“Rather than thought, life today must be action. Modern man is in need of a faith, and the only faith that can fill his deep self is a faith in struggle. Who knows when the sweet life will return? … a faith and a myth that can move human beings to live dangerously.”
— José Carlos Mariátegui, Two Conceptions of Life, 1950.
I. In My Father’s Garden
“This is hell.” My old man repeated this phrase like a monk chanting his daily rounds of psalms. As each word escaped his mouth, he sucker punched the air around him. Usually his pronouncements were over a steaming mug of black coffee and a smoke while watching his summer garden of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers wiggling out of the Jersey soil into flourishing urban edibility.
What led him to such unwavering investment in these words? Was it his transition from the mountain peasant redoubts of central Puerto Rico to the cement and black machinery of sprawling factory floors in New Jersey? Perhaps the hours, days, and years spent on these floors, becoming an industrial appendage in the pursuit of a roof over our heads and food in our bellies? Was it his disillusionment about the lives he could have lived, but never did? His battles with the drink that he would stave off for months or years at a time, but in an instant return to in fits of despair, anger, and longing for an ideal love that this world rarely affords? Where do I draw the line between symptoms and causes in my recollections of him and his world? His was a world I could share in only partially. I understood it more fully after his passing. But I doubt I will ever know rough approximations of answers to such questions.
I know his repetitive utterances by heart. During the last years of his life, I was his constant, albeit ambivalently loyal, witness to these exhortations: “Son, people are stupid. You can sell them anything when they’re hungry, horny, or afraid. Look at the church telling people they’re going to hell.” He would usually laugh at this point as he inhaled deep drags of his cigarette. The full cadence of his laugh, coiled into chemical-laced smoke, produced something that was part deep cough, part world-weary snorting glee. “People don’t go to hell. This is hell. Life is hell. Only the rich and the stupid don’t know that. Heaven is just getting through it in one piece.” Pointing to the dirt in his tiny farm and then up to North Jersey’s mercurial skies, he would deliver a garden-variety summation: “That’s all the heaven there is in this life until the Big Guy up there makes his move.”
Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, my old man didn’t think other people were hell. He thought that the suffering, violence, and injustice of the world made the hell we all live in. My father understood in the contours of his flesh and the marrow of his bones that evil people, actions, and institutions were key protagonists in this world of hell-making. But these things never explained it fully. For him, the Devil was also always working a double-shift. Old Nick was on the factory floor just like everybody else. Punching the clock, taking names, and kicking ass just for fun. This was my dad’s way of making sense of a cruel and unjust world.
After he passed, I understood his point, even if my way of telling the story of evil is different. Perhaps, if I’d spent thirty-three years in the factories of a strange land I could never call home, I too might have seen the Devil in the men’s restroom slapping on some 1970s-style Aqua Velva aftershave before heading back to the floor to mess with people’s heads and crush their souls. No doubt the crafty bastard had a union card while also sitting in on the corporate board meetings to cover all the bases. For evil has to be all things to all people to keep the hustle going and the customers coming. “This is hell.”
II. The Multiplex Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a widening breech in the ramparts of American empire and a historic civilizational turning point for humanity. The technological and business ingenuity that purportedly describe American culture to the outside world has created the suburbs, fast-food, Hollywood, the internet, and an emotionally compensatory volunteerism as an individualizing, corralling group response to structural injustices.
As if mocking the sanitized suburban leisure ethos resplendent in our multi-screen cinemas, this country has taken a leading role in creating what I call the multiplex crisis. For working people, this crisis entails a potentially permanent mode of sheltered or exposed lives (depending on one’s take-home pay) vulnerable to sickness, death and the effects of institutional fallout. COVID-19 has ushered us all into an age of racialized, biopolitical class war, a new phase of globalization by multiplex means.
This perilous historical moment is conjugated through four simultaneous crises:
1) a global pandemic initiated by industrial agribusiness and livestock manufacturing producing new pathogens (i.e., zoonosis) to which human populations have, to date, no immediately available pharmaceutical defense;
2) a consequent economic crisis, as countries shut down to mitigate, if not suppress, SARS-CoV-2 transmission;
3) an ongoing credibility crisis for ruling political elites, laying bare yet again the deepening fissures within the capitalist class (for instance, Trumpism’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party or the Bernie movement’s challenge to the Democratic Party’s centrist consensus);
4) an inadequately addressed climate crisis that poses an existential threat to humanity and other species with whom we co-habit earth.
None of these crises stand alone. They interlock and have their material foundations in economic systems imposed on working populations. Evolutionary biologist and epidemiologist Rob Wallace and his colleagues describe the lethal results of capital’s raiding of the public health commons in an era of corporate-directed globalization and deepening climate disruption:
“… the delays in early information and total miss in testing will undoubtedly be responsible for many, probably thousands, of lost lives. The failures were actually programmed decades ago as the shared commons of public health were simultaneously neglected and monetized. A country captured by a regimen of individualized, just-in-time epidemiology … with barely enough hospital beds and equipment for normal operations, is by definition unable to marshal the resources to purse a China brand of suppression.”
At the core of Wallace’s argument is the brutalizing reality of what geographer David Harvey, commenting on Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation, calls “accumulation by dispossession”: the transfer of public goods and services into the hands of capitalists to expand profit.
By privatizing all within capital’s grasp, ordinary people are increasingly impoverished, often to the point of suffering premature deaths. Witness the more than 200,000 COVID-19 deaths inflicted upon populations throughout the U.S., with starkly disproportionate mortality rates among Black and Latinx communities. As Wallace notes, these malevolent outcomes were hardwired into neoliberal policies that insisted upon just-in-time healthcare profiteering, leaving hospitals understaffed and unprepared for COVID-19’s onslaught. The corporate mantras of “lean and mean” and “leaning in” that cynically proliferated through society’s institutions brought dire consequences to those least able to insulate themselves from elite policy choices.
The multiplex crisis is neither random nor will it be a-once-in-a-century event. As medical historian Frank M. Snowden argues:
“COVID-19 is not an accidental or random event. Epidemics afflict societies through the specific vulnerabilities people have created by their relationships with the environment, other species, and each other. Microbes … fill the ecological niches that we have prepared. COVID-19 flared up and spread because it is suited to the society we have made … demographic increase and frenetic urbanization lead to the invasion and destruction of animal habitat altering the relationship between humans to the animal world.”
The “ecological niches” that Snowden describes as preparing the way for the SARS-CoV-2 novel virus to enter human populations were produced by global capital accumulation strategies and implemented by economic elites. Our multiplex crisis was a predictable and logical outcome of these longstanding economic policy choices.
That said, this crisis is not simply economic but is thoroughly embedded in a mythos of white settler colonialism that dominates the American imagination. Witness the ongoing national rebellions in response to a white police officer’s state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd. His death is yet another incident that exposes the primal scene of the American settler state: wanton white violence against Black and Brown people as the historical guarantor of what passes for “law and order” in the U.S. As protests and rebellions have surged, law enforcement in the United States oscillates between what I term preventive soft counterinsurgency, especially against working people of color as an intolerable quotidian reality, to outright hard counterinsurgency against the masses of people that threaten the institutional matrix of racial capitalism—or “our way of life,” to repeat a favored bromide of generations of empty-headed American politicians.
As I write this essay, federal agents continue to violently confront, unlawfully detain and interrogating protesters across the U.S. The Trump administration assures us that these illegal efforts will be visited upon major cities where rebellions continue. No matter how sweeping a possible Democratic victory in November is, Trump is preparing the ground for a contested electoral result and welcomes the potential conflict that could result. No social science degree is required to discern the consequences of a contested election, given the numerous examples of armed protests staged by Trump’s white ethno-nationalist base, the beating heart of his right populist movement.
When I was younger, I lived in two countries being torn apart by civil wars. The sheer carnage and economic dislocations from those conflicts still bedevil those nations more than three decades later. Likewise, Trumpism is on a well-trodden path to mass deaths (already an inexcusable reality of the COVID-19 pandemic), distended institutions, economic duress, and the logical consequence of these realities: a civil war that starts as a regional conflict and envelopes increasingly wider swaths of American society.
Both political parties have worked in perverse symbiosis to deliver this moment. The cynics of the right raised the tattered banners of ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-reliance’ before the bloodshot eyes of a debt-ensnared, sleep-deprived, downwardly mobile working population. Equally opportunistic liberal technocrats waved the flag of ‘communitarian hope’ and the indomitable ‘resilience’ of economically battered communities. The competition between the different wings of the ruling classes for what Bernard Stiegler calls “available brain space” of this country’s inhabitants boils down to slick equality sermons and motivational rants (e.g., “we are all in this together”). Ultimately, this serves to prop up and expand the systems of life-wrecking material inequality and social hierarchy. The rot hidden in these American Dream apples is aptly described by David Harvey in a felicitous and perhaps unintended Marxist kōan: “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals … the equality presupposed in the market exchange of things deludes us into a belief in the equality of persons.”
We are now at a tipping point. Absent radical structural changes effected by militant and sustained grassroots action, the multiplex crisis will accelerate death spirals, institutional collapses, environmental catastrophes, and state violence will become the daily bread of most people in this country.
III. Setting the World on Fire Begins in the Cold
I live in a radically different world than the one in which my father grew up. Yet, his refrain that life is hell has stuck with me. When I was a young man, I had the opportunity to undertake a thirty-day silent Ignatian retreat in the artic desert called rural Ontario in winter. I was too spiritually immature to absorb the insights that such an extraordinary experience afforded me. After all, I was barely out of my late childhood, or what we in this culture blithely call “adolescence.” After years of reflection, confusion, wrong turns, and false starts, I finally began to appreciate and live, albeit haltingly, the rich spiritual fruit of such an ambitious attempt at self-development in the service of others. Early on in his slyly titled The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola introduces his practitioners to what he called the First Principle and Foundation: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by this means to save their souls.”
The liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuria argued that Ignatius’s guiding statement is not some rock steady theological truth. Rather, it is a guide to navigate questions about the spiritual and political forces that emerge and claim us. How is it that the institutions controlling the commanding economic and political heights systematically block people from “praising, reverencing, and serving” each other and thereby God? What are the deadly consequences of being socialized in an ethos of competitive fear and narcissistic detachment as a knockoff version of a whole way of life? What happens when injustice, violence, and sheer cruelty make living a good life so damn hard and bedeviling?
Ellacuria redirects the traditional readings of the First Principle and Foundation from realm of the descriptive and normative into a register that is about “the future in the present” (to invoke the words of CLR James). The First Principle and Foundation is a diagnostic tool to reveal what liberation struggles and structural transformations are required to make the world safe for non-alienated labor, creativity, and sensuous human activity—all preconditions for the spirit.
Ellacuria’s and his colleagues’ effort to birth an Ignatian liberation spirituality was pressured by the the civil war that traversed El Salvador (Ellacuria’s adopted country) for three decades starting in the late 1960s. Theirs were not esoteric debates about Christian theology amongst the mandarin class. They were popular workshops for new methods of collective self-development from below.
In November 1989, in the midst of the last urban insurrection that the armed revolutionary movement would muster, Ellacuria’s life would be snatched away from him, along with five of his Jesuit brothers and two lay co-workers, when they were summarily executed at their campus residence by US-trained Salvadoran troops. The Salvadoran military high command made their operational goal crystal clear: they were after the presumed “intellectual authors” of the popular movement. They shot the Jesuits in the back of their heads, splattering brain matter on the lush green lawn in front of their house.
Murderous fascists, in the pay of U.S. officials, eschew metaphors and well-crafted talking points when theatrical brutality can get the job done just as nicely. Writing messages in innocent blood is the baroque poetry of ruling classes feeling the pinch of mass disillusion and rebellion.
IV. What is Hell?
Ignatius’s meditations on sin and hell employ language that is strange to many contemporary Christians. Having come of age spiritually in the progressive wing of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, it was certainly new and strange to me. It was light-years away from how I understand the role of spirit and evil in the world today. Ignatius, like Martin Luther—his better trained and more erudite theological opponent—was a product of both the late medieval and early modern periods. Loyola and Luther were transitional world-historical figures that embodied the contradictions of what was dying and what was not yet fully birthed. They have become exemplars of the vibrantly emergent practices and experiences which would inaugurate a bloody global epoch—a new hell—as Europe plundered the Americas.
With all due respect to the venerable Dante, hell is a prodigiously unnuanced concept. Ignatius demonstrates this point in his stark contemplations on hell. Yet, lack of subtlety can be a blank canvass for our desires and spiritual imaginations. Even in my youth, the provocation to contemplate hell produced an image that tarries with me, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a midnight contemplation, as polar winds rushed against the retreat house chapel, a startling and malevolent image flashed across my mind’s eye: my thin, curly-haired self, bound and gagged, sitting on a 1980’s subway bench. My gaze was frozen on an infant crawling happily to the edge of the platform and falling onto the rails. I could not respond to the evil happening before me. I was definitely in hell, but—by some ineffable magic—not of it. I could only hear infantile screams of pain. I felt the rush of hot, grimy air as the D train approached the filthy subway stations of New York City, awakening from the nightmare of its long 1970’s fiscal crisis. In that image-space, I was cognizant of the danger to an innocent as an indifferent machine rushed into a toddler to tender injury into carnage—yet I was powerless.
In that long-ago contemplation, images of evil rendered me helpless. Like many spontaneous dream-like images that surface in our awareness after weeks of enforced silence, their starkness unnerves us. They reveal the violent entanglements that surround and subsume us at every waking and dreaming moment of our lives. Was I the bound and frustrated rescuer or the toddler in distress? Was I the train on its way to pulverizing a child already in pain? Perhaps, I was all three: a fearful trinity laboring to unveil the violence that had found safe harbor in my spiritual imagination. In this life, there are no permanent safe harbors, only temporary respites from the storms and occasional smooth sailing on the distant horizons we call futures.
V. Screams of Hope Can Make Our Gardens Grow
My old man was right. Life can be hell. For most working people, life during a multiplex crisis is hell. The destructive synergy of four crises devours their futures. These crises feast on those who were relegated to the wasteland of surplus labor decades ago by the masters of the economy’s commanding heights. Now many languish in unemployment, disease and prison. They have been deemed useless for capital’s circuits of exploitation and valorization. Flesh and blood are now reconfigured as cadaverous accounting errors in capital’s global spreadsheet. What remains but fear?
Thomas Aquinas contended that “fear is caused by the imagination of a future evil which is either corruptive or painful.” Fear of a future evil is the rope and scaffold by which ruling classes seek to demobilize their subject populations. Our class enemies benefit enormously when fear pervades our lives such that we can only imagine social pain and morally disordering chaos as our future and destiny. In his usual perceptive manner, Aquinas centers the imagination as fear’s privileged place of intervention. The multiplex crisis produces a social imaginary full of fear, rage, panic and debilitating isolation.
But it has also given rise to the life-affirming rebellions we are witnessing throughout this country. Too fed up to play by the rigged rules anymore, younger generations have transfigured an all-pervasive fear into righteous rage and transformative action. They embody what social psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove calls the scream:
“[W]e know that this scream at this moment holds much more than the rage at police brutality: the path of the coronavirus has revealed the dense fabric of inequality in a manner we have never seen before, the Grim Reaper striding the paths of social stratification to take the weak, the marginalized, the exposed, while those with wealth and power tweet their derision and deny shelter to the terrified. This particular scream has risen from the streets to reach into the hearts of all of us … In this moment we both feel the scream and see the system that is hurting all of us.”
Fullilove names with precision the demons, the powers and the principalities of our deadly political and spiritual conjuncture. We are contending against a “dense fabric of inequality,” one that strangles and suffocates our folks day in and day out. It is the opposite of a generous safety net: it is a predator’s grapple that leaves our people gasping for air instead of developing their vital human capacities for the common good. The fabric of inequality chokes out the possibility of a livable future with each tug of its layered skein. The intensifying racialized biopolitical class war against working people intends for our collective utopian desires to be stymied or rerouted into the trivialities of consumption in a digital age. How do we imagine something beyond our fears of “future evil”?
For many of us, George Floyd’s pleas for succor resound in our collective soul. We feel his “I can’t breathe” as our own exclamation against the crises that hem us in and heap hellfire in our imaginations. Radical politics lives or dies from the eyes in. What did we hear and see as we watched the video of this Black man’s life being brutally stolen from him? In his final moments of life, Floyd called upon his mother. He appealed to the person in his life who embodied the relentlessness of a disciplined and merciful love, in and out of season. As he was executed, George Floyd invoked the gentle view of a woman who brought him into the world and cared for him, body and soul, until her breath left her.
If there is a beatific vision after this life, which my tradition calls God, then it is a mother’s loving gaze upon her child in his final transition. It is that or it is nothing at all. While in the death grip of a white man with a badge, Floyd’s appealed to his departed mother—and thereby to the communion of saints that all Christians recognize as our blessed spiritual interlocutors. George Floyd’s life must be honored in a way that goes beyond fears of future evils. Floyd and his mother call out to us: build peoples workshops, ones that create the conditions for becoming fully human, for a time when revolution and historical reckoning is upon us.
VI. Returning to the Garden
Often, my father’s wisdom and images of his summer garden ripe for the harvest return to me in a rush of sounds, images, and tastes. What possible good harvest comes from fields plowed and seeded during a multiplex crisis? At this historical moment, life is hell. What a knot of contradictions and paradoxes our lives are as we survive or fall ill during these unbearable times. My old man knew more than I was ever taught in school.
Why do I return in my heart and mind to that small Jersey garden? My father’s hands and the generations before him that worked the lands spread across three continents were trying to feed the future. They were untying the brutal knots of their times with the two things that were truly theirs: love and time. That’s all they had. That’s all we have. Our time has come to undo knots of hate, exploitation, malevolent indifference, and evil structures let loose on the most vulnerable. What a simple lesson is ours to learn: if life is hell, then keep on planting and tending to your garden. If you work it long enough, it will embrace the whole world and all creatures in need of respite and refuge.
Edgar Rivera Colón PhD, a medical anthropologist, teaches in Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. He does spiritual direction work with religious activists. He’s the creator of the podcast, Karl Marx Ate My Field Notes. Edgar now lives and writes in East Los Angeles.