Mainstream Idea (An Open Letter to My Friends)

Hamburg, 04 November 2015

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Dear Epicureans,

Mainstream Idea is a website and organization I founded in 2002 after reading Peter Singer’s influential essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality”. In the face of Western affluence coinciding with famine in developing countries, Singer asked us to treat others more charitably, whether they be on the other side of the globe or in our own neighbourhoods. There is no difference between a starving child in Bangladesh and a drowning child right in front of us, other than that we merely read about the former in newspapers, but hear the latter’s shrill cries for help. I took his message to heart, but realized that no amount of charity would have a lasting effect if we do not also promote this idea of charity in our daily lives. Thus, I reasoned, charity and donation should become a mainstream idea, something that we discuss and spend money on as much as we do television shows, sports and celebrities. In my foolishness, I envisioned charitable organizations becoming much like our favourite celebrities and sports teams, things which we would obsess about and defend by wearing t-shirts, rooting for when they pull ahead, and spending money on just to see them succeed.

I have since learned that charitable donations — however noble — are not a solution to our world’s problems. In fact, they may well be part of the problem, because they keep those who are suffering alive to continue suffering, while giving us an excuse not to address the real problem. This is a lesson I think we have all learned, and it is probably one of the reasons we became friends in the first place. Let’s face it: We understand the problems of the world better than most, and it puts us in a position both as underdogs, always having to fight for what should be self-evident truths, and also as visionaries, people who can see above the fray. In fact, in this regard I would describe myself as an Odysseus: a man blown about by wind and weather, always with one end in his mind’s eye, but not quite sure how to get there. Nonetheless, much like Odysseus, despite a few misfortunes I always find a way of having a good time, and my general outlook is that I will find a way. If I may be so straightforward, I think you are much the same, and we are Odysseuses encountering each other on this island called Hamburg.

If I haven’t rubbed it into your faces enough, I am beginning a new phase in my life. I have a job doing exactly what I want to do — writing philosophy — and I am given all the freedom in the world to do it how I choose. Moreover, I am in a new apartment with a good friend, and the freedom this has given me has been nothing short of transformative. Despite my laziness and general debauchery, I have been more creative and productive in the past two months than any point in my life — except perhaps while writing my Master thesis — all thanks to a little money and a little space to call my own. In all honesty, however, my transformation began after handing in my Master thesis, when the benefits of creative discipline first began kicking in. After a few weeks I realized that my life had taken on new meaning: I should not only treat others as my equals, I need to work to bring about a society in which equality actually means something. This realization has since become my endeavour in creating the Moral Economy, my revamping of Mainstream Idea to reflect my new way of seeing the world.

In order to treat others as my equals and build a society in which equality actually means something, I came to the conclusion that I must do the impossible: I must build a group to destroy all groups.

Before I begin, I ask you now not to be critical, but to read the following in the way you think I want you to read it. Just hear me out, and accept the arguments without consideration of whether they are right or wrong.

The fundamental problem of our society, as I see it, is not capitalism, but ingroup favouritism. Capitalism is just another form of this same pattern, which has arisen in various forms throughout the centuries and millennia. Marx put it astutely when he said that “all past history was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of modes of production and of exchange.” To put it in my own, simple terms, there is always an Ingroup and an Outgroup, and the Ingroup controls the means of production, and has essentially turned the Outgroup into another one of those means of production. These are points on which, I believe, we all agree, as they are self-evident.

However, as you know I do not call myself a Marxist. I disagree with Marx — and with most communists and anarchists I have spoken to — on the method for moving forward. Protest. Grassroots movements. Revolution. These are the methods of the left for getting what they want, and they are no better than charity. Just think about it. Protest reveals our position as underdogs, as not having that which we want, even though we have self-evident truth on our side. Grassroots movements reveal our weakness and vulnerability — without others, we are nothing. Revolution reveals how urgent and dire our situation really is, that we would take short-sighted, bloody action now rather than plan and execute a long-term solution. Protest, grassroots movements and revolution only show that the Ingroup has the upperhand, is strong and powerful, and is ultimately in control of where we are going. But just as Zizek said of charity: Of course we should protest! Of course we should start grassroots movements! Of course we should engage in revolution! Because our situation is urgent and dire, because we are weak and vulnerable, and because we have self-evident truth on our side!

Here is the starting-point of my disagreement with the Marxists. If protests, grassroots movements and revolution are how the left has, traditionally, gotten what it wants, then clearly that hasn’t been the way to go. They haven’t worked, period, and in fact they are probably part of the problem: they keep us alive long enough to suffer, while giving us an excuse not to address the real problem. The real problem, as I have said, is the Ingroup-Outgroup mentality. I am not merely referring to the fact that one ingroup controls the means of production, but that ingroups themselves form so easily. Humans are fantastically adept at producing categories, and putting others into those categories, and one of those categories is me-and-my-own: the Ingroup. Every war and act of oppression has taken place in the context of one group feeling privileged over another, of feeling superior to another, and this feeling of superiority can arise out of truly arbitrary and even mundane circumstances. It arises out of where we live, what our skin colour is, our size, the shape of our sexual organs. Even which sports team we support breeds hatred for others, and our celebration of this hatred, our love of it over things that are actually important, is the reason I am — as you know — so contemptuous of all spectator sports. But behavioural psychology shows that we are even prone to feeling superior to others when we know full well that the method by which we were put into groups is completely arbitrary and meaningless. Quite literally, the flip of a coin is enough to set us against others.

The consequences of this Ingroup-Outgroup mentality are what we encounter every day in the news and in our history books. Capitalism, war, genocide — these are all the results of our fantastic ability to put ourselves and others into categories, and our human intelligence taking those categories and feelings of superiority to their ruthlessly logical conclusions. But even chimpanzees create groups, go to war and commit genocide, so what, really, separates us from them? The answer, I tell you, is our ability to create our own meaning, by choosing which ingroup we wish to be a part of. If religion has taught us anything, we find meaning by believing in something that is more than just ourselves, and while religious people believe in some almighty power or divine being, or a spirit that goes through us all, in the end the meaning they have — their spirituality — is nothing more than their inclusion in an ingroup that is guided and held together by every person’s commitment to one truth: the truth of their believing.

Religions are the revolutions that remain. On the one hand, whenever a revolution takes hold and transforms society — be it communism, capitalism, or Christianity — it has always been because of the religious fervency of its followers. On the other hand, all religions proper — Christianity, protestantism, Calvinism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism — began as small groups of people who benefited by being part of the religion. As soon as you become part of a religion, you have support as well as knowledge of how your should lead your life. With these two things and nothing more you can lift yourself up. This is well-documented and uncontroversial. Religion is an ingroup using the means of production in order to benefit its members; it is the cultural form of economics, and it has thus been able to produce something more substantial and long-lasting than any spontaneous revolution.

And yet all religions have maintained the Ingroup-Outgroup mentality, within their own ranks as well as amongst themselves. Their reliance on the divine Other, the higher power that guides them and chooses them over all others, gives them the same feelings of superiority that, in the political and economic realm, lead to capitalism, war and genocide. We all know this. Their mistake was and is their devotion in something higher than them, in a truth that is above humanity, above even reason.

Let us learn from their mistake. I am not proposing that we start a religion per se; I merely wish to point out that we already have at least one of the underpinnings of religion, i.e. belief in truth. Ours is the self-evident truth with which I began this letter. It is the truth that gives us happiness, that makes us visionaries that can see beyond the face of things as they are. It is even god-like, as I am unable to describe, concretely, what that truth exactly is, though I would say that it has a lot to do with our understanding of our freedom to choose and our responsibility for our actions. The most accurate way I can put it, however, is that it is our freedom when we know our choices aren’t really free, and our responsibility when we know that we aren’t entirely responsible. It is not as if we know the limits of freedom and responsibility — like god, that limit is unknowable and therefore seemingly limitless — but that we are aware of it, as well as of our meta-choice and meta-responsibility to choose to act on our awareness. That is the One Truth. In a sense it is unknowable — like god — but our knowledge of its unknowability is all too human.

So where do we go from here? I have said we have one element of religion — the truth — but we still lack the other: support. And now it becomes all too easy and plain to see. We have each other, and the self-evident truth becomes nothing more than recognizing our freedom and responsibility to support one another. Thus I raise humanity to the level of god, and commit myself simultaneously to its reverence and its salvation. This is merely the logical conclusion that we must reach if we responsibly choose to take our choices and responsibilities seriously, and put an end to the Ingroup-Outgroup mentality. It destroys the dichotomy of Ingroup-Outgroup by reducing it to what it should always have been: Group. In honour of Epicurus — whose name, I might add, means ally or comrade — I call this group the EpicurioUs, an awesome and awe-inspiring play on words that should be making you snort milk out of your noses, even if you aren’t drinking milk. I call it this also because we came up with the name together, and what better way to start a quasi-religion — a revolutionary cultural economic group — than to begin with what we have already done?

Speaking of revolution, is this choice to banish groups not an act of protest as well? Is such a group not necessarily grassroots? And, by refusing to participate in the Ingroup-Outgroup mentality, are we not being revolutionary? The traditional leftists have used these as strategies to get what they want, but as I see it, what more do we need if we have the self-evident truth and support of each other? The answer, as I see it, is two-fold. First, we need to transform that truth and support in something material, something that actually does help each and every one of us achieve a level of freedom well beyond that which I have felt in the last months. Second, we need others to accept that truth and be drawn into our group of support, so that we can all better fulfill our responsibilities to help each other.

To both of these ends, I am going to turn Mainstream Idea into what I think it was always meant to become: an organization for the creation and dissemination of information, and I ask you to join me. The purpose of Mainstream Idea, however, will not only be to promote cultural economics in mainstream media, but will become our means of production in order to sustain us. If we commit ourselves to not be greedy, coordinate our efforts, and to shun the ingroup-outgroup mentality in all its forms, I have no doubt in mind that we can become pretty well-off. So well-off, in fact, that others will see our example and want to emulate it, whether by joining us or creating groups of their own. And we will allow any individual to join us, and see any other group just the same as our own, so long as they do the same, and we have the means to incorporate them. Thus we will be driven by two things: Including others into EpicurioUs as long as we have the means to do so, and growing in order to ensure that we have the means to include others.

If I have to I will do this without you guys, and your inevitable inclusion will happen later on. Nonetheless, I would like you with me. Under Mainstream Idea as a Worker Self-Directed Enterprise — or better yet an anarcho-communist democratic confederation — we can all have our individual or collective projects. I already have Final Draft, Lawrence von Zahn and Random Hat Studios, as well as the Moral Economy and Epicurious with you guys. Let’s make something of them. Let’s become Odysseuses in common and work towards getting where we want to go together. Now that we have a clue as to how to get there, we can have a really fun time navigating those waters.

What do you say? Are you EpicurioUs?

Preamble

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You laugh and snicker in your hands
to conceal your blithe disdain:
“These people, they have such demands!
“High wages, freedom from pain!”
As if wages don’t make us slaves,
But excuse our daily dread.
As if the absence of pain staves
Off the debt to buy our bread.
“Your own hard work will set you free!”
You cry as you raise your swords.
We hereby reject your words.
Employment is not liberty!

Under the heel of hard labour,
We cannot define ourselves
But through their war on our neighbours
And gadgets on retail shelves.
“Hey you lazy bums and commies!
“Go kill those darkies out there!
“Hey you fags and feminazis!
“If you shop you think it’s fair!”
In their world we’re all refugees;
Too long have we warred for lords!
We reject buying their swords!
Consumption’s no equality!

A world not built for those who live
There is no just world at all,
No world for those who freely give,
But for those who put up walls.
“Do unto others as you would
Have done to you” is our creed.
This golden rule, our siblinghood,
Shan’t be torn apart by greed.
“We free owners of property
“Stand above you as your lords!”
We hereby reject your words!
Ownership will not set us free!

“Who do you think you are?” you say,
“Refugees! Clean yourselves up!
“You act as if black lives matter!
“Welfare queens! Pee in this cup!”
We the people no longer hear
These new wretched of the Earth.
Their vile anger reveals their fear:
Our defining your own worth.
“Externality, scarcity
“And violence” were the lords’ words.
So we reject their use of swords —
We bring peace through equality!

We the people come together
To form a more just union.
We brave bullets and bad weather
To end our own exclusion.
No more violence for their profit!
No more privilege over rights!
Together, for us, we build it:
A world free of undue plight.
Autonomy and liberty,
These shall not be empty words.
We hereby reject all lords.
In equality we are free!

Sensitivity Training

Writing by hand, the physical act of setting ink to page. The pleasant and familiar curves of one’s own letters! Bringing forth memories of past encounters with the task.

A keyboard only confuses; forcing one down twisted, unnatural paths. For example, one hunches more uncomfortably forward when one must also stare ahead into the screen.

The impression my pen makes on the paper, however slight, is also lasting; it is testament. And I am God, delivering the word. These are my lines, and can be made by no one else.

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One freezes in mid-step on a cold rainy day. Holding an umbrella, you’ve nearly stepped in a puddle! The puddle looks up at you. “Get the fuck out of my face,” it says.

You’re not surprised. This sort of stuff happens all the time. You know you’ve gone mad. Who knows how long you’ve known? Years maybe.

You step wide of the puddle and turn, bending down to face it.

“I said, get the fuck out of my face!”

“You can’t really be talking, I know that,” you say.

“Then you must be crazy, right?” The puddle chuckles. “Come on bub! Can’t you do any better? I’m a talking puddle for godsake!” You’re distracted by the clearly agitated ripples upsetting his face.

“Are you talking to me?” You ask, as if he were not there, feeling strange, queasy, like you’ve done this before, and you know it’s really gross. “What am I doing,” you ask, “am I talking to myself?”

“Talking!?” The puddle laughs, causing more ripples, “do you hear anything? Maybe you really are mad! Standing here, on this—what?—street?”—More laughter—“Deep in conversation with a puddle!? And not just that, but one inside your head!? Haha, that’s a good one! A knee slapper!” You could swear that if the puddle had had knees, he’d have just slapped them for emphasis.

“Then what?” you ask, not really paying attention. You look around. “How many people are watching me have this conversation right now?”

“I think you need to focus more on yourself. You know, what role you’re going to play.” You notice the puddle adjust itself, sending small waves to collide about haphazardly. They settled down and a very arrogant, straight-backed man appeared, reflecting off the puddle’s surface. “Or you could focus on me, I am after all a very important element here, an Estragon to your Vladimir, pardon my pretension.”

“But you’re just a puddle.”

“Just a puddle!?” Rain drops begin to sound against your jacket. “So I’m just your average talking puddle then?” The puddle replies. Umbrellas pop open as the street quickly empties of unprepared pedestrians. The cascade warps the puddle’s face to a violent, ever shifting, crashing about mess of liquid crater impacts. “if I’m nothing special, why don’t you lean over and take a look at this?”

Curious what a puddle could have, you bend over even further until your face is just hovering above its surface. You strain to see through the thrashing waves, your face so close that water gets in your eyes. Is some object hidden there? Your peer within for awhile. “I don’t see anything,” you say.

“What do you see?” The puddle asks impatiently.

“All I see are rain drops splashing into to you.”

“Exactly!”

“Exactly what?”

“Where is your umbrella?”

“My god! Where is my umbrella!?” You stand erect, looking about quickly, and turn around to search behind you and in every direction. Shading your eyes. “I don’t even remember bringing it with me!”

“Do you doubt my power now?” Demands the puddle from under your arm.

“That’s not fair,” complaining, you stamp your feet. “You’re just fucking with me.”

“I am not!” The rain stops and the puddle grows still. “In this, your—our—story, I make your umbrella disappear!”

“But how is that possible?” You ask.

The wind blows a flutter of tiny waves across the puddle’s face, making it indistinct, like the skin of an old woman. “Are you an idiot, boy? How do you think it’s possible?”

The question deserves some thought, you muse. “I’ve gone mad, my original explanation, seems very likely,” you say while holding your fingers in front of the puddle, as though to add up a simple sum. “It’s clear to me now.”

“Mad!? You? Don’t anthropomorphize so much!” The puddle scowls.

“What?”

“Nevermind. There’s not really anything more to talk about.” The puddle sighs and appears to stretch itself out, like an old man preparing to sit and relax in his chair.

A bell! Instinctively, you jump back. A biker in tight, colorful shorts speeds swiftly through the middle of the puddle, scattering its watery guts. The puddle screams out in shock and pain!

Surprised by the recklessness of the biker and the suddenness of the puddle’s scream, you reflexively cover your mouth and shout out, “Holy Jesus fucking Christ!” The biker glances back at you, a scowl on his mouth, his sunglasses yellow and green reflective insect eyes.

The moment passes. “Puddle?” You ask, heart pounding, paranoia—like the urge to run—growing more and finally less intense. “Are you ok?”

“God, you really are an idiot, kid,” he says, his face still tossing wildly. “Of course I’m alright. What the fuck could happen to me? I’m a puddle.”

“Then why did you scream?” You ask.

“To fuck with you, kid.” The puddle grins despite the waves, “here, let me tell you something: as it stands now, I—both you and I actually—have a very real, a very near-at-hand (if ever tenuous, mind you) possibly of actually existing. The possibility of really being in the world, being a part of it! And not just that, but actually existing—actually being—for a very long time to come, in perpetuity perhaps!” The puddle exclaims, winking at you conspiratorially.

You can hardly believe you’re being lectured to by a puddle. “Well that’s good news, I guess,” you say, reluctant to take the bait.

“Exactly!” The puddle continues enthusiastically. You’re pulled closer to its grinning surface, although it’s against your will. “Now,” it continues, “you were right to comment before that I am just a not-so-special puddle.”

“Oh!” You interrupt, feeling embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings by it.”

“Whatever. You were right. I am, ultimately, wholly uninteresting,” says the puddle cheerfully.

(“That’s not true!” You feel obliged to add.)

“Yes it’s true. And so are you!—not very interesting I mean,” a watery finger emerges, wagging, from the puddle’s middle, “But!” it exclaims, “We—you and I—might be lucky enough to remain just so uninteresting for the next thousand, even ten-thousand years!”

“Interesting…” you try to begin—

“Wait!” The puddle, ecstatic, is hopping around. “The point is that nothing bad can happen to me here! To us both! Here we are safe! Here we can grow to become who-knows-what!” It stretches itself upwards until nearly at eye-level with you. “Here, you and I, son, are God!”

Finally, spent of energy, it falls back limply into itself.

“Ok, listen puddle, I think I get it. But I don’t have time for your philosophizing. I’ve lost my umbrella—I need to retrace my steps, and it is beginning to rain again. I might still be crazy, I haven’t made up my mind yet. (God knows we’ve had our share of strange looks throughout this conversation!) But all that aside, I’m going now. Goodbye!” You turn to leave.

“If that’s what you wish. See you again!” The puddle waves.

Already on your way, you turn and call back, “probably!” Returning the wave, you step into another puddle and smile. “That was pretty cheesy by the way.”

Then, swallowed up by traffic, forgotten.

Ideologies: are the lens we use to perceive the world, the judgements we use to evaluate it and the concepts we use to understand the parameters of each value. It is in capitalism like any other economic stage, that certain ideologies or epistemologies reign dominant. And it is today’s capitalist epistemology which are more subversive to our existences than ever before. In viewing economics as the cause of new epistemologies Orthodox Marxist thought hypothesized any change possible through economics. But Economism suffers from its reductionism. It isn’t an idea in a vat. All ideas in all spheres of life intermingle with one an other like weaving webs as complex as mazes. It is for this very reason that the the roll the economic sphere devalued has to play for revolution for a total paradigmatic revolution but rather to push up the traditionally considered, super structural categories to revolutionary significance. Since the enemy is so overpowering determining all spheres of life’s values, so too must the resistance.

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What am I but an insignificant worm, the reward for the bird looking down upon me for getting up so early? My long body stretches and snaps as I am pulled up from the earth into my early grave, except miraculously I survive, my head buried in the sand as my body is carried away. I am spared to regenerate just to be stretched and snapped again the next morning, and the morning after that, each time leaving a ring of scar tissue, which over time makes the bird’s early feast that much easier. But the definition of earliness is on the bird’s terms, to me it is quite late indeed, having spent the entire day just to get my life started. The bird’s early is actually late afternoon, when the time I have spent on myself makes me a prime meal.

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Why all the restless days, just for sacrifice, when I could sleep on into the evening, and bypass becoming another’s reward through my own hard work? The more I sleep the more I get tired; that’s why I pry my eyes open with two splinters of wood and set sail towards the Sirens’ song. I hear their promises of wealth and power as everyone around me silently gets on with what they were supposed to be doing, missing out on the struggle entirely, but reaching the same conclusion. I am held back by their hands but by my own command. Their hands become my command, my command their hands, as their restraint propels me forward and my struggle pulls them along.

To struggle, to act out in protest, is to realize you are broken, like the squeaky wheel who gets the oil. But the brokenness isn’t the cause of the squeak, the wearing away by friction through constant motion, but the squeak itself, as we call out to those who continuously cause our immediate suffering to give us enough to keep us going down the same path. That is why they love to hear you squeak. Ultimately the worst punishment isn’t that you would be worn out again and again until the end of time and beyond, but that you, in the end, chose it through your actions. Otherwise you wouldn’t keep squeaking for more oil, would you? Or so they say. What happens when we take control? Then, they say, there will be no more oil. But there will be no more need for oil, won’t there? There is always a need for oil, they say, because taking control inevitably means running out of control, and in the process you wear yourself out even faster, to end in a flash as the friction of going against the grain heats up to an explosion, ending it all in one long but absurd squeak. All squeaking is absurd. But not if we all took control at the same time, to go in the same direction, right? Yes, but then what is the point of taking control if you’re just doing what everyone else does? What’s the point? We would finally be going where we want to go!

That’s when I sit back and reflect upon everything that I had done. It’s not that I have lived a life without regret — not really — but I am just happy with how I am today, and can’t think how changing my past to make it better couldn’t have possible negative consequences for me, now and in the future. I would first have to become a scientist of myself to know what it is that could have made me better, but at that point I would have already lived a worthwhile life getting to know myself enough to know that, if I change anything in the past, I would not have embarked upon this endeavour of self-discovery. So I realize that it is the endeavour to change ourselves that makes our lives worthwhile, not the actual fact of changing, though we do this as well. After all, we are changing whether we like it or not, so the only choice is to strive to change it for the better, and to like our change, better or worse.

Where does spirituality come from?

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Where does spirituality come from? Answer: from our desire to feel included. As soon as we want to feel included then we have to ask, “In what?”. A family? A group of friends? Our community? Our nation? The world? What extends beyond that? We can see that we are parts of families, that families are parts of communities, that communities are parts of nations, and that nations are parts of the world. So as soon as we reach the highest level we feel this highest level must be included in something else higher than that. This feeling of connectedness with the highest of the higher — everything — is spirituality — our interconnectedness through chains of higher and higher inclusiveness. That is why as soon as we feel excluded — from our nations, our communities, our jobs, our families, then we become disconnected from our universe and lose our spirituality. The only way to become connected again and rediscover our spirituality, we have to build our own chains of inclusion — create our own families, draw our friends together, create our own businesses, and work our way up again. The further down the chain we are cut the longer it takes to find our spirituality again. This does not mean it is bad to be cut off — indeed, building your own chains of inclusiveness gives us stronger, more meaningful links, connections in the chain, than those we are born into by chance, especially if these turn out to be toxic. In fact, it is only by building our own chains that we can truly incorporate our “being born into the world” into our interconnectedness, in other words to include the fact of ourselves in ourselves. Thus we become dicluded — we disclose or make known our self-removal from inclusion in order to include ourselves in something that is more a part of us. And it is only by building our own chains that we can truly make the direct jump from the self as a fact of ourselves to others as facts outside of ourselves, and to include them into the fact of their existence. That is to take them and their feelings of interconnectedness and spirituality — inclusive disclusion — as an inherent and important part of our experience of their existence. Therefore the highest level of inclusive disclusion is reduced to the lowest level, as we reach out to others to include them in our lives.