Ash, Oak and Thorn: Clarification on the Death of British Paganism

The crisis of Paganism is directly tied to Capitalism

Cultural and religious analysis, from Jonathan Woolley


Ash die-back

Last month, I wrote an article in which I argued that the British Pagan Movement was dying. I was pleased to see it provoked(1) quite(2) a bit of(3) interest(4). As I expected, some people agreed with what I had to say, while others did not. Whenever you broach a controversial topic – and my article most certainly did so – there will always be some measure of disagreement. So before I move forward and offer some solutions to the problem as I see it, I thought it might be worthwhile to make some points of clarification.

This is what I shall attempt to do below; by means of a naturalistic metaphor. Much of my academic research has been concerned by exploring the ways in which the human and non-human worlds affect one another; how the forces of belief, profit, and bureaucracy percolate out through the landscape, and create patterns in the land and its people that closely mirror one another. Although I agreed with much of what John Beckett had to say in his response to my article*, what I found rather iffy about it was his use of evolution as a way of thinking about the development of religious communities. Using evolution as a model for understanding the spread or decline of human societies has a long and rather dubious history in anthropology, and contemporary social science has generally left metaphors of this particular kind behind.

While I still think nature can be – to use Levi-Strauss’ famous phrase – “good to think with” regarding social relations, I’d deploy it in a rather different way to John. So I thought I might demonstrate this, here, before I move on.

It will show, I hope, three things. One, it will help us appreciate what kinds of social groups I am talking about – in short, what I mean by “The British Pagan Movement.” Two, it will help us understand what “death” means here; what conclusions the evidence supports, and what conclusions it does not. Three, it will help us to understand why this process is inextricably bound-up with global flows of capital.

Clarification 1) Primroses

pagan things are not (necessarily) Paganism

There is a little wood, not far from where I live, that is mostly ash trees. As of this moment, the place is in a state much like many other ancient woodlands in the UK, managed for conservation; the branches are alive with birdsong, the forest floor is covered with a carpet of bluebells, primroses and lush spring grass. New life is flourishing everywhere you look. But if you look up, you see that a good number of the trees have brown lesions on their bark, and that last year’s withered leaf stalks are still clinging to their branches. Many of the older saplings are dead. Signs on the gate posts at the entry to the wood warn you – the whole place is suffering from Chalara, or Ash dieback. This fungus has already hit 90% of Denmark’s ash trees, and it is now spreading rapidly across the British Isles. Although mature trees can survive with an infection for many years, it decimates saplings, preventing the ash population from regenerating.

But remember – we are at the height of spring, and the forest is green, and many of the older trees will still put out leaves this year. So the majority of human visitors might imagine – even those who know the wood well – that there is no problem; hence the need for signs. But unless a solution is found, Britain’s glorious ash woods will die out. This does not mean the end of woodlands in general, nor does Chalara affect all plant species that live in ash woods – many of whom can and do thrive in woods of other sorts of trees. But if the ash trees all die out, then the woodlands defined by them will likewise disappear.

My previous article on Gods and Radicals made a similar diagnosis regarding British Paganism. I observed that – like the ebullient undergrowth in my ash woodland – the level of interest in “pagan” (note the small p) things is flourishing like never before. We’ve just celebrated May Day here in England, and there have been festivities up and down the country of a decidedly “pagan” feel. Despite many of these traditions have deep roots, I cannot remember them being celebrated so widely, or being publicised so much in the media.

I myself spent May Morning in Oxford with some friends, and 27,000 other people, who listened to the choir of Magdalene College sing to the rising sun, before a blessing was called out upon the Earth, our Mother, and the flourishing of the verdure for which the English springtime is famed. As the bells rang in the day, and Morris Men and other folk dancers jangled their way down across the Radcliffe Camera, the people of Oxford spread out to pubs and cafes – open especially early for that Morning – to toast the summer. And although there were initiated Pagans like myself present, by far and away the majority of those out on May Morning were not. The blessing was called out by an Anglican vicar, after all, and the choir were singing Hymnus Eucharisticus, a 500 year-old hymn about the Incarnation of Christ.

Events and activities of this kind, though undoubtedly “pagan” in a sense, should not be conflated with the Pagan Movement in Britain – which, as I stated in my original article, is a network of historically-related initiatory traditions, membership organisations, mailing lists, moots, and shops, all built around a genre of spiritual books, published from the late 19th to the present-day. This retail and voluntary framework supports a group of small religions and mystery schools that have grown dramatically in size during the 1980s and 1990s.

In the comments, a number of people suggested that because interest in pagan things like May Morning were doing so well the Pagan Movement itself must be flourishing. This reveals a common tendency  within both the advocacy and the study of Paganisms to claim pagan groups, ideas, and customs as part of the Pagan Movement, in a way that bolsters the Movement’s perceived size. An extreme version of this approach is represented in Michael York’s Pagan Theology, where he argues that indigenous religions, Hinduism, Shinto, African Traditional and Diasporic Religions, and Chinese Traditional Religions should all be reclassified as Pagan. This view has been heavily criticised for being a wild oversimplification of theological and ritual diversity in the traditions concerned, and for appropriating the independent philosophies of people of colour for confessional ends – despite the fact that followers in those philosophies would certainly reject the “Pagan” label.

I suggest we see a similar mistake being made when cultural events like May Morning, or the Stonehenge gathering at the Solstice, are treated as evidence for initiatory Pagan traditions themselves being in fine fettle. True, small-p paganism might encourage some people to seek out deeper mysteries, but I see little evidence that supports the view that the former necessarily leads to the latter in all cases. To dismiss the prospect of a gradual decline in popularity of initiatory Pagan groups or membership associations in Britain out of hand, simply because of the popularity of “pagan” cultural themes in Britain today is a bit like saying the ash trees can’t be dying from Chalara, because the primroses are doing awfully well.

Clarification 2) Saplings:

A lack of young people, and a lack of volunteerism are the problems; not an immediate collapse in membership

In my article, I identified evidence of decline with two observations; that there appear to be fewer people under 40 attending events organised by British Pagan traditions than previously, and that far fewer members of our community are volunteering to organise events. In the comments to my article – and in some rather frantic critiques published elsewhere – a lot of people went on to assume that the actual number of new members had collapsed, and that the existing membership figures of organisations like OBOD were falling. I have subsequently received clarification that – at least in the case of OBOD – this isn’t the case.

OBOD is increasing its membership rapidly to the point that the office is positively bustling; I have been informed that there are now nearly 20,000 members worldwide, an increase of roughly 4,000 over the past four years. Though reassuring, this bit of quantitative detail doesn’t necessarily affect my original observations – as OBOD doesn’t record the age of its members, it could be that this growth in membership is taking place solely amongst the over 40s. And as I argued in my original piece, if young people are joining the Order, but not coming to events, that still represents a problem. If millennials and younger members of Generation X are not being reached by the Order now, we have no guarantee that this will change as they get older – so the lack of young people at events could still indicate a problem that needs to be resolved. Nor does this continued growth indicate the extent to which people are willing to volunteer their time to organise moots, camps, or rituals.

With our ash woodland, the point is not that all the ash trees are dead already, or that no new seeds are able to germinate – rather, the problem is that Chalara is preventing the trees from flourishing as well as they might, to the point that a almost a whole generation of saplings has withered away, and this will have consequences long-term. The lack of young people at events, and the lack of ready volunteers, indicates that such a process may be ongoing in the British Pagan Community.

Clarification 3) Biosecurity:

Capitalism is, in fact, the causal factor

One might imagine that a fungal disease attacking ash trees and the combination of market forces I identified as being so deleterious to Britain’s initiatory Pagan traditions would have very little to do with one another. But in fact, both track the impact of global capitalism on local communities of different kinds.

Chalara – a species native to Asian forests, where it does no harm whatsoever – was imported into Europe in mass-produced furniture and ornamental plants. Rather than put in place adequate biosecurity measures to protect our forests from such diseases, the UK government opted for deregulation, preferring to protect the free movement of goods over the safety of our forests. It was neoliberal ideology – the religion of late capitalism – that brought Chalara to our shores. Just as Britain’s trees are blighted by the demands of capital, so our mysteries are deprived of the means of their reproduction by those self-same demands.

In the epic poem by Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, the nature spirit Puck explains that – apart from himself – all the magical people of England have left

“The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes and the rest — gone, all gone!”

Only he remains, for “I came into England with Oak, Ash, and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash, and Thorn are gone I shall go too”. This powerful poem contains, I suggest, the seeds of the sort of radical “saving vision” that John Halstead suggests we must pursue, not just to save our Movement from long-term decline, but to make it worth saving. While Britain’s ash trees wither due to the spread of Chalara, other threats – like the devastating Emerald Ash Borer – lurk on the horizon. Britain’s oak trees, too, are in danger – with Sudden Oak Death being another species introduced by the trade in exotic plants, without adequate biosecurity. It is the responsibility of initiated Pagans to lead the charge in protecting Oak, Ash, and Thorn, making the land welcoming again for The People of the Hills.

For if we do not, then who shall?

*However, as he believed his remarks were in disagreement with my own, I suspect he wrote more of a response to the title of my article, rather than its content.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

Sucking up to the boss: Trump as an Archetype

Ever since Trump was elected, like many progressives, I have been struggling to understand why. In the course of reading around what Trump himself says, and what his supporters say about him, I started to think about him as much as a spiritual phenomenon, as a political one. These two domains are, after all, more or less impossible to distinguish in any absolute sense.

As is often the case when a line of thinking is worthwhile, another author recently published something along the same lines. Reading Patacelsus’s meditation on the egregore of The Trump Corporation has encouraged me to put down my own thoughts on this subject. But rather than apply the theories of chaos magic and witchcraft to Trump’s ascent, below I’ll use another important conceptual tool from the Pagan toolbox – the Jungian archetype. What archetype might Trump be harnessing to cultivate his success? Why is it so influential amongst certain sections of American society? How does this archetype become a trope, to be repeated in creative work? And how can we combat it, politically, creatively and magically?

When we think about hierarchy, our first instinct might perhaps be to reach for classic Pagan archetypes – in Tarot, we find the temporal power of the Emperor, for example, and the spiritual authority of the High Priest. Such images can be compared constructively to the Jungian archetype of The Father – a character that, for Jung, represented our collective experience of authority; an experience that often induces fear. But in the modern world, we experience authority rather differently than we might have done when these archetypes were defined. High priests and emperors lack much of the legal and political authority they once commanded, where they continue to exist at all. And though fathers remain authority figures for many people today, this dynamic is much reduced in its prevalence and power compared to when Jung was writing – it’s much more usual now for men to be caregivers, and friends to their children, or to be unable to act as an authority figure for other reasons. The nature of fatherhood, and parenting itself, has changed, so that the role of it in expressing formal authority (and instilling fear) is much reduced on the collective level.

Therefore, if we wish to identify the social roles that carry formal authority, and invoke fear in us, and therefore play the psychical role of “The Father”, we must look beyond recorded archetypes, and think a little more creatively. When you do this, new archetypical forms begin to emerge. For many contemporary Americans, I suggest, the primary experience of authority today comes not from male parents, but rather in the workplace. Imagine back to your first job: you were eager for pay and the independence that came with it, but you probably didn’t enjoy the job itself. Nonetheless, you may well have been nervous, and worried that you might be fired – conscious of the fact that you were at the mercy of the company. The will of the company would be distilled in a particular person: namely, The Boss.

Naturally, there is a wide degree of diversity amongst individual line managers – some are good with people, kind, reasonable, and even helpful, while others will be irrational, ruthless, and cruel, and everything in between. Though important for the experience of individual employees, these differences are incidental, relative to the structural role any line manager plays in the business. A line manager is invested with authority over the staff who report to them; a hierarchical relationship that does not go away, no matter how good a boss the line manager might be. The employee’s ability to make rent, buy food, pay medical costs, go on holiday, is entirely dependent upon that relationship. The boss’s ability, by contrast, is not dependent on his employee to same degree. As such, that relationship is bound to become invested with emotional energy over time, particularly fear and anxiety; energy that over time crystallises into the Boss as a collective idea – an archetype.

Given the negativity of the emotions involved, the Boss normally manifests as a Worst Case Scenario. An avalanche of stories, films, and op-ed pieces about awful, tyrannical, cruel, incompetent, stupid, mean-spirited, greedy bosses descends from the collective unconscious of America every year; movies like the Horrible Bosses franchise are a case in point. This is perhaps best crystallised by The Lonely Island song Like a Boss, in which the eponymous boss careens from his professional responsibilities through a sequence of events that ranges from the aggressively antisocial to the pathetic, becoming progressively less and less realistic over the course of the song. This mixture of deceit, desperation, and braggadocio is a distinctive feature of many bad boss caricatures, not least David Brent from The Office.

But this negative view of the Boss is matched by a complimentary, positive view of this archetype. I was stuck by the power of this when I read a recent piece by Rick Perlstein regarding an essay written by “Peter” – one of Perlstein’s students – to explain why he had voted for Trump. “Peter” describes his home town in Oklahoma, where the local economy was suffering. “Peter” mentions that Oklahomans felt deeply disenfranchised from local politics, and found it easier to reach an accommodation with their managers, than lobby their representatives for legislative changes. Attempts by the federal government to improve workers’ rights would often result in local employers – such as Walmart – laying off employees or cutting pay, creating greater welfare dependency amongst the general population. He goes on to say,

“The majority of the people in the area do not blame the business or the company for their loss because they realize that businesses are in the business of making money, and that if they had a business of their own, they would do the same things.”

Clearly, here, the inhabitants of “Peter”s hometown sympathise with their Bosses, even when they make choices that negatively effect them. This is because, clearly, they see themselves as potential bosses too.

Much of the power of the Boss in the American imagination arises from the importance of a particular institutional form in American society – bureaucracy. As sociologist Max Weber points out, one of the key features of bureaucracy is a set hierarchy, with clear lines of authority and areas of responsibility. Bureaucracies require bosses. As David Graeber argues, Americans actually rather good at building and running bureaucracies, despite their antipathy towards them. As in France, official processes in Britain are often inefficient, slow, and incompletely realised, and end up being used to reinforce the established class system – with only those who attend certain schools and universities being equipped with the necessary skills to penetrate the byzantine levels of administrative complexity, or even avoid them completely.

American society, by contrast, has been thoroughly integrated into inclusive bureaucratic systems for over a century, making bureaucracy seem to Americans like a truly universal system*; despite the fact that Americans still adhere to a self-image of rugged individualism. Graeber reveals the reason for this apparent contradiction; the majority of American bureaucracies emerged from within the private sector, where they largely aren’t thought of as “bureaucracies” at all.

A corporation is also a bureau; it’s just a bureau devoted to the enrichment of shareholders, rather than the execution of state power. For Tea-Party Republicans, the government department and the private corporation exist as hypostases for the bad and good faces of Janus-faced Officialdom. The junior staff of the state are demotivated, surly, obsessed with paperwork (as well as being black**), while the junior staff of the corporation are efficient, professional, and obsessed with the customer (as well as being white**). Those in charge of state bureaucracies – that is, politicians – are corrupt, smarmy, and mercenary. Those in charge of private bureaucracies are strong, driven, and successful. The bad side of bureaucracy is symbolised by “the Swamp” – a brown-grey turgid morass populated by pond life and predators. The good side of bureaucracy is the Boss.

Now, to suggest that Trump actively embodies “The Boss” should seem like a logical conclusion to draw. He is, after all, the CEO of a multinational corporation. His reality TV persona is literally all about his status as an employer of other people. The Apprentice was just an extremely protracted job interview, in which Trump was doing the interviewing; giving candidates tasks, assessing their performance, firing them and hiring them – in short, bossing them about. All his rhetoric during his campaign and subsequently – concerned with winning, adversarial posturing against competitors, and promising to run America like a business – actively harnesses this image. Trump has approached the entire election as a hostile takeover; of the American state by corporate America.

The fact is that even though archetypes are universal, they take culturally very specific shapes. Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by famously saying that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said of politics. Every country has its own nationalistic obsessions and anxieties; that manifest publicly in quite a specific guises – guises simply wouldn’t fly anywhere else. Every far right leader is necessarily playing to the home crowd; so the fact that someone else’s extremist seems so ridiculous, should never be taken as an indication that your own national discourse would be immune. The fact that there has been an international chorus of disgust at Trump’s election should not make anyone complacent.

Regardless of the particular, local shapes Father-surrogates might take, what unites them is the response these shapes elicit from others: they demand sycophancy, absolute obedience, and unquestioning loyalty. They surround themselves with those who are willing to give these things, and shun or attack those who do not. In short, what the Boss demands from all of us is sucking up.

This, I think, represents a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Trump moment, that is ripe for exploitation by those of us opposed to it. Just as capitalism is bedevilled by internal contradictions, so it is with the far right politics that defends it. For while Trump’s supporters may like to imagine themselves as muscular, pioneering individuals – who do not rely on the State or anyone else for their livelihood – what Trump himself demands of them is nothing short of vassalage. He will make America great again, create jobs, and bring back the 1950s, and in return, his voters will magnify his own greatness. In dramatic contrast to the kaleidoscopic heterogeneity of the anti-globalisation movement or Occupy***, the Trump movement, with their mass-produced baseball caps, mostly white faces, the choreography of their rallies, the vision that many Trump supporters have of America, is remarkably uniformist.

Such uniform public displays, so typical of totalitarian regimes, do not exist to highlight the strength and distinctiveness of individual participants – but to accentuate and reinforce the power and will of the guy in charge. Of course, the way the Boss copes with this is by creating opportunities for his followers to get a taste of his power, in small, confined ways. By restricting the reproductive rights of women, the Boss makes men the boss of women’s bodies. By expanding and militarising the police, the Boss creates opportunities for small-town sheriffs to feel like the boss of blackfolk’s lives. By forbidding transfolk from entering the right bathroom, the Boss allows ciswomen to feel like the boss of their trans sisters. By rolling back the rights of workers, the Boss allows managers to become more like him. The Boss transforms the contagion of schoolyard bullying into tool of government

And yet, American culture demonises sucking up. Having to tug your forelock at someone richer and more powerful than you to get ahead is precisely what the ancestors of most present-day white Americans were striving to escape when they colonised Turtle Island. This experience has left many scars in American national consciousness – in film and on TV, suck ups are, at best, a pathetic comic relief, and at worst the guy who holds the bad guy’s hat, and runs off squealing in fear when the hero wins

Nobody wants to see themselves as that guy; least of all the sort of middle-class, white folk who voted for Trump in their droves. But that is precisely what they have become. Seduced by the facade of egalitarianism and meritocracy that corporate America has spun around itself, they have become everything their ancestors would have despised – the cringing assistant to the local liege-lord; responsible for keeping the rest of the manor in line, and keeping him in power. Their fate is not their own, but tied to his. This will remain the case, until they choose to abandon him.

Now that Trump is in power, he and his cronies in the Republican party are starting to take steps that will hurt many of those who voted for him – from dismantling the Affordable Care Act, to removing important environmental protections. As a result, some Trump voters are starting to regret their choice. Although I have little sympathy for people who fail to apologise for support an overt racist, sexist, and xenophobe; this bitter experience will hopefully make one thing abundantly clear; The Boss is using you. This is the most important lesson for any Trump voter to take away from the connection between Trump and the Boss archetype; a lesson evident in the anxiety of that first day’s employment; a lesson “Peter” and his fellow Oklahomans failed to grasp. To the Boss, you do not exist as a person to him, but as an employee, as labour that he needs. As soon as he no longer needs that service, or you can no longer provide it, he will discard you. And, unfortunately, you’ve done your bit – he’s in office now.

There may still be time to turn from the dark road the Anglophone world is now on. To turn away from bosses and Father-surrogates, to embrace equality and compassion for all. Because nobody should have to live their life sucking up to the Boss.


Notes:

*You’d never see a British filmmaker depicting an aristocrat queuing up to get their title recognised by the state. To us, that’s too weird, even for science fiction.

**There is a clear, racial dimension to this distinction. The State is viewed as both an employer and a patron of people of colour, whereas the private sector is imagined as a white domain.

*** Occupy was so diverse, that mainstream journalists frequently used this as a stick to beat the movement with – presenting it as fundamentally disorganised, with no clear objective, despite much evidence to the contrary.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

In the Vale of the White Horse, within sight of Uffington Castle, there is a large rectangular field, where until recently members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids gathered to celebrate Lughnasadh. Every year in late August, under the light of the waxing moon, 200 people, of all ages, would materialise out of the summer heat and the ripening corn. After setting up a wide circle of bender tents and yurts around a central fire, they’d make sure to beat the bounds; processing clockwise around the field, playing instruments and clapping loudly, greeting the directions and the spirits of place. The same thing happened every morning throughout the festival.

This practice highlights an important truth; although any visitor to the camp would easily recognise the importance of the central hearth, those hedges around of the field were every bit as sacred. As if to highlight this fact, at the southern edge of the field, within the hedge itself, stood a hidden grove, with a holy oak at its heart – this venerable being oversaw all the naming ceremonies, initiations, and other secret rites in the community. When I first ventured into that grove, some seven years ago, I felt like I was on a threshold; beyond which, through which, the whole world began.

Hedgerows are perhaps one of the most quintessential features of these islands*. They wend their way between gardens, grass and crops, catching the bounty of the Earth like a net catches the wealth of the sea. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences, like that mentioned above, have taken place along and within hedges. They are – to borrow a term from Celtic Christianity – “thin places”, locations where the veil between this world and the other is light, and the divine is close at hand.

The state of “in-betweenness”, or liminality as anthropologists call it, carries a great deal of significance in cultures all around the world; boundaries, be they intellectual or physical (and they’re often both), fascinate us and ensnare our imaginations; so we sanctify them, or joke about them, or wrap them up in taboos. Hedges – neither in one field, nor the next – are no exception.

It’s unsurprising then, that we find the hedge playing a major part in the sacred geography of Anglo-Celtic Pagan traditions. The hedge, we are told, is the domain of the hedgewitch – a folk healer-cum-shaman; a cunning man or wise woman, who works in service of their community from its edges. For these workers of craft, the hedge is a medicine cabinet, an altar, and an axis mundi. It gives us herbs for healing, a place to meet the gods, and a means of journeying into the Otherworld. It is from this latter use that we get the name “Hedge-rider”.

In ancient times, we are told, every village would have been surrounded by a hedge that protected it from the wilds beyond – the village witch would have negotiated this barrier; mediating between the spirits of the forest and the human folk of the village.

The trifecta of wilderness, hedge and village never sat quite right with me. For one thing, you simply didn’t see this feature anywhere in the British landscape in which I grew up. No village I know is surrounded on every side by hedges, nor are woodlands pushed to the rim of each parish like the scum on a bath. Lots of villages – including the one in which I grew up – have a dispersed, not nucleated, pattern. The houses are spread out, not clustered together.

For most of its history, my village was a string of homesteads, scattered around a large area of common land – land that was only built on in the 20th century. Commons – often in the form of pasture, woods, reed beds, and heathland areas, frequently imagined as “wild” places – are usually carefully managed in Britain and Ireland, and were created in spots that, either due to steep topography or infertile soils, were not suited to agriculture. Instead of a landscape in which humans live apart from nature in little enclosures, what you see in reality is something quite different – a patchwork of different types of land use, according to a mixture of geography and human choice. Hedges, in this landscape, are the needlework; the green thread binding everything together. The hedge, in other words, is not the interchange between the village and the wild; but rather the connective tissue between places of all kinds.

We find this pattern reaching far back into the history of the landscape here. While the Celts or Anglo-Saxons would have surrounded their villages with fences made from wooden palisades if they chose, they would head out into the woods to clear patches for agriculture, wherever the soil, aspect, and water supply was preferable. Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most renowned naturalists, tells us that rather than surround villages, the first hedges delimited these clearings. The edges of these clearings, enclosed by bushes and trees, were called haga – the root word for “hedge” today.

It is not hard to imagine how, perhaps while working on until dusk, these first farmers would have spotted haegtessa at the edge of the forest – ephemeral figures of women, skulking between the trees. Sometimes, it might have turned out that what they’d seen was one of their own wives or grandmothers, gathering herbs or praying to the gods. At others, no human visitor to the haga could be identified – and the apparitions would have been attributed to ghosts, fairies, or other beings.

The association between mortal wise women, the haga, and ephemeral spirits stuck. As these early farmers hollowed out more of the wildwood, they left threads of trees and bushes standing, to mark out one field from another. Over time, they trained these plants into a barrier against livestock – the first true hedges of the kind we know today. The shadowy haetessa would live on, as the word “hag”. In a very real sense, then, the hedge represents the essence of the wildwood, living on in the cracks of the British landscape.

But the ancient origins of the hedge are not the whole story; the recent past of these green walls is an altogether more chequered affair. Throughout the Medieval period, the ancient hedges retreated – being cut away to make more space for farming. Across much of England in particular, it ceased to be as important to set apart different fields. In many parishes, agrarable fields and pasture was held in common, as part of the open field system – managed centrally by the entire community through manorial courts. Under such economic conditions, hedges served little purpose.

But this situation did not last. Enclosure – the process by which common land was sold off to private individuals – was carried out steadily throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, before dramatically accelerating, with the assistance of several acts of Parliament, over the course of the 18th century. As environmental historians such as Nick Blomley and John Wright have documented, one of the first acts taken by new owners was often to plant hedges; hedges being a means of excluding commoners from the land that had been taken from them. Prior to enclosure, the rural poor relied on common land – especially pasture – to supplement their diet and obtain fuel. Once deprived of these resources, they had little alternative but to move to the industrialising cities or emigrate.

The rage felt by former commoners was considerable, and riots resisting enclosure were common – with hedges often being crossed through acts of mass trespass and grubbed up as criminal damage in the process. The old saying – Horne and Thorne Shall Make England Forlorne – encapsulates the feeling of the time; with both profit-oriented sheep farming (horne) and enclosure through hedge-laying (thorne) being identified as key instruments through which the poor were immiserated. Under such circumstances, we encounter another incarnation of the “hedge-rider” – the impoverished commoner who leaps across a newly planted line of thorns, to reclaim his birthright.

The hedge, then, emerges from the history of the British landscape in particular as a deeply ambiguous, yet highly potent force from my point of view. The hedge’s origins as the mysterious barrier between cultivated and uncultivated space, as the ubiquitous remnants of primordial woodland, retains much of the power of the original image of the hedge as the border between village and wild, while correcting that image’s flaws. If we imagine the hedge as a barrier between the human and the non-human, this can reinforce the problematic divide between nature and culture; a divide that so bedevils our attempts to live and think sustainably. The hedge’s more recent history as an instrument of enclosure; that kept people off the land, and eventually forced them off it for good; shows precisely the damage this sort of rhetoric can do. We cannot allow hedges to shut us out of nature.

If, on the other hand, we think of hedges as stitching that connects up landscapes of which humans are already a fundamental, and numinous part, then they become a constant reminder of the presence of the other natures in all our lives. Hedge-riding becomes as much a matter of crossing boundaries in defence of the commons, as it is a case of journeying along green roads into the Woods From Which We Come.


Notes

*The islands of Britain and Ireland. The term “British Isles” can imply continued overlordship of the Republic of Ireland by the British crown, and so it is not used here.

Image by Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Frith, Peace, and Protest

Within my Druidic practice, there are three key properties that sit at its heart. Awen, the force of poetic inspiration, engenders creativity and nourishes charisma. Imbas, or life-force, brings health and prophetic vision. The third principle – Frith – is harmony and liberty. Each of these terms is rooted in a different language from my own ancestry; awen is Welsh, spoken by my mother’s family, imbas is from Irish, once spoken by my father’s family, while frith is from Old English – the language ancestral to that which I speak daily. Although the roots of Druidry in Welsh and Irish culture are well known, the ancient Druids practiced right across the British Isles, and the landscape and culture of England continues to speak to Druidic themes – frith being a part of this ongoing conversation. A conversation, I suggest, that speaks to our present duress.

Druids have a longstanding concern for peace. We have old stories of Druids striding out between opposing armies, helping them to reconcile, and during the Druid Revival in the 17th Century, Iolo Morganwg integrated a strong pacifist streak into druidic teaching. But there are certain problems with the concept of peace – and pacifism – as we understand them today. Pacifism is often used as a justification for inaction, or the condemnation of fellow activists. Although notable pacifists are often extremely qualified in their advocacy of nonviolent resistance, such nuance is all-too-often ignored by those who believe that true pacifism means all violence is always wrong. Often coming from positions of class or racial privilege, such advocates of pacifism ignore the structural nature of violence, and instead use the principle as a stick to beat other activists of whom they disapprove, or as a prop for personal cowardice or self-interest. Making a principled stand not to fight back is one thing; ignoring the nature of the violence to which you are opposed is quite another.

It is helpful here to consider the origins of the word “peace” itself. Descended from the Latin pax, the meanings are what we’d expect – tranquility, reconciliation, silence, and agreement. However, such meanings cannot be disentangled easily from the broader social structure of the Roman Empire, under whose terms pax was sustained. The Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – was created and guaranteed through extreme and often genocidal violence; committed against any who refused to accept the authority of the Roman Senate and, later, its Emperors. Indeed, one can note that as soon as a Pax is invoked as a nation’s gift to the world – such as the Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Pax Britannica that held from 1815 until 1914, or the Pax Americana under which we now live – it is more or less guaranteed that the nation concerned has achieved imperial hegemony, backed up with a vast military. “Peace” therefore has a history of concealing a backdrop of institutional violence; silent assent in the face of coercion.

FRITH IS A RADICALLY different sort of concept, because unlike pax, it directs our attention not just to the state of harmony itself, but to the wider sort of relationships that best engender it. Although frith has not survived into modern English as a synonym for harmony, the word does survive in both the words “friend” and “free”. Whereas peace is maintained through treaties, there is a sense with which frith is founded upon kinship – it is the state of harmony that should, ideally, exist between close relatives and friends. It is the active sense of safety that we work towards, ensuring that we are secure in each other’s company. It is only in such a state – wherein we are safe from harm or disturbance, due to our good relations with others – that we can be truly said to be free. It used to be the case that any enclosed sacred space would be termed friþgeard – “frith-guarded”; a place of sanctuary or asylum, where those within were free from attack. In this sense, frith is not just a social, but a sacred property – a blessed state that unites both humans and divine beings. While peace is always enforced with the stamp of a boot, frith can only be managed with friends.

The groundedness of frith in kinship and communal liberty reflects the fact that, in contrast to the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England was a small-scale society; founded upon a clan-structure, and interpersonal relationships. But it would be a mistake to believe, because our society operates at a global scale, that we have nothing to learn from the concept of frith today. Indeed, I would suggest that frith transforms our understanding in two ways – both vital for the present moment.

16266021_10154941397702726_8619162010299285668_n.jpg
Oh. Dear.

1 – Freedom isn’t individual

Liberty is sometimes imagined to be a matter of absolute individual sovereignty. According to this view, each man is an island, and no institution should be created that goes against this fundamental principle. Such a euphoric vision owes much to a certain pioneer spirit; combining a scepticism towards the state with a spirit of resolute self-reliance. Everyone is responsible for their own destiny. Quite often, corporations are oddly exempt from this demand – despite the fact that they can be every bit as corrosive of individual freedoms as an oppressive government.

The concept of frith points to the limitations of such a view. Being free is not simply a matter of being on your own; indeed, being abandoned to live on your own wits at the edge of the world is more akin to being an exile or an outlaw – the very opposite of frith. Frith acknowledges that true calm and equanimity emerges not when you are totally on your own, vulnerable to the elements, wild animals, and hostile human beings, but when you are surrounded by those you love and trust, who can guarantee your safety and security in their company. Just as we are determined by our genes, our upbringing, and our experiences – in short, by our relationships with others – so it is through friendly relationships that peace of mind can be guaranteed. Living in a society with frith is king – a state of “freedom” in literal terms – means being able to trust, and be trusted by, all those whom you meet. In a truly free society, we are all one family.

Fr That’s your business, not theirs. Although you might be able to evade the State and other central authorities out there, you are constantly consumed by the struggle to preserve your own life, something that is your responsibility alone. Being an outlaw gives you individual autonomy, but that is not true freedom. This can only exist in the heart of the community.

In recent elections across the Anglophone world, people have voted to “take back control” from distant, sinister central government – be that in Brussels or Capital Hill. Support continues to be thrown behind right-wing parties like the Tories or the Republicans, who promise to cut taxes and restrict the reach of the state. Thinking of freedom more broadly – not simply as an absence of the state, but as freedom from fear, pain, and harm for everyone – demonstrates how hollow such rhetoric is. Though they promise freedom, what they will do is make us all into outlaws.

womensmarchla2017
Eric Garcetti Office, Los Angeles Women’s March January 2017 / Creative Commons

2 – The Importance of Friendship

Frith demonstrates another crucial consideration for the way ahead – the importance of friendship and empathy in sustaining freedom. With all the outrageous perpetrated by the Trump administration on a daily basis, any sense of harmony seems far away – and we have a long way to go to return to such a state. Getting there will be difficult, and will require a great deal of sacrifice and energy, put into building a social movement of many millions of people.  Returning to a spirit of friendship and common cause will be a fundamental part of that movement’s success.

Alicia Garza, special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, explains this principle eloquently. Reflecting upon her own scepticism towards the Women’s March, she points out that the organisers were clearly inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet failed to acknowledge this – wrongly appropriating the work of black people. But despite this, and the many legitimate criticisms she has of white feminism, she participated in the March anyway. Anger has great power that must be acknowledged, Garza argues, but it is insufficient to take power. For that, we need a mass movement: She writes:

This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organizers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us…

…We can build a movement in the millions, across difference. We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion and disability. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.

The aim shouldn’t be to reject justified anger on moral grounds – the same error that lies at the root of the cod-pacifism I describe above – but a pragmatic acceptance of the need for all of us to demonstrate leadership and solidarity within the movement of which we’re part. As Garza points out, this does not mean letting privileged people off the hook; now is not the time for white, male, or upper-class fragility. If anything, this moment is an invitation to draw even more deeply on our reserves of empathy, and being prepared to shut up, listen, learn, to yield, to put ourselves on the line, and to be held to account. Part of being friends with someone, an alchemical combination of tolerance and honesty – an ability to speak the truth, while knowing that it is safe to do so. Maintaining this kind of friendship is a vital precondition for taking power.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Industrial Agriculture and The Myth of Progress

 

One of my personal heroes is a bard named Barry Patterson. A blue-eyed Geordie with a magnificent grey beard and a mean turn of phrase, Barry is an animist, a poet, a drummer and a piper, a Green Man in every sense, and he is very wise. He often says to me “Jonathan, you know people always talk about the Mabinogion, the Tales of Ancient Eire, and fairy tales, and call them myths. They are not myths. They are stories. If you read Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss, they explain that myths are uniquely powerful, in a way that not all stories are – they define our ideas, our hopes, our choices: and so, they define the way our world works. Does the Mabinogion do that? Does the Tain? No. Our myths are different now. Nationalism, Freedom, Romance, The Market – most of all the Market – these are the myths according to which the modern world is run.”

Barry is, of course, quite right. These things do not have a life apart from those who believe in them – they exist only and because we say they do. They are, to use the parlance of my discipline “social constructs”: to quote Clifford Geertz, they are “webs of significance that [man] himself has spun”. This doesn’t stop them from being immensely powerful or important, of course, but we must remember that their continued existence is not natural, or necessary either.

The first and hardest step, though, is spotting these myths. Their power and pervasiveness is their cover; the fact that we rely on them so completely makes them invisible, as through their supposed obviousness they become the intellectual furniture of the societies in which we live. And the fact that these myths are so hard to spot, makes them very useful for those in power – as the Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained, the rich use their influence to promote their ideas amongst the wider population. The rich create stories to suit only their purposes, before making them into myths shared by everyone. By controlling what is “common sense” in society as a whole, the rich keep society under tight control. It is this process, Gramsci points out, that prevented the otherwise inevitable collapse of capitalist societies, and stalled revolutions throughout the 20th century – the rich ensure the intellectual furniture upon which we all sit blocks all available exits. We see this same process active in society today. When a radical challenge to fossil capitalism is considered – involving rapid cuts in carbon emissions, the redistribution of wealth, a debt jubilee, or any alternative to growth-based economics – the myths forged by the capitalist elite are used by the rest of society to defend the status quo.

One such myth is the Myth of Progress. It states that human history unfolds in something approaching a long, upward curve – with quality of life, technological sophistication, tolerance, and global harmony gradually increasing over time. Superficially, it seems quite convincing – if we compare the clean streets of present-day uptown Amsterdam, to the squalor of the Medieval city, it certainly looks as though progress has been made. Some public intellectuals, such as Steven Pinker, and Niall Ferguson, propound this view with tremendous verve, extolling the virtues of modern Western civilization while neglecting its many failings. Although there are problems all over the planet, they say, these are being dealt with and, if we just stay the course, the system we have now will solve them. Tweaks may be needed, but the fundamentals are settled. We just need to keep calm, and carry on.

This view of the past – known as the Whig Theory of History – is not given any credence by academic historians. Technological, social, moral, and emotional progress is not inevitable, nor is “progress” in each of these areas easy to define. As Ronald Wright persuasively argues, this myth tirelessly simplifies the messy complexity that underpins our present state; the pain and suffering that got us here, and the patchiness of our achievements. Furthermore, implicit in Myth of Progress is a kind of complacency – it is “we” who are the most advanced, out of all humanity – who that “we” is, always depends upon who is doing the talking. This risks inviting in a kind of hubris – it is short step to go from claiming to be the best so far, to claiming to be the best possible. It’s not so very hard to move from a Whiggish confidence in continual, unimpeded progress, to claiming – as political scientist Francis Fukuyama once did – that neoliberal democracy represents the end of history. But despite all the problems with this myth, people still believe it. Indeed, it suits the rich to tell us this – how can we oppose their beneficent rule, if we’ve never had it so good?

Of course, few people today – after the financial crisis, the many catastrophic threats of climate change, the swing towards the populist right – would claim that progress is inevitable, or that Western civilisation is the best of all possible worlds, or that Neoliberalism represents the peak of what we can achieve. The Myth of Progress has been unmasked as mere sophistry. Although this process is frightening and there are very real dangers tied to recent events: what has happened also represents an opportunity to shift the common sense of our society, and look again at the very nuts and bolts of how our world works.

Let’s consider the example of food production. True, growing food using modern, industrial-scale agriculture of the kind made possible by the “Green Revolution” has increased the mass of food grown around the world, so that production has outstripped demand for many years. And globalising the food market has increased choice, and makes seasonal produce available all year round. However, what is becoming increasingly apparent is that prioritising raw productivity in this way doesn’t actually take into account other, vital considerations – not just the continued health of the soil and our waters, but also the nutrient content and health benefits of the food being produced. In some cases, a combination of declining soil fertility and the selection of high-volume, fast-growing varieties over slower-growing, more nutritious alternatives has meant that the concentration of micronutrients in fresh produce has declined dramatically. According to an article published in the British Food Journal, in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19%, iron by 22%, potassium by 14% (8) since the 1930s, while other research suggests similar declines – from 5% to 40% of vitamins and proteins in fresh produce (9). There are reports of even more dramatic declines – of up to 90% – in certain cases; such Iron in Watercress (10) and Vitamin A in oranges.

Now, considering this, it seems that the shift in the past 100 years isn’t so positive. We might be growing more, but the food we’re growing is less nourishing, and the way we’re growing it is destroying the planet. If we are to protect our soils, and truly maintain a healthy population of billions of people, the key isn’t producing more food, but better food. And by this standard, global agriculture has actually gone backward since the 1930s.

Now, many of the big reasons why older, healthier varieties – tastier, more nutritious, more resilient to pests – fell out of favour was that they required careful tending, took longer to grow, were tricky to harvest mechanically, or they had a very short self-life. The number of varieties in use has gone down significantly as well. This represents a very significant risk on its own, as it means the gene pool of vital crop species is now becoming dangerously narrow – simply because everyone is using KWS Siskin wheat or Resistafly carrots. The reason why so many regional varieties or landraces have been abandoned and are now endangered is not because of their inherent value; but simply because it is more profitable for industrial producers – and seed suppliers – to limit cultivation to a small number of fast-growing, good-looking varieties; sacrificing taste, nourishment, and genetic diversity in the process.

If we care about the nourishment we get from what we eat, rather than the mere amount of stuff we consume, the current food producing regimen is not feeding the world very well. It creates vast surpluses of a small number of plant varieties that are low in nutrients, dependent on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, deplete soil and ruin agricultural productivity. So much for progress.

If we revived older crop varieties – that grow more slowly, can’t be transported long distances, but are more nutritious, tastier food – and integrated them into a highly localised, high-tech food-production system, with every city carpeted and covered with food forests and gardens, we’d be well on our way. Certain crops would still need to be grown in the countryside, but rather than ship grain from Russia all the way to San Francisco merely because it’s cheaper, we’d keep supply chains short as possible to reduce emissions, and use a varieties of crops best suited to their local climate and the nutritional needs to the local population

Crucially, this would bring people back to the soil. The “Green Revolution” has been so profitable, because it has increased agricultural outputs while reducing the number of people working the land, thus reducing the labour costs for agricultural businesses. Those who once worked the land have been corralled into cities, where they have joined the ranks of the urban poor – in the developed world, these people end up engaged in mindless, bullshit jobs; in the developing world, they slave away in factories, as in China, or struggle to scrape a living until the tension boils over, as it has in Syria. If we turned our cities into places where food was grown, new jobs would be created that produced healthy food and supported local economies, and everyone would feel, and actually be closer to the cycles of life and growth that sustain our lives – rather than believing falsely that vegetables materialise on supermarket shelves. People need to take up the fork and trowel, and return to doing what we’ve done since the Natufians: growing things.

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Developing a more localised, nutrient-rich agricultural system would also help in another way – it would combat climate change. While I was at COP21, I listened to a fascinating talk on soil health. Mechanised agriculture and the use of pesticides has stripped the soil of organic matter – causing massive degradation of fertile land globally. Soils without organic matter hold less water, contain less nutrients, and are more easily eroded – something I witnessed first hand during my fieldwork, where I visited conventional farms in Norfolk whose fields were little more than dust. Raping the land in this way not only creates dependency upon artificial fertilisers, but releases vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. If we were to restore the organic matter in the world’s soils by a tiny amount year on year – 0.4% – this would halt the annual increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, while reducing fertiliser use and safeguarding agricultural productivity. Despite the fact that soil health was left out of the COP21 agreement, the French government has committed to improving its soils in line with these proposals.

The fact is, in Britain, we’ve been here before. During WWII, the pressure of German raids on Allied merchant shipping meant that food security became a major issue. So the government encouraged people to grow their own food under the “Dig for Victory” campaign. Although this took place under rationing, the direct intervention by the government in managing the diet of its citizens, and encouraging home-grown produce actually improved public health during the period. The problem was that it created an association in the hearts and minds of the British public between self-sufficiency, and all the hardship of war, and the interference of the state. So as soon as the war was over, people abandoned all the good habits they had acquired, and embraced the orgiastic mass-consumption that was imported to the UK by the Ad-men of the 1950s. “Dig for Victory”, as a top-down initiative unmoored from broader political and economic reform was doomed to fail. So to successfully restore our soils, we must also restore society. Nonetheless, the “Dig for Victory” campaign indicates that it is possible to place agriculture at the heart of everyday life, even for urban people, and to put the welfare of people at the heart of agriculture.

The collapse of the Myth of Progress allows us to reconsider many old certainties. For some of us, this collapse happened long before 2016 – we lost our faith in the myths of capital either through education, or through bitter personal experience, or both. But in the wake of Brexit, Trump’s election, and many other crises, it has become necessary to reconsider some of our most accepted views about the world – and look for better ones.

As Pagans, myths and stories are our bread and butter. Many people in the West are crying out for new, better stories to make sense of their lives, and to shed light on how we might move forward, into an uncertain future. In such an environment, our traditions are, therefore, necessarily political. But the stories we cast into society cannot be mere fabrications; the failure of the Myth of Progress should ward us off such abstractions. Our stories must be rooted in the Land itself, in its moods and matter. Tending the soils; making them full of life again; is but one practical step pregnant with narrative potential.

As for how that potential should manifest; I leave that to you.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Review: The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber

 

Reviewed: The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. (2015) Brooklyn and London: Melville House.

Reading a book about bureaucracy may not sound like an exciting way to spend a weekend off with my family. And yet, having just started David Graeber’s latestA Utopia of Ruleswhen I wasn’t making tea for my elderly grandmother, I curled up in a comfy chair with this little pink book, mocked up to look like one of the forms it excoriates, and excited by each new page. Although many of the ideas Graeber presents here aren’t new, the clarity and force with which they are drawn together and set out is a rare pleasurea contrast with turgid official paperwork that was almost certainly intentional.

Graebera social anthropologist, anarchist, and prominent leftist thinker, based at the London School of Economics (LSE)develops his argument, in part, by thinking ethnographically with his own personal experiences of officialdom, beginning with a heartbreaking account of his own struggle to deal with his elderly mother’s Medicaid application. In response to this, he introduces the book as a series of short essays on different facets of what he calls “total bureaucratisation”defined as “the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” Bureaucracy is not a simple matter of red tape created by the state tying up private enterprise, as right-wing pundits would have us believe: Graeber points out that bureaucratic forms have become intrinsic to both private and public spheres.

While the Left has been largely unable to produce a critique of bureaucracy, the Right has such a critiquebut efforts to “roll back” the state by the Right have had the opposite effect, producing even more paperwork than ever. This leads Graeber to propose what he calls “the Iron Law of Liberalism”, which states that “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

In stressing the coeval nature of the free market and an expansive state, Graeber directs his analysis away from shallow criticism of big government, towards the common institutional basis of all inequality, found at the heart of neoliberal governance. Given the extent to which the general public in the English-speaking world continue to view the expansive state and the “free” market as antithetical to one another and synonymous with the Left and the Right of politics respectively, this is an important point to make.

With the foundations laid, Graeber’s lucid prose carries the reader briskly through a sequence of stand-alone essays, each of which engages with a particular aspect of total bureaucratisation today. Each of these, Graeber claims, will need to be addressed by any critique of bureaucracy the Left might develop. Dead Zones of the Imagination utilises feminist theory of imaginative labour to develop the argument that bureaucracyin addition to being stupidexists to create stupidity. Its impersonal procedures, backed up by threat of violence, ensure that those in positions of authorityespecially the policeare able to avoid doing the imaginative labour of empathising with others, while forcing those others to engage in imaginative labour towards the authorities, simply in order to avoid physical harm. Police insist upon being able to “define the situation”those who contest this, rather than violent criminals, are the ones who are routinely meet with physical violence. This serves to emphasise a very basic point: don’t underestimate the importance of physical violence, even if it takes place behind a veil of paper.

In Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, Graeber turns his attention to the trajectory of technological development in the modern world. Why is it, he asks, that in the 1950s we were able to explore space, and expected to be surrounded by robotic servants and flying cars by now, but that this awesome potential has not been realised? The answer, he suggests, is that rather than cause social change by itself, the direction of technological innovation is directed by financial interestsso that instead of pursuing automation and space travel that could disrupt existing economic relations on Earth, major funders have prioritised less disruptive research lines, such as information technology. The greatest achievement of the late 20th centurythe Internetis revealed as decidedly chimeric; both a tool for enhanced communication, but also a means of surveillance and manipulation on an industrial scale. The promise of technology has been broken in favour of labour discipline and social control; R&D budgets have been slashed in favour of boosting executive pay and shareholder dividends. Instead of being allowed to pursue their research interests, academics are increasingly forced to spend more and more of their time doing paperwork. Rather than a driver of social change, technology is itself subject to the demands of capital.

The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All concludes the triptych, by exploring the ways in which bureaucracy can, in fact, be deeply enchantingwhen it works wellproviding human beings with a sense of predictability and certainty that can be deeply seductive. While the second essay uses science fiction to reflect upon the curious falling short of innovation, this essay turns to magic and fantasy fiction in an attempt to understand how the appeal of bureaucratic rationality is generated. Graeber argues that the elaborate angelic hierarchies and formulaic modes of ritual address, developed in the Rennaissance but that now enliven Western Ceremonial Magic, actually reflect a political imaginarya vision of the chaotic, violent world of the Middle ages reordered according to a spiritualised version of the old, lost, Roman bureaucracy. Nowadays, however, this vision is invertedfantasy fiction today constructs a pseudo-Medieval world, where bureaucracy is almost entirely absent, where creativity is directly channelled into reality via magic, and where leadership is acquired on the basis of personal virtue and conquest, rather than through impersonal qualification or graduate recruitment. However, while giving us an opportunity to vicariously enjoy a world without bureaucracy, medievalist fantasies – with their perennial sense of threat and danger – nonetheless reinforce our sense that it’s probably preferable to live with the devil we know. Just as the gruesome spectacle of Gladitorial combat both beguiled and repulsed the populace of Rome from the idea of democracy, the blood-soaked cities of Westeros instill in us a fear of a world without bureaucratic order.

Perhaps the most fascinating contestation made by Graeberalbeit, only in passingis that bureaucratic rationality rests upon a resolutely spiritual set of commitments. The idea that numbers and their rational appraisal can help one to understand and manipulate reality, reaches back to the Pythagoreanism of ancient Greece. They, in turn, directly inspired Plato, the father of Western formalism, and in turn the Medieval angelic hierarchies mentioned above. This commitment to the power of logic and pure numbers conferred upon bureaucracy a utopian air; bureaucrats envision a world of perfect harmony, governed by well-designed, efficient institutions, and develop frameworks that attempt to make that world a reality. The fact that the complexity of the world-as-lived rarely fits these lofty ideals ensures that bureaucracy requires constant enforcementwith the force in question being the threat of violence meted out by private security, the police or the military.

But it is in the AppendixBatman and the Problem of Constituent Powerthat we find some of Graeber’s most timely observations for the present moment. In a playful analysis of the cultural and political significance of superheroes, Graeber points out thatbuilding upon his analysis of medievalist fantasy in the previous chaptercomics teach the same kind of lesson. In pitting basically passive superheroes who seek to preserve the status quo against endlessly creative and scheming villains who wish to unseat it, comics allow the reader to vicariously enjoy the thrill of unfettered creative potential, only to enforce the idea that such potential necessarily leads to violence, and that violence is in turn the only way that it can be controlled.

In the Marvel and DC Universes, the only alternative to bureaucracy is violent creativity of villainsin short, fascism. This, in turn, allows Graeber to highlight a broad distinction between the left and the right: “Ultimately, the division between left-and right-wing sensibilities turns on one’s attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous; ultimately, evil. The urge to create is also a destructive urge. This kind of sensibility was rife in the popular Freudianism of the day [1950s]: where the Id was the motor of the psyche, but also amoral; if really unleashed, it would lead to an orgy of destruction. This is also what separates conservatives from fascists. Both agree that the imagination unleashed can only lead to violence and destruction. Conservatives wish to defend us against that possibility. Fascists wish to unleash it anyway. They aspire to be, as Hitler imagined himself, great artists painting with the minds, blood, and sinews of humanity.”

Following from the magistral philosophical treatise Debt: The First 5,000 years (2011), The Utopia of Rules is a more modest project. Graeber does not attempt to propose a leftist critique of total bureaucratisation within its pages, though he argues such a critique is long overdue. Nor does he advance a singular argumenthis goal is simply to prompt a conversation. With the rise of the populist right, this conversation is more important than ever. The mainstream Left, Graeber points out, has for too long positioned itself on the side of state control, leaving critiques of bureaucracy to the Right. As the pro-market efforts of neoliberalism have done nothing but concentrate capital in the hands of the rentier classes, the frustration is now boiling over. And yet, in unveiling the mystical roots of stultifying modern paperwork, Graeber reveals a way forward for usif total bureaucratisation is a spell laid over the world, that spell may be broken. We need not live out the fevered dreams of Renaissance mystics; we can awaken. Nor shall the dark blood and bone portraits of fascists necessarily hold sway over the human imagination, for the Left is just as creative as the right; indeed, unlike them, we can create without fear of creativity. The Right may aspire to break this world, but it is the birthright of the Left to make a better one.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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I’ll meet you on the Field of Mars – A Druid’s view of COP21

The 22nd Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Paris over the past few weeks, culminating on the morning of Saturday 12th. From the deliberations of the world’s governments over night and day, an agreement has been created – 31 pages of aspirations, promises, and plans, all concerning the steps that will be taken to protect our atmosphere, oceans, soils, and habitats from climate change. It is the first time any such agreement has been truly comprehensive; including all our world’s nations as signatories. It is, in this way, a historic act. But the agreement itself is not nearly enough. Taken together, the commitments made by the parties will still allow carbon emissions rise to an unacceptable degree. The doorway to a sustainable future remains open – but we are still a long way from crossing the threshold. The influence of big emitters remains strong, the ambition of national governments remains relatively weak. As such, despite the agreement, some commentators have said that COP21 was a failure.

I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories – a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.

When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.

With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see below, my post didn’t pick up any replies:

https://twitter.com/aboymadeofsky/status/674591785562341381

Obviously, this isn’t to say that there weren’t any Pagans at COP, or that Pagans didn’t engage with the process in other, meaningful ways. Witches in Paris and elsewhere raised a protective, empowering, golden circle around the Conference and the city, “to summon the great, powerful, irresistible Goddess of Love – the Great Mother – she who grounds, protects, and tips the scales.” The importance of magical work cannot be underestimated; by focussing our energies onto collective ends, miracles can (and do) happen. And I have no doubt that there were Pagans taking part in marches and protests – in Paris and elsewhere – throughout the Conference. What I find interesting, is not what Pagans were doing, but what we weren’t doing, compared to other faith traditions.

Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).

Pagans, by contrast, have yet to engage in this organised fashion. Though we may be active participants as individuals, our organisations have shown a puzzling lack of initiative; failing to capitalise upon the almost unique relevance of our philosophies to climate change. While it has taken a seed-change in Christian theology, and a harnessing of long-neglected (but nonetheless orthodox) parts of Christian thought to respond to this Great Challenge of our Age, no such shift is necessary within Pagan religions – we share a common, compelling reverence for Nature; either as the body of the goddess, as an utterly animate cosmos, or as the province of many deities. It should be the easiest thing in the world for us to take our place in spaces like COP, and to command great power and respect when we do so: and yet, this has not happened.

This passivity has consequences. Before I went to COP, the final Climate Histories seminar of term was on the topic of religious engagement with climate change. Dr Jonathan Chaplin, the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) gave a fascinating talk on the subject, focussing upon the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale’s compilation of Climate Change Statements from World Religions. The much-discussed Pagan Statement on Climate Change was not even listed amongst them. In comparison to the statements created by other faiths, further, the Pagan Statement itself seems oddly cursory – it does not refer to a broader literature, nor does it take steps to link our ecological concerns to social justice. As has been argued on Gods and Radicals previously, this shortcoming allowed the Catholic Church to effectively steal our thunder with Laudato ’Si. Indeed, at one of the lectures hosted in the Green Zone, the discussant – Dena Merriam, the Founder of Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) –  invited a series of speakers to discuss the spiritual malady at the heart of environmental destruction. The person tasked with speaking to how we might reconnect with the living world was not a Pagan, but Father Michael Holleran – a Catholic Priest and Zen Buddhist Sensei. He spoke well, and even mentioned us: “The Earth is our Mother. That’s not just… you know, “Wiccan”, you know, that’s… Pope Francis uses that image in here as well, and many traditions wisely and correctly do.” The is an implicit sense here, that Wicca is the fringe, from which the notion of the Earth Mother must be reclaimed. At this talk, incidentally, were Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, a Muslim, and a Lakota elder. But no Pagans.

It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.

Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.

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But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.

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Before I took the train home, I joined a massive illegal march through the streets of Paris. A kaleidoscope of people from every corner of the world, bedecked in red cut a path through the city, flooding from the Arch de Triomph to the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, one of Europe’s Mother Rivers. One of the last things I saw that day was a group of young Muslims, gathered together, posing for a photograph with a banner proclaiming the sacred duty – enshrined in the Qur’an – to steward the Earth on behalf of Allah. They stood upon the Champ de Mars, an open field named after Campus Martius in Rome, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the heart of Paris. Sacred to Mars, the God of War, the original Field of Mars was the gathering place of Roman soldiers, before they marched off to fight hostile tribes. Mars is the God of War, but also of wild, growing things – of field and forest. His wars are – unlike those his Greek brother Ares – not mindless aggression, but rather conflict that seeks, in the end, a stable peace. Mars does not fight for the love of it, but because necessity drives him to do so. What unites this broad set of quality is the core masculine virtue of the Roman people – namely, virilitas – a life-essence that gives us the strength to secure peace, and make the Earth fruitful.

The fact that the illegal action on Saturday culminated in a place dedicated to such a god was, to my mind, a powerful ritual act. The patriarchal notion that only men possess the essential vital quality needed to promote peace and restore life is wrong; but the idea that these two objectives share a common foundation is more relevant than ever. To refer back to Laudato ’si, the plight of the Earth and the plight of the poor are one common cause. People from all over the Earth; men, women and everyone else; standing together hand-in-hand, before heading out to fight for the safety and fertility of the world upon which we all rely. Though I had to leave before the ceremonies were over, I was careful to say a prayer to Mars before I did.

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Even though Paganism had no formal representation at the Conference, the influence of the kinds of thinking of which we are custodians was present in subtle ways. In the Green Zone itself, one of the official art installations involved brightly-painted trees, upon which visitors could tie ribbons upon which they had written their wishes for a better future. To tie a clootie in the heart of the Green Zone; to sing, and teach and pray in public; to represent our traditions as part of a great multitude – all these acts are sacred, and carry great potency. We neglect these rites only at great cost.

I say we should stand up for the planet and its people; we should be recognisable and recognised.

I’ll meet you on the Fields of Mars.

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Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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The Matter Of The Gods

This essay by Jonathan Woolley is among the great works published in A Beautiful ResistanceEverything We Already Are, available in print or digital.

Roy Cohn: What’s it like? After?
Belize: After…?
Roy Cohn: This misery ends?
Belize: Hell or heaven?
Roy Cohn: [laughs]
Belize: Like San Francisco.
Roy Cohn: A city! Good! I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.
Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: Isaiah.
Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.
Roy Cohn: And Heaven?
Belize: That was Heaven, Roy. [1]

Many Gods; Beyond Belief?

There is something strange happening within Paganism. It is strange not because it is unexpected—indeed, all families of religions go through it at one time or another—nor because it is unusual—indeed, its like happens all the time. What is strange about it, is that it seems to run contrary to the social circumstances of Paganism today. Indeed, given our highly networked and increasingly virtual world, and the relatively small size of the Pagan community (small, even when compared to the number of Pagans who don’t “do” the Pagan community, but are solitary), it seems quite remarkable.

Paganism is diverging.

In America, we are witnessing the ascent of a new kind of hard polytheism. The familiar refrains of Gaia-theorists, duotheist Wiccans, archetype-channelers, and feminist Mono-theaists are now joined by the carousing of a bunch of upstarts. These contend that no, the gods are not all aspects, incarnations, or faces of The One (or The Two), that is Nature, or its Creator Goddess and her God. The gods are real, and distinctly so–each a person in their own right, just as we [humans] are, and that believing in them as Actually Extant Beings is, really, okay. These polytheists reject the slippery theorising documented by Tanya Luhrman’s trailblazing ethnography [2,] and the postmodern construction of experience-as-basically-subjective articulated by Sabina Magliocco [3]. The Gods, for the new polytheists, are Real.

In Europe I have seen a different trend. The same old order –in which the same gentle theologies held sway—is being complicated here too, but not by a radical call for belief in many gods. Rather, belief itself is being set aside. European Pagans increasingly do not identify as “religious” or “believers” per se. Rather, to them, Paganism is something that is lived through, crafted, cast, brewed, known—hewn from raw being itself. To talk of “believing in the gods” here seems inappropriate. The gods as we know them are real, but the question of how they are real is both an open one, and one that doesn’t matter very much. They are like love, maths, or motion sickness; part of our world, part of our traditions and customs—in a way that makes what we might think about them, well, purely academic. Fun to discuss, certainly. A question for the philosophers, perhaps. But not important for defining what we do, and think.

As the late (and much loved) author Terry Pratchett once said,

“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” [4]

The witches of Britain are, in my experience, much like those of Pratchett’s Discworld. Why bother believing in something, if you know it exists?

Much of this could be put down to broader differences between European and American societies. Although American society has been shaken by the rise of the unaffiliated “nones”, religious ideas and themes nonetheless hold tremendous power in the collective imaginaries of the American people. In Europe, however, religion itself is a highly discredited concept—exhausted by millennia of ecumenical strife, and bored by centuries of tame state churches, European peoples no longer see religious concepts as being especially meaningful or relevant. As such, Paganism has increasingly developed along lines that are cultural, aesthetic, or philosophical in nature, rather than expressly religious.

Talk is not of setting up churches, temples, and monasteries; but villages, festivals, and campaign groups. Although the Druid Network did succeed in getting approved as a religious charity by the Charity Commission recently, this development was greeted with disapproval amongst the majority of the Druids I know—Druidry, as many said to me, is not even a religion. I cannot say for certain if this is a purely Druidic phenomenon, but there does appear to be evidence from across the continent that suggests a gradual transformation of Paganism from a “religious” phenomenon, into a broader “cultural” one that is anything but “fundamentalist” – whether or not we look to socially progressive Asatru of Iceland, or the nature spirituality of atheistic Estonia.

Making sense out of Chaos, out of Order

It might be imagined that these changes are pulling in opposite directions—the American trend reflecting a “radicalisation” of religious doctrine in the form of polytheism, while the European trend representing the fulfillment of the secularisation thesis. I would disagree with this characterisation. To my mind, these trends have far more in common than might appear at first glance.

If we consider the old theological consensus, what becomes readily apparent is that in many respects, it really isn’t too far removed from the spiritual conventions of the Western world’s established religious orthodoxy. Pantheism and Panentheism have a vibrant life outside of Paganism, and the Goddess has her anchorites even within Christianity and Judaism. Even the duotheism of Wicca arguably puts very little clear water between itself and the distributed godhead of Christianity; instead of a Holy Trinity, we have a Holy Tryst. In short, from a theological standpoint, the first generations of Pagan writing owe far more to lay Catholicism and the New England Transcendentalists, than to anything recognisably pre-Christian.

However, what it did do was create a formal break with Christian and Jewish religious authority and the commitment to dogma that came with it. For 1500 years, the Christian Churches—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Restoration—held almost exclusive sway over the souls of Western Europeans; no spiritual life—save that of the oft-persecuted Jewish community—existed outside their universal purview. By creating a new category of spiritual expression that was officially outside both the Christian and Jewish communities, any mandatory requirement to fit with the creeds and customs laid down in Holy Scripture, Halakha or Canon Law was abolished. This was in itself startlingly radical; though the Enlightenment established the legitimacy of secular thought, it was the rise of new religious movements, including that of Paganism, that actively challenged the formal, ecclesiastical control of the spiritual realm.

In short; the first few generations of Pagan sages made a gateway through which forgotten beings, old souls, and the old ways could return to human society.

And that is exactly what is now taking place.

The Old Ways, Plural

The crucial thing to remember is that what defined the old Paganism was explicitly not a single set of beliefs, nor a single set of customs. Europe, before the arrival of “the Nazarene” and his vision of the world, was a patchwork of different traditions, methods of enlightenment, esoteric systems, state cults, philosophies, and initiatory systems—all flourishing and fighting with one another, all very different in range and content. What united them—if anything—were cultural exchanges and political alliances that took place over time. The Druids, for example, commanded influence across tribal and linguistic boundaries in Iron Age Europe, just as Greek art, language and philosophy came to flourish across the Mediterranean during the same period. The Cultus of the Divine [Imperial] House united all who lived within the Roman Empire, just as various state-sponsored reverential traditions had forged civic or national identity prior to the Roman conquests.

Before the arrival of Christianity, a wide variety of interpretations of divinity existed—from the dualism of the gnostics, to the naturalism of the Stoics; from the pragmatic polytheism of the official cults to the mystical techniques advocated by Plotinus. When Christianity developed into a powerful force within Imperial politics, the drive to produce the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth became the new unifying ideology across the Roman world—an exclusive one, at that. Lacking any term to describe what they stood for, the opponents of this new order came to refer to the old ways as “Hellenism”; the defining attribute of which being a love of the Greek classical heritage that the Romans had inherited, and everything that had been syncretised with it. As Talal Asad has argued, before the rise of religion as a category, Christianity was once described as a disciplina—a system of government—just like that of the Empire itself [5]. The Christianisation was, then, the bringing of Imperial rule in line with the expectations of Christian discipline, at the expense of pre-Christian mores.

In a sense, what can be seen in the rise of The Church is a continuation of the process of conquest initiated by Rome itself. When Rome began, it was one political vision amongst many—the Capitoline Triad were just one constellation in a myriad of political cults, spreading out from Alexandria to Bibracte and beyond. But as Roman rule became ever more absolute, the geopolitical reality of many peoples, each with their own moral, legal, and spiritual alliances faded away; being replaced by the singular authority of the Roman State. As the notion of this single disciplina became ever more established—manifest in the deification of the Roman State in the genius of the Emperors – it became possible to re-imagine the divine order in a way that better reflected what had been realized on Earth; a total system of control, focused upon a single authority.

Christianity, with its emphasis upon one God and an absence of idols, was the perfect theological companion to this new arrangement. The fact that the unstable bricolage of Hellenism failed to halt the Christian advance is not at issue here: what is interesting is that the term adopted by the proponents of a non-Christian influence was linked to a loosely-organised cultural assemblage—Hellenism—that grew out of a long, mutual history of trade, war, and intellectual and ritual expression, and not a singular body of authoritative doctrine or law, laid down by a prophet and codified by his disciples.

Construction,[Re]construction

My analysis so far is heavily influenced by a school of thought—propounded by such scholars of religion as Talal Asad, S. N. Balagangadhara, and Timothy Fitzgerald—which argues that our contemporary concept of “religion” is highly specific to the context of modern, Western Christianity. Religion—as a separable sphere of life, concerned with spiritual beliefs, divinely-sanctioned morality, ritual, prayer, and mythology—is not a human universal. It is perfectly possible for spiritual life to exist in forms and varieties that look strikingly different to “religion”, as that word is normally understood. Pre-Christian spiritual life in Europe—in all its bewildering diversity, contradiction, and creativity, inseparable from the rest of both public and private life—is a case in point. Indeed, it is arguable that the very fact that people define the spiritual so differently today—largely through the lens of “religion”, rather than disciplina or anything else–means that it is impossible for us to posit any real substantive similarities between ancient and modern Paganisms.

But to my mind, the development of highly diverse, de-centralised expressions of “unChristian” practice in Europe and America suggests otherwise. Once the spiritual authoritarianism of Christendom was declared to be in abeyance, people began to adopt a much wider spectrum of positions, covering territory theologians have not dared occupy for a thousand years. And this is not just to be expected; it is to be celebrated. It represents a gradual, and quite organic, restoration of state of affairs truly authentic to pre-Christianity—one that puts clear water between itself and Christendom, and thrives in its own right. By acknowledging the lesson taught by Asad and his fellow social constructionists—that “religion” is a term with a specific history and social context that limits its relevance—we are freed from the expectation to conform to the implicit standard of what “counts” as a religion.

Rather than trying to revive ancient spiritualities by consciously trying to reconstruct specific rites and rituals, we have delivered a spiritual environment similar in key respects to that of the ancient world, without even meaning to. Though what Pagans think and do is thoroughly contemporary; the fact that we’re all doing it differently, in ways concordant with our particular contexts, is quintessentially pre-Christian.

Like the common heritage that gave some semblance of unity to the Classical world in the face of the conquering army of Christ, so it is with Paganism today. As Ethan Doyle White points out, Pagans are united not by a common set of rituals, beliefs, or literary canon, but by a common social history; involving diverse groups exchanging ideas, practices, concerns, and themes over time, who began appearing in the 1800s, all drawing on the pre-Christian past in various ways [6.] Just as there are Dharmic religions (who look to Dharma), or Abrahamic religions (who look to Abraham and his legacy), so, Doyle White argues, there are Pagan ones (who look to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Europe).

But this observation also points out a crucial difference between the Pagan religions of today, and the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity; Abrahamic faiths tend to focus upon the teachings of a specific prophet—Jesus, Moses, Muhammad—and earnestly affirm and search for compliance with such figures’ singular authority. All other trusted teachers and texts are judged by their compliance with the truth stated by these great men; a truth which itself originally comes from a [singular] divine source. Paganisms, however, both past and present, look to many different sources of authority – without any one of these trumping the others.

Beyond the Big Tent and into the Earthly City

Although this epistemology is applied extensively in practice, the theory has yet to catch up. Many authors within the community and in the academy still attempt to define “Paganism” with reference to the everyday definition of “religion”—as a bounded belief system pertaining to spiritual matters. Rather than allowing for a historical understanding of contemporary and ancient pagan spiritualities—whose connections are constructed through the relationships between Pagans living and dead – it is assumed that the question “What is Paganism?” can be answered with reference to a particular set of ideas, that owe their validity to a single authoritative source. In doing this, we treat Christianity – with its emphasis on just such an arrangement – as the gold standard to which we must aspire.

We see this clearly in attempts to create a “Big Tent” of Paganism, based as they are around a desire to establish certain broadly-worded statements of belief. Do you, like the Pagan Federation, believe in the role of the feminine in the godhead? Theological pluralism? Sacredness of nature? Perhaps Paganism is—as Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest argued, a triangle –with strong polytheism, an aspecting pantheism, and Jungian humanism at its points? [7] Or do we describe Paganism with reference to four poles—Nature, Deity, Community and the Self? [8] Such efforts are interesting, and noble—but they nonetheless attempt to shape Paganism after the fashion of the Christian ecclesia—a community joined by common belief[s]—and as a result, fail to do justice to our traditions. Rather than devote our energies to dreaming into being successors to the older, pre-Christian relationships that were barely hinted at by the word hellenismos, we instead spend a lot of time and effort trying to herd conceptual cats.

But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigour. We are left with Hobson’s choice, of either leaving some Pagans out in the cold, or frogmarching those who would rather be outside the tent—often people of colour and indigenous communities—into its confines. Rather than create our own discourse about how our communities fit together, as Foucault might suggest we do [9], we consistently adopt the familiar mythos of the powerful.

The problem with a tent, is that it is a pre-defined space—it has a canopy, canvas walls, pegs, ropes, and—most of all—poles. All these things delimit the space, setting its dimensions firmly in time and place, rendering it static. If anybody tries to move any of these components, there is a very real risk the entire edifice will come crashing down.

Paganism, as a movement encompassing a range of very distinct religions, is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-shifting. As such, it is as profoundly un-like a tent as you can imagine. Instead, Paganism is much more like a spontaneous gathering of people, in a place open to the elements—a crowd, a throng, a rally, a carnival. And as it has been going on for some time, it has become the permanent version of these: a city.

Cities do not have fixed borders, edges, limits in the same way that a tent does. Though we can easily point out the dimensions of a city in any given moment, this act is in no way is that definitive—indeed, cities are constantly changing in population and extent. All you need is for more people to come in, or for some others to leave, for some buildings to be built or torn down, and you have changed the city’s limits. Nor is a city defined by single function or concept. Certainly, something will have attracted the first settlers there—a spring, a fertile field, a crossing place, or a defensible hill—but oftentimes this feature will vanish and be forgotten as the city grows. Over time, the city will gain its own character, based on the people who have lived there, the land upon which it is built, and the events that have happened there. In short, what defines a city—and attracts more people to it—is not any one thing you find within it, but rather its history; the ongoing story of its making.

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. [10]

Saint Augustine of Hippo once wrote a searing invective against what he called “The Earthly City” – a metaphor for the disciplina of the Roman Empire and all polytheistic societies. For Augustine, in such places it was Mankind who was the measure of all things, and not the Holy Spirit to which he professed allegiance. He exhorted Christendom to dwell instead within the City of God, wherein it was God, not mankind, who was the subject of devotion, and therefore the absolute standard against which society was weighed.

It is, perhaps, unfair of us to be too hard on Augustine. The Roman Empire was indeed an evil Empire; in which many bad men were raised up to a station they did not deserve. But Augustine’s vision of the City of God and the Earthly City – one holy, one fallen, each centred on one thing – is, in the terms I have lain out above, less of a tale of two cities, but more of a tale of two big tents, with big poles in their middle. The reality behind Augustine’s metaphor was, of course, but one city—Rome—that had yet to decide whether to accept the Divine Providence of Christ Crucified. In that choice, Augustine saw all of human history.

But in Augustine’s Earthly City, we can see an echo of our own situation. His City of the Pagans did not recognise the total authority of the One True God, and neither do we. In echoing this refusal, we share in a key aspect of our ancestors’ broader attitude toward the spiritual. But against Augustine, I would say that the true solution to the iniquity of Empire is not to choose an Emperor-God over a line of God-Emperors—but to dispense with the throne upon which both would sit.

The Earthly City – if by that, we mean the example of Ancient Europe that inspires Pagans today, and not the decadent late-Imperial Rome that Augustine knew – has no one king, no one centre, no one idol to occlude the vibrancy and variety on its streets.

Let us not search in vain for the one public square, the one scenic landmark, the one ancient temple, the one leader who shall take precedence. Let us not worry unnecessarily over the matter of the gods; but explore it with curiosity, and accept the inevitably of many answers to the same questions. Let us leave belief—and all the problematic baggage that it carries—behind.

For there are far more important conversations; over how we should govern ourselves, about the security of our water and our weather, and about who our friends [and enemies] are. Because the more situated, the more contemporary, the more specific in time and space, the more rooted in the pragmatic concerns and the lived experiences of people today our spirituality is, the more like the wisdom of the ancients it becomes. Let us no longer falsely aspire to dwell in the City of God – obsessed with abstraction and unattainable discipline – but rather build together an Earthy city – where we are all sensitive to the way we need to live now, and are free to do so.

And may no one god, nor no one man, be the measure of all.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.



 

  • 1) Angels in America, Tony Kushner
  • 2) Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
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  • 5)Asad, T. (1993) Genealogies of Religion. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press: Baltimore.
  • 6) Doyle-White, E. (2012) “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique” in The Pomegranate:The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 5-21.
  • (7) Bridger, M. and Hergest, S. (1997) Pagan Deism: Three Views in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies Vol. 1 No. 1 pp. 37-42.
  • 8) Beckett, J. (2014) The Four Centers of Paganism in Under the Ancient Oaks (Patheos). Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2014/05/the-four-centers-of-paganism.html. Last accessed on 13/09/2015.
  • 9)Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. Routledge: London.
  • 10)Augustine, Saint – Bishop of Hippo (2014) De civitate Dei – English and Latin. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA.