“When we look around at the rise of new forms of mythic nationalism in the hands of fascist and authoritarian groups, we’re seeing a continuation of the same process that governments started during World War I.”
Fighting fascism cannot be done with cheat-sheets, graphics, or slogans; it must involve building vibrant, tolerant, and culturally-rich communities that refuse to discard spiritual meaning. And that cannot be done without interrogating the secular arrogance of the left’s “founding fathers.”
An editorial, from Rhyd Wildermuth
Perplexity, shock, and a revulsion she tried to temper with all else she knew of us rippled across her face after we said the words to her:
“But you two…you’re both anarchists and anti-fascists! How…how can you two also believe that stuff?”
We’d met through my partner. Both were in the same graduate history program; her work focused on the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Shoah and the ways those histories have been written since; his focus was upon the alternative occult and queer communities in Berlin that the Nazis both crushed and appropriated in their march to power.
Most of our bonding came from our life experiences, however. We were all anarchists, had done anti-fascist work, were all queer, and had lived similar counter-cultural lives. Despite all we shared, despite already being good friends, my partner and I had been quite scared of telling her what we believed.
The conversation which followed our confession was long and sometimes heated. But it was around a table on a balcony overlooking a lake, with food and tea and German beer, and because we were all friends who genuinely wanted to understand each other (rather than merely wanting to be heard), we not only stayed friends but became better friends.
I remember what she said to us that night, because it was the first time we’d ever heard anything of the sort: “this goes against everything I have known, but I believe you that it’s possible to be Pagan and not fascist.”
Especially to those with shorter histories in anarchist and anti-fascist spaces, this conversation might not seem very significant. But for me, more than ten years ago, it felt like pure freedom and hope. Before then, whenever I told other anarchists or communists in the US or Europe that I was a Pagan, the response was almost always something along the lines of: “Wait…you’re a fascist?” Those who didn’t immediately make that conclusion instead responded with words less accusatory but no less dismissive, such as “that’s all nonsense.”
I’d been derided enough times that I learned to keep my beliefs as private as possible. I learned to smile pleasantly when atheism and anti-religious dogma was repeated in speeches at protests and organizational meetings. “No gods no masters” was an unquestionable foundation of every anarchist gathering, never to be challenged. And though my entire experience of the living world ran counter to the secular-scientific atheist consensus in the anarchist and socialist groups I worked with, keeping silent about what I believed was better than being lectured, laughed at, or more often: labeled a fascist.
So when my friend (herself an atheist, an anti-fascist organizer, and later a curator of anti-fascist and anti-nationalist museum exhibitions in Germany) accepted my apparently contradictory positions (being against fascism, being deeply Pagan), relief flooded my soul.
Her acceptance gave me the confidence to broach the subject with others in political spaces. Though most of the conversations repeated the same dismissals (or worse) that I had experienced before, I was able to slowly find others who would cautiously confess that they themselves also held similar beliefs. I remember an IWW and Solidarity Network organizer telling me in an anarchist bookshop (after looking around herself first to see who might hear her say it) that she read tarot. I remember a leftist social worker who also did sex work admitting she kept an altar and did protection magic. And I remember meeting a burnt-out anarchist magician coming to life again upon finding someone he could finally talk to about his work.
European Leftism, European Atheism
There are several reasons we had all felt both embittered and scared of being open about our beliefs.
Most of these reasons are historical. Anarchism and communism were both first articulated in Europe during a time when being anything other than atheist marked you as anti-intellectual and aligned with bourgeois values. Proudhon, Marx, Stirner, Bukunin–pretty much all of the early philosophers of anarchism or communism (with Tolstoy a significant exception) were not just dismissive of spiritual beliefs, but aggressively hostile.
Any astute reader of the aforementioned paragraph, however, will note that the philosophers of whom I am speaking are all of European origin or derivation. This is an important fact, because the atheism that was carried into leftist thought was a European atheism. Being European, it bore with it utterly unnoticed colonial conceits. While many were influenced by indigenous (including Iroquois) forms of autonomous self-government and anti-colonial struggle, the European narrative of progress (which posits that all societies eventually “progress” from animist and polytheist beliefs into monotheism and finally atheism) prevented these philosophers and theorists from accepting the metaphysically animist nature of the cultures that inspired them.
This arrogance is what then allowed communists, anarchists, and socialists to argue that indigenous cultures would need to relinquish their non-scientific (that is, non-European) beliefs and worldviews in order to achieve full liberation. No gods no masters was not just a rallying cry but an imperative, and this has in no small part led many indigenous cultures to reject some leftist ideologies as continuations of colonial oppression.
This arrogance was rarely subtle in the leftist spaces in which I moved. I listened to socialists, anarchists, and communists (sometimes to crowds of thousands) say that First Nations and indigenous peoples of other continents must eventually come into the 21st century and “throw off the chains” of shamanic and other traditional beliefs. Never once did I hear this challenged in those spaces.
As non-indigenous adherents to reconstructed Pagan beliefs, my partner and I had even less ground to stand upon in these arguments. Though the “backwardness” of indigenous people gave them some time to change, we were white, which meant we were supposed to have moved beyond such beliefs centuries ago. We were “lifestylists,” according to the worshipers of Bookchin and “immature” according to the Scientific Socialist currents birthed by Trotsky and Lenin. But worse than this, we are also “crypto-fascists.”
There is another root to this accusation. The history of Paganism and occultism in Europe during the 19th and 20th century is unfortunately rife with fascist forms. Esoteric fascists such as Julius Evola evoked Pagan forms in their writing, Theosophy and the Golden Dawn both had adherents who were sympathetic to fascist forms, and of course some Nazis attempted a re-invigoration of ancient Germanic religious beliefs. But socialists and anarchists also evoked Pagan forms, and the aformentioned occult traditions (Theosophy and the Golden Dawn) had more intersections with leftist groups than they did with the right (*a good source for more on this is Affective Communities by Leela Ghandi). Further back, as Peter Linebaugh has shown repeatedly in his works, leftist and anarchist resistance to Capitalism in Ireland and England often evoked ancient pagan gods (particularly the Whiteboys in Ireland and the Luddites in England) and pagan forms (such as May Day) as part of their resistance.
So while a case can be made that Pagan, esoteric, and occult forms are fascist and do not belong in leftist or anarchist movements, the exact case can also be made that they were important parts of leftist and anarchist movements from the very beginning. Thus, leftists who label Pagan beliefs as fascist by pointing to historical connections are only ever looking at half of the evidence, if they are even looking at all.
Why they would appear to miss that evidence has been addressed succinctly by post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his work, Provincializing Europe. Basically–European secularism is an artificial narrative, and it is one which attempts to overwrite its own non-secularism. Erasing traces of folk traditions and religious beliefs within European (and generally Western) societies helps European societies and intellectuals see themselves as more “advanced” and “modern” than the rest of the world. That is, this secular-atheism is a product of its own colonial arrogance.
The continuation of this arrogance in Anti-fascism
Anarchism, Communism, Socialism, and especially Anti-fascism has never really interrogated this arrogance. This becomes a particular problem now that we are seeing increasingly public displays of aggressive white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and extreme right rhetoric in the United States and Europe.
This rise is absolutely cause for concern. Unfortunately, the violence of their ideologies and their actual physical violence has initiated quite a few panicked and uncalculated responses to their threat, some of which spread patently false information. In such a panicked state, we can clearly see the symptoms of this un-examined arrogance.
For instance, consider this image from the U.K. group Brighton Anti-Fascists:
I encountered this image with great dismay after it was shared by another anti-fascist group. Dismay might not even be the correct word: I was horrified by the inclusion of one particularly image–that of the Valknut (third image from the left on the bottom row).
The Valknut is an ancient Nordic symbol found on stone work and textiles, and while its precise original meaning is unclear, it’s usually thought to have indicated the procession of ancestors and to honor warriors who died in battle. Currently, its most common uses are amongst those who adhere to Heathenism or Asatru, religions derived from Scandinavian and Germanic cultures. Some followers of these religions profess racist, exclusionary, and even fascist beliefs, but many more do not. I personally know several antifascist organizers who use this symbol, including one who has it tattooed on his body.
Claiming that the presence of the Valknut indicates that “you’ve probably got yourself a fascist!” is, therefore, no more true than claiming that a person wearing a cross is a child-molester or a person carrying a prayer mat in order to pray towards Mecca is a terrorist. That is, while there are Heathens who adhere to fascist beliefs, and no doubt there are fascists who adorn themselves with the Valknut, there is no correlation between the symbol and the violence of the extreme right.
The presence of the Valknut in this list of “NeoNazi symbols and codes” is not only misinformation, but it has other effects as well:
- It damages the credibility of the anti-fascist organizations who disseminated it. Any reader aware of the much larger non-fascist and even anti-fascist uses of the symbol immediately understands that Brighton Antifascists don’t actually know what they’re talking about. People are thus less likely to take anything else they say seriously.
- It causes unfair and damaging defamation of people who use the symbol and are not fascist, putting them into situations where they have to “prove” themselves not to be fascist.
- It makes anti-fascism in general elsewhere lose credibility among those who are not yet politicized. Anti-fascists are often criticized for being “alarmist,” “fanatic,” and otherwise unable to distinguish symbolic meaning from actual threats; lists of symbols and codes that signify someone is a fascist increases this perception, and when those codes are demonstrably false such accusations become irrefutable.
- It undermines years of work that anti-fascist Heathen groups (like Heathens United Against Racism/HUAR) have done to prevent their religious beliefs from being co-opted by white nationalist, supremacist, authoritarian, and explicitly fascist groups.
- Perhaps worst of all, it increases the already-high fear and anxiety felt by oppressed peoples in a damaging way. The trauma experienced by those against whom the marches, rallies, and repeated identity-based violence of the various extreme-right groups occurs is already deep; inflating their fear through false information only helps those who wield terror against them.
The importance of this work
The Valknut is hardly the only symbol that that has been recently mis-labeled (see my previous critiques of such panics regarding the Tyr rune, red boot laces, the Black Sun and egoism, and the wolfsangel.) And some of these mistakes can be ascribed to mere panic or a puerile fundamentalism that mistakes the symbolic for the real, much in the same way that Christian fundamentalists publish lists of “signs” your child is into the occult.
The larger issue is that leftist, anarchists, and anti-fascist spaces in European and Anglo-American contexts have too long failed to re-evaluate their inherited Euro-atheist arrogance. The Valknut is an artifact of the pre-Christian cultural existence of Europe, one which has persisted into the present through folk customs and art. It’s part of the paganism that European secularism–especially now in its Anglo-American leftist forms–tries to forget it ever was. And by forgetting, it gives over those who find meaning in such things to the very fascists it claims to fight.
Much has changed already regarding the arrogance against Paganism and magical traditions in leftists spaces. Some of this change is on account of my work and the work of other writers at Gods&Radicals, as well as more clear-thinking anti-fascist theorists such as Shane Burley. This collective work has brought us to a place where Paganism, witchcraft, and occultism are now much more accepted as authentic expressions of autonomy and resistance.
Heathens unfortunately remain too often smeared as crypto-fascist by anti-fascist groups and the larger public. Worse, these smears and misinformation campaigns comes at a time when white supremacists are actively recruiting in Heathen communities, making it much harder for Heathens to fight off their advances.
Knee-jerk assumptions, simplistic reductions of symbols and beliefs, and a willingness to discard spiritual and cultural symbols in our fight to stop a nebulous Fascist threat will not only lead us nowhere good, but will aid the recruitment efforts of the people we are claiming to oppose. It not only shows us as ignorant but willfully arrogant: our “enlightened” European-derived secular-atheism is the only true way, and any who find meaning in spiritual symbols are at best foolish or, more often “fascist.”
Fighting fascism cannot be done with cheat-sheets, graphics, or slogans ; it must involve building vibrant, tolerant, and culturally-rich communities that refuse to discard spiritual meaning. And importantly, greater acceptance of non-Christian and non-Atheist cultural and spiritual beliefs supports a much larger work: abandoning the colonialist arrogance which still sees European-derived civilization as superior in its secularism.
As this arrogance is abandoned, indigenous and colonized people will able to claim more space to articulate their animist and ancestral beliefs, without being dismissed as uneducated or backwards in leftist spaces. It’s this larger work we must be committed to, a work that cannot be accomplished by sacrificing the beliefs of others on the altars of purity or the fight against fascism, nor can it be accomplished without interrogating the secular-atheism of the left’s “founding fathers.”
Rhyd is one of the co-founders and co-editors of Gods&Radicals. His recently released collection, Witches In a Crumbling Empire, is available now. You can support him on Patreon, and listen to his podcasts with Alley Valkyrie, Empires Crumble.
Gods&Radicals Press would like to hear from you! Tell us how we’re doing (and we’ll give you a discount on our works for your time!)
When you look at what is needed to slow down or stop Climate Change and the destruction of the environment that sustains human life, you get confronted with an awful reality. That reality? There is literally no significant change that will not also deeply harm vulnerable people or infringe upon some modern freedom we now conceive as vital, inherent, and inalienable.
An editorial, from Rhyd Wildermuth
Recently, the city of Seattle in the United States became the first US city to fully ban single-use plastic straws, utensils, and cocktail picks in restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops. The ban was heralded as an environmentalist victory by marine conservationist groups and fiercely fought by restaurant associations, plastics manufacturers, and some activists for the disabled.
You may have encountered news about the ban specifically because of the opposition of some activists for the disabled. Though the Seattle ban allows restaurants to provide flexible single-use plastic straws for people who medically need them, restaurants, bars, and cafes aren’t required to keep such straws on hand. Thus, a disabled person who cannot drink without a straw might find themselves needing to provide their own in order to consume a beverage they’ve purchased. Activists for disabled people point out that this situation creates an accessibility barrier for a minority of people who already face countless other such barriers.
The debates around the plastic straw ban unfortunately obscured several much larger issues around environmental destruction, Climate Change, and disability. More unfortunately, the way the plastic straw ban was debated across social media reduced the question to a false polarity: save the turtles and oceans, or keep disabled people from aspirating their liquids and dying of pneumonia.
The problem with all these debates was that there were deeper topics which were never up for debate. For instance, can laws designed by technocrats to change consumer behavior actually stop environmental destruction? Can capitalist nations fix the problems they’ve caused by replacing one product with another? And what about the vulnerable people who rely on capitalist-created products that destroy the environment?
One can detect in the ban on plastic straws by Seattle (a city in which I lived for 16 years) a smug and fully unmerited sense of humanitarian “progress.” Much of it is hypocrisy: Seattle is longtime home to some of the most environmentally-destructive corporations in the world, such as Boeing and Amazon (which will sell you 100 plastic single-use straws for $5.99, straw ban be damned). Seattle relies heavily on those corporations and their workers for its tax revenue. Also, Seattle’s carbon output, while low compared to many cities of its size, is only so low because of its geographical proximity to hydro-electric power plants, not from efforts to conserve energy.
Like many “progressive” European nations and other cities, Seattle obscures its own contributions to the destruction of the environment while implementing laws and policies which only alter the aesthetics of its damage. This same hypocritical stance can be seen in Seattle’s treatment of homeless people. The Seattle King County metropolitan area has the fourth largest homeless population in the United States (12,500, the same size as South Korea’s homeless population), yet prides itself on its Liberal/progressive policies and is also the first large US city to have elected a Socialist to city council.
Seattle is the perfect example of the self-congratulatory, hypocritical Liberal Democratic (that is, capitalist) order, but it is hardly alone. This same duplicity can be found throughout the Western world. For a case in point, we need only look at Germany, usually touted as a paragon of green policies even under a conservative government. Angela Merkel announced the closure of all nuclear power plants by 2022; but Germany purchases and will continue to purchase and transport nuclear energy from its neighbors, particularly France. In addition, half of its timber production is burned to create electricity.
Almost all of the shifts that Liberal Democratic (capitalist) nations in the world have made towards reducing the destruction of the climate follow a similar pattern. Reductions in one destructive behavior are replaced by increases in another, and each switch is mere aesthetic. This pattern is nothing new: consider how most of the policies of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act in the United States focused entirely on aesthetic changes. Reductions of emissions into the air from factories and coal-fired power plants, as well as from automobiles, never significantly reduced CO2 in the atmosphere; instead, they reduced particulates which were causing asthma, smog, and “acid rain.”
The problem here should be obvious. While no one wants to choke on automobile exhaust and industrial pollutants, and reducing these particulates absolutely decreased cancer rates and helped asthmatics, these policies only made the larger problem invisible. C02, the primary agent of Climate Change, doesn’t leave a stain on the sky or cause immediate health problems. Instead, it increases the temperature of the entire earth by trapping heat, thereby melting glaciers, shifting ocean currents, and initiating wide-scale droughts, floods, crop failures, extinction events, and eventually societal collapse.
See No Evil
With this in mind we can return for a moment to the plastic straw ban. 9 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year; of that pollution 2000 tons are single-use plastic straws: 0.025% of the total (though 4% by volume). Beyond pointing out the unnoticeable change in the oceans even the eradication of all plastic straws in the world would affect, we also need to remember that consumer bans like this are not actually targeting CO2 emissions.
Single-use plastic straws are visible waste. We can point to the images of sea turtles and marine birds choked to death on a piece of plastic and say, “look–we did this.” Larger-scale pollution such as trash dumping or oil spills likewise provide visible signs of the damage our modern way of life causes to the environment. Gulls and seals covered in petroleum or whales and dolphins killed by plastics make us feel bad. Our immediate response is guilt and some anger: we didn’t want to kill those things, and we want whomever did to take responsibility immediately, clean up the mess, and hopefully pay some sort of fine.
This is a deeply Liberal/capitalist sense of guilt, one that feels quite sorry for things and hopes everything can go back to normal once all the apologies are repeated and the perpetrator has learned their lesson. This guilt wants its feelings smoothed over and the ugliness taken away, along with re-assurances that all is forgiven. And most of all, this guilt just wants the crisis to be over so capitalism can continue.
The real crisis, however, is only just beginning. The destruction industrialized capitalist society has caused to the entire biosphere has been mostly invisible for the last two centuries; it has now made itself visible and becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. But unlike an oil spill or a sea-turtle suffocated by a plastic straw, the visible manifestations cannot be traced directly to individual actors, and creates a crisis for the model of Liberal guilt and responsibility.
Who is most responsible for the C02 emissions of automobiles? Is it the manufacturers who made the cars, the millions of people who bought and drove them, the governments which built the roads and defunded public transit, or the petroleum companies who delivered the gasoline to the consumers? Is it the people who profited off of all this most, or the people whose demand and consumption enabled that profit? And even if we decide that it is the corporations and politicians who are most responsible, the billions of people in the world such as myself who have never owned nor driven a car could just as easily say that those who do–even if they needed it because they are disabled–are also guilty and responsible.
The Coming Collapse
The problem remains that guilt doesn’t actually change anything, and these questions–just like the debates around the straw ban–obscure the much more terrifying issues.
When you look at what is needed to slow down or stop Climate Change and the destruction of the environment that sustains human life, you get confronted with an awful reality. That reality? There is literally no significant change that will not also deeply harm vulnerable people or infringe upon some modern freedom we now conceive as vital, inherent, and inalienable.
Consider the automobile question posed above. Ending automobile use and manufacturing of automobiles would drastically reduce the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere, as well as the destruction of land and habitat caused by roads and petroleum extraction. Also, it would re-green a lot of space quickly: think all of those parking lots and highways no longer used. But if you have a car right now you’re probably thinking about how put out you’d be, especially if you live in a rural or suburban area. That goes doubly for someone in that situation who is disabled.
This problem repeats itself in every possible scenario. Jet travel, international shipping, personal energy consumption: vastly curtailing or even ending any of these things would actually make a difference and possibly stop climate collapse, but in each case most humans would lose something they count as a freedom, while a few would also lose their ability to survive.
Unfortunately, this is the future for industrial civilization whether we want it or not. Doing absolutely nothing will still kill the most vulnerable, while a small minority will get to keep all the technological splendor of late-capitalism. The biosphere will wither, civilization will self-destruct, and the rest of the human and non-human populations of the earth will suffer a slow, agonizing genocide.
A scenario already playing itself out in many places helps to explain the really awful crisis we are in. Increased temperatures increase demand for air-conditioning and other CO2-producing cooling technologies. Brownouts (when power-plants cannot provide enough electricity to meet demand) already occur and will increase as the earth warms. Such events will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations (the elderly) who may die during heat waves. So even all our efforts to transition to renewable and less-destructive energy sources will not fix the problem: the extra energy creation will merely go into mitigating these disasters.
There is currently no political or social mechanism to decide how to distribute energy to protect vulnerable people while reducing energy consumption by those who need it less. The best the technocrats in whom we are told to put our faith have come up with are aesthetic changes which feel good but change nothing. More so, even these toothless policy changes rarely ever take effect.
No government has banned personal automobile use, nor petroleum extraction, nor the vast networks of server farms or industrial manufacturing and distribution upon which our modern existence relies. Nor can we ever expect to see governments do this without revolutionary pressure.
So the current state of affairs–in which humanity continues to produce and consume its way to its eventual demise–will continue unabated. People living in wealthy capitalist nations will continue to debate aesthetic changes to their way of life and argue endlessly about who precisely is most to blame. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable beings–human and especially other-than-humans–will continue to suffer more and more from industrial civilization as the glaciers melt, the forests burn, the deserts spread, and the oceans rise.
Until our debates about environmental damage and Climate Change take this reality as their starting point, we will all suffer this collective fate, whether we ever use a straw or not.
We now have t-shirts! Sales directly support our work. Order by clicking the image below.
To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.
From Rhyd Wildermuth
The following essay is adapted from Rhyd Wildermuth’s speech, “Witches In A Crumbling Empire,” to be republished as part of his next collection, Our Time of Springs, Our Time of Flames (August, 2018)
The Empire under which we all suffer, under whom we are all ruled, was born upon the factory floor and upon the witch’s stake.
Industrialised capitalism started in England around 1760. Before then, almost everything humans used was made by humans with human effort, without the input of petroleum. So, in the early 1700’s, any clothing you wore and any food you ate was made or grown completely without fossil fuels.
The first coal-fired factories were built in cities swollen with refugees from the surrounding areas. Those people had just lost all access to land and the means to support themselves because of laws called the Enclosure Acts. No longer could they raise animals and plants from the earth with their own two feet firmly planted on the ground; now, their only option was to stand on wood and stone factory floors for 14 hours a day making things for other people.
Humans are hard to control. Humans don’t like working all day for someone else. They have to eat, and piss, and shit, and rest. Many women bleed every moon, sometimes they get pregnant and have to care for their children.
But Coal doesn’t tire. Coal doesn’t show up to work late after a night of drinking or fucking. Coal doesn’t need a rest, doesn’t get menstrual cramps, doesn’t daydream about how life can be better. Coal also doesn’t demand wages.
So the great ‘revolution’ of industrialisation was the slow replacement of human labor with black carbon labor from the earth. In the Americas, the people called Black were also used to replace waged labor. In both cases, the rich tried to find a low-cost, easily-managed, fully-predictable means to gain wealth.
Slaves revolt, though, and kill their masters. Coal and oil blacken the cities and skies with soot, but burned through filters, the carbon becomes invisible, escapes quietly into the atmosphere, warming the earth at such imperceptible rates that it could be ignored until recently.
What could not be ignored was the tendency of humans to revolt against their masters, be they slaves or peasants, workers or servants. Humans don’t make very good machines, we are unpredictable, tire easily, and anyway would rather be creating art or eating, then doing monotonous work for little pay.
The same era which saw the birth of industrialised capitalism also saw the birth of all modern forms of government and control. The modern city, the nation-state, so-called Democracy, representative government, prisons resembling factories resembling schools which resemble prisons. It also saw the birth of the modern police and the political order under which we now live.
But what is Empire?
By Empire I mean America, but I also do not.
By Empire I mean Capitalism, but I also do not.
By Empire I mean colonization. I mean industrialisation. I mean the slaughter of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. I mean the carbon in the air and the worker in the factory. I mean all the newly extinct species and all the dying forests. I mean the corporations which own the internet and the corporations who profit from the computers and smartphones you read this on.
By Empire, I mean the foreign wars. I mean an Arab woman cradling the corpse of her decapitated daughter and shaking her fist at the gay Black dude from Los Angeles who only joined the Army to get money to support his mother.
By Empire, I mean the Mexican child screaming as her father is taken away by an ICE agent whose grandparents fled the Nazi advance in Europe.
By Empire, I mean the Black father mourning his son killed by a cop whose ancestors sold themselves into indentured servitude rather than starve to death during the famine in Ireland.
By Empire, I mean the intersectional feminist writing essays about the exploitation of women and children on a computer made through the exploitation of Asian women and African children.
And by Empire I mean the Arab man who massacres gays in a nightclub to retaliate for atrocities none of those people committed.
By Empire, I mean the single white mother driving her disabled kid to a doctor’s appointment over roads lain by migrant workers who are about to get deported.
By Empire I mean the civitas and the polis. I mean civilization and the police, the laws and logic, the political order, the thou shalt nots and the prisons where you go when you refuse to listen.
But more than anything, I mean the Empire in each of you and the Empire in me.
By Empire I mean you, and by Empire I mean me.
And finally, by Empire I mean this thing that is crumbling around us, gasping for air, begging us to keep it alive.
The Empire that is crumbling around us was born on the factory floors and the witch’s stake, and both were assaults on the human body.
Silvia Federici said it, in her essay “In Praise of the Dancing Body:”
Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance…. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.
If the first task of Capitalism was to separate us from land and nature, they have more than succeeded. One need only look at the vastly artificial surroundings we all live in, the devices we use to speak with each other, the manufactured foods and synthetic medicines. Can you walk outside your home and find something edible growing by the pavement? Do you know which birds share your neighborhood with you? Can you point to where precisely the sun will rise tomorrow morning without a compass? Without looking outside tonight or at the internet, which phase is the moon in?
But it’s useless to rail against this disconnection. What separates us from the land and nature is not a current assault in an ongoing struggle: the war was won by them long ago. We are an occupied people, often occupying occupied land cleared long before any of us were born.
If that war was lost, though, the other war is still on going. Says Federici again:
Mechanization—the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine—has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.
Capitalism has needed us to act like machines so we can fit into the system as mere, fully-interchangeable cogs. Many of use don’t fit, though: be it our bodies themselves or our failure to conform, the process of turning us into machines is never fully complete.
Those of us who gum up the gears aren’t welcome in the factory, but Empire has a place for us too.
Empire was born on the factory floor, and it was also born on the witch’s stake. Failure to file down your rough bits, refusal to conform to the will of the political order, and worst of all encouraging others to do the same will land you at best in jail, or riddled with mental-illnesses that were non-existent in pre-capitalist lands, suffocated with a crushed trachea for daring to sell loose cigarettes or bleeding to death in the street for looking non-white when the polis tried to enforce its will.
There are countless technological distractions and institutions which have helped us forget our bodies: the masturbatory fantasies of video games and pornography, the medicalisation of any bodily refusal to be a good worker. Gyms look like factories for a reason, for it’s in the mills and on the mechanical looms where we first lost the meaning of muscle and blood. And then there is clock time, our smartphones and alarm clocks, schools which teach kids to move from class to class to prepare them to move from task to task.
Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our body because it is the land and the body which tells you this is all wrong. The land screams as species go extinct, forests die, icecaps melt. Your body screams when you treat it as a machine.
Your body tells you this is all wrong. Starting from the body, you know you tire faster when you are doing meaningless work. You know the food on offer to you at the supermarkets is empty, you know that the air you breathe is often toxic. You know sitting for eight hours staring at a screen hurts more than just your eyes, that standing behind a counter slinging coffee to exhausted people makes you a poorly-paid drug dealer.
All that knowledge is what capitalism needs you not to know.
All those feelings are what Empire fears you’ll feel.
Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies for another reason.
Your body is always in contact with something else, something outside yourself. Your feet, the lowest part of you, the easiest part to ignore until they hurt, they connect to the entire world-soul. Taking your shoes off, standing on the grass or the sand or stone, you become no longer a machine but a body again, part of something always bigger than yourself, with a different logic, a more intuitive time, a deeper truth.
Your feet on the earth, you cannot be disconnected from the earth and the seasons, because you are also the earth and its seasons. Work in summer is not work in winter, the time of your waking and the cycles of your sleeping follow a different rhythm fully separate from the time of money-making, the time of machines.
Capitalism needs you to forget this.
Witchcraft tells you to remember.
If Empire was born on the factory floor and on the witch’s stake, it spread into every last bit of our existence, making subjects out of each one of us. While Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies, Empire needed us to become passive subjects of the political order.
Passivity is not receptivity. As a gay man I can assure you, more action goes into receptive sex than merely closing your eyes and thinking about the Empire. I suspect most women would concur.
Receptivity opens us to the world of senses, of feelings, of meaning. You are being receptive now, taking my words into you, playing with them, weaving their meaning into the tapestry of you. But passivity makes you a victim, a mere tool in the hands of the powerful. Passivity is consumption, selection between lifestyle options, an identity defined not by what you do but by what you choose. Did you vote Democrat or Republican? Drink Coke or Pepsi? Use an iPhone or Android?
Passivity reduces will to mere consumer preference. No longer will to power but a mere checkbox on a ballot or a selection on a screen. No longer desire and suffering but mere distractions to dull the fatigue of work and the anxiety of alienation.
You cannot force someone to become passive except by long applications of torture. But there is another route, a slower one, by which you can conquer the will of others by telling them not ‘thou shalt not’ but ‘thou cannot.’ Like the God of Eden’s lies to the woman in the garden, we are told we cannot survive without capitalism, cannot be safe without police, cannot find meaning outside of waged work, cannot find love without cosmetics.
And so what we did not lose on the factory floor we lost with the death of witches. Not only the women with herbs and poison roots, not only the crones bearing stories from times before private property, not only the maidens urging worship in temples of wild lust, not only the mothers feeding us from their bodies. Not only them, but also them: the women who reminded us an entire world can be made not from city and machine but forest and dirt.
Not only them, but also the heretics, the mad, the dreamers, the rebels. The men dressed like women tearing down fences along with women drest like men, refusing the enclosure of the sacred commons and the seizure of land for the profit of the few. The indigenous elders gunned down by settlers, the traditional healers dead in the hulls of slave ships. All of them taught what Empire needed us to forget: the earth knows what the computer never will, that the body bleeds a liquid more powerful than petroleum.
With them gone, we started to believe we can-not. We cannot heal ourselves without pharmaceuticals, we cannot feed ourselves without factory farms. We cannot make our own clothes, cannot craft our own homes. We must now suckle at the toxic teat of the Market while it slaps us with an invisible hand.
We started to believe we cannot resist.
But in the screaming defiance of the immolated witches was a reminder: we can refuse to submit, even in death.
It took centuries to shape us into what we are now, passive sniveling subjects of Empire and Capital. Though this may seem long, we lived outside Empire much longer. Capitalism is new and short-lived, compared even to Feudalism. It differs only in its full permeation of all our existence, and it is for this reason I call it Empire.
It is also collapsing.
The climate change caused by Capitalism cannot be stopped any longer, and its effects already cause famines and resource wars throughout the world. Between 30,000 and 140,000 species go extinct every year now; at the beginning of the 1800’s, this number was no more than 1000 yearly. Cities are beginning to flood, water tables depleting, while the oil-wells which makes the entire Empire run are going dry. Climate change will increase the refugee crises currently fueling the nationalist parties in Europe and the US, and whether they are fleeing from resource wars or unmanned drone bombers, they are undoubtedly the first quakes of Empire’s impending collapse.
Empires always pompously declare themselves eternal. The British swore the sun would never set on them, the third reich was supposed to last 1000 years. Western Democratic Capitalist Empire declared itself ‘the end of history’ in the 1990’s, but of course Fukuyama’s prediction sealed its fate.
Empires have always tried to cheat death and this one is no different. But the crone that stands on the other side of death’s door revealed her trump card, and now few can deny what this means.
Some still cling to the vain hope that Donald Trump is merely an unfortunate set-back to the progress of civilization. But reversing civil protections, installing fascist theorists in positions of power, rattling the chains of other world leaders, building a wall to keep the Mexicans out—these are not mere reversals of Empire’s progress, they are Empire trying to save itself.
Consider this wall between the US and Mexico. See past the obvious racism of such a thing and its absurd cost to what’s lurking beneath the political veneer. Consider the impending flood of climate refugees: remember your geography, look at a map displaying where the major destruction will occur first, and suddenly Trump’s idea isn’t mere xenophobic delusion.
The increase in surveillance powers, the militarization of police forces, the dismantling of the courts and the rights they are sworn to protect, the stoking of fascist flames: these are not just the actions of a psychopath, but of an engineer shoring up the ruins of Empire.
The same is happening everywhere else in the world. The capitalists know we are remembering to resist again, and so they are raising again the stakes, piling faggots beneath them, waiting for our next sign of revolt.
To accept what is around us now, to call such things “good” and “necessary,” is to laugh in the faces of the screaming witches who died so this Empire could arise. To chase after like mongrel dogs the trinkets and crumbs the capitalists throw down to us on the floor–the “rights” and “freedoms” and all the glossy junk cluttering store shelves–is to jeer at the sorrow and sufferings of our ancestors hauled to work in chains or prodded into mills by the terror of starvation.
To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.
To fight Empire is to stare in the face of our own deaths and laugh, knowing the worst that might happen is Empire might burn us, too.
But to the witches who risked the stake to avoid forever the factory floor, the insurrectionists who risked bullets to forever avoid submission, and any who risked the rage of Empire for the possibility that Empire might fall, the choice was an easy one.
So is ours.
Rhyd is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals Press and a co-editor of godsandradicals.org.
Please help us pay our writers by donating a few dollars to us. And thanks!
Reviewed in this essay: Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons (Published by PM Press)
Anti-fascism in the United States has two deep problems, neither of which can easily be unraveled. The first problem, which is the foundation of the second, is that it cannot accurately identify precisely who or what a fascist actually is.
This first problem can best be shown from a rather amusing conversation I recently encountered regarding myself and Gods&Radicals Press (where I am the managing editor). It turns out, according to some deeply wise Twitter commentators, that I’m a fascist, or possibly a proto-fascist, or an anarcho-nationalist with white-nationalist leanings.
Their evidence? A recent essay regarding the commons, an essay critiquing racial and gender essentialism, and an anti-imperialist essay.
While it’s tempting to dismiss such a conversation and laugh about the general absurdity of American social media “call outs,” their error points to something much more endemic than mere ignorance or poor reading skills. The essays selectively cited do indeed contain some ideas that could be mistaken as fascist, but not because the ideas themselves are fascist. For instance: the essay on reclaiming the commons from an anti-colonial perspective mentions the word “land” a lot. Some fascists also wish to reclaim land. Likewise, the essay against imperialism shares with some fascist tendencies a disgust for the occupation of peoples by the military. And my critique of social justice essentialism criticizes non-Marxist “feminist” reduction of men to their bodies and genitals.
That is, what the commentators were looking for were signs of fascist ideology, ticking off boxes on a checklist of fascist traits. But unfortunately, opposition to fascism is not as easy as completing a Buzzfeed quiz or reading an Everyday Feminism listicle.
In this error they are hardly alone. American antifascist organizing has faced a much larger difficulty identifying precisely who’s a fascist, or even whether any particular idea is indicative of fascist ideology. This problem leads to all sorts of practical problems, particularly when it comes to organizing against groups and theorists on the far-right who don’t fit into traditional stereotypes of fascism.
Two examples should suffice to show the problem here. First of all, Jack Donovan and the group to which he belongs, The Wolves of Vinland, cannot easily be classified as fascist according to popularly-accepted metrics. Donovan is specifically anti-imperialist, criticizes capitalism and anti-globalisation, rejects racism, and is homosexual. In addition, The Wolves of Vinland might be better described as a Pagan body-cult than a “Fascist counter-cultural tribe” , particularly because they not only do they not participate in demonstrations and have rejected alliances with alt-right groups, but have absolutely no interest in seizing political power or taking control of the state. So any litmus strip we might apply to either Donovan or the Wolves of Vinland in order to determine whether they are fascist will come back completely clean.
Likewise, fascists are at least according to popular understanding supposed to be anti-Black, anti-gay, and most definitely anti-Semitic. So that makes encountering the occasionally violent ideas of Milo Yiannopolous quite difficult: he is homosexual, has a Black man as a lover, and also happens to be Jewish. That is, he isn’t anti-Black, nor anti-gay, nor precisely anti-semitic, yet we still generally see his ideas as fascist.
This nebulous nature of Fascism also means that many leftists find themselves considered fascist because of their adherence to ideas which appear (at least at first glance) to be of fascist provenance. For instance, the anarchist publisher Little Black Cart and its publications have been repeatedly identified as fascist by other anarchists because of their anti-civilizationist and eco-extremist tendencies, both of which appear (under a glance no more attentive than what is needed for a Teen Vogue article) to be identical to some white-nationalist positions.
Similarly, those who use the works of clearly leftist philosophers such as Max Stirner or even Slavoj Zizek are often painted with a fascist brush because of the similarities between both philosophers’ rejection of Liberal Democratic capitalism and the European Nouvelle Droit’s rejections of the same regime.
This inability to distinguish between right-wing (and fascist) critiques of Liberal Democracy leads to the second and more intractable problem within American Anti-fascism. That problem? By mis-identifying Marxist and other far-left opposition to Liberal Democracy as fascist, antifascists end up siding with Capitalist interests and becoming defenders of Liberal Democracy. That is, in an attempt to fight off white supremacists and other far right challenges to the state, antifascists can enable the state to continue its oppression against the very people antifascists claim to defend.
The Revolutionary Right
Thus Matthew N Lyons’ forthcoming book, Insurgent Supremacists: The US Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, is a deeply needed work.
In the title itself, Lyons begins to unravel inherited, popular misconceptions about the entire political constellation in which we (often clumsily) attempt to locate fascism. Generally (at least within liberal and “progressive” anti-fascist currents), the far right is not considered a threat to Empire, but to be the political foundation of Empire itself. But while to speak of an anti-imperialist far-right seems oxymoronic, Lyons provides an almost overwhelming onslaught of detail as to how much of the Far Right is predicated on a critique of and opposition to liberal democratic imperialism.
Opposition to global capitalism and the international governance organizations which protect it, fierce criticism (sometimes backed by weapons) of oppressive policing and surveillance apparatuses, and moral reprehension at imperialist US foreign policy in the Middle East have all been parts of many movements within the Far Right in the United States. For instance, consider the following words:
When a U.S. plane or cruise missile is used to bring destruction to a foreign people, this nation rewards the bombers with applause and praise. What a convenient way to absolve these killers of any responsibility for the destruction they leave in their wake.
Unfortunately, the morality of killing is not so superficial. The truth is, the use of a truck, a plane or a missile for the delivery of a weapon of mass destruction does not alter the nature of the act itself.
These are weapons of mass destruction — and the method of delivery matters little to those on the receiving end of such weapons.
Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City …
These words by Timothy McVeigh (the far-right bomber of a federal building In Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, many of them children) might just as easily have been written by indigenous resistance leaders, the Black Panthers, or other leftist revolutionary groups in the United States. Or as I note in an essay about him, many of Jack Donovan’s critiques of the police state and of liberal democracy could just as easily have been written by those same groups.
Unlike those leftist revolutionary groups and also unlike Jack Donovan, Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist, expressing fondness for the white supremacist book The Turner Diaries, as well as selling copies of it at gun shows. And so there is where someone like McVeigh fits into our preconceived notions of what makes a fascist…except as Lyons points out in his book, white supremacist ideas are not a clear indicator of fascism, either.
That difficulty of pinning down precisely what makes someone on the far right a fascist might otherwise plague such a book as his, but Lyons wisely dispenses with the question altogether until the very end (a previously-published essay included as appendix). Rather than attempt to build a catalogue of fascist ideologies and movements in the United States, he instead details all the Far Right movements which intersect with this slippery category.
The first part of Insurgent Supremacists provide a detailed sketch of five ideological movements (Neo-Nazis, Christian Dominionists/Theocrats, The Alt-Right, the Patriot movements, and the LaRouche Network), and at least for the first four groups, readers with only a surface understanding of Right-wing ideology may find themselves surprised to learn how thoroughly different each ideology is from the others. While crossovers absolutely exist, many of the adherents of each group would be just as likely to vehemently oppose the other groups as to claim them as fellow travelers.
In the second section, Lyons then looks at each group again through the lens of their views on gender & sexuality, decentralization, and anti-imperialism, and here again the average anti-fascist may find their original analysis uncomfortably complicated by what Lyons details. Particularly of interest are the problems of anti-imperialism and decentralization (anti-federalist– or in some cases even anti-government–positions ), both of which are critiques autonomous Marxists and anarchists share with many on the far right (albeit for different reasons).
The third section, however, is the most useful and unfortunately the most short. In it, Lyons discusses the complicated relationship that police and the FBI have had with far right groups, as well as the influence the Liberal political structures (especially the Democratic Party) has had on creating the conditions for the rise of these groups as well as increasing police oppression of society at large in the name of fighting them. Returning to McVeigh’s bombing, Lyons points out:
The Clinton administration also used the Oklahoma City bombing to help win passage of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which loosened restrictions on the wiretapping and other surveillance of alleged “terrorists,” expanded the use of secret evidence to deport non- citizens (which means that the defendants have no opportunity to see the evidence being used against them), and, in the words of legal journalist Lincoln Caplan, “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” The law made the death penalty more “effective” by making it much more difficult for death row inmates to appeal their sentences, even though a notoriously high proportion of death sentences have been shown to have serious flaws.” (174)
Antifascist Alliances with the Capitalist State
In fact, it’s Lyons’ consistent (but understated) criticism of liberal politics throughout his discussion of the Far Right that makes Insurgent Supremacists most useful. Lyons runs directly counter to most popular antifascist thought by insisting that the Far Right is not made up of idiots without political sensibilities or actual grievances. People like McVeigh were absolutely right to be incensed about the government’s slaughter of innocents in Waco or at Ruby Ridge, just as many of those who supported Trump in the recent election had absolutely legitimate grievances against the Democratic Party’s destructive hyper-capitalist economic policies and imperialist expansionary foreign policy positions.
Of course, such a position runs counter not only to the received wisdom of many antifascists, but stands directly in opposition to Liberal dismissals of the Right as merely ignorant or hateful. Accepting this Liberal position is how antifascists have gotten to the place they’re in now, finding themselves continuously pulled toward the Democratic Party’s “centrist” positions and thus unable to distinguish a leftist from a fascist.
This is not merely an unfortunate problem of mis-identification, however. As in the case of McVeigh, Lyons points out that antifascism and opposition to far right ideologies have historically sometimes served to increase State violence and power.
Many people think of growing state repression as a trend toward fascism. But these events of the 1930s and ’40s highlight the fact that antifascism can itself serve as a rationale for increasing repression, as Don Hamerquist has pointed out: “when did this country outlaw strikes, ban seditious organizing and speech, intern substantial populations in concentration camps, and develop a totalitarian mobilization of economic, social, and cultural resources for military goals? Obviously it was during WWII, the period of the official capitalist mobilization against fascism, barbarism and for ‘civilization.’” (166)
The particular difficulty here, which Lyons touches on occasionally, is that the political interests of Capital are able to manipulate opposition to far right ideologies, particularly through the Democratic Party. And here many looking for easier answers will likely either dismiss or take offense at his discussion about whether or not Trump (or the US government in general) is fascist or in “process” of becoming fascist.
Each of these claims that the U.S. government or public officials are driving us toward fascism represents a misuse of the term, one that blurs the line between fascism and the more repressive, racist, and militaristic sides of the United States’ liberal- pluralist political system (181)
In particular, Lyons critiques the dogmatic approach to Trump of Alexander Reid Ross (an antifascist writer I’ve criticized before for mis-identifying leftist opposition to capitalism as fascist or fascist-adjacent):
Radical journalist Alexander Reid Ross argued that we should look at fascism “as a ‘process’ rather than an ‘outcome’,” and that “Trumpism” was “part of a process of ‘fascist creep,’ meaning a radicalization of conservative ideology that increasingly includes fascist membership while deploying fascist ideology, strategy, and tactics.” This approach rightly emphasized that many political initiatives occupy a gray area between fascist and conservative politics and that the political character of such initiatives can change over time. But Ross simply assumed that Trump’s campaign—unlike previous right- wing populist candidates such as George Wallace and Pat Buchanan—had an inherent tendency to move toward fascism and would not be co- opted by the established political system. (197)
But then, if Trump isn’t fascist and if many of the implementations of oppressive (and often explicitly racist) policies and powers of the United States isn’t fascist either, than what exactly is fascism? In an appendix of the book, Lyons discusses the difficulty of defining fascism and looks at others’ attempts to do so before coming up with a definition that will satisfy very few:
Fascism is a revolutionary form of right- wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy.
This definition will be unsatisfactory to most because of what it doesn’t explicitly include (white supremacy, misogyny) as well as what it does include (a challenge to capitalist political and cultural power). With such a definition we are forced to question almost everything we think we know about fascism’s traits, and find none of our checklists or listicles make sense anymore.
That’s a good thing, but with a caveat. Because the culture of constant reaction within America, especially via the reductionist forms of internet “discourse,” makes it very likely that capitalists and the government which serves their interest will continue to summon antifascists to their defense. While the challenge fascism presents to capitalist power is not our challenge, we must avoid making façile concessions to the Liberal Democratic state out of fear that the fascists might win. As Lyons points out in the case of the House UnAmerican Activities Committe during the middle of the last century (which was originally set up to prosecute fascists!), supporting (or even celebrating) government repression of the far right always empowers the state to then turn its weapons on the left.
Antifascists can and must oppose both the capitalist liberal democratic state as well as fascists, and must do so always at the same time. To make alliances with the state against the Far Right which threatens it will also lead the left to abandon their own challenge to the state, cutting off our nose to spite the face.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals and one of its co-editors. He is currently teaching a course on Marxism, and currently lives in Bretagne. Follow his dispatches from other shores here.
Gods&Radicals is one of the few anarchist publishers and websites that pays its writers. We can only do so with your help. Thanks for your support.
Tribes which hadn’t spoken to each other in decades gathered together on frigid northern plains to face down hired mercenaries, police, infiltrators, and their army of bulldozers.
At the same time on the other side of the planet, mothers raged and fathers wept to Allah as their children were shot dead for throwing stones at other bulldozers and other mercenaries called “soldiers.”
A few hundred years ago, women laid their children in graves dug shallow into peat. Beneath threadbare cloaks clinging to shoulders laden with what little they could carry, they cursed landlord and king while boarding ships to take them across a cold sea into servitude.
At almost the same time in the land to which those other women traveled, other women clawed into dry hard earth with nails made brittle from famine. There they buried their own dead in their own shallow graves–all those who died on the march from the fecund swamps that were once home along the trail of tears.
As you read this, undocumented refugees and artists hide behind barricades in a forest, shouting and jeering at and sometimes fleeing police armed with grenades and truncheons. The police advance and with sledgehammers smash homes where children were born and lovers held each other in desire; then they retreat to their own homes in time for dinner before sleep to begin the destruction the next day.
In high mountains a village mourns a shaman whose songs led them and many others into the arms of the goddess of a sacred plant. Her body riddled with bullets, like so many others murdered for the sole crime of being in the way of those who wanted the land upon which she lived for something more profitable.
The brutal repression of the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the violent oppression of Palestinians, the Irish famine, the forced marches of indigenous people and the murder of their leaders, and the French government’s violent eviction of the Z.A.D. from Notre Dame des Landes: these are the stories of capitalism, the blood and sorrows of millions soaking into the land under our feet.
Today’s Mayday. It’s Beltane.
It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day of revolt.
For anarchists and communists, it’s a sacred day, marches and riots to remember martyred workers. For Pagans and witches, it’s a sacred day, when forest and sun dance like sex and the life it breeds and the meaning it gives.
One chants of resistance, the other sings of joy, and under both is the land under our feet.
Capitalism began only a few hundred years ago with the forced expulsion of peasant from land in Europe and the forced expulsion of colonized from their land across the waters. Evictions, massacres, enslavement, settlement and re-settlement: without these things there could have been no Capital, no factories and what they produce. Marx called these acts “primitive accumulation,” theft of wealth and labor and most of all land by force and law.
But this is not just our history, this is our now.
The money funding the bank which forecloses on a poor Black family’s home is the labor stolen from Africans enslaved and land stolen from commons enclosed.
The investment capital that gentrifies a white neighborhood is the alchemical product of cheap labor and the forests in which First Nations hunters stalked Elk and Bear.
The bulldozers used to demolish the homes of Palestinians are the bulldozers that tear down homeless and refugee camps, that move the rubble of bombed homes and move the dirt into mass graves.
The guns used to shoot the child throwing rocks are the guns pointed at the Black kid just trying to walk home from the store, the guns which kill American kids in their classroom are the same guns used to subdue Mexican teachers demanding better pay, guns hoarded and wielded by police and soldiers everywhere to prevent us from taking back our collective birthright: the land under our feet.
Under all of this is land. Humans live only because of land, we eat and drink and breathe because of land. Without land our gods are naked and cannot speak, our children are hungry and cannot live, our ancestors forgotten and cannot be heard.
Paganism is about that land. Anti-capitalism is about that land.
Colonialism, Capitalism, Empire: these are the names of the story of how humans are ripped from land, severed from the gods and each other and themselves.
Now in the crush of cities we rush from rented space to work, from work back to rented space. Now in towering tenements we open foil packets into boiling water as children cry, sirens wail and televisions declare the future is now and capital always.
Now the forests die.
Now species older than humanity breathe their last.
Now the oceans rise and storms rage.
Now backlit screens become our society, likes and retweets our comfort, all because we have forgotten we are also the land under our feet.
Today is Beltane. Today is Mayday. People are dancing. People are being shot. People are shouting in rage. People are fucking each other, people are sighing at another day of wretched work.
Gods&Radicals exists because they are connected by the same thing. We write because we remember the land, remember each other, remember ourselves. We remember our gods stolen from us by sword and cross and dollar, springs and forests taken from us by fence and judge and profit, ancestors and offspring asking us when the cruelty of Empire will finally end.
We are witches, heretics, dreamers and bards. We are guerrillas, organizers, rioters, saboteurs.
We long for the liberation of others and for the liberation of ourselves, the coming time when around burning barricades or crackling hearths we can be ourselves again. No longer laborers for others, no longer criminals under the tyranny of law. No longer illegal and refugee, no longer colonized and conquered.
No longer anything but the land under our feet, and those who live upon it.
Happy Beltane. Happy Mayday.
Rhyd is one of the founders of Gods&Radicals. He lives everywhere, but mostly in Rennes, Bretagne. Follow his newsletter here.
We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction.
This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?
A manifesto from Rhyd Wildermuth
“Welcome to the modern world. It’s just like the old world, except it doesn’t work.”
My friend and I were both hungry; me perhaps a bit more so since I’d been traveling all day, hadn’t eaten that morning and it was now mid-evening.
“I’ll take you to dinner,” I told him. “Somewhere close–maybe pizza.”
“Okay,” he answered, and then started looking at his phone. “This place has really good reviews. Just need to take two trains.”
I was really hungry. “How long will that take?” I asked.
“45 minutes, maybe an hour.”
I shook my head. “Seems far and will cost a lot to get there. Isn’t there a place nearby?”
It was his turn to shake his head. “None with good reviews.”
“I don’t care,” I answered, probably a bit too curtly. The hunger was irritating me greatly. “Let’s just walk to one of them.”
So we did, set out into the cold city night, finally coming to an Italian restaurant. I looked at the menu, the prices were decent. “Perfect,” I said, turning to him.
“I can’t find any reviews on Trip Advisor though,” he answered. “But there’s one about a mile from here with a lot of reviews…”
Exhausted and frustrated, I snapped back: “Food’s food. I’m buying anyway…let’s go in.”
“But it might not be good,” he replied, until suddenly seeing something on his phone that made him excited. “Nevermind, I found it. Good reviews, we can go in.”
I’ve thought about this interaction very often since it happened a few months ago. My friend isn’t stupid; in fact, he’s very intelligent, and his magical insights into the world are often quite profound. Nor is he hardly alone in succumbing to the peculiar sort of paralysis of inaction I’ve recounted here. In fact, I suffer from it often too, as no doubt you likely do.
The desire to know if something is good before you try it, to want certainty about the uncertain–that’s hardly a new thing. But what is new, deeply radically new, is our reliance on social media (and the corporations which run them) and technological devices to give us that certainty, to tell us it’s going to be okay, to remove the risk that an action might not result in the absolute best conditions.
As with a night out at a restaurant or a date with a person met online, so too with any of the actions we might take towards revolution. We look to Tumblr and Twitter to gauge the sentiment of others, to divine if our groups and theories and plans are popular enough, have all the required sign-off’s from every possible identity focus-group, and nod sagely when told ‘that won’t work’ by whichever correctly-branded social justice personality happened to come through our feed that particular minute.
We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction. This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?
Those Satanic Mills
If you feel this way of critiquing technology seems bizarre, anti-modern, ‘primitive,’ or appears to ignore all the ‘good’ that technology has done, you might be tempted to describe all this as ‘luddite.’ And you’d be correct, and not in the ways most moderns have come to understand what the Luddites fought for.
The Luddites have always fascinated me. Men and women, sometimes cross-dressing, stealing into oppressive factories in the middle of the night to smash looms to stop production: that’s quite hardcore, regardless of why they did it. Besides the awesome acts of industrial sabotage, however, two other aspects of what the followers of King (or Ned, or Captain) Ludd did two hundred years ago are extremely relevant to us now.
The first aspect is their anarcho-paganism. They all claimed to follow a ghostly captain or leader who urged them on their night-time strikes against the industrialists. The stories they told about exactly who He was varied just as often as their actions: Ludd lived under a hill, or in a well, or under a church, all three places not ironically located “somewhere” in Sherwood forest, where Robin of Locksley and his fellow rogues were said to hide. Ludd was a spirit, a king, or a general (“No General But Ludd/Means The Poor Any Good” went one of their chants), or just a captain amongst them, or even the ghost of a man named Ned Ludd (killed after sabotaging a factory, goes the stories). Like other similar groups such as the Whiteboys and Molly Maguires and Rebeccas, the Luddites invoked the mythic against capitalists and the State to great effect, at least while their resistance lasted.
And that brings me to the third aspect of the Luddite resistance, the part which I find most haunting as another year on this earth passes for me (I’m 41 today, it seems). To explain this aspect, though, we need to step back a bit and look not just at the Luddites themselves but at the era in which they fought and the strange (and eerily familiar) historical circumstances which created the world around them.
If industrial capitalism has a specific birthdate and birthplace, it was 1769 in Derbyshire, England. It was in that year and in that place the very first modern factory was built by Richard Arkwright. The sound of the factory was compared to “the devil’s bagpipes,” a fact memorialized in this poem by Lorna Smithers:
When Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.
You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.
Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth…
It took forty years for Arkwright’s new terror, “those Satanic mills” as William Blake called them in 1804, to finally spark the resistance movement known as the Luddites. In that space of time, Arkwright’s first mill multiplied into 2400 similar factories spread throughout England (mostly in the major cities), an average of 60 a year.
So, in two generations, Britain had gone from a place where there was no such thing as a factory to a place where there were several thousands. In four decades, an entire society which had started out knowing nothing about industrialization appeared to become irrevocably industrialised, and it was at that point the Luddites struck.
But why then? Why not before? And why fight what appeared to be inevitable?
Against the Modern World
We must first ignore the modern interpretation of what a Luddite is. They weren’t ‘anti-technology’ or slow-to-adapt old people hopelessly left behind in a new world. Nor where they only concerned with fighting for better wages for weavers (who, before the factories, were able to support themselves and large families on the income from their specialized trade).
They were people close to my age and somewhat younger, the oldest people alive in Britain who could still remember the old world before factories, but still also young enough to actually work in them. They were a generation that stood on a threshold between the pre-industrial world and the new industrial capitalist order.
Imagine if you will what it must have been like to see your parents and the older people in your villages, towns, and cities starving because they could not or would not adapt to this brave new world. Many of them were too old, feeble, or weak-sighted to work in the factories, and anyway the factory owners preferred children as young as five to do much of the nimble work (and they couldn’t fight back). So while you see the older generation starving and destitute, you also see your own children or younger siblings coming home from the mills with broken fingers, strange bruises, and unmentionable wounds from their 14-hour day crawling under machinery to tie broken threads or retrieve loose bobbins.
And then there’s you, you and others your age, still young enough to work in many of the mills yet old enough to remember when the world wasn’t like this at all.
Now, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world before factories, even as in many modern liberal democratic countries very few of us have actually stepped foot in one. That’s not because they aren’t around anymore: they’ve moved mostly to Asia and Africa, where exhausted workers are crammed up like cattle in a slaughterhouse to make the phone and laptops you’re probably reading this on (as well as the clothes you’re wearing, possibly the chair you’re sitting on, and most of the stuff inside the home where you lay your head at night) for little or no wages.
And it is almost impossible to imagine what society was like before the factory. What was it like to only wear clothes made by yourself or people who lived nearby? What was life like before the cities swelled with displaced peasants blinking in the light of dawn before the gates of textile and steel mills, hungry and exhausted but jostling each other in line for a job that day to feed their family? What did the streets and town squares look like at night before everyone had to wake up at dawn to go to work? How did we relate to each other before wages became the only way to survive? And what did society look like before mass-production, when no one ever wore the same thing, when ‘pre-packaged experiences,’ monoculture, and conformity were literally impossible?
It is almost impossible to imagine the world before factories.
Almost, but not completely.
Because we are living in a similar world to what the Luddites experienced.
“All that is sacred is profaned…”*
(* from The Communist Manifesto)
If you can pinpoint any places in western history where technology severely altered the way human society functioned, I suspect there are three. The most obvious one is the industrial revolution, which was also the birth of capitalism. The one before that changed the world as well (but much more slowly) was the invention of the printing press, which gave to early merchants and the bourgeoisie the power to disseminate literature outside the strictures of religious and royal decree. And while we tend to see that invention as a net gain for humanity, we must remember that mass-printing and distribution has always been primarily in the hands of the rich, with the rest of us merely passive consumers.
The third–well, that’s the era we’re in now, the computer/internet ‘revolution.’
The first ‘node-to-node’ digital communication happened in 1969, 200 years after from the birth of Richard Arkwright’s steam-powered looming frame. But being military technology, it took more than a decade for that technology to filter out to non-military capitalists and become the ‘World Wide Web.’ In the following decades, we’ve gone from a world where random (“risky”) human interactions occurred only in public spaces to one where most such interactions now occur ‘online.’ Here’s some other stuff that has changed:
- 30 years ago, there were no smartphones or texting; in 2015, 98% of all Americans 18-29 years old had a cellphone.
- 17 years ago there was no Wikipedia, 14 years ago there was no such thing as Facebook, 12 years ago no Twitter, 11 years ago no Tumblr, and 7 years ago no Instagram.
- In 1984 only 8% of US homes had a computer of any sort; in 2010, 77% did.
These are all merely statistics about technological saturation; they tell us only as much as the figures about factories in England between 1769 and 1810 told us. But we don’t need to dig very far to understand that this technological change has radically altered what it means to be a human in a capitalist society.
For instance: before cellphones, you could only be reached at home. That meant if you needed to wait for a call you had to stay by the phone, but it also meant that your life was less likely to revolve around the ability of someone to get a hold of you immediately. There was no expectation that your attention could be gotten at any hour of the day because such a thing was impossible.
Before texting and email there were letters. You had to take the time to decide what you were going to say to someone, write it out on paper, post it in the mail, and then wait some amount of time for a reply. Thus human interactions were slower and more ponderous and most of all more intentional. Even the angriest of letters wouldn’t arrive until the next day at the earliest, and this slowness meant there was always at least a little time to rethink your immediate fury, unlike now with our instantaneous ‘send’ buttons.
Social media, however, probably represents the largest shift in how we relate to each other and also how we see ourselves. To have large groups of friends you had to do stuff for them, and with them, call them on weekends or send them letters, catch up with them for coffee or go to their parties or invite them for dinner, take vacations to see them or host them in your home. Now you need only post an update and read theirs to feel you’ve performed acts of friendship.
Accompanying that shift has been an increasing feeling of isolation and alienation. So many people now self-diagnose with introversion (as with trauma, or social anxiety, or many other ailments) that one wonders how humans ever managed to talk to each other before the internet.
The general response to this apparent increase in alienation is to state it has always been there, that being connected to each other more via the internet has helped us talk about it more, and that anyway we are #Blessed the internet came around to let us all be social despite our fear and misanthropy.
But in this case particularly, those of us who stand on the same threshold of change that the Luddites also stood upon cannot help but remember–we all did fine without social media. Better, even. We got over our shyness and anxiety because we had to, and the internet appears to have merely enabled us to not get over such things, to not address our social anxiety and fear of rejection and instead hide safely behind a screen.
Before the internet, binge-watching television (“Netflix and chill”) or staring at a screen for hours a day was a sign you’d given up on yourself and the world around you, were depressed and really just needed a friendly face or to go for a walk. They were symptoms of serious depression, indications that some large issue in your life has been unaddressed for too long and the things to ‘get you through’ had become addictions which prevented you from seeking help.
Now those things are all proud marks of ‘self-care’ enabled by technology without which we’d all surely be miserable, lonely humans. Nevermind that we are still miserable, lonely humans, and probably more so now.
Non-Binary Poly Radical #Blessed Vegan Cruelty-Free #Resister Queer Theorist Influencers Unite!™
Less controversial but even more unaddressed is what this new ‘technological revolution’ has done to our ability to survive, to earn enough money to eat and pay rent. The much-vaunted and ridiculous ‘internet of things’ has made it so we rarely get to ‘own’ the things we pay capitalists for, and must re-sell parts of ourselves constantly in order to compensate for dwindling wages and no savings. This is the curse of the ‘millenial’ (a marketing term that, like so much else, somehow became a ‘fact’ in capitalist society)–to have no steady income but to have thousands of Instagram followers in the hopes of one day having enough to be an ‘influencer’. To face insurmountable college debt and no way to secure housing but to get thousands of retweets on Twitter.
It is not just the fate of millenials. I’ve had two posts shared over 100,000 times and one seen by 1.5 million people. And yet I haven’t been able to afford eating more than twice a day in years, and have been nomadic for the last five years because 1.5 million views doesn’t pay rent.
The answer to the poverty experienced by more and more people (again–not just millenials) is to ‘monetize’ your life. Or as put in a rather brilliant essay about nomads like myself at It’s Going Down (“Living In A Van Down By The Instagram”):
The point here is not to whine about how we all can’t be special snowflakes or social media super-stars; the point is to state that capital is colonizing all aspects of our lives, including online worlds, and attempting to make us in turn generate profit, content, and value during all waking moments, either online or off. And, there’s no better backdrop to do this than when we are constantly traveling, as we in turn are utilizing and activating our social networks for the sake of monetizing them. Thus, we are pushed to take photos and tag corporations in the hopes that maybe one day we could get $50 for a sponsored post. To fundamentally turn ourselves, and our lives, into brands.
As was pointed out in the new book, Now, by the Invisible Committee, this has become both the economic baseline as well as central anxiety of our time. We aren’t just driving somewhere and enjoying a podcast or randomly picking up a hitch hiker, we are instead missing out on an opportunity to sell our labor power for Uber or Lyft. We aren’t taking photos to share with loved ones, we are building up our brand and trying to gain followers, which we will then sell to multinational corporations. This is the logic of the gig economy applied to all aspects of our lives, at all times, and in all scenarios.
To monetize yourself, though, requires you make yourself more sell-able, becoming a brand, a product, constantly adapting to market demands. Or as Badean wrote in “Identity In Crisis:”, in the Journal of Queer Nihilism:
“The collapse of traditional subject positions is managed through the proliferation of a new positions: app designers, graphic designers, cyber sex workers, queer theorists, feminist publishers, social network engineers, trend hunters, eBay sellers, social justice activists, performance artists, porn directors, spammers, party promoters, award winning baristas.
We are forced to continually define ourselves, to enact countless operations upon ourselves so as to produce ourselves anew each day as someone worth taking to market — our basic survival depends on the ceaseless deployment of increasingly discreet technologies of the self.
Everything is for sale: our sex appeal, our fetishes, our tattoos, our radicalism, our fashion sense, our queerness, our androgyny, our fitness, our fluidity, our abnormality, our sociability. Facebook and Twitter function as the new resume.
We are caught in the unending necessity to be continually educating, training, exploring, perfecting, and fine-tuning ourselves. Our continual self-invention is both economic imperative and economic engine.”
No doubt this seems dire enough, but one more dark truth emerges from this constant race. Because if we are constructing our identities in order to become more sale-able to people (be that for money or Facebook likes or even just to be noticed in this new hyper-gendered micro-radical hierarchy of new identities), how do we even know who we are anymore?
To be honest, I don’t always know. I am a radical queer anarchist pagan nomad punk fag brother boyfriend theorist bard druid, but none of that actually tells me what I am, only the hashtags people might use to define me on a social media post. Labels that once gave meaning now become indelible brandings. Try to shift any of those identities and the world (or the social media world, anyway) pushes back…hard. And just as often, those labels themselves are fiercely contested: I cannot count how many times I’ve been told I’m too ‘masculine-presenting’ to be allowed to use the term queer.
So who am I? Who gets to decide? And why are we using capitalist tools to mediate those discussions in the first place? Or is it possible it’s those very tools which have triggered these crises in the first place?
Not All Revolutions Are Good
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
(The Communist Manifesto)
The shift wrought by internet technology wherein identity is now the very battlefield of our ability to survive in the world may seem utterly different from any other struggle which has come before. In context of the struggle the Luddites and the early communists and anarchists fought, however, not much has really changed.
The rise of industrial capitalism triggered vast shifts in social relations which are to this day still being constantly disrupted. It should thus be no surprise to us that ‘disruptive technology’ is a statement of pride for many of the new architects of this current upheaval, an upheaval in which we also take part when we celebrate the destruction of older forms of relating (binary gender, hetero-normative society, class-based politics). What ‘good’ comes from these disruptions unfortunately seems fleeting and probably is. Because while it is a beautiful thing that acceptance of gender variance and queer sexuality have become so prominent, it’s a sick joke to say a poor queer or trans person desperately trying to pay rent by sleeping on a friend’s couch while letting out their bedroom on AirBnb, turning tricks on TaskRabbit or bareback hookup apps, and desperately looking for the perfect filter to get their Instagram account another 100 followers has somehow had their life ‘improved’ by these disruptions.
Yet, to this current horror in which we all find ourselves, perhaps the Luddites might shrug and say, “at least you didn’t have time forced upon you.” Because along with ‘disruption’ of the factory from hand-craft and laborer to factory and wage-slave came the beginning of an oppressive order of time.
Clocks became no longer curiosities but requirements. Suddenly, knowing if it was half-past eight or just ‘morning’ became the crucial difference between feeding your family for a day or starving on the street. Time literally had to be disciplined into us during the birth of industrialization, often times by christian moralists like John Wesley working on behalf of the factory owners. Time became something that you “spent” rather than something that passed, work became measured not by what needed doing according to the season but what the factory boss demanded you do within a set number of hours.
Before industrialization, work was task-oriented. You planted at some times of the year, harvested at others, ground wheat and fixed carts, wove cloth and made clothes not when an arbitrary number declared it was ‘time’ to do so but when the thing itself needed doing. And work itself was determined by how long you wanted to take doing the task, not how many hours the boss said you needed to stand at a counter or else be fired.
When attempting to imagine what that world was like (not very long ago), we tend to imagine it for ourselves, what our own life might have been like. Harder to imagine, however, is what all of society itself was like without clocks as over-seers. Imagine then what life would be like if not just you but all your friends and all the people in your town lived life without clocks, and you get a little closer to understanding precisely what the Luddites were fighting for.
A New Luddite Rebellion
It was against such radical, world-altering shifts that the Luddites broke into factories at night, smashing looms. One imagines they wanted their time back, they wanted their children and parents back, wanted the ability to survive without working in factories back. They wanted back the rich texture of a society where you knew the people who made your clothes, talked to the people who grew your food, or were those people themselves.
We are living in another such time. People older than me lived most of their childhoods without the internet and do not (or cannot) adapt to a world where everything about them is on display, sold piecemeal through Facebook updates and Instagram photos.
Those much younger than me do not know a world without cellphones, do not remember that it was possible to make new friends and meet amazing lovers without connecting first to an always-on device in your pocket. How many of them know you can arrive by train to a foreign city with just a paper map and a notebook and have the best trip of your life? How many will ever get a chance to experience what it was like to not just survive but actually have a pretty decent life in a city on less than full-time, barely-above minimum wage as I did in Seattle 15 years ago? And most of all, how many of them will ever know that risk and uncertainty is not something to be avoided at all costs but very often the thing which makes life worth living in the first place?
I barely remember what that was like.
I also barely remember what it was like to be anonymous, to have hours and hours of free time without devices I felt like I needed always to be looking at, constantly notifying me that emails and texts and retweets and messages are coming in. To have long conversations with strangers while waiting for a bus, to make new friends on the walk to work or find an awesome lover by chance while whiling away the day at a cafe. And most of all, I barely remember what it was like to know who I am without labels–to not need to call myself anything but my name, and have that be enough.
I want that all back. If you are close in age to me, you probably do to. If you are younger than me and don’t know what that was like, perhaps my telling of it is enough to entice you to want it also, and if you are older than me you might be shaking your head, having already mourned what’s been lost.
More than anything, we need this all back. Not just our time (consumed constantly by always-on devices and relentless updates). Not just our Selves (boxed in, categorized, labeled and shelved by any number of ‘identities.’). Not just our ability to pay rent and eat and still have enough money left over to enjoy the ever-dwindling number of months and days we have on this earth. Not just all that, but we need our will back, our reckless desire to act in the face of risk and uncertainty, the chaotic and unscripted interactions between ourselves and the world which make our lives not just exciting, but mythic.
And therein’s the key to the ritual invocation we must perform to take back what we’ve watched slowly sold off of our lives with each new screech of the devil’s bagpipes. There are spirits, gods, and ancestors who keep the memory of the old worlds even as we forget. Ludd was one, and though his followers failed to stop the horror born of the factories in England, some of us still remember their attempt. Be it Ludd or the Raven King, Brighid or Dionysos, or perhaps all the old gods and heroes summoned together, we can make another go at stopping this new horror waking upon the world. From the shattered remains of the past we can reconstruct a new resistance against this increasingly senseless drive towards self-as-product.
And if we fail, we will no doubt be smeared by many for being ‘anti-modern’ just as the Luddites were, dismissed and forgotten by many others, but definitely remembered by some, just as the Luddites are still remembered now.
We may indeed fail. The risks are very, very great, and there’s no Trip Advisor listing to assure us that there will be good food and pleasant ambiance after our uprising. Perhaps our failures will be re-tweeted across the world, Facebook Live videos streaming our defeat to countless millions using greasy thumbs to scroll through the comments. We’ll lose Instagram followers and potential Influencer sponsorships while the rich and powerful of the world destroy more forests, gun down more poor people, and start more wars.
We probably won’t win. But I’m gonna try anyway, because I want my life back.
And maybe you do, too.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
Please consider helping us by becoming one of our awesome supporters!
Today is Imbolc.
I write this while sitting before a fire, remembering every other Imbolc at which I sat before fire. This year, as the last two years, it’s a wood fire. Each of the three years before that, the fire came from candles.
Imbolc is the name given to one of the oldest remembered Celtic holidays still celebrated in European and other lands. It’s not clear where the name came from, though most think it’s a reference to the beginning of the birthing of lambs. It might also refer to milk; both are possible and related.
Before industrial civilization enchained cattle and humans into factories, people in northern climates went through periods of food scarcity late in the winter. Harvests that had been stored in autumn dwindled, as did the meat from animals slaughtered just before the deep cold set in. Even all the ales and meads (ready by mid-winter Carnifals) would be mostly gone by now. Nothing would grow, either, and all that was left was to wait for Imbolc.
Because by Imbolc, the lambs and other livestock began to produce milk for their new offspring as they are born. The beginning of a new cycle of abundance, the promise of growth and sunlight and warmth—all of that was this day, Imbolc.
It’s also known as Brigid’s day, or St. Brigid’s.
Perhaps no other ancient goddess was so blatantly preserved in Catholic practice. Sure, it’s obvious after just a little digging to figure out where other saints came from (France’s patron St. Denis is named after the Gaulish shorthand for Dionysus, for instance). But even the practices around St. Brigid’s days make it impossible to argue the saint was anything more than a concession to Celtic Pagans.
Another catholic holy-day that maps to Imbolc is Candlemas, which itself carries on many traditions of the Roman Pagan festival of Lupercalia (15 February). During Candlemas, all the old candle stubs and left-over wax from the year before are melted down to be made into new candles. It’s a day of purification and transformation, fitting well with one of the aspects of Brigid, that of patroness of forging.
Besides forging, Brigid is known for many other things. Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism, details three aspects of her particularly relevant to anti-capitalists. My favorite aspect is that of Brig Ambue, “Brigid of the Cowless.” The lore speaks of a Brigid who defended the rights of the dispossessed, the poor, and the outcasts (including criminals). Other aspects include that of justice (particularly on behalf of women) and hospitality.
I know her as the lady of the forge, the lady of the springs, and the lady of the hearth. Five years ago today I had a vision of a woman sitting in front of a fire, throwing fuel into it and laughing. I’d had the vision before, so many times I thought I was going crazy. I’d close my eyes and see it, blink and see it, always certain I could hear that laughter to the point I almost asked others if they heard her too.
Everything about myself changed that day. Or started to, because ‘reforging’ isn’t a short process. I look back at my life of almost 41 years (my birthday’s a day before lupercalia, on the day of a beheaded saint, in case you’re curious), and see that day five years ago as some sort of rebirth.
I don’t really like the word rebirth, though—that’s what the christians use, the ‘born-again’ drivel that makes them hate abortion and gays. “Reforged” makes more sense, anyway. I didn’t die and change: things broke apart and melted down but are all still there, just in different, better places.
But like the way christians who’ve been ‘born again’ seem to all share the same experience, there seems to be lots of others who’ve had similar experiences with Brigid. Several of them write for this site, others are people I’ve met randomly. But again, unlike christians, we don’t go around telling people how great it is and how she’ll save your soul. If anything, we usually advise caution, because it’s not necessarily a nice and comfortable thing to have your entire life re-arranged around you. Gods help you like forest fires help the forest and lightning fertilizes the earth; powerful, but not pleasant.
Besides, Paganism and witchcraft aren’t colonizer religions anyway. We don’t need or want missionaries, or crusades, or tent revivals. The gods I know seem generally indifferent to whether or not people believe in them; but it’s precisely because they aren’t conqueror gods, or civilization gods. They’re not the gods of kings and popes and CEO’s, but usually of poor people and trees and small streams. Gods of things that actually matter.
Brigid’s one of those gods, and I speak of her not to tell you to believe in her. There’s no point believing in things anyway; belief is for obedient people who do what they’re told and don’t question. I think that’s why gods don’t really seem to care if you believe them or not—who wants to talk to slavish fools who question nothing?
I speak of Brigid mostly to tell you about me, why certain things are important to me, why other things don’t matter at all. Because I know a goddess who cares about criminals and poor people and likes to throw things into a fire and laugh about it. I think she laughs because she knows nothing is ever really completely burnt. Ashes remain, and those ashes feed forests.
So it’s Imbolc, Brigid’s day, a day that was a lot more important to people before capitalism than it is to people living under capitalism. I think it will be an important day again. It has been for me these last five years, and also to an increasing number of people I love and care about and want to fight alongside of, whether they know of Brigid or not.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
The Pre-sale for Circling The Star continues until 14 February, 2018.
“Because revolutions don’t only spread like wildfire, they spread like forests and especially trees. An old tree puts out many seeds that become saplings that become trees of their own. And then those trees put out more seeds, more saplings, more trees, and next thing you know the world is a forest again.”
A brief tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, from Rhyd Wildermuth
“To die was merely to go on in another direction.”
Ursula K. Le Guin has died. Or returned. Or really, she’s merely gone off in another direction.
There will be a thousand tributes and remembrances to her. You should read them all, even if you’ve never read her work. Especially if you’ve never read her work. Because you’ve no doubt noticed all the really cool inspiring mystical/anarcho/revolutionary sorts you know are all in tears right now, like they’re mourning their favorite grandmother.
Because we are.
Ursula K. Le Guin was like a grandmother, but also like a tree. Trees can be grandmothers, you know, and they often are. Because trees don’t just grow and die, they do lots of other stuff in their very long lives. They shade the ground, shelter and feed small animals and birds. The leaves they drop compost into more soil, while their twigs and branches get gathered for nests. And their roots, oh those roots. They hold the earth together around them, even long after the tree itself has died.
But what trees also do in their long lives is make more trees. Unlike humans who make more humans, trees scatter their children everywhere. The wind shakes their branches and more trees happen thousands of feet away. A bird plays in their branches and then flies miles away and more trees happen there, too. And then those trees that happen from that first tree live long lives, shelter and feed animals, hold the earth together, and then also make more trees happen.
Le Guin was like a tree. When I first saw her at a reading in the crammed back room of a bookstore, I didn’t just see a woman there, nor did my companions.
“She’s like an ancient tree” one of my friends whispered. “It’s like a tree lived for a thousand years and decided to walk around and write and tell us stuff.”
My friend was right. And also wrong, because she was a human. But actually what’s the difference? Because trees and humans aren’t so different, and the truth of the matter is not for science and logic to decide but for art.
“I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie.”
Le Guin was a grandmother tree and not a grandmother tree. Or maybe great-grandmother tree and not great-grandmother tree, because who knows yet how many generations of other trees happened because of her? So many ideas happened because she happened, so many worlds.
Many of the tributes to her will be about how she inspired the fiction of many others (ahem–wizard school, a matter she herself shrugged off and laughed about, because ideas didn’t belong to people anymore than trees belonged to their grandmothers who themselves were grandchildren).
But what shouldn’t be under-stated is how much she inspired those of us who learned fiction could tell the truth, and truth could be completely fiction, and the difference didn’t matter nearly as much as people like to think.
For a long time as a writer she fought the demands of literary critics and the publishing industry to define her books according to a marketing category. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Why were both different from fiction in general? They were all beautiful lies telling the truth; some had imaginary dragons, some had imaginary people, but it was all imaginary.
And of course if it was all imaginary, yet we also found truth in it, then what does imaginary actually mean? And who decides?
Well–we decide. That was always her point anyway, wasn’t it? That was her point about capitalism as well (because she was as anti-capitalist as they get, though you might not always notice from the big-name tributes). And about anarchism (yeah, she was one of those too). And really her point about love, and gender, and everything.
We decide. We make the world. But sometimes people get in the way, particularly greedy people who profit off others’ suffering. And so we have to stop them, but without imagining that stopping them will make every problem go away:
There would not be slums like this, if the Revolution prevailed. But there would be misery. There would always be misery, waste, cruelty. She had never pretended to be changing the human condition, to be Mama taking tragedy away from the children so they won’t hurt themselves. Anything but. So long as people were free to choose, if they chose to drink flybane and live in sewers, it was their business. Just so long as it wasn’t the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people.
Le Guin never coddled us as she led us through the worlds she created, never tried to make the paths through forests clean of debris. The truth was beautiful and messy, beautiful because it was messy, messy because it was beautiful. The Dispossessed, more than any other work, made sure we knew just what liberation looks like, as did her short story about the founder of the world that book speaks of:
“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”
Most of the best quotes are from that short story, most of these quotes are, too. And here’s where I start to cry while I type. Because sometimes a thought would come into my head: there will be a day without Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a funny thought to have, one I’d have quite often. And it turns out I am not the only one, either–so many of my friends have said the same thing.
It’s because of that story. But also because grandmother trees will not always be around, even if the forest that rose up around them continues to grow. I’m part of that forest, and so are you. So is this site and publisher, so are quite a few others.
And it’s that story (gods I’m crying) that maybe made us think about how one day she would go in another direction. But also we would still be around, and that would mean something and so would her passing.
That story, The Day Before The Revolution, tells the last day of the woman who changed a world. And of course Le Guin changed a world already, but maybe is about to change it even more. How she already changed it will take thousands of tributes (and again, read them all). How she is maybe about to change the world even more, well–I think we will see very soon.
She was and wasn’t a grandmother tree. She wasn’t Odo, the mother of the revolution, but maybe she also was. Because revolutions don’t only spread like wildfire, they spread like forests and especially trees. An old tree puts out many seeds that become saplings that become trees of their own. And then those trees put out more seeds, more saplings, more trees, and next thing you know the world is a forest again.
“Tomorrow? Oh, I won’t be here tomorrow,” she said brusquely. Whoever had asked her smiled, another one laughed, though Amai glanced round at her with a puzzled look. They went on talking and shouting. The Revolution. What on earth had made her say that? What a thing to say on the eve of the Revolution, even if it was true.”
If you’ve never read Ursula K. Le Guin, here’s a short list of recommendations on where to start.
Changing Planes: a really accessible collection of short stories about other worlds all threaded together. Some of them will make you cry.
The Wizard of Earthsea: the first of her Earthsea books, a gorgeous story that doubles as an ethics manual for magic.
The Birthday of the World: Another collection of short stories. Again, some will make you cry.
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, The Day Before The Revolution, and The Dispossessed: these three pieces (the first two are short stories, the last is a novel) outline maybe the best theory of anarchism ever written.
Gifts/Voices/Powers (“Annals of the Western Shore”): three ‘young adult’ novels that I really wish had been around when I was a teenager.
The Left Hand of Darkness: one of the many novels that takes place in her “Hainish Cycle.” Explores what would happen if sex was only something you did, never something you were.