21 March 2003


One of the things that will doubtless motivate people to reject capitalism in favor of ecosocialism will be the existential loneliness that accompanies capitalist life. Under capitalism, everyone grows up to be a "legal person," an individual who is ostensibly a full participant in the capitalist economic system. The individual's participation in capitalist life is motivated by the proverbial carrot and stick -- the carrot is those things that money can buy, the stick is the obligation to acquire the money to buy the things.

More onerous than the behavioral "microphysics of power" within capitalism, so thoroughly introduced by Michel Foucault, is the psychological equation, and this is where existential loneliness comes in. What's critical is that we have all adopted the necessary mental apparatus, required of the individual-under-capitalism, in order to play the game. Under capitalism, every individual must behave according to a balance sheet of assets and liabilities, maximizing one while minimizing another. Thus capitalism makes us all into the alienated individual of Jeremy Bentham's philosophy, who is a mere calculus of pleasure to be gained against pain to be avoided. This results in existential loneliness, because friendship (under capitalism) is only as valid as its value on the balance sheets of the friends. In fact, most friendship (under capitalism) is a liability, because friendship (under capitalism) has a monetary cost -- it costs money to go places and do things with friends, money which could otherwise be invested. So, without any rebellion against capitalism in the relation between you and I, it might as well profit us not to be friends at all.

The legal definition of the individual-under-capitalism, furthermore, is the individual who seeks to avoid the liability of prison-time by obeying the law. The very thing that makes "getting arrested" such a radical aspect of nonviolent civil disobedience, then, is its violation of the calculus of pain and pleasure imposed by the legal definition of the individual-under-capitalism. The civilly-disobedient arrestee actually seeks the pain of jail time and a criminal record, as a protest against the individuality that is experienced in an unjust system like capitalism. Thus all nonviolent civil disobedience is in essence a nascent revolt against capitalism. Nonviolent civil disobedience is, then, what Kovel would call a "prefiguration" of ecosocialism.

One of my students tried to write a paper on the recent protests. He claimed in his first draft that the main reason for the protests was to send a message to President Bush. I told him that it was quite likely that President Bush doesn't really care about, or listen to, protesters, and that therefore there must be another reason for the protests. I did not supply this reason myself. But there is a reason for the current protests outside of "sending a message to Bush" -- the protesters are protesting in order to deal with themselves, to protest the existential loneliness that being a self-under-capitalism has forced them to experience. Being a lonely self-under-capitalism in a world that is going to Hell in a handbasket is so painful that it drives protesters to irrational action, and actively protesting the state of the world is the lesser of a number of irrationalities. Especially given the feelings of togetherness it gives protesters.

Now, if one is to accept a theory of existential loneliness as a base experience of capitalist individuality, it stands to reason that most individuals (under capitalism) do not recognize, much less know, their existential loneliness. They nevertheless spend their lives looking for, and being enticed by, innumerable capitalist amusements, because perpetual amusement is felt to be necessary to distract the individual from the existential loneliness he or she feels deep down inside.

Yet it must be said that, regardless of the bombardment of amusements showering each person (under capitalism), or of the effectiveness of capitalist amusement, existential loneliness persists as a perpetually reoccuring capitalist liability. Ecosocialism, as a utopian concept, promises to relieve the self of existential loneliness. Under capitalism, the main form of relief has got to be death, because in death the individual returns to the world of merely-organic matter that forms the material substrate of the living Earth, of Gaia. As Gary Snyder once remarked, we can receive comfort from the knowledge that, when we are dead, something will eat us, and return us to the food chain. This death is our link to the cycle of life, and under capitalism, death is the main guarantee of the promise of reunion. Ecosocialism promises to fuse a consciousness of the cycles of life with the process of living life as a living human being, whereas without ecosocialism we must wait for death to re-experience the cycle of life directly. This is the singular nature of ecosocialism's promise: the re-integration with natural living, for all, before the wait for death.

Privileged individuals can move to the forest today; but in doing so they remain in existential isolation from the capitalist world, which in its turn is isolated from itself. I remember seeing Snyder in Claremont awhile back, at Pitzer College. He read to us a recent poem he had composed about urban life, which strained to combine urban reality with Snyder's Zen ethic. I listened intently, but I don't think it came off.


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