16 January 2013
The questions that animate Dada Maheshvarananda’s work are the same ones I saw recently scrawled across a sprawling panorama created by the tormented painter Paul Gauguin—in 1897, after months of illness and suicidal despair, Gauguin produced on a huge piece of jute sacking an image of unfathomable figures amid scenery that might have been the twisted groves of a tropical island or a marvelously wild Garden of Eden; worshippers and gods; cats, birds, a quiet goat; a great idol with a peaceful expression and uplifted hands; a central figure plucking fruit; a depiction of Eve not as a voluptuous innocent like some other women in Gauguin’s work but as a shrunken hag with an intense eye.
Gauguin wrote the title of the work in bold on top of the image; translated into English it reads:
Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?
These are questions—horrifying for Gauguin, inspiring for Dada Maheshvarananda—that rumble in the background on every page of After Capitalism. How can we see ourselves and our problems/challenges/potentials holistically? How can we connect our personal and spiritual seeking with the practical search for a better world for all? How can we live with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is while the other foot stretches toward a world that could be but is not yet? How can we transform ourselves to be worthy of the profound social transformations we desire and need? And how can we build within ourselves the thoughtfulness, compassion, and courage to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair? We begin by opening our eyes:
Look! says the pilgrim.
I can’t look…
Look at it! Open your eyes for once, for God’s sake, have the courage to at least look, will you?
I can’t look…I’m going to be sick…
You mean you won’t look, don’t you? You can look, but you won’t. It might upset you, it might mess your outfit—or it might ruin your whole day. You refuse to look. Admit that at the very least.
I won’t… I can’t… What’s the difference?
The difference is this: willful blindness is a form of cowardice and indifference, and the opposite of moral is not immoral; the opposite of moral is indifferent.
Wide awake it’s clear that planet earth has enough resources to meet everyone’s basic needs if we share; on the other hand if we hoard we are in for famine, pestilence, war, and mayhem. It’s equally clear that both tendencies live deep within every human being: selfishness and selflessness, me and we, individualism and collectivity. The question at the heart of this book is this: Where do we go from here, socialism or barbarism, chaos or community?
The practical and theoretical work of Dada Maheshvarananda and his comrades is the fight for economic justice, and on the side of sharing. One of the great deceptions of our time is the sham that meaningful political democracy is possible in the absence of economic democracy. “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice,” wrote Mikhail Bakunin (adding that “socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”) and it is self-evidently so: there can be no real freedom where huge differences in wealth and access make any voluntary exchange or contract little more than legal larceny and authorized plunder. The traffic in human beings, modern-day slavery, the market for body parts, international adoption—all bear the mark of privilege, exploitation, global injustice, and structural violence. And so do the sanitized schemes of the bankers, the financial wizards, and the ruling class generally.
Economic democracy requires popular control, wide participation, and decentralized decision-making, and it insists that the minimum requirements of life must be guaranteed—food, housing, clothing, education, and health-care. Life is the birthright that transcends borders, and the most straight-forward gauge of the degree of justice available in any society is how power responds to that basic right.
Our struggle is for more participation, more equality, more recognition of human agency, and more transparency as we lean toward revolution. We must rouse ourselves, shake ourselves awake and perhaps shock ourselves into new awarenesses.
But it’s often hard to look, and obstacles spring up everywhere: when we feel ourselves shackled, bound, and gagged or when we are badly beaten down, struggling just to survive, living with dust in our mouths, the horizons of our hope can become lowered, sometimes fatally, and our eyes, then, dim. What kind of world do we want to inhabit? When no alternatives are apparent or available, action becomes pointless.
When privilege obstructs our vision it acts as an anesthetic, putting us to sleep; we must then call upon the aesthetic—the world of the imagination—to combat the numbing power of the sedative.
We all live in our time and place, immersed in what is, and imagining a social scene different from what’s immediately before us requires a combination of somethings: seeds, surely; desire, yes; necessity and desperation at times; and, at other times a willingness to dance out on a limb without a safety net—no guarantees.
Imagination is essential, more process than product, more “stance” than “thing,” imagination involves the dynamic work of mapping the world as such, and then leaning toward a world that might be but is not yet. Most of us most of the time accept our lot-in-life as inevitable—for decades, generations, even centuries; when a revolution is in reach, when a lovelier life heaves into view, or when a possible world becomes somehow visible, the status quo becomes suddenly unendurable. We then reject the fixed and the stable, and begin to look at the world as if it could be otherwise, and we begin the important work of reweaving our shared world.
Choice and confidence is a necessary politics. I don’t want to minimize the horror, but neither do I want to get stuck in its thrall. Hope is an antidote to cynicism and despair; it is the capacity to notice or invent alternatives; it is nourishing the sense that standing directly against the world as such is a world that could be, or should be. Without that vital sense of possible worlds, doors close, curtains drop, and we become stranded: we cannot adequately oppose injustice; we cannot act freely; we cannot inhabit the most vigorous moral spaces. We are never freer, all of us and each of us, than when we refuse the situation before us as settled and certain and determined and break the chains that entangle us.
The tools are everywhere—humor and art, protest and spectacle, the quiet, patient intervention and the angry and urgent thrust—and the rhythm of and recipe for activism is always the same: we open our eyes and look unblinkingly at the world as we find it; we are astonished by the beauty and horrified at the suffering all around us; we act on what the known demands and we also doubt that our efforts made enough difference, and so we rethink, recalibrate, look again, and dive in once more. If we never doubt we get lost in self-righteousness and political narcissism—been there—but if we only doubt we vanish into cynicism and despair. Awake/Act/Doubt! Repeat! Repeat! Repeat for a lifetime.
Revolution is still possible, democracy and socialism, possible, but barbarism is possible as well. Our expansive and expanding dreams are not realized, of course, not yet, but neither are they dimmed or diminished. Every revolution is, after all, impossible before it happens; afterwards it feels inevitable.
The work, of course, is never done. Democracy and freedom are dynamic, a community always in the making. We continue the difficult task of constructing and reinvigorating a public. We must love our own lives enough to take care of friends, children, loved ones and elders, to marvel at the sunset and enjoy a good meal, to run on the beach and dive into the surf, to make love for breakfast and again at noon and wake up in wonder; we must love the world enough to never look away, to never give up and never give in, and to add our weight to history’s wheel.
Dada Maheshvarananda is an extraordinary and sweet revolutionary not because he has a fully worked-out and internally consistent argument as well as a set of concrete action steps that will take us from here to there—there being some vibrant and viable future characterized by peace and love and joy and justice—but because he lives with the necessary sense of perpetual uncertainty that accompanies social learning while at the same time trying to make a purposeful life battling to upend the system of oppression and exploitation, opening spaces for more participatory democracy, more peace, and more fair-dealing in large and small matters. These are revolutionary times, and Dada can explain why and how to join the revolution.
“Excess of joy weeps,” writes William Blake in a possible epigraph for this book…and for us. “Excess of sorrow”—and Lord do we have that excess right now—“laughs.”
W.H. Auden provides another: We must love one another or die.
Bill Ayers is the author of several books on education, as well as a memoir, “Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist,” and the forthcoming “Public Enemy: Memoirs of Dissident Days.”