Words for Sale: A Critical Political Economy of Paganism

by Jonathan Woolley

Image from flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Image created by Tax Credits, sourced from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of days ago, Rhyd wrote an excellent essay on the Faustian pact of Google Analytics, and other similar software packages. Sure, you get all sorts of interesting information out, he explained, but at its heart, this seemingly benign, innovative means of objectively assessing impact and reach – the sort of thing authors endlessly agonise about, particularly in such a crowded forum as the internet – allows Google and other organisations to collect detailed information about your readership; for sale to the highest bidder. Like so much in our society, when you reflect upon the ways in which influence, money, management and labour intersect within SEO, social media, and the like – a form of reflection called “political economy” – an unsavory commercial logic emerges from the undergrowth.

Sadly, Paganism is no different.

Going Critical

It is possible to write a political economy of any human community. From tiny Amazonian villages, to vast multinationals; all can be understood in terms of flows of power and produce, that are quite literally the meat and drink of our existences.

It is interesting, therefore, that despite the universal scope of this method; nobody has yet – to my knowledge, anyway – attempted to explore Paganism in such a fashion. Magliocco focuses on folklore; Luhrmann on logic; Salomonsen on gender; Hutton on history; Harvey on cultural comparison – in all their analyses, they touch upon the political and economic activities of Pagans, but no scholar has yet attempted a full-bore political economic analysis of contemporary Paganism itself. Of course, this generation of scholars belong to a very specific project; seeking to normalise Paganism in order to protect it from accusations of spuriousness from academics, and immorality from the mainstream. As such, they tend to stress the extent to which Pagans are also “normal people” – with normal jobs, normal houses, normal relationships, and the normal range of political and social opinions. Irrespective of our eccentric dress, our fantastic language, our rites, spells, conversations with gods and poetic madnesses; we are, first and foremost, part of the modern world. Because of this, the study of Pagan political economy becomes a non-subject; our economic relations are simply the same as those of everyone else. In such circumstances, the development of a critical account of Pagan political economy – that problematised this “normalness” of Pagans, and attempted to unpick it – was intellectually unnecessary, and politically undesirable. But in the past 20 years or so, Paganism has matured, and so now the time is ripe for such an analysis.

When one takes this critical stance, the forms of organisation normally described within Paganism – covens, groves, traditions and so on – fade away, and a very different structure emerges. Different, not just from how we describe ourselves, but from the social orders we find in other religions. We find few churches, monasteries, temples, or mosques – those that do exist, often struggle. In Paganism, centre stage is taken a small circle of private individuals – primarily authors and teachers. In Britain, this means names like Philip Carr-Gomm, Vivianne Crowley, Nigel Pennick, Prudence Jones, Caitlin and John Matthews, Pete Carroll, Rae Beth, and Emma Restall-Orr. They make their living – partly or wholly – by selling their ideas; through writing books, and holding workshops. Around this core of content creators, you have a network of bookshops, occult suppliers, robemakers, celebrants, and healers – all working in ways inspired by the writings of those at the centre of the network.

Surrounding this central core of those who are primarily or solely employed in Paganism, you have a second group – employees of the muggle world. Some – like those working in Forest Schools, or Counselling – have employment that dovetails neatly with the ideas at Paganism’s core. Others – those working in more “ordinary” jobs – from Estate Agency, to Local Government, from IT to Retail – do not. In both cases, however, Paganism is something they have to fit in to their spare time, and is something through which they spend their wages, rather than earn them. Financially, this outer corona supports the core – those at its heart would not be able to make a living speaking, celebrating, and writing if those employed outside “the Pagan business” did not buy their products. And, of course, those in the corona are supported emotionally, creatively, and spiritually by those in the core – if they were not, they would not buy what those at the core have to sell.

What I am describing here is quite unlike other religious communities; these are first and foremost collective enterprises – funded by donations, or the state. For all the world, the Pagan community sounds less like a church or a network of temples, or an ummah – for its social order is fundamentally commercial in nature. The corona of those who do Paganism in their free hours is fundamentally a space of consumption – wages spent on services rendered. It is often said, that the difference between Paganism and the New Age is the number of noughts on the workshop ticket prices. This joke is a sword that cuts both ways: although it points out the rapacious greed of certain New Age gurus, it also highlights that Paganism is just as fundamentally market-oriented as they are. With this consumer-vendor dynamic in mind, what becomes clear is that Paganism is less a religion – in terms of its political economy – and more akin to a literary genre, with an accompanying fandom. If we compare worldwide Paganisms to some of the more established fan communities – such as Trekkies, for example – the similarities become almost painful. Both hinge upon a small circle of content creators at the hub of the wheel, whose writings and performances inspire all sorts of sub-creations from fans. It is fitting, therefore, that the largest Pagan gathering on Earth should be a “Con[vention]”.

Pagan Business

With this in mind, we can see how consumerist logic has leached through Pagan culture, even though elements of it that do not carry a price tag. What is the moot, if not a book group? What is the public ritual, if not a LARP? The fact that these things are done for free by passionate and often very well-intentioned supporters, does not negate the fundamentally capitalist exchange that preceded them. The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

The point here is not that those who make their living through Paganism are being greedy or venial. On the contrary, writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community. Before all else, you have to pay. By relying upon the Market to directly transmit our lore, to fund our gatherings, to supply our goods, we become complicit in it. It means the fortunes of our traditions turn not with the wheel of the year, but with the shifting fashions and stock prices of the global publishing and wellness industries. Our community is directed less by the will of the gods, and more by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The heartbeat at the core of our living traditions becomes the ring of a cash register.

This dominance of the logic of the Market within Paganism is not surprising, even if it is disquieting. Paganism is one of the few religions to have arisen within the Modern Age, when Capitalism was in its ascendency. This has very real consequences for us all. Let us not forget the prototypical “gateway experience” for a seeker – traditionally – was buying a book from an occult book shop. The fact that the internet and Amazon have replaced the knowledgeable local bookseller is to be lamented; but it is not so meteoric shift as we might suppose. Whether your spirituality is expressed through buying knowledge from a kooky shop on Glastonbury High Street, or from Amazon, your spirituality is still being expressed through shopping. Equally, this shift demonstrates the extent to which our infrastructure is dependent upon the vagaries of the market to survive: the rise of the internet has caused many Pagan bookshops to close; depriving local communities of an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn, and socialise. Indeed, it is precisely because we have relied on the Market that this transition – from a friendly, in-community, low-profit enterprise, to a distant, global, high profit one – has taken place. The very means by which our lore is spread has been transformed for the worse by the dictat of the Market.

The most fundamental problem, though, is how this allows unhealthy class dynamics to spread within our community. For every one successful Pagan author, there are many many more who dearly wish they could make it in the “Pagan Business”, but instead work in some mind-numbing office job to make ends meet. The vocation of the former, is bought and paid for by the drudgery of the latter. Even those who do succeed are constantly threatened under Capitalism – whether it’s through being out-competed by multinational competitors, exploited when your publisher is bought up by a Market leader, or being ruined when your austerity-hit consumer-base can’t afford your £30 tarot readings or £8 herbal poultices anymore. This is not a game any of us can win.

The dominance of consumer goods – books, candles, incense, space enough in your home to cast circle, salt and so on – within the Pagan sphere sets up obstacles for poorer people wishing to participate, and often relies on exploitative labour in Chinese or Indian factories as part of their manufacturing cycle, or the use of precious resources from fragile ecosystems. Although many fee-charging camps and festivals have ways you can work to earn a ticket – through volunteering in the kitchen or setting up beforehand – even this can create a gulf between those who earn enough to pay outright, and those who have to work.

In all these ways, Paganism is little different from wider society. Our community, like any other under Capitalism, is shot through with consumerism. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What’s more, it shouldn’t.

Disorganised Religion

I find the most frustrating thing about the political economy we currently have – of two concentric rings; of the Content, and the Consumers – is not that it’s undesirable, or unsustainable: rather, what really sticks in my craw is that it’s not even planned. It’s not as if some dark coven, or evil magician has concocted this – that would, at least, give us somebody to blame, and me somebody to castigate here. Rather, this set up has appeared entirely organically; merely as a result of Pagans also being (largely) liberal Western individuals. We simply are repeating the economic patterns that govern our society as a whole, without really thinking about the consequences of this choice, or if there might be a more truly Pagan alternative. Indeed, I suspect many of us doubt that such an alternative is even possible.

It’s common for Pagans to describe the fact that we express “disorganised religion” with some degree of pride. I firmly support the moral of this boast – that there should be no compulsion, no Byzantine hierarchies, no exploitation, in matters religious. But the liberal individualism that many Pagans treasure does not automatically create a utopia, in which we are free to do as our consciences and our gods dictate, in contrast to the rest of society. Rather, the true result is that – without a firm commitment to a different vision of how society might be organized – we just end up replicating the unhealthy relationships that we all experience everyday under capitalism.

Used under Creative Commons, sourced from Wikipedia.

Beyond the crossing of palms with silver

What we need to do is find “cracks”, where our communities, like pavement weeds, can grow. In these autonomous spaces, the strictures of capitalism are held in abeyance, and we are able to live instead under our own laws and principles.

There are many ways in which such cracks can be formed, depending upon the legal and political jurisdiction you find yourself within. I first experienced one such crack with the tribe at Four Quarters Farm in Pennsylvania where I did my undergraduate fieldwork. I was so inspired by their heady mix of sustainable ethics and earthy magics, I resolved to find a tribe living in a crack close to my own landscape. I found such a crack – or the beginnings of one – with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids here in Britain. Philip Carr-Gomm has written an excellent piece on his vision of how Druidry should be organised – not as an ashram, with a guru-like Archdruid ruling the roost at the heart of it all, or a clamorous New Age fair, but rather like a Maori village, with all the people contributing different skills according to their own abilities, and obtaining what they need from others. Societies have existed happily without the Market for thousands of years: providing resources and mutual assistance along ties of love and kinship, rather than through the medium of money and debt. As the OBOD community matures, this is exactly what it is starting to feel like – a network of friends and family, whose common culture and bonds of friendship is beginning to annihilate the distinction between “The Pagan Business” and those who consume its products. Instead, people are beginning to give what they can, to those that need it, for no other reason than they’re part of the same tribe. We might not be able to escape the Capitalist system – yet – but we can at least try to create our own spaces where we can liberate ourselves as far as possible from its pernicious influence. We certainly can change the way we live together, so that our philosophers and ritualists don’t have to hawk their wares, our relics are made sustainably, and our seekers may learn for free,  I’m sure other examples must exist of this nascent “living Paganism” – a network of villages, thriving in the cracks as Capitalism begins to fall. I’d love to hear about them.

There is much more still to be done. Personally, I wonder if what we need now is more ambition within the Pagan community – a drive to build our own structures and spaces, that have the strength and clarity of purpose to resist capital, and to attract like-minded others to our cause. Let’s not have our seekers running the gauntlet of Amazon and MBS-bullshit, wasting money they don’t have before, they can be made welcome into our tribal federation. As a people, we are not averse to seeing visions; let the visions we have now be political and economic visions, and may all the good that we see in them come to pass.

41 thoughts on “Words for Sale: A Critical Political Economy of Paganism

  1. This is an interesting and challenging article for me as a not hugely successful pagan writer. My books don’t sell well enough to earn me a living, so instead they provide a little discretionary income. And what do I buy with that income? Mostly books…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. I myself have a very serious book habit!

      The number of writers who *can* support themselves solely on their writing is very small anyway; in a niche genre like Pagan non-fiction, the number will be smaller still. Even quite bankable Pagan authors often have other sources of income. Your example demonstrates that, for many of us, we are both consumer and producer; a common condition under capitalism.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this, I really enjoyed it. I think the reason it stands out is that rather than just paint a picture of the current situation and lay out it’s problems; it starts points the way towards making changes and escaping the capitalist system. Personally, I think we need to move away from and tame Capitalism rather than work to bring it crashing down. Things that come crashing down kill people, gradual change mitigates against that.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you liked it – I wanted to end on a constructive note, without getting into the dubious role of prescribing Big Solutions (which would, I daresay, make me into a wannabe guru myself).

      I’d go further (and channel Marx as I do so); we can’t. To try to intervene in the wyrd of the whole of human society at once is foolishness bordering hubris; I’m all for holding actions and a diversity of tactics, but we need to acknowledge that we probably can’t just demolish the world and start again, even if we wanted to. What we can do is “ease the birth-pangs” of the better time that will come after the dust settles.

      What does “easing the birth pangs” mean? It means survival, for us and our communities. It means practicing our traditions bravely and freely (unfettered by capital). It means love. It means making good art. It means speaking up. It means listening. It means acting to improve the lives of all people – human and non-human alike – in whatever spheres we operate within: be that in the high halls of government, or down the road at a local allotment. It will look different for each of us, but we can only do it together.

      Liked by 7 people

  3. Bravo! Long years ago I began to write an article about the future of OBOD interm of community but you have articulated it so much more thoroughly than I could ever have done


  4. Interesting reading. We have to be able to critique our religions and practices before we can be able to make them better. For a long time such critique of the religions and practice was shall we say tabu. I have often worried about how many of what we see as faults in other religious that we would duplicate ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Writing is labor. It’s absolutely inaccurate and misleading to describe authors as being supported by the labor of others, because writing and reading Tarot cards, etc is also work.

    I don’t teach my tradition for money, but I don’t work for strangers for free either. You can’t have that kind of exchange without community and reciprocity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep! I couldn’t agree more – that’s why I didn’t say that!

      What I did say was:

      “Financially, this outer corona supports the core – those at its heart would not be able to make a living speaking, celebrating, and writing if those employed outside “the Pagan business” did not buy their products.”

      The same could be said of any sector in the economy. Farmers are supported by non-farmers buying food, Apple are supported by people buying IPhones, etc. Under capitalism, everyone sells their labour, to earn money, to spend on the fruits of other people’s labour.

      I also said:

      “…writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community.”

      There are other ways of circulating resources within a group of people. The kind of unconditional provisioning you still see within nuclear families, used to be how most of the world was run economically. You were fed, clothed, housed, tooled up, healed, baptised, married, and buried by your friends and family. No money ever changed hands (except in court cases and marriages, usually); this process wasn’t even treated as an exchange (nobody kept track of who owed what to whom). The community just divided up what it had, according to need. The idea that one has to “earn” access to food, shelter, water, clothing etc. through your labour is a relatively recent idea, and not a particularly healthy one.

      I would never argue that writing and Tarot card reading doesn’t involve proper labour, and therefore doesn’t merit payment: forcing people to provide this sort of labour without also provisioning for them in some way would be extremely exploitative. What I do argue is that by treating our spiritual practices as commodities, we introduce all sorts of problems into our community. As alternatives do exist, I just think it might be worth our while to discuss them.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. You said “The most fundamental problem, though, is how this allows unhealthy class dynamics to spread within our community. For every one successful Pagan author, there are many many more who dearly wish they could make it in the “Pagan Business”, but instead work in some mind-numbing office job to make ends meet. The vocation of the former, is bought and paid for by the drudgery of the latter.”

        That sure does sound like you mean that authors are somehow living high off the labor of others. As someone who thinks that creative work and teaching are devalued enough already, I object. If that’s not what you meant, perhaps you should rephrase.

        I agree about commodifying spiritual practices…it’s one of the several issues which precipitated the split in the Feri Tradition. I just don’t think writing books falls under that category. Of course, I have zero plans to write a book about Faery, because I don’t teach it to people I don’t love, so we may ultimately be talking about the same thing.

        I also don’t think the authors and teachers you mention are really central to Pagan religions though, any more than Christian authors are central to Christianity. The real core of Pagan religions are the many many many small groups run by people you never heard of. As it should be.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. In reference to your response below:

      Ah. The section you refer to was not contrasting a labouring class (proletarian spare-time Pagans, forced into drudgery) against a non-labouring class (bourgeois writers, free to pursue their vocation). Rather, it’s two segments of the labouring class who experience different degrees of alienation from their labour. As someone able to make a living by writing – which you clearly value in its own right, and connect with love and friendship – you are much more fortunate than someone who has to sell their labour for the same amount of money as you earn, and yet hates their job working for Walmart or whoever. This distinction may not be the classic proletarian/bourgeois, exploited/exploiter divide (writers get exploited a lot too, as you say), but it is an unwelcome class dynamic all the same. It would disappear entirely if we had customs in place that allowed you to do what you do, without having to sell the product of your labours in an open market. I’m not saying you shouldn’t expect money because your work is value-less. I’m saying you shouldn’t have to sell your work just to make a living.

      There are indeed lots of small groups, run by ordinary folk, that work within Paganism. As I said, the same can be said of any fandom I’d care to mention from tumblr. The point is that both are reliant upon – not a central institution, or network of monuments, or body of traditional lore, passed down along familial and optative kinship lines – but around a body of literature, sold via the Market. The ideas held in this literature are quite wonderful. And yes, the authors responsible for creating are – like everyone else – just trying to make a living. All I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t, therefore, as good as it can be, and just because we’re making do, doesn’t mean we should ignore the very real consequences of the situation as it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Perhaps in time it will go back to naturally passing down familial and community lines, once the first few generations break away from their families’ involvement in Christendom and establish Pagan families and then communities, whether Pagan communities,or more likely, diverse communities, as the wider society also breaks away from lock-step Christendom and embraces many Pagan values. (They do this often now that the grip has slipped, since the values are often the values of nature and everyone’s ancestors.) Then it could become comfortable for us to be open members of our communities again, rather than making our Paganism yet another subculture/leisure-time hobby for the people who don’t fit in capitalism’s or Christianity’s dominant worldview.

        Of course, healing our capitalism problem will allow the subculture interests to exist in whatever way they will, without having to fit into the narrow system by becoming commerce. Capitalism is constraining culture, but culture could elbow some space into it, in some ways, before we get to the post-capitalism days. I’m all for doing it consciously! 🙂 Great piece!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. In Ipswich the Pagan Council has managed to run on an almost-free, minimal cost basis for over 20 years now. The courses and almost all events are free, and members share their skills/knowledge with each other for the pleasure of doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Money is an exchange of life energy. Our time is finite on earth, and other beings would end up in karmic debt to you if you gave it away for free, meaning you’d probably end up being the next capitalist scumbag psyochpath in a corporation on the next go-around, bleeding salaried employees for every ounce of their wherewithall and willpower to make your riches. No — trust me — it’s better that you ask appropriate sums now than that you end up with a bailiwick of wage slaves in your next lifetime. Amen.


    1. Thank you for your comment. In order for your theory to apply, karma would have to exist. I would contend it does not.

      I find your notion of karmic debt fascinating, as I’ve never encountered such a notion in any Dharmic philosophy that I’ve come across before – even that of lenchak in Tibetan Buddhism, which is normally translated as “karmic debt”. Lenchak explains how negative actions in a past life lead to negative experiences in this one; how would a virtuous act like giving generously lead to selfishness in the next life?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great article, and a lot of things I’ve been thinking about. I sometimes joke that I wish I had a team of anthropologists to let loose on the Pagan community to gather data on the various behaviors and patterns that I observe.

    As a Pagan author and teacher, I’ve struggled rather a lot to balance my ethics of making information available to people regardless of their ability to pay, with my own struggle to get out of poverty myself. I have frequently offered my work on a sliding scale where I suggest a donation but allow for “no one turned away for lack of funds.”

    Unfortunately, that’s meant that I’ve sometimes taught classes where I essentially paid for the pleasure of traveling for a day, teaching for a weekend, and then traveling home. It’s also meant I’ve had to cancel classes as not enough people paid in.

    It’s particularly a struggle for me as I teach Pagan leadership and facilitation skills, and (in my experience) the folks who need these the most desperately are often the least able to pay for them. And I’d happily offer that work for free if I weren’t struggling to pay my basic living expenses every month.

    In the New-agey/self helpy/coaching/ra-ra/Secret crowd, there’s a piece of wisdom offered up that “people won’t respect your work or pay you if you don’t charge for it.” And I hate that. Except, it’s often kind of true. People seem more willing to pay me when I say, “This workshop is $195.00 for the weekend.” People are more willing to pre-register if I offer a significant discount. If I say, “Sliding scale $5-$200, no one turned away for lack of funds,” nobody has any incentive to pre-reg, and people feel that it’s optional to pay.

    Basically, I’m struggling against the conditioning people have that XYZ is the price you pay for this.

    I’ve long advocated for a “tithing” model where people pay into things based on what they can afford, based on a membership model and collective decisionmaking in groups. Right now, if I want to run programming in Chicago and bring in a guest author, I would have to do all the organizing, choose the guest presenter, figure out the fees. In a collaborative model, we’d raise our membership funds for the year and say, “OK, with this $3,000 we have, we can do 4 public rituals, and we can bring in one Pagan band, and we could bring in a presenter for a weekend workshop. What skills would we like to bring in and learn?”

    Blah blah. I could go on. Instead I’ll send along a link to a post I wrote a few years back that might be of interest. https://shaunaaura.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/how-do-we-pay-for-all-this-memberships-tithing-and-pagans/


    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hi! Thanks for your brilliant reply 🙂

      It’s great to hear other people are thinking about these issues. A very good friend of mine posted a similar point about how people are so habituated into thinking about things in terms of capitalist exchange, that they don’t value things if they’re given voluntarily (i.e. for free).

      What I said to my friend, I’ll say here: that is all due to capitalism too. Capitalism is an intimate thing; it gets into your head. It tells us that something is only as valuable as what you can get for it; it tells us that this is the only way of doing things. This is so strong, that when somebody tries to buck this trend, they get screwed.

      But you don’t have to go very far to find alternatives to the for money/for free dichotomy. Indeed, they’re right there in plain sight: think about families. People cook, clean, shop, care, build for and teach each other within their families all the time: this is both treated as highly valuable, and takes place entirely without money coming into the conversation. What’s more, everyone gets what they need – nobody in a family unit that works well is giving their labour “for free”, because they get stuff in return. It’s just not *treated as a market transaction*.

      Rather than this being a special exception to the all encompassing power of the market, this way of doing things has actually been the norm for human societies for most of our history: sure, restoring this approach can’t be done overnight, so there will be compromises, making-do, and coping mechanisms. Tithing is one option. Scoring government grants is another. Voluntarism is part of the picture. And yes, even charging for services when no alternative is available.

      All I’d say is we shouldn’t be complacent about capitalism. And we shouldn’t ever lose sight of our true goal – to go beyond it, to something better.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I enjoyed the article. I do find that your comment regarding the corona would apply to any religion, from Christianity to any pagan religious tradition. What you speak would be solved by a system of tithing or the expectation of paying to support the services rendered, yet this is considered to be the provence of just “organized religion”. If you are devoted to your path and tradition, why not pay to support it? One aspect that I have heard in private conversations, but not so much publicly is the disdain for actually paying for what matters. If you have $20 and only $2 after paying for bills and your religion matters that much to you, portion .50 or $1 towards supporting it.

    Writing is hard. Most writers I know, and I include myself, find it hard to make a living from the craft we love. At the start of my MFA program, one of my mentors reminded us that we had to make a choice: to work (teach, do catering, whatever) and to write. She reminded us that writing for many is a luxury if you do not have patronage in the form of a job that pays well and allows the time to write.

    This remains the same regardless of religious affiliation. Pagan writers may have time, but not make enough to pay the rent or to feed a family.
    There should not be a dichotomy of angst regarding getting paid for services rendered.

    Re: Bartering – Equally, I have met those who have used barter successfully (e.g. knowledge in exchange for shelter, food, and the means to go around) for a period of time. I come from a non-pagan family background that emphasizes value for what one does and it would never occur to me to purchase an item or to get an item without payment, unless it was presented as a clear gift. I do not think or feel less of my fellow pagans who charge. In fact, I am shocked if they do not. On the other hand, I am pro-commitment and organized religion and feel strongly that membership in and devotion to a specific group, coven, grove, temple, is a method of belonging to an organized religion.

    What I would say is that there are always those in various religions (pagan and non-pagan) who will want something for as little as possible, regardless of the economic and social structure of those who practice said religion. So this is far from a “pagan issue”.

    Economic respect is gained through self-respect: barter is money, if your true needs are met. Charging for products and work to pay the rent builds economic respect and religious respect. One aspect that I have noticed in comments about Paganism being “less-than” or “not a true religion” is that you have to stand for something or be perceived as falling for anything. When we respect who we are and what we do, we won’t be afraid to charge or to assert our right to do so as a form of commitment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very interesting post. My question would be – why do you think money is a good medium for expressing the worth of what we do? Can you think of any other, better, or worse, ways of doing so?

      On bartering – what I’m proposing is not “barter”, which is a form of exchange based on the same assumptions that underpin monetary exchange, but in the absence of money. The idea that 1 hour of massage equals a bushel of apples is, when you think about it, a slightly bizarre notion. The two things are in no way equivalent. The usefulness of an apple (i.e. that you can eat it), is very different to the usefulness of a massage (i.e. it is a pleasant way to soothe muscular stress). It is only *because* we have the notion that there is this abstract thing called “value” – expressed numerically, applied universally in the form of money – that we can tot up (roughly) how many apples = one massage. In societies without currency, this form of reasoning just doesn’t happen. All barter is, is a slightly less efficient (but easier to set up) way of organising your market. It still requires a market, and markets require some sense of abstract value: that’s what money basically is.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. i think there is a third sphere alongside the two you explore. That third sphere is made up of committed participants whose interactions do not have a financial underpinning. Bloggers are a big part of it. Not all moots are book groups, and my experience of Groves is of largely free to access events sharing responsibility, and often not a book in sight. I might include the not so famous authors (I’m another one) not making enough from books to live in, but also a buyer of books, giving my time and energy freely where I can, charging based on ability to pay when I can, that sort of thing. I’m interested in gift economies, in sharing, and in everyone getting to eat. And if the drudgery of some pays for the work of others… then those others have a moral duty to make sure that what they put into the world uplifts, inspires and compensates for those deeper costs.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You’re absolutely right to acknowledge the fact that – as others have mentioned – the situation includes the presence (even dominance) of Pagans who may sell their wares, but also need to supplement their income with drudgery, and in any case pay for the Pagan labours of other people too. My own description of moots as book groups is based on personal experience; it’s good to know your experience has been somewhat different.

      But I would suggest this third sphere is really the intermediate space between the core and the corona: a large region, encompassing the majority of our community. And my point isn’t really that there is an elite cadre of content creators who are exploiting the rest of us, or that nothing about Paganism is done voluntarily: the issue is the importance of financial exchange and consumption as the infrastructure that supports out community.


  11. Not sure why my last message didn’t show. I think there’s alot of truth in your words.

    However I’m a bit dubious about what you say about OBOD’s striving toward a resource based society when they are one of the biggest businesses in Paganism / Druidry and form a large part of that elite core of Druid celebs. That’s why I joined The Druid Network instead, which is wholly volunteer run and authentically anarchic.

    Also I’m wondering, how do you feel, as an academic about the business of academia and its reliance on the ‘mindless drudgery’ of folks like me (I’ve currently landed myself some part-time admin work) on keeping the machine rolling? I have seen vast amounts of money spent on flying scholars to international conferences across the world, dinners etc. and (after giving up a PhD several years ago) know I couldn’t again be part of that world. The miniscule amounts that even better known Pagans earn and expend are nothing in comparison…


    1. jimbadger has made some very salient points about the workings of OBOD, that fit well with my experience. It’s by no means a fully developed resource based society yet, but I can see the stirrings of that approach within how members within the Order interact with one another. The sources to which I refer, I suggest, give a good indication of how the order is being steered away from the profit motive.

      I will say I don’t feel true voluntarism is the solution either. The reason being that – as Sian’s position indicates – to insist spiritual teaching can only be provided “for free” in an otherwise capitalist context, can lead to that teaching being devalued. A further problem that we’ve experienced at White Horse Camps is that the amount of labour required to organise an event can quickly exceed the amount of man hours the community can provide on a voluntary basis – under Capitalism, people need to sell their labour power in order to survive. In adverse economic conditions, people need to sell all their labour – leaving little left over for spiritual work.

      What would be better, in my view, is a middle way between voluntarism and consumerism – in which we start to use our spiritual practices as an opportunity to create spaces that do not fall under the logic of the market, and work on the basis of filial cooperation. This doesn’t mean giving particular types of work for free, nor does it mean simply paying people for their work in kind. Rather, we all work together to support one another, in whatever ways we need. It’s not rocket science. It’s family.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Regarding academia: as you’re clearly hinting at, I freely accept this critique applies as much to me (and, indeed, anybody who is employed in a job they enjoy) as it does to the people I mention above.

      As a funded PhD student, I’m being paid by the British state to undertake research. Next year, I’ll be paid by the university to teach. Now, it would be wrong of me to suggest that academia is a worker’s paradise – for every tenure-track lecturer, there are legions of low-paid, overworked teaching staff on temporary contracts, with little job security, and even tenured academics are vulnerable to cuts and an ever increasing workload. And academia (in the UK) does has certain significant advantage over the situation within Paganism – I’m not paid by my students or the recipients of my research directly; I’m supported by a block grant funded out of general taxation.(1) But I personally am nevertheless being paid to follow my vocation; something that is an advantage that many other people are not lucky enough to have.

      But until very recently, I was in the same position as you are now. I was doing boring, soul-destroying office jobs to make my living. So I have experienced both situations.

      Now, I could just sit back, thank my lucky stars, and enjoy my stipend. Or I could reject academia entirely, out of a sense of frustration at the unfairness of our current system as a whole. Instead, I’ve chosen a third option – to use my privileged position to create a platform to speak out about the problems the beset our world, and to seek out potential solutions. It’s not perfect: far from it. But it will, I hope, allow me to make a positive difference.

      What I’m arguing for here is not that all practitioners should bring out their hair shirts. We are all making the best of a flawed condition. But making the best of a bad situation, does not require that we therefore must believe that situation is the best we can hope for.

      (1) This is being relentlessly contested by the UK government – who want to transform higher education into a “marketplace”, where students pay for their education through tuition fees. I was part of the student protests against these changes, precisely because I find the resistable rise of the market to be utterly terrible.


      1. It’s a tough situation, isn’t it? And I guess on the other hand if there weren’t people who others worked in support positions for they wouldn’t get the time to do ground breaking research that can change the world positively and help students get a good education… I got exhausted with it all… Congratulations on getting funded and looking forward to hearing more of your work.


  12. And of course on the other side of the argument is the fact that books can save people’s lives and spirits… I don’t know where I’d be without the poetry of Blake if I hadn’t read Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ or found the reassurance my polytheistic leanings within paganism were valid through reading Robin Herne…

    Is the effort that goes into religion and writing and religious writing enough to make up for the ‘mindless drudgery’ of those who buy books?

    I don’t know. I don’t even think we should doing such calculations. There are certain works of literature I think are so valuable in themselves they are priceless.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Reality check re OBOD. Maybe in a parallel universe it’s a ‘big business’. In the real world it runs almost entirely on the voluntary efforts of its members. That goes for all the course tutors, journal, camp organisers, event speakers and workshops etc. – it’s all done by volunteers for free.

    There’s a small office with two part time staff to admin the course mailings. The Chief has a day job as principal of a Montessori School. We camp in fields in Wales or Glastonbury, unlike many academics or representatives of well know ‘charities’ on expense accounts! If people working through a course with OBOD are willing to share the course materials it costs them only £25. Those who genuinely can’t afford even that are not turned away.

    When possible, donations are quietly and discretely made to appropriate causes. £1000 from the Winter gathering was given to anti-fracking activists. £6000 last year to ‘Trees for Life’ to establish a grove of tree in the Highlands. Pagans are a pretty anarchic bunch and are intuitively suspicious of something that looks too well-organised but if this is ‘capitalism’ we could do with more of it!

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Reality check re OBOD. Maybe in a parallel universe it’s a ‘big business’. In the real world it runs almost entirely on the voluntary efforts of its members. That goes for all the course tutors, journal, camp organisers, event speakers and workshops etc. – it’s all done by volunteers for free.

    There’s a small office with two part time staff to admin the course mailings. The Chief has a day job as principal of a Montessori School. We camp in fields in Wales or Glastonbury, unlike many academics or representatives of well know ‘charities’ on expense accounts! If people working through a course with OBOD are willing to share the course materials it costs them only £25. Those who genuinely can’t afford even that are not turned away.

    When possible, donations are quietly and discretely made to appropriate causes. £1000 from the Winter gathering was given to anti-fracking activists. £6000 last year to ‘Trees for Life’ to establish a grove of tree in the Highlands. By contrast, the PFNW site recently took down an anti-fracking post on the ground that it has ‘nothing to do with paganism’. Pagans are a pretty anarchic bunch and are intuitively suspicious of something that seems too ‘well-organised’ but if this is ‘capitalism’ we could do with more of it!


  15. It has taken me a long time to gather the spoons to respond to this post; I hope we may still engage in a useful conversation so long after its publication.

    First of all, let me congratulate you for writing this piece, and even more for taking a political economy lens to Paganism(s) in the first place.

    There are however a number of problems with it, primarily your conflation of markets and business with capitalism.

    Markets and businesses existed long, long, long before capitalism. The main distinction between capitalist and non-capitalist markets and businesses is one of the relationship between goods and money, and the end goal:

    – in a capitalist market, one uses capital (often but not always money) to produce and sell goods, in order to produce more capital. The goal is more capital.

    – in a non-capitalist market, a person produces and sells goods and services they have in surplus, in order to generate money, with which they buy the goods and services one needs and wants. The goal is to meet one’s own and one’s family’s and community’s needs.

    The Pagan market of writers, speakers, teachers, candle and incense sellers, celebrants et al. is very much more along the non-capitalist line. I know almost no people running Pagan businesses who are capitalists – they do not generally exploit others’ labour directly. Usually, the only labour involved in the business is their own.

    When I am well enough, I am a wedding celebrant. I have always made a financial loss doing this work.

    In the field of publishing, the exceptions to this are publishers (*not* authors!). More generally, only those MBS businesses which simply buy in incense and candles cheap (produced by exploited labour around the world) and sell at a profit are truly capitalist – their goal is more capital, not things they need.

    As regards the “cracks”, my tradition is one I regard as being such a “crack”, in that within my part of it, there is not charge for teaching, or for being brought into the tradition. There are no books from which the tradition can be learned. I would say that the same applies to any tradition worth its salt, no matter how many books exist about it. A tradition can truly only be learned by living it and breathing it in community.

    But even these “cracks” live within the context of capitalism. We need to pay for travel to meet up, for food, for ritual garb – even when we make these ourselves, ingredients and fabric must be bought with cold, hard cash.

    I see the real issues as twofold:

    1. Serious and committed people who can genuinely be relied upon as members of community, with love and kinship, to turn up and do their bit are few and far between. We all want to be those people, but living under capitalism means that it’s not always possible. Which leads me to…

    2. Capitalism. Capitalism is the problem, not the ways in which we seek to make our ways within it.

    I could say more, about why money is not the problem, about how selling things and services is part of the magical traditions of Europe and other places, about how many (all?) Pagan livelihoods are sacred callings, not get rich quick schemes, about how business can bring an end to capitalism if we do it right… but that’s enough for now 🙂


    1. Hi Elinor – Thank you so much for your thoughtful and detailed commentary. It’s always a delight when people take the time to read and contemplate your work in depth! A couple of thoughts in response.

      Regarding the issue of conflating business/markets with Capitalism. To be clear, I was not referring to markets in general (we could call them “marketplaces”) but rather “The Market” – a term used in contemporary discourse as a synonym for “The Economy”, i.e. the economic system we currently have in place. As you say, people have found the need to exchange goods and services for much of human history. For some of that time, the transactions have involved money of some kind. However, quite a lot of it did not. Sometimes this exchange takes place at a venue that we might recognise as a “market”. As you rightly point out, these fora for commerce can be more or less capitalistic spaces, depending upon the motives of those involved. Many people throughout history couldn’t care less about profit and re-investment – they’re just trying to make a living.

      Although you draw a valid distinction between capitalist and non-capitalist markets, it is worth noting that neither type will be exclusively filled with capitalists or non-capitalists respectively. You’ll find plenty of non-capitalists in a capitalist market – that’s exactly what workers are. The difference is that those playing by capitalist rules dominate under capitalism; the rules of the game fit their needs and objectives.

      I would tend to agree with you that haute bourgeois motives would be hard to find within the Pagan community. Successfully self-employed authors, retailers, and so on are – by and large – members of what Marx called the petite bourgeoisie: the small-scale merchant types who owned their own businesses, but had neither the capital nor the scale to play with the big hitters. The crucial distinction being they work alongside their employees. Their grim and precarious destiny is to be out-competed and driven into selling their labour by the true bourgeoisie (indeed, this has already happened for most authors). But to my mind, all this is rather besides the point – the problem isn’t that specific Pagans are bourgeois, the problem is that the primary means by which our traditions are conveyed is dominated by the capitalist logic of “The Market” as it stands. Sure, it’s possible to do business more ethically, but as Capitalism grinds away at our standards of living, at our society, and at our planet – we’ll need an entirely new macroeconomic system, with a fresh governing logic, if we’re to avoid disaster.

      As for the inevitable importance of “cold hard cash” – this is the question. Whose cash? How do you source it? Is it possible to imagine a world where we don’t need money to get these things, or need less of it? How might we get there?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.