Embrace ‘holistic anarchy’ and lose your anxiety, guilt and fear

Daniel Pinchbeck’s new book offers a revolutionary view of how to live

Daniel Pinchbeck isn’t bothered by ridicule, and was forced into considering big questions at a young age

Daniel Pinchbeck isn’t bothered by ridicule, and was forced into considering big questions at a young age


Daniel Pinchbeck has the pleasingly dishevelled bohemian air of a sociology professor that you might expect. Some writers don’t fit the imagined persona that their work forms in the reader’s mind, but Pinchbeck is exactly as you’d imagine; all glasses, pensive expression and affable eloquence. His essays and articles have appeared in publications like The New York Times and Rolling Stone. A well-known proponent of the benefits of psychedelics, his 2002 book on shamanism and the cultural history of psychedelic use, Breaking Open the Head, excited considerable discussion. He also wrote 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, a reflection on the end of the Mayan calendar and its congruence with what Pinchbeck sees as the direction modern humanity is taking.

It is difficult to decide whether Pinchbeck is a visionary or too new-age for most people’s comfort. His sweeping analyses and fondness for some of the more obscure aspects of Eastern philosophy seem to encompass elements of both. His latest book, How Soon is Now?: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation might be described as one of the most ambitious publications in several decades. Whether by virtue of insight or naivety – the reader will no doubt decide – Pinchbeck has created an all-encompassing, pragmatic theory of how human beings should live. In the modern era, specialisation characterises academic research, but Pinchbeck has ignored convention and chosen a return to big-picture thinking. He has done this because, as he declares in the first pages of the book “ . . . our industrial civilization has unleashed an ecological mega-crisis. We are threatened with an imminent planetary cataclysm that could drive us to extinction.”

Born to Bohemian parents in 1966 within what he describes as “the centre of the psychedelic New York counter culture” Pinchbeck’s upbringing heavily influenced his world view and intellectual process. He describes his work as “offering an alternative for how we could move forward as a species” and envisions a post-capitalist, post-property and post-work society in which individuals can flourish to their full potential and governments have minimal power.

This, he says, is out of necessity. “Most people are trapped in a more scientific or rationalist or capitalist mindset, believing we’re going to keep going with this sort of exploitation or empire kind of thing. I don’t think we can go much further with that because of what’s happening to the life support systems of the planet. We really need a fully developed, articulated radical alternative to what’s happening.”

How Soon is Now? is a sort of Utopian guidebook, and Pinchbeck hopes it will incite what he calls “holistic anarchy”; a collectivised movement for change “from the ground up”.

Very ill as a child

There is always the temptation to dismiss people and ideas imagining a wholly different world, but there is much in How Soon is Now? to admire, challenge and engage seriously with. Pinchbeck isn’t bothered by ridicule, and was forced into considering big questions at a young age. “I was very ill as a child. I had an infection in my spine and was in a body cast for six or eight months and really felt the hovering presence of death and this question of the point of it all. The question stayed with me. Later, working as a journalist, I was studying the ecological crisis and realised that people were too distracted to deal with what was happening to our shared earth.”

This incited a personal change in Pinchbeck himself – “It forced me to come to terms with the scepticism, the cultural nihilism, the cynicism that I had and then to do something about it. My books come from an anxiety that I’ve always felt. I used to go to bookstores and think ‘Where’s that book that can explain the questions that are tormenting me?’ Finally, I realised that book didn’t exist, so I’d better write it myself.”

Pinchbeck’s manifesto for large-scale change is not perfect, and its imperfections arise from the same characteristic that makes his work so accessibly relatable – his tendency to personalise. He engages in an indulgent degree of inductive logic, by which he extrapolates large generalisations about the world and humankind from his own personal experiences.

However, these problems don’t make his cause less noble, and Pinchbeck has achieved the rare feat of successfully resisting being pigeonholed into a fixed point on the political spectrum. He is a sort of Libertarian, advocating minimal government and a simplified form of direct democracy, but has an evident loathing of what he terms “the system – the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, the corporate mega-machine”.

Where Pinchbeck’s perspective gets really interesting is in its basic interpretation of human nature. His theory of holistic anarchism is dependent on voluntarism, which he argues arises naturally after crises occur.

Human solidarity

The theory is entirely dependent upon what he believes to be the fundamental good of human nature. Referencing the work of Rebecca Solnit, who has written about instances of human solidarity after disasters, Pinchbeck believes that the ecological crisis which will inevitably result from our environmental practices will bring us together. He believes this will result in “ . . . the next level of evolution-as-revolution [which] will free humanity from vacant consumerism and hyper-individualism. People will be free to be – no longer surfing waves of anxiety, guilt, fear, status envy, fear; no longer driven to compete against each other for survival.”

Pinchbeck’s new order of society relies on individuals putting aside short-term personal gain for long-term collective goals. He says “there’s a lot of good evidence to show that when disasters happen, people actually shift into a very altruistic framework. They overcome their ego and rush to help other people. It happened in the UK during the second World War. Service is the way that we find real joy.”

For Pinchbeck, the problem is not human nature, about which he is very optimistic, but systems and ideologies. The issue of the tragedy of the commons, in which people have a tendency to abuse shared resources for their personal gain, or neglect to do their fair share when responsibility is everyone’s rather than that of a particular person or people (think of a shared student or office kitchen, for example) might pose a problem for Pinchbeck. He doesn’t even pause before disagreeing. “I believe the Buddhist interpretation that humans are basically good is truer than the more negative Western Christian interpretation of intrinsically sinful human nature.”

He insists that it is “absolutely possible for us to become more decentralized, to grow more of our own food and engage directly in democracy”. The problem is, according to Pinchbeck, that we are “trapped in outmoded ideologies – political, economic and in some cases religious, that are not allowing us to really access our creative capacities”.

Though the ideology and approach of his system feel somewhat detached from the disadvantaged people whose equality and inclusion it is particularly concerned with, Pinchbeck’s stalwart belief in the possibility for change is inspiring. He’s aware of the scale of the task he’s created for himself. “It’s going to take people a while to assimilate and absorb these ideas, but I think that they will inspire change.”

How Soon Is Now?: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation by Daniel Pinchbeck is published by Watkins and available now at €17.99

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