Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Maurin's Personalism and its Shadow

In the early 1930s, Peter Maurin introduced "Personalism" to the US, a precursor to the Localism movement, with historical roots in the writings of Emmanuel Mounier and others before him. This was in response to what he saw was the problem with both global Capitalism and World Marxism/Socialism. In the language of this blog and opinion of its author, Maurin identified a "master meme", which lies at the root of most of the other problems facing our society (it's only gotten worse since Maurin's time with institutions such as governments and corporations only getting larger and more impersonal) such as anemic or absent community, environmental destruction, institutional corruption, gross economic inequality, political impotence and work alienation/productive dis-empowerment.

With Maurin's seed and Dorothy Day's leadership, the Catholic Worker was born. The economic part of the idea was to personalize the services given by impersonal institutions, especially ones serving prisoners, homeless and destitute people. Maurin wanted to take it to the next stage, to personalizing goods and education as well, with village-scale production in what he called "agronomic universities", and saw it as the key to a better world not just for the poor (which were as significant part of the US population then) but for most everyone. But the implementation hasn't happened much, for various reasons some of which will be discussed here, and the CW is still (with a few exceptions) stuck in the first stage of Maurin's vision.

There is much overlap between Personalism and Localism because proximity is conducive to personal relations, whereas distance and intermediation are not. It is possible to imagine being personal with people far away with phones, Facebook and other communication technology, but it is easier to be close with someone emotionally when one is also closer geographically and one has a life to share rather than just communicate about life (which is a part of life, but hopefully not the whole thing). The small degree of personalism that isolated, alienated people can have with communication technology is not compensating for the impersonalism of the rest of their lives, reinforced through the technology they use for other things than communication, and the intermediation they experience through all other aspects of life. So we can safely assume that Personalism implies localism, perhaps with a few trade relations over longer distances (Localism on the other hand, only implies Personalism in conjuction with a few humanist values. Many Localist tribal peoples were only friendly to their tribe and hateful to everyone else).

Other Personalists, who were also Localists, such as Jesus, Wendell Berry, M. Gandhi and J.C. Kumarappa had basically the same idea and knew (based on historical evidence) that care for/symbiosis with nature, intimate community and more edifying work would all follow from local production and consumption, but so far the depersonalizing trend of the global industrial economy hasn't been opposed much in practice. It is my intention to speculate on why that might be so in this essay.

One possible reason is systemic--the current economic system discourages personalism and rewards impersonalism. There is more money to be made in mass production and mass distribution: costs are cheaper per widget and markets are bigger that way. Also, intermediation--the process whereby trolls/middlemen can insert themselves (and extract a toll) between a producer and a consumer-- is a way to employ more people in the current mass production and distribution economy, and it must somehow contribute to higher cost efficiency. The current system encourages sociopaths who seek power, to rise to positions of power and domination because they can do so more easily than people who care personally about others, who see them not just as objects to dominate.

But I think there is a more individual, interesting and personal reason for discouraging personalism, a dark side, a cost to personalism that is frightening and many choose to bury it rather than look at it, in classical Jungian shadow fashion. I list the shadows of Personalism, followed by what shining light on them might look like for a few examples below.

Personalism in economics/work:
Shadow: Egos can get bruised if other people don't appreciate your contribution in a personal way. Less scary if this happens in impersonal way, through market intermediates, when unknown people just don't buy your product. Or if someone outcompetes you in a personal way it hurts more than when your company gets outcompeted by another company, whose people you don't know.

We don't need to be responsible for our house and land because our landlord is, in some fashion which is mostly about extracting the most energy out of us and the land, a parasitic instead of symbiotic relationship. We get some energy back, but not nearly as much as how much the landlord gets from us. Neither of us sees each other as a person, more as a tool or an enemy. The institution of Rent gets between the tenant and landlord, making it easy to not face the parasitism. It is similar to a mafia protection racket, or a slavery system. Neither the mafia Don, the slave-owner or the landlord would extract so much energy from a person, such as (sometimes but not always) a member of their family. Nor would the "protected" person, slave or tenant see the landlord as an abstract bad guy if they had to deal with them personally.

As mentioned above, the system encourages sociopaths, those who care about power over people more than empathizing with people. But the personal part of this, the shadow part is that all of us have this drive for power within us, but for most it is scary to look at and acknowledge. It is safer for this drive to be buried, though it comes out at work, in the bedroom, and in addictions. In a way, the sociopaths are the most honest about it.

Light: In a village setting, people need to be able to look inward and ask themselves how they can improve their product or service when other people are dissatisfied with it, or when someone else does better. Instead of just competing, they can try to learn from and cooperate with that person.

We share land and sometimes housing, and at the very least we take care of them and each other. We need each other in concrete ways, so we help each other symbiotically.

We explore power dynamics through drama, conscious BDSM (I don't have much experience with this, but base my understanding on some of the writings of Anne Rice), etc with our close family and community.

Personalism in sexuality:
Shadow:  Islam and other patriarchal cultures deal with the unpredictable force of female appeal to males by covering the reproductive age females' faces or keeping them separate from males in some fashion, getting them quickly married, and making them subservient to their husbands. In the west we deal with it by getting the young people to interact mostly through impersonal phones and internet sites, then getting them married, then having the married men in an emotional chastity belt that only includes their wives and keeping the sex limited to the couple and pornographic-assisted fantasy. The wives on the other hand are able to have emotional intimacy with other women and sometimes unmarried men without instability. But there is a cost, where the buried sexuality comes out as violence towards any number of scapegoats. Isolated shootings or bombings are minor compared to whole nations lashing out as in fascist Germany or Japan.

Light: There are other models that are starting to surface outside the monogamy box. There are scary abandonment issues that can be buried with monogamy, and they resurface more quickly once that layer of protection is removed.

Personalism in art and entertainment, in communication:
Shadow: We do not know the artists whose art we consume, generally. We do not have much plays anymore with people who we might interact with. We have movies. We do not go to movies together much anymore but watch them on our personal computers, usually alone. We do not generally go to a public park or cafe to interact with people anymore. Most people are on their computers or smart phones, interacting through those.The cell phone with its transient text has made it easy to completely blow people off, something that was harder with voice or even email, where the messages would persist indefinitely. It is a level of intermediation and de-personalization that makes interaction less scary and dangerous than person to person interaction. All this is possible by the de-personalizing effect of intermediation and the global market.

Light: We make art and/or we buy/trade art from our friends and neighbors. We put on plays together with them. We make films and watch them together. We dance and play music together, and the subject and tone integrates with the rest of our lives in personal ways, not just the lives of dead people who did have personalism, such as eastern European peasants or Irish bards from long ago. Personalism is what gives life to art.

Personalism in relating to nature:
Shadow: We understand Anthropogenic Climate change intellectually, but are powerless to change our lives to do anything significant about it. We are addicted to a way of life that pollutes, destroys rainforests, mountaintops and species, that consumes as much petroleum as possible. The consequences of our actions are indirect and abstract, the feedbacks take a long time to propagate back to us. We might enjoy nature as a hobby, but we are not intimately dependent on it.
Light:  We make our living from the land we live on. Our inputs come from the land or neighboring land, and our outputs go to the land or neighboring land. We see our neighbors doing the same. Hurting the land and the other creatures on it hurts us in direct ways.

Personalism in Death:
Shadow: We do not grieve much with the memories of the recently dead and our close friends and family. We try to forget and we pay others to handle the body and the ritual. We numb ourselves with addictions.
Light: We bury our  own departed friends and neighbors and take time to grieve with our community.


Personalism is an attempt to acknowledge that there are systems at a higher level of organization than human beings, that are more than the sum of their parts, that have emergent properties. It suggests allowing natural systems such as nature (or some other creative Love/Intelligence greater than the sum of humanity if you're of a spiritual bent) to have primacy over human systems, and keep human-made systems small and personal.