By John Monroe
In particular, Marx neglects the role of the witch-hunts, which was a major war on women where hundreds of thousands of women were arrested, tortured, killed, burned on village squares. He also does not discuss the role of legislation that penalized all forms of contraception and control over the process of biological reproduction, or legislation that introduced a new type of family, a new type of sexual relations. That placed the body of women under the tutelage of the state. What you begin to see with the development of capitalism is a policy that looks at the body of women and procreation as a fundamental aspect of the production of the workforce. In that sense, with the development of capitalism women’s’ bodies are turned into machines for the production of workers, which explains why these very fierce and bloody laws against women are instituted where capital punishment is administered for any form of abortion.
The Kurdish resistance in the northern Mesopotamian region has called attention to itself as it has emerged as the most effective ally to Western powers against ISIL. In particular, the women’s defense militias have gained international renown for their fearless struggles against the Islamic extremists, which in turn has called up the strong feminist politics of the Kurdish militants.
On the other end of the spectrum is the now infamous PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party, which remains a terrorist organization on US, EU and Turkish lists (despite offspring organizations being current military allies of the US and others). In fact, at the moment, the PKK remains on these lists despite the fact that the Iranian organization Hezbollah, which has been supporting autocrat Assad in Syria, has recently been removed.
As a student of dialectics, I can’t help but note the irony of this massive, structurally-produced contradiction: while the US fights with Kurds against ISIL terrorists, it continues to denounce the PKK as itself terrorist. Mind you, the Kurdish Worker’s Party does have a long history of violence, but this has unfolded in the incredibly oppressive conditions under the Turkish state and within the crucible of Western imperialism. There is a lot of criticism of the PKK, and especially surrounding its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK, as a socialist and formerly Marxist party, is controversial on those grounds alone, amongst both the mainstream and other revolutionary tendencies. As a theoretician, Öcalan tends to essentialize both the racial history and identity of the Kurds, and the political/social roles of women and men. As a program, the PKK has made a priority of creating ‘new men and women’ – attempting to create ideal social actors within the current oppressive conditions. This has led to accusations of brain-washing. In short, a lot of classic criticisms of the Left can be and have been launched against the PKK as a revolutionary organization.
And yet, this is the militant group developed the incredibly effective men and women’s defense militias, not only surviving but gaining force in the hottest combat zone on the planet. So even if it is the case that the official ideology is theoretically weak or that there are internal leadership problems, it is clear that as a whole the Left Kurdish resistance has a deep organizational wisdom. (Beyond this, we can look at the Constitution of the Rojava Cantons, an institutional embodiment of Kurdish autonomism, though not reducible ideologically or historically by any means to the PKK).
I will take it as a principle of this essay that we may take core pieces of the PKK ideology and set them critically to work without being committed to the particular problems of the organization. So, in order to bypass a lot of important debate, I am going to focus on the conjunction of three PKK ideas with what I see as the militant possibilities emerging from the Western polytheist movement. These ideas are:
- If mass factory workers provided the revolutionary impetus in Europe during the 1800s and first half of the 1900s, and if colonized people in national liberation struggles represented the point of radical militancy in the second half of the 1900s, then now the global liberation movement hinges on the role of militant women.
- The dominant male is a socially-constructed type that has been at the root of class society since its inception and needs to be made an object not only of critique, but attack.
- Theory needs to move beyond its fetishization of mathematics and the subject-object model, especially as it is thought in the experimental sciences. It needs to think itself in mythological terms.
In this, the PKK is attempting to go beyond the limits of the revolutionary party offered by both the classic Bolshevik-turned-Stalinist Communist Party and the various National Liberation parties that came to power after World War II. In both of these cases, there was a tendency to see ‘scientific socialism’ as a war of science against not only ruling class ideas, but everything that seemed primitive and therefore reactive. Mythology was looked at as necessarily obscurantist, a tool for controlling the minds of the masses. It had to be replaced by history, science and mass culture.
The primary reason that all revolutions, whether the French, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, African or Latin American varieties, have so far collapsed inwards has been the overwhelming force and brutality of global imperialism. After that, we can begin to critique its revolutionary actors, theory, etc. To start with the revolution, ideas and those who carried them out, without taking into account the unaccountable horror of the capitalist system, is methodologically unsound and politically unfair. Though of course it is an automatic procedure today by ideologists of all kinds.
This isn’t to say we don’t critique the radical past. This is precisely what the PKK is attempting to do. First, they shift the revolutionary subject from the factory worker or the Third World peasant to women as such. Öcalan focuses on Muslim women, so many of whom live under the double tyranny of fundamentalist Islamic misogyny and Western imperialist anti-Islamism. However, we find that women everywhere have been brutally exploited by capital and thoroughly terrorized by its ruling class. Nor is this incidental. The Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici argues that capitalism had to terrorize women in order to establish itself. (See her Caliban and the Witch and Witch-Hunting.) This was prior to the brutalities of colonization and the slave trade, those two bloody pillars of the global market. Before the world system could be built, the European regime had to be established. And this required the introduction of what we today call rape culture.
Federici examines the role of systemic misogyny in the building of capitalist exploitative systems. In the late Middle Ages, the Black Plague struck Europe and decimated the population. This most affected the working-class, which had been urbanizing. As a result, the labor pool dropped, supply decreased, and the prices for labor grew. Through this collective economic power, the medieval proletariat was able to begin to gain social and political equity.
The ruling classes of Europe– feudal lords, church officials, and city merchants –fought back against the rising working-class by developing new forms of exploitation. Enclosures – which privatized communal peasant land for commercial exploitation by the powerful – were implemented. The role of communal land was of course essential to the medieval peasant. Decimated by these enclosures, peasants were forced to relocate to the growing cities and sell their labor-power at the dirt-cheap prices capitalists could get away with paying. A template of the pitting of the working-class against itself in competition to survive. Centuries later, this process would be implemented, yet again, in 1990s North America with the passage of NAFTA.
This feudal ruling class was destined to be the predecessor to the capitalist class, the most successful, brutal and degenerate ruling class in human history. They had to meet their task, these aristocrats, bishops and grand urban bankers. And they did, with zeal.
Throughout the 1300s and 1400s, the opening shots were launched. The European ruling class decriminalized rape against proletarian women. Let’s be very clear on this:
The leadership of Europe made it SOCIALLY TOLERABLE for packs of young men in European cities to rape women – SO LONG AS THEY WERE POOR.
To augment the process, the Church permitted the opening of brothels throughout Europe, so that women socially stigmatized by rape could be integrated into a new sex industry. They made less and had less social power. Win-win for the ruling class, which was reinforcing its own patriarchal foundations in the glorification of brave knights and virtuous ladies. Not unlike the racist terror regime of Jim Crow, carried out while Southern fraternities and sororities celebrated the glories of white culture.
The brutalization that occurred in this process laid the groundwork for the Witch Trials. As Federici points out, the Witch Trials were not hysterical acts of outdated barbarism. They didn’t “just happen to happen” because of crazy religious beliefs. No, the Witch Trials were primarily a political tool, to decimate the lower-class culture of Europe, which was based on the various social and communal roles played by women.
Hundreds of thousands of women were publicly tortured to death during the 1500s and 1600s. Mind you, this is during the rise of modern scientific enterprise, juridical and prison systems, and the Dutch and English revolutionary movements. But this wave of progress didn’t save the witches. Many of these, scientific male minds could endorse the Witch Trials. The Reformation upset a thousand-years of Catholic theology and sent Europe into incredibly violent religious wars. But both Calvin and Luther supported the Witch Trials. Not only church authorities, but also lay authorities (that is, what we would now call secular powers) enforced witch laws and brutally murdered women in the name of something like ‘public safety’.
Federici makes clear that what was essential here was the utter destruction of communal life. In order to subject humanity to the insane exploitation by capital, it was not enough to force people off the land and into cities where they had no choice but to work for the bourgeois at subsistence-wages. Beyond that, it was necessary to destroy any culture that could resist the rising capitalist-scientific discourse. For this reason, and this reason alone, all of this rape, torture and murder was institutionalized.
Our culture of commodities and profits is impossible without rape culture and the horrors of the Witch Trials.
The Witch Trials were not simply about making room for a new kind of production system. Though it accomplished this major feat, breaking the cultural back of the medieval peasantry and preparing them for the discipline of wage-labor, it had another function. It had to totally devalue the work of women as domestic laborers and reproducers of human labor. In order to do this, economic and moral power was given to the male head of the house. As the urban proletariat grew, it was often the men who worked and gained a wage while the women remained home, maintaining the home for the worker while caring for the next generation of laborers. And all for free. That is, the working family internalized a cost that should have been covered by those profiting – the capitalists.
Instead, a rift already opened by the decriminalization of rape and the Witch terror was maintained through the vicissitudes of domestic violence. Artificial scarcity, caused in no small part by the devaluation of domestic and reproductive labor, creates difficult conditions for most working families. Resentment of the ‘real worker’ against the woman who ‘just stays home’ is unfortunately as widespread as it is stereotypical. Through this, not only is the dominant male produced, he is also reinforced through substance abuse, media productions and repressive fraternization with other like-minded men.
So the ground having been stolen from beneath their feet, and their culture-bearing women burned before their eyes, the medieval European masses slowly entered the ranks of the modern working poor, liberated to freely sell their labor to the capitalist of their choice. The alternatives, of course, were internment or starvation.
Let’s take a moment to survey – the rise of capital and the world-system built on a carefully-managed war against the role of women in medieval lower-class society. Before it was possible to colonize the Americas or build the slave trade, the masses of Europe first had to be thoroughly dominated and made useful for exploitation. So men were pitted against women, enticed to abuse, rape and torture by the ruling class. Degeneracy ensued, and the pyres of women burning coexisted with the insane violence of the Religious Wars that emerged from the Reformation. We know about the printing press, Luther’s Bible and the Protestant-Catholic split. Incredible violence unfolded from this schism. In its wake, the European elite looked for a different way to manage ruling ideology. The Medieval Church was in crisis. Not only had it split in terms of doctrine and practice. Christian theology wasn’t amenable to the kinds of knowledge needed by the urban merchant class, which was steadily growing in power. A new kind of theoretical frame was necessary. The answer came in the form of the Enlightenment, the subject-object paradigm and the mathematical sciences. And it begins with the work of a French philosopher.
The PKK critiques the introduction of the subject-object paradigm and the dominance of the mathematical system. They claim, correctly, that this arose with the capitalist system. It was famously introduced by Rene Descartes. In his Meditations, he situates the subject as the thinking entity – the famous “I think therefore I am.” Everything else is objective, describable in terms of mathematical physics according to the well-known Cartesian graph – another production of the French philosopher.
Only humans are subjects. Only humans experience the world consciously. So Descartes felt justified in performing surgical investigations on living animals, justifying himself by explaining that the screams of the animals were mechanical responses, not expressions of lived suffering. He did this in the name of science, for anatomico-physiological research. Not unlike those animals who are tortured by Huntington Life Sciences today in the name of consumer well-being and clinical research.
Descartes’ methodological doubt submits all reality to the logic of either-or: either the thing is an object, inert and merely physical, and mathematically describable, or it is the human thinking subject of experience, which perceives the objects of the world and thinks about them.
The Christian God has a special place in this scheme: it guarantees the logical coherency of the relationship between the thinking subject and the mathematical object. Otherwise, Descartes speculates, the whole world could be a demonic delusion (premonitions of The Matrix?). That is, at the very birth of science, despite the obvious useful of its knowledge, the whole system needed a theology guarantee. Why? If mathematical physics could predict phenomena, if the thinking subject could understand the natural world through science, why was there a threat of it all being a demonic hallucination? What was beyond the schema of subject-object that threatened its stability?
Descartes, a student of Scholasticism and a staunch Catholic, was the inheritor of a system of thought that put the Christian God at its center. Every phenomenon, natural, cultural or spiritual, was interpreted through the various intellectualizations of the Bible. These had been carried on for over a thousand years, since the foundational works of Augustine, who himself built on the earlier Patristic works. In all this, there was a tendency to centralize not only Church power, but also the theoretical cohesion of the system: it was necessary to explain everything as an act of God’s Will.
Descartes inadvertently participated in the destruction of the very system he sought to support. Rather than reinforcing the role of the Christian God at the center of the system, mathematical physics helped decenter our world-view through the developments of astronomy. Upon discovering that the human race lived on a planet in a small solar system on the edge of the galaxy, the entire cosmological context for the Christian God was eviscerated. Descartes and Newton in their own ways tried to maintain theology through mathematical physics, but instead this science helped to dismantle every core assumption of scholastic theories of nature. With this, the idea that there could be a single Cause for all things (not simply in the sense of the Big Bang, but in the sense of a conscious Cause which meant for things to happen as they have) came to an end. At least on paper.
In fact, this Cause had moved from a simple symbolic role to a real function. In the destruction of Christian theology, modern science was able to set to work helping the construction of the world market. Not only were mathematics applied to industry through engineering and accounting, but the (pseudo)science, classic anthropology, emerged, not to explore cultural differences, but to legitimate and enhance colonization. Anthropology was used to legitimate doctrines of race which in turn justified slavery, land theft and mass murder. And now, rather than justifying this in the name of God, it was rather carried out in the name of the Human. This is the etymology of ‘anthropology’– science of the human. And for Western imperialism, this always meant the science of the superior humans for the subjection of the inferior.
In all this, we cannot doubt the prevalence of the dominant male. Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher who theorized on universal freedom but believed in a hierarchy of human races, speculated that women were on principle incapable of philosophizing. It’s a note of historic irony that some of the best books on Kantian ethics and logic today are written by women philosophers. And this only seems to speak to the PKK’s point: women are militating around the world, in all forms of struggle, and are emerging time and again in the leadership positions of radical movements.
So what does this mean within the scope of polytheism, within a position that acknowledges that the gods exist, that they cannot be submitted to one schema of knowledge, and that they cannot be experienced in one universal manner?
I’ll develop only one point. I’ll elaborate this in a future piece, interlinking the famous ancient ‘intermundia’ and the rise of global capital. But for now:
It’s clear that there is no place for the gods in the mathematical subject-object paradigm. The domination of experience by the Cartesian mathematical graph literally excludes any relation to the gods. Precisely this is one of the threats to Descartes’ meditation: the ‘demonic’ influence, for a Catholic, of the gods who have been suppressed by centuries of Christendom. And it is not enough to theorize them away: the capitalist exploitation of resources will destroy the wild places where so many gods live, while the domination of the commodity will supplant ritual with spectacle. Most humans will be submitted to the soul-numbing brutality of wage-labor (if not some form of modern slavery), and this destroys both one’s time and one’s intuition. The relationship between humans and gods and between the earth and gods are both fundamentally deranged by the emergence and spread of global capital.
In my future work I hope to demonstrate that capital is inherently anti-gods, i.e., deicidal. At this moment, in lieu of a deduction, I can only develop a hypothesis based on the evidence of the actual devastation carried out by the world market and the unprecedented depravity unleashed by the capitalist ruling class: along with the countless people, animals, plants – entire species and cultures – rivers, mountains and others entities annihilated by global capital, a myriad of gods have been exterminated, and more face the same fate.
As to the PKK, their feminist militancy and the Kurdish resistance in Syria and Iraq against ISIL – a force of destruction that seems to embody the nihilism of global capital – perhaps from them, we polytheists can take some inspiration, if nothing else, for the anti-capitalist position necessary to stand by the gods.
John Monroe is a philosopher, artist, organizer and alchemist. He comes from the Western territories of American Empire and hopes in the future to be living in a proper autonomous zone on that same ground. He has had many run-ins with gods and spirits, but is religious only in so far as he is a dialectical materialist.