I recently entered into a debate with Levi Bryant, an object-oriented thinker well known for his structural analyses of capitalism and material networks, which sadly ended with a turn for the worse. Although I had the best intentions jumping in, an argument resulted, which was caused in no small part by my own behavior and approach. This post will hopefully be twofold then– (1) a way to clear up my views as I prepare for my upcoming talk on “faith vs. utopia”, which deals with these issues; and (2) to apologize to Levi for my failure to articulate those views in a way conducive to healthy conversation. However, through my own failure to put into practice what I believe– that what we really need is to learn how to love–, I have come to believe in it even more. You can find our whole exchange in the comment section here, but I will summarize things as best I can as I go along.
The question is a big one: How to bring lasting and permanent change into society? How to make things run better? How save the world from itself and from the many disasters that seem imminent? For Levi, the big culprit and beast– or at least one of them– is capitalism. It needs to be re-hauled and overthrown– and on that, I imagine most of us can agree. But the capitalism of our day is not easily located. Whereas in the past, for example, one could organize strikes at industrial plants, now the heart of the system is more dispersed and non-local. The question arises: where then to organize the “strike”? As Levi writes here, speaking about contemporary capitalism:
This, then, is a central problem, for how do you combat something that is everywhere and nowhere? How do you engage something that is non-local? If an army is over there I can readily target it. If a particular munitions factor is over here, then I can readily target it. But how do we target something that is non-local and that is incorporeal? This is the problem with occupying an abstraction.
His observation is one that we would all do well to note:
The crisis of contemporary politics is thus the crisis of the erasure of site. In the age of hyperobjects, we come to dwell in a world where there is no clear site of political antagonism and therefore no real sense of how and where to engage.
The danger in treating hyperobjects like capitalism as being everywhere and nowhere is that our ability to act becomes paralyzed.
The claim that there’s been an erasure of sites of politics does not entail that there’s been an erasure of the pressing political issues and problems…, but that today it is very difficult to identify where to effectively engage this system so as to address those issues.
Levi then goes on to argue, I think persuasively, that when the system has withdrawn so thoroughly– simultaneously becoming ubiquitous (it is everywhere and nowhere, it is inescapable yet invisible) and redundant (if you shut down one sham mortgage broker, another one is right there to take its place)– politically we must start to attack the material arteries of the capitalist system. In other words, it is not enough to “protest” or even to “organize.” We cannot simply intervene on the level of speech acts when the system is not supported by speech acts itself. The “site” for political engagement must be uncovered (through efforts like Levi’s own onto-cartography) and attacked materially. Following on ideas he has elaborated elsewhere (here, for example, where he writes, “All questions of change and revolution are questions of how to introduce entropy into low entropy systems”), Levi concludes:
What we need is a politics adequate to hyperobjects, and that is above all a politics that targets arteries.
You want to topple the 1% and get their attention? Don’t stand in front of Wall Street and bitch at bankers and brokers, occupy a highway. Hack a satellite and shut down communications. Block a port. Erase data banks, etc. Block the arteries; block the paths that this hyperobject requires to sustain itself. This is the only way you will tilt the hands of power and create bargaining power with government organs of capital and corporations. You have to hit them where they live, in their arteries. Did anyone ever change their diet without being told that they would die? Your critique is an important and indispensable step, but if you really wish to produce change you need to find ways to create heart attacks and aneurysms. Short of that, your activity is just masturbation. But this requires coming to discern where the arteries are and doing a little less critique of cultural artifacts and ideologies.
He summarizes his position:
All I am calling for is greater attentiveness to material culture and the arteries institutions such as governments and corporations rely on in order to sustain themselves. Locating these arteries allows us to devise strategies that do create leverage.
These are powerful suggestions, to say the least. However, as David Banks over at Cyborgology writes (here), there is a “site” of capitalism that can be located pretty easily– namely, the suffering and impoverished people in our world, those who “fall through the cracks.” He cites a couple in poverty that was caught stealing baby formula from a local Target, who are being charged $2,500 in fines for stealing $200 worth of product. He later extends his analysis and writes :
[W]hen something bad happens, and needed resources become scarce, it is not the rich that suffer. They can mobilize their capital to protect their communities and buy up the remaining goods. It is the poor that will suffer first and foremost. So when an Occupation decides to block a highway or stop a cell phone tower from working, they are disrupting the lives of the poor disproportionally more than the rich.
David then laments:
We [referring to object-oriented ontologies, new materialism, and actor-network theory] become so focused on the connections, at the relations between human and nonhuman nodes, that we forget that a node can be a hungry child. I want Occupy movements to act in big and brash ways, but I want that to be in solidarity and at the will, of the poor.
It is here where my own response begins, especially from David’s comment that, “We forget that a node can be a hungry child.” Although my comments to Levi were failures, I was trying to ask the following sorts of questions, following David’s:
- Who or what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of interrupting the functioning of the system? In my view, this has been a problem for many Marxist-oriented struggles, which are notorious at overlooking the violence they do to some in the name of the many. Generally speaking, are we justified in making life hell for some people, if it means more solidarity and prosperity for the whole?
- How do we work through issues of accountability when, for example, a highway is disrupted and those who are already suffer most suffer even more because of our activism? Will we even be able to detect all these negative effects? How will we gauge whether or not our intervention into the arteries of capitalism was “worth it”? How do we differentiate between this well-minded “activism” and terrorism, as such? Is it terrorism, even?
- What kind of hope do these disruptive interventions offer us? Can they get at the real problem of human-to-human animosity and, specifically, the blind eye so many of us turn toward the suffering others, especially those who we do not see or know? Will it stop the cognitive processes of de-humanization that leads us exploit others, ignore others, unfairly judge others, reject others, and condemn others?
Following from #3, I think there is more at stake here than simple material poverty. There is what I would call “spiritual poverty” or, more basically, a lack of humanity and love. Those who are most downtrodden in our society do not merely lack money or food or shelter; and I don’t think they have the energy to put their hopes in social, political, or economic reform. But that is what they crave, hope, and what they really want to know is that they are loved. “They need to know that they exist in a human community that isn’t all bullshit and balance sheets.” They want to know that their life is worth living– even if they have no possessions or any skills to speak of. I have been there as bourgeois drivers shouted things at the homeless like “asshole” and “lazy.” They are treated like scum so often that they think they are scum. What they need is someone to look them in the eye, with love, and remind them that they are not scum– that they are as worthy of life as anyone.
That is why the question I would really like to ask is this: can structural change (or political activism of any sort) really get at the heart of this problem– the problem of animosity, cruelty, and indifference? Can structural change ever really help us and teach us to love? I quote from my initial comment to Levi to give a feeling for my concerns and my views:
Let me be clear that I am not saying that structural change does not have its role– that would be absurd. However, I do not believe that it is ever going to solve society’s problems, because at the root of society are people, and people are free beings who are faced with figuring out what is good and what is evil. Structural change can’t combat greed for money, for example, because greed is a matter of the heart. But if greed for money is one of the core problems, then it would seem that our strategy would have to revolve around eliminating and curing that greed. Otherwise, all grassroots structural change is doomed to be swallowed by it. Obviously, this presents a much more difficult problem, because it means eliminating the greed within ourselves first and foremost.
The same goes for all the other human behaviors that enchain us to the current ways of society: judgmental attitudes, party-oppositional thinking, lack of forgiveness, etc. I admit that taking up the tough work of eliminating these behaviors within ourselves seems small and minuscule in the face of the larger, macro-scale problems; and yet, in comparison, the macro-scale problems almost seem easier to deal with! And perhaps that is why we do deal with them first.
It is my belief that until we stare eye to eye with those who are most suffering, all of our thinking is going to remain futile, because the problem will remain abstract and static. Only when we make ourselves vulnerable to the vulnerable do we realize the extent to which the problem is not structuralist or materialist, but spiritual and human. The problem lies in our inability– and our unwillingness– to connect deeply with those who are strange to us, or those who disagree, or those who are dirty or ugly to us. But to deny them is to affirm our own ugliness and reluctance to love.
…People need more than material sustenance or a clean cage (society) to live in– unless we are going to just treat them like animals. They need someone to stare them in the eye and let them know that they are loved, that someone cares for them, even if that is a total stranger. That is what will give them hope. They need to know that they exist in a human community that isn’t all bullshit and balance sheets. I believe, and have seen how, that nourishment means much more to them than anything else (including more than any material or monetary gift we might give them)– but alas, it is the most difficult to give, because a loving look cannot be faked.
For me, the question then is really this one: how do we cultivate, ourselves, hearts that are able to reach out to those most vulnerable and give them what they really need– a look of love and appreciation that confers self-worth, where perhaps before they had none? I think we can all admit that structural or material change will never accomplish this– only a change of the heart will do.
Now, the essence of Levi’s response and disagreement has to do with his observation that the capitalist system operates independently of people’s intentions. Therefore he says that:
The problem with explaining things in a belief/desire matrix as you try to do is that it gives rise to the idea that if we just change the heart of, say, a CEO, we can put an end to these problems. It thereby fails to get at the structural or systemic nature of these things.
You can have capitalism with the greatest hearts and most philanthropic regard for people in the world (I wager many of them are). It’s the nature of this system, not their heart and regard for other humans (or lack thereof) that compels this action on their part. The point is that you can’t change these actions by changing their beliefs and heart. You have to intervene in the functioning of the system itself.
Of course, I didn’t mean that changing the mind of a few CEO’s would fix the problem– and my focus was largely on our dealings with the outcast, not the rich–, but the objection is well noted. If the capitalist system compels ruthless and exploitative practices, then even if someone is well-meaning, kind, and caring, they will be led unwittingly to behave in ways that accord with the ‘unthinking’ nature of capitalism itself (for example: purchasing iPods that are manufactured in horribly oppressive conditions). The only option then is (a) to remain in the system and intervene, or (b) drop out of the system entirely, that is, refuse to consent to any of its demands. Both appear to be equally difficult: the one is faced with a system that absorbs all disruptions and turns crisis into an opportunity to reinforce its strongholds (cf. 9/11: an attack on the heart of capitalism only led to stricter surveillance, tighter rules, etc.); and the second is faced with poverty itself because, aside from attempts to live “off the grid,” refusing to consent to capitalism means being spit out on to the streets (and many homeless are homeless because they were not able to consent to capitalism, usually due to a disability of some sort).
Faced with this difficult circumstance, I’m led to believe that the best “intervention” into the system is to identify oneself with what the system itself rejects and overlooks– that is, with the “rejects” of capitalism. I admit that this may not ever lead to a fundamental change in the system itself; but perhaps there is a sphere of reality that does exist outside of the demands of money and social order. For lack of a better word, I would designate that sphere of reality as that of love– community, hope, humanity, peace, and so on. These are realities that can be shared despite ones being rejected from the system. I would argue that all of these realities, wherever they are shared, are shared outside the system. Capitalism has nothing to do with love, and love has nothing to do with capitalism. Ergo, in my logic: to really love others is to have nothing to do with capitalism and the world it creates and insists. This seems to be the most effective way of undermining the capitalist world. Let me try and explain a little better what I mean.
The question of “love” is always addressed first and foremost to us ourselves. It has to do with how we treat others, how we look at others. Capitalism teaches us to agree with those who agree with us, to value those who can be of benefit to us, etc.; but love teaches us to create a community with those who we disagree with, those who (outside of love) would serve no “purpose” for us. In fact, love asks us to identify with those who might even hurt our social standing or our image. Love asks us to give up everything that would sustain our consistent identity in the social world. Love demands our life.
To advocate a life-practice based on love is meant to combat the life-practice of capitalism, which creeps in to even the most well-meaning attempts at overthrowing capitalism. Perhaps giving up those values for the sake of love means that we are now unable to intervene in capitalism itself, since it only recognizes those who adhere to the values it advocates. Perhaps then we ourselves will fall through the cracks and become impoverished like all those who capitalism rejects. Perhaps love appears to be futile in its “battle” against capitalism. But love wins its battle on different fronts– in fact, it creates new fronts, new realities “outside.” Love wins its battles, not by overthrowing capitalism, but by creating enclaves of hope and community that are given the courage to say in one voice: capitalism has no place here, capitalism does not win here, capitalism is not real here; what is “really real” here is our love, what is “really real” here is us.
Outside of such a community, capitalism would appear to be all-powerful. Outside of that sense of hope, hope itself would appear to be empty air. And it is true: without being infused with community and love, poverty is unbearable and inexcusable. Love’s victory looks like nothing when faced with the gigantic system. But with love, the system is not so gigantic after all. Infused with hope, even the worst conditions are bearable. Where we are present to one another in love, even the most ruthless system is forced to lift its oppressive hand. Love drives out its terror and its fear. Love “wins.” I realize that these words are hard to believe– but what if love’s victory can only be seen by those who believe in it and put it into practice throughout a lifetime? What if love’s victory can only be experienced by those who give themselves over to love?
At any rate, this is my basic fear: if our interventions do not come from love, then they will have too much in common with capitalism to really change it. Perhaps that means that at the limit of love, where capitalism and its values are utterly rejected, it is impossible to really change it, because at that limit one would have refused to even play its game; but then there would still be a place, not a political site but a site of community and love set apart and, I think, much “realer” than the world. Perhaps such sites are doomed to be squashed and destroyed– but doesn’t the real question have to do with those who, even when squashed, lived their life in love? What do they see, what do they experience? Perhaps the one who loves even expects to be squashed– if not persecuted and killed. What else would he expect from capitalism and its life-practice? Alas, his hopes are not of the capitalist world…
In my small attempts to go outside my shell to share in the suffering of the downtrodden, I have glimpsed small moments of love’s victory over hatred and oppression. I have seen hope triumph over the social powers. In comparison, the world itself lacks reality and substance. It is through this experience that I have come to believe (and I admit, it is a belief) that it is most important to identify with the suffering and the rejected ourselves, to do the hard work of “learning to love.” This work changes our reality from the inside out– everything begins to look different. That is not to denigrate social and political thinking, but only to suggest a complimentary way. To that extent, I part ways from David when he writes, “What we need is a leftist politic that helps build coalitions…,” while agreeing that we need to be in solidarity with the “will of the poor”– only not just in the sphere of political representation, but actually, materially.
I am advocating what appears to be the most “scrawny” of all options, down-home works of charity and sacrifice: creating enclaves of hope within our souls and in others that live outside the corrupt system, which rejects those who love– an “outside” that, for the one who loves, turns out to be quite a bit “realer” and more “substantive” than capitalism’s world. I obviously don’t mean charity in the sense of “hand-outs,” but charity wedded to genuine compassion– charity that listens, gives, cares, responds, and loves– a “philanthropy” that really is a love (philos) for man (anthros), and through him, love for all existence. A charity that creates a place apart and outside– not unlike romantic lovers, but extended out and made universal. A charity willing to give up everything for love, that knows that the inside of love possess much greater realities than everything the material world has to offer. Anyone who has truly been “in love” knows this. For whoever decides to participate in love’s world, the capitalist world “dissolves,” and a different kind of community takes root whose bonds of love can withstand any social terror and loss. Obviously, love does not make the beast come crashing down overnight; but it does rob it of its power. For me, it is a matter of extending that kind of “lover’s world” beyond the confines of partial love (romance, friendship, or family) and out into impartial love– fellowship with every man, woman, and child, and so with all things.
Unfortunately– and here comes the need for my apology– in my zeal to articulate this position to Levi, I ended up betraying my very intentions (perhaps I have done so again even here– yikes!). I very clearly went too far when I wrote to Levi:
You take it as fact that disrupting and revolutionizing the social system is most important. At the risk of exaggerating, I would say: you value overthrowing the capitalist system more than you value the people that live in it.
I obviously should not have exercised such hyperbole. It is obvious that Levi cares very deeply about the human (and non-human) suffering that takes place under capitalism. Why else would he write and work as hard as he does? I never doubted this about him personally, so to exaggerate to try and make my point was irresponsible and inexcusable. To that extent, I owe him my sincere apology. In my comment, I did go on to try and explain myself in more detail:
…I personally value treating others with kindness and love more than I value the perfection of the economic and social system (or the perfection of our analysis); therefore, I will gladly give up the perfection of the system if perfecting it means giving up on being kind to one another. The smoother running system is less important to me than the individual person who might be squashed in the process of revolution. That’s why I asked last time, “at what cost do we devote ourselves to this broad-scale attempt at re-hauling society?” What’s more important– personal well-being or well-functioning systems?
… but in doing so I set up an ‘either/or’ and a ‘straw-man’ that Levi rightly exposed as being both unfair to his view and, generally speaking, unfounded:
One can *both* engage in things that improve the lives of others *and* look for ways to combat the massive abuses of that system. Nor is the issue here one of the straw man you propose, ie, “creating a perfect economic system”. It is about responding to a system that systematically creates poverty and inequality, that plunges countries into crushing debt, that promotes brutal warfare, that tears apart families, that is decimating the environment, etc. It is about responding to those issues and causes.
…But more importantly, I was not being kind! In the process of trying to perfect my own statement, my own “position,” I betrayed it. Trying to advocate for greater peace, I became disagreeable. Meaning to ask, “what amount of civility and human-to-human kindness are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of social change?”, I sacrificed the whole amount. I showed by my own failure that when we try to impose our own view of things we end up forgetting the need to be understanding, patient, and forbearing with others– and exposed. We end up pigeonholing others as “wrong” or set up straw-men that let us easily mischaracterize and dismiss their opinions. But then we make blind character assessments and dismiss them. And so we end up overlooking all the areas of common purpose, needlessly setting ourselves in opposition. How I acted there is a source of sorrow and disappointment for me. It also shows me how careful one needs to be– especially if one is trying to communicate that most difficult message of love– especially if one is trying to make human society more peaceful here and now. I’d submitted to what I’d call capitalist values in the same breath that I tried to reject them. In a word: I’d failed to love.
Alas, I still maintain what I believe. The more I think about it, the more I value the mirco-scale interaction– looking one homeless person in the eye and loving them, for example– over the macro-scale intervention– which, while perhaps improving material conditions for more people, still does not address the core problem of humans-hating-humans, of indifference to suffering, and so on. I value it more because, in that interaction, I’m pulled outside of myself and take on their plight. I experience the depth of the pain of not being loved and appreciated, and I learn how to love and appreciate those who, at first, seemed disagreeable or untouchable to me. And the human sorrow there is revealed to be ours, it is shown to be alleviated only in common. I value this approach because it leads me to live my own life, not for myself, but for others. It roots me in humility, teaching me that others’ well-being is more important than my own. It dedicates me to the creation of a “new location,” based in love, and to the real suffering that can be re-located and healed there– and not only heal others but also myself, because we all suffer from the animosity, indifference, and lack of compassion due the “system.” To that extent, I still disagree with Levi’s last comment to me…
It’s great that you work at soup kitchens, but how much are you really doing for those people? Their circumstances remain exactly as they were after they’re fed because you’ve simply fed them and not addressed their real conditions.
… and I disagree because of what I have seen to be the another part of their “real conditions”: they run deeper than their material conditions and have to do with what can only be called their “soul,” that invisible part within them that wonders whether or not they are loved or worth anything. Admittedly, sometimes one has to be awakened to these needs, awakened to this life of the soul. But we are nourished by, and can feed others with, much more than just food. If we can extend the olive branch of peace and understanding, if we can listen and love, then even if someone’s material circumstances do not visibly change right away, something more deeper and fundamental within them can. First off, they are strengthened for another day. They are given hope in humanity. They renew their own commitment to forgive those who spit on them, to love those who won’t even look their way. They discover their capacity to have mercy on others where others would have no mercy on them. Above all, they are strengthened in life, and even if that life remains on the street, their love and their hope brings them peace.
I don’t think we should underestimate these elements, these “foods,” either. To give the opposite case: someone may have all their material needs met, but still be without that peace. But what the rich man has pales in comparison. What do we really need, then, what is most necessary— good living conditions, or peace? Obviously we want to strive for both for all! But whereas the one can be lived without, the other cannot as easily be left out. In the midst of great riches, man is constantly at war, but where poverty is accepted, there a spiritual wealth begins to grow. A man without peace is hardly a man at all, but a man at peace can do without most everything else.
So I still believe that until we live for others, give ourselves up for the sake of others, expose ourselves to the vulnerable and expose our own vulnerabilities, the world will be an ugly and largely selfish place. As I wrote to Levi:
[Y]ou can change all the material structures you want (or talk about it all you want), but if people’s hearts are still callous and closed-off, what good is it going to do? New ways of exploiting people will be devised. New ways of being judgmental, prideful, and acting superior will arise. Human societies/economies have gone through many forms and in all of them there has been ugliness. I guess I just don’t see any evidence to think that changing the system one more time is going to fix this core problem.
I believe that our selfish and uncharitable hearts are the key thing to be solved.
I submit this response to clear up my own position, but also to show, by my own failure, how difficult “really solving” this problem is. I note how volatile the reaction can be to a message whose main content is love, but moreover how difficult it is to convey that message without falling prey to animosity ourselves. Hate breeds hate, and the difficulty of combating it is to not give in to the (capitalist, competitive, judgmental) pressure that leads us to divide instead of unite. In this situation, I blame myself for the lack-of-love in my own heart, and so I apologize and vow myself to reform. But recognizing my own failure, I cannot help but reaffirm that this is the great challenge facing us: the challenge to learn how to love. And not just those we already love, but those who are strange to us, those who are our “enemies” (cf. Lk 6:32-36). It seems to me to be very difficult to get down to the roots of this problem– and to see the depth of our own disease– for it is a disease of the “soul.” And we will always be able to put other goals ahead of this one, we will always think we can put it off for later. But what if learning to love one another was the most urgent command of all? What if it was, indeed, the “only” way?
Obviously, it is much easier to hand out food than it is to hand out peace! “A loving look cannot be feigned.” But if we find peace within, I think we can begin to really solve the total problem, because peace transmits itself to those who are open to receiving it. If we can keep in dialog with love ourselves, then our solutions will be as pure as they are well-meaning, because love communicates itself. Perhaps they will not be very flashy solutions, and perhaps they will largely go unnoticed; but they will be incorruptible and lasting in those lives they do touch. That is why, ultimately, I believe that having “faith in love,” and not (only) in utopian thinking, is what can put us on a path to salvation and a better world, if only because this faith changes one to the core: it brings us, and transmits, real hope.
Let us continue on in whatever modes and strategies of intervention are most inclined to our specific gifts and talents; but let us strive with our whole hearts to do so with love and kindness and forgiveness, so that even if our material conditions in this world are not improved, even if all our attempts at reform are squashed by the unruly structures we have no choice but to live in, at least we will bring each other some faith in our human ability to care and to love, in spite of our largely inhumane society. At least then we will bring some hope to one another– if not in the world, then at least a hope in each other, and in the power of love to reconcile, to bring peace, and to score its own victory “outside” the world.
Hopefully my attempt to create an enclave of peace and unity here, divorced from the values of capitalism, has not altogether failed. I am trying to love while learning to love, doing all I can, I promise! Hopefully, despite all our reservations otherwise, and despite our moments of failure, we can all try to do the same. My prayer is that I have done a little bit better job explaining myself and that my words can be received by all in the spirit in which I have tried to write– and that if I have failed, one will bear with me, a largely wretched and imperfect being, I confess, and often inarticulate, to boot!