My veins do not end in my body

My veins do not end in my body

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life

Towards the end of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning 1974 short story, The Day Before the Revolution, an italicised musing interrupts the flow of the writing: “What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”

There is something jarring about seeing the terms ‘anarchist’ and ‘responsibility’ in such close proximity, especially when ‘anarchy’ is, in the popular imagination, associated with the most irresponsible and antisocial forms of behaviour, as was the case, for instance, in so much of the mainstream reporting on the July riots in South Africa.

The fact that the word anarchy comes from the Greek term an-arkhé, meaning ‘without authority’, makes the association with ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder’ entirely understandable, especially as this pejorative usage predates the emergence of the political philosophy of the same name. Given, however, that millions of people across the world, from all walks of life, have identified with this political philosophy over the past 170-odd years, it seems likely that there is more to anarchism than a juvenile and reactionary anti-authoritarianism. In fact, anarchists are not opposed to every kind of authority. The early anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin makes this clear in his seminal essay, God and the State:

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest.

This seems less like radical political philosophy than simple common sense. After all, if by virtue of our own reason we defer to, as Bakunin says, ‘the authority of special men’, then this is because we are ‘conscious of [our] own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of human knowledge.’ Indeed, it seems to be a straightforward acknowledgement of the fact that we are a social species. ‘I receive and I give’, Bakunin avers, ‘such is human life.’

Few would disagree with this basic weaving together of our humanity — we defer to the knowledge of the electrical engineer to repair a faulty circuit and to the doctor to mend a broken limb, just as they defer to us in our respective fields of expertise. This is not an imposition of oppressive authority, it is a reliance upon each other — the very bedrock of a viable society, even for the most inveterate anti-authoritarians. It is striking, therefore, that when it comes to so many of the choices we are confronted with, we are quick to forget our social belonging.

In the context of the pandemic, for instance, the decisions each of us makes are often framed as ‘personal choices’ that nobody else should question, even when it is obvious that these are choices with profound social consequences, just like choosing whether or not to drive drunk or to dump toxic chemicals upstream from where a community obtains their drinking water. There is something fundamentally missing — almost tautological — in the notion of personal choice, as if the important decisions that weigh upon each of us are entirely reducible to an unproblematic selection between consumer brands; as if Margaret Thatcher was right when she notoriously claimed that there was no such thing as society, just individual men and women.

While we can lay some of the blame for this antisocial myopia on the internalisation of neoliberal ideological convictions about what it is to be a person in the world, it seems equally clear that there is a profound and increasingly ubiquitous loneliness at work in our contemporary view of ourselves, exacerbated by the algorithmic hall of mirrors of online life. This is the same loneliness Hannah Arendt writes on in the 1958 edition of her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and which she views as preparing us for various forms of totalitarian domination. In observations written over 60 years ago, but which seem even more relevant today, she powerfully describes the erosion of the public realm of life and the deep isolation it cultivates — the experience of not belonging to the world at all.

‘[I]t seems’, she says, ‘as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sandstorm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.’

Arendt, writing in the wake of the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, was discussing a form of totalitarian rule that seems anachronistic to those of us who live in so-called liberal democratic societies. In limiting our reading of her analysis to the historical tragedies of Nazism or the gulags, however, we miss the ways in which contemporary capitalist society has inculcated a new form of more subtle but perhaps even more insidious totalitarianism that feeds on our social fragmentation.

As Arendt reminds us, loneliness is closely linked to the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions, and with feelings of uprootedness and superfluousness. These feelings are increasingly common in today’s world, along with a growing sense of disempowerment and alienation — of not being a participant in the creation of a common reality. At some point, Arendt warns us, ‘when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable.’

In the face of this overwhelming sense of loss of place and purpose, the need to cover over the growing void at the centre of our being tends to take increasingly destructive and fragmented forms, driving us to become the equivalent of what Arendt described as the ideal subjects of totalitarian rule, ‘people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction […] and the distinction between true and false […] no longer exist.’ Our identification with this rule, whether it takes the form of subjugation to a fascist leader or acquiescence to the cold logic of capitalist realism, ‘emancipates thought from experience and reality’.

Alienated from each other and ourselves in this manner, we become susceptible, Arendt says, to forms of propaganda or groupthink that strive ‘to inject a secret meaning into every public, tangible event and to suspect a secret intent behind every public political act.’ To ‘thinking everything to the worst’.

‘What makes loneliness so unbearable’, she observes, ‘is the loss of one’s own self which can be […] confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals.’ In a world in which trust — of institutions, states, the economy, each other — has been so badly eroded, it is little wonder that, in seeking to escape this state of isolated desperation, we eagerly pursue the vaguest promises of social belonging, even when we know, on some level, that they are not in our individual or collective interests. In this grasping for shared meaning, however, we are perhaps also recognising that there is an irreducible core of sociality at the heart of our sense of self. ‘[O]nly because not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth’, Arendt says, ‘can we trust our immediate sensual experience… for the confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people.’

This echoes what those most committed to human freedom have always understood about the complex relation between individuals and communities, and between freedom and equality. We have been told to view these two terms — freedom and equality — as existing in tension with each other as part of a zero-sum balancing act: the more individual freedom forms the core focus of a society, the less equality there is; the more we centre equality, the less freedom there is. Capitalism or Communism. Neoliberalism or gulags. Entrepreneurship of the self or a boot stomping on a human face forever.

But if our sense of self emerges from our social belonging, if society is the soil of equality in which freedom grows, and which is in turn enriched by this freedom, then there is no tension between freedom and equality but instead a sense in which they mutually presuppose and nurture each other in an endless harvest of the possibilities of the flourishing of human life. As Bakunin says, ‘I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.’

Whatever choices confront us today and tomorrow, whether they take the form of a vaccine, a loaf of bread or a hand stretched out towards our own, we should remind ourselves that we grow in the same field, from the same soil, as all those around us, and we rely on each other in every way. We should remember, as Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran socialist poet who, in 1975, at the age of 39, was executed by his own Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores, once put it, that our veins don’t end in our bodies, but in our unanimous blood.

Like You (Como Tú) — Roque Dalton

Like you I
love love, life, the sweet smell
of things, the sky-blue
landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up
and I laugh through eyes
that have known the buds of tears.
I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
little things,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.

Posted By

red jack
Sep 15 2021 07:09


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