Category Archives: Politics


The landscape in my head has colonists in it, looking out over the rolling hills with a productivist grasping that turns every tree into timber and every meadow into pasture, every field into rows of farmland, as far as the eye can see. The colonists in my mind see bodies and can understand only labor, see minds quick and alive and can find no expression of wonder but to enslave to their own gain.

They arrived without my consent and settled in my thoughts, through my eyes, in my blood and genes. There is a vicious rationalism and Puritanism that scratches at my thoughts, the willful demand that the world stop moving, that everything be held still, orderly, ready to be put to my own device, utterly dominated. They landed on the shores of Turtle Island and I came in tow, history dragging my bones across the sea, to murder the inhabitants of this incredible place, their blood in the earth mingling with that in my veins before I was even born. And discontent with the fecund earth my forebears chained the bodies and minds and lives of Africa to the terraforming of this continent in their own image, that of a distant God and a supremacy of Whiteness, until the blood and sweat and suffering and countless enslaved lives became the very productivity of the soil, the land itself, seen as the natural right of Whiteness to receive the generative capacity of the enslaved bodies and enslaved land in kind. The eyes and minds of dark-skinned bodies still alert and bright and looking at me today, right now in this moment, in faces that need only for me and mine to step the fuck aside, and let them live. Needing not my leadership or my brilliance but the silence of my certainty, the stilling of my constant trained domination, lending where asked and when requested my support and as much my absence.

But my own mind is colonized, too. The valuation of rationalism and scientism, the quiet calm of authority that I know I can retreat to if need be, the intellectualization that keeps me both distant from and infatuated with the majik of the immediacy of the real and lived world.

I have always been fascinated by majik. And I can see that in many ways it was not other than an alienated longing for communion with the living, dynamic, awake-and-wild world. But I only knew how to view it as something other than myself, distant, something unapproachable, that required some intermediary of the “other”, whether cultural or historical or religious. I will suggest that it is this divorcing from the immediacy of our living, breathing, moment-to-moment lives – the majik that I mean no metaphor by – that has characterized the intellectual-cum-historical alienation and terror that has driven the need for domination and control by me and mine in heteropatriarchal Whiteness. This is not a disconnected account from a Marxist historical-materialism, because I believe they are movements into history of the same disconnect.

I have been watching a series on the Daoist and shamanic origins of Chinese Medicine – my first graduate degree is in anthropology of shamanism, and I am an acupuncturist by training and current profession, and understanding these roots help me better understand my own medicine. But what has struck me over and over is how resonant much of the way these practices are with shamanic systems worldwide, with how near-fit they are, from tracing of sigils in the air to using whistling and songs to the manner of divination, from using an egg to trap evil energy and remove it from a patient to the misting a patient with blessed herbal water from the mouth of the healer – they show up everywhere, in so many different parts of the world that I cannot help but say to myself “Look! Again!”

And I have seen these work and I have recognized their profound possibilities. But then comes a mind of doubt, a resistance and a hesitation, a stepping back to a critical stance that I have celebrated as a kind of anchoring, a reasonableness that I have been taught and enculturated to believe shows a maturity, a stance of analysis that I have been led to believe is necessary to… and here the teachers fall silent and shamefaced. Necessary to what? The only answer is “to not be like them”, to retain the critical distance and cultural power afforded us by the Whiteness of our thinking. To generate theories and conceptual structures that will serve to both isolate us from “these others”, from their lives, and to shore up our own cultural-power derived from the accolades of our fellows at our intellectualization.

Because it is here we fall apart and fail. Our structures of ideas cannot help but be organized by our more fundamental and necessary Belief that we are separate from the world, from Life, from the way we perform, practice, and act. That there are discernible Truths somewhere “out there” that stand still and certain. We are infatuated with our processes, our Scientism not other than Colonialism given new clothes, bleached clean of its long histories of racism and complicity with violence and oppression. Our colonialism still that authority we grant ourselves to draw the lines that include or exclude forms of knowing, the gatekeeper of what is possible and what is not, and what we will allow within certain coded boundaries for real and unreal. Just because a materialism and scientism has become our Belief does not reduce the Protestant and Puritanical infatuation with adhering to “Belief” that so fully orders our lives and experience. By giving such primacy to what we “believe” to be possible and real, we have allowed the Protestant and Puritan character of an always-evolving colonialism to mark the whole of our intellectual history, a needless neuroses forever circling the security of Belief, where our only ability to engage with a living experience is to decide that we do believe, do not believe, or conditionally set aside our belief structures for a time, waiting to take back up our critical stance again at the end. Even the value of any laudable empiricism has been set back centuries now by a fixation on forcing experience to fit belief, rather than allowing that ontology itself is fluid, and that the rules that seem to shape aspects of experience are emergent from particular forms of organization and activity far more than they are absolute rules that transcend the historical and lived. It is the purity of our souls in the Protestant sense, that our salvation is by the unyielding faith in our beliefs and our incorruptibility in the face of other experience, that still structures our participation with those aspects and elements of the dynamics of life that do not fit neatly into categories of right or wrong, of true or false. Scientific replicability may have replaced God, but our hearts are still Puritans looking for salvation.

But there is nothing of belief in magik. To paraphrase a Zen saying, the Great Way has nothing to do with knowing or not knowing. And majik has nothing to do with anything separate from right here, right now, in the dynamic and extraordinary unfolding of our immediate and lived lives. Trace a sigil and whisper a spell, walk in the forest, or make a phone call to a friend, drive to the store and get groceries – everything immediately alive. Never a moment that was not humming filled to overflowing with majik and possibility.

We thought that finding the right beliefs was a prelude to living fully, completely, to finally being aligned with the “right” way of being in the world. We thought that our epistemologies were our ethics, we thought that our existential doubts were the crux of what made us special, even human. And when we Whites found other ways of being in the world, other folx living in radically different ways, with questions of their own developed from histories and embodiments marked by different ecologies and organizational styles and strategies, we could not even recognize their “humanity”, because our “humanity” had become so entangled with the quivering doubt and fear that a no longer immanent God had left us, wondering where our hearts and souls and spirits had gone. We demanded Faith to cover this chasm of doubt and separation that has left such a rent-open-hole in the hearts of Whiteness when God was nowhere to be found. When the crying out of doubt and despair was not echoed by others on these new shores, the despair that characterized our very experience of ourselves – that demanded Faith to if only for some moments salve the wound – was the only way we could recognize “humanity” at all, and in the absence of that despair-as-Faith we saw no brothers, no sisters, but only creatures without souls.

And so we set about enslaving bodies and etching our own despair into their flesh and living spirits, simultaneously using their bodies to carve up this living, breathing earth, which were carved with whips and chains in kind. The economies were about power, and the policies were designed to arrange power – it is not a material analysis that I am avoiding, done better and more fully by many others, but rather to ask the question about the why’s of power, of what is the broken thing, the diseased need at the core of domination, colonialism, imperialism. I cannot ask it fully or completely, and I cannot answer the history. But what I can point to is where the answer echoes for me where I was raised, with what I was taught, and how the world looked to me, how it was structured for me, and the deeply broken places in me that would have justified almost anything to escape.

What then does decolonization look like? Because this is my own responsibility now. There is no one else to do it, no one else’s labor I can take hold of and turn to my own device. My history as a slaveholder can and will never have another life to claim, and the mind of the slaveholder must die in kind, slain by the hand of those who have suffered and never relented, the unstoppable force of the Black bodies and lives who shake free the chains of my own fear, cowardice, and weakness. My history as a patriarch, who can demand labor of the women if no one else, is likewise spent, exhausted and failing from its own corrupt premises, broken asunder by the brilliant resistance and expressions of unflagging life of the minds and bodies of womyn who would not allow such a tiny cage to hold them. And so while I must listen, to allow the dynamic life of this decolonization to flow over and through me, to listen to voices that the colonist in my head has always failed to hear, my own decolonization is not their responsibility and does not belong to them to do for me.

I live on Turtle Island. My blood flows with its rivers and its streams, my breath is that of the wind in its trees, my bones that of the stones that are likewise its own. If I am ever to decolonize, it must first be by stopping the imperialist project in my own heart, it must be by dismantling the deep belief that, if I go elsewhere, find another land or another people, my freedom will be given to me by labor they have already done, or can be made to do. I cannot but live on Turtle Island, and I cannot but survive from the earth that is stained with the blood and sweat of those that me and my kind have enslaved, tortured, and murdered outright by the millions. I am a settler and I cannot escape that. I am a colonist and I cannot escape that. This is my home, too, now. There is nowhere else for me to go. And so the question is how do I come home, to this place, to this land, with this history.

But to do so, I have to wake up. I have to see THIS WORLD as it is. And so I have to expressly and without reservation finally simply say, with no caveats and no dissembling or intellectualization. I have seen the spirits. I have heard the stones, I have listened to the trees, I have sung my own deep song down into the ground and had it vibrate back from the earth into my body. I have witnessed the dynamic life that flows moment to moment in us, as us, through us, beyond words and beyond time or space, but never separate from and always completely filling up and emptying out, overflowing and unmaking, each space, each moment. It shames my face to give it any name, to speak a word to describe, and yet I must acknowledge it somehow. The world breathes in and out with me, as me. I have never taken a single breath. Lungs full and heart beating. I am the dirt moving. This is majik, this is LIFE itself, full and complete. Nothing else to find, nothing else to hope for. If you say GOD I will point back to this and ask where, and if you say NO GOD, I will point back to this and ask where. You want the mystical, I will trace a sigil in the air and I will place my hands on your body and I will pray with strange words. To whom? Does it matter? You want the material and practical and we will strike stones together for a spark, and we will together be Prometheus.

This is the beginning of my decolonization. To wake up. To see there was never any great chasm, no abyss, no heart separate from the whole world to be torn asunder by doubt and despair. That I am the dirt, moving. Nothing else to be. No great ideal to manifest, no world to conquer, no Divine Plan to implement, no great vision to make real, no final word from any voice to say “This is the direction forward, and all else must stand aside” – for therein lies the root of all fascism. Life is already alive, manifesting, unfolding, becoming. I could never stop it, control it, or direct it. It was not mine to control. The colonialist in my thinking demands that it be chained and harnessed, that it be turned to productivist ends, that one day it might tell a grand story of my triumphs, that history might justify me. And the raw force of Life dismantles, dashes asunder, the absurdity of any such claim, not even noticing it, not even turning its head to ignore it, as it vanishes in a gust of wind, snatching a half-heard bit of nonsense from a mumbling dreamer’s lips.



Gar Alperovitz’s new article on the question of socialism and beyond

It’s a long article, but the final paragraph points to why the whole thing is important to read (and I quote):

The important points to emphasize are three: [1] There is openness in the public, and especially among a much, much broader group than many think, to discussing these issues – including even the word “socialism;” [2] It is accordingly time to get very serious about some of the challenging substantive and theoretical issues involved; and [3] There are also many on-the-ground experiments, and projects and developments that suggest practical directions that are under way, but also that a new politics (whatever it is called) might begin to build upon them if it got serious.

We have a lot to talk about, and we need a lot more voices in the debate than the traditional – and definitely the institutional – Left. Socialism may just not mean what you think it means – hell, it doesn’t mean what I think it means, and that’s why I think the new debate is so exciting.

Whole article here.

On agency and structure – or why some and not others?

A week or two ago I ended up in a conversation with a few friends of mine. After a couple of beers all around, the topics at hand – discussion of the performance over the last year of a few mutual projects, plans for the coming year – drifted into more esoteric territory. I’ve spent the last few years studying religion in Latin America, and the anthropology of religion more generally, and as we began to talk about the nature of free will, whether it exists or whether it’s an illusion of chemistry in our minds, we headed into territory that I enjoy discussing. This led to a discussion on how it is that some people seem to ‘make it’ – economically, socially, politically – and others fail to thrive. Positions came out in interesting ways, and tended broadly toward poles that I would describe as “strong agency” and “strong structure.” That is to say that though no aggressive positions were laid out, and no one seemed to particularly take up the gauntlet for any one position to the exclusion of the others, the rhetorical movements suggested a keen awareness of the tension between the historical agency of a given individual – his or her capacity to make a way in the world – and the structured nature of our capacities and possibilities in socio-cultural, political-economic, intellectual, and even biological terms. I put my two cents in, given my anti-statist and anti-capitalist leanings, but the old structure-vs-agency debate doesn’t lend itself to concrete positions: too oriented toward structure and we become determinists, too much emphasis on agency and we slide into neoliberalist rhetoric of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

If I didn’t take a hard-and-fast stance on a position during the conversation, I nevertheless chatted with relative ease over the rhetorical points I’m used to making in discussions like that, stemming from my own tendencies to post-Left anarchist political theory. But the conversation has replayed itself in my head on and off, and I’ve realized that my politics tend to obscure a more ready response to any given discussion, as I encounter it. I tend to have my ‘beliefs’ lined up and ready for distribution – I do my best no longer to explicitly defend or attack any position, but with my own ‘-isms’ already arranged, I tend to frame what I hear and what I understand in those terms, and respond accordingly.

I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. I’ve begun to realize that, if I’m to take a commitment to compassion and understanding seriously, especially in terms of being simply honest and present to the world as it arises, that my political stances are, like all other beliefs, provisional and contingent constructions – thoughts, as it were, hardened or sedimented into a habitual pattern. Recognizing this – over and over again – I’ve decided to take another look at how I might go about trying to engage with the questions that were raised.

My knee-jerk response to phrases like ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps’ is to line up sociological analysis or historical critique that discredit the underlying myopia of privilege that this kind of rhetoric tends to entail. I’m not walking that back – I do have a very real discomfort, to the point of outrage, with any sense in which the victim is blamed for their own misery, especially when that misery tends to be caused or exacerbated by political-economic systems that work to sustain and support those who are using said rhetoric. However, I know the people that I was talking to very well, and these are not people who would see a family hungry on the street and let them stay that way. These people give back to their friends, their neighborhoods, their churches, and their community. The question was not raised to point a finger in blame, but rather honestly investigating why some people from seemingly identical circumstances are able to “make it”, when others are not. It was the way in which I responded to that question previously that I want to address more fully. Or, rather, I want to propose a different way. This is an exercise, for me, in attempting to apply Buddhist principles of compassion and understanding to my own engagement with political discourse, and even with political expectation. Applying it in my life means applying it in all of my life.

What happens when I apply compassion to a question of those who, for one reason or another, do not ‘make it’ in economic, political, or social terms? First, though, what is it I’m trying to say when I say ‘make it’? I am not in any way implying some kind of naturalized or objective standard of ‘success’ in any one life. I could not pretend to venture an all-inclusive standard by which this could be judged, even for just middle-class urban and suburban people in the US, or even just in my home town. Rather, I’ll address it in terms that were evident in our conversation that evening. Many of us at that meeting came from poor backgrounds, whether that meant relying on government lunch programs at school or handouts from the church, or even having had to fight our way to and from the bus stop some days. So, in that context, ‘making it’ referred to those of us, and those we knew, who had gotten out of that kind of life, who had gone on to be, effectively, middle class. I am not celebrating that as ‘making it’ as any kind of endorsement in some kind of bourgeois way. Rather, I’m recognizing that for many lower to lower-middle class Americans, the desire to have stability – a nice house, a car or two, the ability to buy things for their kids, the desire, in short, to become middle class – is a very real, meaningful goal. Making that transition is often the work of a lifetime. I’m not, in this brief essay, engaging with the ethics of a consumer culture, or the ideology of acquisition and accumulation that underlie it. I’m only recognizing the legitimacy, within these cultural constraints, of those goals, and the moral-ethical force they have in ordering many lives.

In those terms, how do we understand someone who has not ‘made it’? I believe, here, compassion has us look at structure. What are the forces arrayed against them? What are the realities – economic, political, historical, cultural – that have constituted their subjectivities, their worldviews, their outlooks, and thereby the tools they have at hand with which to effect agentive change in their lives, and simultaneously the obstacles that work toward making those tools ineffective? Systemic racism, class-ism, sexism and the like barely scratch the surface of that kind of analysis. We need insights along the lines of Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, and Butler, at the minimum, to begin any such discussion. This is where compassion, I believe, leads. Rather than try to find some quality of character or some essence of the person – or even some pivotal event – that is lacking in those who have not reached this – admittedly arbitrary – marker of class-mobility, it serves far better to look at these individual people, and understand them in their specificity. Here we look at what a potentially antagonistic ‘structure’ does – in its disciplining, and even its constituting – to situate lives in such a way as to make certain kinds of mobility or certain historically or economically-agentive acts more and less feasible, or even possible. I believe that compassion, in this sense, is understanding, as it opens on recognizing people just as they are, without judgement or expectation. Of course, what we do with that information – how we then act politically when we recognize the structural forces at play – is a far more potentially revolutionary question.

But, so the argument would go, there are those who ‘make it’. There are always, within any given population, some who do fit the image having ‘pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,’ and made it out of a situation that trapped so many others. I have, of course, any number of leftist critiques of this kind of logic. That no ‘one’ makes it, but is rather propelled by the efforts of a whole community, that without networks of support of whatever kind, it would be impossible to ‘make it’, for the social world is quite literally constituted by other persons, individuals, and so any effect of agency in a social sense always involves the presence of, and friction with, other people. There is no raw ‘stuff’ out of which to ‘make’ oneself, and whatever accidents of biology, birth, and history that produce individuals capable of acts that distinguish them from others must recognize that they have not only been given their field of action by a whole social world, but that they have been constituted by it in virtually every meaningful sense. However – and here I am moving away from my leftist comfort zone – hard work does mean something. We cannot celebrate the historical agency of the oppressed around the world without recognizing it at home. I have seen friends – and I have been among them, as one of them – work nights and weekends for years to build and grow an idea into a functioning business. It was always within the context of a community of friends, but the work and the effort and the uncertainty and the resolve absolutely mean something.

And it is here that I would apply a sense of ‘understanding’. That is to say that rather than jump, as I am wont to do, to a critical analysis along the lines of the one laid out in the previous paragraph, to stop for a moment, and address the situation as it arises. There is a sense in which the historical agency of someone has been effective, to ‘make it’, as it were. I’m not denying any of what I said before, and I am not attempting to dehistoricize the individuals – this group of friends and I were, that evening though not all evenings, white, male, and educated. We had between us an extraordinary set of advantages. And yet I’ve worked with them for years, and there has been a very real display of ‘agency’ in the sense of hard work, continued efforts through failure, and the like. What I believe ‘understanding’ then can help to highlight is the set of advantages, strategic moves, choices, supports, possibilities, and even chance encounters that gave rise to the eventual effect of ‘making it’ in these terms. Rather than looking, again, for a set of characteristics, or some reified essence or attribute, that ’caused’ a person to succeed (in their own sense of the word), the application of ‘understanding’ or even ‘wisdom’ in Buddhist-ethical terms makes it possible engage with what made such an outcome possible. And again, here, understanding becomes compassion, when looked at this way, as it does not undercut a celebration of individual efforts or delegitimize a person’s own historical agency. We are compassionate through that understanding.

In this way, we sidestep the entire conception of blame or praise. We can recognize the limitations of structure, and work through compassion to alleviate the suffering that this can at times cause. We can acknowledge and even celebrate individual historical agency without essentializing the – always contingent in both its manifestation and definition – ‘success’ of a person’s efforts. I am a consistent advocate of the notion that agency is made from structure, and structure is produced by agency, in a constant dialectical process. Human lives and bodies are the manifest site of historical forces, where these forces find their expression and resistance simultaneously. I do not recognize structure and agency to be distinct from one another, at one level of analysis. But at the same moment, they do act as rhetorical poles from which many – even casual, like the conversation of my friends and I – investigations begin, or to which they are often drawn to end. What I want to suggest, and it is of course not radical but perhaps merely a Buddhist-flavored ethical stamp on what has been the practice of social scientists and others for decades, is that compassion and understanding be the guiding motivations behind the application of these two rhetorical poles in analysis. Grounding the application of structure and agency in compassion and understanding leaves impotent the political impulse to blame the victim, or to praise the exception, but rather aids in opening up our beliefs – and our hearts – to insights that work toward liberation from suffering, whether understood as economic, political, bodily, or spiritual suffering.