Spirituality: when our lives leak out of capitalism's pipelines

This is the first in a series of pieces analyzing contemporary spirituality and its relationship to the capitalist system.  When I'm done with all of these essays, I hope to put them together into a 'zine. 

My goal in writing these pieces is to understand, cultivate, and sharpen our spiritual longings for total freedom and communization. However, I also aim to update and improve methods of radical social analysis in the process.  I have a hunch that improving how we analyze spirituality could improve how we analyze society in general.  That, in turn, could help give us more confidence to change it. 



The experiences we call spiritual are in fact real, embodied social experiences; they are connected to the politics, economics, and culture of the broader society we live in, though they can never be reduced to them.  We call these experiences spiritual precisely because they don't fit neatly into the identities and roles this society has set up for us, so they appear to be exceptional, or even sacred.  In other words, spirituality is one of the terms we use to describe the anomalous and mysterious aspects of capitalist society, the ways in which society cannot contain our desires and activities.

These anomalies are potentially subversive, or even revolutionary; some of them point in the direction of communization, anarchy, and the destruction of capitalism.  However, our spiritual anomalies are also coopted back into capitalism through society's spectacles, including religion, consumerism, new age self help cultures, and even some quasi-religious aspects of social movement activism.

For this reason, we often find spirituality on both sides of the barricades in contemporary social conflicts.  And this is significant because those barricades and conflicts aren't just in the streets; they are in our very minds and bodies.

Spirituality is our curves of flight, breaking out of the system's pipelines 

The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue that every society oozes out of itself. They call these flows "lines of flight" (1), though I think it would have been better if they called them curves since they are rarely straight and they run in all directions.  This image attempts to illustrate their metaphor:

The square along the outside symbolizes society.  It is composed of pipelines: all the ways in which our current political, economic, and social system channels and regulates the course of our lives.  For example, in the United States, it channels many black and brown youth on a pipeline directly from school to prison.  It channels other youth into college, student loan debt, and precarious low wage employment, and still others into managerial roles, relative privilege, and suicidal alienation.

In reality, society's pipelines are not a simple square.  The advanced capitalist society we live in is a giant, complex network of machinery that colonizes our bodies and minds, and those of many other species as well.  It forces the vast majority of us to divide our lives into commodities, and attaches those pieces of life to chains of other commodities.  Then it wrenches these commodities apart at a sickening rate, dragging our fragmented lives with them through twisting pipelines:  families, schools, machinery,  media, prisons, crashing stock markets, rising toxic oceans.

Capitalism forces us to divide ourselves into unstable and contradictory identities such as Black, White, Male, Female, Worker, Unemployed, Citizen, non-Citizen, recruiting some of us to help dominate the rest.  Then, when it doesn’t need us anymore, it spits out our broken bodyminds, cast among the  littered bodies of other beings, in a toxic, warming, hyper-surveiled landscape of prisons, ghettos, slums, nursing homes, and mental hospitals.

In this sense, capital is like a vampirish cybernetic machine.  It reproduces itself by sucking up our life energy, making us work and consume almost constantly.  It is so resilient because we can only reproduce our selves in our current form by also reproducing it.  It is a parasite and we are its hosts. If we want to dismantle it, we need to transform ourselves.

And, deep down we know that's possible, despite all of the mainstream media messaging aimed at convincing us there is no alternative.  Like any machine, this system has its weak points, joints in its pipes that are bent and corroded by the strains of our desires and efforts.  At these points, our lives start to break through in cascading curves of alternative possibilities, tentatively swarming toward each other like the illuminated strands in the image above.

You can feel this in the humid heat of crowded streets, in hip hop cyphers and protests, and sometimes at work when our routines are momentarily disrupted.  The air seems to be humming with people's curiosity about each other.  "What's good?"  "How you livin'?"  We are often afraid to ask, because we risk misunderstanding, violence, rejection, and confusion.  This society drills these evils into our flesh in various ways, keeping us in our places, re-encoding our positions in networks, hierarchies, and flows of power.

Nevertheless, we experience moments when we slip out of these roles, facing our fears, enticed by the possibility of finding each other weaving new lives.  The form of this emerging life becomes queer nonconformity, a unity-in-diversity that many people call the proletariat.

The proletariat is composed by people, groups, families, tribes, crews, and thousands of other social formations with different, uncanny experiences mingling and connecting together.  It is not mediated by the state and its straight lines. It is a complicated meshing of communities drawn into each other by the gravitational pull of each grouping's social density engaging each other in mutual orbits of creation and struggle.

I'm using the concept of the proletariat in ways that are very different from how it was used by 20th century orthodox Marxists.  They imagined a smooth class unified into a type of mass sameness by the discipline of the capitalist factory system, to the point where this class could build formal workers' organizations that would take over the state and the economy, forming socialist republics.

In this era of ecological and economic crisis, we the proletariat will need to abolish the state and the economy, not take it over.  And the unity we need to build in order to do this at a global scale can't require sameness or else we're doomed. We need to learn to come together in and through our differences.  In that sense, today's emerging proletariat is NOT a celebration of work, uniformity, and industrialism aimed at dominating the unemployed and the planet.  It is a living critique of work, uniformity, and industrialism.

However, this critique is also very different from many of the hip anti-Marxist theories that have proliferated the past few decades, including so-called spiritual or new-agey ones.  Instead of launching a critique of society from the halls of academia, from a bohemian subculture, or from a forest retreat, proletarians launch it from our workplaces, neighborhoods, and homes. Instead of writing articles about abolishing work and stress, or congratulating ourselves for avoiding it, we are trying to transform and transcend it together.

Our goal is total freedom, not just a new hip theory or scene sitting on the sidelines of the capitalist machine. The proletariat is not an identity or ideology, it is a practice of critical, mindful engagement with the contradictions of capitalism. That practice occurs within and against capitalism itself because that's the only place left for us after our ancestors were displaced from the land and we were forced to work or hustle to get by (2).

There are no mountains we can run to where we can find transcendence as pure individuals, cynically mocking the poor workers who are getting their hands dirtily literally and figuratively in the valleys below.  Those mountains are slated for demolition and strip mining if they haven't been moved already.

As we realize the magnitude of global climate change, nuclear armaments, and global assembly lines, we realize that everyone is tied up with capitalism's demons one way or the other,  since capital has devoured the entire planet.

So the proletariat is not a morally pure position.  It is part of capital: the part of capital that is trying to destroy capital, which means destroying its own identity and creating new ways of being and acting inside this planet.  Like Buddhists say, "Samara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samara".  Enlightenment- and revolution -begins in the messy heart of society itself.  The proletariat is the realization of our power to create together, in and through our differences, as we try to break out of the capitalist pipelines that channel us.

Potentials for communization and anarchy 

In the metaphorical diagram above, the center of our streaming curves of flight is empty.  The vortex effect of social mingling hurtles around a withdrawn object, a horizon of creative connection that we might call political love.  By love I don't mean Hollywood romance or private feelings.  I also don't mean the kind of self-sacrificing martyrdom preached by Che Guevara and some Christian preachers, where we suspend our own desire for intimacy with particular human beings in order to selflessly serve an abstraction called "the people" or "the poor".  All of those forms of love require people to become the same as they fall in love.  Like Michael Hardt,  I'm imagining a different type of love that explores differences, where falling in love changes everyone involved, where we bend our identities together.  This love is an abundant movement that transforms "everything for everyone" and defines equality not as sameness but as the sharing of life, "from each according to ability, to each according to need."

Millions of people used to call this communism before that term got distorted by 20th century "Communist" states, in the name of authoritarian party control.  But it remains a goal we strive for.  It is not a final endpoint or telos.  It is more like an ever-receding spiral that brings us further and further into possible futures we can create together.  In that sense, it is not just a goal, it is a process - it is our real motion as proletarians, something we can already name in its initial gestures.  Recently, some revolutionaries  have started to call it communization to emphasize this sense of dynamism.

As love's playful gravity pulls us together, our lines of flight bend the social positions within the pipelines where we first stated, until the system's architecture starts to feel like it might implode on itself.  If that happens it would leave us facing each other with total, intertwined freedom: what we might call anarchy.  Our previous identities, passports, birth certificates, or lack thereof would all be scattered as we bodysurf the waves of our becoming, together.

Curves of flight, evolution, and ruptures

Humans aren't the only lives that leak out of their identities.  The entire universe is always changing and moving, at different rhythms and paces that compose interweaving force fields of cosmodiversity and biodiversity.   Phenomena such as planets, species, and evolutionary processes are vibrant hyperobjects that fold and unfold themselves into new, temporary appearances for each other (3).  They have no essential identities because no being could ever experience every dimension of them; they can't even fully know themselves because they always exceed themselves.  They are advents, whose appearances and disappearances are acts composed by their interactions with other beings who are also changing and rupturing out of themselves.

Warm-blooded mammalian Earth life has flowed itself into plains, trees, high altitude air currents, and oceans, in diverse multitudes of giraffes, sloths, bats, dolphins, etc., each one constituted by its relations with numerous plants, bacteria, animals, and minerals.  These forms and identities that exist at any given moment are real, but never permanent.  They are animate, active beings, condensations and assemblages of life.   Their lives are not reducible to the linear, mechanical march of some hidden iron law such as "the survival of the fittest".   They are not the only way life might have grown historically, and they are constantly evolving themselves into something(s) else.

Humans are one small part of these processes, and we are also mutating our lives and societies in unexpected ways.  Our social identities (race, gender, class, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, culture, dis/ability, etc.) are real because our society makes them real and often enforces them with violence.  But our society is never still, and we do not statically accept its labels.  We strain against their constraints in multiple ways, some public, some private, and some both.

Many of the ways we bend our identities have not even been named yet, and we are scared to talk about them together because it's still too dangerous.  The system invests heavily in controlling these processes, because some mutations of our lives may even lead to breaks and leaps in social evolution, what we call revolutions.  These are the exhilarating and terrifying realizations we have in our deepest spiritual experiences.  Someday they may simply be everyday life, in a new society we create together. 

All of this echoes the Buddhist claim that liberation comes from letting go of static personal selfhood in a universe where nothing is permanent.  New possibilities are always opening up, as people and things seep out of our identities.

This process does not fit neatly within the borders of the individual person, or within the borders of any given nation, race,  gender, or ideology.  It oozes out of our experiences in multiple directions, defying the categories we use to explain it.  It happens within the individual, and among individuals as we interact, overlapping with our selves.  Instead of seeing ourselves as individuals (that which cannot be divided), it might make more sense to see ourselves as singularities - dense bundles of life that are connected with lives around us, and around the world. 

Lines of flight are these curves of connection.  They are like desires, but we  are not talking about my desires, or yours.  We are talking about a process of becoming that seems to take hold of me, you, and others, unleashing life we didn’t’ know we had in us.  It happens to us, yet it isn't an automatic process and it can't happen without our consent and assent.  It is our creativity because it is something we do and make, but its something we can only become together.   It is a creativity that bursts the limits of our selves and the borders between us.

This is not the kind of desire that the Buddha claimed leads to suffering.  That is a desire to possess things without letting them change.  It is our patterns of clinging to identities.  This is a desire to explore change itself, like many of us do when we meditate. 

This seems like a useful way to think about spirituality.  Spirituality is the word we give to some of our curves of flight, to some ruptures in the system's pipelines, and to the moments when we seep, flow, or gush beyond the borders of our selves. 

Spirituality is notoriously difficult to define rigorously.  Perhaps that's because it is not one thing.

Spirituality is all of our experiences and desires that  run in different directions, experiences and desires that society can't easily capture and digest, though as I describe below, it certainly tries to do that through religion, spectacle, ideology, and the self-help industrial complex.

Because it leaks from all parts of society, spirituality does not confine itself to answering the questions posed by philosophy and religion. It also overlaps with questions posed by biology, art,  physics, psychology, education, political and social movements, creative writing, sexuality, and many other currents of thought and action.

Spirituality is an array of experiences that may even appear irrational.  But that's just because society has defined rationality as what makes money, and our lives seem to disagree.     

This doesn't mean that spirituality is separate from society or that it transcends the planet.  There is no need to keep our heads in the clouds (unless we are trying to think about how they're full of carbon dioxide and what we ought to do about that).

Like the smell of weed smoke emerging from the apartment downstairs, spirituality might float spectrally beyond its point of origin, penetrating us and altering our perceptions before we are able to think about it.  But the aroma itself is physical, and we can trace its source back to the social experiences that emitted it.  It can never be reduced to these experiences because it has already intermingled with, shaped, and shaded everything else it has touched, including us. 

Spirituality is an engine of desire that fuels capitalism; religion is how the system harnesses its energy

Some may notice I'm using the terms spirituality and religion quite loosely.  Especially here in Seattle, you will hear people make harder distinctions, saying things like "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual."

I think it's impossible to create a pure spirituality that is free from religion; religion and spirituality are defined by each other and are constantly changing each other.   Some people reject organized religion, but everything in life is organized in some way, whether informally or formally.  The positive thrust of spiritual movements is their rejection of rigid hierarchy and dogma.  But every spiritual movement is itself in danger of forming new dogmas and hierarchies.   

One way to think of it is that spirituality is society leaking out of itself, and religion is an attempt to capture those leaks in buckets and to make them useful for society once again. The term religion comes from the Latin religare, meaning to bind or re-link.  It's a kind of psychosocial harvesting. It reconnects our curves of flight with capitalism's pipelines. 

However, it's important to recognize that organized religion is not the only social structure that preforms this act of harvesting.  It's actually a crucial part of contemporary capitalism itself, in all of its spectacles.  This means that it's also happening in "spiritual" circles such as new age bookstores, yoga studios, and so on. 

It even reproduces itself in social movements and among revolutionaries who are trying to overthrow capitalism.  Protests, community gardens, cooperatives, and radical organizations can also develop their own religious dynamics, even if they claim to be atheistic.  Instead of telling people to work and sacrifice their lives to wait for pie in the sky when you die, some of them tell people to work and sacrifice their lives to wait for the Rapture Revolution.

Others claim to have spiritually transcended capitalism, just like the local new age gurus.  They create puritanarchist subcultures, looking down on all the people who are caught up in work and consumption, claiming they're all brainwashed sheeple.  We, the revolutionaries are the elect, the city on the hill; the people outside are the damned.  Of course, this is all a fantasy.  These subcultures themselves are part of capital too, and it should be no surprise when all sorts of oppressive social relationships and behaviors reemerge within them.  

All of this would be consistent with Deleuze and Guattari's insight that capitalist society is driven by its lines of flight; it is constantly catching up with itself.  Like a cowboy, capitalism lets our desires roam free across colonized plains.  But when it's time to make a profit, it also lassos us in, turning the energies we've absorbed from our journeys into meat they can sell on the market.  

This can now be specified in very precise ways, even if it it's extremely difficult to map.  For example, with the logistics revolution and the rise of just-in-time production, capitalist corporations like Wal Mart track the emerging desires of U.S. consumers, logging every sale at the cash register.  This information travels at the speed of light to factories in places like China's Pearl River Delta, where assembly lines are rapidly revamped and retooled, and migrant workers are called in on overtime to produce new products that will meet our desires.  They produce iPads and laptops, but also Buddha statues and yoga mats.

This analysis is also consistent with the autonomist Marxist observation that capitalism's dynamism comes from its attempts to coopt working class movements.  Multitudes of working and unemployed people struggle to live differently, and capitalism has to constantly reorganize itself to meet these desires in order to stave off revolution.  Certainly, the growth and proliferation of new forms of religion today are part of that.  It is a dynamic source of growth for capitalist societies and economies, fueled by all of the daily resentments, hopes, and experiments that working class people conduct in our lives.  

In this sense, we can expect that religion will be on both sides of the barricades in any social movement - it will be there inspiring and sustaining us when we rise up against capitalism, but it will also be there trying to coopt and control our movements.  That's why we need a complex engagement with religion and spirituality, not simply a dogmatic rejection of it, or embrace of it.  We should always be asking which spiritual or religious practice are we talking about, what are its social origins and effects, and is it helping or hurting our struggles for freedom?

To be continued…



1)  Deleuze, Gilles. (2007).  Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. New York: Semiotext(e).

2) Thoburn, Nick. (2003).  Deleuze, Marx, and Politics.  New York: Routledge.

3) Morton, Timothy. (2013).  Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.