We live, as they say, in interesting times. We’re all trapped at the moment, either in our homes or at work or both. Right now seems like a good time to meditate on escape, and what that might mean.
I think most of us spend at least some time thinking about escape, wherever we end up. Personally I get off work as soon as I can, get home, and try to take my mind off the world with some kind of distraction, before heading off to sleep. I record my dreams, looking for hidden messages in the nonsense tangle - not that it’s helped much so far, but looking makes me feel like I might someday find something, a hidden key to another state of being that will help me find some kind of control. If I had to express what I’m running from in words, I might say something like “This is all getting so far out of hand that I’m not sure where it could possibly end - but it has to.”
The Buddhist in me, or at least the fairly harsh version of Buddha my brain conjures up, says that it’s only in presence and acceptance that I might eventually (after lifetimes, possibly) find escape, in nothingness. The part of me that wanted to be a therapist knows psychiatrists have found my thoughts to reflect “clinical depression,” and that I must avoid generalizing to the world. The rest of me strikes out against both these impulses. It is not my unrestful thoughts that need to change. The world as it stands is unacceptable - or more accurately, it could be accepted, but to do so would wrong the people who face the worst from it. It must move. We must move it.
The natural question, then, is “how?” While apocalypse seems to be a more appropriate metaphor every day, the reality is that nearly none of these apparent forces of nature actually originate outside human control - just outside of my personal control. Disease doesn’t have to spread through carelessness, the economy doesn’t have to keep churning through human lives, neither endless war nor endless pollution are necessary for anyone but their respective profiteers. The fringe benefits of empire and ecological destruction may be provided to the first world, but it does not follow that the desire for, for example, cheap electronics is the sole and sufficient cause of the destruction and death the industry creates. Despite what we all learned from our parents, supply is not necessarily created in order to meet a pre-existent demand - outside the most basic aspects of food and shelter, supply is largely created for its own sake, and demand is manufactured to meet it through advertising and social convention, all to direct profit toward a few. These things can be changed through collective political action - not necessarily political in the sense of engagement with existing structures of government, but political in the sense of changing the world, of shifting structures of power away from capitalists and broadly toward the people themselves.
So far, we’re broadly consistent with left-wing politics. Where I diverge is in method. Whether anarchist or Marxist, most movements tend to take a few basic forms:
- Electoral. These systems work within the party structure of whatever country, in an attempt to gain political legitimacy and shape law. These efforts tend to be hampered by overt and covert opposition from those already in power, who conveniently have control over the methods by which their successors are selected.
- Mass action. Everything from sit-down protests to strikes to riots falls here.
- Small group or cell action.
The merits and detriments of various kinds of action in various contexts can be debated, but some general trends tend to stand out. Electoral action, many leftists have observed, is frequently a dead end, because it relies on politicians to act and because the existing power structure have largely already ensured that no meaningful change is possible through electoral means. Mass action seems to be the most likely of the three to produce widespread results, but only where it stands separate from electoral action and those acting are numerous and socially widespread enough to represent a significant challenge to the existing political system if it in fact came to a physical fight - and it’s extremely difficult to involve that many people at a time, given the risks involved. Cell action presents even more risk, and though it presents security advantages (against, for example, infiltration by agents provocateurs), the most effective means for such a small group are often those most directly in contrast with the principles and aims of such a group - acts of terrorism, for instance. I have mostly excluded actions by groups of one from this analysis, given that without massive cash resources, such individual efforts are likely to be either nil or on par with those of a small affinity group.
There is a type of small group action that tends to be overlooked by left-wing actors as impractical for various, often valid, reasons. I am referring to the exercise of ostensibly non-political, though frequently political in its implications, institutional power. This is often vaguely referred to as “base-building,” without really clarifying whether the base in question refers to economic base (as opposed to ideological superstructure), a political base, or a literal “home base” out of which to operate. We will use it in the third sense. The basic problem with base-building is that any community base, such as an anarchist bookshop, mutual bank, or cooperative, must conform with an essentially capitalist business model in order to operate for any sustained period of time - even if duties and profits are split equitably, those invested with decision-making power in such an institution have to operate with an eye toward keeping the doors open, even if that means acting against the interests of the community - which it frequently does. This is why the right has such an easy time, comparatively, building community bases - the principles a small business or church must enforce in order to keep its doors open are, usually, essentially consistent with right-wing principles and backed up by legal precedent. Where exceptions do exist, such as communes, the few businesses successfully organized by radical unions, or the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, they tend to be very limited in duration and scope, and are often quickly cracked down on by authorities when possible.
Where to turn, then? As I implied in Discontents, I feel that there is one institutional stratum overutilized by the right wing and underutilized by the left - religious organization. The entrenched right, in its effort to preserve institutions that are fundamentally friendly to itself, has constructed a more or less bulletproof set of legal protections for religious institutions. Obviously these are not enforced equitably - see the difficulties any Muslim community might have with securing permits to build a mosque in the United States - but strictly speaking, the protections themselves remain difficult for officials to breach publicly. Even as more overt forms of capital eat away at religious attendance and social mores, the institutions stubbornly cling to life and provide the initial framework for moral thought for billions of people worldwide.
Why has this not been tried more often? The short answer is Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (though its left-wing credentials have often been overemphasized to the benefit of right-wing narratives.) The long answer is that it has been tried, frequently, but with varying degrees of success due to either individualistic organizing tendencies, insufficiently radical political tenets, or, as with the aforementioned example, flat-out charismatic cultism. The other factor, I think, is that genuine leftists have been hesitant to commit to such a project due to personal opposition to religion in general, or at the very least ‘organized’ religion. It would be easy for those with preexisting hostility to religion to view this kind of project as simple grift. To this last point I would say that, even if it were, it would be no more a grift than any number of left-wing political parties and labor-adjacent organizations collecting endless dues in return for endless platitudes. To be slightly more serious, I think an advantage of an explicitly religious space is that it satisfies a spiritual hunger that I feel, and I think many others feel, in an increasingly capitalist society - a hunger for community both with each other and with the divine, in whatever forms we may decide together that it should take.
Bizarre times, in my opinion, call for equally bizarre tactics. If I’m wrong to propose something like this, then I’m wrong. But I think the alternative - to keep quiet as the left continues to pour its efforts into failed electoral effort after failed electoral effort - is breaking me down, and I’ve had it with waiting. The possibility of an escape from the cycle of the mundane and macabre is too precious to waste.