“Anarchism has always been, uniquely, a politics swayed by organic sensibility”
Theodore Roszak (1933-2011) was a passionate critic of industrial civilization who called for its domination to be urgently countered by the resurgence of metaphysically-sourced organic radicalism.
He wrote in Where the Wasteland Ends that urban-industrialism had to be regarded as an experiment and, as science told us, experiments could fail: “When they do, there must be a radical reconsideration, one which does not flinch even at the prospect of abandoning the project”. (1)
Roszak acknowledged that because of the scale and domination of industrialism, it seemed unthinkable that it could ever slow down or come to an end.
He continued: “Unthinkable, yes. Almost as unthinkable as it would have been only four generations ago to imagine that we could have created the monster in the first place. But it was of our making. And it is yet ours to unmake and replace”. (2)
The problem for those trying to challenge the industrial system, and thus prevent environmental catastrophe, was that it had defined itself as the only possible reality.
He explained: “Assured by the experts that the system is technically infallible, morally permissable, and politically realistic, we accept it as a prospectively permanent feature of our lives”. (3)
An important aspect of the system’s propaganda, said Roszak, was technological optimism, “the snake oil of urban-industrialism”, which with each new application rubbed the “addiction to artificiality” (4) deeper into the collective psyche.
This had now reached the stage where people were not only physically distanced from nature, but were no longer even aware that their existence depended on it.
He wrote: “The more artifice, the more progress; the more progress, the more security. We press our technological imperialism forward against the natural environment until we reach the point at which it comes as startling and not entirely credible news to our urban masses to be told by anxious ecologists that their survival has anything whatever to do with air, water, soil, plant, or animal”. (5)
Roszak noted that the effect of urban-industrialism on our tastes was to convince us that artificiality was not only inevitable, but in fact better than nature.
He even seemed to be predicting the arrival of naturaphobic transhumanist ideology, in 1972, when he asked: “How many members of our own culture would not trade in their natural body tomorrow for a guaranteed deathproof counterfeit?” (6)
Roszak identified a general underlying failure in modern thinking, which had jettisoned any aspiration to holistic understanding and adopted a flattened-out, fragmented, sterile pseudo-scientific approach.
He wrote in The Making of a Counter-Culture: “We learn what one learns by scrutinizing the trees and ignoring the forest, by scrutinizing the cells and ignoring the organism, by scrutinizing the detailed minutiae of experience and ignoring the whole that gives the constituent parts their greater meaning. In this way we become ever more learnedly stupid”. (7)
Unfortunately, this stupidity had even affected political philosophies which were supposedly opposed to the capitalist system which had created industrialism.
Roszak argued that Marxism, the orthodox radicalism of the 20th century, had failed to take issue with the machine-society itself, ultimately serving the needs of technocratic politics. “Marxism is the mirror image of bourgeois industrialism: an image reversed, and yet unmistakably identical”, (8) he judged.
“Marx laid a deadly critical edge against bourgeois social values, but his blade barely scratched the mindscape of science and industrialism”. (9)
Roszak pointed out in The Voice of the Earth that the Marxists displayed the same hostility to the primitive and the traditional as the colonial profiteers.
He wrote: “From Marx’s viewpoint, the goal of progressive politics was to abolish ‘the idiocy of rural life’ and all that predated it in favor of industrial progress.
“Among the political philosophers of the industrial period, only sentimental anarchists like William Morris or Peter Kropotkin held out against this ideological consensus, harking back like the Romantics before them to a legendary state of nature when village democracy and tribal egalitarianism reigned”. (10)
All of this separation from nature, and the sad lack of a movement seeking to change this sorry state of affairs, had led to a deep sense of despair felt both collectively and individually.
Argued Roszak: “Only those who have broken off their silent inner dialogue with man and nature, only those who experience the world as dead, stupid, or alien and therefore without a claim to reverence, could ever turn upon their environment and their fellows with the cool and meticulously calculated rapacity of industrial society”. (11)
“We conquer nature, we augment our power and wealth, we multiply the means of distracting our attention this way and that… but the despair burrows in deeper and grows faster; it feeds on our secret sense of having failed the potentialities of human being”. (12)
The response to this dire situation, in which our experience of life had become “poor in quality”, (13) was to rekindle our sense of belonging to nature: a sense often described as spirituality.
Roszak stressed that what Martin Buber called a You-and-I relationship was not restricted to our dealings with people. We had to establish “a transactional bond with the natural” (14) and rediscover respect for “the sacramental dimension of nature”, (15) because “if the spirit within us withers, so too will all the world we build about us”. (16)
This process of “spiritual regeneration” (17) was also a question of allowing nature – the greater organic entity of which we are all part – to act through us.
In order to reaccess our “inborn ecological wisdom” (18) we had to allow ourselves to be moved and guided by the requirements of the Earth “as if it were our own most private desire”, (19) he said.
“A hypothesis that contends that the great biofeedback system of planet Earth acts upon all its cargo of life in ways that seek homeostasis must at some point weigh the possibility that Gaian politics, including its ecofeminist and mystic ‘extremes’, is among the ways such action finds expression in our species“. (20)
This radical ecological thinking, channelled into human thought from the needs of the planetary organism itself, would have to “vastly transcend the issues of conventional social justice with which the radicalism of former times filled its now obsolete ideologies”. (21)
Taking a similar historical overview to Charlene Spretnak, Roszak identified Romanticism as “the first significant antitoxin generated within the body of our society” to counter the industrial poison. (22)
Another antitoxin was Deep Ecology, which was an “expression of nature mysticism, based on an alternate, essentially animistic mode of experience”. (23)
This movement had, in the 1970s, been “outflanked” by the ecofeminist movement, he said: “No one could have predicted when Women’s Liberation began in the middle sixties that it would, within a decade, become a principal force in environmental politics”. (24)
For Roszak, only one long-established political ideology had the potential of fuelling the “new radicalism” (25) we so badly needed, in which “quality and not quantity becomes the touchstone of social value”. (26)
He wrote: “Anarchism has always been, uniquely, a politics swayed by organic sensibility; it is born of a concern for the health of cellular structure in society and a confidence in spontaneous self-regulation”. (27)
Roszak described the 1960s counter-culture as arising from many different sources, including depth psychiatry, “the mellowed remnants of left-wing ideology”, oriental religions, Romantic Weltschmerz, anarchist social theory, Dada and American Indian lore. (28)
Indeed, as well as writing about “the perennial wisdom” (29) in Where the Wasteland Ends, he quoted both Coomaraswamy (30) and Nasr. (31)
The importance of this movement was its identification of “a sacramental vision of being” which could be regarded as “the wellspring of human spiritual consciousness” (32) and had given rise to a diversity of traditions across the world.
Added Roszak: “The differences between these traditions – between Eskimo shamanism and medieval alchemy, between Celtic druidism and Buddhist tantra – are many; but an essentially magical world view is common to them all”. (33)
He used the term “Old Gnosis” to describe this ancient way of knowing and thinking, explaining: “It is a visionary style of knowledge, not a theological one; its proper language is myth and ritual; its foundation is rapture, not faith and doctrine; and its experience of nature is one of living communion”. (34)
The resurrection of “this supposedly defunct tradition” could be seen as “an urgent project of the times”, (35) he suggested.
Roszak held out the vision of a post-industrial future which would involve “a graceful symbiosis of people and nature, an organic community”. (36)
Although it was very distant from our current society, and would be furiously resisted by the “anti-organic fanaticism of western culture”, (37) this other world was by no means impossible.
Roszak reminded us: “All revolutionary changes are unthinkable until they happen… and then they are understood to be inevitable”. (38)
Video link: Theodore Roszak: Towards an Eco-Psychology (11 mins)
1. Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. xxix.
2. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p 415.
3. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 58.
4. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 65.
5. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 11.
6. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 97.
7. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), p. 251.
8. Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture, p. 100.
9. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. xxv.
10. Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology (New York: Touchstone, 1993), pp. 222-23.
11. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 168.
12. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. xxviii.
13. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 215.
14. Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 79.
15. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 215.
16. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. xxiii.
17. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 460.
18. Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 300.
19. Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 47.
20. Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, pp. 157-58.
21. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, pp 72-73.
22. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 280.
23. Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 232.
24. Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 233.
25. Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture, p. 205.
26. Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture, pp. 206-07.
27. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 424.
28. Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture, p. xiii.
29. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 154.
30. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 139.
31. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 406.
32. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 118.
36. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 416.
37. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 96.
38. Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture, p. 44.