittent components of their communities’ lives.
There are multiple community functions that members perform that relate to sociability, education, conservation, production, consumption and governance. Although human communities are natural units, people don’t magically live together in harmony, and this goes for families as well, where natural parental authority and heritage carry some weight. Indeed, even maintaining the health of the body requires discipline: eating right, having proper clothing and shelter, moving correctly to build strength and avoid injury, finally thinking and feeling right for mental health. The community is a much more complex whole, and securing concord among its parts is primarily the task of government which functions to ensure and preserve public harmony or justice. Everyone in the community participates in all of its functions, especially as citizens in its governance, which should take the form of participatory democracy. Citizenship is a further identity alongside those of individual, family and community member and in which people serve the interests of the polity as a whole and all of its parts including themselves.
The value of sociability in the community must not be underestimated, for at this time we see an epidemic of social isolation. As people now seek to connect with each other economically and politically, there needs to be a social dimension to these relationships that goes beyond consuming together at bars, restaurants, and entertainment events. There is no substitute for people visiting each other in their homes, thereby establishing unmediated personal relationships that constitute varying degrees of friendship, which was for Aristotle a distinct virtue.
For wholeness or organic unity the community must be small, fairly self-sufficient and, in the words of David Korten, function as a subset of its local ecosystem.35 The latter extends beyond the community’ boundaries, as does the biosphere and global humanity, of which each person, family and community form parts. These are additional identities for them, and it is primarily as citizens of higher levels of representative democracy which include the global that people serve the larger human and natural wholes and all of their parts.
As each person is the indivisible whole of all these identities or natures they not only act to achieve and maintain the harmony within all the wholes of which they are parts, but also between these wholes and within their own manifold selves. Doing this relies on their exercise of reason which Aristotle divided into three kinds: formal logic, practical reason and political reason, with the last two consisting of identifying the mean between too much and too little in particular decisions. It is therefore by practicing such forms of reasoning that people individually and collectively achieve harmony and justice in their own lives and in the world.
Things and people are driven by manifold desires to attain perfection in each of their capacities and in all of them together. Humans are conscious of wanting their bodies to be in good condition, to act well in good families, communities, polities and world. However, as I have stated, Aristotle observed that all natural things are subject to damage and corruption. I have touched on this with individual bodies, and the case is analogous with human collectivities and even nonhuman ones, especially insofar as these are impacted by human activity. While an individual may be the victim of some physical or psychological pathology that moves them to disrupt the family, community or natural environment, the more serious kind of corruption is that which is a systemic feature of the whole culture.
Modern human culture is radically broken as a whole and in most, if not all, of its parts. Every kind of degradation is on full display, ranging from individual physical and mental damage to family and community division, massive political corruption, war and environmental devastation. While not the sole cause, all of it can be tied to people functioning according to the neoliberal definition of humans as radically individualized competitive agents existing in a total market-determined world. Not only is this conception of human life one-dimensional rather than fully multi-dimensional, it is destructive of that one and all the other dimensions of human and non-human life. Yet amid the wreckage, people’s manifold essential desires are not entirely extinguished, and they provide the seeds of our salvation.
All human identities, which consist of our various natural functions, must be restored to health, and this begins with our conscious functions. Like the physical ones, these are diverse and multi-dimensional, however, our culture, specifically modern science, has reduced them to one-dimensional operations of a fundamentally inorganic nature occurring strictly inside our bodies. These in turn are interpreted as highly complex systems also ultimately composed of inorganic processes and materials. Science is another instrument that minimizes the self!
As the modern world, and with it the modern worldview, breaks down, people are realizing that this is not the only understanding that humans have ever had of themselves, their relations with the world and their awareness of it. Eastern philosophies and Indigenous cultures regard the world as a cosmic whole, defining humans as indivisibly connected to it and immediately conscious of that unity. While these alternatives are gaining appeal, especially their spiritualities, about which I will have more to say later, I want to stress that they belong to particular historic ways of life whose widespread full recovery can only be in the distant future, if ever. My thinking is in the tradition of Western civilization in which individual human dignity, democracy and rationality figure prominently, so although I accept certain valuable non-Western insights, I primarily follow and expand upon Aristotle.
Beginning in the Enlightenment all consciousness has been interpreted as direct sense perception or some kind of reproduction of it in memory or imagination. Alongside these forms Aristotle also recognized intuition of essences, which is awareness of what things are, their very lives. My primary definition of the self as a living human being rests on the fact that this essence is an object of intuition and that this intuition of the human essence, along with that of every other kind of thing of which we are aware is an immediate fact of experience. So as we saw that people’s multiple identities are sets of diverse functions, we now find that consciousness is also manifold – we both see the appearances of things and intuit their essences which are their very being, what they are.
Sense perception and intuition are functions of human essences, and understanding them as such cuts the Gordian Knot – their substance is neither some kind of material nor mind stuff. Rather, consciousness of something is akin to the nature of collective essences: the parts are distributed in space, but they form an organic whole that encompasses the parts. This means that the functioning of the self extends into the space around it where it functionally conjoins with other objects, and this is evident in consciousness. My image and the intuition of the object are over there, approximately where the physical thing is, in a three-dimensional space of consciousness at the center of which is the image of my body. I reach out to an object in my capacity as a seeing subject and connect with its nature as a visible object, and our essences conjoin in respect to these functions, producing the image and the intuition in the space of my experience. As the image and intuition are parts of my essence, they are likewise parts of the object’s essence: my life extends into its life which in turn extends into mine.
The space of experience is a particular dimension of the human essence that exists in addition to the physical dimension in which the body functionally conjoins with material objects around it. As I stand on the ground, it supports me, and we are functionally conjoined in the relationship in our capacities as standing and supporting, respectively. All interactions display such mutuality and further reveal that things contain infinitely manifold potentiality which becomes particularly actualized in functional conjunctions with other things.
As the physical and conscious components of essences are spatially extended, they are similarly extended in time. The body endures, and this means that it persists over time with its past being preserved while it propagates its life into the future through continual absolute creation. It does this as a whole in all of its identities, including as part of the whole universe, so this is to say that the whole universe with all of its parts and all the parts of those parts carries on continual absolute self-creation while preserving its total past. The past accumulates in physical bodies, for everything they do, and everything that is done to them modifies them internally and therefore conditions their total future existence along with all the things with which they have relations going forward.
All of life, and human life in particular, is a continual stream in which the individual and collective past conditions bodily and conscious functions. Thus the whole life is deeply enriched by a personal past and history in contrast with the minimized life focused on now that is carried on in what Zygmunt Bauman calls “pointillist time.”36 Insofar as in a whole life its functioning as part of a habitat such as a home, community or country is prominent, those places also figure in it.
For Aristotle an individual’s life consists of carrying on its species’ physical and mental functions, driven by desire to do so. In my expanded version of his essentialism humans have the multiple identities that I have named, so by nature they all drive and condition one’s action. Moreover, as these identities involve particular histories and particular places, these also contribute one’s present action. That action therefore represents the effusion of their past and their place embodied in their full essence.
Particular actions are driven by particular desires, that is, intentions, directed at particular external objects. Katsimbalis intended to transmit his particular joie de vivre in his country with its and his own past to his listener Miller. Baldwin intended to move his readers to advance justice for Blacks by relating his own and their history, acting in multiple identities which included those of individual and Black American citizen.
Their narratives are not only the exercise of the functions of speaking and writing but also intelligence of an especially whole nature, melding a multitude of diverse objects of experience, while hooks and Berry do the same thing in a more analytic fashion. As we seek the whole life, which is the maximal self, we find that it requires a whole method of understanding that stands in stark contrast with those of the various sciences. Each thing in the world is many, ultimately infinitely many things, and to achieve wholeness in our lives, it is imperative that we incorporate this truth into our thinking.
In comparison with the whole, maximized human life that I have described most people’s lives today are radically minimized. Rather than functioning in multiple identities to achieve harmony among people and with nature, the prevailing neoliberal ideology has them functioning primarily in one – the homo oeconomicus that is driven by the desire to advance their own self-interest against all others who are regarded as competitors. Further, with increasing wealth consolidation, weakening of democracy and environmental crises, the pressure on individuals grows. For the future of ourselves, humanity, democracy and the planet the trend must be reversed, and the principal means of doing this is through citizen action. In Being Alive I outlined how this should proceed as people give priority to their highest identity, which is that of citizens. For it is chiefly in this capacity that everyone can act to save the entire earth.
At the same time, all our other identities play roles in this project. Moving forward involves fixing all of our different kinds of relations and further recognizing the relations between diverse identities and dimensions of our lives. These are not discrete but rather form something of a continuous spectrum which we must learn to properly navigate.
The works of Baldwin, hooks and Berry illustrate this well. Emancipation, civil rights and voting rights legislation officially secured Blacks’ status as full-fledged citizens, but, not as full-fledged human beings. This is a core issue, and a major justification for essentialist epistemology, since all the forms of collective human life depend for their viability on acknowledging the humanity of all of their members. Because the individual being of every person is a human being, families, communities and polities are specifically human families, communities and polities. With respect to nature, people relate to it in a specifically human manner, which is by no means domination of it.
Insofar as people’s awareness of each other consists of intuitions of their individual human essences, they are not only immediately aware of their very lives, but also that they are literally conjoined in the intuition. Attention solely to visual images of people is also functional conjunction, but it is directed only at their appearance and not their essence. Likewise, seeing and even intuiting limited, especially instrumental, aspects of people limits the relationship, which becomes almost entirely one-sided when one projects imaginary identities onto them.
Once we are aware that other people are living human beings and that our lives are conjoined, if only in our images and intuitions, we drift into awareness of them as members of families, parts of the community that includes its natural resources and citizens. We find that these multiple identities are not strictly demarcated but form a continuous spectrum, as we see, for example, that what an individual does has bearing on their family, while the community and the polity also impact it. This reality is presently gaining attention with the shortage of child care service caused by the pandemic and the growing debate over the roles of parents and government in education. Meanwhile, governance and citizenship have both formal and informal components, with the former being specifically official governmental proceedings, while the latter reach into the other realms of our lives including the social. This last fact is increasingly critical for us to recognize in this time of intense polarization when interacting solely on the political level fails, but relating to people as fellow individual humans succeeds in achieving at least some agreement. This is demonstrated by Amanda Cahill’s method of conducting conversations between opponents on public issues which emphasizes individual concerns and precludes their picking sides.37 In one case some Australian coal miners were brought to accept the fact of climate change and to join a community gardening project. Of course personal attitudes must be translated into civic terms for the purpose of more effective action, and this remains a major challenge in our time.
As governments fail to remedy our urgent problems people are increasingly turning to self-help such as Berry’s individual self-sufficiency and any number of community-based projects. Indeed, government is one of the things that Berry says that we should end our dependence on, and Tim Hollo’s “living democracy”38 is separate from the state, as are The Alternative’s citizen action networks. Meanwhile, Jon Alexander favors their methods as well as officials acting to expand citizens’ roles in governance.39 As these very worthy but limited-scale endeavors proceed, we now have Russia’s war on Ukraine which has dealt a huge setback to climate progress. It is a brutal reminder of the persistent and ineluctable power of national governments as well as giant multinational corporations, especially those in the fossil fuel sector. We are all the slaves of these latter, and also at the mercy of petrostate autocratic rulers, notably Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman. Without question we must build human bonds, resilience and democratic practices in particular circumstances, but we must also take major political action to escape the slavery of our dependence on fossil fuel. In his latest book It’s OK to Be Angryat Capitalism40 Bernie Sanders provides a considerable list of forces that diminish our freedom and therefore our selves that can be traced to money in politics, which requires mass citizen action to eliminate.
Although they are not full solutions to our immediate crises, the alternatives I have mentioned represent progress toward the ultimate goal to be achieved through decentralization and degrowth, which is an ecological civilization consisting of fairly self-reliant small communities that are subsets of their local ecosystems and are governed by participatory democracy. New technology for the ecological civilization is advancing now and is generally known as “regenerative.” It aims chiefly to form mutually beneficial organic relations between the components of agricultural processes, communities and bioregions. While I leave its development and practice to the experts, I wish here to give an essentialist perspective on it.
I advocate knowing things by means of intuition of their essences, which is one of several human functions that exist on a continuous spectrum and that we normally exercise simultaneously. Sets of functions of essences constitute natures, for example, the material nature which consists in their manifestations of the laws of physics. Acting primarily in this nature I can approach a tree and, applying force, strike it with an axe and so reduce it to logs to burn. Alternatively, acting in a fuller capacity as a living human being, I can approach a tomato vine as likewise living while producing fruit for my benefit and pour water on it to sustain its life. I intuit its essence, its life, and as I care for it – love it – I am aware that it loves me as well, lovingly giving me its produce.
In Being Alive I explained that the experience of love is the immediate awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and the beloved, and this applies to relationships with nonhuman natural things as well as with humans. Much is written about feelings of unity with natural things, but these require caring actions, and as I act with care toward a living thing it not only responds affirmatively and productively to that action, but invites its expansion. Inspired by Goethe, mountaineer W. H. Murray wrote in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans, that the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would have never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.41
Continuing with the example of the tomato vine one proceeds to discover more ways to support its life such as pulling weeds, removing pests, staking it and so on. The radius of attention grows to include things around the vine – other plants, air, sunlight and soil, while one also studies the situation, brings forth relevant memories, does research and tries techniques. Optimizing the life of the tomato ends with optimizing the lives of everything around it, including that of the gardener insofar as they relate to the tomato. This means that all together they constitute an ecosystem which maintains the health of the plants, the soil and the gardener.
What I have just sketched is a work of repair. The best approach is obviously to build the project literally from the ground up, getting all the pieces and their connections right in the first place, and this is basic regenerative technology which understands that nature willfully and lovingly supports human activity to establish mutually beneficial co-existence.
Regenerative agriculture is now quite well developed with vast information on it widely available, and it serves as a model for developing regenerative human communities. This last project is a considerably heavier lift, for which there are definite reasons. Unlike nonhuman entities people are affected by ideology and do not always function in all of their multiple natures but rather can act alternately as individuals, members of families, communities, factions and so on. Still, I share my essentialist thoughts on regenerating communities.
The process begins with intuiting the human essence of individual people. In 1955 Baldwin wrote that Blacks want to be recognized as men, as human beings, a fundamental demand expressed in the “I Am a Man” slogan of Martin Luther King Junior’s 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike and some of the Black Lives Matter and Tyre Nichols marches and protests. This is not to exclude women or LGBTQ+ folks, but to say “I am a human being.” Presently people are known in terms of any number of other identities – gender, racial, jobs, political and many, many more but usually not as human beings. Further, as Baldwin observed, when people despise others, they diminish themselves. Changing this is a great step forward, since to approach someone as human and to extend care to them as a human being by nature evokes cooperation and love. I say “by nature” because inasmuch as people do not usually think of themselves as being essentially or primarily human, much less act as such, a positive response is by no means automatic. Nevertheless, such action is a start that at least kindles the magic to which Murray referred, and this is now being confirmed in some mutual aid projects and The Alternative’s Citizen Action Networks.
So the plan is to approach people as human beings and act to serve their needs. Insofar as this evokes cooperation one literally expands not only their own life but also those of the other people, and as the project takes account of more factors and people it moves toward the goal of establishing a community modeled after an ecosystem with all the parts serving themselves, all the other parts, in every respect and in a manner that the whole endures. To the extent that each person’s life is maximized, relationships between them are as well, so others’ well-being enhances one’s own life, or, as Paul Wellstone put it, “We all do better when we all do better.” Although it has multiple dimensions, that whole is a specifically human community in which its members are treated as human beings that have additional identities and histories. Some local community projects with this intention are underway now, recreating what Berry describes as the shared life of Blacks and whites of his boyhood, except that then the land was mostly owned by whites.
For community regeneration to succeed, people must want to cooperate and achieve results, putting forth joint effort. A key catalyst for this is in-person dialogue. Nietzsche said, “A dialogue is the perfect conversation because everything that the one person says acquires its particular color, sound, its accompanying gesture in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking…” It contrasts with “…the tone in which men interacting with whole groups of men tend to speak; it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: “That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!”42 This last is the speech of the marketing personality delivering their words for the consumption of an audience, typically in the form of authoritarian-style critical discourse. By participants respecting and valuing each other’s contributions a real dialogue forges a positive functional conjunction between the participants.
Regenerative idylls are not islands in the larger world. Returning to the garden example we know that it is subject to larger forces that include drought or flooding that can wash away the topsoil, excessive heat and exotic species of pests and pathogens arriving through global commerce or rising planetary temperatures. It can also be destroyed by any number of human forces – militias, drug gangs, corporate agents and war. The same is true of the ideal community which, by itself is defenseless against these. Everything in the garden, in addition to being parts of it, are also parts of nature as a whole, and insofar as it includes a person or persons and involves their rights it is also part of so many levels of governance going all the way up to the global. In view of increasingly extreme and urgent threats preserving the community requires that its members actively participate as citizens in all these governing bodies. Although Berry favors fairly subsistence farming without dependence on government, and small business people in rural America cherish self-determination, their ideals require private property rights which are secured by government. Sellers further depend on customers and therefore a viable community of buyers which also ultimately necessitates government.
Many people who seek to restore nature and rebuild communities treat politics as separate from nature, literally unnatural, and avoid engaging in it. One of the great benefits of my essentialism is that it asserts, with Aristotle, that man is by nature a political animal, despite the fact that in this capacity they can become and indeed now are corrupted. Nevertheless, this is an essential aspect of their nature, in fact the highest one, and, as Rabbi Michael Pollack, leader of March on Harrisburg, insists, when their government becomes corrupt citizens have not only the right, but the duty to redeem it.
One of the functions of the living community is to endure, so it is incumbent on its members to ensure that it does. Parents are naturally concerned for the life-long well-being of their children, so any failure on their part to protect the future of the community and the earth is at best neglect and at worst abuse. Meanwhile, Berry and hooks are absolutely correct in insisting on the value of elders in the community, history and traditions. History plays a role, and it must be honored both by continuing and building upon good practices while correcting past mistakes. For Blacks this means healing the wounds of slavery and racism and similar redress for the victims of other forms of oppression that include the natural environment. With the past and persistent widespread injury, the supreme mission of all humans now is to unite in all of our identities, especially as citizens of all the polities to which we belong for global human and environmental justice.
Although Miller, hooks, Berry express what many other well-intentioned people believe – that life which is integrated with the natural place, its people and history is sufficient unto itself, they miss a key element identified by Hannah Arendt in her essay “What Is Authority?” People don’t instinctively live in harmony with each other and their natural environment, but rather require customs backed by authority, which is not force. She writes, “…where force is used, authority itself has failed.”43 According to her authority consists of religion, tradition and ongoing practice, and in our present crisis of legitimacy we must keep these in mind. Part of the wholeness that Berry describes is the practice of Christianity which, in its purest form, is extremely worthy. Moreover liberal democracy is based on the belief in “god-given” fundamental rights, and across history and cultures we see that human authority alone is usually not sufficient as people appeal to their gods to sanction secular power. At this time many attempts are being made to create whole communities or at least networks, and these are frequently groups that seek to rely on individual cooperation and omit some or all of Arendt’s elements of authority. Although they may or may not endure, I observe that they in fact exist within the context of larger political bodies and established spiritual traditions. In any case, I now want to move on to an exploration of spirituality, explaining how it figures in my essentialism and the life of the maximal self.
Spirituality is a kind of experience that is distinct from sense perception, intuition, memory and imagination. The first two of these are functional conjunctions of the subject insofar as they are perceiving or intuiting and objects insofar as they are perceptible or intuitable which form images and intuitions in the subject’s space of experience. Memory, dreams and imagination are similar except they arise in the absence of their original actual objects. These are the varieties of mundane experience of objects which we regard as having material existence, and they differ from what we consider to be spiritual experience in that the objects of the latter are regarded as being immaterial and of another, spiritual nature. However, following William James in his lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience44 I assert that spiritual experience is real, and moreover, that spiritual entities are known solely as objects of such experience.
While James speaks of “religious experience” rather than “spiritual experience,” he draws a clear distinction between religious practice and lore and the experience. For religions as cultural entities are really mostly rituals, stories and moral codes, although, as he insists, they are founded on the actual religious experience of prophets, seers, patriarchs and so forth. These experiences arise for their subjects in the course of and in the context of their lives. Those related in the Bible were experienced, presumably, in particular geographic locations, and in the course of the history of the people there, thus, for example, the Incarnation is viewed by Christians as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophesies. Spiritual experiences are therefore infused with mundane experience that renders them intelligible. I have explained that common experience combines all of its varieties which exist on a continuum, with each form and even physical action fading into each other, and this is also true of the spiritual kind. As a person’s physical, material body and their consciousness belong to different, although not totally separate dimensions of the universe, their spiritual experience belongs to yet another dimension which fades into and intersects with their private sphere of mundane consciousness.
This view of human life makes sense in terms of my account of the universe as a single living infinitely diverse qualitative manifold in which individual lives are multi-dimensional configurations of the universal life. Analogously to sense perception, spiritual experience is a functional conjunction between a person in their capacity as a spiritually conscious subject and an object in its capacity as an object of spiritual consciousness. This functional conjunction produces the spiritual experience, actualizing the otherwise only potential spiritual functions of the subject and object. Such experience definitely has a temporal aspect and may have a spatial one as well. The spirituality of the object therefore is known strictly as it is experienced and not in itself apart from this experience. Moreover, the existence of the experience is proof that the object is not outside the universe, in a world absolutely separate from it, but fully belongs to it as it directly interacts with human inhabitants.
The whole life includes spirituality, upon which religion is founded and that is, along with tradition, essential to authority. Moving toward the whole ecological civilization I acknowledge our present religious pluralism, taking particular note of growing acceptance of ancient Eastern and Indigenous spiritualities. So in what follows I explore a few varieties of spiritual experience and evaluate them for the purpose of advancing our ideal.
As I have indicated, and James stresses, spiritual experience is personal, so in discussing religious traditions I rely especially upon my own experience associated with them. The first is Christianity in connection of which I have shared some notable collective spiritual experiences: once in a Catholic service in which I could “cut the spirituality that filled the church with a knife” and then during a prayer in an AME Bible study in which the ambient spirituality was palpable. These experiences are the reality to which Jesus referred when he said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”45 This is precisely Christian love, the very essence of that faith.
I have also had a good number of spiritual experiences with natural objects, and in interpreting these I mostly follow Ted Andrews’ Animal Speak46and Nature Speak47 which are catalogs of the animals, plants and other natural phenomena to which cultures past and present, especially Indigenous ones, have attached meanings. They function as signs with messages transmitted to humans who are receptive to them. My essentialism describes natural things such as fauna and flora as essences whose primary nature is that of their species, and these operate in what I have identified as the physical dimension. Further, as objects of our consciousness they are functionally conjoined with our essence in this respect in our space of experience which constitutes another dimension of both of our lives. In like fashion they also have a spiritual dimension which is manifested in the conjunction of humans’ spiritually conscious nature with the natures of things as objects of spiritual consciousness. While also functionally conjoined with the things in sense perception, intuition plus love, one becomes aware of them as signs with messages to oneself. Andrews lays out the messages that different species convey, and these are always of a moral nature, providing models, guidance or admonitions. For natural objects deliver messages in response to people’s needs, whether or not subjects are explicitly aware of those. All objects in nature have significations for humans, and are, according to Baudelaire “a forest of symbols.”48 The whole world is therefore a total allegory, telling people to practice the array of virtues summarized in the four classical ones – courage, wisdom, justice and temperance, the last being notable in that it is represented in the ecological harmony of nature. It is not only animals and plants with which people may have spiritual experiences but also geological and hydrological features, natural communities and places. In ancient and Indigenous cultures sacred springs, groves, rocks, mountains and lands abound, the spiritual natures of which command that they receive special reverent treatment. Practices and attitudes connected with them are traditions that are indivisible parts of the cultures which include their whole places and histories and define the lives of all the members.
Andrews also speaks of magic and medicine, advising readers to dwell on the experience of receiving a message from some natural object. For it extends into a spiritual awareness of the conjunction of the lives of the subject and the object in which the object acts to strengthen or heal the subject. Such awareness may spread into other natures of the object including its natures as parts of larger natural units as the subject becomes conjoined in spiritual experience with those units as well. Entering a healing relationship with a particular natural object therefore tends to move a person into such relationship with more comprehensive natural objects, ultimately the whole universe, with their larger messages and aid for our lives.
To have spiritual experience in nature a person must initially be receptive to it in the way expressed by Emily Dickinson, “The soul should always stand ajar,” or, more directly, as Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find.”
Many environmentally-minded people are now turning toward Indigenous animism as they withdraw from mainstream religion. This nature spirituality is embedded in total cultures and is therefore not fully accessible to outsiders even though these ways of life have become somewhat diluted. Still, at the present time non-Indigenous people can make spiritual contact with natural beings to some extent and thereby expand their selves into this dimension. Former CEO of Rodale Press Maria Rodale has recorded some of her in-depth spiritual experiences in Love, Nature, Magic: Shamanic Journeys into the Heart of My Garden.49She relates encounters with garden-variety species including several pests that spiritually delivered their particular messages to her and which she summarizes as their wish that we practice kindness, gentleness, reciprocity and gratitude. Meanwhile, we continue to live in the modern world with its major religions which need to address the current crisis. In contrast with animism, Christianity’s mission is to care for all men, and this needs to be updated to take account of the environment. Since people’s lives depend on a healthy environment, Berry sees care for nature as a natural corollary for Christianity, while simple care for creation is another one. Pope Francis in his second encyclical50 has in fact called for this.
While personal spiritual experience including revelations form the foundation of religions, they involve, as I have mentioned, much more in the way of stories and practices, all adding up to major components of so many particular cultures. My essentialism includes a spiritual dimension which is the source of them all, but which is known to us only in spiritual experiences, all of which are equally real and true. So in assessing religions we need to consider also their contexts in history and place. Indigenous religions are earth and place-based, and they dominated the world until great empires came into being. The Roman Empire, for example, encompassed a vast territory with countless local cultural traditions, so it inevitably moved to a universal church centered on humans. As it fell with the decay of the secular power and widespread slaughter from invasions its people became preoccupied with other-worldly matters, especially the afterlife. An immense institution, the Christian Church, was established, and while its dominance has persisted throughout the modern age, it is now in serious conflict with present material conditions. It can reform again, as it has several times in the past, to now remain one faith among the growing plurality, all of which must address the world’s urgent existential crises. It should not repeat its history of relieving people’s current self-minimizing fear by shifting their attention from their life in this world to an afterlife in different one.
The Eastern tradition, of which a variety of forms exist, is also now gaining adherents. Taoism and Confucianism in my view are primarily philosophies rather than spiritualities, as the former in particular revolves around expansive kinds of love such as love for all things. Belief in spiritual beings belongs to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, and some of these faiths admit particular kinds of spiritual experiences. Like Christianity these religions today are centered on human life at the expense of the nonhuman, and while they do serve noble human ends, they too need to adapt to the current crises.
There is considerable variation in the different spiritualities’ positions on the subject of evil: for some it looms large, and in others it is nonexistent. As I have said, much of religion is lore and rituals that surround spiritual experience, so what is labeled “evil” tends to actually be certain natural impulses and temptations. While religions past and present refer to mischievous, vengeful, destructive and malicious spirits and deities, I observe that there is real degradation in nature, mostly caused by humans, which may be experienced in a variety of spiritual forms. In any case bad things do exist in the world, mostly related to human activity, and in the interests of ourselves and the world we must act to remedy them.
Nearly all experience consists of mixtures of the various kinds, and, as I have stated, they all fade into each other, along with physical action, at their edges. In Being Alive I defined love as the immediate awareness of life, meaning natural life. Now examining spirituality, we find forms of spiritual love into which natural love fades. So we have a fairly continuous hierarchy of experience which spans the orders of nature – individual essences, the progressively inclusive collectivities of which they are parts and finally the spiritual dimension. The full human life consists in maximum balanced functioning in all of our capacities and identities.
This fact furnishes the argument against war, including religious conflicts. Religions are parts of total cultures that encompass geographic territories, and these are the principal objects of contention in wars. From the perspective of whole human life both secular and holy war represent disharmony between the spiritual and material dimensions of human life as well as people’s identities as individuals, members of communities, parts of nature and global humanity and therefore constitute corruption of the whole life. In addition, as in war people devalue, minimize and kill other humans, they also minimize their own selves, while at the same time they risk being killed as well.
Along with including one’s place which is immediately one’s locality and ultimately the earth, the whole life has a temporal dimension in which the past is prolonged into the present and the future. History and tradition are parts of life that also include present and expected future conditions. The material world is literally the past from which the present and future are constructed, so while there’s no denying the past, it must be put to good use, as for example Germans use the history of the Holocaust to educate and act to ensure that it is never again repeated. In a similar fashion our technological, religious, economic and political heritage must be appropriately utilized as the people of the world act to make their lives whole in order to bring about the future survival of humanity and the earth.
This full life has the structure that I have described. People are autonomous individual human beings with multiple functions as they also form parts of so many collective wholes. Their defining function is their faculty of reason by which they understand the world and how to act in it, with the fundamental knowledge for this purpose supplied by a philosophy, world view or paradigm that explains what the world is made of and how it is organized. My philosophy furnishes this knowledge, particularly providing vital understanding of the structure of the world and our experience of it. For we act not just on things in the world but on specific aspects of them. I have given some examples of the various natures that things possess such as material, instrumental and organic. The fact that in the modern age we have related to humans in mostly material and instrumental manners is enough to tell us that the respect in which we regard humans, and everything else for that matter, is crucially important. We now want to treat things in terms of their living natures, and the proper ones among these.
While we are subject to spiritual guidance our action is natural, material and physical, performed by our bodies with conscious understanding. We are individual rational agents functionally conjoined with other humans in collective rational bodies that constitute polities, and in our present crisis we must act primarily as citizens of all the levels of them from local to global. Although the environmental crisis may tempt people to put nature above all else, a recent documentary film dramatizes why they should not. The Living Mountain51is a film about an Indigenous tribe in Columbia that for millennia have practiced a culture indivisibly united with the mountain, viewing themselves as one with it. But now their land and everything on it are being destroyed by resource extraction and development. What can they do? The mountain doesn’t vote, nor the waters nor the trees. Only they as citizens can vote, file litigation, stage protests, run for office or otherwise take political control to gain protection for the nonhuman resources and themselves. On a related matter the New York Times recently reported, “Illegal mines have fueled a humanitarian crisis for the Yanomami Indigenous group. Brazil’s new president is trying to fight back.”52 This is what it comes down to, folks. With the massive inequality in wealth and power that exists today it is more true than ever that the only thing that can protect the weak against the strong is government, specifically local participatory democracy and robust representative democracy at all higher levels.
The Maximizing Self
Although I have spoken of fullness and wholeness of lives and minimization and maximization of selves rather as if these were attributes of them, in reality lives and selves aren’t things. In Being Alive I asserted that the experience of love is the immediate awareness of life, which upon examination is found to be the substance of the universe. Individual lives are particular configurations of the universal life which is an infinitely diverse qualitative manifold whose function consists of infinitely harmonizing action. There was some ambiguity in this account, for I claimed that life is both substance and action, with this last characterization suggesting that the action was distinct from the thing that acts. This raises one of the hot questions of our time: do matter and material things exist? For while we no longer insist that material things must possess the classical property of mass, we do demand that they have extension, that is, spatial volume. This implies that actions must be performed by spatially extended things whose actions they are.
I resolve my ambiguity by affirming that life does not have extension or is extended in the sense that these are properties of it, as if the extension of my body is something distinct from its life. Rather, I say that life is extending: that one of its actions is to spatially extend. Indeed my examination of life in Being Alive disclosed that one of its attributes is radiance. This view expresses what we actually observe: things that grow spatially extend themselves; lifting my arm I extend my body, and looking around I extend my conscious perception. However, mere growth and spatial movement do not fully represent the extending action of life in its universal and particular forms. A more accurate representation is the man Katsimbalis, whose life was an effusive impulsion by which he variously and exuberantly extended his essence into the world around him, to which action other essences responded in kind.
Extending is thus a vigorous and fundamental function of life which it performs both as the whole universal life and as particular lives. With this understanding of the spatiality of life we see that consciousness is exactly what it appears to be – three-dimensionally extended images and intuitions in our private space of experience, at the center of which is the image of our body, formed by the functional conjunction of our essences with those of external objects. To look around to find objects that I might touch or move with my body I reach out to them in my capacity as a seeing subject, as they at the same time are reaching out to me in their capacity as visible objects, all within the continuously extending living universe.
The universe is filled with individual essences whose action is driven by desire and is therefore intentional. Accordingly, their acts of extending consist of reaching out to other essences around them specifically in order to functionally conjoin with them. Thus in walking I extend my legs with the intention of functionally conjoining my body with the ground which supports it as in turn it exerts pressure on the ground. Gravity is a superb example of how essences reach out to each other and functionally conjoin – across the universe. The moon draws the sea toward itself, while the sun likewise draws the earth; meanwhile heliotropism is the action of plants reaching out to the sun which concurrently draws them forth.
For essences extending is not unlimited: living things don’t continue to grow forever or for their entire lifetimes but rather reach a peak size relative to their environment. At the same time however plants’ extending functions of respiration, nutrition and possibly reproduction do continue over their lifetimes, while animals continue these functions plus motion. In addition, as extending functions are always reciprocal, surrounding objects can be more and less receptive. Thus, roots can’t penetrate rocks and night time darkness prohibits photosynthesis.
With this case of a plant and a rock, we return to the multiple natures of things. The plant in its nature as a living thing desires to extend its roots deeper into the ground, but the rock in its material nature resists that effort. Above I gave the example of the tree in its material nature resisting the strikes of a person’s axe, while the tomato vine was receptive to their watering and staking it. So, with our material functions, which are the subject matter of physics, we can fell trees, assemble stones to make buildings and apply countless other physical actions to the material natures of things. Alternatively, functioning primarily as living human beings, we can act upon things as likewise primarily living essences, functionally conjoining our essence with theirs for deep and varied mutual benefit.
In the example of the tomato vine the gardener performs several acts for its welfare as it reciprocates by bearing a good crop of fruit. Maria Rodale’s book describes multiple human uses for different plant species, while regenerative agriculture goes into how individual crop species and combinations of them enhance the soil and each other’s lives. All of these effects are the results of things reaching out to each other multidimensionally as living essences and establishing rich mutually beneficial functional conjunctions. Again leaving regenerative science and technology to the experts, I now proceed to elaborate the extending function of human essences.
Perception consists in reaching out to external objects as a perceiving subject and forming the functional conjunctions with them that constitute images and intuitions of them. These are extensions of both the subject and the objects in which they are joined in the three-dimensional images and intuitions located in the subject’s space of experience. As items of experience objects are parts of subjects’ essences or lives while subjects are also parts of objects’ essences or lives. In modern time humans have given their attention chiefly to the sensory qualities of things, although intuitions of them are invariably present in consciousness because we are aware of what things are and not just their appearances. In any case, consciousness can be more or less full, that is more or less minimal or maximal. Full experience of external objects involves both awareness of their essences, their very lives and the fact that one’s own life extends into those of the objects, and theirs into one’s own.
At the same time that a person reaches out to the object as a seeing and intuiting subject, the object reaches out to them as visible and intuitable. Attending primarily to its sensory nature, the subject diminishes the object’s function and its life in their conjunction that constitutes the image, while they also diminish themselves. Does this idea sound familiar?
As experience is multidimensional, so is bodily action, and this is illustrated by my examples of cutting the tree and nurturing the tomato vine: I can relate to things in terms of mine and their material natures or relate to them as living essences. These are multi-functional, thus I can interact with the tomato vine as a thing producing fruit, something that draws water from the soil or both, as I pour water on it to keep it growing. Like with perception, to the extent that my action with respect to the plant, that is, my extension into its life, is multidimensional, it is multidimensionally extended into my life, enriching and maximizing both of our lives. This contrasts with cutting the tree which supplies material products – lumber or firewood – for my consumption, but extinguishes the life of the tree. Logs can be processed in many ways, but insofar as they are processed, they limit a person’s potential interaction with them, since final products, for example, chairs offer only a single physical use.
While they live other nonhuman things potentially benefit humans in multiple ways: the apple tree provides fruit and shade while its transpiration cools the air. It also benefits humans indirectly in several ways such as by absorbing carbon dioxide and air pollutants. A person for their part plants and stakes the young tree, also protecting it from animals that might destroy it and keeping the ground clear of competing vegetation. The actions of both the tree and the person constitute functional conjunction that is a certain unity between the two, of which the person may be conscious in the experience of loving the tree and being aware that it loves them. Such a relationship of unity can exist on a larger scale, for example, Berry’s relationship with his farm, of which the land and soil formed the ground but also included everything else on it and with which he interacted in a multitude of different ways. His life was literally extended over the expanse of the farm as the lives of everything on it were extended into his, making the farm a living whole which was in turn a living part of the whole local community and ultimately the whole universe.
The sense of whole unity with places is fairly well known, and this is what Berry identified as the soul of the Confederacy, which included the institution of Black slavery. He correctly diagnosed that as a fundamental defect in the whole that reciprocally diminished Blacks and whites. In our quest for the maximal self we arrive at the knowledge that it is the human life or essence maximally extended into other lives in ways that furnish maximal mutual benefit. This view is not utilitarianism, which is a system of political economy in which the units are generic human beings. Rather, it is an understanding of the world in which every person is an individual extending human life co-existing in the whole living universe with infinitely numerous and diverse other individual extending human and nonhuman lives. Every relationship of every person, indeed every thing, extends their essence in a more or less mutually beneficial, that is, maximizing or minimizing manner into that of the other essence.
This description is illustrated by spiritual healing, in which the radiance of essences is displayed. For the healing entity is spiritually experienced as extending a specific healing function into one’s body that expands into the function of healing one’s whole life including their bodily habits. The experience reveals how the functions of parts of essences extend – radiate – throughout the wholes of which they are parts. Spiritual functions make evident the effusive impulsion of essences, and we should seek to actualize them in due measure.
Returning now to individual human relationships we see that maximizing my self relative to you entails maximizing you relative to me, and at a minimum this means us both functioning in our full human natures, not as Black and white, boss and worker or even worker and worker, but as human being and human being. This relationship, as I have stated, by nature generates the magic described by Murray who named an additional essential element: boldness. Maximal action, which is exemplified by Katsimbalis, is vigorous and magnanimous. As it is the nature of all things to extend, that is to radiate their lives, we see that to fail to act in one’s full human nature or to be prevented from so acting diminishes one’s radiance and thus minimizes their life or self. It is like reducing the energy of the sun or fire, producing cold and darkness, which is the metaphor of the popular civil rights song This Little Light of Mine.
We are not generic human essences, but rather ones with individualizing characteristics and histories, while we also exist in places in which we form more and less organic parts. Full human relationships necessarily include these parts of our selves, for even in my illustrations with the tomato vine and the apple tree, one is dealing with these plants in these places with their own histories. We in fact wish to be treated as the individual person that we are and suffer distress, like Baldwin, when nobody knows our name or knows who we are. It is precisely when we interact as full human beings that we unlock the magic, so we must not only act as fully human ourselves and approach others as such, but, in addition, draw out their full human selves.
Nor are we merely so many individual selves interacting solely as such. Rather, by nature we are also organic parts of families, communities, multiple levels of polities, ecosystems, humanity as a whole and the biosphere, and the whole life, the whole self involves functioning in all these identities as well as within the spiritual order. This is a lot to juggle, requiring diligent exercise of practical and political reasoning. These functions are critical insofar as it is the nature of both individual and collective essences to extend – something we see dramatically illustrated throughout history and in our own time. Individual people tend to want to possess and control more things, while identity groups, especially nations, are tempted to conquer more lands and peoples. But, as we are constantly reminded in our time of environmental resource overshoot, there are natural limits to growth of all kinds. With the exercise of reason the maximal self achieves the proper proportion among all aspects of their life. This involves the proper functioning of the multiple collectives of which one is a part, so we see that the wholeness or maximation of one self requires the same for all persons and selves. Again, we all do better when we all do better.
It is a fact that one can’t be a truly good and fulfilled person in a corrupt society on a degraded planet, and neither religion nor spirituality can save them. This reality is expressed in Dostoyevsky’s tale of the Christ figure Prince Mishkin who proved to be unfit to survive outside the insane asylum.53 Religion and spirituality are dimensions of human life, and to have significant impact on mortal being they must exist in supportive cultural contexts which may allow religious pluralism.
Still, it is our natural desire to achieve the full life, that is, to strive to properly fulfill the functions of all of our identities to achieve the well-being of ourselves, all the natural wholes of which we are parts including the natural universe plus our spiritual dimension. Each of the natural collectivities similarly has as its telos the well-being of all the parts and wholes, so in this time of multiple urgent crises maximizing one’s self means joining with all other humans as they also maximize themselves in working together to establish the ecological civilization that will save humanity and the world. As each person’s life is an effusive impulsion of all of their natures, their history and place, conditions notwithstanding, they must be that impulsion. For our natural drive is to vigorously and magnanimously maximize our selves, while such action by nature evokes similarly maximal responses from other people and things.
Presently the spheres of life are extremely out of balance, pitting individuals against communities and polities, humans and religions against nature, religions against polities, polities against polities as well as polities, religions and nature against humans. While public opinion is in fact in favor of at least a more ecological civilization, movement toward it is obstructed by the global power elite that has captured the governments of most nations. This is why the most urgent need is for people to act as citizens to first establish democratic control then proceed to secure justice for all human and nonhuman beings. Human collectivities have histories which figure in them similarly as in individuals, so moving forward tradition has a large role to play, especially the Western traditions of rationality and democracy. Some traditions are contrary to human and natural life and should be renounced, but otherwise they are the material for our practical and political reasoning in pursuit of the maximal fulfillment of our history and ourselves.
1. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (New York: Norton, 1979).
In my “Silent Stalwart” published this past August I urged readers to reach out to other people to help save democracy in the election. Seeking support to fulfill one’s aims and needs, I wrote, is a natural impulse, and in the fall very many people were moved to act in various capacities for this purpose. Most of the efforts belonged to organized campaigns, but amid these I discovered a new under the radar movement of otherwise inactive people talking to each other. These were citizens freely acting on their own initiative to link up with others as citizens with the aim of making real the promise of democracy. Reacting to immediate threats to reproductive, voting rights and more, they broke their communities’ customary silence on politics. This was a breakthrough for the civic conversation that democracy requires, and it must not cease.
Talking to middle- and upper-middle-class voters of all parties in the suburbs south and west of Allentown, PA (CD 7) I closed positive conversations with the same request I have made for every past election: “Please tell everyone you know to vote for our candidates.” Remarkably for the first time, several people enthusiastically replied, “Oh yes, I’m telling everyone.” These were people who, when asked to volunteer, usually said that they didn’t have time. They further often declined to take yard signs, citing fear of retaliation by neighbors who boldly displayed opposing signs, and this was another new development that I noted. Still, in their spontaneous, modest and personal way my folks augmented the campaign machines’ activity to decide the outcomes of the area’s critical swing races.
The 2022 results have provided some relief, but assaults on democracy continue at every level. Next year there will be a multitude of school board and municipal races for which campaign machines are either much reduced or nonexistent. There will also be a good number of state legislative, executive and judicial elections. It’s now imperative that we continue to defend democracy on every front and not only in elections. As some people have just found their voices, thereby spawning an under the radar movement, that must continue and expand.
While the exercise of our First Amendment freedom of speech must be increased in personal conversations, it must additionally compensate for the decay of the Fourth Estate. Mainstream media serves the corporate interest, and through consolidation it has radically reduced local news reporting. Also, with so many 24/7 media options, people can easily remain blissfully ignorant of public affairs. This is in contrast to the 1960s, when every weekday evening there were no alternatives to Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley and their like, whose programs were followed by local news reports.
Phonebanking for a state senate candidate this year, I would open the conversation with, “Have you heard of them?” Very many voters had not. Campaigning for congressional candidates in the past I found plenty of people to whom they were unknown, and some fairly in the dark about congress itself. Unless I had dropped literature at doors and sent postcards in a recent local election hardly any voters would have even heard of the candidates. Corporate media amply covers the highest profile races, but these still must compete with the overwhelming flood of information to which we are subject. In lower-ranking contests it largely falls on individual candidates to makes themselves known to voters, heightening the pressure to amass campaign contributions. This is no way to run a democracy!
Sad to say, democracy itself is no priority for mainstream media, as I found out working on the federal voting rights legislation in 2021. Dismissed as DOA, it got woefully little coverage. No press came to four of the six events for it that I held in Allentown and Reading, although the latter’s paper did publish the press releases I sent.
The upshot of all this is that democracy increasingly depends on individuals communicating with each other. Fall-off of media coverage and money in politics in odd-numbered year elections typically results in significant fall-off in voter turn-out. Meanwhile, democracy issue campaigns are often little-known to the public. Misinformation and disinformation are growing problems as well, and they make sharing facts all the more urgent.
Vigorous civic conversation in the salons preceded the French Revolution, and this is an enduring lesson which I applied years ago in a local land preservation campaign. As it went on for a few years and involved multiple steps I periodically urged supporters to “talk it up.” Consequently, some time before our final victory many people believed that we had already succeeded. In the recent voting rights campaign we revived the civil rights movement songs “Woke Up this Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” and “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around”, whose lyrics include “Talk, talk, talk, talk” and “I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a talkin’.” In addition to being vital to the practice of democracy, broad civic dialogue is a proven campaign tactic.
This fact is now recognized by organizers who have made deep canvassing and friend-to-friend outreach standard procedures. Yet such practices are still mediated by campaign machines, upon which we should not rely for our engagement as citizens. All of the examples I have cited were spontaneously initiated by individuals.
Journalists have pointed to a variety of factors to account for the outcome of the 2022 election that refuted the polls. Progressives mounted a full-spectrum mobilization for which each participant can take some credit, and this includes the people who only talked to others that they knew.
The election launched a culture of conversation, and it must not be allowed to die out. In every even-numbered year, especially those that are multiples of four, many people get activated, then a good number of them go to sleep until the next cycle. This phenomenon was particularly pronounced in the 1994 and 2010 mid-term elections. Also, people must not place blind faith in any elected officials, but rather continually hold them accountable, always keeping in mind that the people are the sovereign. Every movement moreover must constantly maintain and build its momentum.
All citizens should be engaged, and much guidance has been developed on how to talk to one’s political opponents. I will only mention that in this progress is inevitably incremental. Meanwhile, I have highlighted the moderate suburban subjects who are available to do no more than talk, crucial as their conversations are. Their time is consumed with working, commuting, attending to their homes and families and recovering from the grind. What’s wrong with this picture? Our great advances in technology and wealth should allow people more time to engage in leisure, social and civic activities. Why don’t they? This is a question these people should add to their conversations as the peril grows for the economy, democracy and the planet.
“Your vote is your voice” read one of the pieces of literature I dropped at doors, but I insist that your voice holds remarkable power. In this moment we can further move and change the conversation. I’m rather a broken record on the standard one-dimensional language that Herbert Marcuse defined as consisting of absolute declarative statements – the form of advertising and propaganda. He contrasted it with dialectical language that discloses contradictions and leads to resolutions of them. An example of it is a conversation I had with another volunteer that began with noticing the local paper’s headline about the relentless construction of new warehouses in the area. My co-worker repeated the routine complaint concerning increased truck traffic, while I proceeded to connect some dots by remarking that our air quality is some of the worst in the country due to diesel emissions. As she commented that companies are blanketing the East with warehouses I replied, “The problem is consumerism.” At this point our talk ended as we had to get to work, but this is the kind of discourse we need to have with our associates and for which the door has been opened in this moment.
Moving ahead for democracy, people should obtain local election information from local media and county election office websites, while local candidate forums are excellent opportunities to find out competitors’ positions. Federal and state action on democracy issues can be conveniently tracked by signing up at Common Cause to get on their national and state email lists.
A lot of work must be done in 2023 to defend democracy, so keep on a-talkin’!
The current cascade of discouraging events appears to have a paralyzing effect on many people. Here in the Lehigh Valley, PA, which a prominent candidate recently called “the swingiest district in the swingiest state” in the 2022 election, I call voters and knock on their doors, trying especially to recruit volunteers. The latter work is tough and sometimes disheartening. At this time how can folks not be fired up to protect people, the planet and democracy?
In a low moment at which I felt that I was spinning my wheels I looked out into my garden, noticing in particular a certain brown-eyed susan (rudbeckia triloba). The buds on its countless stems were beginning to open, and as I focused my attention to its efflorescence I became immediately, that is, directly, aware of the plant’s radiant life.
As it grows the susan extends its life in space and time, and the purpose of its efflorescence is to produce seeds that will disperse, then continue its biennial life in new plants. The pursuit of its life consists of so many intentional interactions with myriad things around it, as those things simultaneously interact with it for their own purposes. Thus the black beetles eat some of the petals, and the pollinators collect the pollen and nectar. In this last relationship the plant offers these substances to the insects as the means through which they symbiotically contribute to its vital function of reproduction.
My awareness of the susan also has a mutual character. For as I intentionally give it my attention it presents its radiant life to my consciousness, forming the bilateral intentional relationship which is precisely my experience of that life.
This relationship isn’t casual. Although the susan is a wildflower that has naturalized in my region, is hardy and spreads prolifically to the point of being somewhat invasive, it is growing in my garden. I have provided its place, cleared weeds that might have destroyed it and protected it from the possible damage of people walking on it or ground hogs eating it. In a word, I have cared for it. As I love it, so it loves me, and the bilateral intentional conjunction of our lives is manifested in my awareness of its radiant life.
This is life: radiance, bilateral (ultimately multilateral) intentional interactive relationships or functional conjunctions. My immediate awareness of what life is, which is given to me by the flower, inspires my persistent action of reaching out, interacting with people to serve the continuation of life which is the very practice of being fully alive.
Much attention is given to the consciousness of life experienced in wilderness and regenerative communities, but I’ve discerned the life of a potted flower on the porch of a small old row house in Reading, PA. Elsewhere I have been struck by the conspicuous absence of any such awareness while canvassing in luxury suburban developments We seek privacy to escape the racket and vulgar distractions of modern life, but as we block these intrusions, we also diminish life. Often flowers are planted merely to visually adorn property rather than to be living companions for the occupants who nurture and care for them in somewhat the same spirit as they care for their pets. Our green pals can even be treated rather as family, for as I walk into my garden looking for new flowers and plants that might need attention I ask aloud, “How we doin’, children?”
To all who give ear flowers are proclaiming what life is and what it means to live, imparting to us their life force, joie de vivre and message, which is “Live!”
My brown-eyed susan, now in full bloom, is rapidly being joined in that phase by the nearby ironweed, New England asters, wild sunflowers, blue mist and cardinal flowers that grow beside the currently blossoming purple coneflowers and several domestic varieties including butterfly-magnet zinnias. My garden has no plan: the flowers decide where they will grow, and my job is to furnish the hand labor that saves them from weeds, pests and occasional drought. In late summer it is an explosion of flowers and color which I gaze upon with rapture. Uplifted, inspired and revitalized by its glorious exuberance I hit the streets and the phones again.
At present the human scene is so challenging that people may wish to run away and hide. Summer is vacation time, but it’s also the time of peak vitality. Enjoy the flowers, but also understand why they give us pleasure: it is because they radiate life. This is our mission too, of which flowers remind us with their splendor. Imbibe their spirit first for comfort then to seize the urgent opportunity this year to reach out to people and connect with them to preserve the democracy that is essential for reversing environmental destruction, disease, war and rampant human injustice! Like the profuse blooms of the brown-eyed susan, a multitude of people must come forth to fully pursue, serve and save life.
The problems of the world – war, disease, wealth inequality, injustice and environmental destruction – are presented to us by the media, and as consumers of media we are mere spectators of the troubles. Yet increasingly people are getting into the action, with many working within the established system to fix its innumerable flaws. At the same time there is a growing sense that we need wholesale system change defined by a new ideology. Such transformation is already underway among the people who are choosing to get real by directly facing the facts of our existential crises and concentrating on protecting, cultivating and knowing life.
These folks are rejecting the prevailing worldview that defines nature as separate from humanity and the target of human domination. Eschewing reductionism and interpretations intended for control, their attention is on life, living beings and their relations, emphasizing awareness of the living unity among things.
But what is this awareness and what guidance does it provide? The instincts of these people are correct, but our need is nothing less than to save the whole earth, so how can we apply life’s wisdom to act at all the levels that require attention?
What is called for is a life-centered method for tackling issues great and small which, most importantly, will motivate people to take the necessary action. Presently we have a false and destructive ruling narrative that the majority of people believe, so we need not just a replacement, but a compelling one.
Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action presents a new worldview that validates elements of Eastern and Indigenous wisdom as it follows the Western tradition of philosophy in rationally demonstrating its position. Advertising and propaganda notwithstanding, people generally still demand evidence, if not proof, of novel insights. Indeed, rational understanding is a good thing. My system is founded on self-evident facts of experience from which inferences are drawn using simple reasoning. It doesn’t dismiss science, but rather offers a parallel and specifically moral outlook for the conduct of life. Further, although this new explanation of the world is concerned exclusively with nature, it is compatible with spiritual beliefs that share its objective of justice for all of creation.
My examination of common experience reveals an inherent desire for that experience to be good, that is, to be of a good world, which is precisely the ecological civilization. Also, in contrast to the standard view that we are separated from the world in our experience, I explain how we are in fact immediately aware of our unity with the environment. Though functionally conjoined with the objects around us, we are nevertheless individual living agents displaying a distinctive human nature and purpose.
The universe is by nature organized into innumerable nested and intersecting living wholes and parts, so in addition to being individuals humans are organic parts of certain larger wholes. These structures include the biosphere, ideally local ecosystems plus social bodies comprising families, communities, humanity as a whole and so many political units. Being parts of these living wholes imposes additional identities on individual persons. This fact is commonly understood in terms of roles like those of actors which they can take on and off at will, however the multiple identities established by nature are intrinsic and integrate people into the total functioning of the world.
Parts of organic wholes perform their particular functions while also supporting the whole and every other part, for the well-being of all the parts depends on them each properly serving themselves and each other. Such functioning is multi-dimensional, as each thing is the indivisible unity of all its functions relative to all of its identities.
Living beings don’t operate in a mechanical manner, but manifest will, that is, desire, to live and perform all their functions to the best of their ability. As parts of the whole universe, all things by nature seek the well-being of themselves and all the other parts, which means the harmonious functioning of them all. Among humans this impulse is their supreme desire for the justice of all things.
This book lays out the reality of nature as a living whole composed of so many indivisibly interconnected parts of innumerable nested and intersecting orders. It rationally articulates into a system the intuitive awareness of the many people now getting real. As pioneers, they are to be applauded, but the time has come for everyone to give up their false consciousness and get real as well.
Ecological living is typically viewed as an immense sacrifice of human achievement and comfort that nevertheless has now become necessary for our survival. Examining the self-evident facts of experience, I find that it is precisely the ideal which by nature we not only desire, but actively strive for. Treating humans as parts of nature, I also explain how our species got off track onto its present planet-destroying trajectory, sinking into a degraded condition with its members failing to act according to their fullest and highest nature which in fact delivers their greatest satisfaction.
Presently people are living in the all-encompassing neoliberal structure in which they function mostly as wage-laborers and consumers in service to the political economy dominated by the global corporate elite that is fast running people and all of life into the ground. Much greater human actualization and a far better world are possible, and this is what we truly want.
The means to closely approximate the ideal exist now, so all that is needed is the active will to put them into effect. By offering an explanation with a valid demonstration of what human nature is, I aim to awaken people’s natural desire to live according to it. We have a very long way to go before we reach our goal, so my book includes some initial steps and the essential principle to follow all along the way. This is expressed in the ancient words of the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” which is the perennial formula for the good life that we must now apply in our actions toward all nonhuman as well as human beings.
I urge people to fulfill their true nature which consists of acting multidimensionally – as an individual human being, a member of their community, a citizen and an indivisible part of the living world – to achieve the just ecological civilization. This is being alive, which goes far beyond individual or species survival, for as Victor Hugo wrote, “The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.”
Time is running short for us to save humanity, the earth and especially the democratic institutions that are necessary for tackling all the other problems. My message is urgent, and it is addressed to everyone, so this book is intended to reach the greatest number of people quickly. It is written for a general audience, is fairly short and available as a free ebook at BeingAlivegooglebook .
The October 12 episode of What Could Possibly Go Right? was a dialogue between Vicki Robin and Kamea Chayne that touched on the fundamental questions What is life? and What do people want? A single answer to both of these is found in a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zonewhich was a translation of the French adaptation of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce directed by Robert Enrico.
The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene where he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the clip also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched The Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” and this is why the clip is so powerful: it represents the fulfillment of people’s ultimate desire, which is to be livin’.
It is most significant that the film’s depiction of livin’ isn’t footage of the man, but of living things around him accompanied by the lyrics “In all the world. He moves around. He walks around…” Until recently our acquaintance with livin’ has been limited to incomprehensible personal experiences and artistic representations, but now, as all of life has become endangered, understanding of it is advancing. Naturalist Craig Holdrege derives from Aldo Leopold’s literary “Thinking Like a Mountain” a key concept. In Thinking Like a Planthe writes, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”
Leopold’s essay relates the overall vital impact of a population of wolves on a mountain, something we can readily grasp. Moreover, now living in the Anthropocene, we are painfully aware of the destructive, indeed self-destructive, presence of humans on the earth. But what would a positive human presence look like? As an illustration of such a mode of existence I offer an experience of my own in a neighborhood years ago. My husband and I owned a house whose back yard bordered a small creek, on the opposite bank of which was a high tree-covered bluff. The beautiful scenery provided by the hillside contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home, but one day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums along the far bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction looming over our home and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view of the bluff had become a cherished part of me. Determined to stop the development but knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house at the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every one of the houses, seeking to gather their residents behind me. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to their neighbors next door, referring to them by name, and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I re-walked it.
My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my home the hub of the neighborhood, where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a living community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna.
My experience exemplifies Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking and forming bonds with the residents. Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. Our overall consciousness was love – awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active also, for in being there as objects of sight, physical bodies and organisms the bluff with its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too. Although it was driven by the fear that the development would materialize, my activity was exhilarating, for I was truly livin’.
In this experience I found an ideal for human life that is now supported by leading alternatives addressing climate change and the larger environmental crisis. David Korten proposes a global order of sustainable small communities, while Richard Heinberg has just amplified the call for degrowth. Going beyond capitalism and socialism solidarity economics, which figures in the Green New Deal, adds a formula for social justice to the vision.
While Holdrege captures livin’ in his notion of presence, Leopold bids us specifically to think like a mountain. This means viewing things as so many living component presences that together compose larger living wholes. Thinking of particular mountains from which wolves had been eradicated he observed that they had been severely degraded. Their condition led him to conclude that once people think like a mountain they must proceed to act multi-dimensionally, taking parts and wholes into consideration to secure the lives of all. This is the perspective of the whole, which is also reflected in that of each part, thus as a person functions as a constituent presence they serve the whole.
It’s clear that livin’ isn’t a solo act, for it involves at least a community of people consciously acting to create and sustain for themselves a total living community. At this time we face a plethora of crises – climate change, loss of biodiversity, mass human migration, pandemic, inequality, injustice and subversion of democracy. The situation presents both extraordinary peril and opportunity for everyone to attain the greatest livin’ in history by coming together and acting multi-dimensionally as presences in their communities, nations and the world to achieve the ecological civilization. This especially means everyone asserting their presence in these bodies as fully engaged citizens.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I conclude it with comments on another one of the same vintage. Luis Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though they have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a self-destructive mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former people must first realize that they wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
In 1961 French director Robert Enrico made a film adaptation of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.1 It won honors at Cannes and the Academy Awards, and in 1964 it was aired in translation on The Twilight Zone.2 The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene in which he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man, the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree’s canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the film also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched the Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Compared with the livin’ represented in the film our lives hardly measure up. In this essay I describe the ways in which the present mode of human existence radically diminishes and threatens our lives then explain what we must do to become. livin’ people in a livin’ world.
We’re Presently Dyin’
Recently reading Jeremy Lent’s article “Nature Is Not a Machine – We Treat It So at Our Peril”3 brought to mind my early encounter with factory farming. When Animal Factories by Peter Singer and James Mason4 was published in 1980 it caused a stir in my workplace at the time which was a university poultry science research center. Although as a secretary I had minimal contact with the birds in the houses and laboratories I was well aware of the conditions and procedures conducted in them. A copy of the book was passed around, and I read it, receiving a unique impression. Because its description of factory farming was not news to me, I read the book not as an exposé of animal cruelty but rather as an allegory of human life expressing how people are confined and deprived of the ability to act in accordance with their nature. The pandemic has underscored this reality, as it has prevented many people from going to their places of confinement – workplaces, day cares and schools – while others have been unable to leave theirs – nursing homes and prisons. People too are treated in an instrumental manner.
Global neoliberal capitalism has turned the world into a virtually total machine, with all things serving as parts of that machine in opposition to their vital natures. Its anti-life character originated with the Cold War and was brought to light then by Herbert Marcuse in his book One Dimensional Man.5 The over-arching threat at that time was nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., a catastrophe that never occurred. Today’s challenges – climate change along with natural resource depletion – are not only more dire but also more certainly devastating, unless humanity acts fast to reverse their progress. Apart from the difference between the looming disasters then and now, Marcuse’s analysis is as true today as it was in 1964.
As the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. mounted rival stockpiles of nuclear weapons they also competed economically, aiming to display the most desirable model for human life. The U.S. was able to attain a high level of employment and public contentment with ever-growing consumer and defense sector activity, all in service to the Cold War effort. Marcuse characterized the race as an irrational frenzied pursuit ultimately for death. In our time relentless economic growth is justified as staying competitive in the global economy and maintaining domestic employment that provides a satisfactory standard of living. This time the ultimate end of the race is planetary death.
The One-Dimensional Human World
Like the earlier one, the present system is a virtually total whole that functions like a machine with inexorable momentum. Everything in the world is construed as a part of the machine, having a particular instrumental value and functioning in service to the whole. People are atomized as they are defined as units of human capital performing micro-specialized work which, they are told, constitutes their “self-actualization.” Increasingly, rather than being the masters of their technology, they are its attendants or slaves. As agents of neoliberal free choice people construct, then exercise their “individuality” to separate and distinguish themselves from others. Such “individualization” is in fact a flight from the standardization imposed by the God-almighty market and has the effect of building alienation within the society.
Insofar as a person is totally defined as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus they are, according to Marcuse, a one-dimensional man or woman. As a consequence of being such a part of the machine and like a machine, their lives are greatly impoverished. “Minimal self” is the phrase Christopher Lasch6 coined to describe the withering consequence of persistent fear on people’s thoughts and actions. Because the system’s constraints are enforced, people fear stepping or falling outside of it, while their lives are extremely fragmented and compressed in myriad other ways. Zygmunt Bauman speaks of living in “pointillist time,”7 a series of disconnected moments of experience, while nothing is permanent in what for him is “liquid modernity”8 that renders relationships particularly short-term. Considering work, Richard Sennett traces how it has gone from life-long careers with the same company to gigs with a succession of employers and different kinds of work.9 Where all is ephemeral what is valued is stimulation, an experience Kierkegaard described as essentially momentary. In Either/Or10 he contrasted romantic love exemplified by Don Giovanni’s mille et trois seductions with conjugal love which occupies and develops over years. Because of the difference in the time of the two kinds of love the romantic variety especially lends itself to artistic representation, while the other absolutely defies it. The stress on self-promoting performance and novelty in one-dimensional life reinforces its liquid and pointillist characteristics.
People are shaped by their environments, so the one-dimensional world conditions them to be one-dimensional people. A huge factor in this is language, and Noam Chomsky persistently points out the media’s “manufacture of consent” with ubiquitous, subtle and insidious propaganda. Marcuse goes deeper, explaining how most common language is one-dimensional, reflecting one-dimensional patterns of thought that contrast with open, questioning and exploring dialectical thinking.11 The abbreviated forms are germane to modern science and advertising and revolve around absolute declarative constructions purporting to express matters of scientific law or facts. Another feature derived from science is the routine translation of “subjective” language into “objective” terms. We are all familiar with the principal techniques of propaganda and the disdain for “subjective” language, for they are reflected in our own behavior. Beyond these practices however, truncated one-dimensional language has other far-reaching and harmful consequences.
Our speech patterns are largely copied from media in which the sound byte rules. Absent from one-dimensional language are the elements of dialectical language that include relations, context and Marx’s favorite, negation. One significant relation is order of priority, for people commonly blast forth today’s headline as if yesterday never was and tomorrow will never be. An example is “Abortion rights are it!” in response to which I think “What about voting rights? What about climate?” In being one-dimensional oppositional language handicaps itself, for as Chomsky observed
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.12
Even more than by its content, one-dimensional discourse is restricted by its conventional style, structure and grammar.
Progressive activism illustrates one-dimensional thinking in being divided into so many narrowly focused campaigns and groups while the whole system is a sure recipe for disaster. There is the belief that doing a bit of good in one area reverberates for good throughout, and while this may be true, it doesn’t transform the system. Individual survival continues to depend on collective self-destruction which is more rapidly being realized with resource loss, mass migration, political destabilization, increased repression and inequality. Meanwhile, a new arms race is underway with China, from which, absurdly, we import most of our consumer products.
Transcending One-Dimensional Existence
Marcuse portrays the one-dimensional system as total, something that can’t be fixed but rather must be transcended. Historically the vehicle for cultural transcendence was art, which offered ideals and visions of paradise and utopia.13 Transcending art, he says, is specifically its high forms previously enjoyed only by the privileged classes. In our time such art has been quite vulgarized as, for example famous classical music is heard accompanying children’s cartoons. Becoming commonplace and integrated into mass consumer culture has destroyed the transcending quality of high art and with it, he writes, people’s sole avenue of escape.
Nevertheless at this time the threat of its end has succeeded in sacralizing nature, making it both an idol and an actual realm of transcendence. Marcuse failed to foresee this, as he maintained a strictly instrumental view of nature. To his credit though he advocated human population degrowth at a time when globally our species numbered less than half its count today!14Nature is now our inspiration and model, so having defined the problem as a more or less total one-dimensional system, I now turn to explain life, specifically livin’ which is the object of the livin’ man’s desire.
Livin’ Is Presence
Above I asserted that livin’ is a matter of being immersed in a living world, which means that an individual’s livin’ is continuous with their environment. While this notion is expressed in the view that all life is one or simply that all is one, these formulations fail to address the incredibly complex structure of life that is everywhere both one and many. This duality is clarified in Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”15 and Craig Holdrege’s commentary on it in his Thinking Like a Plant.
Leopold laments how mountain ecosystems have been severely degraded by deer following the human destruction of their wolf populations. The howl of the wolf, he writes, fully penetrates the landscape, expressing that animal’s pervasive presence which conditions everything organic and inorganic that belongs to its habitat. Holdrege takes this observation literally, remarking, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”16 Although wolves especially attract our attention, what is true of them is also true of their prey the deer, other species, indeed everything that belongs to a mountain. Each thing may be regarded as forming a dimension or layer of life with greater or less extension over that mountain and all of which constitute its total life.
Applying this conception to humans means that we have a presence in the world as well for better or worse. Leopold’s and Holdrege’s reflections trade on the dual denotations of “wolf” as both the species and an individual. A single wolf, the last of its kind on a mountain, would have a different impact from a population of a size appropriate for the ecosystem. So in making the comparison with humans, it is evident that their significant presence in the world is that of the aggregate. Still, although individuals generally feel like tiny powerless specks in the total scheme of things, each of them has a considerable presence within a certain range.
Delving deeper into the meaning of “presence,” we understand that in the case of the wolf, one need not be close to a deer and seen by it in order to have an effect, for the herbivore is always wary that a wolf might approach it, and its whole behavior reflects this ever-present threat. Leopold relates how the presence of wolves determines the size of the deer population and the kind of vegetation living on a mountain. Conversely, the wolves’ behavior, indeed their very presence, is conditioned by the presence of the deer population and ultimately that of each individual one, for the wolf population doesn’t feed off the deer population, but rather individual wolves kill and eat individual deer.
Similarly, a person’s presence is their behavior which conditions the objects they affect in their environment, for instance a person owning a home which is recognized as private property that others do not enter. That individual may have a yard with a lawn which they keep mowed, preventing weeds, trees and wildlife from coming to inhabit it. While the person’s presence conditions other people and things, their presence is similarly conditioned by a multitude of other objects as each thing forms a layer in a certain place, and altogether these constitute a spatially and temporally continuous functional whole. Like with an ecosystem, this model for humans is readily imagined in the case of a small self-sufficient community. Otherwise to the extent that a person’s presence is dispersed, its space is as well, possibly resembling an amoeba that is far more pseudopods than main body. In our time of work in places far away from home communities, not to mention vast electronic communication, the presence of individual humans is both spatially and temporally discontinuous, indeed scattered.
Regardless, wherever a person is they fill that place with their presence, and this is manifest in their experience. I see the things around me as a three-dimensional panorama of visual images surrounding the image of my body. My visual perception extends around my body and constitutes my presence as a seeing subject which intersects and conjoins with likewise extended present objects in their visible capacities to produce images of them in my extended consciousness. Being extensions of me, images belong to and are organic parts of me in a way that is analogous to that in which parts of my body belong to me and are mine. My consciousness of external objects is not limited to sense perceptions, for I also have intuitions of their natures, and these, like sense perceptions, are located where the objects in their intuitable capacities and I as an intuiting subject intersect. Like sense perceptions, my intuitions are extensions of and belong to me.
The space of my perceptions and intuitions is not the same as that of my body or external objects insofar as these exist independently in a solid form and arrayed in what we understand as objective space, as it is perspectival and private to me. It does however evidently exist within the objective space as subjects and objects intersect within it and there is an orderly correlation of spatial relations between the two. It is to be noted that “objective” space is a map or picture drawn from the evidence of human perception.
My account expands our understanding of presence, revealing how experience is a matter of objects entering the lives of subjects as subjects simultaneously enter the lives of objects. When the intersection of lives produces images and intuitions, these belong to the subject as extensions of it while also being extensions of the objects, for the subjects and objects are conjoined in the images or intuitions. The object’s particular function in such a relation makes it part of the subject’s life. Understanding a thing to be the unity of all its functions, its presence can be defined as its action of entering into the lives of other things and becoming or being parts of them. A wolf enters into the life of a deer through the sound of its howl which modifies the deer’s life with a sense of fear, movements to protect itself and the creation or reinforcement of memories. Meanwhile deer enter into the wolf’s life insofar as its movements are guided by the scents, sounds, images and memories produced by them.
My mention of memory raises the factor of lived time. In speaking of presence and experience I have emphasized space – the space they occupy and extend over. But the ultimate subject is an entity’s life which is spread about through its functions, making visual images and intuitions parts of a person’s life along with the actions of living in their house, working in their office and so forth. All interaction between things involves presence since each thing conditions the other as, for example, when I stand on the ground my feet press against it while it simultaneously presses against my feet. Because the lives of things continue over time, repeated and sustained interactions assume larger roles in those lives.
How I Began Livin’
This reality was forcefully impressed upon me in a NIMBY battle in which I was involved many years ago. My husband and I owned a house, behind which was a small creek on the opposite bank of which was a beautiful high tree-covered bluff that contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home. One day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums on that bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction mere feet from my property, looming over it and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view and intuition of the bluff, through which I had a vital connection with the site, had become cherished parts of me. While the initial response of the neighbors whose properties bordered the creek was that you can’t fight city hall, I was determined to stop the development. Knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house on the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. It was further an officially designated city neighborhood with a then-inactive neighborhood association. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every house in the neighborhood, seeking to gather their residents behind me to oppose the development. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to the residents next door, referring to them by name and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I then re-walked it. My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. In the course of the campaign we learned that what I call the bluff was not a natural formation at all but was rather a great pile of fill material that years earlier had been dumped over the ridge above it. As it created the bluff, the dumping also shifted the creek much closer to the homes on the opposite bank.
Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my property the hub of the neighborhood where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna. So unified, this total community became an object of intuition for me, with its elements that included the bluff and me being intuited as parts of the whole and indivisibly united within that whole. I ceased to regard the view and intuition of the bluff as mine and now claimed them, in fact the bluff itself, as ours, organic parts of our total indivisible living community.
My experience vividly illustrates Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking, organizing and forming bonds with the neighbors. Further, like the wolves, the people acted to protect its natural features. Overall consciousness of the unified activity was love, awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active as well, for in being there, in being objects of sight and intuition and as physical bodies and organisms the bluff and its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too.
Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. This was no small feat, as the matter dragged on for several months while babies were born, personal conflicts and threats of defection arose. At its peak the unity was a beautiful thing, something which I have subsequently observed coming into being in other groups that unfortunately have tended to dissolve or devolve into cliques.
What I have described was a powerful experience, the like of which is related by other people in particularly intense activist efforts. Sartre and de Beauvoir found existential freedom in their engagement with La Resistánce, and at the time I shared their sense of deliverance, feeling rather like Dante that I had emerged from the dark wood of society’s false construction of reality. What I had achieved was living consciousness which is opposed to the life-denying one-dimensional outlook that dominates our culture.
The Place and Time of Livin’
My mind was permanently changed by the endeavor, and I have ever since regarded my visual images and intuitions as extensions of me literally existing in the space around my body, being parts of my life, belonging to me and through which I am conjoined with their objects. Acknowledging that the latter possess a measure of separate existence and autonomy I further view them, like myself, as parts of the community, nature and the world. This viewpoint drives my continual activism for the environment, democracy and many other campaign objectives, and it is the basis of my fundamental belief that other people’s inactivity or limited engagement is largely due to their lack of living connection with their community. I frequently repeat Grace Lee Boggs’ words “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”17 Our current culture pulverizes humanity, in fact the world, into innumerable separate fragments. Under neoliberalism people regard themselves as agents of free choice in all matters, so, in pointillist time, they are continually deciding anew what they will do, for example, watch television or attend a rally to save democracy.
In Thinking Like a Plant Holdrege describes the expansive multi-dimensional unity of plants with the things around them – the soil, water and multitude of other organisms. Unlike plants, animals are mobile, but they have and are bound to habitats. For some animals these are vast or far-flung, but they are nevertheless communities, for species that migrate across land or through the air or water must still eat, drink and breathe along the way. Their migration moreover carries them between their primary seasonal territories or waters in which they have a presence even in their absence, for the effects of their activity remain when they leave.
Plants and animals superbly demonstrate that the life of an individual involves vital connections with its place and everything in it. Each one is an extended presence or layer of the indivisible whole living place and as such parts they serve their own interests, those of each other and that of the whole. Obviously this involves trade-offs, as animals and pathogens consume and prey upon plants and other animals, but this is all for the purpose of perpetuating themselves, others and the whole.
This aspect of life is negated in current one-dimensional human life for two very disturbing reasons: First, the principle of neoliberalism isn’t just every man for himself, but universal competition, truly the war of all against all. Second, as the condition Marcuse diagnosed persists, the whole system’s destiny is massive destruction and death. While it is headed for doom, the people within it are not only radically diminished, each one’s activity contributes to the final demise.
Having explored the continuous, multi-dimensional spatial aspect of life, I now turn to explain its temporal nature. I have mentioned Bauman’s conceptions of “pointillist time” and the “liquid” character of our lives. Another term that has come into currency is “nowism” which refers to an attitude by which the world is viewed as being created anew at every moment, dismissing the past and the future. These positions don’t merely conflict with the truth of biological time, they negate that time, which is not an external structure in which things exist but is rather the very propagation of life. We commonly think of time in a way that is analogous to the way in which we conceive of space – as a bare surface or empty container. But that is an abstraction, because there is no such space, rather only place which is occupied by innumerable presences forming a single total indivisible living presence. In the same abstract manner we speak of time as a quantity, a period, even “space” of time. Aristotle defined time as the measure of motion: an hour, for example is the period in which the little hand moves from one numeral to the next on the face of a clock. But such uniform motion is also alien to the functioning of organisms, whose time is their creative continuance in which they persist in ever-newly modified forms, temporally and spatially indivisible. Exhibiting duration their entire histories are continually carried into each successive present moment of their lives.
There are thus two aspects of biological time – an organism’s progressive development and the retention of its past, which is continually absorbed into every new present configuration. These phenomena are what we commonly understand as maturation and aging which are particularly evident in higher life forms including humans. As we grow into adulthood then age, we continually build a living legacy, for our bodies are ongoing records of everything they have ever done or has had done to them. What I do at this moment is conditioned, for example, by my act of eating breakfast this morning, for that literally fuels it, as each meal fuels each day’s action day after day after… Our environment is also such a record of our activity, a living legacy as well because as we make our marks on the world our lives are extended into and continued in it. This is most evident with one’s offspring, for whose well-being one naturally has as much or more concern as for one’s own. Life is fully ongoing, so even if a particular individual has no direct descendants, by nature their activity serves the continued life of the environment that sustains them.
These facts of life are reflected in people’s normal conscious desire to create and have legacies. For Sennett satisfaction as an employee involves building a legacy through long service and promotion in a single workplace. He points also to the durable products created with pride by individual craftsmen which contrast with rapidly disposable stuff mass-produced by impersonal teams and operations that are highly automated or geographically dispersed.18 Although the premier legacies would seem to be achievements that make history, nature speaks resoundingly in people’s common satisfaction and sense of fulfillment with children, grandchildren and other living things that they have brought into existence or preserved. These values tend to become especially conscious when their objects are threatened with destruction or actually perish, as evidenced by the profound grief of parents when a child dies, the poignance of The Cherry Orchard as well as the passion with which campaigns to protect natural places and things are carried on.
Satisfaction, indeed joy, is felt by gardeners when their plants come into flower or fruition, and the degree of this pleasure is proportional to the length of time it took them to bring about the result. A mature perennial garden produces greater delight in its creator than one planted just this season with annuals. The length of duration makes a difference in a way that is comparable to the aging of wine which produces progressively complex, full-bodied and deeply pleasurable taste sensations. Time isn’t the only factor in the enjoyment of a legacy, as the scale and intricacy of one’s effort figure in it as well.
To the extent that one interacts with other things their life is conjoined with them, expanding and deepening one’s presence in the present and into the future, enriching their legacy. One’s own performance and pleasure are compounded when the activity is shared with other people, as in gardening together individuals not only work with the plants to bring them into fruition for themselves, but also establish and maintain friendly relations with each other. In this way each person’s legacy consists of both the garden and the society of the gardeners, which combined form a single and comprehensive whole life. I underscore life because the purpose of the whole endeavor is to sustain the lives of each plant, each individual person, the garden as a whole and the community of gardeners, all of which constitute the single whole life.
Restoring the Livin’ World
This is the model of life, but of course, actual lives are not so contrived or limited in reach. Regardless, it is diametrically opposed to the order in which we are presently living wherein the action of the whole and of every part is directed at destruction. Shifting to a life-affirming system requires that people, in the words of Bernie Sanders, “come together” and work in cooperation to create a world in which each part supports the life of every other part and that of the whole. Doing this is now urgent just to preserve life from the ravages of climate change and mass extinction. Indeed these crises have awakened us to the reality that livin’ today is global cooperative human action to serve and regenerate life on earth. Being the greatest crisis in the history of humanity, it is at the same time the greatest opportunity for each person to live to the maximum degree by dedicating themselves to the effort. This moment also brings about true understanding insofar as people come to know their own lives as shared with the people and things around them, all serving each other and life as a whole.
This last is a general idea that is presently widely shared, however it not sufficient for achieving the change that is necessary, which is to put an end to the whole one-dimensional mode of existence. Such total transformation has innumerable parts, one of which is an entirely different world view. Einstein said, “If we want to change the world we have to change our thinking… We must learn to see the world anew.” In this essay and in others published on my website I present a new life-affirming account of the world and the role of humans in it. Such thinking is essential, and it includes a new political economy, various proposals for which are now appearing at an accelerating pace.
I leave the detail of these schemes to the experts and limit myself to assessing their consistency with my philosophy. The core idea that best fits it is presented in David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy: from Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth which calls for a global order of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”19 Recently Richard Heinberg20 has amplified Korten’s argument for degrowth, while programs for sustainability are multiplying under such labels as “regenerative culture” and “circular economy.” Meanwhile a whole new model has emerged which is set forth in Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor’s Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter.21 Moving beyond capitalism and socialism, these authors advocate a system that promotes co-ops and includes a “social wage,” housing, healthcare and employment as rights in addition to recognizing resources as commons. Their basic principle is that because everyone contributes to the economy and society they should receive the support of them in order to live with dignity. Knocking down economic self-interest and welfare programs, they present a plan founded on the values of human solidarity, mutuality and universal justice, applauding the Green New Deal as a vehicle for combatting climate change and inequality.
Dr. Pastor was a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for New Economic Thinking22 in which it was brought out that to adequately respond to the climate crisis we need a functioning government that reflects the identities and interests of the people, yet achieving such a democracy requires people’s confidence that can only be won by the government actually making people’s lives better. This is a chicken-and-egg problem that I believe Benner and Pastor resolve by offering a vision in which both objectives are fulfilled.
In my view solidarity economics is the best plan to come along, especially to guide immediate action against climate change, while long-term it should be the organizing principle for the decentralized future mode of existence advocated by Korten. In their book Benner and Pastor are silent on the matter of finance, which for Korten is the fundamental problem, as our method of creating money as debt produces a growth imperative. This can be changed with public banking in accordance with modern monetary theory, a logical complement to solidarity economics.
We should also pass over Benner and Pastor’s dismissal of degrowth, which, I believe has already begun thanks to the pandemic. Insofar as the best way to bring about human population reduction is to empower women their model assists degrowth. As the pandemic has catalyzed the trend of population degrowth it has empowered workers, portending the gains to be had by continuing it through humane policies rather than by the hand of the Grim Reaper. Extreme population density has been a factor in COVID mortality, driving many people to temporarily or permanently move out of cities. Indeed, Marcuse’s principal argument for reducing human numbers was to provide more space for each person, what we now call “social distance.” If managed equitably, degrowth amid the inevitable resource reduction coming from climate change would mean less competition between people and therefore a larger share for each person.
The Green New Deal avoids the notion of degrowth, which stands outside the Overton window for American politicians including even Sanders. Fortunately at this time Europe is doing better, with Amsterdam having officially adopted doughnut conomics and regenerative technologies rapidly advancing on that continent. Still, plenty of economists and engineers both here and abroad are presently conceiving alternative structures to address the total global crisis.
As a philosopher and organizer my focus is on changing people’s outlook on the world and behavior toward it, especially with an eye toward resolving the chicken-and-egg problem identified above. For my purpose one-dimensional thinking is a huge obstacle. For the one-dimensional world is basically a machine consisting of so many parts linked together that constitute its total operation, and as with any machine, breakdown is always considered to be a problem with a particular part or parts, never due to the whole thing being a failure or totally misconceived. But this is precisely what is the matter with the world, especially the U.S., where the system is designed to build and maintain the dominance of the rich and powerful on the backs of the rest of us and through the destruction of nature.
People see countless things that are wrong and mostly go after them one-by-one in single-issue campaigns or identity groups. They seem to believe that all these projects together move the world toward ideals of sustainability and justice, but the goals are not consistent nor is the effort continuous. What we see is much swarming of people from one highly-publicized mobilization to another, leading some leaders to link their project to the hot topic of the day as was seen with other concerns being attached to the Black Lives Matter movement. Presently there is no unifying total counter-narrative to the status quo.
Activists reading this will inevitably respond by saying that they have only so much time and energy and therefore must limit themselves to working on only one or a few projects. This attitude is perfectly valid, and I admit to concentrating my effort on particular campaigns that are the most urgent or fundamental. But I want to say here that people’s time deficit is chiefly due to the nature of the system in which work, commuting, continuing education and just recovering from the grind needlessly consume nearly all of people’s waking hours. In regard to volunteer work, there are way too few of us doing it, so with decent manpower there would be less burden on each one. Finally, organizations and campaigns need to have broader scope with work on different parts of the agenda divided among the members. Too often in organizations everybody joins in the same function or series of activities one after the other. There are countless progressive organizations doing electoral work, but why has the national campaign to pass legislation protecting and expanding voting rights, end gerrymandering and dark money in politics had such difficulty engaging folks? As a volunteer organizer in it I have found that the reasons are those I identify in this essay.
Moving on, as it is evident that the problem is total, the solution must be as well. Central to any campaign is its message, for which there is a standard formula: define the problem; identify the villain; define the solution; identify the hero, which is always the people. As for the definition of the problem, I have referenced the work of Heinberg, an energy issue expert, and Korten, an economist. They stress the severity and totality of the environmental crisis that is now inseparable from the current and widely-acknowledged crises of democracy and social justice. While the goals and strategies of the two thinkers are technically compatible, their timelines differ. Heinberg is in a rush, issuing a call for movement organizing, echoing Bill McKibben’s recent New Yorker article23 and Benner’s and Pastor’s book.
As an activist and organizer I know that along with defining the problem and the solution it is necessary to change people’s thinking. Years ago I was at a festival collecting signatures on postcards to a U.S. senator and approached people asking, “Are you for good jobs, wages and healthcare?” If they hesitated I would add, “Or are you for bad jobs, wages and healthcare?” Today my question would be, “Are you for livin’ or are you for dyin’?” In this work I have defined “livin’” in the hope that it will lead people to abandon one-dimensional thinking and behavior in favor of living consciousness and action. Everything must change, and all of our moves must be understood as parts of the total transformation, having their particular places in it and related to the rest. There can be no isolated issues, and relations must be recognized, especially order of priority.
A person is an extended presence as I have described, with their body being the center of their action which is in some degree autonomous and free. They have the ability to think differently, step outside the one-dimensional machine and engage in livin’, which is actually a natural imperative. The reality of this responsibility is captured in Leopold’s observation of the call of the grebe which, it seemed to him, sustained the courage of all the marshland creatures by reminding them “…if all are to survive, each must ceaselessly feed and fight, breed and die.”24
Despite the fractured condition of human life and the world, there is an immediately available means for people, particularly Americans, to assert their presence, and this is by fully exercising their rights as citizens. Many times I have come forward as a voice in the wilderness, attracted support and achieved some policy objective. Right now everything is at stake – not only climate and life on earth, but our very ability to act on these matters as democracy is also in grave peril. My model of life includes participatory democracy in local communities and robust citizen participation in higher levels of representative democracy which must further extend to global governance. One of the points made in the INET conference was that the Green New Deal transforms not only power for lighting and transporting things, but also human and citizen power. The chicken and egg challenge is met by redefining all the problems as one, and the solution as one as well – system change that restores we the people as the sovereign and delivers justice for all, humans and nonhumans alike. Progress toward this goal is made with the same old formula – educate, agitate, organize.
Time is of the essence, not only in regard to climate but also democracy. Dividing the single whole issue into isolated pieces is a mistake. Recently 650 abortion rights events were held across the country that were attended by tens of thousands of people, while a few weeks earlier a mere 47 Finish the Job rallies for the Freedom to Vote Act attracted far fewer. The same people who were invited to rally for voting rights turned out en masse for abortion rights. Their engagement was commendable, but it’s a fact that abortion rights depend on voting rights, and those folks weren’t making the vital connection. So much activism is one-dimensional in this way, and I fear that too many progressives are like the benevolent Eloi in The Time Machine who were preyed upon by the underground-dwelling Morlocks. The latters’ present counterparts are at this moment preparing for an historic conquest.
My emphasis on broad perspective isn’t a merely rhetorical matter, as the fate of my neighborhood paradise reveals. The developer had applied for a conditional use permit, so the city officials finally required him to slightly reduce the number of units, dealing a financial blow to the project and leaving it in limbo. As time passed my husband got a job in another state, so with much regret I sold our house and moved away. Eighteen months later an extreme rainstorm caused the creek to flood the neighborhood, killing two people, demolishing or heavily damaging several of the houses. Remarkably, the city accepted responsibility for allowing extensive development up the watershed without providing for flood control, so it bought the properties adjacent to the creek and turned the land into a park. Having withstood the flood my former house was moved to another town. When in the course of our campaign the risk of flooding was raised we were informed that the solution was to channelize the creek – another aesthetic disaster! These two threats became tied to the development but apart from it set aside as remote possibilities.
As I write there is a city near me in which the citizens are doing many good things to advance local sustainability, yet it lies between two heavily-traveled highways along which warehouse development is rapidly destroying farmland. The topography and diesel truck traffic volume has caused the region’s air quality to become some of the worst in the country. This situation is one of I’m sure very many cases that demonstrate that community-focused action, though critical, is insufficient to resolve our total problem.
I have elaborated Leopold’s and Holdrege’s notions of presence, but the former had a bigger concept in mind when he wrote “Thinking Like a Mountain.” As the mountain is the indivisible unity of all its component presences, it is this total living being that Leopold bids us to think like – multi-dimensionally from the perspective of every presence that is a part and of the whole as well. For the mountain is also a presence within its larger environment, as we see that a drought can create the condition for a wildfire that consumes every living thing on it.
Thinking multi-dimensionally like a mountain, we must also act multi-dimensionally like one. This is livin’ – at once affirming our own life and that of the world. As I have said, technologies and models currently exist and are rapidly expanding that would permit humans to establish an ecological civilization. A major part of the transformation must be people fully engaging as citizens in local participatory democracy and representative democracy at the state, national and global levels to assert their presence as their constitutional right and by this means equitably secure it. Supreme livin’ is precisely people working together privately and as citizens to reverse the ongoing global dyin’ and to advance the goal of sustainable livin’ for all. With this monumental opportunity, indeed necessity, we are truly living in the greatest moment of human history which further offers the most noble legacy.
Right now the forces of light need the kind of full-spectrum movement that is currently being carried on by the forces of darkness, the latest moves of which include propagandizing and taking over school districts. Our message must be spread at the most local level with candidates being recruited and elected there and higher up who are committed to the agenda. As we are presently seeing, like many times before, party affiliation is no predictor of an official’s actions on specific issues, especially insofar as they rely on the power elite for their campaign funding.
The life-centered, life-based system change that I am advocating offers security and fulfillment in life. While at this time people are justifiably skeptical of dependence on government bureaucrats and wild swings of the political pendulum, personal human support remains scarce. It did increase some during the pandemic lockdown, but community social bonds, which reached a nadir before then, still need vast improvement. Our current crisis is an historic occasion to restore and expand them to the environment, make real the promise of democracy and attain livin’ for all.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I will conclude it with comments on another that won an award at Cannes the same year. Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel25 opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though people have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a one-dimensional mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former they must first wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
1. La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico (1961).
2. The Twilight Zone. Season 5, Episode 22, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Directed by Robert Enrico. Aired on February 28, 1964.
As ecological consciousness grows more thinkers are putting forth holistic interpretations of the world which tackle the age-old problem of the one and the many that poses the two questions, how can a thing with many parts be one and how can there be many things of one kind? The classic formulation of it was given by Plato, to whom writers today still refer, dismissing his solution as it is commonly but incompletely understood. In this essay I present that philosopher’s brilliantly insightful approach to the riddle and use it to explain how we in fact see and know the one in the many.
The usual view of Plato’s position is taken from The Republic in which he presumes that the objects of human thinking exist in a realm of ideas separate from the material world. According to this view my thought of a triangle is not of this one drawn on the paper in front of me but of the eternal perfect triangle in that other realm. Going further, Plato ascribes the reality of all things to those ideas, reducing the familiar material plane to a shadowy reminder of it.
Delving into that intelligible world the later dialogue Parmenides particularly examines the “One,” which is both the idea and the reality of unity. The character Parmenides reasons that if unity is such a distinct entity, there must also be the indefinite “Others” which is every other kind of thing and quality in the universe massed together and combined in a manifold in which they are different but not distinct. This conception of the Others can be traced to the Greeks’ mythological notion of Chaos that existed before structure came into the world. Having introduced the One and the Others as separate the philosopher then brings them together in thought, causing all the Others to become unitary distinct things and qualities. Combining with each of the formerly indistinct other things and qualities, the One is multiplied in all these new units while itself remaining distinct as the One.
Plato is above all a logician chiefly focused on analyzing our concepts or ideas of things. Every one includes unity, for it is a unified concept or idea. Our idea of a triangle is such a one, and we think of the figure as a unitary object. Meanwhile it has parts – lines and angles which are identified in its definition. The ideas of these are also separate units, and we consider their objects to be discrete as well. So in thought and in Plato’s intelligible universe the triangle is not one but seven! For the combination of lines and angles is one; the three lines that compose it are each one as are its three angles. The marriage of the One and the Others spawns as units every different thing and quality and every combination of them in which their components, which remain manifold, are indivisibly united.
The triangle is composed of the parts I have identified, and they are related; for example one of the lines may be the hypotenuse of a right triangle. While in the world of ideas the individual lines and angles are distinct from the plain triangle, the hypotenuse intrinsically belongs to the right triangle. So unlike the simple combination of lines and angles that forms the basic figure, this specific kind has a two-dimensional component. In thought the hypotenuse is present in the foreground, so to speak, while the right triangle is in the background of a single indivisible idea. There is no separate idea of hypotenuse apart from that triangle, although one might think of it separately as a line.
One of the qualities included in the Others is existence, so from it, and contrary to the common interpretation of Plato’s work, come all distinct things in both the intelligible and material worlds. The problem that arises from this consequence is that while a combination of ideas or Forms might have material existence, the component parts in it discerned by thought remain in the intelligible world. A particular cat, which is a unitary combination of a multitude of qualities, is present before me, but its specific quality of “catness” that I behold is not in it but rather in the intelligible world.
Although Parmenides discloses this drawback in Plato’s system, it otherwise presents a superb model for understanding nature as both one and many, for our acts of perceiving and apprehending objects in thought function like the One combining with the Others. I look upon a prairie and have a single image of it in which certain defining features such as the level expanse of grass are prominent. The object of my attention is the prairie, the whole, so I see all of the particular things that compose it indistinctly. Now I focus my gaze on single bison that appeared in the previous image, this time seeing it distinctly as a single whole object while the prairie appears less distinct as its background. The image of the bison specifically is not cut out of the first image, nor is it a magnification of a part of it. Rather, it is a separate and different image that highlights certain defining features of the bison. In the first image the bison is an indivisible part of a certain whole, and in the second it forms a new whole. The first image is analogous to the bison as it might exist in an indefinite state within the Others, while the second image corresponds to what it would be distinct and unified in combination with the One.
This exercise can be repeated with the bison as a whole animal having parts. When I look at the whole certain defining features such as shape, colors and texture of fur stand out. Now I look specifically at the tail, and this image highlights its defining features – the long thin shape and tuft at the end. Like the hypotenuse of the right triangle, this image is of the tail of the bison, as the animal’s body or at least some rear portion of it appears less distinctly in the background of the single image in which the tail appears distinctly in the foreground.
In addition to the visual image of an object I also have an intuition of it. Intuition is the immediate apprehension of the function of a thing and is distinct from sense perception. It takes place concurrently with such perception, but one can focus their attention specifically on either an intuition or sense perception, shifting the other into the background of one’s awareness.
Intuition proceeds in the same way as focused sensory perception: I’m aware of the animal as a living whole with manifold functions. Those of walking, breathing, perceiving and all the rest cannot be separated, although I can focus my attention specifically on its walking, eating or other single activity in a two-dimensional intuition of that function of the animal. I can also separately intuit parts of it and different aspects such as those by which it is classified as a mammal, bison, female or mature.
Along with the kinds of wholes and parts I have named, I can see and intuit collective wholes and parts, for example a bison herd or a single member of it. Likewise I can experience an ecosystem in perception and intuition or organic parts of it separately. In this last kind of act I experience the part specifically as a part, for the other option exists of experiencing it as a distinct whole.
Seeing the one in the many is thus a two-part process: first one sees or intuits the whole, then sees or intuits different parts as parts of the whole. In these last images or intuitions the parts appear distinctly in the foreground while the whole appears less distinctly in the background of single unitary intuitions or images. As I indicated above, neither the parts nor the whole appear quite the same in the successive views of them.
We understand nature to be an indivisible whole composed of innumerable things that have multiple identities as they function as whole entities and as parts of so many other nested and intersecting whole structures. This makes each a functional manifold in a total universe in which no thing is absolutely separate or distinct but only relatively so. Our acts of seeing and intuiting carve the indivisible world into so many different objects, but this is not random because our consciousness is an indivisible functional part of the whole as well. By nature it delineates bodies and their relations, identifying natural kinds which are the essential characters shared by many things that are yet individualized in nonessential respects. Properly seeing and comprehending the world requires that we understand how our consciousness operates: it does not begin with separate building blocks then construct whole objects but rather begins with whole beings then discerns the parts that belong to them.
At this time ecological thinkers are emphasizing systems, especially as these are defined by systems theory. This interdiscipline is a life-saving departure from traditional reductionist methods in science but has yet to be made relevant to people’s individual everyday conduct. The objective of this essay is to develop the notion of systems to explain how people can act systematically now to advance the ecological civilization, indeed to avert imminent environmental and social catastrophe.
Focusing on relationships within systems, some writers give too little consideration to the nature of the things which have these relationships, that is, the components of the systems. From the concept of a system a definition of the components may be directly inferred: A component is a thing that participates in a system, functioning in a specific capacity as a part of it. Systems are therefore wholes of which things, performing specific functions, are parts.
Ecological systems theory takes particular interest in organisms which, in contrast with more diffuse and inorganic systems, are unitary lives that function in a variety of larger systems and constitute organic parts of more comprehensive unitary lives such as ecosystems and the biosphere. The unity of an organism’s life is precisely the totality of its various vital functions, what Aristotle called its essence. He identified growth, nutrition and reproduction as the essential functions of plants, these plus motion and perception as those of animals, and the latter plus reason as the essential functions of humans. In addition he declared that humans are by nature “political animals,” that is, creatures belonging to a community possessing a government.
I resurrect Aristotle’s essentialism because it ascribes to human nature the essential function of participating in a governed community. Though he admitted that democracy is the most stable form of government, his wish to provide a model for the perfect state led him to prefer rule by a philosopher-king. Of course there never has been and never will be a perfect state much less a perfect philosopher-king to rule any state. Moreover, history has irreversibly established democracy as the ideal, and today in America and many other countries the people remain the sovereign.
Grace Lee Boggs said, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”* What is missing in the response to the crises of our time is the sense among most people that they belong to, are organic, vital parts of their communities, their nation and nature and further, that the well-being of each of these requires vigorous commitment of everyone to achieve it.
The essentialist viewpoint restores people’s identity as parts of such living systems, wholes or essences. Awareness of it is presently lacking because communities, polities and nature are in states of severe degradation with individual people existing like cells in a very sick body. As such organic parts they must together undertake to recover their proper functions of sustaining themselves individually, each other and the larger bodies.
Being parts of the wholes to which each person belongs, the principal capacity in which people act in the recovery effort is as citizens. Presently polluting industries maintain a strong grip on governments at every level, as they increasingly support measures to eviscerate democracy. There is much that people can do working together privately, but the actions that are most needed at this time are public policies. For people to mobilize on the necessary scale they must develop the consciousness Boggs refers to, organize and act as citizens to defend their communities, democracy and the planet from destruction.
Functioning according to one’s primary identity is as a citizen requires attention to the full indivisible complexity of the world and individual’s lives. The reductionist method and some applications of systems theory carve the world and people’s existence into so many compartments, ultimately treating human actions and relations according to one-dimensional models. Indeed, the whole mechanistic paradigm from which we are trying to escape approaches everything in terms of instrumentality – how people and objects can be manipulated and used for specific purposes.
Mindful of this, Grace Lee Boggs also said, “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings.”† Regenerating the environment and revitalizing democracy requires restoring living social relations among people. The common instrumental nature of human relations tends to reduce behavior to so much performance and judgment of performance, leading to wholesale burning of bridges between people or at least failure to construct them. While this goes on like-minded folks circle their wagons, and the vacuum in human dialogue is filled by the media.
Government is the formal means, though not the only one, by which a community secures the well-being of all of its members and the community as a whole. Participating in their government is the way in which each citizen engages in the total effort. The community is a relational whole, of which each member is a complex indivisible human being who must be recognized as such for the civic purpose. At the same time it is understood that their well-being is linked to that of every other member and that of the whole community, with these requiring a healthy environment and robust democracy.
The logic of systems theory and imperatives for survival require that we cast off one-dimensional thinking and action, reframing everything in terms of life. That life is a total indivisible unity is now the widely accepted view, and my multi-dimensional essentialist interpretation of human life provides a guide for individual action as an organic part of it. This is precisely working as citizens with the people in our communities, nations and across the globe to restore the nested living systems in which we all exist.
A feature of systems that especially interests theorists is that of emergence – their function of spontaneously self-organizing into novel forms. Human history can be interpreted as a chain of emergence of so many cultural configurations. In our own time we witness movement after movement for this, that and the other cause, most of which soon peter out. As an organizer I have learned that such emergence does not magically sustain itself: It requires clearly defined goals, strategy, organization and people’s commitment. At this time everyone, as parts of the human systems constituted by communities, polities and humanity as a whole, must consciously, collectively and urgently strive to realize the ecological civilization.
*Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer, “Revolution as a New Beginning: An Interview with Grace Lee Boggs,” Upping the Ante, March 26, 2005.
†Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) 153.
Green journals spotlight projects around the country with stories showing people doing good things. But what are most Americans thinking? I’m an issue and electoral campaign organizer who does endless door knocking, phonebanking and event coordination. Through this activity I know the outlook of the people I deal with in several communities in eastern Pennsylvania. Liberals and conservatives alike basically believe in the classical liberal doctrine upon which the country was founded. This is centered on the idea of freedom.
Our big idea of freedom belongs to a series in Western history. That history shows that one after another such ideas become dominant, determine the zeitgeist for a certain period, break down into contradiction and then a replacement big idea arises. In our time the destruction of resources, people’s health and lives is due to industry and individuals pushing the limits of liberal freedom. The present crisis is the material expression of the big idea of freedom hitting the wall.
Because it has defined the zeitgeist, people have taken the idea of freedom for granted. Yet it was conceived by Enlightenment thinkers who presented it through the myth of the social contract. According to that story God created humans in a state of nature in which each one exercised virtually unlimited God-given freedom to seek their own self interest. A moment came when they formed the social contract and established a government which placed some limits on that freedom to protect everyone’s rights to life, health and property. At the same time it protected their right to exercise their remaining unlimited natural freedom.
The social contract story reflected the science of the time. That was classical mechanics which depicted the universe as composed of discrete elementary particles and collections of them, all having internal inertial states of motion and operating strictly in accordance with Newton’s Laws. Applied to humans this model defined people as discrete individuals whose nature it was to serve their own self interest, thus validating individual freedom as the supreme value of liberal political theory.
Claims for individual freedom today that include refusing to follow COVID public health rules, rejecting regulation and defying criminal laws now threaten life on every level. Freedom has become slavery to the global power elite and to leaders who, in Orwellian fashion, represent slavish allegiance to themselves as freedom.
The next big idea is fast emerging. “Water is Life” and “Black Lives Matter” are literal expressions of the new supreme value of our time. That life is the current priority is underscored by the urgent attention now demanded by the pandemic and climate change. These two issues have ascended to the top of a long list of abiding threats to people and the planet.
As the previous big idea of freedom rested on the foundation of Enlightenment physical science, so the new big idea of Life is backed by today’s life science. No longer are organisms understood as discrete entities whose sole purpose is their individual survival. Now the world is defined as so many whole living systems and living parts of those wholes. According to this view each organism functions to sustain itself while it sustains the whole systems of which it constitutes various parts.
Applying this model to humans means that people are whole living beings who are at the same time living parts of multiple other whole living systems. By nature individuals function to sustain themselves while they sustain these larger systems. The latter include particular local ecosystems as well as the total biosphere. Among them are also human communities which exist at multiple levels ranging from villages to nations and finally the global population.
Human communities contain specific functional systems, similarly to the way that a body contains systems that perform the functions of circulation, digestion and so forth. One such structure in the community is its government whose function is to secure the well-being of all the members and the community as a whole. As the government is a vital part of the whole system, every person who is a part of the community plays a role in sustaining it. Also as every cell in the body participates in all its system’s processes, so every person participates in their government.
The new big idea of Life gives rise to a new conception of the social contract. It is every person’s commitment to function as a citizen of their community to secure its well-being and that of all of its members. People are parts of multiple communities, so this commitment applies to all the jurisdictions of which they are citizens. Meanwhile, communities are parts of many other living systems, so the social contract requires ecologically-sound practices on the part of individuals and the full hierarchy of political bodies. In this way the social contract secures for everyone the primary freedom to live as well as freedom to participate in robust democracy.
The perfect structure for actualizing the big idea of Life is created by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment. This model centers people’s lives in their communities and thus provides for the local participatory democracy required for them to fully honor the new social contract. Far from reducing individual freedom, it liberates people from innumerable onerous constraints imposed by the current political economy.
As it defines each person as a vital part of multiple living systems constituted by communities and their political bodies the new big idea transforms people’s conceptions of themselves and others. For it means that someone else’s condition affects me and vice versa. This is actually a simple truth that is now becoming fully evident especially in regard to politics. People whose adverse economic or social situations causes them to not vote or oppose the public interest bring harm to me. Conversely, my support for the conditions that produce their misfortune injures them. It is always correlative. In a properly functioning living system different parts do not harm but rather support one another.
The old big idea of freedom for everyone to seek their own self-interest with minimal limits has brought us the triple crisis of pandemic, climate change and assault on democracy. A life-affirming economy that supports the most robust democracy will take time to achieve. It must however be the ultimate goal of progressive action. A major initial step is people consciously adopting the new big idea of Life. As they do this they must further recognize that big ideas whose time is past don’t go down quietly. Rather, they are displaced by people animated by the emerging zeitgeist determined to elevate the new idea to dominance.
My essay Freedom: A 21st Century Update – Phila Back expands the subject of this article. It elaborates how classical liberal freedom has devolved into slavery and ways in which the sustainable community model secures real freedom. It concludes with actions everyone can take now to put life first.
With Trump out of the White House America continues to face the triple crises of pandemic, climate change and assaults on democracy. His conduct as president made them especially severe because he set a standard of virtually unlimited personal freedom – whatever one can get away with by means of their fame, power, connections and money. The infamous remark “When you’re a star…you can do anything,”1 perfectly expressed his attitude. In myriad ways – refusing to wear masks, storming the capitol then expecting clemency, denying the election results and more – his followers seek similarly unlimited freedom. With or without the former president, the movement he led will continue, to be halted only by a stronger one that upholds limits on freedom for the common good, social justice and stewardship of the commons. Presently the Right has many tens of millions of supporters plus majorities in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as several state and local governments. It may win majorities in both houses of Congress in 2022. With the start of a new administration and congress advocates on all sides are now mobilizing to push their agendas. Yet piecemeal change will not conquer the crises of pandemic, climate change and democracy under siege. They require a unified approach based on a forward-looking conception of freedom.
Americans have long held a very broad notion of freedom. Now however the views of the Right and the Left are in mortal conflict, with both standing on the antiquated Enlightenment myth of the social contract. That there is no longer any social contract is well known and also that our government is now lacking in the legitimacy conferred by that contract. To restore its legitimacy, to protect both freedom and life, we need a new narrative that redefines freedom and democracy to meet the urgent needs of our time. In this essay I will first review classical liberal political theory then trace how that doctrine devolved into the neoliberal political economy that reached its climax in Trumpism. In this Orwellian world freedom indeed became slavery, and I explore some of its varieties. Using the Enlightenment’s own method I next offer a new social contract narrative that satisfies the requirements of reason as it enhances freedom, democracy and life. The present extreme threats to life that include climate change, pandemic and environmental destruction further demand a new political economy for which I present a basic model. This provides the optimal structure for democracy and, with it, legitimacy. My review of history, ideas and current conditions leads to a new conception of freedom which people can adopt now to embrace both liberty and life.
The Original Social Contract Story
America’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – are based on the classical liberal political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their views differed in some respects, but they agreed that the authority of government is derived from the consent of the governed which was originally granted by the social contract. The story of the social contract is a myth according to which humans initially lived in the “state of nature.” Hobbes identified this state with anarchy, “the war of all against all.”2 For Locke it was a mythical society in which people had unlimited freedom subject only to the law of nature which was basically the Golden Rule that everyone enforced for themselves.3 Rousseau depicted it as the original condition of humanity in which people all lived separately like Robinson Carusoe.4 They concurred that God created humans in the state of nature, granting them vast freedom to act within their physical and mental capacities. Hobbes considered humans to be savages by nature, while Locke and Rousseau ascribed to them kinder dispositions. In all versions humans by nature originally acted in accordance with their individual self-interest. People in the state of nature were however endowed with reason, by which they saw that they would all be better off with some cooperation among themselves. So they unanimously formed the social contract which established a commonwealth, political society or body politic, agreeing to limit some of their natural freedoms in exchange for collective protection of those now limited ones as well as their remaining unlimited freedoms. By this means they transformed, with some restriction, their God-given natural freedom into fundamental constitutional rights.
Establishing the social contract did not abolish the state of nature but rather created a new civic order which superimposed a civic identity upon the people who otherwise retained their natural character. As citizens people had a duty to abide by the laws, but as private individuals they were free to do anything which was not prohibited by law, with this freedom being protected by the law. Our philosophers stressed that the body politic was “artificial” to distinguish it from the underlying natural order.
The social contract story was embedded in the broader outlook of the Enlightenment. This included Newtonian science, natural law theory with its long history from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and natural history. Calling itself “the Age of Reason,” thinkers in this period employed rigorous methods of reasoning, believing that such techniques certified the material truth of their theories and assertions.
From the discovery of the same constant mathematical patterns in the motion of bodies ranging from pebbles to planets Enlightenment scientists conceived an entire world view. It represented the universe as composed of elementary material bodies and discrete collections of them acting at every level according to Newton’s laws. Being thoroughly quantitative it defined everything in terms of units which, according to the concept of partes extra partes exist alongside, beyond and exterior to each other with no interdependence, only external independent existence. All objects were understood to have internal inertial states of motion exemplified by the uniform rectilinear motion of planets whose paths were bent into ellipses by external forces of gravity. As the laws were verified with observations of innumerable kinds of macroscopic objects they were declared to be the universal laws of nature attributed to God the creator who imposed them on his creation rather as human lawmakers impose laws on citizens. Further, assuming the conceptual character of mathematics the laws were claimed to be absolutely true and necessary, indeed revealed by the light of reason. Hope for the new science took the form of a belief in inexorable and continual progress.
Nature and reason were the two sources of authority with which our political philosophers disputed monarchs’ claims to divine right based on religious grounds. Supported by the advance of science, they were inclined to identify the two, elevating the tradition of natural law to rational truth as well. Locke wrote, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”5
Reports of Indigenous Peoples newly discovered in America were seized upon as representations of the natural, original state of human beings and as evidence for the species’ progress. Our thinkers’ method of reasoning and intellectual heritage however led them to quite mischaracterize such “natural” men. Hobbes was a mechanistic determinist, believing that people were collections of physical particles behaving strictly in accordance with Newton’s laws. Locke and Rousseau meanwhile held to the traditional Christian notion of free will. Above all they adhered to the Enlightenment’s precept of partes extra partes. Humans were a priori conceived entirely as individuals, a viewpoint which was central to the Enlightenment overall.
Another critical feature of their method was Aristotelian syllogistic logic according to which the conclusion of a deductive inference is assumed in the major premise. This, paired with the principle of sufficient reason underlay their “self-evident truths.” An example is that all men are created equal, a conclusion they deduced by first defining humans as a natural species of animal, then asserting that there are no natural social rankings among animals of the same species which thus makes them equal in rank. This claim was reinforced by the principle of sufficient reason according to which there is nothing in the idea of man so defined which would indicate any difference in rank among them. Following this reasoning it is seen that “all men are created equal” simply means that insofar as they are all members of the human species, there are no differences in rank among people, making them in this respect sthe same as swine or sheep.
The total Enlightenment approach to ideas and method was reflected in the classical liberal political philosophers’ construction of the social contract narrative. It presumed historical progress and defined human beings as individuals in internal states of motion seeking their own self-interest. Claiming the authority of reason it further asserted that humans were all created equal. All this moreover was the work of God the creator and lawgiver of nature. Finally, the source that revealed natural and mathematical truths to humans – the light of reason – also led humans to establish the social contract. As this light was believed to continue to reveal the secrets of nature forever into the future, so it was expected to guide political conduct following the creation of the social contract. Like Newtonian science which combined the pure rationality of mathematics with much empirical content, our philosophers sought to justify their vision to the greatest possible extent by means of formal reasoning while also drawing on material representing the human condition past and present.
The story of the social contract established the fundamental rights and the origin of the sovereign which served to legitimize the government that it created. Our three philosophers presented different models of what that government should be: Hobbes was a theocratic monarchist, while Locke advocated representative democracy. Rousseau favored participatory democracy like that of his native Geneva and ancient Greece. The American Founders followed Locke, securing very broad fundamental rights and trusting that legislators and the sovereign people would always sustain the common good.
Supreme among the values guiding the Founders and which their successors were intended to uphold was personal liberty. They declared
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
By liberty they meant the freedom to do anything that does not harm others. Moreover, they held that government must not impose any limits on this freedom except those which preserve the liberty of all and are specifically established by law.
From Liberalism to Neoliberalism
As the American political order was being constructed to implement classical liberal political theory, science continued to advance. Its method was extended to new areas of study including economics. In 1776 Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in which he asserted that the free market was governed by the law of supply and demand. Under this law buyers and sellers necessarily benefit fairly in every transaction because of the universal influence of the benevolent “invisible hand.” Smith’s subject of study was the specifically economic aspect of people’s lives which he called homo oeconomicus or “economic man.” Rooted in classical liberal philosophy and emphasizing national policy, his new science was what is known as classical liberal political economy.
America declined to adopt Smith’s pure laissez-faire approach and for several decades after the founding managed its economy according to the American System whose principal features were tariffs, a national bank and federal subsidies for infrastructure. Following the Civil War big business boomed, igniting first the populist then the progressive movements which gave birth to big government programs and regulations. Much reform came about from fear of communism and fascism which drove American policy makers to put the demands of working and poor people ahead of those of the wealthy and businesses. Once big government came into existence it became a magnet for all manner of interests. While the chief contenders for most of the twentieth century were business and its countervailing force labor, our government became consumed with responding to the multitude of competing claims placed upon it.
As New Deal policies were advancing in America in the 1930s reaction against socialism was building among some European economists. Neoliberalism, the Austrian School’s new model of political economy, gained traction after World War II when the Allies were constructing the post-war social democratic order. With the goal of replacing that system with his neoliberal vision Friedrich von Hayek enlisted a number of European and American economists and businesspeople. Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago was on board with von Hayek from the beginning, and the two made rapid progress at that institution with each winning Nobel Prizes. Their efforts were crowned with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America, both of whom shifted their countries to the neoliberal model of political economy.
Neoliberalism is a radical revision of the core ideas of classical liberal political philosophy and political economy. Like them it affirms maximum individual freedom but asserts that this requires a free competitive market that embraces all aspects of life. Insisting that socialism, even the tiniest speck of it, necessarily leads to fascism, neoliberalism demands that government must be reduced to its barest functions of securing persons, property, contracts and the value of money as it promotes capital accumulation through the maintenance and expansion of the competitive market. For neoliberal capitalist enterprise harmful impacts to people and the environment are “externalities.” People are defined all-inclusively as homo oeconomicus, meaning that all facets of their lives are matters of market competition. Being “entrepreneurs of themselves,” they must competitively market themselves in any and every human relationship. As these are multiple, people are thus “bundles of enterprises” always employing or investing their natural, inherited and acquired “human capital” for personal gain. Though it exalts freedom neoliberalism asserts that people’s actions are determined by “rational choice.” That is, among possible alternatives, they choose the one that they judge best serves their individual self-interest and competitive advantage. Ultimately their fates are determined by the invisible hand of the market which ensures that the necessary and universal law of supply and demand always prevails and can never fail.
Classical liberal philosophers defended their model as being the way of God’s creation and reason. Neoliberals however swear by the God-almighty market and further insist that their system is the only means of avoiding the descent into fascism or the “road to serfdom.” Moreover, while liberal government is formed and maintained by popular consent, neoliberalism has been imposed on nations by force or leaders making deceptive promises of freedom and prosperity, never by the fully informed consent of the governed. Freedom within neoliberalism is, in Milton Friedman’s words, nothing but “freedom to choose” between competing market offerings within the system.6 They deny that the neoliberal system itself is an object of choice, insisting that “There is no alternative” (TINA).
This is what the freedom of the Founders has devolved into today. In violation of the core principle of competition in their ideology the Reagan administration early on virtually abandoned anti-trust policy. Corporate giants decimated smaller businesses, and wealth became highly concentrated, a consequence Hayek in fact foresaw. His vision for free enterprise also included free trade, so today the market is dominated by the global corporate elite which has established institutions of global governance that can override sovereign nations’ law-making authority. Competition between businesses is now waged globally as they all strain to increase profits, reduce expenses and raise stock values. This compels countries to compete against each other to attract global businesses by offering business-friendly conditions consisting of cheap labor, little regulation and low taxes. Domestically states and communities must compete for businesses to locate in them with an array of taxpayer-funded enticements. Four decades of neoliberal off-shoring, M&A, downsizing, union-busting, relentless quest for greater efficiency, deregulation, privatization and financial crises have exacted an immense toll on the American people.
The Culture of Neoliberalism
As our economy has been transformed, so has our culture. While Thatcher was declaring, “…there is no society. There are individual men and women and there are families,”7 Americans were shifting to what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism.”8 Change in the nature of work played a large role in this, as the previous model of long-term full-time employment with companies providing generous benefits was overturned. It was progressively replaced by an array of precarious arrangements – contract work, on-demand schedules, temps – plus continual market flux that requires people to often seek new jobs, update skills, reskill and work two or three jobs at a time. The fluid nature of work spread to social relations in general, making them particularly superficial and transient or “liquid” according to Zygmunt Bauman.9
Being centered on competition has given neoliberal culture certain distinctive features. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook have named it “The Winner-Take-All Society”10 in which corporate boards of directors, universities, sports teams and television networks set the standard by elevating a few people to the status of stars for the purpose of successfully competing with their rivals. This has produced the overall cult of celebrity which trickles down to ordinary people who engage in more or less universal individual and group competition. The neoliberal imperative of maximizing the return on one’s human capital in a competitive market means that people will make the most of whatever advantages they have from their birth and upbringing, most notably white privilege. Competition, as Paul Riesling observed in Babbitt, isn’t aimed at achieving something but rather at defeating one’s opponent.11 Systemic racism is thus baked into neoliberalism, as is patriarchy. Individuals compete to get jobs, then to move up the ladder in their organization or industry, while even staying in the same position entails competitive effort. Being in an organization involves playing on its team in competition against rivals, and this requires team members to fit into its culture. The team model is reproduced across the spectrum of human associations, with each person having multiple identities as employees, members of families, churches, political parties and more.
Apart from the particular circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing, which it insists can always be surmounted, neoliberalism claims that an individual freely chooses the components of their identity – their job, hair style, religion, political affiliation and so on. This view pretends that a free individual with an original nature exists, but that is mostly a myth. Individuality is a creation of the free market. Offering Fords and Chevys, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, CNN and Fox, marketers exhort us to make the choice that expresses our “individuality.” In fact however our choices define our individuality. If there were only one kind of car, individuality in choosing one would have no meaning. As we proceed in life our identity builds with the choices we make among alternatives for education, jobs, cars, social groups, virtually everything.
By insisting that people make free rational choices solely to advance their individual self-interest neoliberalism denies the immense influence of marketing. Yet as it defines everything in terms of the market it construes all human behavior as basically consumer behavior. Under neoliberalism marketing as well as propaganda profoundly affect people as consumers. Although their identities are defined by their consumer choices and they are influenced by marketing, individual people remain the agents making the choices. Indeed, as Bauman says, “Consumption is a supremely solitary activity…”12 This fact explains how individuality and communality are conjoined in neoliberal culture and why the pendulum has swung from people touting their singularity to packing into its distinctive type of tribes.
Brands Take Over
In the early days of neoliberalism in America people were bent on escaping collective behavior and thinking, hence the culture of narcissism. Robert Bellah’s 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life described how people insisted on forming their own opinions, doing their own things and expecting others to do the same. They constructed their individual identities by collecting assorted bits from a vast smorgasbord of choices exemplified by “Sheilaism,” the personal patchwork religion of a woman named Sheila.13 People still insist on making their own choices, but market alternatives have now been considerably consolidated into a limited number of broadly inclusive packages. How this came about is the story of brands related by Naomi Klein in her 2000 book No Logo.14
At its most basic level marketing aims not to sell a product to a consumer but some personal, often intangible, reward from it, e.g., not some food, but the enjoyment of the food, not the Cadillac, but the status of the Cadillac. Klein explains that in the 1990s marketing was dramatically transformed through a shift of focus to brands. Nike led the pack by divesting from the production of sneakers and undertaking to market its name and logo to represent such ideals as athleticism, winning and freedom. By doing this it sought to satisfy people’s desire for meaning in their lives and the world. The brand represented by the logo was extended to a wide array of products, teams and events, achieving a degree of saturation. With advertisements featuring athletic stars, notably Michael Jordan who even got his name on one line, the brand defined a lifestyle. All the branded products, people and events together formed the Nike universe which consumers entered when they bought the goods and in which they were immersed when they attended the events. Live Michael Jordan games were particularly intense Nike universe experiences, while the televised games were lesser ones. As consuming something involves identifying oneself with it as well as with other consumers of the same brand, gatherings under a brand validate and reinforce each person’s identification with that brand and create a form of communality. With immersive events, videos and superstar role models Nike produced and marketed a broad and vibrant mindset by which consumers in some measure transcended their reality. This was especially illustrated by the passion with which impoverished inner city youth embraced the Nike and Jordan brands and their success with teenagers around the world.
The Nike marketing technique was carried to its ultimate extreme by Donald Trump. Early in his career he established an image as an icon of success, wealth, glamour, ruthless business practices and, above all, winning. Like Nike he diversified his business empire to include office buildings, hotels, resorts, golf courses, casinos, a university, book, steaks and even endorsement of Oreos. Further, like Nike, much of this consisted in selling licenses for the use of the Trump brand rather than actual ownership and operation. The brand not only spread the glow of Trump’s stardom over consumers’ experience of the branded products and services, it literally incorporated them into his world as tenants, guests, members and students. Starting with the Miss Universe pageant he progressively moved onto television, the optimal platform from which to promote himself and his brand. A 2018 New Yorker article explained how The Apprentice resurrected Trump’s then failing empire and paved the way to his presidency.15 The program was created specifically for Trump by Mark Burnett who had previously conceived and produced Survivor. As a youth Burnett was fascinated by Lord of the Flies, and his first series embodied that novel’s ethos. Depicting Trump as a business superstar The Apprentice vastly expanded the Trump universe and amplified its values.
In The Apprentice people came onto the program to compete for the favor of Trump in his stage persona to win jobs in his real organization. With his power over the contestants he rather played God by passing final judgement on them, treating losers with his signature cruelty. While the contestants were literally immersed in Trump’s universe as program apprentices viewers of it were immersed in it vicariously. As with any successful narrative the audience identified and connected with various characters. What was significant about the show was how it dramatized the neoliberal culture of competition by exalting winners and demeaning losers. Identifying with the Trump character, viewers shared the brutally competitive, even sadistic sentiments portrayed as emblems of spectacular success. The show added new elements to the Trump universe – the character which was a mythical version of the real person and the whole television audience which affirmed its values to varying degrees.
Emboldened by his increased celebrity, Trump went on to wage his birther campaign, adding a racist contingent to his universe. His presidential campaign may have been intended as only a marketing stunt for his brand, but with it he exploited white nationalist tendencies, absorbing another bloc into his base. Central to his campaign were the rallies that could be compared to Michael Jordan basketball games with the brand emblazoned all over, frenzied fans wearing the brand caps and shirts and a spectacular performance by the candidate who had assumed a rock star-like image.
With his entry into the presidential race and his campaign messaging, Trump magnified another aspect of that image – power. Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer said “…He’s very much like a cult leader. When you’re in his good grace, you believe that you have this enormous amount of power, which you do…”16 The candidate Trump projected an image of extraordinary power with fantastic campaign promises such as that he would make Mexico pay to build his wall, abolish all regulations and lock up Hillary Clinton. Like branded crowd events his rallies validated and reinforced the participants’ identification with his brand and further generated communality among them. Moreover, because a celebrity or popular candidate owes their status to their fan or supporter base, this dependence creates a bond between them and the star. Trump the candidate’s power was also very visibly augmented by his rally crowds’ electoral power. Once he was elected he proceeded to abuse the power of his office to enforce the loyalty of other officials, and on his way out he weaponized his command of his electoral base for the same purpose.
Trump expanded Nike’s brand saturation strategy to the nth degree. Impacts to matters great and small around the world essentially bore the “Trump” stamp. At the center of the Trump brand universe stood the man himself, a paragon of power, wealth and unrestrained freedom. As president he received immense media coverage, some of it fawning as from Fox, and the rest moderately to brutally critical. For Trump’s purpose however there was no such thing as bad publicity as he employed Twitter as a 24/7 personal media channel. The Trump universe was coextensive with the globe, but there were degrees of inclusion in it. Just as seeing the Nike logo on some object or ad places a person in the Nike universe in a minimal capacity, so merely reading or watching the news drew people into Trump’s, at least on the fringe. His fiercest opponents were in well into his realm, as he dominated their thinking. It had a fervent hard core, one medium for which was his campaign’s online alternate universe. Thomas Edsall described this website and app as “a self-contained, self-reinforcing arena where Trump reigns supreme” and which traps people “inside an ecosystem of dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories and grievance politics.”17 Providing nightly live shows and training videos with surrogates and senior campaign staff it aimed to make the experience as fun and exciting as possible with the app serving to capture ever more people. For sharing it supporters won points redeemable for campaign merchandise discounts with the ultimate prize being a picture with the candidate.
Over his career Trump has become increasingly audacious with his defiance of normal standards of civilized, decent and moral conduct. Edsall goes on to relate how in politics he poses as a champion for people who believe that they are the victims of social control by the established political leadership. The more he lies, brazenly violates norms and antagonizes the establishment, the more credible is his claim to be the leader of those who feel disenfranchised by that establishment. As a model of uninhibited freedom Trump brandished his exercise of the ultimate freedom of a ruler – the power of life or death over particular individuals, the methodical use of which is known as “necropolitics.”
The supreme freedom that Trump finally has most consistently exercised is the freedom to create one’s own truth. At the center of his universe there is a realm of thought in which global warming and coronavirus are hoaxes and he won the 2020 election. Like the more devoted Nike brand enthusiasts, Trump supporters transcend their reality by believing his representation of the world and embedding themselves in his alternate universe. Relentless attempts by state and federal officials as well as unruly mobs to overturn Trump’s defeat in the election brought that alternate universe closer to reality.
I compare the Trump phenomenon to the Nike and Michael Jordan brands in order to demonstrate how individual freedom figures in each. Like Nike purchasers, every Trump supporter functions as a neoliberal free agent of rational choice, which means basically as a consumer. This is how they safeguard their foremost value of individual freedom, the more unrestrained the better. Solidarity, a fundamental feature of labor movements, is alien to Trumpism. Trump himself, with his everlasting antics, is not only the fountainhead but represents the very incarnation of uninhibited freedom along with the rest of the values of his universe. Advocates of unlimited freedom rally behind their idol, emulating him with acts of intimidation and violence against officials and citizens. He can’t admit that he lost the election because winning is absolutely essential to his image.
Trump and his universe did not come about in a vacuum; rather he rose as a marketing sensation within the total neoliberal culture. That culture glorifies material success and condemns failure with media feeding a winner-take-all spirit. Trump’s political success depends on his image as a billionaire businessman celebrity – the ideal fulfillment of popular aspiration. Neoliberal subjects are driven by competitive self-interest, so they naturally choose to ally or identify themselves with people and brands that promise to advance it. With brand marketing consumers are drawn into universes of products, activities, media, lifestyles, values, superstar idols and communality in which they transcend their realities and at the extreme abide in alternate ones. All these elements of neoliberal culture were brought together by Trump to create, grow, consolidate and tyrannically preserve his domain.
While his doing this is not news, I have sought to illuminate how it embodies standard features of our culture and shall now describe how these figure in group affiliations in general. Textbook neoliberal subjects freely choose their jobs, education, social groups and even association with family once they become adults. Of course this is nonsense, as, in addition to marketing, family influence and peer pressure, not to mention individual economic circumstances, play large roles. Still, these are individual choices, free or otherwise, that define people’s identities and can therefore be treated as consumer decisions.
Contrary to neoliberal doctrine, not all such choices are made for individual self-advancement. They do, however generally reflect neoliberal consumer culture in several ways. The consumer market is driven by novelty: people are constantly exhorted by advertising to buy the newest thing and discard the old. This impels people to seek immediate gratification and guaranteed satisfaction. Consumer offerings are designed to provide only short-term contentment, setting the consumer up for the next powerful marketing hit. With products quickly wearing out, breaking down, becoming obsolete or passé and novelty soon wearing off, the consumer outlook is short-term.
This is yet another component of the overall liquid character of culture rooted in transitory work described by Bauman which especially reduces and weakens social commitments. Within neoliberal culture group affiliations are frequently approached as short-term affairs, sometimes lasting only a matter of hours or minutes. Examples of the latter are many rallies and marches such as the 2014 People’s Climate March. Bauman has called this kind of gathering “swarms.”18 They are intended, above all, to get media coverage, so they prioritize crowd size, visuals and celebrity speakers. Longer term but still light commitments he calls “cloakroom communities” – regular actual or virtual gatherings of people who share a single narrow interest.19 Reflecting the domination of media and celebrity culture these tend to consist of followers of a single person who has successfully marketed the organization and themselves, delivering the “verdict of the market.” As with branded crowd events people joining swarms and cloakroom communities demonstrate mutual approval of each other’s participation which amounts to “validation by the market.” The least engaged form of group affiliation is that of membership in staff-run organizations. Robert Putnam has called this phenomenon “consuming a cause” or “citizenship by proxy.”20 In these different ways people adopt so many group identities in the manner of consumers, similarly to the way they acquire furniture for their homes or clothes for their wardrobes.
Although the phrase “identity group” commonly pertains to racial, ethnic and gender distinctions, people with the affiliations I have just described constitute identity groups as well. Early in the twentieth century sociologist Georg Simmel observed that, as a defense against anomie in mass society, people form groups with like-minded others. In assembling they automatically establish a distinction between insiders and outsiders. Over time enforced conformity within groups grows, producing their distinctive groupthink.21 Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm maintained that the purpose of identity groups is not to include but to exclude.22
I have given an account of group affiliation according to basic consumer behavior. It has been significantly modified by the advent of big group brands starting with Christian, which Reagan annexed to the Republican Party. That party brand has since devoured blocs of former Southern Democrats, union members and even People of Color. Like Hannah Arendt’s totalitarian onion, it has a hard right-wing core with increasingly moderate surrounding layers. Still it is a brand that commands its registrants’ votes. Americans are deeply polarized, with their positions defined more in negative than in positive terms. The Republican brand mostly represents anti-socialism, while the Democratic brand has no fixed meaning beyond being the anti-Republican brand. In the meantime, the Independent brand is the anti-Republican and anti-Democratic brand. These brands form parts, sometimes large parts, of people’s identities while, like at Nike, the brand universes are controlled by marketing pros for the organizations’ profit.
Much of neoliberal culture can therefore be understood in terms of brands, including neoliberalism itself which goes by the name “capitalism.” As brands such as Nike, Trump and the Republican Party form universes of meaning and action, so does capitalism, which is a total universe. And here is the contradiction at its heart: people freely choose to be a part of it, paradoxically meaning that they freely choose to be enslaved by it.
The reality of neoliberalism is that it is a contrived system dominated by the global elite which is ever increasing its own wealth and power but which disseminates a libertarian message. Thus we have masses of people who are libertarians at heart passionately serving the masters of global neoliberalism. Some support virtually unlimited personal freedom as exhibited in the resistance to wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Trumpism is very much a personality cult to which its members surrender their personal autonomy. Strict loyalty to the Republican or Democratic Party are surrenders as well. Considering the group structure of neoliberalism with its identity groups and groupthink the overall truth about “freedom” in this system can be clearly seen.
When Freedom Becomes Slavery
The Western tradition since Antiquity has been to define freedom in such a way as to make it the opposite of slavery. So I now turn to bringing some historical perspective to current popular notions of freedom. A key text for this project is Albert Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel, in which the author recounts several approaches to freedom that end in slavery. He traces the movement for total freedom, which he identifies with nihilism, from de Sade through nineteenth century Russian anarchists and twentieth century absurdists, concluding “that the negation of everything is a form of servitude.”23 Several figures he names were willing to die for unlimited freedom, the very claim made by some anti-maskers and insurrectionists today. One slave to his ideology was Saint-Just, the extremist leader in the French Revolution who was sent to the guillotine by his rivals. Camus cites the lesson on freedom in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. In that tale Christ returns to establish heaven on earth, but, seized by the Grand Inquisitor, he is told that people don’t want freedom but rather to be controlled by the Church. This is not because they are cowardly, but because they are lazy. Ordered by the Inquisitor to leave and never return, Christ retreats to heaven in defeat. Another dramatic historical example he gives is that of Spartacus, leader of a famous Roman slave rebellion. The slave, Camus says, achieves a measure of freedom in the act of rebellion. To this insight I add Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave relation which reveals that the master is in bondage insofar as he is dependent on his slave and must continually act to keep him oppressed. In this respect the slave is independent of the master and thus his master. By destroying the relationship a slave rebellion liberates both masters and slaves. Camus’ final study is of twentieth century communism, relating how the Russian Revolution inevitably led to Stalinism. Addressing contemporary French communists he condemned their slavery to an ideology that promised perfect freedom in some distant future while presently sanctioning bloody repression.
Slavery to ideology is notoriously irrational or Orwellian. People today are not so much enslaved by ideologies as the types of brand universes that I have described. Trump’s alternative universe is one extreme example, but there are several other more or less comprehensive or immoderate such realms. For charismatic evangelicals God is the guiding force in their lives and the world, and they tend toward vehement anti-intellectualism. Otherwise the groupthink of all the kinds of associations I mentioned is at least limited in its scope and therefore lacks full rational justification. This ranges from blind loyalty to a party brand to people who exclusively follow some single political commentator. There are certainly some good ones among the latter, but it must be recognized that insofar as those are mere journalists they are not historians, political philosophers or activist movement leaders. None of them present full visions of how the world should be, much less roadmaps for how to make it so. Celebrities take a national perspective, never adapting their messaging to particular local audiences and their unique conditions. Finally, they are creatures of the media market in either its mainstream or niche form.
Freedom and Reason
Decades ago Herbert Marcuse explained that the structure of scientific understanding, advertising and propaganda has spawned a pervasive “one-dimensional” mode of communication and thought.24 Its basic constructions are absolute declarative sentences and standard heavily connotative adjectives attached to certain proper and common nouns. Examples of the former are “the universe began with the big bang,” “Healthcare is a right,” “Walmart. Always low prices,” while the latter are represented by “quality affordable healthcare” and “crooked Hillary.” One-dimensional speech, writing and thinking preempt further reflection which might negate or qualify it, rendering it simple dogma. The identity groups that I have described are formed around doctrines commonly expressed as slogans and labels that reflect the one-dimensional character of the groups’ positions. Examples include “Make America Great Again” and “Pro-Choice.”
For Enlightenment thinkers the exercise of reason was a vital component of human freedom, but they differed on what that meant. Our Founders believed that the laws of nature and the liberal political order were revealed by the light of reason which would continue to guide the leaders of the state. Rousseau was more pragmatic and democratic, respecting the ordinary rational faculties of individual citizens. In his native city-state of Geneva he had first-hand experience of its tradition of participatory democracy, regarding the social contract of every individual with every other one as the enduring ground of the body politic. Factions were therefore antithetical to his model. George Washington warned of “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,”25 which promotes government corruption and inefficiency, divides society and fosters conflict, encourages political instability and weakness and exposes the state to foreign infiltration. Ironically, as Americans condemn our partisan politics, their resistance mostly consists of forming new factions – supporters of Trump, Bernie Sanders, Proud Boys, Democratic Socialists, and so on.
In our time group identity and groupthink are two sides of the same coin. Identifying with a group means thinking and speaking like them, at least in their company. Conversely, taking one’s thinking from a particular group means identifying with them for their specific purpose. People’s identity and thinking therefore mostly consist of a set of consumer choices like what they wear, e.g., Hanes T shirt, Levi’s jeans and Nike sneakers.
Light of reason notwithstanding, classical liberal political theory is an ideology, as are its successors neoliberalism, libertarianism, Christian nationalism and progressivism. Within the neoliberal system, which isn’t offered as an object of choice, the latter three creeds are consumer options. Obviously, apart from broad principles, many people mix and match positions on particular issues, refining their consumer choices in the same manner as they go to this or that supermarket and choose among their selections of identical or similar products. There are conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans whose views agree or differ issue-by-issue. Everyone is alike in making choices in political matters whether they are narrow or comprehensive, with no opinion being a choice as well.
Eschewing factions Rousseau envisioned all the people engaging as citizens with the full exercise of their powers of reason. Except for the principle of popular sovereignty, this view is devoid of ideology or some scientific model of public affairs. It amounts merely to people rationally working together to address concerns that affect their collective well-being. Eliminating slavery to factions, ideologies and brands, it represents the supreme freedom of the citizen. For it embodies the core concepts of the social contract – that people exercise freedom without harming each other and that they share equally and rationally in governing themselves.
A Twenty-First Century Social Contract
In so many ways America has drifted far, far away from its original ideals of freedom, democracy and legitimacy. It is now in the throes of three major crises – the pandemic, climate change and right-wing extremism. The election of Biden and Harris alone certainly won’t bring about the fundamental change that we need to survive these threats. I have traced the history of liberal democracy to reveal how it has degenerated into our current state. Now I propose to repair the damage with updated, improved understanding of freedom, democracy and legitimacy in a new political philosophy.
In all the systems of thought in the Western tradition methods of strict reasoning are paramount. The wide variation among these interpretations owes much to the difference in the first principles they postulate which are the premises upon which they rationally build their structures. Our Enlightenment political philosophers made human freedom their first principle. Relying on Aristotelian and medieval methods of reasoning they developed the rest. They chose freedom as their foundation because that was supreme political priority of their time.
Following that precedent, I ask, What is the most urgent concern of our time? Devastation from climate change and the pandemic, “Black Lives Matter,” “Water Is Life” – it’s obvious: our chief priority is life. Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Times that in response to the anti-maskers’ defense of their freedom, liberals should say, “Freedom means the freedom not to get infected by the idiot who refuses to mask up.”26 This is a clever point, but it still subordinates life to freedom. I note that the Declaration of Independence lists the God-given inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in that order.
In identifying life as our premier value, I further ask, Why? How has this come about? Climate change and the zoonotic coronavirus have arisen precisely from people exercising their neoliberal freedom, dismissing environmental harm as an externality. As I have indicated, racial and wealth inequality are inevitable consequences of that freedom as well. Harm to the environment is abuse, and systemic racism is oppression, a version of the master/slave relation which the master must exert much effort to maintain. The classical liberal/neoliberal doctrine of freedom is the problem, which I propose to replace with one centered on life.
While classical liberal thinkers interpreted human life in terms of the partes extra partes concept fundamental to Newtonian mechanics, the exclusive reign of that scientific model was short-lived. Experimental researchers soon discovered a multitude of patterns in nature that were not directly reducible to the motion of elementary bodies. The study of organic nature – biology and medicine – proceeded on a different track, acknowledging their subjects as living systems. Over time Newtonian physics has been circumscribed by relativity and field theory as well as quantum mechanics, and life science now firmly embraces the study of systems. The physical science upon which the classical liberal conception of freedom was founded is obsolete for that purpose, as it is now understood to represent the mechanistic but not the living aspect of nature.
Although Enlightenment thinkers claimed that natural science and their political knowledge were revealed by the light of reason as absolute and necessary truth, science, which now includes social science, has long abandoned such pretension. Science is about theoretical models which have some measure of experimental or empirical support and of which competing ones exist within disciplines. I have stated that neoliberalism is a model that has been imposed by the power elite on the global economy. While it has self-fulfilled many of its prophesies, it was in fact decisively falsified by the 2008 financial crash and remains on life-support through ever-growing government and central bank interventions.
The perennial Western method of reasoning does not by itself find or establish truth but develops systems of inferences from axioms and definitions in mathematics, hypotheses in science and first principles in philosophy. Traditionally the latter have been claimed to be self-evident, so I now ask, Is not life also one of or even the first principle of human knowledge? Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am,” proceeding to “prove” that he was an immaterial ghost in a physical machine. An even more self-evident truth is I think, therefore I live, for there is no inference, not even a statement, unless I exist for the time it occupies, that is, unless I live as I make it. I could provide more arcane reasons for adopting life as the first principle for political philosophy, but in the end, the choice is somewhat arbitrary. The Enlightenment selected freedom because it was the burning priority of their time. Life, understood in the broadest sense as the biosphere, is now literally burning, making it the premier issue for humans in our time.
Classical liberal political thinkers fixed on the first principle of their theory then applied the knowledge and method of their day to develop it. Having selected my first principle I shall follow their precedent by next elaborating it in accordance with the basics of current life science. Far from the seventeenth century’s universal principle of partes extra partes living things today are understood in terms of systems – the interconnections between organisms, their inorganic environment and among themselves. Systems analysis involves defining things not as isolated and independent atoms but as parts of systematic wholes. Nature consists of infinitely numerous whole systems that intersect and form parts of yet larger wholes, encompassing organic and inorganic objects alike.
Living things act to sustain themselves within the manifold systems of which they form parts, and as parts sustaining themselves entails sustaining those systems. Individual organisms all have finite lifespans, but there is reproduction within their populations and species by which these endure indefinitely as they too sustain the systems of which they form parts. In fact, living is chiefly aimed at the continuation of life at every level. The simple act of eating serves to provide energy for an animal in the future, after its body has processed the food. Likewise throughout populations of species and across the biosphere life is directed at perpetuating itself indefinitely. At the same time natural history tells us that systems do undergo change, can suffer damage and recover or even be destroyed, especially by major short- or long-term geologic or meteorologic events.
Though death is inevitable, our priority is life. So as I proceed to recast the understanding of human life to align with current life science, I will focus on the characteristics of living systems that sustain their life. This endeavor requires first redefining the human individual as a whole organism which is also a part of larger whole living systems. As such their essential function is to sustain themselves while they sustain these other systems: this is the ecological imperative. It contrasts profoundly with the classical liberal conception by which an individual seeks their own self-interest by any means whatsoever as long as they do not injure other people. That basic right is at the bottom of every environmental and social justice conflict which all revolve around direct versus indirect harm. The fundamentalist approach confines it to immediate injury while the systems view has potentially unlimited reach.
Freedom in my story is freedom for the individual to live and to function as parts of the larger living systems that literally support their individual life. The first component is presently the standard progressive agenda expressed in the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life” as well as demands for clean air, universal healthcare, basic income and so forth. The second component implies a far more ambitious program, as those kinds of systems are currently badly damaged or do not exist at all. To take air, for example, such freedom means living within a mode of production that does not poison the atmosphere and overheat the planet. This condition for freedom is an objective to be achieved along with many others including a thoroughly healthy biosphere in the place of the one that is now dying before our eyes.
A conception of individual freedom involving conditions for the realization of that freedom is not new. While the Founders accentuated their idea of freedom, most of their effort was directed at establishing the conditions in which it could exist. The Declaration of Independence is mostly a list of grievances against restraints and abuses inflicted upon the colonists as it asserts that government is instituted precisely to secure fundamental rights or freedoms. Following this precedent, my version of freedom is also to be secured by a government.
My first principle for political thought with its definition of the human creature leads to a new view of the social contract. It defines the political body or polity as a living system which is a living part of another living system that is the community with which it is coextensive. The parts of the polity are all the citizens who count as essential, with no one cast as worthless or disposable. People who, despite the best efforts of the polity, persist as threats to it are of course treated as criminals. The purpose of the polity is to secure the well-being of the community and all its members. Insofar as the polity is a part of the community and citizenship is a part of its members’ lives, it also functions to secure the well-being of itself and the members in their capacity as citizens. The social contract is precisely people’s continual commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the polity. While no kind of formal law itself, it serves as the moral foundation of the constitution, legislation, executive and judicial decisions. The government that is made legitimate by this social contract is most directly local participatory democracy that adheres to the rule of law. Legitimacy of higher levels of government is similarly established by the peoples’ commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the representative democracy of those levels to secure the well-being of their jurisdictions and residents under the rule of law.
Thus defined as a living system that includes all the citizens as essential parts, the polity accords with the systems model of nature. So my social contract does not represent the exit from the state of nature, but the return to it. It contrasts with the previous social contract story in certain vital respects.
First, the earlier philosophers asserted that the polity was an artificial creation of all the people who entered into the social contract. That narrative preserved a “natural” sphere of life, distinct from the polity, in which people retained their natural unlimited freedom. Within the political realm citizens were subject to the rule of institutions and laws, but otherwise they enjoyed freedom to do as they liked with such unconstrained freedom being protected by the polity. In a natural system, however, there is no distinction between natural and artificial components. The whole is indivisible with its parts which have multiple natural aspects, for example, people’s private, spiritual and political functions. Our thinkers’ master of logic Aristotle had in fact said, “Man is by nature a political animal.”27My social contract undergirds a polity modeled on nature which has no need to drive a wedge between the civic realm and others, as each person is a whole human individual and an organic part of the whole living community.
Another respect in which my view of the polity as a natural system differs from the classical one is in regard to the origin. The latter characterized people as being by nature unorganized individuals, but there is invariably not only order but systematic order in nature. Humans are social animals, and their groups, even mobs, always exhibit some organization. The primary questions are which system dominates and to what extent does it does it support and sustain human life. For a battlefield littered with dead and dying soldiers is something of a natural system teeming with vultures, flies and bacteria. Moreover, at a minimum everything in the biosphere is a part of that total system, so there is also the issue of boundaries for the polity.
To elaborate my conception of the polity as a natural living system, I offer an analogy with the human body, comparing individual persons to individual cells. In the body there are systems such as the circulatory system which has a certain structure but in whose function every cell participates. They all receive oxygen and nutrients while disposing of wastes via that structure which also provides the means to protect cells from disease and to heal them if they are harmed. Different cells primarily belong to different systems, but their functions are all integrated into the whole system, with all functioning to sustain themselves, each other and the whole. The system that correlates to government is the nervous system which is literally the nerve center of the body that coordinates diverse functions, is the repository of habits and makes decisions. In addition, it performs an enforcement function for the body which is pain. The feeling or threat of pain is a signal for the body to avoid certain actions which if committed would be punished with pain.
Comparing the government of a community to the nervous system of a body, it is seen that as long as the body lives, unless on artificial life-support, that system functions to some degree. So with government: it may be very corrupt or even so deranged that it amounts to virtual anarchy. Moreover, as long as a body or a community live, they are systems which also may be in very damaged, degraded or corrupted states. Impaired parts no longer function in support of other parts, but possibly in opposition to them. Failure to heal tends to produce a cascading effect among parts that causes more damage and ultimately death of the body.
For the body to live and perform all its functions its parts must properly function, that is, be healthy. Likewise with a community which is a living system. The community as a whole is in good condition insofar as its parts which consist of its members, are also in good condition. Government serves to coordinate the functioning of the parts to maintain their health and that of the whole, and it is good government insofar as it is successful in doing this. In my model the most immediate level of government is local participatory democracy which corresponds in a body to the ultimate participation of every cell in the functioning of the nervous system. With government the relationship is not totally reciprocal because it has distinct enforcement authority over the parts.
Although participatory democracy includes some officials in addition to all the actively engaged citizens, ultimately the government is the people who ideally have no need for heavy official regulation and policing of themselves. A formal structure of laws, justice and enforcement does exist, but the well-being of the community is sustained by what Rousseau called, after the three conventional kinds of laws – fundamental, civil and criminal, the fourth
…the most important of all. It is engraved in neither marble nor brass, but in the hearts of its citizens; it forms the true constitution of the state: it renews its vigor every day, and when other laws become obsolete or ineffective, it restores or replaces them; it keeps the people in the spirit of its institutions, and gradually substitutes the force of habit for that of authority. I am referring to morals, customs, and above all, public opinion. This category of laws is unknown to our political theorists, but it is essential to the success of all the others; the great lawgiver concerns himself with it in secret, while seeming to limit himself to specific regulations that are only the sides of the arch, whereas morals, slower to develop, eventually form its unshakable keystone.28
I have presented a picture of the ideal democracy in which all the people continuously uphold the social contract that I have described. In the original story the social contract was a once and done affair that established the government as a distinct entity with authority over the people. Compared with that model my version which focuses on individual citizens’ continuous responsibility initially appears rather loose and informal. I will therefore now fill in some details which make it firmer and address human imperfection. Returning to my analogy with the body I want to stress that while the whole is ultimately indivisible, its systems, the nervous system in particular, function in an orderly fashion. Likewise, there is structure and orderly process in government, that is, rule according to law. Meanwhile, humans are unlike cells in the body in that they can choose whether or not to act in the interest of the community and even in their own self-interest. In the Christian tradition this distinction has been attributed to man’s free will. Aristotle, who was fundamentally a biologist, saw natural variation among members of the same species, finding some imperfect in a multitude of different ways. His science reflected the general view of the Greeks who were notable for their great attention to education to not only remedy human deficiencies but to nurture excellence.
Like the original one-time social contract, my continuously renewed one is completely voluntary. It is people’s ongoing commitment to each other to support the proper operation of their government, which is a function of all the citizens some of whom are officials. This contrasts with a current misconception of the social contract – that it is a unilateral obligation of the government to the people. Although my ideal social contract is a commitment of each individual with every other individual, in reality it is likely to only be such a pledge between some individuals and some others. Hopefully this includes most of them and all of the officials. Their engagement does entail an obligation to seek to include all of the people in the commitment. While in my analogy the nervous system is the principal one coordinating all the others, this function is in fact somewhat shared by the others. Similarly, insofar as the people are the government, it is their adherence to the social contract that keeps the community functioning well overall.
Within living systems some parts inevitably fail. My social contract involves a responsibility to restore such parts to their proper function. Criminals, for example, must be rehabilitated. There will also be irreparable defects which may be congenital or acquired which living systems naturally deal with. If someone loses the use of their right hand, they will adapt by making new use of their left and other parts of their body. Assistance to disabled people is therefore an obligation under my social contract, along with effort to prevent people from not joining the contract, violating it or becoming unable to honor it.
In reality the effect of my social contract is a matter of degree – how many people commit to it and how thoroughly they do so. This commitment is also the measure of the legitimacy of the government of which it is the foundation. Indeed, this is the measure of the legitimacy of any democratic government. Turning again to my analogy with the body we know that the health of a body is a matter of degree and probably none can be judged to be in perfect health. Imperfection is obviously inevitable, but like a body, the polity must guard against threats to its deterioration, recognizing that the failure of any part threatens or impairs all the other parts and the whole. This fact is vividly illustrated in the spread of COVID-19 by people who refuse to follow public health safety practices.
So far my account of the new social contract has only defined it in terms of a natural system. Also included in the original story were declarations that all humans are equal and they possess certain fundamental freedoms. The systems model of nature establishes human equality on the ground that people are living units of a single kind that all together constitute the community. Being parts of that community involves them exercising their common rationality as officially equal citizens in the democratic government of the polity. Like cells in a body that all ultimately participate in systems, notably the nervous system, people are all parts of the polity whose function is to ensure the well-being of every part and the whole indivisible body. Regarding freedom, my model gives the highest priority to the freedom to live. In today’s neoliberal system, which is the wreckage of classical liberal democracy, people’s right to life is infringed upon in a multitude of ways. It wasn’t so long ago that broad environmental, labor and civil rights protections were in effect, and they now need to be not only restored but strengthened. My social contract significantly increases people’s freedom from what it is now. For one thing it secures the freedom for everyone to fully participate in collective self-government which ensures each citizen’s rational autonomy and freedom from factions. I will show in the next section that it ultimately provides everyone the freedom to realize the range of their potential and further that it frees people from injury and oppression by others as it simultaneously frees the perpetrators from the compulsion to commit such acts. Finally it frees people to affirm life, overcome alienation and to reject inauthenticity and banality.
Government isn’t the whole story because, as I have indicated in my historical review, particular models of political economy have furnished the conditions for the exercise of first liberal, then neoliberal freedom. Of course this last is not freedom at all but slavery in innumerable respects. The new social contract requires a new political economy which provides the material framework for people to live full lives as essential parts of so many living systems and thus enjoy maximum human freedom. I now turn to a description of that model, emphasizing that it embodies the ideal democracy. Initially presenting it as a utopia or vision to guide our action I then bring it down to earth by urging the implementation of several proposals on the table now. Preempting the likely objection that it is utopian, I remind the reader that all the models I have discussed – classical liberal political philosophy, classical liberal political economy, neoliberalism, not to mention the Founders’ vision – are all pictures of perfect systems that have never been fully realized and never will be. They serve, however the indispensable function of providing goals to strive toward, enabling people to map and follow routes to get as close as they can to the destination.
A New Political Economy
My method is reason in the service of life. Climate change and colossal environmental destruction are urgent existential threats underway now which demand an all-out global effort to reverse the trend. A plan for global sustainability created by David C. Korten, founder and editor of Yes! magazine, is presented in his Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. He asserts that significant degrowth is required to establish a new economic system consisting of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”29 A key element in his agenda is changing the way that money is created. Presently it originates as debt, compelling businesses to always be expanding, increasing their revenue and incurring more debt in order to pay off the principal and interest of the earlier debt. This process, he declares, creates an inexorable growth imperative. His book focuses on the economic aspects of the model, so my purpose now is to explain how his concept embodies the systematic character of life and therefore provides the economic structure for democracy and freedom in the future.
As the Founders were crafting a government for the nation Thomas Jefferson found in the town meeting democracy of New England “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.”30 Decades later de Toqueville observed democracy in America flourishing particularly in small towns. Where people live is their principal habitat, providing the real estate which they either own or rent, their water and air. It is also where they vote to elect local, state and national officials. Civic life for better or worse is rooted in the community, and for this reason should be its focal point.
Bowling Alone explores the array of ways in which community life in America has lost the cohesiveness that de Toqueville judged was essential for democracy. That consisted in vigorous civil society with a multitude of local organizations and amiable social relationships. Korten’s model is the means for restoring that. His local productive and sustainable economies serve local consumers and rely on small locally owned businesses which should also be mostly employee-owned. In them there is little wealth inequality. Overall, human interaction is community-centered and therefore diametrically opposed to the current state in which most people commute, sometimes far away, to work and likewise travel out of their communities for shopping and entertainment. Presently people know few, if any, other people who live around them; their lives are geographically scattered and, as neoliberal bundles of enterprises, fragmented and conflicted. One of the primary impacts of the competitive global neoliberal economy is the destruction of local economies as people are now mostly employed by entities in the system that contribute to growing global business consolidation, inequality, deterioration of public services and infrastructure. This system has immediate negative environmental effects on everyone. Whether they commute to work, are employed in a fossil fuel-related industry, sell imported or plastic-packaged goods or do any other kind of work, everyone is a part of the climate change and environmental problems. In the sustainable community, people cease to harm themselves and their families as they earn their livings.
Not only does work in the neoliberal system serve to maintain and grow that system, it has scant meaning and provides little or no satisfaction for people. Mostly people work to earn the money which they then spend in the consumer economy for necessities plus goods and services to gratify desires created by marketing. This highly artificial system with its extreme division of labor contrasts with the character of living systems in which every function directly serves life and virtually all potential functions are actualized. In the life-centered economy I am describing people’s work is diversified. Marx envisioned an economy in which one might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner . . . without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.”31 My model further promotes craftsmanship, in which a worker creates their product from start to finish and, as Marx also said, “sees himself” in the result.32 Finally it includes much meaningful, indeed essential, non-work activity for everyone.
In our time extreme division of labor is defended as providing for the fulfillment of individual potential epitomized by Mozart or Shakespeare. Frank and Cooke point out that the best-selling authors of our time are the likes of Danielle Steele who owes her success to promoters in a rigged market. Shakespeare, whose literary genius has never since been surpassed, lived long before culture became dominated by big business and institutions. It has been noted that the Bard, who had only seven years of formal education, would today be hopelessly lacking the credentials required to teach high school or college English. Historically many of the greatest people excelled in diverse fields. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.
One of the chief human potentialities to be more fully actualized in the new order is everyone’s faculty of reason. Currently people’s minds are occupied with micro-specialized work and consumer activity, especially forms involving media. The followers of Locke’s brand of liberalism reserved the light of reason mostly for the republic’s officials, assuming that it would break forth among the citizenry should it fail those leaders. In Rousseau’s model state citizens governed themselves with the exercise of universal rationality. Under my proposed social contract citizens make rational decisions with reference to themselves as private individuals and as parts of their community. At the same time these decisions reflect their interests as citizens who are parts of the polity. Finally, vital consideration is given to the larger living wholes of which their community and polity form parts.
My understanding of the way of nature that puts life first draws very different conclusions than those of classical liberalism. While they agree on human equality, mine asserts that people’s essential functions are to serve themselves and their community, ultimately the world. Further, in virtue of the human faculty of reason, nature points to government chiefly by participatory democracy. Korten’s sustainable community model, which is now necessary for human survival, is the perfect structure for it.
Participatory democracy is in fact alive and well today in Vermont town halls. By state law all municipalities hold them one day each year. All registered voters may attend, elect local officials and vote on municipal and school policies and budgets. Drawing on data collected over decades at hundreds of town meetings Frank M. Bryan concludes that real democracy requires small jurisdictions and in-person assemblies. He notes that town halls have passed resolutions supporting the ERA and a nuclear weapons freeze, and majorities in many of the rural communities vote for Bernie Sanders. In them there is real debate over matters, which may become heated, but after the town hall people return to their normal and usually close interaction where civility prevails.33
For the same reason that each individual has a role as a citizen in their community, they also have roles as citizens of larger political units. The sustainable communities in the model are not isolated and closed but rather have economic and political interconnections. Larger jurisdictions cannot practically operate by participatory democracy and thus require representative democracy which still provides for a high level of citizen engagement. Not only to restore the environment but also for human well-being this model must be implemented globally, the product of an international people’s movement which establishes some measure of global governance as well.
Up to this point I have mostly described the world as so many three-dimensional systems. Yet as I indicated earlier, the fourth dimension, time, is perhaps the most important one for life. To live is to continue to live, both for individuals and systems. Sustainability does not simply mean enduring over some time, it means persisting within nature’s scale of time – very many generations and ultimately eons. Sustainable communities therefore operate with an indefinitely long-term outlook that also applies to their governance. Our classical liberal political philosophers and the Founders devoted particular attention to the means by which their models of government would persist. As nature is trans-generational, so are polities, thus as each generation must conserve natural resources for future ones, so must they act to preserve their democracy.
Much of our present trouble can be traced to the current attitude toward time. As he has decried the liquid quality of human relationships, Bauman has highlighted how the modern short-term perspective now approaches instantaneity, an orientation he calls “pointillist time.”34 This is certainly a product of consumer culture and its premier marketing instrument media. The infosphere disseminates items to be consumed now which will be displaced by new ones later today, possibly only seconds later, or certainly by tomorrow. Brands continually push short-lived hot products as well. All of this is marketed especially by the biggest players with the objective of maintaining consumers in a state of intense stimulation and craving the next new sensation.
Ideas are no exception to this regime with a simple example being the Bush to Obama voters in 2008 and the Obama to Trump voters in 2016. In our time ideas are consumer fads mostly pitched in winner-take-all or at least rigged markets. Ever-shrinking turnaround time reduces the content of communication, which is increasingly measured in mere numbers of characters. Much material is therefore just ephemeral bytes hurled against the backdrop of the neoliberal system. Insofar as they arise at all, big elaborate ideas are pulverized into dust and rapidly blown away.
The model of sustainability that I advocate is a comprehensive vision that calls for people to grasp it fully and make a long-term commitment to bringing it about. This places me outside the neoliberal marketplace of ideas and denies me the validation of the market which the agents who manage it attribute to the “wisdom of the crowd.” Absence of their blessing is actually proof that my model liberates people from the tyranny of neoliberalism’s idea market and restores their rational autonomy.
As they enjoy independence of thought the considerable self-sufficiency of local communities in my proposal also makes their members interdependent in a multitude of respects. Such range and diversity of community interaction is the very thing that de Toqueville identified as the crucial ingredient in America’s democracy and the feature whose absence Putnam claimed had virtually destroyed it by the year 2000. Now, as in 2021 the threat of fascism is high, we urgently need to create inclusive multi-dimensional human bonds within a system of green participatory democracy.
Presently there are two basic views of government: those on the Left say, “Government works for you,” while those on the Right say, “Government suppresses our freedom.” Both define government as separate from the people who, in the first case, constitute consumers of services provided by the government and in the second represent victims of government abuse. In my view both are wrong, for I maintain that government is the people. Participatory democracy is all the people together making public decisions. This means every person participating as an independent citizen and not as a member of an interest group or faction. For as each citizen is a constituent part of the governing body their citizenship is an aspect of the unitary living person who has multiple functions and, in their capacity as a citizen, serve their several interests. This further means being parts of other living systems and therefore serving the interests of those as well. The community itself is one such system which includes organic parts, intersects with other systems and forms parts of larger ones. As citizens individuals therefore serve all of those in addition to themselves. With their diverse functions and particular positions in space and time they all have unique, though intersecting and interdependent perspectives which they express in the exercise of participatory democracy. They also privately function as organic parts of the community and larger living systems, observing the morality of which Rousseau spoke as they act to sustain themselves, the community, the polity and the world.
One of the defects of interest group politics and citizenship by proxy is that they reduce people to uniform numbers, which they are in their capacity as members of particular identity groups. Such depersonalization, indeed profiling, has spurred two forms of reaction. Groups now often spotlight personal stories in which members relate their individual experiences relative to the groups’ specific purposes. Meanwhile, Blacks involved in the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter have argued that women’s experience differs significantly for Blacks and whites and that there are many other issues intertwined with the single one of police murdering Blacks. They have laid bare the system of racism that affects every person through education, employment, healthcare, housing and more. All these different strands of the whole fabric intersect in every individual, oppressing Blacks and conferring privilege on whites. As they affect each person they are at the same time public issues for each citizen who should therefore participate in regard to all the individual, shared, simple and complex issues in their personal and public lives.
The sustainable world I am describing is an ideal in which citizens resolve issues through formal democratic processes. Yet as Rousseau, de Toqueville and Putnam stress, much of the practice of democracy is informal – social interaction in a variety of contexts. Having immediate vital stakes in the community, people naturally talk about matters among themselves. This is a necessarily universal activity not only to realize people’s full citizenship but to reduce division. John Stuart Mill believed that liberty required conversation between people who disagreed.35 Vance Packard’s 1958 The Status Seekers describes how patterns of socialization at that time divided people. In regard to Jews he observed that the best mixed relationships were between people who visited each other in their homes as friends. He wrote, “Personal friendship appears to be a more powerful motive than any abstract sense of justice in getting barriers removed. And friendship can take root only where there is informal intermingling.”36 Democracy makes citizens equal, and green democracy under my social contract ensures economic security for all while eliminating significant wealth inequality. At the same time racial, ethnic and cultural variety is essential in communities, just as resilience of natural systems requires rich diversity of species. Packard lamented the dull sameness of American social groupings which tends toward insularity and intolerance.
How people talk to each other in the informal and formal practice of my green democracy is quite different from the present one-dimensional manner. Apart from dogmatic sound bytes, public discourse is woefully fragmented. To give one example, consideration of transportation tends to be just about roads and the current modes, so highway expansion continues unabated. Regard for climate isn’t part of that conversation except insofar as it includes electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, both of which would ultimately require a vast supply of energy, only a fraction of which could be produced from renewable sources. Marcuse contrasted the one-dimensional form with dialectical discourse à la Hegel and Marx that seeks out contradictions in understanding as well as Plato’s more eclectic style. He took particular issue with Aristotelian logic which has dominated Western thought for millennia and profoundly shaped Enlightenment thought. Rational discourse in green democracy must be thoroughly logical, but its chief distinction is its very broad scope. It doesn’t isolate topics, but looks far, wide and deep to find the connections between them. In our current system the vehicles of public policy are legislative bills, executive orders and judicial decisions, the vast majority of which are very narrowly focused. Multi-purpose actions mostly aim to balance the gains and losses of opposing interest groups. Rarely, if ever, do we see officials advancing creative and unitary solutions that satisfy everyone. Our adversarial politics has the effect of making the condition that created the conflict continually worse. That condition is precisely the total system’s thoroughgoing non-sustainability, which multidimensional rationality that puts life first overcomes.
In addition to being extremely limited in range, conversation today has a disagreeably impersonal character. We find that, as Henry Miller said, “We do not talk – we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.”37 Then there is the conceit of “critical discourse,” that detached, disembodied style standard in the academy and professions which has a particularly universal and authoritarian tone. The discourse of green democracy is dialogue, which is the respectful exchange of information and ideas. In dialogue, Nietzsche said, everything that one says is “…in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking…” It sharply contrasts with the common performative style in which “…it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: ‘That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!’”38
Rational discourse and decision-making in green democracy further depends on true information. Our current vast universe of information is a product of the total neoliberal system, and though a great deal of it is superfluous or harmful, much of it would be valuable, even vital to the green democracy. Shifting to the new order requires that we discard the unsustainable apparatus while retaining and improving upon what serves us. From the start of the Industrial Revolution humans have allowed technology to become the master which enslaves them. The very idea of rationality however demands that people can and must control technology for the good of man and now all of life. Managing information is but one area in which people must determine what is the optimum scale of human activity in the future.
Apart from physiological impairment all humans possess the faculty of reason, but how they use it depends on education. The current state of the world, America in particular, is a miserable commentary on our educational practices. Alongside our public education there is a good amount of private education that includes evangelical religious instruction which promotes zealotry àla Betsy DeVos and Amy Coney Barrett. K-12 and higher education in general are, as Henry Giroux has maintained, quintessential neoliberal structures whose primary function is to program people to participate in the competitive neoliberal economy, selecting some and eliminating others. The abysmal level of civic awareness and involvement among young people speaks volumes about the system’s priorities. Such disengagement is also reinforced by the segregation of formal education from the rest of society.
In the green community there is much integration of functions such as that advocated by Grace Lee Boggs who led the effort to establish a neighborhood economy in Detroit following the 1967 riots. She urged including students in the community’s productive and civic activities, indeed enlisting “the tremendous energies and creativity of schoolchildren in rebuilding and respirating our communities and our cities now, in the present.”39 Although Rousseau the romantic believed in inherent human virtue and wisdom, giving Émile the subtitle On Education, there is certainly a substantial place for academic instruction in skills, content and values that prepares students for full participation in green participatory democracy. I have outlined this new order, which I confess is an ideal, but which must be our guiding vision as we strive to save human life, democracy and the planet. Obviously change will take time, so, having defined our destination, the next step is to decide how to approach it. The number one priority must be to forever keep the goal in view. Presently there are innumerable limited projects aiming at greater democracy and sustainability, but they don’t add up to a single vision, much less the one that I have presented as necessary. Many of these conflict and further involve major concessions, reflecting the persistence of one-dimensional thinking. A prime example is the objective of 100% renewable energy that omits the fact that solar equipment manufacture currently relies on scarce natural materials and generates much toxic waste. Its scenario also leaves everything else untouched, that is, the rest of the planet-killing human environmental footprint. Declaring that the climate crisis “changes everything,” Naomi Klein is one of a growing number of thinkers who insist that we must remake the whole system.
With our destination always in mind, we may proceed to lay out the pathway to it. Urgent climate action is imperative, and the most sensible immediate course of action is the Green New Deal. One of its many virtues is that it employs Modern Monetary Theory for its funding, thus meeting Korten’s objection to borrowing money into existence. MMT has the federal government create money to invest in such things as infrastructure, healthcare and education. Although the 2020 election has somewhat dimmed the prospects of the GND and disclosed a fairly benighted electorate, the bright spots are some cities and towns, especially those that have embarked on local initiatives for clean energy such as Ready for 100.
As the federal government remains relatively conservative, that reality continues to shape citizens’ attitudes toward it. Gridlock or regression at the national level impel local action, and this is the premier advantage of green participatory democracy. When it comes to their water, their land and their air, people of all political persuasions tend to support conservation and their local government’s protection of these resources. Grassroots activists now firmly understand that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations between community members who share their individual difficulties and can organize for collective resolution.
This brings us to the practical first step: people talking to each other rationally and multi-dimensionally. Changing the culture to make this widespread and routine requires getting the next generation on the right track with innovation in education. The other major challenge to this plan is the identity group and formal organization mentality. Racial and ethnic groups are more trusting of their own, and organizations are often narrowly-focused cloakroom communities. Thankfully there is a now a surge of leaders of color moving to elevate their followers to full and permanent civic engagement. Insofar as groups have limited objectives, they must advance to coordinating with each other for unitary changes that benefit all.
Issues that communities can unite on are water, air, land and energy. In his 2015 documentary Time to Choose Charles Ferguson declared that the number one global threat of climate change is the loss of clean fresh water. From widespread lead pollution exposed following the Flint disaster to persistent extreme drought in western states, oil pipelines, fracking, PFAS and more, local water supplies need citizens’ attention now. Meanwhile the pandemic lockdown revealed how much business as usual pollutes our air and damages our health. There are many things that communities can do to reduce their air pollution, which has the worst impacts on poor people of color. The issue of land relates to land use and housing, with concern for the last starting to explode as an eviction crisis unfurls. Land is earth, which is the source of our food. To address growing food insecurity people must boost local food production which may include community gardens and urban farms. With the recent massive Russian hack we are reminded of the extreme vulnerability of our electrical grid and the urgent need to decentralize generation and transmission, therefore making now the perfect time to shift to local green energy. The foregoing are issues for which citizens can come together immediately to move toward green participatory democracy.
Another high priority is electing enlightened people to office, starting at the lowest level and moving them up the ladder to higher positions. Republicans have long surpassed Democrats in recruiting candidates. Since 2016 Democrats have become better but still need improvement in the way of cultivating the right values in them as well as the voters. As we see with Trump, Bernie Sanders and Biden, leadership is worth a lot as people are inclined to uncritically follow the person in the spotlight. It is vital to elect candidates committed to green democracy while building support for it among voters through grassroots activity.
Ours is an extremely challenging time, for as we progress toward our vision there is enormous defensive work to do as well. Following the record voter turnout of 2020 Republicans are determined to heavily suppress the vote in future elections. Also on their agenda are rigging the next redistricting and obtaining extreme right-wing Supreme Court decisions. To achieve progressive goals we must defeat these attempts, fighting on several fronts at once. This is yet another reason why people should understand separate issues as parts of one big picture.
Until we get beyond adversarial democracy with warring interest groups dominated by lobbyists and big campaign donors we must unite on the urgent priorities. This does not mean abandoning the agenda I have set out but paying attention to the details to ensure that we keep on track. Thus, for example, while unions require solidarity vis-à-vis management in the short term, their ultimate goal should be worker-owned enterprise. This is an objective that can be pursued by workers at every level now. So much responsibility and power have been given to the federal government, and as media consolidation and loss of local coverage have magnified its stature, people mostly look to it for answers. At present we do need major action by the federal government, but we must also recognize that it is like the figure in the book of Daniel which has a head of gold and feet of clay. One man nearly caused it to topple! Real progress requires transforming the culture, and this involves changing citizens’ fundamental understanding of freedom. Margaret Thatcher knew this well, saying of her neoliberal program, “the object is to change the heart and soul.”40
The federal government – the creation of the Founders – needs serious repair. My critique of their efforts does not imply that that we should ditch the Constitution. On the contrary, we mostly need to restore some implicit original limits and expand others. Too many fundamental rights have been stretched beyond recognition, for example, money is speech, corporate personhood, restricting the use of property is “taking” property, owning AK-47s is protected by the Second Amendment and so forth. These are just a few prominent examples of how the original understanding of freedom has come to undermine true freedom. The local participatory democracy that I have advocated would obviously depend on federal and state laws as well as international agreements reciprocally conditioned by robust democracy across the country and the world. There is much fundamental law-making potential, for example green amendments to state constitutions and community bills of rights. In our country there is a tradition of protecting the government from the people to the point of aggressively excluding them from it. Our predecessors were doubtful that civic virtue might prevail within the population and went to considerable lengths to establish institutional safeguards. Yet their basic conception of freedom was the genie they released from the bottle that has lately almost destroyed the whole shebang. With widespread corruption among leaders, especially those who enslave their followers with Orwellian representations of freedom, it is up to the people to mount a full-spectrum mobilization to secure real freedom now.
The triple crisis of our time – climate change, pandemic and subversion of democracy – is the long-term consequence of basing our political order on the classical liberal view of freedom. Persistent and growing assault on people’s lives and rights as citizens amounts to anything but liberty. I have shown that at present people are further enslaved by their identification with branded identity groups, which ultimately includes the total neoliberal system. As a guarantor of freedom the Founders’ approach is obsolete. I have offered an updated view of freedom that entails a particular model of economic and political organization. The economic structure provides a response to climate change and urgent environmental threats overall including zoonotic disease. It is a model for long-term sustainability, assuring people the most essential freedom to live. This structure further supports the maximum freedom of citizens to govern themselves through robust democracy.
For Locke the social contract was formed in the dim and distant mythical past, granting citizens the right to overthrow a government that violated it. Rousseau, in contrast, saw it as enduring but requiring people to continually honor it in the day-to-day practice of democracy. Waiting to repair a system until it is utterly broken is no way to operate a government. In reality people expect the social contract to be continuously upheld, and the way to make this happen is for the people to themselves actively be the government.
The fatal flaw of the original social contract story was its claim that the human animal possesses virtually unlimited God-given natural freedom or rights over which the contract imposed only slight specific legal restrictions. It was the product of an historical period that was rapidly expanding individual opportunities on a vast scale. That trend has continued up to our time, culminating in today’s nihilistic demands for personal freedom. Inflamed by Trump, slaves to right-wing extremist ideology have become militant in their determination to share the unbounded freedom that he flaunts which now infamously includes freedom from retribution for his crimes.
In my account of freedom there are no individual natural rights of any kind given by God, existing in a pre-civilized state or acquired at birth. Rather, there is the fact of life which imposes certain conditions on human existence. Freedom consists in living with these conditions being fulfilled, for example, breathing clean air and drinking clean water, plus creating and maintaining the conditions for life by engaging in sustainable economic activity and robust democracy. The historic social contract version makes the private exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness primary. This has led many people to profoundly neglect or totally ignore their responsibility as citizens to ensure that their government represents and serves them, having instead, in Gibbon’s words, “insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.”41 My approach makes it absolutely clear that freedom necessarily entails full civic engagement.
The recent Supreme Court decisions that prioritize religious freedom over public health in the pandemic are stunning illustrations of the inverted values of our time. For me the purpose of political freedom is to secure life. I have mentioned slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life,” but who can doubt that life is the highest consideration for most people? The premier issue in the 2000 presidential election was Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, and Obama won in 2008 with “quality affordable healthcare for all.” Trump promised a healthcare plan to replace Obamacare in 2016, then Biden won by focusing attention on the pandemic. With the economic damage from the disease the necessities of life, specifically food and housing, are also now major issues.
That life should be the objective of freedom goes without question. I have explained that we are not to view life as bare individual survival, but rather as broad and full, that is, also involving sustaining the environment and actualizing the range of human potentiality. The latter especially means rational thinking and robust civic engagement. One lives freely to the extent that they are an active citizen applying their rational faculties to the affairs of a sustainable and democratic polity. Still, citizenship is not possible as a solo act but requires numbers of citizens finding or establishing agreement plus dialogue with the rest. One-dimensional speech and thought must be set aside to achieve comprehensive and creative public policies. The highest freedom consists precisely in citizens first talking, then working together in the interest of all of their lives and all of life.
I have sketched the ideal political economic structure for restoring democracy and freedom, addressing climate change and the present environmental devastation, concluding with some specific steps to take toward it. As I write, defenders of the status quo and slaves to the Trump brand remain resolute, even emboldened, making our situation both complicated and dire. Attention to our local communities is critical in this time of near iron-clad loyalty to political brands. People on opposing sides do unite over an array of local issues, and such association provides opportunity to establish human connections and broader dialogue. An increasingly valuable tool in electoral campaigns is friend to friend communication. With the 2021 election cycle beginning and 2022 approaching this technique will be vital for penetrating brand barriers in individuals’ networks. There remains the obstacle of people’s availability, as their time is taken up with work, commuting, attention to family and recovery from the grind that crushes their spirit. This is no accident but rather a core strategy for keeping people in bondage to the masters of global neoliberalism. It also divides us and keeps our attention on ourselves, the present and immediate gratification. But people must mind the warning that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. They must break free from all the branded mindsets and recognize the extreme urgency of stepping forward in their communities, reaching out to their neighbors and asserting themselves as citizens, collectively as the sovereign, to secure the future of their children, their homes, humanity, the planet, our democracy and freedom.
1. David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005,” Washington Post, October 8, 2016.
2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.
3. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government.
4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract.
5. Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, §6.
6. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
7. Douglas Keay, “Interview with Margaret Thatcher,” Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987.
8. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (New York: Norton, 1979).
9. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000).
10. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).
12. Bauman, Consuming Life (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 78.
13. Robert N. Bellah, Steven M. Tipton, Ann Swidler, Richard Madsen and William M. Sullivan, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 221.
14. Naomi Klein, No Logo: 10TH Anniversary Edition, (New York: Picador, 2009).
15. Patrick Radden Keefe, “How Michael Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” The New Yorker, December 27, 2018.
16. Josephine Harvey, “Michael Cohen on Why Republicans Support Trump: ‘We’re Stupid,’” Huffington Post, September 17, 2020.
17. Thomas B. Edsall, “Trump is Staking Out His Own Universe of ‘Alternate Facts,’” New York Times, May 13, 2020.
18. Bauman, Consuming Life, 76.
19. Bauman, Consuming Life, 111.
20. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 158-60.
21. Georg Simmel “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1976).
22. Eric Hobsbawm, “Identity Politics and the Left,” New Left Review, May-June, 1996.
23. Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956), 94.
24. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 14.
25. George Washington, “Farewell Address.”
26. Michael Tomasky, “There’s a Word for Why We Wear Masks, and Liberals Should Say It,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2020.
27. Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Section 1253a.
28. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book II, Chapter XII.
29. David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010), 169.
30. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.
31. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society Translated and Edited by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1967),425.
32. Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in Easton and Guddat, 295.
33. Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
34. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 114.
35. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II.
36. Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behavior in America and the Hidden Barriers that Affect You, Your Community, Your Future, (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1958), 281-2.
37. Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, (New York:New Directions, 1945), 109.
38. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Section Six, Aphorism # 374.
39. Grace Lee Boggs, “Paradigm Shift in our Concept of Education,” Speech, State Theatre, Detroit, MI, August 20, 2002.
40. Ronald Butt, “Interview with Margaret Thatcher,” Sunday Times, May 1, 1981.
41. Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 2.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher. Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights. She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania.
In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard.
This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process. She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders.
Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.