Citizen Of The Soul

This piece, by Paul Feather, explores what it means to be a citizen of system ruled by the machine, placing it in context of the recent elections that offers no real choice to the voters.


By Paul Feather / November 3, 2020

I voted today, even though I think it’s a crock of shit.

It’s easy enough and doesn’t hurt anything. At least not as far as I can tell. I took the sticker that proclaims, “I secured my vote,” from the smiling lady by the exit, but I didn’t post a selfie with the sticker to let everyone else know how easy that was, or how civic minded I am, or to remind them of their duty to democracy. Don’t get me wrong. I hope all y’all vote. Go team.

I won’t say that voting doesn’t matter. I’m sure it does. If nothing else, votes are expensive. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump and Clinton spent a combined 1.8 billion dollars on their campaigns with Clinton outspending Trump by nearly two to one. Since there were about 129 million votes cast for these two candidates, this comes to about $14/vote, (with Clinton paying $19/vote and Trump paying a little less than $10). Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, got about 4.5 million votes and only paid about $2.60/apiece for them, but he didn’t scrape up too many at that price, and his campaign spending was literally pennies to Trump and Clinton’s dollars. I’m sure there’s more to it than money, but not terribly much more. Votes are expensive, and the more of them you need the more they cost. Roughly speaking, I figure my vote for president’s worth about 15 bucks.

So by all means, go spend your vote, but can we stop pretending that it’s worth much more than dinner for two at a cheap Mexican joint? (Throw in the value of the down-ticket votes and you’ve earned a Miller Lite with your chile relleno.) Can we stop pretending that this is the most important election of our lifetimes? Can we stop pretending that we’ve got to “vote like our democracy and freedom are on the line?” I hear people saying things like this, and I don’t even know what it means. How do you vote like your freedom’s on the line? You vote or you don’t. You can’t do it extra hard so it counts double. Damn straight our democracy’s on the line, but it ain’t the line outside the precinct. Vote, but can we stop pretending?

I feel like this election is something out of the Salem witch trials…

when Puritan settlers would throw a woman in the lake to see if she sank or swam; if she didn’t drown, they burned her. Poor Lady Liberty’s on trial for devil worship. The blue team will drown her, the red team will burn her, and there’s no way out of this one. Go team.

It’s not really a fair metaphor, I know. I’m comparing Lady Liberty to some poor woman that the Puritans probably killed for a heinous crime like midwifery, herbalism, or refusing to suck the parson’s cock. Lady Liberty is not that blameless lass, and if we’re equally lost when we sink or swim, maybe we should admit to some dealings with the devil. Not you, of course. Nor me either, but the whole body politic of the USA—who will ostensibly choose a president next week—has sold its soul for sure.

That’s why we can’t tell what’s true anymore.

Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to be a citizen of the USA, and maybe I’m glad for that because I’m not sure how I’d choose. There are some obvious benefits. It’s possible to live off reasonably well in this country of what other people throw away. That—or rather the general opulence it implies—is a very big deal. But there are costs as well. Perhaps I lean too heavily on metaphor when I say we have sold our collective soul, but the food we eat is grown on land that was stolen from people who now go hungry. I don’t drink the water that was poisoned in the manufacture of the computer I use to write these words, but other people do. To be a citizen of the USA means that other people in other places will bear the material cost of our consumption, our decisions, and our lives.

We can imagine that the food we eat, our energy, our clothing, every need or whim that we fulfill finds provenance in a sort of materialist soul.

Without that food, we die. Without that warmth or clothing, we can’t survive. But we don’t fulfill these needs alone. The days of rugged self-sufficiency are over. We fulfill these needs as participants in the body politic. We will not eat without the functioning of a whole production and distribution system involving untold numbers of people—and very often sitting at the bottom on stolen land. What is the word for the totality of these systems that keep us alive both individually and collectively? This is literally the source of our being; it existed before we were born; and so I will call it our soul.

This soul of ours is not nice to look at, so mostly we don’t. We’d rather pretend we don’t have a soul, or that the source of our existence is abstract and ethereal. Fast for a week and get back to me on that one. I think when our soul is ugly—when the material systems that form the source of our existence are exploitative, unjust, and criminal—then we tend to turn away from that. We cover our soul up with distractions and stories we’d rather hear, but in doing this we deny the source of our existence. In the end—and this is starting to look like an ending—we lose our bearings. We can’t tell what’s true anymore.

When this happens, I suspect there is no way out. We will sink, or we will burn.

If, by chance, an individual attempts to come to terms with her soul, she may find the drama of presidential elections to be less exciting. Not because their outcomes don’t directly affect quality of life for a great many people. I’m sure they do, so go vote. But if one places her full attention upon our soul—again speaking of the whole and material systems that are the source of our lives—she will be disappointed to find that no one else is talking about this. She will not be able to play with either team.

The other thing this individual will notice (if she hadn’t already) is that neither side is willing to look at the truth about who we are and how we got here, and so both sides are locked inside of a strange simulacrum of the world that has no soul. In that world, the only thing that matters is power, and the only way to get votes is to buy them.

The soul functions as a bedrock of reality…

for without it we are dead—and in its absence nothing is real, nothing is sacred; we find ourselves in a post-truth world where the only thing that matters is power.

A soulful vision perceives our electoral process to be a sham, not only because that vision is entirely unrepresented, but because the process itself isn’t sacred. There is no integrity, no trust; it’s not even possible to cheat, because the only real rule—the only sacred thing—is power. It’s not cheating as long as you win, and deep down everyone knows this. We may be close to the breaking point—where the absence of any inviolable law forces one or both contenders to claim the presidency on terms of power alone. We won’t be able to pretend anymore, and I don’t expect that’ll be pretty.

I suspect the only way out is this: to turn the consciousness of the body politic to the real and material systems that support our lives. To illuminate the soul. We can fight about two healthcare systems that are equally devoid of connection to the source of our medicine, or we can bring people to that source. We can vote for one or another plan to keep anonymously packaged food on indistinguishable grocery shelves, or we can anchor our souls in the black dirt of home. This collective shift may not be wholly possible until our souls become so hollow that they collapse and people die—it may be that this is already happening—but incremental shifts toward soulful connection are possible and even inevitable.

You may (and certainly should) attempt to recover your soul on your own, but I’ll warn you that this attempt will be only partially successful. There may once have been a time when there were enough commons left that one could escape into them and live on chestnuts and game, but the commons are now fenced, and the chestnuts are gone. You will continue to live alongside and even inside the soulless simulacrum that we have co-created.

If this election has stirred up a brief moment of civic-mindedness, I hope to leverage that moment not to remind you to #vote, but to question our concept of citizenship. Materially, what are we citizens of except of this massive machine that keeps us alive—that moves bananas and timber and textiles from wherever they’re produced to wherever someone needs them to live? And although most of our consumption goes far beyond mere survival, the conditions of our survival must be met. It is the machine that meets them. You and I are citizens of the machine. Look at it. Look at it squarely. Do not flinch. That machine is your soul. That machine is your center.

Let us stop pretending.


Note: Editor’s introduction to the piece has been edited.

One thought on “Citizen Of The Soul”

  1. I’m slightly puzzled by the editors’ introduction of this piece as an exploration of being a ‘citizen of the land.’ That is almost the opposite of what this piece is about. Perhaps this is a misinterpretation of my meaning. Perhaps it is a hastily written comment upon a hastily read essay by someone with legitimately more important things to do. Perhaps there is not too much meaning to be found here, but I can’t resist the impulse (or perhaps the obligation) to point out that this confusion precisely illustrates the point of my essay.

    It would be so nice to be a ‘citizen of the land’. That is a phrase that rolls pleasantly off the tongue and soothes the soul, but that is not who I am. Nor likely you. I’m sure in some abstract sense we are all citizens of the land—for the land is what supports us all—but between myself and the land I find interposed this industrial machine. I was born into this machine, and in forty years of striving I find no way out. It is not clear that I will ever escape. Not at all.

    This is an essay about being honest with ourselves about who we are. We belong to the material systems that literally produce our existence. We belong to the machine, but we pretend we do not. Perhaps we pretend so much that we find romantic reflections upon communion with land in what I’d hoped was an honest assessment of the barriers to that communion.

    Perhaps I’m just not such a good writer.

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