By Yvonne Aburrow
There is a view of life in which events are not perceived as connected, people are seen as separate entities, mere expendable units to be crushed under the wheels of the great machine known as ‘progress’. It was this view that prevailed during the Irish Potato Famine in the nineteenth century, when full grain ships were allowed to leave Irish ports because ‘market forces’ meant that their contents could be sold elsewhere rather than being used to feed the starving farm workers.
In his great novel, Howard’s End, E. M. Forster presented an extended critique of this view. Two middle class sisters befriend a young working class man, who ends up dying. The husband of one of the sisters cannot see that he is in any way responsible for the young man’s death, despite the fact that it is intimately bound up with all the other events of the novel. The novel is an extended illustration of its epigraph, “Only connect”. If I had to sum up my philosophy in two words, it would be those two words.
…she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire. Happy the man who sees from either aspect the glory of these outspread wings. The roads of his soul lie clear, and he and his friends shall find easy-going…. It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
E. M. Forster, Howard’s End, chapter XXII
But the novel is not simply about making the connection between the inner and the outer, the beast and the angel in us, but also seeing the connections between different aspects of life, and different circumstances. The young working class man is crushed by the middle class man’s inability to connect, to see the lights and shadows. He is crushed by the whole social system in which the characters are trapped. E. M. Forster, himself a socialist and a friend of the great radical pioneer the late nineteenth century, Edward Carpenter (a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian anarchist), was trying – ever so gently – to point out that the whole capitalist and hierarchical system was built to destroy life, love, and pleasure.
Once we start to see the connections between one circumstance and another, they cannot be unseen. If you look at the whole system of property, capital, profit, race, class, and kyriarchal oppression, and start to trace it back to its roots, you can see that the parts of the system are not independent of each other, but developed together. This makes the system of oppression hard to unravel if you only try to tackle it piecemeal, and don’t see the connections between the different parts.
If you look at the alternative ways of living that people have tried to create over the last few centuries, you can see that they are also a set of interconnected ideas and practices. Different co-operative, p/Pagan, spiritual, Dissenting, anarchist, socialist, and communitarian groups evolved out of each other, shared ideas, and built similar alternative structures. In trying to create a vision of an alternative society, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, as the effort to create something different has been building momentum for a while.
The interconnected kyriarchyThe kyriarchy – the hierarchical view of human relations, built on power over others, and regarding those others as lesser beings, perhaps not even human, has been with us for more than two millennia. In Truth or dare, Starhawk put forward the idea that it came about because of farming. As hunter-gatherers settled down and started to farm the land, they started to regard the land as belonging to them. The population got larger. They also needed to irrigate the land, and this led to over-salination. As more and more fields became unworkable, land became scarce, and this gave rise to war. War meant that warriors, who were usually male, were now the most valued members of society. In order to kill another human being, warriors needed to see them as other, as less than human. And so the whole system of hierarchy, war, kings, and power-over came about. The new system also meant that because men were the most valued members of society, inheritance passed through the male line, which meant that women’s sexuality had to be controlled. This kyriarchal view of existence fed into the Roman Empire, which co-opted Christianity around the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).
By 500 CE, the lack of connection between the spiritual and the physical had reached such a pitch that there was a highly toxic and misogynist view of all things fleshly, especially women. Every time a small group of people tried to build a radical communitarian way of life, whether on political or religious grounds, or both, they were crushed, but another group rose from the ruins and carried on.
In England, after the Norman invasion, the land rights of the local population were taken away. It has taken centuries of struggle, and we still have not entirely recovered them. There were the appropriation of Saxon lands, especially forest, by the new Norman overlords; the Acts of Enclosure, which took away common land, so memorably bemoaned by the poet John Clare; the regulation of rights to forage, and the imposition of heavy fines and penalties for any infringement. In Scotland, the Highland Clearances involved much the same kind of theft of lands and livelihoods of ordinary people. The excellent travelling show and website Three Acres and a Cow, performed by Robin Grey (who recently shot to fame as the busker who suggested that David Cameron should ‘fuck off back to Eton’) and Rachel Rose Reid, documents the history of resistance to the theft of land by the ruling classes, from the Norman Conquest, via the Peasants’ Revolt, to the Enclosures and the Highland Clearances, and links these with today’s issues of housing shortages, fracking, and food.
In America, lands and livelihood, labour and the fruits of labour, were stolen from indigenous people, and from enslaved people. Just for a moment it looked as if Thomas Morton would set up an alternative community at Merry Mount, but it too was crushed.
All of these thefts and appropriations stem from the view that some people are inherently worth more than others, by ‘virtue’ of their ability to crush dissent, subdue others, and get more money and power. They stem from the idea that land can be property, and is not held in common for the benefit of all. This hierarchical and commodified view of the worth of people and land (instead of viewing them as intrinsically sacred) gave rise to war, enslavement, rape, and torture. All of these horrors are made possible by viewing the victim as worth less than the perpetrator; othering them and devaluing them.
This hierarchical and commodified view of value was made much worse by capitalism, which disconnected the workers from the work of their hands, and alienated them, by introducing mass production. By valuing the profits due to the investors and shareholders over giving a living wage to the workers, workers were stripped of their humanity and became mere cogs in the machine.
The Whig interpretation of history would have you believe that the ruling classes came to their senses by themselves and distributed resources more evenly. However, even just looking at the last decade in the UK, we can see that this is not true, because the ruling classes and the rich have grabbed more money and power – in the form of the privatisation of education, prisons, and the health service, payouts to bankers, tax evasion, and vastly inflated salaries (one particular University Vice-Chancellor gets paid more than the Prime Minister, for example). All of this has led to a massive widening of the gap between rich and poor.
The web of lifeFortunately there has always been resistance to the hierarchical and commodified view of humans and the natural world. There was the Peasants’ Revolt, protest marches against Enclosures, the Diggers and Levellers, who tried to found a more equal and just society. There were the Reform Riots against mass starvation in the 1830s; the rally in London in protest against the deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs; the Chartist uprising. There was the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1933, where the factory workers of Manchester surged onto the surrounding moors, which had previously been reserved for the landowners who used them for shooting wildlife. There were rent strikes against extortionate rents; there was the co-operative movement which aimed to build an alternative economy. There was the struggle for liberation from slavery, and the women’s rights movement. The struggle for women’s rights arose out of the successful organising of women who campaigned against slavery. We can learn something from both the successes and failures of each of these movements: the horrific oppression they struggled against; the seeming insurmountability of the obstacles, and their eventual victory, however partial.
The Unitarian movement arose out of a radical religious group – the late 15th century humanists of North Italy, who fled first to Poland, and then to Transylvania. While they were in Poland, they had their own printing press and sent radical pamphlets to England, which fuelled a fresh wave of radical dissent. Eventually the Unitarians gave rise to Transcendentalism, which included such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter. Transcendentalism, according to Chas Clifton, was one of the strands that led into the Pagan revival. Many Unitarians and Transcendentalists were socialists, campaigners for the abolition of slavery, and at the forefront of women’s rights. Two Unitarians, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, died after being attacked by racist thugs at Selma. In 2008, two Unitarian Universalists, Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry, were killed in an attack on Tennessee Valley UU, a church that actively supports LGBT rights.
In England, the Labour movement was born out of many strands of resistance, including Chartists, trade unions, the co-operative movement, socialists, feminists, and anarchists. The Arts and Crafts movement was founded by socialists, who sought to restore dignity and beauty to craftsmanship, and reforge the connection between the maker and the made, which had been so brutally severed by the alienation caused by mass production, where a made thing was no longer the work of one person, but the anonymous and uniform production of several workers.
One of the key figures in the early Labour movement was Edward Carpenter, who had links with both anarchists and socialists, and who wrote movingly on the restoration of the connection between people and Nature. He could be regarded as one of the founders of the Pagan revival, as he wrote extensively on the joys of Paganism, and made the connection between the Pagan revelry of May Day and the celebration of workers’ rights. Sadly, he is largely forgotten today by both Pagans and socialists, perhaps because he was gay and was sidelined during the excessively homophobic period of the 1950s, but his ideas are enjoying a revival amongst gay men, and has never been forgotten in his adopted city of Sheffield.
A study of the all the different radical movements of the last 400 years would reveal a fascinating web of connections between the people and ideas involved in them.
Recently, the excellent film Pride revealed the connection between the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s and LGBT rights in the UK. Lesbians and gay men formed a support group to raise funds for the miners during the darkest days of the strike, and in return, the unions who represent the miners voted en bloc for Labour policies supporting LGBT rights (such as the repeal of section 28, the lowering of the age of consent for same-sex partners to the same age as for opposite-sex partners, and the introduction of same-sex marriage).
The ability to connect with someone else’s struggle, even in the midst of your own struggle, can give rise to unexpected results. After the abolition of slavery, many Black abolitionists supported the cause of women’s rights, just as women had campaigned for the abolition of slavery. The solidarity of trade unionists around the world has led to many victories for freedom and democracy and human rights. The ability to connect your own experience of oppression with someone else’s experience of oppression is the key to radical transformation.
The power of the internet to enable rapid communication between movements resisting hegemonic oppression and capitalist exploitation around the world has been a key lever in helping them to build connections. Irish activists resisting Shell in Ireland have linked up with Nigerian activists doing the same in the Niger delta. Recently I have attended two demonstrations about the UK’s racist immigration policy, both of which were mobilised via the internet. Groups resisting capitalism and racism can make and maintain connections, both over the internet, and at May Day rallies and other events. I was pleased to see that the trades union banner at the May Day Rally in Oxford, UK, expressed solidarity with Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter campaign.
At the moment, with the re-election of a Conservative government in the UK, the right-wing governments in Australia and Canada, and the seemingly relentless systemic racism in the US, it seems as if there is no hope of change. However, the Province of Alberta has just elected a left-wing government for the first time in 40 years, and the people of Greece have sent a resounding anti-austerity message by voting in a left-wing government. The tide is turning. People are beginning to see that there must be another way to live than greed, consumption, and exploitation.People are beginning to make the connection between the sacredness of the Earth, the waters, the animals, the birds, and the people.
People are beginning to reconnect with the gods and spirits of the land, recognising that returning to right relationship with the land, making deep connections with place and community, making loving connections with others, is the key to harmony and indeed survival, both physical and spiritual.
By recognising the sacredness of the land, the idea that no-one can own it, and that it must be held in common for the benefit of all beings, we radically reaffirm our connection to nature.
By recognising the sacredness of the body and of pleasure, we reconnect to our very instincts, and the gods-given pleasures of the flesh.
By connecting our present predicament with the threads of oppression and resistance woven for us by our ancestors, we can begin to unravel destructive ways of being, and begin to weave new possibilities, drawing on the bright threads of dissent and revolutionary ways of being from the past.
By connecting our own hopes and dreams with those of others around the world who are reaching for new ways of being, we can learn from each other and strengthen our own visions, and correct our cultural biases by seeing with multiple perspectives from different cultures.
By connecting with the struggles of others, we reaffirm our humanity.
 Chas S. Clifton (2006), Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (Pagan Studies Series), Altamira Press