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The Factory Floor & The Witch’s Stake

To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.

From Rhyd Wildermuth

The following essay is adapted from Rhyd Wildermuth’s speech, “Witches In A Crumbling Empire,” to be republished as part of his next collection, Our Time of Springs, Our Time of Flames (August, 2018)


The Empire under which we all suffer, under whom we are all ruled, was born upon the factory floor and upon the witch’s stake.

Industrialised capitalism started in England around 1760. Before then, almost everything humans used was made by humans with human effort, without the input of petroleum. So, in the early 1700’s, any clothing you wore and any food you ate was made or grown completely without fossil fuels.

The first coal-fired factories were built in cities swollen with refugees from the surrounding areas. Those people had just lost all access to land and the means to support themselves because of laws called the Enclosure Acts. No longer could they raise animals and plants from the earth with their own two feet firmly planted on the ground; now, their only option was to stand on wood and stone factory floors for 14 hours a day making things for other people.

Humans are hard to control. Humans don’t like working all day for someone else. They have to eat, and piss, and shit, and rest. Many women bleed every moon, sometimes they get pregnant and have to care for their children.

But Coal doesn’t tire. Coal doesn’t show up to work late after a night of drinking or fucking. Coal doesn’t need a rest, doesn’t get menstrual cramps, doesn’t daydream about how life can be better. Coal also doesn’t demand wages.

So the great ‘revolution’ of industrialisation was the slow replacement of human labor with black carbon labor from the earth. In the Americas, the people called Black were also used to replace waged labor. In both cases, the rich tried to find a low-cost, easily-managed, fully-predictable means to gain wealth.

Slaves revolt, though, and kill their masters. Coal and oil blacken the cities and skies with soot, but burned through filters, the carbon becomes invisible, escapes quietly into the atmosphere, warming the earth at such imperceptible rates that it could be ignored until recently.

What could not be ignored was the tendency of humans to revolt against their masters, be they slaves or peasants, workers or servants. Humans don’t make very good machines, we are unpredictable, tire easily, and anyway would rather be creating art or eating, then doing monotonous work for little pay.

The same era which saw the birth of industrialised capitalism also saw the birth of all modern forms of government and control. The modern city, the nation-state, so-called Democracy, representative government, prisons resembling factories resembling schools which resemble prisons. It also saw the birth of the modern police and the political order under which we now live.

But what is Empire?

By Empire I mean America, but I also do not.

By Empire I mean Capitalism, but I also do not.

By Empire I mean colonization. I mean industrialisation. I mean the slaughter of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. I mean the carbon in the air and the worker in the factory. I mean all the newly extinct species and all the dying forests. I mean the corporations which own the internet and the corporations who profit from the computers and smartphones you read this on.

By Empire, I mean the foreign wars. I mean an Arab woman cradling the corpse of her decapitated daughter and shaking her fist at the gay Black dude from Los Angeles who only joined the Army to get money to support his mother.

By Empire, I mean the Mexican child screaming as her father is taken away by an ICE agent whose grandparents fled the Nazi advance in Europe.

By Empire, I mean the Black father mourning his son killed by a cop whose ancestors sold themselves into indentured servitude rather than starve to death during the famine in Ireland.

By Empire, I mean the intersectional feminist writing essays about the exploitation of women and children on a computer made through the exploitation of Asian women and African children.

And by Empire I mean the Arab man who massacres gays in a nightclub to retaliate for atrocities none of those people committed.

By Empire, I mean the single white mother driving her disabled kid to a doctor’s appointment over roads lain by migrant workers who are about to get deported.

By Empire I mean the civitas and the polis. I mean civilization and the police, the laws and logic, the political order, the thou shalt nots and the prisons where you go when you refuse to listen.

But more than anything, I mean the Empire in each of you and the Empire in me.

I mean all that was once wild and raw and sacred in us that is now ground into machine-parts and mechanical obedience.

By Empire I mean you, and by Empire I mean me.

And finally, by Empire I mean this thing that is crumbling around us, gasping for air, begging us to keep it alive.

The Empire that is crumbling around us was born on the factory floors and the witch’s stake, and both were assaults on the human body.

Silvia Federici said it, in her essay “In Praise of the Dancing Body:

Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance…. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.

If the first task of Capitalism was to separate us from land and nature, they have more than succeeded. One need only look at the vastly artificial surroundings we all live in, the devices we use to speak with each other, the manufactured foods and synthetic medicines. Can you walk outside your home and find something edible growing by the pavement? Do you know which birds share your neighborhood with you? Can you point to where precisely the sun will rise tomorrow morning without a compass? Without looking outside tonight or at the internet, which phase is the moon in?

But it’s useless to rail against this disconnection. What separates us from the land and nature is not a current assault in an ongoing struggle: the war was won by them long ago. We are an occupied people, often occupying occupied land cleared long before any of us were born.

If that war was lost, though, the other war is still on going. Says Federici again:

Mechanization—the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine—has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.

Capitalism has needed us to act like machines so we can fit into the system as mere, fully-interchangeable cogs. Many of use don’t fit, though: be it our bodies themselves or our failure to conform, the process of turning us into machines is never fully complete.

Those of us who gum up the gears aren’t welcome in the factory, but Empire has a place for us too.

Empire was born on the factory floor, and it was also born on the witch’s stake. Failure to file down your rough bits, refusal to conform to the will of the political order, and worst of all encouraging others to do the same will land you at best in jail, or riddled with mental-illnesses that were non-existent in pre-capitalist lands, suffocated with a crushed trachea for daring to sell loose cigarettes or bleeding to death in the street for looking non-white when the polis tried to enforce its will.

There are countless technological distractions and institutions which have helped us forget our bodies: the masturbatory fantasies of video games and pornography, the medicalisation of any bodily refusal to be a good worker. Gyms look like factories for a reason, for it’s in the mills and on the mechanical looms where we first lost the meaning of muscle and blood. And then there is clock time, our smartphones and alarm clocks, schools which teach kids to move from class to class to prepare them to move from task to task.

Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our body because it is the land and the body which tells you this is all wrong. The land screams as species go extinct, forests die, icecaps melt. Your body screams when you treat it as a machine.

Your body tells you this is all wrong. Starting from the body, you know you tire faster when you are doing meaningless work. You know the food on offer to you at the supermarkets is empty, you know that the air you breathe is often toxic. You know sitting for eight hours staring at a screen hurts more than just your eyes, that standing behind a counter slinging coffee to exhausted people makes you a poorly-paid drug dealer.

All that knowledge is what capitalism needs you not to know.

All those feelings are what Empire fears you’ll feel.

Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies for another reason.

Your body is always in contact with something else, something outside yourself. Your feet, the lowest part of you, the easiest part to ignore until they hurt, they connect to the entire world-soul. Taking your shoes off, standing on the grass or the sand or stone, you become no longer a machine but a body again, part of something always bigger than yourself, with a different logic, a more intuitive time, a deeper truth.

Your feet on the earth, you cannot be disconnected from the earth and the seasons, because you are also the earth and its seasons. Work in summer is not work in winter, the time of your waking and the cycles of your sleeping follow a different rhythm fully separate from the time of money-making, the time of machines.

Capitalism needs you to forget this.

Witchcraft tells you to remember.

If Empire was born on the factory floor and on the witch’s stake, it spread into every last bit of our existence, making subjects out of each one of us. While Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies, Empire needed us to become passive subjects of the political order.

Passivity is not receptivity. As a gay man I can assure you, more action goes into receptive sex than merely closing your eyes and thinking about the Empire. I suspect most women would concur.

Receptivity opens us to the world of senses, of feelings, of meaning. You are being receptive now, taking my words into you, playing with them, weaving their meaning into the tapestry of you. But passivity makes you a victim, a mere tool in the hands of the powerful. Passivity is consumption, selection between lifestyle options, an identity defined not by what you do but by what you choose. Did you vote Democrat or Republican? Drink Coke or Pepsi? Use an iPhone or Android?

Passivity reduces will to mere consumer preference. No longer will to power but a mere checkbox on a ballot or a selection on a screen. No longer desire and suffering but mere distractions to dull the fatigue of work and the anxiety of alienation.

You cannot force someone to become passive except by long applications of torture. But there is another route, a slower one, by which you can conquer the will of others by telling them not ‘thou shalt not’ but ‘thou cannot.’ Like the God of Eden’s lies to the woman in the garden, we are told we cannot survive without capitalism, cannot be safe without police, cannot find meaning outside of waged work, cannot find love without cosmetics.

And so what we did not lose on the factory floor we lost with the death of witches. Not only the women with herbs and poison roots, not only the crones bearing stories from times before private property, not only the maidens urging worship in temples of wild lust, not only the mothers feeding us from their bodies. Not only them, but also them: the women who reminded us an entire world can be made not from city and machine but forest and dirt.

Not only them, but also the heretics, the mad, the dreamers, the rebels. The men dressed like women tearing down fences along with women drest like men, refusing the enclosure of the sacred commons and the seizure of land for the profit of the few. The indigenous elders gunned down by settlers, the traditional healers dead in the hulls of slave ships. All of them taught what Empire needed us to forget: the earth knows what the computer never will, that the body bleeds a liquid more powerful than petroleum.

With them gone, we started to believe we can-not. We cannot heal ourselves without pharmaceuticals, we cannot feed ourselves without factory farms. We cannot make our own clothes, cannot craft our own homes. We must now suckle at the toxic teat of the Market while it slaps us with an invisible hand.

We started to believe we cannot resist.

But in the screaming defiance of the immolated witches was a reminder: we can refuse to submit, even in death.

It took centuries to shape us into what we are now, passive sniveling subjects of Empire and Capital. Though this may seem long, we lived outside Empire much longer. Capitalism is new and short-lived, compared even to Feudalism. It differs only in its full permeation of all our existence, and it is for this reason I call it Empire.

It is also collapsing.

The climate change caused by Capitalism cannot be stopped any longer, and its effects already cause famines and resource wars throughout the world. Between 30,000 and 140,000 species go extinct every year now; at the beginning of the 1800’s, this number was no more than 1000 yearly. Cities are beginning to flood, water tables depleting, while the oil-wells which makes the entire Empire run are going dry. Climate change will increase the refugee crises currently fueling the nationalist parties in Europe and the US, and whether they are fleeing from resource wars or unmanned drone bombers, they are undoubtedly the first quakes of Empire’s impending collapse.

Empires always pompously declare themselves eternal. The British swore the sun would never set on them, the third reich was supposed to last 1000 years. Western Democratic Capitalist Empire declared itself ‘the end of history’ in the 1990’s, but of course Fukuyama’s prediction sealed its fate.

Empires have always tried to cheat death and this one is no different. But the crone that stands on the other side of death’s door revealed her trump card, and now few can deny what this means.

Some still cling to the vain hope that Donald Trump is merely an unfortunate set-back to the progress of civilization. But reversing civil protections, installing fascist theorists in positions of power, rattling the chains of other world leaders, building a wall to keep the Mexicans out—these are not mere reversals of Empire’s progress, they are Empire trying to save itself.

Consider this wall between the US and Mexico. See past the obvious racism of such a thing and its absurd cost to what’s lurking beneath the political veneer. Consider the impending flood of climate refugees: remember your geography, look at a map displaying where the major destruction will occur first, and suddenly Trump’s idea isn’t mere xenophobic delusion.

The increase in surveillance powers, the militarization of police forces, the dismantling of the courts and the rights they are sworn to protect, the stoking of fascist flames: these are not just the actions of a psychopath, but of an engineer shoring up the ruins of Empire.

The same is happening everywhere else in the world. The capitalists know we are remembering to resist again, and so they are raising again the stakes, piling faggots beneath them, waiting for our next sign of revolt.

To accept what is around us now, to call such things “good” and “necessary,” is to laugh in the faces of the screaming witches who died so this Empire could arise. To chase after like mongrel dogs the trinkets and crumbs the capitalists throw down to us on the floor–the “rights” and “freedoms” and all the glossy junk cluttering store shelves–is to jeer at the sorrow and sufferings of our ancestors hauled to work in chains or prodded into mills by the terror of starvation.

To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.

To fight Empire is to stare in the face of our own deaths and laugh, knowing the worst that might happen is Empire might burn us, too.

But to the witches who risked the stake to avoid forever the factory floor, the insurrectionists who risked bullets to forever avoid submission, and any who risked the rage of Empire for the possibility that Empire might fall, the choice was an easy one.

So is ours.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals Press and a co-editor of godsandradicals.org.


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