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Down With Pagan Capitalism

One reason Gods&Radicals has been so controversial is that some people see us as a threat to their fondest dream: full integration and acceptance by mainstream society.

Of course, full integration and acceptance would mean full complicity. Society will accept us if we accept its value system, no matter what that does to our own value systems.

One aspect of this is Pagan capitalism. Capitalist economic relations can never be anything but exploitative, regardless of whether the capitalist in question is a Baptist, an atheist or a practicing witch. Too many people refuse to recognize this, insisting that there is such a thing as ethical capitalism against all evidence to the contrary. The contrast between the fantasy of ethical capitalism and the reality that capitalism can only be itself becomes clearest at the margins, with non-standard businesses that most of us would want to assume the best of.

For example: a non-profit collective called Sisters of Camelot distributes food for free to low-income people in Minneapolis and St.Paul. What could possibly be more ethical than that? Yet Sisters of Camelot employs paid canvassers, and the canvassers aren’t part of the managing collective. The collective decides who to hire and who to fire, how much to pay them and what hours they work. It’s a standard capitalist employment relationship, with workers and bosses in an unequal interaction. When the canvassers unionized through the IWW in 2013, Sisters of Camelot refused to negotiate, fired an organizer, hired scabs to break the strike and retained a union-busting lawyer. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The same thing applies to pagan-owned businesses such as metaphysical shops. A pagan boss still sets your wages, still sets your hours and your working conditions, still calls the shots. If you tried to unionize at a Pagan bookshop, do you think you’d get a better reaction than the canvassers at Sisters of Camelot did? Of course you wouldn’t.

In the modern capitalist economy, many of us are not even employees as such but independent contractors. Precariat rather than proletariat. Such is the case at the Patheos Pagan Channel, which is a Pagan-managed section of the Patheos interfaith website. The Patheos website is now owned by Beliefnet, a Christian evangelical organization with some deeply sinister connections. When Beliefnet tried to impose a contract giving them the right to control all content, bloggers on the Patheos Pagan Channel raised objections. The company replied by cutting off their access to their own blogs, in violation of the terms of the existing contract.

It doesn’t matter if you work for a co-op, a non-profit, a Pagan-owned business or as an independent contractor for a Pagan blog site. Capitalism is capitalism. So what can we do about it?

Industrial Democracy

In the early days of the labor movement, working people all over the world banded together to fight for their rights and gain a better life. After many struggles and sacrifices, they won the eight-hour work day and other concessions from employers. They won the right to unionize, and to bargain collectively for better wages and fair treatment.

These gains did not happen because employers decided to be reasonable and cut a fair deal with the people who worked for them. Employers have always resisted any improvement in working conditions or wages and they always will. Less for you means more for your boss, and less for your boss means more for you. The interests of employer and employee are incompatible.

Working people had to fight, standing together against everything their bosses could throw at them. Solidarity went toe-to-toe with oppression, and solidarity won.

Although these victories were important, they didn’t transform the basic relationship between employer and employee – a relationship in which the employee works for the employer’s profit, and the employer always has more power in any negotiation. Through political influence and laws that favored corporations over human beings, employers slowly weakened the labor movement until working people lost much of what earlier generations had fought so hard for.

For many years now, the labor movement has been fighting defensive battles, trying to hold on to previous gains instead of demanding and winning new concessions. That’s the problem with reforms–they can always be rolled back later, and employers know that.

Yet some workers have always wanted more than temporary reforms or concessions. Some workers have always wanted to do away with the distinction between employers and employed, by transforming all companies into self-managed syndicates of working people. Some workers want to replace the entire capitalist system with a system that works for everyone–a system of industrial democracy or “syndicalism.”

Worker self-management of society is the core of industrial democracy, and even though the idea is more than a century old now it is still revolutionary. It has the potential to end inequality and oppression, and to bring prosperity within reach of the many instead of only a privileged few.

In a self-managed workplace you would have no boss. Instead you would sit down with your co-workers to make decisions together.

In a self-managed workplace you wouldn’t work for someone else’s profits, but for your own well-being and the well-being of your family and community.

In a self-managed workplace you wouldn’t have to dread the approaching work-week, because you wouldn’t be under anyone else’s thumb. You and your co-workers would be in charge of your own time, in charge of your own work life. You’d be free.

Is the self-managed workplace even possible? We’re always told how important it is to have someone in charge, how we cannot manage our own affairs even when we know the job much better than the boss does. Worker self-management would be inefficient and chaotic, or so we’ve always been told. The reality does not match what we’ve always been told. In fact, “research has found that increasing workers’ control of production increases productivity, creativity, morale, lack of turnover, attendance rates, and other useful work behaviors” according to “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises” by Wayne Price.

Worker self-management is also more effective than traditional Socialism. During the 1970-1973 presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile, some factories were nationalized while others were put under worker self-management. The self-managed workplaces were found to be “much more productive, efficient and with less absenteeism than state run factories under centralized management” according to “Worker Self-Management in Historical Perspective” by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer.

We know that worker self-management can work. So how does it work?

According to the “Workers’ Self-Management FAQ”:

Workers self-management is a way of running a workplace without bosses or a fixed managerial hierarchy. Instead, the workplace is run democratically by its workers. By democracy, we do not mean that workers elect a manager to make decisions for them. We mean that the workers themselves decide how they will do things as a group… Each self-managed workplace is managed by a face-to-face meeting of everyone who works there – a workers’ assembly. The workers of each enterprise collectively make all “management” decisions on a basis of one-worker-one-vote or consensus. The workers of each department form their own smaller assemblies, in which they make the decisions that affect only their department, and so on to the smallest work groups.

Work groups would meet on a daily or weekly basis depending on the job, department assemblies would meet less frequently and the overall workers’ assembly would meet less frequently still. It would not be necessary for workers to spend all their time in meetings or debates, because most decisions could be handled by the individual worker or the small work group without needing to ask permission from any higher authority.

When one work group needs to coordinate something with another work group, one member is appointed as a delegate. A delegate is not like an elected representative, because representatives can make whatever decision they want to whether the people who voted for them agree with it or not. A delegate can only do whatever the work group has agreed to. If the delegate needs to work out a compromise, the work group still has to approve the compromise. Any delegate can be recalled at any time, so the decision-making power remains with the workers.

What about specialized jobs that require a team leader to coordinate all the members of the work group? Rather than having a manager to be in charge over everyone, the workers would simply take turns as team leader or as the person in charge of implementing the work group’s plans.

According to the “Workers’ Self-Management FAQ”:

…the people who do the actual productive work – making products, designing them, maintaining machinery, collecting information and so on – will collectively manage their own work. Workers self-management means that workers literally manage themselves, and therefore there are no professional managers or managerial hierarchy – just normal workers cooperating as equals.

This principle of freedom and equality is industrial democracy, a vision for a future without bosses or exploitation. In the capitalist system, most of the wealth produced by work is handed over to people who don’t actually do the work. The workers are given the bare minimum needed to keep them working, and the company’s shareholders and top managers get the rest. If the workers are lucky enough to belong to a union, they can negotiate for better wages and benefits. That is obviously a good thing, but it doesn’t change the basic facts. No matter how good your contract is, your effort primarily enriches someone else.

When the workers are in charge of their own workplaces, this will come to an end. In the words of an old labor slogan, “Labor is entitled to all it produces.” Not just “a fair wage” or a better minimum wage, but all of it.

Pagan Worker Collectives

In the dispute between Patheos and its former writers, the honorable thing for Patheos to do would be to fulfill our reasonable demands and stop using our writing and our effort to promote causes we find reprehensible. But even if Patheos does the honorable thing, we’d be better off not writing for them any longer.

Pagans don’t need to be integrated into mainstream society, or to accept a value system that is destroying everything we worship. What we need instead is to create our own system for producing and distributing Pagan contenta system based on personal autonomy and collective ownership. Pagan writers’ collectives such as Gods&Radicals are a better model for what we do, and they don’t have to be explicitly political to be run according to radical principles. A site with content and opinions as varied as the Patheos Pagan Channel could easily be run without owners or bosses. Pagan book-shops and metaphysical shops could be as well.

A collective that takes on outside employees becomes a capitalist employer, so we should take a warning from the Sisters of Camelot case and avoid that contradiction. If we want to build something better than what we have right now, we have to do it consciously.

Some people will argue that we need pagan infrastructure, and that this can only be done through the capitalist system. During the Spanish Civil War, 75% of the economy of Catalonia was operated by anarchist worker syndicatesincluding complex systems like the railways. We can and should build a Pagan infrastructure without duplicating the errors and exploitation of the capitalist system.

If we build such an infrastructure, it may even prove to be resilient enough to survive the downfall of that system.


Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.


Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, which is available here.

18 Comments »

  1. You list co-ops along with non-profits and other businesses, saying “capitalism is capitalism” – but your description of workers’ self-management is a perfect description of what co-operative working should be. Perhaps the distinction here is “working for” – some co-ops (like The Co-op in the UK) operate on capitalist principles but encourage workers to buy into the company and become ‘members’. But these are not true workers’ co-operatives. Here in Calderdale, solidarity-based infrastructure is growing, slowly but surely, and some of the fallout from Brexit and our increasing political isolationism is likely to tip the balance further towards self-sufficiency and sustainability. At least, that’s what I tell myself, in hope.

    There is also an uncomfortable intersection between paganism and consumerism – mass-produced ‘must-have’ products made in polluting and exploitative factories. Conversely, the pagan community offers a space and a voice for independent artists and writers, teachers and healers, to offer their services. I want to keep on holding that space and amplifying that voice. As Calvino says, “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

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  2. What about specialized jobs that require a team leader to coordinate all the members of the work group? Rather than having a manager to be in charge over everyone, the workers would simply take turns as team leader or as the person in charge of implementing the work group’s plans.

    I am curious – if there is a specialized job relevant to a particular industry that, for whatever reason, the current set of workers is unable to fill, would it be reasonable to expect them to look outside their current employees to find someone to fill the position? Is a managerial position entirely opposed to this kind of organization, as long as the manager is an equal member of the democratic processes of the business and is directly answerable to and re-callable by the workers as a whole (rather than being answerable to capitalist shareholders)?

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    • In my opinion, the workers in any given shop will always understand their real situation better than anyone else, so this sort of thing should be decided on a case by case basis. If the workers think they need to bring in a specialist that should be their call to make.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with much of what you have said here; but I wonder if in suggesting worker committees handle the management tasks we are not denying human nature and creating systemic inefficiency. We humans are communal by nature, it is true, but we are also hierarchical in nature. I’ve always though of this as a fundamental contradiction that may well be the root of many of our problems. It seems to me, that to a certain degree we desire social structures with organized authority and responsibility structures. At the same time, we also want to have a fully democratic system where we all have a say.

    Perhaps, it isn’t the absence of a boss, or authority, that we should desire, but instead a more equitable method of selecting the authority than who has the most money, the best family connections, and managed to find their way into the most prestigious school. I see it much like the ideal of sacred kingship and the more democratic (though still somewhat aristocratic) moot system for selecting a king.

    I envision working for a Pagan company where the workers met to select an authority, and that authority held power so long as the efforts were blessed (read productive). If the leader steps down, abuses power in predetermined ways, or things go poorly for an extended time then the employees can meet to select a new leader. It would satisfy our needs for hierarchy and communalism at the same time. Though, I recognize that it is very much a pipe dream in the present environment.

    Also, if I recall my history correctly, the Bolsheviks tried something similar to the idea of workers running the show by committee early in the revolution; both in factories and in the military. While I cannot recall having read anything specifically about the effects of the system in the factories, I do recall that early Bolshevik reforms led to deep reductions in productivity that they later had to rectify. In the military, however, the system was a complete failure and was rapidly replaced; it destroyed morale and made even minor decisions a complicated and disruptive affair.

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    • Thanks for your comments. Whenever I see a claim about human nature, I ask myself if there are any known exceptions. If something is really intrinsic to our nature, we would expect to find no exceptions or only a very few exceptions caused by unique local conditions. So, have there ever been societies without fixed hierarchies, societies that were mostly egalitarian? The answer is yes – there have been hundreds of such societies. (See Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed” for the evidence of this.) So hierarchy is not really intrinsic to our natures. Is worker self-management inefficient? As I mentioned in the article, the evidence suggests the opposite. As for the worker’s councils or “soviets” early in the Russian Revolution, their power was not suppressed because they were inefficient but because the Bolsheviks had no intention of allowing popular revolutionary power. They wanted to rule the country themselves.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I imagine we will continue to disagree. We might easily find a society where there is an absence of nation-state style governance , but from the most basic hunter-gatherer to the modern democratic nation-state there are examples of hierarchy to be found. In any society, there is going to differentiation in treatment based on some form of classification of persons. Perhaps it is the fact that hunters get the first cut of the meat, the deference shown by members of the tribe to the best hunter, respect with which we regard elders and heed their advice, the oaths offered to a liege lord, or perhaps respect shown to a shaman or member of the clergy. All of these are forms of hierarchy; and to best of my knowledge you could not walk through a village or city anywhere the world without finding an example. In fact, I would find any argument that even this basic form of hierarchy didn’t exist to be highly suspect. It seems to me that a variation in the degree to which an aspect of human nature is expressed by various societies does not imply that the aspect is not present.

        Certainly, the Bolsheviks believed in a Revolutionary elite leading the revolution; Lenin was quite clear about that. Worker Productivity was a problem for the U.S.S.R throughout its existence, and I am hardly an expert on the early worker councils in the factories, so I won’t presume to debate you on this point. Though, I suspect there is truth to be found in both theories.

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      • In fact, even the supposedly non-hierarchical societies (called “societies against the state” by anthropology) do have hierarchy: they are patriarchal, holding the male social order above a feminine original chaos. In most of these societies, this correlates with effective social privileges for males. There are a few who are quite egalitarian in practice on this regard – such as the pygmee – but still they hold the very same symbolic hierarchy.

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      • Considering that we’re talking about hundreds if not thousands of different societies, I don’t know if it’s valid to make such a huge generalization. I’m sure you’re right that this is very often the case, but I’m not arguing that these societies have no problems or injustices. If societies exist outside the state then it is possible to have a society outside the state. If societies exist that are more egalitarian than ours, then it is possible to create a society more egalitarian than ours. Possibly a society more egalitarian than any that has yet existed.

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    • I think you’re stretching the definition of hierarchy a bit too far here. Oaths to a liege lord? Okay, that hierarchy. But respect for someone with special skills? No, that’s not really hierarchy. In Scott’s book, there were indeed tribes with headmen, but with a tradition that any headman who tried to boss people around had to be killed immediately. One tribe had no headmen at all, in fact they had a tradition that anyone who even claimed to be a headman had to be killed. As for the USSR, I read an interesting article recently arguing that the best thing about the USSR was that people could survive whether they were productive or not. All a matter of perspective. In any case, actual case studies of worker self-managed enterprises have found them to be more productive, not less.

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      • Perhaps you’re correct, but it seems to me that my examples fit within the accepted uses of the word. According to most of the dictionaries I checked, any classification of persons by profession (i.e. special skills), social status, etc. would be the formation of a hierarchy especially in such cases where there was a differentiation of treatment. I suspect, however, that we’re just dancing around slightly different uses of the word.

        Is there any chance you could point me toward some of those case studies? I’m tangentially involved with the social sciences and I’d be interested in reviewing them. If they are properly sourced; I’d love to integrate them into my lectures and lessons.

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      • If I recall correctly, the links embedded in my article will lead you to other articles with supporting evidence. There is also a large amount of documentary evidence about the anarchist worker collectives in Spain in Jose Peirat’s three volume history “The CNT in the Spanish Revolution,” including plenty of productivity stats.

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  4. In this model, how would suggest addressing an enterprise that occasionally-to-frequently needs short-term, overhire labor? The shop I work for has 12 full time employees, but when a large amount of work comes in, we frequently bring in additional workers from our union, for anywhere from one day to six weeks at a time. If the 12 of us were to buy the business and manage it ourselves, what would be a non-capitalist way to fairly fill temporary labor needs?

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    • Thanks for your question. I’m not an expert in the economic details of a cooperative economy, but Jose Peirats’ book on the CNT does have a lot of examples of the rules different worker-managed enterprises adopted for themselves. Cooperative woodworking shops, for instance, would loan workers to each other to resolve that sort of issue. (One shop has too much work, another has too little, so the shop without enough work sends workers over to the shop without enough workers.) It’s definitely not a competitive model.

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  5. Yes, thank you. You have written the piece I have long wanted to write myself for Gods & Radicals, but have not had the spoons to do so.

    Workers’ (and housing, and consumer) co-operatives and other syndicate forms do work, demonstrably so. And they also require tough levels of self-knowledge, self-responsibility, and a visceral commitment to mutuality and collective good. (This is the reason why, in my opinion, in the white, English-speaking world, co-operatives, collectives, et al. are often so difficult to work in: people want the ideal without doing the hard inner work to realise it.)

    In England, Radical Routes publishes simple how to guides for creating workers’ and housing co-operatives, and Catalyst Collective can help with registration and set up.

    Liked by 1 person

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