I am compelled to mention the Anthropocene in the very first sentence of this little essay. It may not generate the most inspiring response, but it does crystallize the zeitgeist. This so-called era of peak hubris, of humans becoming a geological force, could perhaps be more accurately understood as earth giving birth to its own destroyer. There can be no real distinction between the geological phenomenon we’re promulgating and the broad socio-political drama unfolding daily. We have become the monster under our own bed.
In a certain sector of Buddhist philosophy, there are six realms (or dominant states) of being. The most extreme is a destructive and insular consciousness called hell beings. Even more than the animal realm or the hungry ghosts, their actions are crude, tribal, instinctual and entitled, in extreme cases arising from a profound emotional poverty and driven by an unrelenting anger and perpetual thirst for validation and satisfaction. No effort—or capacity—exists to navigate a world full of threatening uncertainties and unknowns.
Hell beings are most likely to be reactive and aggressive, most likely to resort to lies and violence if they cannot get their way. They will be offended and belligerent in the presence of symbols reminding them of what they most despise: generosity, patience, tolerance, mutual dependency and respect, any act of consideration for others except their own tribe. In the current case, they comfort themselves with a self-serving mix of spiritual materialism, ego, righteousness and religious dogma.
What we witnessed in Washington, DC on January 6 were hell beings driven not only by the drumbeat of the President’s lies, but also, let’s be honest, by a decades-long counterinsurgency against the New Deal, the middle class, organized labor, the flattening of the income curve and a tax system that rewarded labor instead of wealth. The counterinsurgency started with Reagan and has since driven a gradual starvation of government services, wage-stagnation, a massive upward transfer of wealth, the cynical global ‘race to the bottom,’ hollowing out the domestic industrial base, attacks on voting rights, regressive taxation, undermining the social safety net, attacks on labor unions, pensions and other benefits, the gig economy, attacks on public education and much more. Basically, the shredding of the American Dream: the neoliberal ‘austerity’ economy.
Before you assume I’m just finger-pointing and complaining about them from my lofty perch of meditative equipoise, let me say that those of us on this side of the issue ought to take a serious look in the mirror before we settle back into our cozy intellectual caves, because every realm of being in the Mahayana is equally delusional, just not all in the same way. It will take all of us to craft a viable future out of this fragile moment. No complacency allowed. No one can claim immunity to this cannibalistic virus.
Those of us to the left of hell beings embody the sin of pride and a presumed higher (dismissive) calling. We are driven by our own sophisticated brand of confusion, a hunger for achievement and peak experience. Most of us have the good fortune of education, material security, employment and the prospect of a personally satisfying future, even within the general unraveling underway. But we are also blinded by our own narrow views, our own brand of madness: we may have escaped the forces eroding the living standard of the many, but we are directly culpable for taking advantage of it. We enjoy comforts derived from ecological devastation and economic oppression. Most of us are self-satisfied and just as prone to self-righteousness as the Christian soldiers marching off to war.
So, let’s be clear. Despite the blanket of opportunistic lies exploiting and driving hell beings, those of us in the ‘reality-based’ community are driven by our own particular forms of short-sighted delusion which include blindness to our common condition with the hell beings.
The counterinsurgency, recruiting from legions of disillusioned and dispossessed, is now inching toward its fascist apotheosis. While exploiting and unleashing America’s deep current of virulent racism, the oldest play in the fascist playbook, a post-truth politics has cleaved the nation. The most ardent followers live in a universe more of wishful thinking than fact. For them, values are whatever Trump/Mercer/Sinclair/Newsmax/Fox says they are. Permanent war is coming home. And for the plutocrats, race war is immensely preferable to class war.
For decades, we’ve been moving ever deeper into a polarized wasteland of conflicting values…or no values at all. Covid-19 has been highlighting some of these issues, but in the US, the primary battleground pits federal aimlessness, incompetence and outright cruelty, driven by an ethical monoculture worshipping personal sovereignty without responsibility, willing to sacrifice the benefit of the many for the one, against an emerging ethical permaculture in which our relations derive from diverse ecologies, co-exist in nourishing mutuality, individual and social permeability and a deconstruction of divisive binaries.
We are testing the proposition that authentic human development must include a commitment beyond the personal. And vice versa, government is the reciprocation of a collective commitment to unlocking and benefiting the potential of the one. By this measure, social, spiritual and economic development in America is stunted, even regressing. Inter-being and inter-beauty are our most worthy objectives. But for now, waking up from our own version of a destructive and self-defeating virus, we find ourselves locked in combat with those whose sole objective is to protect and enhance enclaves of personal and group sovereignty at the expense of the many…and the one.
We’ve been flirting quite seriously for the past four years with the manufacture of consent for a domestic war. If we don’t confront and upset that narrative, redefine subjective and objective responsibility (restoring the rule of law) and demonstrate how personal and collective sovereignty can enhance each other, and quickly, not by rhetoric but by creative policy and organic initiatives at every scale, we most certainly will fall into a new and predictable barbarism.