by Yule Heibel on September 19, 2003

Alexandra Stein on Totalism in the 21st century, a response to Todd Gitlin and George Monbiot’s earlier conversation in Open Democracy:

[Totalism] is a critical issue facing the global progressive movement, and it’s one we drag into the 21st century from the 20th, the bones of millions clanking along as proof of its dangers. Totalism, and its social-psychological relatives: sectarianism, fundamentalism, totalitarianism and cultism, are alive and well. And totalism – unlike global capitalism – is not driven by profit, but by the raw desire for power and control of each totalist leader. (…)

It thrives on an absolutist or fundamentalist ideology: left-wing, right-wing, on the wings of the angels of the Christian identity movement or the wings of spiritual beings in the New Age. But in the end, the ideological wings don’t matter, the social relationships of people to each other do. [more…]

Naomi Klein presented a sharper point of view back in April in response to Gitlin’s book, putting names and faces to Stein’s similar call for an end to Totalism:

The true faces of modern activism belong to people like the late Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American “human shield” whose young body was crushed by a bulldozer in Gaza last month. Corrie wasn’t in the occupied territories to give comfort to suicide bombers; she was standing with the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement trying to keep a Palestinian family home from being demolished. [more…]


Joel September 20, 2003 at 1:23 am

I wish more charismatic leaders were like Sri Krishnamurti who renounced his guruhood. “Don’t follow me! Find your own path!”

Let’s hear it for the nongurus of this world!

Joel September 20, 2003 at 4:00 am

What you describe (yes, I kept thinking of this) reminds me of the various self-help movements that rose up during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, too. Though they endorsed many causes of the Left, I never felt that they were truly Leftist. By that, I mean I never sensed respect for individual dignity. It was all for the group, for the creed, for the twelve step program, etc.

I am by nature something of a recluse, though I have come out to facilitate writing groups at a local bookstore. I encourage the members to think and to experiment for themselves — we gather, I say, to find our ~own~ voices and it will be different for each of us. It’s OK to be a maverick in my group. I like mavericks, to tell the truth. They make fine writers.

Richard Wright also protested against what you describe. Later I will dig up a quote of his that speaks to the question — in summary, he believes that the real threats to authoritarian society aren’t the groups bickering between Left and Right, but those of us who could care less about belonging and who live our lives as we see fit.

Joel September 20, 2003 at 4:04 am

Here it is!:

“If I were a member of the class that rules, I would post men in all neighborhoods of the nation, not to spy upon or club rebellious workers, not to break strikes or disrupt unions, but to ferret out those who no longer respond to the system in which they live. I would make it known that the real danger does not stem from those who seek to grab their share of the wealth through force, or from those who try to defend their property through violence, for both of these groups, by their affirmative acts, support the values of the system in which they live. The millions that I would fear are those who do not dream of the prizes that the nation holds forth, for it is in them, though they may not know it, that a revolution has taken place and is biding its time to translate itself into a new and strange way of life.” — Richard Wright, American Hunger

Describes most of my friends, including you, Yule.

Yule Heibel September 21, 2003 at 1:04 am

Thank you for the comments, Joel — there’s so much there, and my head has been so fuzzy (sinuses) the past couple of day — it’s difficult to make an appropriate response. Krishnamurti, right, he was very very different from your usual guru. One thing I always found funny (amusing) about him is that he managed to live very well (materially) through his well-connected friends. It struck me that he showed how a person could be a living recycling mechanism — his friends had so much excess wealth and privilege, he recycled some of it for them — but it didn’t free him from the real burdens of his personal path to enlightenment, which (if I remember correctly) was fraught with a lot of pain (he suffered from extreme headaches, right?).

I don’t know what to say about organized struggle-in-a-group vs. the alienated individuals who may or may not be on the verge of bringing about a sea-change. Part of me wants the organized thing, while another part of me is so disillusioned with that — and so comfortable with what I have … hey, I’ll be honest: I have a very nice life and am bourgeois beyond belief in so many ways, with my 2 kids and a dog and an Odyssey (car), it’s incredible even to me… I would like to see us work toward a better world, where alternatives can be seriously entertained, not as potentially destructive experiments (as in: we’re going to beam you up to an alien world, bwa-ha-ha-ha, in the name of new social engineering), but as real possibilities. I keep thinking of Adam’s First Nations’ course: what if colonialists had accepted native culture, to the point where it could have gone through the European machine and come out as theory — imagine if we were talking not just about French theory (which is really a lot of recycled German/ German-Jewish marxist and neo-marxist theory), but about Native theory — why aren’t we talking about native theory? Jesus, anything Derrida blows out his nose is considered theory, but anything the aboriginals say is still anthropology or “___ studies” (fill in the blank): why hasn’t that body of knowledge been theorized?

Which is not to say that theorization is necessarily a good thing. It ain’t. But it sure lends credibility. And that’s part of what the powerless are constantly missing.

The problem is how to become credible without becoming part of the system.

Squaring the circle.

Anonymous August 25, 2005 at 3:30 am

You are the best. Thank you

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