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Excerpt from Dreams

Confusion (p. 284)

From chapter "Ablaze With Meaning"

Here’s another question I oftenask when I’m stuck or confused. Am I stuck or confused because I’m now beginning to understand or experience something that contradicts what I previously understood or was taught to expect to experience? If so, is this contradiction because either my new or previous (or some other intermediate or related) understandings are or were unfounded and/or based on inaccurate information (by which I don’t just mean physical information, but also emotional, moral, and/or spiritual information)? In other words, am I confused because one or the other of these contradictory understandings or beliefs or premises or statements or even “pieces of knowledge” (or “known knowns” as Donald Rumsfeld would have put it) is wrong? How do I know—or what makes me suspect—this understanding is wrong? Why and how—precisely in what way—is it wrong? How do I know which understanding is wrong? Are they both wrong? Is that bad? Is that good?

I have an example of this from my early twenties. I was in college, and miserable. I had a habit of asking people if they liked their jobs, and if they were happy. About 90 percent said no to both questions. I started to ask myself what it means when the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they’d rather not do. That seemed, and seems, crazy to me. I didn’t have the language for this at the time, but this was my first skirmish with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s comment, “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”

I was confused. I’d been taught my whole life that wage economies simply are. I’d been asked, as so many children are, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—to which I responded not that I wanted to be happy, or fulfilled, or a member of a living, sustainable, more-than-human community, but rather by listing a job. I would be a job. The wage economy was never questioned, any more than was the existence of corporations, any more than was birth or death. But why, I wondered in my twenties, would people countenance, or worse, not even question, a social system under which most of them spent the majority of their lives doing things they didn’t want to do? What sense does that make?

I was unable to move forward until I learned that not every culture has had a wage economy, that there have been cultures organized around entirely different economic and social relations, and further, that this culture has acted systematically to dispossess people in order to force them into the wage economy.I realized that social norms—even those so normalized as to be considered not norms at all but facts of life, facts of “the real world,” as my college contemporaries called “having to get a job”—are still simply social norms. They’re not physical principles, where, for example, if you ignore gravity you might fall off a cliff and die. Nor are they biological principles, where, for example, if you put poison on food, your children might ingest those poisons and suffer precocious puberty, cancer, diminished intelligence, or die. Nor are they ecological principles, where, for example, if you overshoot carrying capacity, you push your entire community off a cliff and eventually cause a massive die-off. They are just social norms.

Whew! I was no longer confused. I could move forward.

But wait! There was another level! I now understood that there are other ways to be. But I still had been raised to believe that getting a job is what you do. It’s who you are. I still had to fight the propaganda I’d been taught about the American Dream. I knew I didn’t want to live that Dream. But it was what I’d been taught. But I didn’t want that. But it was what I’d been taught. Is it okay to go against what one has been taught?

That led to another realization, which is that the fact that I was taught something, and the fact that something is considered a cultural norm, and the fact that something is almost never questioned, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t question it, doesn’t mean I should live my life by it, doesn’t mean that it deserves its place as a default.

After that my confusions were much easier, and organized into two technical categories. The first was, how do I get out of the wage economy? And the second was, because economies based on forced labor necessarily harm both individuals and communities (although they do, no surprise here, provide tangible benefits to the ruling class), how do I help bring down the whole wage economy?

Through my twenties (and arguably to the present) I tried to answer the first question (among others), attempting to do what I love, to, as Joseph Campbell wrote, “Follow your bliss. Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it,” and at the same time trying to make enough cash to survive in this absurd and antihuman and antilife culture.

The second question is trickier, and I have devoted fifteen books to finding the answer. I’ve gone through similar periods of confusion many times, as I’ve questioned tenet after tenet of this culture, whether that tenet is the notion that production is good, or that civilization is good, or that science is value-free (or good), or that science accurately describes physical reality, and so on.