Capitalist Extortion in the Pagan Community
“Whatever the agenda of the extortionist, their victims are left with little to no choice: become an unwilling party to unethical, harmful conduct or try to opt out of the system entirely.”
Cultural and political commentary, from John Halstead
Twice in the past month, capitalists have tried to extort my silence.
That sounds dramatic. But it’s what happened.
The first time, it was a media corporation, BN Media, which recently took over the blogging platform, Patheos, where I used to write. BN Media/Patheos has been withholding an electronic backup of my writing (almost 1000 posts) for several months now without explanation. They recently let it leak that the reason for the delay was that the corporation was trying to keep me from writing negative things about them. My writing was being held hostage, and the price of its ransom was my silence. (That’s what prompted my recent snarky “Help Wanted: Patheos Pagan Writers” post. Suffice it to say, I don’t respond well to coercion.)
BN Media’s attempt to shake me down was not surprising, considering how they had already attempted to extort all of the Patheos writers. When BN Media acquired Patheos, they stepped into the corporate shoes of Patheos’ prior owners. Writers who had formerly contracted with someone else now found themselves in an involuntary contractual relationship with an evangelical organization with a history of censorship and which had previously chased Pagans out of the Beliefnet platform. BN Media then unilaterally rewrote the contract with the Patheos writers significantly expanding the editorial control and restricting writers’ freedom of expression. Patheos Pagan writers now had the choice to abandon their exiting writing to BN Media or sign a contract which would give BN Media even more control over their writing. When Pat Mosley and myself raised the alarm and attempted to build some solidarity among the Pagan Patheos writers, BN Media made an example of and summarily terminated us (which is how corporations often treat labor organizers).
Perhaps even more disturbing than the actions of BN Media were the excuses offered by the Patheos management. The actions of the corporation were defended in terms of the profit motive (“They have to make money.”), without any regard to the people impacted–neither the Patheos writers, many of whom were unwittingly signing away control of their writing to a for-profit corporation for minimal benefit, nor the people who continue to be harmed by the anti-LGBT propaganda purveyed by BN Media’s affiliates.
This, I was told by Patheos management, was “standard in the industry.” Indeed, it is. And yet, why that should be any excuse for unethical behavior confounds me. Bad behavior is bad behavior, no matter how “standard” it might be. But I’m beginning to realize that the key word in the phrase “standard in the industry” may not be “standard”, but “industry.” In a capitalist world, the profit motive covers a multitude of sins.
Small-Time Capitalist Extortion
The second time a capitalist tried to extort my silence this month, it was a troll who owns a couple of occult bookstores (which he calls an “empire”) and courts the worst kind of publicity for the Pagan community. This troll was upset that I would be presenting at a Pagan Pride Day event in his region. (Apparently, among other things, he doesn’t like my anti-capitalist views.) He made various threats, from the vague-but-ominous (“watch yourself at that event”) to the ridiculously specific (threatening to set up an anonymous domain in the Bahamas and a website in Iceland and then publish that I molest children).
Even more disturbing than his attempts to directly extort me were his threats to harass, and even fire, his own employee, who was organizing the Pagan Pride event. This troll person unselfconsciously describes himself as “someone who not only knows how to use capitalism, but also has plenty of capital” and routinely threatens to use his capital (which I suspect is less sizeable than he likes to claim) to harass and bully those he disagrees with. I was only the most recent of his targets.
When overt threats didn’t work on me, he resorted to disingenuous appeals to my sympathy for his employees, arguing that “attacks” on him would hurt the people who work for him, like the aforementioned Pagan organizers. (Later he contradicting himself by saying that any press, good or bad, helped his business.) We’ve seen similar logic many times in the past decade, as heads of corporations escape punishment for their unethical behavior because they employ so many people. A parallel argument was used to justify bailing out corporations which were deemed “too big to fail.”
My troll even threatened to “hire an army of gutter punks” to protest me at the event. I admit, I had to look up what a “gutter punk” was. Apparently it refers to a homeless or transient person who displays characteristics of the punk subculture. So, add to the list exploiting homeless and transient people, as well as abusing the First Amendment. (I’m not saying doesn’t have the right to hire whomever he could to stage a fake protest, but having the right to do something and doing the right thing are not the same.)
Not surprisingly, my troll also defended the management of Patheos.
Part of a Larger System
In some ways, my two would-be extortionists could not be more different. One is a large media conglomerate that funds evangelical hate groups. The other is a petty troll who has delusions of capitalist grandeur. But in another way, they are two of a piece. Both are capitalists, meaning they have accumulated capital by exploiting the work of others. Both believe that their capital earns them the right to a louder voice than those with less. And both attempt to use their capital to extort silence from those they disagree with.
And they are not alone. Consider the similarity between my troll, who threatened to fire his employee if I was allowed to speak at a Pagan event she was organizing, and General Motors and Chrysler, which threaten to move their business overseas unless the American taxpayers continue to subsidize their unsustainable business practices. Both attempt to manipulate our sympathies for the victims of their capitalist exploitation, while expecting us to take that exploitation for granted.
Or consider the similarity between BN Media and the Big Banks, like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank, which were bailed out by taxpayers in 2008. BN Media held the writing of the Patheos bloggers hostage in order to coerce their agreement to a new contract which would give BN Media even more power, while at the same time sponsoring anti-LGBT groups. The Big Banks hold the world economy hostage in order to coerce bailouts and deregulation, while at the same time funding the Dakota Access Pipeline.
It’s a difference of scale, but not of method. And the end result in both cases is that their victims become complicit in their own subjugation and the subjugation of others.
“Capitalist Extortion” is Redundant
I think this reveals something about the inherent relationship between capitalism and extortion. I say this as a capitalist myself. I am the part-owner of a business that employs other people who are not owners. That we business owners exploit the labor our employees is evident by the discrepancy between our salaries and those of our employees. And there is a kind of extortion going on there, which arises out of the unequal bargaining power between the employer and the employees, caused by a surplus of labor, the lack of a social safety net, the weakening or absence of collective bargaining organizations, and so on. This is where the concept of “wage slavery” comes from.
But some capitalists take this extortion even further. For them, it’s not sufficient to exploit the labor of employees. They also have an agenda to advance–whether political or personal–and they use their capital to extort our complicity with that agenda. For the Big Banks, that agenda is neoliberalism, with its attendant policies of deregulation and globalization (so that capital and corporations may cross nationals borders freely even while people cannot). For my troll, the agenda was the promotion of his own cult of personality–the less said about which the better (even negative attention feeds the monster). For BN Media, the agenda is an evangelical one, part of which involves channeling of charitable contributions to hate groups like Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, and the American Center of Law and Justice, which promotes the criminalization of homosexuality.
Whatever the agenda of the extortionist, their victims are left with little to no choice: become an unwilling party to unethical, harmful conduct or try to opt out of the system entirely. The latter path is being forged here at Gods & Radicals.
What I have realized through all of this is that this kind of extortionist behavior is not aberrant–it’s a feature of a capitalist system. Obviously, not all capitalists will resort to such obvious shakedown methods as BN Media and my troll did, but there are no inherent checks to prevent it when they do. After all, it’s “standard in the industry.” It even finds its way even into our religious lives, at interfaith blogging platforms and at Pagan Pride events, for example. We can condemn extortionist behavior, but its not a problem of a few bad apples. We need to get to the root of the problem–the inherently extortionist nature of capitalism. Until we do, extortion will be an unavoidable part of our lives–and our Paganism.
John Halstead is a Pagan activist and blogger. In addition to his writing here at Gods & Radicals, at Huffington Post, and on his personal blog, AllergicPagan.com, John is a environmental and anti-racist activist. He is one of the founding members of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works for a just transition from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy in Northwest Indiana, where frontline communities of color are facing the disproportionate impacts of industrial polution. John was also the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (ecopagan.com), which has collected over 9,000 signatures from 90 countries, and has been translated into 16 languages. It represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth.
Gods&Radicals is a non-profit, Pagan Anti-Capitalist Publisher.
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