That's Barbara Ehrenreich's sobering new perspective on political history, delivered in her new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (Metropolitan Books, 320 pages). Ehrenreich, a heroine of the left, describes in enlightening detail the history of the governing elite's suppression of people-power as expressed in ecstatic dance, common rituals, festivals, music and rhythms, carnivals, and organized and spontaneous gatherings.
The suppression of festivities and ecstatic rituals was the conscious work of authorities "who saw in them a real and urgent threat," she writes. "When one class, or ethnic group or gender, rules over a population of subordinates, it comes to fear the empowering rituals of the subordinates as a threat to civil order." Europeans in America certainly knew that feeling when, huddled in fear, they listened to the war drums of dancing Native Americans.
The ecstatic rituals of bygone societies appeared to the Western mind as primitive, savage, and irrational. But beginning in the 1930s, anthropologists agreed the rituals serve a functional or rational purpose as a form of communal bonding. The anthropological term "communitas" was coined, meaning the solidarity that arises when a community of equals shares their emotional life and absorbs the pleasure of each other's happiness. The intense feeling of solidarity among the participants of collective ritual appears to have been essential to village and tribal protection in earlier times and, as Ehrenreich says of the present, may be the basis of effective grassroots political action.
The love that binds people to the collective hasn't apparently been registered lately in our hearts, witness the rise of narcissism and the collapse of civility. Our glorious leaders trumpet the merits of individual striving, family bonds, and patriotism as the prime ingredients of nationhood. Patriotism, for one, is an emotion that often bypasses any connection to fellow citizens, with love directed instead to the nation. The greatest pleasure, our leaders say, is found in our own personal achievement and powers of accumulation.
Religion has paraded through the breach of this emotional emptiness, making zealots and fundamentalists of lost souls. Religion can bind us to the wheel of fate. In the author's words, the "cold and Calvinist business" of religion tells us, for the good of our soul, "Curb your drinking, learn to rise before the sun, work until dark, and be grateful for whatever you're paid." Meanwhile, carnival has reappeared somewhat lamely as sports experiences, this weekend's Super Bowl being the communal highlight of the year, our commercialized bonding through the tedium of television.
The suppression of communal spirit may have spawned another dire effect. At some point in the 1600s, "in town after town throughout the northern Christian world, the music stops," Ehrenreich writes. "Carnival costumes are put away or sold, dramas that once engaged a town's entire population are canceled; festive rituals are forgotten or preserved only in tame and truncated form." The ecstatic possibility . . . "is now harried from the streets and public squares." The author wonders whether the still-ongoing worldwide epidemic of depression and anxiety, which most noticeably appeared in Europe at this same period of the 1600s, is due to the suppression of the traditional festivities of human history and the lost opportunity they offered for collective joy. She traces the occurrence of this wave of melancholy through medical reports of the time, as well as through the writings and histories of John Bunyan, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Gray, John Donne, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Baudelaire, and James Boswell.
Ehrenreich references Sigmund Freud on occasion but neglects to mention that the superego (Freud's term for self-aggression) is an inner killjoy that contributes to anxiety and depression. Psychoanalysis has concerned itself with the question of how the superego enlists the precepts of the Protestant ethic to torment modern humans for failing to measure up to the expectations of religion and capitalism. The loss of collective joy appears to have made us more vulnerable in our lonely inner stand against the superego.
The author observes that both religion and capitalism have been blamed for the crackdown on the people's pleasure. She attributes the true source, however, to the existence of a social hierarchy and its hostility to festivals and ecstatic rituals that goes back "at least to the city-states of ancient Greece." As she says, the people's communal exuberance was known to be empowering and was therefore considered a challenge to the rule of the elite.
Yes, the elite fears civil disorder. But is there not the possibility of a deeper fear that the author might have considered, a profound fear of truth itself? This possibility can be perceived through modern-day elitist behaviors. Members of our American political and economic elite are keepers of secrets, cover-uppers of incompetence, "pluggers" of leaks, obstructionists of truth, and hoarders of classified documents. Their specialty is lying, spinning, manipulating, denying, and propagandizing. Applying simple logic, we can deduce that their compulsive distortions of reality would indeed appear to spring from a fear of truth.
They fear truth on all levels, but on the deepest level they fear exposure of what might be the greatest truth-that humanity is an interdependent collective on a destiny-or-bust, everybody-or-nobody, cosmic ride across the millennia to the heaven or hell of our own making. Such fundamental commonality strips the rich and powerful--those diverters from destiny--of all pretence. For them, to be one with us is to be nothing--meaningless non-entities perishing in the void. No terrorist can frighten them like the prospect of that feeling.
The dance, meanwhile, tells us that nobody is better than us. Through the dance we feel this truth. Our greatest pleasure is the happiness we share together, even with strangers. We celebrate our oneness when we dance in the streets.