Anxiety and Anarchism

From Andy Fedak
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Farewell ceremony for the International Brigades. Les Masies, Spain. October 25th, 1938. © Robert Capa

Religion

I was from birth indoctrinated into seeing the world a certain way.  The skin around the tip of my penis was cut, water was doused upon my head, and I was given two backup parents just in case the parents I did have, had died, and I needed someone else to continue the indoctrination.  At 5, I was an altar boy who served at a ritual where my parents worshiped, so tangentially they worshiped me.  Later in college, I could not understand how someone could not believe, and would ruminate on why these people chose not to.  I felt sorry for them, and disturbed at the same time.  Even then, at 20, I would speak to god at night, asking why things were the way they are.  There was always someone who would listen and I still miss that comfort today.  There was reason why things worked, a logic which I took for granted and never thought to question.

It wasn’t logic which made me doubt my faith, it was the hypocritical action of those around me who believed.  Why spend your time worshiping, when you could actually spend it helping someone?  I had begun to meet other people during my college years. Kind, good people, who did not believe in religion, but were much more christ like than the christians I knew.  Homosexual, bisexual, transgender, atheist, agnostic, their life’s work was to make the world a better place; though they might not describe it that way.  Why were these people considered not worthy, while the rich and lazy were? I came to the conclusion that a true christian, someone who really understood what Jesus was about on a deep level, would lose their faith in such a system of belief.  And in doing so, would no longer be christian, at least in the formal religious sense.

Religion is like a scaffolding inside our mind.  In fact, any strong belief system can be a structure on which we place our reality.  If this scaffold holding up all the things we believe in breaks, it causes a huge rupture in how we see the world.  What a human is, what our life means, the fundamental reasons why we do the things we do, all are cast into doubt.  This doesn’t happen to most people, as we carefully move through life staying within the boundaries of this frame, for we do not need (nor want to) break the structure in which we are so comfortable.  But this is what happened to me.  The doubts began, cracks formed in this faulty logic, and finally I could no longer force myself to believe.  I began a journey to understand how I came to be the way I am and to find an alternative frame to live within.

Anxiety

Anxiety happens naturally in all animals.  It is what kept our prehistoric ancestors alive when they were in nature and it keeps us alert when we walk across the street in the city.  However this awareness can go too far, one can be overly aware, in a constant state of fear without interruption - a sense of impending doom coating everything you see.  As the mind tries to understand why these worrisome thoughts are happening, it starts a vicious cycle: worrisome thought - worry about the thought - worry about that thought - faster and faster it spins.  A sealed loop which reaches incredible speed until your bowels tighten, adrenaline rushes, the gums electrify, and you have the same horrible feeling when someone told you your son, daughter, wife, father, mother had died. The “flight or fight response”, interpreted as a flushing of your happiness.  As this feeling has no logical motive, the next step is to think: are you going insane?

But you aren’t going insane.  You are mentally ill.  The way you see the world is not what is.  This particular response is a byproduct of a mental illness called “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”, which I’ve lived with for the past 10 years of my life - beginning right around the period I lost my faith.  From time to time, usually when I stop taking my medication, it rears it’s head once again and I need to return to seeing a world which is not the shattered one of my religious past.  A disconnection process which has been on one side very painful, but on the other side very interesting, as it has made me keenly aware of how one builds the reality we see out in the world from within our own mind.    

The contemporary psychological methods of dealing with this problem is to become aware of these distorted thoughts via cognitive based therapies, and other practices such as yoga and meditation, and build in your mind an augmented form of what reality really is. Even though these distorted thoughts are saying something else entirely, as one becomes accustomed to your augmented view, this built reality starts to take precedence over and eventually becomes how you “see” the world.  The neuronal pathways of what we once thought as ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, ‘painful’ and ‘joyful’, slowly wither away and die, while these new self-sculpted pathways come into play.  The alcoholic getting sober, the depressed finding happiness, and the calming of my own anxiety are all examples of this process.

Scientifically the brain rewiring itself in this way is known as neuroplasticity.  It takes place continuously as we focus on particular topics which are important to us: sex, food, and fear being the major concentrations.  Each is injected into our reality via the real thing (actual fear, actual love), or more often a synthetic version given to us via some form of media.  It is these neural networks that funnel our trajectory through life - the biological manifestations of the scaffolding which I spoke about above. Unfortunately for most, we have no understanding of how this process is tenting the color our lives and what we see as life’s possibilities.  For the frame is something which makes us feel safe and secure, thus when we begin to augment it’s form, cognitive dissonance drives us away from going any further.

Ironically the mentally ill are the first to gain both the motivation and skill-set needed to bend reality to the form they wish. The kind, the sensitive, the altruistic, are mistuned to the way the current competitive world is shaped.  Akin to my own mis-framing of reality, this “mental illness” can be preemptively averted by finding alternative means of understanding earlier in life, before the structures are set.  Many become artists.  Those who do not find an alternative, get sick.  Some live with this dis-ease their entire life, as Thoreau has written, “in quiet desperation”, while it pushes subconsciously to create an alternative frame.  But one cannot simply “will” the world to be different, the frame you take on must have a philosophical underpinning, usually termed as a “worldview”.  Logic structures that have answers to why things are the way they are, such as free-trade, capitalism, catholicism, feminism, scientism, etc.  Sometimes they interrelate and coalesce, while others are isolating, cult like, and austere.  

Anarchism

For me, the most radically prescient philosophical framework to today’s society, while also retaining the altruistic aspect of my past faith, was anarchism.  To most it would be impossible to think of living in a place without a government to protect us from the more “sinister” side of the population.  But anarchism has many strains, some of which are incredibly organized and peaceful, fostering an awareness of a communal structure of society within every citizen.  An outlook that eliminates much of the apathy that appears when one is separated from the democratic process by proxy, generates a natural bond between citizens, and makes the need for a “protective” hierarchy like government much less obvious.  It has a scientific background leading back to Darwin from the work of Peter Kropotkin and it continues to develop philosophically today, adapting to whatever culture it finds itself in.  I like to think of anarchism as like gravity, a force that constantly checks to see if a certain hierarchy is needed, and if not, throwing it off for something better.

The particular strain of anarchism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War was anarcho-syndicalism.  In this form, Syndicates (or unions), are the main connecting points for the democratic process to happen.  The union system was an already intrenched community of like-minded people, so it was a clear next step when Franco tried to take power to band together via a militia system based on these unions to protect the democratic freedoms which they had gained in the years leading up to the war.  What made this moment profound was that this banding together was not only a protection mechanism for the republic, but also (as Orwell states below), the beginnings of a true revolution.  The militias themselves were working non-hierarchical societies in miniature.

Not all militias were anarchist, some like the POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) which Orwell fell into were communist.  However, it was anti-Stalin in a sense that it’s orientation was closer to anarchism, rather than the totalitarian form of communism which was happening in Russia at the time.  In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell documents first hand the differences between the POUM form of communism and that in Russia via its suppression in Barcelona by the Russian totalitarian influence.  As the atrocities of the Russian state had not come to light yet in the world, it was the first time for many of these believers in communism as a path to a utopian socialist future (including Orwell), to recognize the true face of Russian totalitarianism.

Every second the revolutionary militias survived, was a second proving the falsehoods of Marxism.  For a libertarian form of socialism was achieved right then and there without the need for an overseeing “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (the major pillar holding up the reasoning behind Russian authoritarianism).  The Russian’s knew this, and were quickly moving to disband any form of anarchist militia.  On the other side, as fascist Spain bared down on the Republic with the backing of the rest of the world, via either complacency (the United States and England) or direct involvement (Italy and Germany), the only thing holding this onslaught back was the people’s will to fight and what supplies and weapons the communists granted them to have (but came with the stipulations of disbanding the militias).  It was obvious that this moment would be fleeting.

It was this frame, soon to be destroyed from within and without, which caught my attention.  Here was a worldview which inclined the human mind towards mutual aid, without the need for an ornate religious structure.  It was a solid political framework, naturally enhancing the better parts of our nature, and regularized into everyday life and understanding.  One can only imagine how these people felt in the great numbers which were fighting in Aragon and Catalonia.  I had found the outlook which I might take on, now I wished to somehow see what they saw, feel what they felt, and think the same thoughts - to find the particular wiring pattern which made up their worldview.  If we were indoctrinated into altruism at birth, would anarchism be considered so radical?  Would the cutting of skin upon the tip of a baby’s genitals be so normal?

Massacres

Not all was perfect in the Republic.  Any work dealing with the Spanish Civil War must come to terms with the massacres brought about by both sides.  It is well known the atrocities of Franco, but much can be said of what happened in Barcelona and other cities during the war at the hands of the more radical sections of the population.  They murdered people, innocent people, and most of this aggression was focused on the christian church.  It hurt everything which they were fighting for, and to this day is a stain on the social libertarian cause.  The republic and anarchism were much more than these revenge killings, but one of the factors of it’s failure lays within them.  The spiritual side of the Catalan people were left untapped, and like two warring brothers the battle between them was most tragic for their viewpoints were closer than they realized.

Underneath both forms of belief, anarchism and christianity, lies a revolutionary outlook - of seeing another world being possible.  One is buried by 2 thousand years of ignorance, the other is on fire.  What is lacking in the anarchist position is a philosophical understanding of what the human condition is at it’s most base form, before it has entered into the political debate.  Is there a soul?  Does it transmigrate?  These questions which religion answers in one way or another, could be tapped to allow for a political/spiritual anarchist position.  What is lacking from the christian orientation is the immediacy of death.  Why work here on earth if we will go to heaven?  By separating heaven from the moment here on earth, all effort goes towards this illusional goal.  Liberation Theology has begun to unwind this disconnection, but still the soul’s movement to heaven in the future will always dissociate one from the wrongs in the world today.

Some would say that one of the pillars of anarchism is a lack of spiritual belief, but I disagree.  In the space of denial, of saying that we just “end” when we die, one forces on the mind an intensity in life. This is a spiritual choice.  It is this spark through negation that lights a fire inside the anarchist soul.  But without a solid spiritual framework, the fire burns quickly and out of control, for even though altruism consciously makes sense in practice, subconsciously the mind needs a reason to live, a metaphysical logic to it all.  There are spiritual avenues to explore which allow for both this intensity in life, and a path that would offer a grounding for this altruism anarchists naturally display.  This grounding could form a bridge for those who are coming from christianity to identify not only politically, but also spiritually with anarchism.  There are tracks within Christianity leading back to the new testament (Luke 17:20 - 21) and Saint Francis - that might have been enough to open the door for those who would have fought Franco.  Indeed, in the Basque region of Spain, religion was on the side of the Republic.

Extending this further, eastern philosophies represent the clearest connection to the altruistic mindset.  The methods mentioned above which contemporary psychology uses to deal with mental illness, stem from these meditative religious traditions.  Based more on logic than faith, these traditions extend the concept of neuroplasticity back 4 thousand years.  And moving laterally into the spiritual realm, the foundation of these practices orient the patient to see themselves outside the limited frame which popular christianity has propagated within the concept of the “soul”.  The core of which is the concept of nothingness or emptiness, which like anarchism many times is misunderstood as a negation of reality.  It is in fact simply seeing yourself in others - the perfect spiritual underpinning to the anarchist position.  It’s a testament to the non-religious basis of these belief systems that pier-reviewed research has proven it therapeutic that the more you see yourself in others, your neurosis diminishes.  You become less obsessed with your own mortality, but at the same time you are not disengaged from the world today, because you care about those who will live on when you die - for they in some way are you.

Visual Effects

So I have this mental disorder, a broken worldview, and the yearning to find a frame to replace it, but to most, itʼs impossible to envision why living in the muck and dirt, dying for a cause which would earn you no fortune, was somehow a good thing.  From birth the contemporary brain is wired to not allow us to feel pleasure in altruism like those in Spain at that time.  Itʼs akin as to how we view the sadist searching for pleasure in pain, the anarchist inclination towards altruism and mutual aid.  It makes no sense to us, because the logic structure inside our mind is built against, rather than for seeing the world this way.  To us, the anarchist is simply ʻmentally ill”.

Creative neuroplasticity is a personal choice.  The specific combination of neurons which fire for the anarchist will never match the capitalism soaked individual no matter what visual imagery is put in front of them.  One must choose to change their belief structure.  But in the spectacle of augmented viewing there is a certain sense of wonder.  A feeling of possibility that something else might be touched upon if we could only see around the corner.  Perhaps we may not get to view it directly, we may only get our ear to the edge and listen, but it is enough to know that something else is there.  A feeling akin to those transcendental moments when one is in nature or in love, which go beyond normal logic structures and allow us to empirically feel another world is possible.

This wonder is latent in visual effects.  It is what draws millions to the theaters each year, where in the darkness we subconsciously yearn for other ways of living out our lives.  The gigantic robot, the tentacled head of Davy Jones, the vista of an alien landscape, the strange logic which these narratives occupy, are the reasons why people go to the theaters today.  The budgets of Hollywood motion pictures are pie charts to the human mind’s wants and needs.  The majority of feature film budgets go towards creating these alternate realities, the most man hours, the most talent, all help to sutcher the viewer into the narrative - allowing them to reach a new zenith of possibilities.

In a way, this work and text is a cementing of my own current lattice of reality.  Helping me to better construct the world I inhabit, for the more I understand it, the more my anxiety lowers.  Through visual effects I can augment it enough to test it’s limits and adjust it as needed.  A small humble corner, not the massive world altering forms of hollywood cinema, but it’s enough to perhaps generate some of the zeitgeist that was there in Spain so long ago.  To envision a world where kindness is like gold, empathy like the air we breathe, and the accomplishments of the other, the accomplishments of ourselves.  It might be ephemeral and heady, but where could be a better place for utopia to begin than within one’s own mind?

AF/2012