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The Example Of Jerry Brown

The search for national renewal through spiritual solutions has its historical precedent.

Rosemary Lemmis

Issue #25, March 1996

As our lives are commodified, we go further away from the essence — which is inside, which is in friendship, which is in study, which is in being alive! The simplicity, the radical openness of the way life could be is being crushed by the way life IS and the way it's being organized. If we're to take our political awareness and engage in transformative action, first we have to see — then we have to act. The way to act is to be with other people....And in some small way, I'm starting to do that in Oakland. I used to live in a firehouse in Pacific Heights and I have moved to a warehouse in Oakland. I have thirteen bedrooms and nine bathrooms. I'm ready for community!
— Jerry Brown, "Political Consciousness and Transforma tive Action," speech given at International Transpersonal Association Conference, Santa Clara, California, 6/10/95
....circumstances make men just as men make circumstances. The sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as 'substance' and 'essence of man..."
"the 'liberation' of 'man' is not advanced by reducing philosophy, theology, substance and all the trash to self-consciousness..." ...people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. "liberation is a historical and not a mental act..."
— Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Much of what is masquerading as calls for political action by both candidates for office in this election year and by those who have worked outside of the American party system consists largely of invitations, or perhaps directives, for voters to adopt a set of moral or spiritual values en masse as a means of saving the nation from its decline and chaotic state. Of course, the use of this tactic on the part of the right is not hard to recognize. Unable and perhaps unwilling to tackle the complicated causes of the disintegration and increasing fragmentation of social and economic conditions in the United States, conservatives have consistently attempted to link the decline of the community with the demise of individual morality and virtue. The current Republican presidential candidates generate campaign slogans couched in revivalist themes of moral and spiritual renewal. Sen. Bob Dole's most well-known political positions might well be his attacks on Hollywood for failing to respect "family" values and his staunch support of the as-yet undefined "midwestern" standards. Most voters would probably be hard pressed to identify actual policy differences between Dole and Bill Clinton. Pat Buchanan, seizing upon voter anxiety in times of economic uncertainty, has urged a return to a nostalgic past of an American life that existed in television depictions of family life in the 1950's (even if that family life never existed at all).

This ethically and religiously charged rhetoric promoting correct individual behavior as a way of guaranteeing the good of all is deeply embedded in the relationship between citizens and the state -from the hailing of the necessity of family values to the periodic pronouncements that the sacrifice of the lives of young men and women is for some higher goal. What is harder to discern, perhaps, are similar tactics on the part of those who are seen as representing more leftist elements in the American political spectrum. The latest adventures of Jerry Brown, California's ex-governor and founder of the seemingly liberal "We the People" movement, provide an example of the danger of equating progressive ideas with progressive politics, as well as demonstrating the troubling and pervasive displacement of politics by morality to the extent that neither voters nor politicians seem able to figure out the difference anymore.

In the summer of 1995, newspapers carried stories about a new commune near Jack London Square in Oakland, California built by Jerry Brown. Brown reportedly paid $500,000 in 1993 for an abandoned warehouse and hired a Berkeley architect to renovate it. After renovation proved too costly, he demolished the warehouse and constructed a new building on the site for the sum of $1.2 million. The New York Times, in an article describing Brown as "still communing with new ideas," detailed the building's features, including the spartan nature of the living quarters (including Brown's own "austere" apartment containing a soundproof radio booth, a work area and a bookcase topped with statues of a Chinese goddess and one of the Virgin Mary, the latter given to him by Mother Theresa), other occupants (seemingly chosen at random or through casual meetings, including one computer consultant that the Times pointed to as a "recovering drug addict"), the large auditorium and the extensive law library. The space was meant to function both as residence and workplace, housing Brown's "We the People" political and legal organizations as well as a community herb and vegetable garden. Brown depicted the commune as an effort to create a new social institution in Oakland's well-documented, tortured human and urban landscape that would function both as a community resource and a lifestyle example for the '90's and beyond.

photo - Jerry BrownBrown's use of "alternative" lifestyle choices as a means of separating himself from his "mainstream" political contemporaries is nothing new. As governor of California in the 1970's, Brown's most publicized and perhaps most legendary moments were those which accented his living arrangements. While governor, Brown lived in a small apartment in the state's capital, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, rather than moving into an oversized and ostentatious mansion built for the state's chief executive by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. He decided to forego state-provided limousines, instead cruising the streets and highways of his political domain in an old Plymouth. These acts of seeming self-sacrifice and denial in a world filled with the trappings of wealth and power enabled Brown to position himself as different sort of politician, concerned with larger moral and spiritual issues both at large and in the way he conducted his own life. But these public displays of private behavior purportedly driven by moral concerns seemed to have little impact on Brown's political acts while he served as governor. While he initially opposed Proposition 13 (which limited the ability of municipalities to raise revenues through property taxes), after its passage by the California electorate Brown declared himself a "born-again tax cutter," and proceeded to hack at the state's welfare budget in unprecedented fashion. When localities lost $7 billion in revenue as a result of Proposition 13, Brown vetoed an emergency $30 million appropriation to keep local libraries open, but allowed a $30 million tax break for horse racing (see Doug Henwood's Left Business Observer, issues 51 and 52 (1992).

But what is new in the current Brown rhetoric about his lifestyle experiment are his continual proclamations that he is now a "recovering politician," no longer associated with what he sees as a corrupt political system. The question is whether Brown might perhaps be more appropriately labelled a "failed politician" rather than a member of some twelve-step program for former state executives. Following his stint as governor, Brown ran unsuccessfully for United States Senate, sought the nomination for the presidency, and founded a purported "political" movement known as "We the People," the very name of which is apparently meant to suggest democratic aspirations. Brown's rhetoric has through the years been increasingly directed toward a denunciation of power and corporate elites and the failure of the political system to provide social justice or represent the poor and middle class. We the People maintains a web site which outlines Brown's complaints about the current political system. Indicting a pervasive corporate structure controlled by a small minority and fueled by campaign contributions from vested interests, Brown predicts that "we are headed for a series of social and ecological disasters unless people of good will organize an effective resistance. Frankly, the people in charge today are paralyzed. They mouth words of change and express sentiments of concern that do nothing except encourage the incarceration of the poor and the de facto rule of 'stateless money.'" (from We The People home page)

drawing - Jerry Brown We the People does have a so-called "platform in progress" similar to the platforms drafted during each presidential election year by the delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions -documents that are reported to generate great interest and debate among convention attendees, but which promptly disappear from view following the sound of the last gavel. They are apparently of little concern to most of the electorate. What is singularly peculiar — and disturbing — about the We the People platform is that its own authors (or author, Jerry Brown) do not seem to rely upon it or appropriate its wide-ranging and progressive proposals for economic, political and social reform as any rallying point around which to organize collective action. Instead, Brown suggests ignoring the political system altogether: "We begin with the premise that neither Washington, Sacramento nor City Hall will help. The degeneracy and corruption of the present system ensure that. We believe, rather, that working house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, caring people will organize themselves." Brown's call for action bespeaks a sort of Noah's ark approach to rescuing the nation (or allowing it to sink) — individuals organizing themselves in small groups and sailing away from the corruption of power.

According to Brown, to "organize themselves," individuals have to save themselves first. As he stated in the same speech in which he proclaimed the impending gratification of his desire for community with the construction of nine bathrooms, "before you go out trying to save the world, you have to save yourself." While cloaked in the language of political reform, Brown does not direct the disaffected to organize political action, engage in unionizing, strikes or massive civil disobedience — all actions that could be seen as possible collective efforts to mobilize resistance and address issues of social and economic inequality and deprivation. Instead, Brown suggests that the answer to such problems lies in the alternative lifestyle of communes. What kind of an alternative is a commune? Is it a political alternative? Despite his gestures towards collective action, Brown is advocating both by words and by his own example a moral and ethical path to salvation, rather than seeking any political solution to political problems. Seen in that light, thisalternative is no alternative at all, but merely another point on a continuum that has reduced political speech and political action in the United States to the struggle by "politicians" to occupy the highest moral ground, and from that vantage point, proclaim moral commandments to the multitudes about the "right" way of life and the necessity of saving the nation through the practice of proper moral values.

What Brown's commune adventure suggests, then, is just how deep and pervasive the replacement of politics with morality has become in American politics. While the morality of "lifestyle" choices may be evaluated differently by Brown and those considered more conservative, it is not surprising to discover just how similar Brown and the right-wing morality boosters have become. Both Brown and Buchanan advocate national renewal through individual ethical and spiritual commitment. While they might disagree about which religion to follow, it is for both the path to salvation. In this light, the fact that both Brown and Forbes have advocated the flat tax may not seem such a strange political alliance. Brown's public career, since he held his only elective office as governor, has been apparently driven by the obsession to hold himself out as a shining moral example (including, for instance, his attacks on Clinton in 1992 in which he suggested that Clinton lacked the "moral qualifications" to be president). His political decisions while in office or his apparent disclaimer of political ambition since he hasn't been able to win an election have little, or nothing to do with the central theme of his own self-righteous representation to the masses. It even seems that this lack of political success has resulted in some sort of psychological state of denial, as some of Brown's statements suggest an effort to repress the existence of political or economic institutions that are superfluous to ethics. In March of 1995, for instance, Brown came close to denunciating either the existence or importance of capitalism for most Americans when he stated "If we're going to have capitalism, we'd better have some capitalists. And most Americans don't have any capital, so that's a phony from day one." Was Brown suggesting that the dominant economic logic and sources of power don't matter — or shouldn't matter -to citizens? This interpretation of Brown's statement may not be so far-fetched as might initially appear, given Brown's embrace of moral issues. If so, then politics — progressive or otherwise -are irrelevant to the truly important things in life — the individual, spiritual existence.

It is worth noting in closing that the search for national renewal through spiritual solutions has its historical precedent, notably in German intellectual and philosophical movements preceding the rise of the Third Reich. As Pierre Bourdieu states in The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, "...the 'spiritual renaissance' and the 'German revolution' ... was supposed to 'revitalize' the nation without revolutionizing its structure...Their regressive yearning for a reassuring reintegration in the organic totality of an autarchic agrarian (or feudal) society is simply the counterpart of a hostile fear of anything in the present which announces a threat for the future, whether that threat is capitalist or marxist...sometimes clothing their regressive ideas in the borrowed languages of marxism and progress, and by preaching chauvinism and reaction in the language of humanism." (25-26) The contemporary calls for spiritual renewal eerily remind us of the dangers of simply divesting ourselves of political responsibility and abandoning collective efforts. The example of Jerry Brown proves that conservative politics comes packaged in all lifestyles.

Rosemary Lemmis is a contributor to Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 1996 by Rosemary Lemmis. All rights reserved.