Editorial: The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Five months ago, we published a piece called, “Confronting the New Right,” an information page designed to supplement an essay about a Fascist candidate for elected office in Florida, Augustus Sol Invictus.

It caused a bit of controversy.

Though the article about Invictus was viewed only about 1000 times, the information page eclipsed that article by a factor of ten. “Confronting The New Right” was viewed 10,000 times, becoming the third most accessed essay on Gods&Radicals (behind Sean Donahue’s excellent essay, “The Neurobiology of Re/enchantment” and my review of Alex Mar’s book, Witches of America.)

Neither its extreme popularity or the controversy surrounding “Confronting the New Right” surprised me. What did take me aback, however, was the reaction some ‘leaders’ had to the piece, some of whom I’d worked closely with as the co-founder and co-organiser of the first Many Gods West.  Pagan and Polytheist figures who’d otherwise presented themselves as bulwarks against racism and fascist entryism became very quick to denounce Gods&Radicals and the page about the New Right. Some even joined in on personal attacks and physical threats against myself and other Gods&Radicals writers

While a few of these figures do hold racist, nationalist, or fascist views, none openly disagreed with the general thrust of my argument. Only a few suggested that the New Right shouldn’t be worried about, or that fascism was a non-existent threat. Rather, their primary arguments were on the matter of authority.

Respect Your Elders….

I provided four suggestions for those concerned with the New Right. The two involving spiritual leaders attracted the most rancor:

  • Demand clear stances from leaders: If a leader of any Pagan tradition seems to equivocate on questions of race, identity, or politics, or if they seem to have odd associations with New Right figures, ask them to clarify their stance, especially if they are ‘your’ leader.  Just because they are older or more experienced doesn’t mean they are beyond question; in fact, claiming ‘authority’ as an ‘elder’ or ‘priest’ leads to all manner of abuses, including spiritual abuse.
  • Challenge divine proclamations: While it’s certainly possible that a god may have told someone to do something awful, that’s hardly an excuse to do something awful.  The sacred has long been used by violent people to justify violence, by hateful people to justify hatred, and by authoritarian people to justify authoritarianism.  Just because someone is a ‘professional’ priest or diviner or witch doesn’t mean that their statements about the gods are true. Especially question commands that might grant the giver of the message power over you, or lead you to see a group of people as ‘an enemy.’

I presented both of these suggestions to help address a problem I’d noted in many Pagan-related groups. Many leaders seemed to equivocate on matters related to inclusion of minorities, or declined to criticize other groups who held racist, trans-exclusionist, or homophobic views. Asking leaders for clear stances seemed a common-sense approach to this problem–after all, if they’re ‘our’ leaders, they should be clear.

A common complaint to this suggestion was that I was attempting to ‘politicize’ Pagan groups. In such a view, though, being inclusive is political, while excluding people is not. Many of those who held such a view fell back upon their own perceived roles as priests to the gods, founders of traditions, or bearers of special knowledge. Suggesting that readers use their own discernment on such matters, rather than default to divine proclamations, challenged this strategy.

One essay by a Pagan leader became typical of the panic these two suggestions caused.  In his essay, A Wind That Tastes of Ashes, John Michael Greer accused me of demogoguery, warning:

…he urges them to challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders, and to break down boundaries between different traditions. If you’re a demagogue out to bully and bluster your way to unearned power, the respect others give to community leaders and elders is a major obstacle. The tendency of different groups within the community to look to their leaders and elders, rather than to you, is another. Breaking down these particular obstacles is also, by the way, standard Marxist strategy, which suggests where Wildermuth may have gotten his grasp of the demagogue’s trade.

I am, of course, a Marxist. And an Anarchist, a Feminist, a Pagan, and a Polytheist. And I did indeed suggest we challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders. But why, precisely? Because I was seeking unearned power? Or as he and others suggested elsewhere, I am a Marxist entryist looking to sabotage already-existing groups rather than build my own?

No.  Rather, it was because of stuff like the Asatru Folk Assembly’s announcement on the 21st of August:

AFA

The Asatru Folk Assembly, founded by Stephen McNallen and supported heavily by many people within the New (and old) Right, is not the only Pagan-aligned group to hold such views. But what I have long found worrisome is that such groups have rarely been so clear about their positions, nor are they often challenged by others.

For instance, Steve Abell, the former steersman of the Troth (the largest Heathen organisation in the world), refused to take strong stances against AFA’s rhetoric. Abell once even wrote an essay lauding Stephen McNallen’s civility while suggesting that a staunch anti-racist, Ryan Smith, was attempting to revive the “Inquisition” by confronting AFA’s racism.

Steve Abell was hardly the only leader to have painted the sort of white nationalist rhetoric that AFA uses as civil while insisting those who confront it are initiating “witchhunts.” More interesting, though, several AFA members led the charge against Gods&Radicals on this very point (many of the comments in Greer’s essay  and several blog posts shared by other critics are from one such member), framing the controversy around Confronting the New Right not as one of racism versus inclusion but rather innocent victims defending themselves from angry radicals.

Such a switch starts to sound like obfuscation, an attempt to silence critics who challenge the power of white (often male) leaders and elders who have long either ignored the political implications of their views, or actively attempted to hide them (as AFA often did).

But We’re Not Political…

Religious claims have political implications, especially those arguing for exclusion or strict hierarchy. Consider AFA’s claim that gender is ‘a gift from the holy powers and our ancestors,’ rather than a social construct. Something coming from ‘the holy powers’ (gods) is no different from claiming it to be ‘divinely ordained,’ just as some polytheists claim authority and hierarchy to be.

If the gods declared it, then any person faithful to the gods must accept this, lest they go against their will.

In such a view, the divine order (gender and sexual orientation, in the case of the AFA, or authority and hierarchy, in the case of some polytheists) is apolitical; any attempt to alter it is a politicization of something that should instead be sacred. Thus, on one hand there is the will of the gods, and against it stands radicals, ‘cultural marxists,’ or demagogues.

But who declares what is sacred? Who tells us what the will of the gods is?

Why, of course, the priests. The elders. The leaders. People who have a vested interest in hierarchy and a respect for authority, because they are at the top of it.

We are told merely to trust that devoted priests of the gods, founders or leaders of spiritual traditions, and elders who have accumulated years of influence have a better grasp of what the gods want than we do. Their experience, their ‘professional’ roles, their expertise should unquestioningly give more weight to their words than those of others, especially when the question arises as to what the gods will for humans.

There are some leaders I trust, some elders whose words I heed much sooner than others, some priests whose insights into the divine has proven repeatedly to be sound. But the trust I grant them comes not from their position as leader, or elder, or priest, but from my own experience with them.

Also, they each have something in common: they never pull rank.  Rather than relying upon a divine order of hierarchy or a sense of innate authority, they speak as fellow humans, themselves sharply aware of the possibility they might be wrong.

None demand I listen to them. None suggest they possess special powers or specific expertise that others cannot possess. None demand I follow them, nor are they surrounded by people who believe them to be any different from themselves.

Whether those who would claim the ability to speak on behalf of the gods (yet rely upon claims of divinely-ordained hierarchies and authority) are just deluded or seeking more power is impossible to know. Does the current AFA Alsherjargothi, Matt Flavel, really have the ability to know what the ‘holy powers’ have ordained regarding gender and sex?

We can’t answer this, and it’s maybe not even the right question.  Instead, we should be asking why anyone would accept such a claim, and why other Pagans and Polytheists–themselves leaders–insist that questioning authority and hierarchy is equivalent to a witch hunt.

The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Witches, of course, were not people in power. They were not leaders, large land holders or rich aristocrats. They were not bishops and priests, leaders of churches or even their community.

Instead, they were women, often those who did not conform to ‘divinely ordained’ standards of gender expression and sexual activity. The charges against them included dressing like men, having sex with other women and with the devil. They were often accused of undermining the authority of rulers, going against the strictures God ordained and priests declared. They refused the authority of man in favor of their own wills and desires.

They were disobedient, unruly and unruled. Just as the heretics the Catholic Church hunted claimed their own ability to hear God was equal to that of the priests, witches refused to settle for the divine order dictated to them.

Witch pullIt is not–and never has been–the leaderless, the self-ruled, and the self-possessed who hunted down innocents because they disagreed with their opinions. There is a reason history is not full of stories of racists or white nationalists finding burning crosses in their yards or being lynched. Likewise,  we do not hear of homophobes dragged behind trucks for miles, or burned alive, or slaughtered en-masse at a night club.

There has been no great ‘witch-hunt’ against fascist and authoritarian Polytheists by leftist neopagans. No leaders were strung up by the readers of Gods&Radicals, violently purged and shoved into ghettos or camps.

But some leaders have been challenged, and that’s what they fear most.

Those who claim that I or any other critic of authoritarian or New Right Paganism are attempting to initiate a witch-hunt know full well they have no such thing to fear. What they do have to lose, though, is their influence and power.

If I suggest you might be able to speak to the gods yourself, or if I and others (as in the recent My Polytheism series) assert you might be able to craft your own relationship with the divine rather than relying on self-proclaimed priests, then self-appointed leaders will have to find other ways of gaining our respect.

If people start questioning artificial ideas of hierarchy or divinely-ordained authority, leaders will have to earn our respect the way the rest of us do, step down from their pedestals and thrones and learn alongside us. They’ll have to find their own power and their own place within our varied traditions, and do the real work of building community, rather than authoritarian structures based on hierarchy.

In such a Paganism, statements about ‘the holy powers’ ordaining gender and sexuality will be seen as what they are–political opinions of racist, sexist, and anti-gay leaders who have too long hidden their ideas behind authority and the gods, expecting the faithful to fall in line.

I’m proud to help build such a Paganism.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd manyis the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals.

Weekly Update: 21 August

Consider yourself a polytheist but becoming increasingly alienated from the authoritarian push of some self-appointed leaders? There’s a new series of writing from folks who will inspire you.  “My Polytheism” began a few weeks ago, and there’s been quite a lot of diverse writing already which the site is compiling.   From the intro page:

This is the common ground our communities need to be built around. Not same-ness. Not dogma. Not gate-keeping. Hospitality.

Gods&Radicals co-founder Alley Valkyrie and treasurer Syren Nagakyrie have also contributed (Note–Gods&Radicals isn’t affiliated with this, but thinks it’s awesome!!!).

And speaking of Polytheism, here are the notes for Ryan Smith’s presentation at Many Gods West on the ‘Future of Polytheism.’

Look later this week for an editorial from Rhyd Wildermuth on these subjects.

We mentioned the struggle to stop the pipeline on First Nations land last week. As of this posting, it’s been paused, but the State of North Dakota has issued a State of Emergency to get more police to stop the protests. And the Standing Rock Sioux are appealing to the United Nations.

The police in Rio are still killing poor people on behalf of the Olympic games.

The failed coup in Turkey last month is now being partially blamed on the leftist Kurdish rebels by Turkey’s president. Many of the Kurdish rebel factions are anarchist, feminist, and also support the revival of traditional religions in the region.

This week

We’ll have a reprint of Feminist & Marxist theorist Silvia Federici’s essay for A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are, as well as essays from Sable Aradia, a guest essay from Ruth Morang, an editorial from Rhyd Wildermuth, and another poem from Hunter Hall!

oil god

 

 

 

The Forest That Will Be

The Gates again open, the skies darken, the rain soaks through stone and skin.

The rain poured through my skin. As I stood upon the pavement outside the tavern, soaked in the chill night, smoking a cigarette, the Gates opened around me.

Straddling the ford, wet up to the laces of my boots, water rushing past my feet along the river-bed: someone is laughing at me. Eddies swirl in the torrent unable to clear the leaf-clogged drains, and someone is laughing at me.

“Look at this guy,” he says, and his companions titter and jeer. “You’re being scary, dude. Is that your costume?”

It was Halloween, after all, though I hadn’t dressed up. I wore what I usually wear, thrift-store camouflage trousers, a printed shirt from my friend Alley, a maroon-and-blue flannel shirt. No more a disguise than any clothing is.

One of his companions, a gentrifying ‘woo-girl’ (anthropological note: they literally shout ‘woo’ and gentrify everything they touch), sneers at me. She turns to her friend and says, drunkenly:

“Oh my god he’s totally on drugs or something.”

Then she turns back toward me. “You think you’re being creepy standing in the rain like that?”

I shake my head. I cannot tell her about the forest we’re standing in, the elk crashing through the bramble, the endless dripping of the last-to-fall Maple leaves down upon our heads. I cannot tell her about the river in which I stand.

I smile. “Welcome to Seattle,” I say, laughing. “It rains here.”

“We’re from California,” her friend says. I’m disappointed he’s such a jerk — he’s kinda attractive. “This weather’s stupid.”

I’m standing in a river. I’m standing in the road, just off the curb. A car passes; I’m surprised to see an auto in the river, the river in front of the gay bar, the gay bar on a night the gates of the dead were thrown wide open, the gates of the sky unhinged as rain soaks everything.

I am in the forest. I am in the city.

Tip some out to the dead, to The Dead who linger forever just behind your eyes, walking alongside your step through puddles and streams over concrete.

 

Tip some to the dead and notice you’re not where you were.

Everyone’s bumping into you, pushing against you, surprised for a moment you’re there, startled they had gotten so close.

 

They’re drunk, you tell yourself, but not just on vine and grain.

It made no sense to try to tell most people what I was doing for Halloween, so I shrugged when asked. I didn’t know myself, really, though I knew I’d walk with the dead.

With grave dirt and an elk tooth and crow feathers in my pocket, I biked to a bar after a shift at my part-time social work job. It was storming, rare for Seattle where the weather is, for 6 months, at least, a steady, relentless drip of rain, not a downpour. It had been dry, the earth too compacted to soak up all that water, so streets were flooded, blocked drains overflowed. For that night, at least, the streams and rivers of the Forest-That-Was could run again, un-culverted, upon the surface of the city built over them.

In many urban fantasy novels, there’s a spectral, magical city overlain upon the disenchanted mundane. Those writers know a thing or two about magic and a thing or two about cities. But Seattle’s not old enough to have a ghost-twin that looks like it, only stranger. Rather, what haunts Seattle in the Other is the Forest-That-Was, the dead forest, the waiting forest.

Forest dead pullThe dead are not always what has gone before, but also what could have been, what maybe will be. The forest-that-was haunts Seattle, but so too does a second forest; its roots slowly lifting the broken concrete of sidewalks. Plantain, horsetails and chamomile find purchase in the crevices, moss and lichen cover unattended stone. Ferns grow in gutters; aerial moss suspend from uneven brick.

Both the Forest-That-Was and the Forest-That-Will-Be are the same, and they both haunt the city. They co-exist; they merge in the frontage garden, the untended lawn, the volunteer tree. They dance; they collide; they collude in endless war against small-business owners, property developers and civil engineers.

One of my favorite writers, Octavia Butler, was said to be a casualty in this war. Newspapers reporting her death blamed a root-broken sidewalk for a fall that triggered a stroke. But this was propaganda. Later, it came out she had the stroke first and then fell, returning to the forest that seemed to inspire her. Seattle’s mayor was unpopular with the propertied classes for leaving sidewalks broken, potholes unfilled –Butler’s death was used against him.

Propaganda works like that, though. The first story is the one most remember: The forest killed a famous elderly Black fantasist. Perhaps the propagandists will do the same for Ursula K. Le Guin when she leaves us, perhaps they’ll do the same for me. Don’t believe their lies.

You weren’t from the forest, and now you are, the dark wet places, rain dripping from leaf, mud and rot slicking the paths beneath your feet, your exposed roots.

What are you doing walking when you can stand still, soak deep into the earth, reach like great pillars towards the sky?

The tension between civilisation and nature is a bit obscured in Seattle. From my second-story balcony I’d see more trees than houses, Crow and Scrubjay, Racoon and Opossum eat the peanuts I leave for them just within arm’s reach, and it’s easy to forget I’m in a city at all. I’ve tolerated Seattle most of the last 16 years because of this. Gods know I can’t afford to live here, nor afford many of the things that make a city appealing to an artistic queer.

I’m the ‘degenerate’ sort against which Republicans and New-Right anti-civilisationists often complain, lifting a tired screed from the Nazis. “People like me” move to cities because we honestly like people; we like art; we like culture — all those things you can’t find in the suburbs or the rural. I live happiest when I’m among dreams and the people they inhabit.

But I’m also a Druid, a Pagan, an animist. Without raw, breathing Nature, I become parched and eventually wither. The ocean of concrete in strip malls, parking lots and massive highways that comprise the main architectural feature of suburbs, for instance? Those feel like murder.

Seattle is unlike most other large American cities in that the forest was never fully obliterated. Though almost every ancient cedar, spruce, red alder and pine was killed to rebuild San Francisco after the fires or to fuel the furnaces of capitalist expansion, or to clear the way for internal migrants from other parts of the United States. Seattle is still a forest.

Though even manufacturing, then war-contracting (Boeing), then an onslaught of businesses completely reliant on near-slave labor and global coal-use (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have joined the war against the forest here, none have ever conquered the forest.

You weren’t from the forest and now you are, the forest that was before, the ghost-trees and spectral ferns, Elk crashing through bramble, startled by a voice still echoing from the past.

You weren’t from the forest but now you will be, awaiting its birth through broken sidewalk and disused alley, hearing it growing through what will soon be your corpse.

You weren’t from the forest, but now you can’t return here. Wet pavement is river, and you wade through it, unseeing the cars unseeing you.

Pagans make much of the environment, as least romantically. We like the forests and the streams, we idealise the pre-industrial world, worship land-goddesses, divine with symbols from nature. Yet most live in cities or suburbs, drive cars, use computers, work in flourescent-lit offices or stores or restaurants. We like the idea of the forest, but live apart from it, in the urban and suburban–in civilisation.

Civilisation seems to stand against the forest, in the same way that the forest seems to stand against the city. In many critiques of civilisation, the city is the cause of the destruction of the natural world. Some anti-civilisationists, merging the bourgeois anthropology of David Abrams with the misanthropic primitivism of Deep Green Resistance, link almost all the problems of humanity to the birth of cities.

Forest Civilisation pullOn the surface, this appears plausible. As people transitioned to agriculture and settled in one place, the fabric of human society changed. Work was divided, roles ensconced in tradition. Some say the Patriarchy arose first from the urban, men doing one sort of work, women doing another.

Abundance and settlement created surpluses, more than what people could carry with them. Surpluses meant less work, surpluses meant wealth. Surpluses could be stolen; surpluses could be hoarded; surpluses could be extracted. Some say this birthed hierarchy and class.

Gods and ancestors were worshiped in place, not in people. Shrines arose as did temples. Those who tended gods became priests rather than shamans, another division of labor in a settled civility, a class with purpose and power and economic interests. Some say that debt sprung from the need of priests (also skilled scribes) to track donations and the cost of temple labor.

Agriculture, dense living, the need to protect surplus–these, some say, led to population explosions. More people require more resources, need military classes (and conflicts stemming from that need), and need to destroy their environment to extract more resources.

If we extrapolate from what we know now of cities, this story is unassailable. The city seems an illness, a plague, the root of evil, the root of hatred.

This story’s eerily too easy, though.

The city’s unreal, the forest gates unhinged, and you walk always along the edge, in both worlds and neither.

You are emissary.

You are saboteur.

Is the city then some den of horror, the abode of voracious monsters? Or is it just full of people? I like people. No, I love them, gods-dammit, even when they jeer me in the rain.

People cluster together. We need each other. We want each other. We love each other. We build off each other, create with each other. What would we do otherwise?

Forest individual pullRugged individualism is a Capitalist lie and will get you killed. Families are great, unless you were born to a developmentally-disabled schizophrenic mother and a violent father as I was. Tribalism is great, if you are in charge and get to choose who is in and who is out. Small villages are fine, if there’s at least one person there who you can fall in love with. Degenerates like me don’t fare so well in any of those alternatives.

If groups like Deep Green Resistance are correct, the only solution is to destroy the city and all who survive by community, rather than force.  And beside, cities are full of queers, trans people, immigrants, Jews, bohemians, libertines — independent folk who threaten those who need small worlds in which to rule.

But the city is undoubtedly sick. The destruction of the environment caused by the urban is undeniable, yet too often denied, even by us ‘degenerates.’ The ‘urban professional’ of today, working at a tech company, progressive of politics, in love with nature? Their organic and free-range foods are produced by immigrants working in near-slave (and sometimes full-slave) conditions. It takes a lot of forest to make toilet paper, a lot of coal to make electricity, a lot of oil to transport food from the farms to the city.

Both the prophets of progress and the prophets of anti-civilisation evoke the pre-historic past. It’s either nasty, brutish, and short for the one or Edenic for the other, but both groups are either awfully bad at history or betting that, because no records remain to challenge them, we’ll accept their stories without question.

Few dare mention the shorter history, a few hundred years ago. Something arose which turned the endless dance of forest and city into slaughter of one and misery of the other. A great forgetting, an archonic trick, the Demiurge’s conquest of Sophia.

Something changed in the world several hundred years ago, something so disastrous, that, like the Holocaust or the nuclear bombings of several Japanese cities, we seem incapable of approaching without shutting down or relying on Nationalist rhetoric.

The world was not always like this. The cities once could never win over the forest. And that wasn’t so long ago.

You are how the forest becomes the city you’ll betray.

You are unborn dreaming remembering the past.

You are the endless taking root in the now.

Historian Peter Linebaugh, who has written much about the intersections of 1800’s Paganism and anti-Capitalism, suggested that, because the Commons were destroyed by the Cities, the Cities must now become the Commons.

We must say the same thing of the Forests.

This must then be our rallying cry, those who have become ‘from the forest’ but refuse to accept the notion of mass urban slaughter, like Deep Green Resistance does. In fact, most anti-civilisation rhetoric has become a way of running from the true war, betraying the forest, just as the cult of progress huddles, slump-backed, over backlit screens in self-arousal and vain hope.

The forest-that-was still lives, if you bother to look through the gates on a rainy night in the city. You can be standing, soaked, in front of a gay bar and see the rivers we try to forget. You can even, like I do, chuckle when those who will never see it jeer you.

The forest-that-was lives in the forest-that-will-be, which are both a waiting now, Walter Benjamin’s jetzt-zeit, the pregnant moment, the moment we hold in our hands.

Forest root pullThe forest-that-was is also the forest-that-will-be, but only if we let it root through us. It is we who are the mages, the witches, the priests and bards. We are the rogues spreading seeds on the pristine lawns, the saboteurs helping trees lift concrete with their strong roots.

We were from the city. We are now from the forest. And only with our hands can the war finally end and the dance begin anew. The Cities destroy the Forests. The Cities must now become the Forests, so that our lives may once again, in the end, nourish the roots of past and future, making the eternal now.

 


This essay also appears in A Kindness of Ravens,
and was originally posted at The Wild Hunt.

Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_7ce39a05-4d20-417c-949f-634924804809

Is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals, and also writes at Paganarch.

 

Gardens From Ruins

In her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin describes a near perfect society built on happiness and equality. Everyone is well fed, there are no soldiers in the streets, no secret police, no bombs. Technology advanced to the point that only what was non-destructive, what was useful, abounded. Public transit, sexual freedom, an end to barbaric wars over religion, even an end to rule by the powerful and the rich:

…there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians.

Omelas should be recognizable by any in the Capitalist, Democratic West. This land of peace and happiness, of wealth and security, this utopia of enlightenment, of progress–it’s the dream of Liberal Democracy.

And like Liberal Democracy, it has a dark secret:

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room….

In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.

…The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes…

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Like those in Omelas, we in Liberal Democratic societies depend upon a miserable child in a basement. Miserable children, actually–many of them, human and non-human, literal and metaphoric.  Many of these ‘children’ have been discussed in previous essays in this series, but let’s open the door to that basement and look in again.

Rights

The rights and benefits guaranteed by Liberal Democratic governments have never really been extended to all, even within their own borders. In the United States, access to property and other wealth, freedom of movement and speech, the right to bear arms or to due process has always been, first and foremost, reserved for the dominant (white) majority. For Blacks, for First Nations, and for other non-dominant peoples within America, the Progress of Liberal Democracy has never been Progress at all.

Wealth

The wealth enjoyed by the dominant classes actually comes at the expense of those minorities who were dominated as part of the process Marx called primitive accumulation. People from the continent of Africa were hauled over in chains to serve as (enslaved) labour for European Capitalists. Much of the wealth these slaves produced for their owners created the Capitalist class in the first place.

Slavery wasn’t the only way they got their wealth, though–the land these Capitalists control was seized violently from First Nations and indigenous people who then, landless, fell into abject poverty and misery. And while the former British colonies bear much of the weight of this guilt, Europe is hardly innocent. In fact, without all this stolen wealth, European societies could never afford the social programs they give to their people.

Peace

Liberal Democracies are violent societies, though the more you resemble the dominant class, the less likely you are to see the violence. Business owners, tech-workers, lawyers, politicians–we don’t read of them being gunned down or beaten up by police for looking suspicious, especially if they’re white. Instead, it’s those with darker skin, be they Arabs and Africans in Europe, aborigines in Australia, or Blacks and First Nations people in the United States and Canada.

Those on the outside of Liberal Democracy suffer even worse fates, as they continue to be part of the process of primitive accumulation. The resources of their land stripped, their attempts at self-determination crushed by superior foreign militaries, their local economies destroyed by brutal trade deals–the rest of the world find themselves not only with fewer rights and less wealth, but no chance to gain them.

Technology

In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History

All the advances of Capitalist societies have another child in the basement we do not like to look at–environmental destruction. The climate is changing rapidly, species are going extinct at frightening rates, and the resources we rely on to have our Enlightened societies are dwindling quickly.

All our technological advances rely on easy and abundant access to petroleum and coal. Our need for energy to power our lives and have our ‘free societies’ not only destroys the environment but causes wars, starvation, and destruction of human lives as well.

walking awayWalking Away From Empire

Liberal Democracy must be called what it actually is: Empire. We in Europe and the Anglophone world sit within the gates of imperial cities; even the poorest and most oppressed amongst us become complicit in the oppression of those outside our walled gardens.

Liberal Democracy is not worth saving. While may of us in ‘the West,’ in so-called civilized Capitalist societies, have enjoyed great wealth, comfort, and apparent freedoms, these have come at great cost to others. We have all seen the child in the basement, starved, imprisoned, treated horribly, beaten.

The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!”

They never answer.

We within Liberal Democracies–whether we benefit most or little–have been too long content with staring at the horror upon which are societies are built and giving no answer. Now, as Liberal Democracy is shattering around us, abandoning its own illusions about equality and sustainability, we must answer.

Le Guin ends her story on a note of hope, though a strange one, an ambiguous one.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.

…They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

In the previous four essays of this series, I discussed the current crisis of Liberal Democracy, and its apparent end. In this essay, which ends the series on Liberal Democracy and also begins a new series, we’ll look at how to walk away from Omelas, and where we might go next.

While the dissolution of Empire brings with it chaos and the threat of Fascism, while the journey to build new societies may seem daunting, and our histories littered with crushed rebellions and failed revolutions, we shouldn’t fear.

In fact, the crisis of Liberal Democracy we’ve discussed opens much more ground for new ways of being, new modes of existence, and new attempts at resistance and revolution. The States who rule over us are in danger of falling into ruins, and Capitalism is threatened with the mortality that faces every thing that has ever lived. Rather than prop them up, rather than try to save them, we should let them die, compost what remains and garden in those ruins.

“What Should We Do Instead?”

Every anti-capitalist has heard these words, usually uttered by someone quite Liberal, quite concerned about the state of the world. Perhaps the conversation started with a discussion about child labor in Asia, or about the relationship between Capitalist technology and the rising oceans. Maybe it was about the systematic violence against Black people in the United States, about the causes of the refugee crises sweeping Europe. Maybe coal was discussed, or the way laws in Liberal Democracies protect the rich and ensure the rest of us have no choice but to sell our time for wages

At some point, they answer with an exasperated, frustrated question. “What’s your plan?” or “But how will we feed 7 billion people?” or even angry retorts about failed revolutions, or the horrors of State Communism. And sometimes they’ll just throw their hands up in the air, or shrug, and say, “we can’t change this.”

This demand for one perfect solution is actually one of the first problems we’ll need to overcome if we’re to transform our societies into something more equal, more sustainable, less violent and less destructive. There cannot be one solution that can fit 7 billion people.

In fact, it’s precisely the idea that any one solution must apply to everyone that gives Liberal Democracy so much power. As discussed in my first essay, Liberal Democratic societies see themselves as the end-point of history, the final evolution of political forms, as close to utopia as humanity can ever get.  And it;s through this idea that Capitalism and the State remained unquestioned: the only resistance most of us ever engage merely tries to make Liberal Democracy work a little better.

The demand for one, universal solution probably comes from the authoritarian elements of Christian monotheism anyway, which was just as much a form of governance as it was a form of belief.  The same totalitarian urges which arose when distant peoples adapted Christianity to their own culture (say, in Ireland and Wales, or the egalitarian cults in mainland Europe), repeated themselves in the Soviet Republics and today through Liberal Democratic institutions (like the IMF, World Bank, United Nations, European Union, and World Trade Organization).

The ‘one true way’ is a trick of Authority. We must resist this at every turn. No ideology can apply to every situation, no solution can ever be final.

And anyway, there’s an even bigger problem that comes with demanding a perfect answer or a grand program of revolution. We abdicate our own responsibility and our own power, either refusing to act until such a plan comes along or demanding others tell us what to do. The first functions as an excuse never to change, and the second is an invitation to Fascist and other eager Totalitarian leaders.

“But How Will We Still…”

Many of the problems we encounter already have multiple and obvious solutions anyway, but they involve apparently losing something we currently value or think we really need. And thus, any attempt to radically address the problem becomes abandoned or fiercely fought because it will result in a major change to society.

The murder of Black people by police in the United States is a good example of this. The most obvious solution to stop this is to get rid of the police. Police exist within Liberal Democracy as agents of State violence, and getting rid of the police takes away the power of the State to perform that violence.

This solution is almost always met with protest. “We need the police,” most say. “How will we enforce laws? How will we keep criminals from killing innocent people? How will we stop thieves?”

Do we really need police, though? The majority of laws in Liberal Democracies protect property (theft, burglary, shoplifting) and disproportionately punish the poor, while laws against rape, domestic assault, molestation and murder are often not fully enforced against the rich or whites. The police protect that inequality, as well as murdering Blacks, First Nations, and other minorities at shocking rates.  Why keep them around?

Worse, when we insist that the police must exist, we are like those in Omelas, staring at the humiliated and abused child in a basement. We know that the protection of property and the security we get from the police is impossible to have without those murders. But then we try to convince ourselves otherwise, buying in to the utopic dream of Liberal Democracy, assuring ourselves that one day no more poor will be imprisoned, no more Blacks will be murdered. Like evangelical Christians hoping one day for the return of Jesus, we tell ourselves things shall eventually get better, and so the suffering the police cause now is a tolerable sacrifice for our own comfort.

The same is true for solutions to stop global warming and extinction. We know that burning fossil fuels is changing the climate, polluting the air and water and land, melting the ice caps and drowning the villages of indigenous people. The obvious answer is to stop burning them, but then the question is asked, “how will I get to work? How will we transport food and consumer goods? How we power our smartphones and light our homes at night?”

Why would we think the destruction of the environment is less important than the apparent benefits we gain from fossil fuels?  What we (that is, those of us in Liberal Democracies) gain–private, personal transportation, strawberries in winter, cities illuminated at night, mass-produced disposable goods, cheap and abundant electricity, quick global flights, Pokemon Go and internet porn–comes not just at the cost of our environment, but at the cost of everyone else trying to live within it.

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Nature’s Lessons, Nature’s Revolt

There are important questions we ought to ask ourselves in all these cases, though. Because Liberal Democracy has been the dominant form of government for the last two centuries, because Capitalism has been the primary mode of exchange for the last three hundred years, and because the State has become so pervasive and powerful in the last century, we’ve had a long time to forget how to live without certain things, and very little experience on how to come up with new ways of living.

But for that, we fortunately have Nature to teach us.

There are five metaphors from Nature that provide a good framework for a revolutionary strategy. Each of them can unfold for us methods of resistance and teach us how to approach the problems we face as Liberal Democracy collapses. They are ways that nature renews itself, sometimes with human help, sometimes against human effort. Rather than forming a program of revolution, they instead offer a framework for revolutionary action.

They are as follows:

  • FiresWildfires: Forests and grasslands sometimes burn. Dry, desiccated scrub and undergrowth fuel vast conflagrations, setting alight and destroying towering trees that seemed likely to last forever.  Yet soon after, new life takes root, the ashes of the old fertilizing the new. In fact, some plants and trees can only germinate after the extreme heat of forest fires. But oftentimes we stop these fires to protect property. Our radical strategies must keep in mind that things just sometimes need to burn down, that creation is born from destruction, and violent uprisings by oppressed people will be part of any revolution.
  • Ripe,_ripening,_and_green_blackberriesBrambles: In North America, Blackberries are an invasive species and choke out other life. But removing them wholesale from an area can cause even worse damage: since they often take root where the land was already damaged, they provide protection and food for small animals and birds, as well as erosion control. Just as some things need to burn down, our radical strategies must also acknowledge that some problems are deeply rooted, thorny, and uprooting them too quickly can lead to great–and unnecessary–suffering.
  • 800px-Seed_bomb_aka_Seed_ball_(Guerilla_gardening)Seed bombs: A seed bomb (or seed ball) is a form of guerilla gardening. Mixing clay, compost, and a diverse variety of seeds, they are dried and then thrown onto impoverished or wasted land. When it rains, the clay soaks up and holds enough water to let the seeds sprout, and from these balls, land that was forsaken and even poisoned can be revitalized. Individual actions can make a massive difference, and any revolutionary strategy must acknowledge this. It must also acknowledge that for small, local actions to matter, they’ll fail without diversity, intention, and the resources to survive on their own.
  • 800px-2008-06-28_Broken_sidewalkRooted upheaval: In many urban environments in Europe and North America, chamomile and other tiny flowers grow in the cracks and gaps in pavement. Tree roots degrade and destroy concrete and asphalt. None of these plants require human effort to sprout there; in fact, it’s exactly the lack of human intervention which gives them the space to grow. While many environmental movements have seen cities and ‘civilization’ as a thing to be fought, the urban is also a primary site of resistance to Capitalism. Any revolutionary strategy must acknowledge that the poor, the immigrants, and all those seen as enemies of Liberal Democracy have the power to crack, degrade, and finally overthrow the structures which bury them, and this upheaval might not look like what we think it should.
  • NurselogNurse Logs: In the temperate rainforests along the Salish Sea are a phenomenon called Nurse Logs. When a tree falls, many of them hundreds and thousands of years old, it begins to decompose quickly in the relentless rain. Very soon after, mosses, mushrooms, lichens, and other small plants and fungi grow in the rotting wood, followed not long after by the saplings of other trees.  These nurse logs, sometimes hundreds of feet long and many yards in diameter, become the foundation for new life. While much of the infrastructure, the institutions, distribution networks and technologies that we have now were created through Liberal Democracy, some of them can serve as foundations of new ways of being.

In the next essays in this new series, we’ll use these processes from Nature to understand the immediate problems caused by Liberal Democracy’s crisis, and we’ll examine how we might be able to use them to build the sort of world we want to live in. Again, no one strategy will fit, and the worst thing we could possibly do–besides try to save Liberal Democracy–would be to demand one solution to all these symptoms.

It’s time to walk away from Omelas. Staring one last time at the horror upon which our rights, privileges, technologies, wealth, and security is built, it’s time we say ‘enough.’ We may not know what the future will be, or even be certain there’s a better world past the world we know.

But that does not matter. And anyway, humans have walked away from horrible things before, overthrown tyrants, endured famines and plagues and wars, and tried over and over again to create something new.

It’s what we do. If there’s anything truly unique to humans, it’s that we know how to conceive new worlds, to change the conditions of our existence, to dream new ways of being. It’s our magic, our witchcraft.

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

Ursula K. Le Guin


Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_37ba565d-4170-4912-a207-ca5e5f5ddbf9Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.


A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here has a lot more essays, poems, and art like what you see on Gods&Radicals. Order it here.

 

Editorial: Love Against Fear

The world’s gotten kinda awful lately, huh?

The old rules we thought the world was playing by don’t seem to apply any longer. Entire countries are in ruins, sending refugees fleeing into lands full of people paralyzed by fear. Governments attack their own citizens without even attempt to apologize, police gun down Black and First Nations folk without reprecussions.

Entire political orders are changing, old agreements which kept nations from fighting each other shredded to placate xenophobic terror. Senseless attacks on defenseless people in the middle of celebrations or in the middle of sleep, perpetrated by people convinced the deaths of immigrants, or gays, or the disabled would make the world a better place.

Contentious elections bringing to the surface some horrible ideas have us reeling, while those who hold hateful views find themselves emboldened to speak without fear of others’ outrage. Churned up in the sudden free-for-all that’s gripped many societies, statements about race, or gender, or sexuality we thought had finally become artifacts of a less-enlightened past are now resurging with violent force, defended by those we were certain knew better.

Few of our leaders seem willing–or even able–to stem this tide. This shouldn’t surprise us, even as it disheartens us. When talk of angry Blacks or criminal immigrants, of perverted homosexuals or dangerous Muslims becomes the currency of popular fear, leaders are always quick to cash in. Some even sow these fears, eager to harvest the power we give them.

It seems we can no longer avoid what’s happening. Ignore the news and turn off your computer, but you’ll still hear the rumblings of such a storm in the cafes, at your jobs, in the bars or on the street. You can avoid all media and still find yourself finding out another Black man’s been murdered, another terror attack has occurred. It’s written on the faces of strangers, of friends, of neighbours, of lovers.

Beyond all the political events are the increasing storms, the heatwaves, the floods. The environment’s a wreck, and the unthinking machines we rely on can only churn out more carbon, not less. More species extinct, new species threatened, water crises, polluted air, while politicians and corporations argue whether people with darker skin than them are the cause of the world’s problems.

It’s enough to cripple us with fear, enough to paralyse our hearts, send us hiding into more distraction, weaken our resolve, lead us deep into despair.

But we must not fear.

It is fear which causes so much of this horror in the first place, fear of the other, fear of change, fear of uncertainty. Fear for our safety, fear for our security, fear that life might not always be easy, fear that others might make life hard.

When you live in fear, you will see enemies everywhere. You’ll see harm in each voiceless glance, danger in every indifferent stare.

When you live in fear, you’ll see enemies everywhere, and arm yourself against their imagined schemes. Colour of skin becomes the banner of a foe, foreign dress their uniforms of war.

When you live in fear, you become a combatant in a war you yourself declare. You’ll seek victory over imagined slights, summon armies to conquer those you decide have stolen your joy.

When you live in fear, you seek to become the fear of others. Unwilling to be brave, to stare unblinking into the Abyss of the soul, you spread the terror which keeps you awake at night, multiplying the shadows you cast which you refuse to call your own.

When you live in fear, you become fear, a void in the meaning of the world, a ghost of hunger starving out the light of others.

Only courage and love can stop this.

As the world seems to get worse, as more and more events make us question what we know of ourselves and each other, we need to find new ways of being, new ways of relating. When the official politics don’t work, we’ll need to find new ones. When minding our own business no longer keeps us safe, we’ll need to learn how to bridge our isolation. When people we hoped might lead us give in to the hatred and fear, we must learn to be our own leaders. When economies collapse and social systems fail, we’ll need to find new ways to support ourselves and support each other.

For all of this, we will need courage. We’ll need to be bold, unafraid what others might think, no longer worried we might fail. We’ll need to stop apologizing for the world we want to live in, and start building it.

Courage need not mean standing between a gun and a victim, but it might. Courage need not mean standing in the way of harm, but it might. Courage might not mean sitting in front of tanks, but it might. Courage might not mean physically disrupting the plans of the powerful, but it very well may.

Love-like courage–is rarely polite. Though love may sometimes mean gently talking bigotry and fear out of someone, it may also mean directly stopping the damage they do. Love might require only patiently listening to the fears of others, but it can also require strongly standing in the way of the actions their fear causes.

We’ll need both courage and love to steer through these storms, to find ourselves again upon ground where we are equal and safe, liberated and free.

Don’t be afraid.

Be brave.

Be love.


Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_37ba565d-4170-4912-a207-ca5e5f5ddbf9Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.


The first printing of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here has almost sold out!  Order the print–or digital–version here.

Liberal Democracy’s Fascist Shadow

 

In my last three essays, I detailed several aspects of Liberal Democracy and its current crisis. The first described the power-structure and myths which hold Liberal Democracy together, as well as its relation to Capital. The second explained the violence which is the essence of Liberal Democracy, and the way we become complicit in it. And the third essay delved into how the attempts by the non-revolutionary left to make Liberal Democracy more equal actually sustain the violence of the State and make it more powerful.

This essay’s about Liberal Democracy’s shadow: Fascism.

For most, whether conservative or liberal, left or right, Fascism seems like something in the far past, an unfortunate and inexplicable accident in the course of human civilization which was finally defeated. We think of the concentration camps, the mass imprisonment of dissidents and minorities, the bloody wars and mass political rallies…and we shudder, or shake our heads.

How could that have happened? How could it ever happen again?

Rather easily, actually.

The Fascism That Was

In

the early half of the last century, every Liberal Democracy was in a crisis not too different from our own now. Terrorist attacks in the middle of cities by foreign-born radicals–attacks meant to kill industrialists, bankers, and politicians–claimed hundreds of lives. Very wealthy Capitalists stopped investing in new factories and industry in their own countries, holding on to their money or looking abroad for less-risky ways to make a profit. Refugees from wars flooded the cities, pushing down wages for workers who were already struggling to afford necessities. Mass populist movements shut down streets and cities, racial and other minorities demanded more rights and threatened violence if they didn’t get them.

And then an economic collapse happened throughout every Western nation-state. The ‘Great Depression’ in the United States (and the similar collapses elsewhere) displaced millions, creating people so poor that laws about theft and private property no longer really mattered to them. The last great monarchist country in Europe, Russia, had just fallen to a popular revolt, and the ideas of that revolt were inspiring the lower classes elsewhere, while in other countries of Europe, a new popular movement was growing.

Born as a critique of both Liberal Democracy and Marxism, Fascists invoked a deep and mythic Nationalism to transform society and the State. Watching the chaos, strife, insecurity, and economic collapse of their countries, Fascists like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Francisco Franco created popular movements not based on Marxist egalitarianism and internationalism, but on strict hierarchies and national loyalty.

Though very right-wing, Fascism positioned itself as a new center, appealing both to disaffected people on the right and the left. Its Traditionalism and calls for a return to ordered and hierarchical society spoke deeply to conservatives who opposed Marxist and Anarchist movements, as well as their alienation from the ‘degeneracy’ and ‘decadence’ of the cities (where homosexuality, prostitution, occult and non-Christian religions abounded).  Fascism also appealed to many on the left as well, by embracing some socialist policies like minimum wage, 40-hour work weeks, and equal footing for (fascist-led) unions and employers.

The appeal to both the right and the left didn’t end there, though. Both Marxists and Conservatives had become increasingly critical of foreign Capitalists, bankers, and international agreements (like the Treaty of Versailles) which increased immigration, crippled national industries and punished working-class people under the guise of Progress.

Liberal Democracy was the primary target of Fascism. The Weimar government in Germany was a masterpiece of Liberal Democratic ideals yet failed to create prosperity; in Spain, a left-wing coalition (made up of Communists, Socialists, Republicans, and Liberals) called The Popular Front founded a republic based on Liberal Democratic ideals but failed to stop right- and left-wing violence. And most of Mussolini’s manifesto, “The Doctrine of Fascism,” directly attacks the failures of Liberal Democracy to create the world it promised.

The liberal century, after piling up innumerable Gordian Knots, tried to cut them with the sword of the world war. Never has any religion claimed so cruel a sacrifice. Were the Gods of liberalism thirsting for blood?

From “The Doctrine of Fascism,” by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile

Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini each recognised what Liberal Democracy tries to hide about itself: the promises of peace, prosperity, and equality are actually contradictory under Capitalism. Nation-States need to subjugate weaker nations if their citizens are to have access to cheap goods, they must heavily police their lower classes to keep order, and there can be no true equality if Capitalism and the State are to function.

Anarchists and communists had been pointing to the same thing, but rather than abolish both the State and Capital (the anarchist answer) or put all Capital in the hands of a worker-led State (the Communist answer), Fascists argued for a State fully-aware–and unapologetic–of its violent and hierarchical nature.

In a Fascist State, Capitalism would serve the entire Nation: foreign Capitalists would no longer steal wealth from the people, and local Capitalists who served the nations’ goals would be backed up by a powerful State.

To appeal to Conservatives and Traditionalists, Fascism argued for a return to high moral ideals, including loyalty to family, to superiors, to ‘God,’ and to the State. All three Fascist states in Europe officially banned prostitution, homosexuality, and pornography, and initiated new cultural celebrations and programs.  To appeal to the poor and workers, new social programs were instituted, wages were raised and work duties were standardized.

From this new ‘center,’ each of the fascist movements in Europe then manipulated the political goals of Liberal Democratic parties against an enemy both political movements shared: leftists.

Liberal Democracy’s Gambit

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Every Liberal Democracy faced an internal threat from Marxists and critics of Capitalism. The United States headed off a revolt by implementing Nationalist social programs (the “New Deal”) while arresting anarchists and communists en masse, the United Kingdom faced off powerful left-wing unions; leftists managed to control the government in France for a few years before toppled by extremely organized Fascists. In Germany, Italy, and Spain, well organised anarchist and Marxist trade-unions consistently shut down factories, mines, and transportation.

In each of these places, ‘Liberal’ parties (be they Social Democrats, Liberals, or Progressives) found themselves with a decision: side with an increasingly radical left-wing movement and possibly find their countries going communist? Or side with the Capitalists who funded them, even when it meant using State violence to stop worker uprisings?

If Liberals took the side of the workers against the owners, Capitalists would withdraw their support of the State–and they had all the money.

Despite hating the goals of the Fascists, the supporters of Liberal Democracy in Italy and Germany sided with them against the communists and anarchists in order to protect the interests of Capital, even helping to arrest and kill left-wing activists (for instance, Jewish and Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg was tortured and executed by Social Democrats, not by Fascists).

Their choice to side with Capital over the workers drove significant support away from them so that, by the time Mussolini’s blackshirts seized power in Rome and the Nazis swept into power in Berlin, Liberal Democracy had no more allies.

Repeating Forms

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Liberal Democracy tells a story about itself and the progress of humanity that, if we accept it, makes it nearly impossible to understand how Fascism could ever happen again. According to it, Liberal Democracy is the end-point of history, the final evolution of society from primitive and violent to modern and free.

In 1940, while hiding from the Nazis in occupied France, Marxist philosopher and Jewish mystic Walter Benjamin published his Theses on the Philosophy of History to address such a problem:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Benjamin was attacking both the progress narrative of Liberal Democracy and the failure of historical materialism (which made him an enemy of Stalin as well as Hitler).

While Hegel had said that history repeats itself, Marx had expanded this, adding ‘first as tragedy, then as farce.’ But looking at history that way, we can easily miss dangerous events in the present because they don’t appear as precise repetitions.

Rather than looking at history as a cycle full of repeating processes and events, it’s better to see history as full of repeating forms. African slavery, for instance, wasn’t a repetition of Roman slavery, nor was Irish indentured servitude a repetition of either. However, all three were forms of slavery, and from such a view we can then see that slavery is a repeating form throughout history, while still comparing individual instances in their separateness.

Fascism now won’t look the same as any fascism that’s existed. We’d be making a mistake if we looked for the next charismatic fascist leader to be wearing a military uniform like Mussolini. But the forms that birthed fascism can birth it again. So, what are those forms?

A Crisis of Capital

The last time Liberal Democracies faced an existential crisis, there was a World War. Many theorists on both the left and the right resoundingly agree that the war of 1913-1919 was driven by the need of Capitalists to expand their markets. Each State involved faced crises of Capital that couldn’t be resolved through trade negotiations, and thus World War I became an imperialist trade dispute fought with chemical weapons and tanks.

That war meant the end of several empires, the birth of the first Communist State in Russia, and a powerful new enemy of Liberal Democracy, the Fascist.

Capital functions well within Liberal Democracies, because Liberal Democracy offers both a strong state apparatus to keep revolt in check while offering its citizens enough rights to make up for their loss of economic freedom.  But these two tactics can clash when workers begin to demand more economic (that is, material) equality, rather than social equality.

In the early part of the 20th century, many leftist movements arose demanding exactly that. Unsatisfied with the ‘bread and circuses’ approach of Utopian Socialism and unwilling to wait for the messianic promise of better wages, workers threatened the profits of the Capitalists, and Liberal Democracy was forced to reveal its true alliance.

Nationalism as an Antidote to Chaos

The brutality of Fascism in Germany is most harrowing: millions of Jews deported, imprisoned, and then killed, along with Roma, disabled people, the ‘work-shy,’ and many others.  In Italy, the concentration camps started later for Jews and other minorities, and in Spain they were reserved primarily for political dissidents.

The Nazis didn’t come up with racial hatred, though. European peoples had a very long history of targeting Jews, Roma, immigrants, homosexuals and others, and much of this violence was either initiated or later supported by rulers. The reason for this is quite simple: it creates order.

As Silvia Federici has shown in Caliban & The Witch, the scapegoating and violence against women during the birth of Capitalism helped pacify uprisings against the aristocracy and the rulers–so much so that city rulers would often legalize rape and strip women of rights in order to channel the rage of the poor towards an easier target. The outsider status and refusal to integrate of Jews and Roma likewise made them easy targets, facilitated by a moral regime (the Church) which taught such groups were primitive, sinful, evil, and dangerous.

Fascists used the same mechanism in Germany and Italy. Fascism doesn’t require anti-semitism or racism to function, but it made national unity a lot easier in Germany and Italy (Italy didn’t become fully united as a nation until 1871; Germany was born that same year and wasn’t a nation with its current borders until 1918).

Fear of the Foreign

Internal racism was used to create national identity, but so too was the fear of foreign economic and political threats. Anger over the imperialist demands of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I helped inflame nationalist hatred against foreign governments and economic interests. Foreign and international bankers (particularly those of Jewish descent) became favorite scapegoats for the economic and social ills in Germany.

In Italy, Germany, and Spain, the fear was also that of the Bolsheviks, who had recently overthrown the repressive aristocracy in Russia (and, horribly, later replaced it with something just as repressive). The threat of Bolshevik communism had both a xenophobic and anti-Semitic connotation….especially since so many Marxist philosophers were, like Marx himself, Jews.

The fear of international and foreign conspiracies to destabilize society were not conjured out of thin air: Lenin and later Stalin took over the international communist organisations and used their state power to influence radicals in Europe. But Fascists like Mussolini began before the Russian revolution, so their employment of conspiracy theories about foreigners were based instead on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which produced propaganda like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In all cases, the existential threat to ‘the nation’ was an ever-shifting network of enemies who existed both outside–and within–the borders of the nation.

The Moral Decay of Society

All three fascist regimes mentioned share another common trait, one which gets much less mention than many others. All three sought a moral revival of the Nation against the ‘decadent’ and ‘degenerate’ trends found in cosmopolitan areas.

One photograph from the Nazi period, found in almost every history textbook in American schools, has become rather iconic of fascism:

magnus hirschfieldThe photo shows a massive book burning, but rarely do the books that were burned–or the collector of those books–get mentioned.

The image is from the Nazi-ordered destruction of the books contained in the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the research library founded by Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld started the field of sexology, studying and openly embracing homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and many other variant forms of sexual and gender expressions which the Nazis saw as ‘degenerate.’

In Italy and Spain, similar moves to restore society to more conservative morality resulted in the arrests and deaths of academics, artists, homosexuals, queers, and many others.  The political rhetoric which led to this repression focused heavily on the decadence of urban environments, particularly as opposed to the more folkish and morally-upstanding rural and village folk.

Berlin at the time of the Reichstag fire had a 1% church attendance rate, was an enclave of sexual, gender, occult, and social experimentation, and represented for the fascists all that had gone wrong with the Nation. People had become weak, feeble, consumerist, and polluted by the degenerate ideas of the cities. Civilization was in a fallen state, and both Mussolini and Hitler made great use of this ideology, iterated by ‘Traditionalists’ such as Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola and others now known as ‘esoteric fascists.’

 The Crisis Now

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Many Liberal Democracies have adopted extreme austerity measures in the last few years, aiming to decrease their social assistance budgets. In many of these countries, infrastructure like water, rail, and energy have either been privatized or decay in awful states of disrepair.

While many are quick to blame “neoliberalism” or Free Market faiths as the culprit for austerity and crumbling infrastructure, few delve much deeper than this. Why would Liberal Democrat governments abandon their promises and risk public revolt merely for an ideology?

The answer is that they have no choice.

As mentioned in previous essays, it is the Capitalists who primarily fund Liberal Democracies, either through the taxes they pay or through the taxes paid by their workers. If Capitalists don’t profit, they withdraw their support, and even the most progressive and socially-democratic government eventually has to do what they say or go bankrupt.

The wealthiest Capitalists profit either from financial speculation, resource extraction, or by selling consumer goods in wealthy markets that were made by workers in impoverished markets. In all cases, though, the workers in Western Democracies have less access to waged jobs, the only means by which one can legally make a living if you’re not a capitalist.

But if those workers have no jobs, they have no money to purchase products, which means the Capitalists earn no profit.  But likewise, Capitalists won’t hire workers at traditional wages in Liberal Democracies for the same reason–they won’t profit.  Capitalists, therefore, are holding the leaders (and the people they are supposed to represent) hostage, relying on the state to reduce the living standards of their citizens (and back this up with violence) in order to decrease wages.

“Immigrants Stealing Our Jobs”

One of the other ways wages are deflated is immigration, a fact non-Marxist Liberals and Progressives don’t like to talk about much.

Immigrants (and especially refugees) who come from poorer countries are willing to work for lower wages in their new countries (especially if they are without status). But as wages start to decrease and the sorts of jobs non-foreign workers were used to finding disappear, they blame what looks like to them the obvious culprit: the immigrants.

Liberal Democracies know they need more immigrants to keep Capitalism alive.  But as poor workers grow increasingly resentful and the supporters of Liberal Democracy (including social justice advocates) side with Capital, only nationalist political parties seem to offer a ‘true’ analysis of the situation.

Thus, Brexit. Thus, also, the appeal of far-right parties in Europe, like the Front National in France or Golden Dawn in Greece.  Thus, too, the increasing right-wing turn even of the traditional ‘liberal’ Democratic party in the United States, and the hard right-turn of Libertarians and other variants of conservative political parties.

Immigrants are caught in a horrible position. Brought in by Liberal Democracies to undermine the power of left-wing labor movements, leaving (and often fleeing) from countries devastated by trade and military policies coming from the same Liberal Democracies where they now live, they have very few allies.

The Social Justice narrative gives them some leeway, but in order to be fully accepted they must buy in to the rest of the program, including adopting cultural forms they lived their entire lives outside of. For instance, in Germany, a Turkish immigrant declined to shake the hand of his child’s female teacher, an event now repeated ad nauseum in German newspapers as proof that immigrants are anti-women and don’t belong in Europe.

If Liberal Democracy were truly the enlightened end-point of history as it claims to be, then such criticism of immigrants would be logical. But as mentioned in my previous essay, what Liberal Democracy (and particularly Social Justice) celebrates as freedom and enlightenment is hardly universal. A lesbian soldier from the United States now free to kill on behalf of the State could never be seen by the widows or children of the man she killed as a triumph of equality.

Terror in Our Midst

While anti-immigrant sentiment grows within every Liberal Democracy, terrorist attacks become more frequent. France–a stalwart of freedom and tolerance– has seen three such events since 2015, the latest just last week. Even before Daesh had claimed responsibility for this recent slaughter, the French government has already linked the event to Islamic radicalization.

The details are gruesome, the scores of videos taken by witnesses horrible to watch. Anyone who’s ever been in such a street celebration can imagine how awful it must have been, to be walking without care after a firework display and see your lover suddenly hit by a truck, to regard children and old people flying through the air like ragdolls when, just moments ago, they were having fun.

How do you fight such things? According to Liberal Democracy, you suspend civil rights, give police more powers, and attack an unrelated country. Consider the early response from the President of France, François Hollande:

…the president announced a three-month extension of the state of national emergency, which allows police to conduct house raids and searches without a warrant or judicial oversight and gives extra powers to officials to place people under house arrest.

He insisted: “Nothing will make us yield in our will to fight terrorism. We will further strengthen our actions in Iraq and in Syria. We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.” (link)

Passport controls were re-instituted between France and other EU countries (supposedly eliminated by the Schengen treaty), the number of military reservists were doubled, and the State of Emergency, due to expire in just a few days, was extended for another three months. But for political leaders on the far-right, these weren’t enough, and the President was loudly booed by mourners at a memorial service for the victims.

The problem is that Liberal Democracy cannot actually respond effectively to terrorism. It is impossible to keep people from enacting horrific violence, be it in the name of religion, ideology, nationalism, or mental-illness. Taking guns away doesn’t help when airplanes and trucks can be used as bullets and bombs, and there is no amount of police or military that can be everywhere at once.

So the promise of the Liberal Democratic State as the final arbiter of violence and justice is impossible to keep. The State doesn’t have a monopoly of violence, and can only become more repressive to combat potential terrorism. This, then, means that it can no longer claim to guarantee civil rights, either, without constantly invoking states of exceptions or emergency.

The State of Emergency

Fortunately, a man named Carl Schmitt outlined for them a legal justification for such suspensions of rights. His theory was that sovereignty (political power, or the right-to-rule) doesn’t derive just from the social contract that Hobbes outlines, but from the very fact that the government has the ability to suspend the contract at will:

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception

(At this point, I should probably also mention Carl Schmitt was the primary legal theorist for the Nazis.)

As his primary critics at the time (Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt) and a later critic (Georgio Agamben) all noted, Schmitt’s reasoning on the exception has already been adopted by Liberal Democracies. War, internal uprisings, natural disasters and economic crises have all been used by Liberal Democracies to suspend civil rights and guarantees.

This trend has only increased in the last 20 years in response to “Terror.” Endless ‘elevated threat levels,’ extensions of States of Emergency, extrajudicial killings (including drones), and increased repression of left-wing dissidents and minorities have all become not the exception, but the rule of Liberal Democracy.

That is, Liberal Democracy has adopted much of the political program of fascism already…but it’s not enough.

The Resurgence of the Fascist Right

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Hollande’s response to the mass-murder of celebrants in Nice was met with intense criticism from the right and far-right political parties in France–not because it is too harsh, but that it is not harsh enough. Marine le Pen, the leader of the Front National (a racist, Nationalist, and anti-immigrant party with increasing membership in France) called for a declaration of war against Islamist Fundamentalists, the shutting-down of mosques, and the deportation and reversal-of-citizenship for those who hold radical views. Nicholas Sarkozy, the former right-wing president of France, has demanded that Muslim prisoners who’ve finished their sentences must then go to ‘de-radicalization’ centres until they’ve been certified as harmless. And other right-wing leaders are demanding the formation of new police agencies, stricter border controls, and more State power to suspend civil liberties.

All of this, of course, before any Islamist group had been shown linked to the attack.

In the United States, groups of armed men have been forming to protect a presidential candidate from Black Lives Matters protesters, calling them “a terrorist threat.’ A few weeks ago, three Pagan writers (two who have written for this site, a third for A Beautiful Resistance) attended a protest where a neo-fascist threatened the protesters with a loaded gun. And a Fascist Pagan candidate–Augustus Sol Invictus, is running openly for office in Florida.

In Europe, political parties such as PEGIDA, the Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National and Nouvelle Droite in France, and the UKIP in the United Kingdom have increased their anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim campaigns, with their supporters often enacting violence against their targets.

In all cases, their criticisms are near identical to the early Fascists. The State is too weak on criminals, foreigners, degenerates, immigrants, and minorities. Likewise, they all share an intense hatred of Marxist and Anarchist critiques, particularly those regarding equality.

Many (though not all) employ some degree of antisemitism, though some (like the FN in France) have attempted to whitewash their earlier hatred by courting Jews against the Muslims.

Worst of all, they are all much better organized–and better funded–than most leftists groups in their countries. Part of their funding derives from their ability to court Capitalists who have become panicked about their ability to profit, but their superior organisation to leftists has much more to do with Liberal Democracy’s long suppression of anti-capitalists than anything they’ve done themselves.

It’s this last bit which should trouble us most.

When the Nazi party began actively recruiting, they were met with fierce and violent opposition from leftist groups, many of whom were the first to be arrested when the Nazis finally gained power. Similarly, Mussolini’s rise was constantly thwarted by Socialist and anarchist syndicalists in Italy until he made stronger alliances with the Catholic right.  And when Francisco Franco attempted to overthrow the Socialist Republic of Spain, the result was a three-year civil war against an initially united front of anarchists, communists, and Liberal Democrats.

Where would such a resistance come from now? What hope could we possibly have of fighting the new fascists?  To such a question I’m tempted to answer as Walter Benjamin did, quoting Kafka in his journal as he faced the choice of certain death at the hands of the Gestapo, the Stalinists, or his own:

“There is plenty of hope. But none for us.”

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But I won’t end this here.

As I write these final words, I am sitting at a table in an apartment in Berlin, Germany. I’m the guest of an anarchist friend who curates a museum for refugees next to a refugee camp filled with the very same people the Fascists want us to fear.

It’s also Gay Pride week in this city. There are over a hundred gay bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, darkrooms, cultural centers, and sex shops in this city, many of them located in neighborhoods with high Turkish and Muslim populations.

There’s art everywhere, graffiti and wild gardens. Grapevines and trees grow in the cracked pavement where once bombs fell to defeat a regime which saw Berlin as the height of degeneracy. The very way of living the Fascists tried to crush resurged back more fiercely than before.

The other day I walked with a friend through the holocaust memorials in this city (most of the pictures accompanying this piece are from there). One, particularly, has haunted me ever since I saw it.

It’s a large black monolith, flat and polished on all sides, with a small black window on one face.  As you approach, you can see there’s something moving inside, a black&white film of two young men.

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They’re standing in the same spot as the monolith, near the entrance to a massive park.  You can see the same trees, the same massive rocks in the distance.

They’re facing each other. They look around, a little worried they might be watched.

But then their fear fades away, overcome by something more urgent. One whispers in the ear of the other and then they kiss as you watch through the black window, entranced, aware of how what they are doing is still dangerous  despite all the promises of Liberal Democracy to protect them.

There is plenty of hope.

And also for us.

Next: Gardens From Ashes

 

Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_37ba565d-4170-4912-a207-ca5e5f5ddbf9Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.


A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here has a lot more essays, poems, and art like what you see on Gods&Radicals. Order it here.

 

 

 

 

Social Justice…or Revolution?

This is the third essay in a series on the Death of Liberal Democracy

In the previous essay in this series, we looked at Liberal Democracy’s inherent violence through the State and our intimate identification with that violence. The execution of two Black men in the United States this last week unfortunately provide poignant examples of that violence.

Such things aren’t supposed to happen within Liberal Democracies, and yet they do. Worse, as Liberal Democracies begin to fail, violence against the oppressed only increases, as well as the deep divisions over its justifications.

Because our understanding of violence is always subjective, whether or not the State killing of Black men is ‘justified’ depends on whether or not we identify more with the victims of that violence, or with the State (and its values, and its agents). A Capitalist is more likely to defend the State’s actions than will those whom they exploit, because police don’t exist to keep Capitalists (most of them white) in line.

In such events, the veneer of Liberal Democracy cracks and fall off, showing something much darker—and much more violent—underneath. And like any other disillusionment, we experience the apparent short-circuit of the mythic and the real of Liberal Democracy as a kind of trauma, one our minds scramble furiously to repair.

Religion is a good parallel. When we experience a crisis of faith, particularly related to the Divine, we have two options. The first is to stare deeply into the sudden Abyss which has opened up, the chasm between what we believed was true—what we shaped our lives around—and what we now see as true.

But that’s really hard, so many opt for the second option: dig in our heels, insist that what we thought was true still is and cling harder to the external rituals of that belief until the doubts and questions go away.

They don’t, of course. And that trauma re-asserts itself in bizarre behaviour, and can produce both fanaticism and fundamentalism.

Relationships are another place where this happens. When you discover that the love you shared with another is no longer there–that you or the person(s) you loved no longer feel love for each other–you again have two options. You can begin the really difficult and painful process of unraveling your relationship, staring deeply into the Abyss of sorrow, loneliness, and separation.

Or, you can pretend nothing is wrong, try harder, and hope love comes back.

In each case, both choices are very, very human. No forsaken lover can really be blamed for their denial. No true believer can be faulted for their desire to return to a more innocent belief. And none of us should feel shame that we’ve clung so long to the myths of Liberal Democracy, even as we learn how violent and destructive it is.

Unfortunately, denial causes more harm than acceptance. The lover who ‘won’t let go’ sinks deeper into misery and unhappyness, worsening the tensions in the relationship. They can become controlling and abusive, blaming the other for their refusal to love. The believer who refuses to embrace the new truth misses the beauty of a deeper relationship to the Divine and may attack others for their ‘impiety,’ sometimes resorting to violence

But what about those who cling to the myth of Liberal Democracy? Who, though they’ve seen the very violence at its core, refuse to admit it and instead try to ‘fix it?’

We need to have a talk.

Utopian Socialism & Social Justice

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When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they were not the first to criticize Capitalism and the State. They also were not just attacking Capitalism, but a rival ideology which promised more than it could ever deliver: Utopian Socialism.

Utopian Socialists criticized many of the same problems as Communists and Anarchists in the 18th and 19th century. But rather than advocate an overthrow of the State and a seizure of the factories from their owners (‘the means of production’), they thought that Liberal Democratic governments could be reformed through education and enlightenment. With enough time and effort, they reasoned, Capital would become less violent, wealth would become more equitably shared, and class and race divisions would eventually just fade away.

To get to such a point, Utopian Socialists tried to educate the masses on right behaviour. They reasoned that most of the problems of society came from ignorance, and if people only understood how their actions hurt others (including the actions of rulers and Capitalists), humanity would eventually become free and peaceful. In essence, once enough people changed their morals—replacing hate with tolerance, altruism for greed, solidarity for individualism—we would finally become equal.

Marx and Engels disagreed.

The primary argument against Utopian Socialism, from both Anarchists and Communists, was that the State would never relinquish power willingly. More so, the State existed to do the bidding of the Capitalists; without revolt, no amount of incremental change would ever suffice, because Capitalists always exert more power through their wealth.

If Utopian Socialism sounds a little familiar, it should. It never actually went away, but has taken many new names for itself. In the United States, for example, it’s been known as Progressivism. In many European countries, it’s called Democratic Socialism. And in most English-speaking countries in the world now, it’s called Social Justice.

And it’s failed.

The Limits of Social Justice

Like Utopian Socialism, Social Justice attempts to educate the masses on the causes and results of inequality in order to eradicate it. They believe that, once people understand that they are being racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-phobic, trans-phobic, misogynist, privileged, ableist, colonialist, white, classist, xenophobic, nationalist, and elitist, they will eventually stop.

By educating the masses about these things, Social Justice then aims to transform society into something more fair and just. If enough people understand these problems and seek to fix them, they can then transform the institutions (including the State) that benefit from these ills into something that will uphold equality.

There is a problem, of course: for as many people who embrace Social Justice and attempt to adjust their actions, there are more people who answer such complaints with, “no. I’m not.”

More so, those who wish to continue their behavior have all sorts of arguments in their defense. A person who does not want to be around trans people, for instance, may invoke religion (be it Christian Fundamentalism or Dianic Witchcraft), or safety, or the right to choose whom they associate with. An institution that believes same-sex relationships are immoral might likewise invoke ‘religious freedom’ as a defense.

In fact, Social Justice is a double-edged blade. New Right Heathen and polytheist theorists invoke the same arguments used to defend indigenous, First Nations, and other oppressed peoples to defend their own oppressive ideologies. Stephen McNallen and his fellow racists, for instance, insist that their ‘indigenous European culture’ deserves the same protections as others, and thus they should be able to exclude people of non-European descent from their groups.

While this may seem like a mere cynical attempt to hijack Social Justice language, it isn’t. The morality inherent to Social Justice is subjective and not actually part of its framework; people with opposing moral views can easily use the same framework.

There’s a long explanation for this, but here’s the short version: since Social Justice does not directly attack the foundations of inequality (Capitalism and the State), the original goal no longer matters. Once untethered from that goal, it becomes like a religion empty of its gods, or a relationship where love has died.

To understand more how this happened, we need to look more at Social Justice and its relationship to the State and Capital.

Social Justice and the Capitalist State

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Neither Utopian Socialism nor Social Justice rely on education as the sole means of affecting social change. Instead, both attempt to increase the rights recognised and granted by the State in order to increase equality and enshrine a more just morality. Protections for disabled people, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime legislation and social welfare programs are all strategies used to correct inequalities within Liberal Democracy and move towards a more just and equal society.

The problem? This strategy requires a violent and powerful State.

As described in the ‘social contract’ which Hobbes outlines in Leviathan, Liberal Democracies offer rights and protections to their citizens in return for the consent to rule. Those rights are then guaranteed and enforced through State violence, whether through the judicial system or military and police actions.

Unfortunately, using the apparatus of the State (and its violence) to create the sort of equality that the Social Justice framework demands gives more legitimacy to the State. The State then becomes empowered to use its violence (be that direct or indirect) to enact the will of the people in cases of discrimination, punishing individuals and businesses who, for instance, refuse to cater gay weddings, provide accommodations for wheelchair users, or hire Black people.

I use those three examples for a reason, as each involves Capitalism. First, though, let’s be clear:

Each of those scenarios are sites of inequality—no Marxist, Anarchist, or Social Justice advocate would disagree here.

We should also dismantle the Free Market/libertarian argument against such interventions, which asserts government should not interfere with the demands of Capitalism. This argument insists that the Market should decide whether the actions of those businesses are just, rather than the State. For them, The Market serves as a proxy for the divine mandate of the people. They reason that businesses which discriminate against others would fail because of loss of profit, and thus Capitalists would thus be more ‘moral’ out of self-interest.

Besides relying on religious faith in the Market, this argument also ignores the power (including State power) that Capitalists have over those without Capital. Most laws within Liberal Democracy exist to protect property and business, and the police exist to enforce these. That is, the Capitalist already wields State power, and isn’t eager to see this challenged.

Social Justice doesn’t question State power. Instead, when moral arguments regarding tolerance and acceptance fail to correct oppression, Social Justice demands that the State intervene. This State intervention does work, as least for a little while (as in desegregation in the American South, hate-crime laws in most Liberal Democracies, etc.). Unfortunately, by demanding these guarantees of rights (and the punishment of those who violate them), Social Justice empowers the State to enact more violence.

Thus, the police who arrest perpetrators of hate crimes are also police who kill Black men during traffic stops, the same courts which try cases of discrimination also prosecute homeless people for vagrancy. The State becomes more powerful through our reliance on it, and we find ourselves in a tug-of-war over control of State violence. We can’t win, because the State cannot exist without the Capitalists who fund it. As Audre Lorde pointed out:

…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

Capital has its own logic, one that transcends and transforms the values of the individual Capitalist. Capital’s primary demand is profit, and in order to profit, the Capitalist must exploit others. Capitalists must employ others to work for them at wages lower than the amount they sell the results of that labor for. In order to maintain this relationship of economic exploitation, there must also be hierarchy, with the owner(s) at the top and the workers at the bottom.

Hierarchy and exploitation spread throughout all other relations within Capitalist societies. Your boss is never ‘your equal,’ because your boss will always have more Authority (and money!) than you. Further, the boss must be able to maintain inequality in order to profit. As a result, even the most anti-racist and pro-Social Justice Capitalist can find themselves employing State violence to protect their Capital, calling the police when a homeless, Black, or other poor person steals from them.

Expand this use of State violence from the individual small Capitalist to an entire society, and you can see how the interests of Capital oppose the goals of equality espoused by Social Justice.

But without attacking Capital, Social Justice can only rely on the same State as the Capitalist in order to repair the damage Capitalism causes. Welfare, affirmative action, housing assistance, education grants—all these exist to lessen the damage of Capitalism, but none of them ever succeed in create equality precisely because Capitalism always requires inequality to function.

Also, everything the State does (including welfare, etc.) is paid for by taxation. The only way for the State to derive enough taxes to fund these programs is to have a thriving economy, with Capitalists reaping enough profits to bear the burden of taxation. Thus, the State is used both to fix the problems caused by Capitalism while also encouraging more Capitalism, with one hand repairing only some of the damage that it causes with the other hand.

Unfortunately, Social Justice enables this process.

Social Justice has also relied on the support of Capitalists in order to fight inequality. While recognition of gay partnerships and increased access for disabled people by large corporations is certainly a good thing, the ‘victories’ of such support then replace the criticism of the corporations themselves and enable those Capitalists to exploit others without question. Worst of all, it then creates a new dynamic of identity politics which both State and Capital are very good at exploiting.

Identity Politics and the Exploitation of the World

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Father carrying dead daughter after bombing by Liberal Democracies, Iraq 2004
The United States Military recently joined the rest of the ‘civilized world’ (that is, Liberal Democracies) by allowing homosexuals to ‘serve’ openly and women to ‘serve’ in combat. It was hailed as a victory for Social Justice and equality by many gays and Feminists, seen as progress and the victory of tolerance over inequality.

An Arab woman who loses her children and husband to the bullets of an American lesbian soldier probably won’t see this as a victory of equality.

If this sounds harsh, good. We must be harsh in order to cut through the manipulation of our identities by the State.

During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many gay men and feminists called for support of these military actions on behalf of the gays and women in those countries, employing a narrative of Liberal Democracy versus the uncivilized (i.e.; Muslim) world. That same narrative repeats today—calls for stricter policies against immigrants to protect gays and women (especially after the Orlando massacre), relentlessly recycled news stories on the slaughter of gays by Daesh, calls by polytheists for the US military to send more troops to the Iraq to support Yezidis and stop the destruction of ancient sacred sites.

In all those cases, identity becomes a weapon of the Liberal Democratic State to gain consent for more violence, more conquest, more slaughter.

By refusing to attack the State and Capital directly and instead focusing on incremental change, Social Justice fails to challenge the global inequality of Liberal Democracy. As a result, we find ourselves as women fighting for equal pay from corporations which employ near-slave labor of other women, gays celebrating the ‘right’ to become soldiers in imperialist wars and killing other gays, and many other contradictory positions which Liberal Democracy is happy to exploit.

This isn’t to say that multiple inequalities cannot be fought at once. But because Social Justice doesn’t challenge Capital and relies on the State to achieve its goals, it helps the State turn our identity against us and make us complicit in the very exploitation it enacts.

Was this the intention of Social Justice? No. But it is its fatal flaw, and why it cannot liberate any of us.

And for each new right and protection gained by a minority in a Liberal Democracy, we become hostages to the State.

Moralism versus Revolution

CC Gerry Lauzon
CC Gerry Lauzon

The goals of Social Justice are good goals, but they cannot be accomplished without dismantling Liberal Democracy. And therein’s the problem, because if Liberal Democracy falls, the rights, protections, guarantees, and equality gained through Social Justice are directly threatened.

Thus, we cannot challenge its violent core because we rely on that State for our protection, and we fear what may come after.

It’s for this reason so many people in the U.K are terrified of what will come after Brexit, and they should be. It’s for this reason so many people in the United States are terrified of how much more violence there will be against Blacks and other minorities if the State is led by the next likely president.

And in the United States as I write, more Black men have been killed by agents of the State. Protests are arising everywhere, but some of the narrative has finally begun to shift away from the Social Justice framework.

This is a very good sign.

For decades, the primary tactic to address police slaughter of Black people has been to demand better training and education of police, as well as arrest and conviction of the police officers. The hope has been that police needed only more morality and more checks on their power in order not to be so violent.

Such a strategy ignores the role of police as agents of State violence, aiming instead to correct an apparent malfunction of an otherwise necessary machine This strategy has failed, and not because the millions of people who have protested against these deaths and demanded accountability didn’t try.

The system isn’t malfunctioning at all—it’s working precisely as it is supposed to.

Black people are criminalized in the United States not because Americans haven’t adopted the right morality, but because police exist to enforce the will of the State and the Capitalists who support it. The system oppresses Black people because it needs to.

If Black people were ever truly granted full equality under Liberal Democracy, if Racism were ever to fade away, Capitalism would go into crisis. Racial difference keeps the poor fighting each other rather than fighting the wealthy; as long as Blacks are considered dangerous and less worthy of life than whites, the white poor and working class will stay on the side of the white Capitalists and white State.

The same is true for immigrants, particularly in Europe. If European-born workers and immigrant workers were ever to unite, no amount of State violence could ever protect the Capitalist.

Because Social Justice fights only the symptoms of Capitalism, because it attempts to change society through morality and State power, it plays perfectly into the hands of Liberal Democracy. White heterosexual cis-males are definitely privileged by most Liberal Democracies; unfortunately, by attacking their privilege we cannot actually eradicate the source. Privilege doesn’t derive from those, it derives from the State, and the State is more than eager to grant out piecemeal rights and privileges in return for our embrace of the Liberal Democratic State.

As in South Africa under Apartheid, Liberal Democracies are founded upon unequal relations. Whites there enjoyed immense benefits and wealth at the expense of the majority Black population, and even those who believed Apartheid was immoral still feared what might come after. Would the oppressed Blacks rise up and slaughter all the whites? Would the Blacks in turn do the exact same things to whites as was done to them?

Because of the Truth&Reconciliation movement, the feared massacre didn’t happen. But South Africa was not a massive imperial power, exploiting millions outside of its borders, extracting their wealth and bombing their villages to pieces. The same cannot be said of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, or any of the other large Liberal Democracies. If the oppressed people within those countries don’t rise up, there are many more outside waiting to demand justice, too.

In each of these countries, the promise of an eventual equal society has proven false. Equality is impossible under Capitalism, and even as we in those countries try to gain more rights, we help Liberal Democracy destroy the lives of others.

Besides, decades and centuries of struggle to gain equality for minorities are now becoming reversed, and the State is increasing its violence: both abroad with its endless wars in oil-rich nations and within its borders against Blacks and immigrants, dissidents and the poor.

Liberal Democracy is dying, and Social Justice can’t fix it.

Moving On From Social Justice

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For most who cling to the Social Justice framework, I’m not really telling you anything new.

We already knew this. We’ve known this for awhile, but have been in denial. Like noticing that love no longer leaps between ourselves and a partner, we’ve not quite wanted to admit it. Like when we have a crisis of faith, we haven’t been quite certain what to do next.

It’s okay. We’re human.

But it’s time to move on. We need to look into that Abyss waiting for us. Just like clinging too long to a lover who no longer loves us, just like holding too tightly to the forms of a religion long after it becomes false, insisting that Liberal Democracy can be reformed will only cause more damage, more hurt, more sorrow.

Not moving on from the promise of Social Justice is already making us awful. Just like the religious person who tries to rekindle their lost faith by blaming infidels, we can find ourselves crippled by blaming other people’s privilege for our inability to act. And just as the lover in denial may begin to hate the person they once loved, we can find ourselves hating the very people who want to build an equal society with us.

And in both cases, the greatest loss is our own magic, our own power. The faith we once had can be had again, but this time not built on illusion and priests who knew no more about the divine than we do. The love which drove us to want to change the world will not die, but we will find a new way of loving that can last.

We can do this, and we must do it soon. We’re not the only ones noticing Liberal Democracy is dying.

And they’re more prepared than we are.

Next: The Resurgence of the Fascist Right


Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_c8489ee1-3139-487c-92b9-271ba38254daRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 

Rhyd Wildermuth’s essay, “We Are The Rude,” is featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

The State of Violence

In the first essay of this series, I discussed the relationship of several recent events (Brexit, the strikes in France against the Loi Travail, and the massacred of Oaxaca) to Liberal Democracy and what appears to be its impending collapse. This essay will discuss the core of Liberal Democracy: violence.

As a reminder, Liberal Democracy is a specific relationship between Capital and The State, and is currently the dominant form of government in the world. With it comes apparent great benefits, like peace, stability, protections of individual rights, and a general trend towards freedom.

But does it really? If so, why are the largest Liberal Democracies always at war with weaker—and usually non-white—nations? Why are so many unarmed Black people killed on the streets in the United States, why do so many armed police show up to anti-war and anti-capitalist protests? Why do so many Liberal Democracies have standing armies with large military budgets? Why so many prisons? Why so many police?

The answer is both deeply complex and also very simple. But to get there, we need to look at the matter of violence and our own relationship to it.

“Nasty, Brutish, and Short”

Thomas Hobbes famously wrote those lines in his manifesto on State power, “The Leviathan.” According to him, life in a ‘state of nature,’ –that is, outside a strong State– was violent, full of retributive justice and vengeance killings, civil disorder, greed, and chaos. Without strong leaders, people remained in a state of violence, unable to live peaceful lives and strive towards more than just subsistence living.

It was a grand work of propaganda, one which most of us have an awful time unraveling. Because we did not live in the past—and because there’s no one around from those times to interview—we can only ever build an understanding of what life was like back then by imagination, informed by ‘history.’

That ‘history’ is actually the story of civilization, and one that is constantly open to interpretation. The well-known adage that ‘history is written by the victors’ is actually a bit misleading. Most historians were involved in no wars of conquest and subjugation. Rather, they’re individual academics trained to narrate the past. And they disagree, often vehemently, crafting sometimes warring narrations about events and historical processes.

Historians themselves aren’t the victors; they’re just academically-trained storytellers. It’s the State and Capital (particularly through the media) who chooses which narratives to privilege and which narratives to silence.

Certain histories benefit the continuation of a civilisation, other histories threaten its survival. Histories which tell useful stories to the powerful get favored; histories which tell darker tales and remind of the violence perpetrated by the powerful are at best ignored but, more often, actively marginalised and silenced.

An example from the country I know best will help show this. The dominant history of the founding of the United States, taught to every child in every school, is that a group of religious Pilgrims settled on the eastern shores of North America in search of religious freedom. They were fleeing religious persecution, and came to America in home of a better life.

Every American knows this story. Few Americans think much about the pilgrims in question, the Puritan sect of Protestants who smashed statues in European churches, heavily persecuted and attacked Catholics and heretics, and for a little while possessed great power in England. When they were no longer in power, they in turn became the ‘persecuted.’ Many fled first to extremely tolerant Holland before being ejected for being too violent, and took a charter from England to colonize the ‘new world.’

This other part of the story doesn’t get told much. It greatly complicates the founding myth of the United States, and most children might be turned off from such details. And though such details are well known and considered historical consensus, none of the powerful people in the United States have any interest in correcting the public perception.

This same selection occurs for the history of violence and the State, as well. While violence certainly existed before Liberal Democracy, it has not gone away now. States have always been violent, and Liberal Democracy is not different. But Liberal Democracy has perfected a trick that previous forms of government never quite could.

That trick? Violence in your name.

The Leviathan

Hobbe’s Leviathan deserves a little more examination. Examine the frontispiece from the original edition for a moment–The image shows a sovereign giant made up of millions of people, the model for the ‘commonwealth’ and later Liberal Democracy:

frontisLiberal Democracies are generally ‘republics’ or constitutional monarchies. In both cases, the government is given the power to rule on behalf of the people. In such an arrangement, the leaders are elected to act as representatives of the entire public, either directly as in France or the United States, or elected as part of a parliamentary party as in the United Kingdom or Germany.

Whatever the government does, then, is considered to be the ‘will of the people,’ done for them and done on their behalf as if the people themselves have done it. Because the government leaders are elected by the people, the decisions of the government then act with what can only be described as a divine mandate.

Previous governmental forms sought sanction from religious leaders in order to gain this divine mandate. This is why European kings, queens, and emperors were crowned by Popes and Archbishops, and why the state priesthood in the Roman Empire had so much power. Though that mandate now comes from people rather than gods in Liberal Democracy, it still functions the same way.

Likewise, kings and emperors once sought the blessing of religious leaders to justify large military actions. Why? Whether or not the Christian god actually approved of those wars is not something we can know, and actually, it was probably never the point. Instead, leaders needed the approval of ‘god’ in order to win the support of their own people.

It’s hard to convince someone to go die for you, even if you’re offering money. And judging from the tales of my friends in the US military, soldiers are never paid well. To pay soldiers enough to justify the likelihood of death would drain the coffers of any king or government.

Religion can often succeed where direct threat or bribe fails. It’s a lot easier if you’ve got something to tempt them with, be it innumerable virgins in paradise, a full drinking horn in Valhalla, or reduced time in purgatory. And in each of those offers there is also a threat, because once the god/gods have given their blessing on a war through their priests, to not join, to not support or—much worse, to act against the war—is to go against your community and the divine itself.

Liberal Democracy (mostly) dispensed with the need to gain support for violence from what we normally think of as the divine. But it still relies on all the same sort of divine blessing that previous governments required. The ‘divine’ is now the people, the Leviathan itself, with the leaders at the head.

That is, we are the ones who grant legitimacy to State violence, even if we never say yes.

State Monopoly on Violence

I’ve used the word ‘violence’ quite a few times so far without defining it. In fact, we face a problem whenever we try to define violence if we live in Liberal Democracies—we can rarely agree on what actually counts as violence because of the State’s monopoly on it.

By ‘monopoly on violence,’ I mean simply this: the government is the sole legitimate agent of violence within Liberal Democracy. That is, agents of the state (police, military, etc.) are legally empowered to perform violence on behalf of the people, and all acts of violence not by the State are illegitimate (that is, illegal).

If you kill someone, or assault them, or take their property, or raze their house and burn their fields, you have used violence illegally, regardless of your reasons. The victim in this case may have been someone who slaughtered your family and poisoned your water and raped you: regardless of that, you have used violence illegitimately, and if caught will be subject to state violence. Only the State is allowed to do such things within Liberal Democracy.

What sorts of violence the State can use is supposed to be restricted by laws. Those laws, of course, are passed by the government (through representatives elected by people, or in rare cases by referendum), and though States often make appearances to obey these limits on its power, the State—being the only one empowered to enact violence–is always able to make exceptions.

The State, being the only legitimate agent of violence, is empowered within Liberal Democracy to enforce laws and punish those who break them. When the State enacts violence against individuals or groups within the Leviathan, it’s called Justice. Violence outside the Leviathan—that is, against other states and foreign individuals—often also falls into the category of Justice, especially in the last hundred years, despite the fact that laws can only apply within the State which makes them.

Justification for foreign wars doesn’t come from their legality, though—it derives solely from the assumed consent of the people, the ‘divine mandate.’ The State has all sorts of tricks to maintain that consent, including propaganda, religious rhetoric, identity politics and other ways to manufacture consent (including, unfortunately, the social justice framework, which will be addressed in my next essay).

Justice for Most

Manchester Fence Concertina

While all Liberal Democracies enshrine some concept of equality in their founding documents, none actually deliver that equality. In the United States, for example, though everyone (except felons and those who cannot afford identification documents, usually poor and people of color) have the right to vote (assuming their ballots are counted, assuming they can take time off work), it hasn’t always been the case. Originally, only white men were allowed to vote, and it took more than a century for women to be given that right.

The United States, like European Democracies and other former British Colonies, is mostly ruled by white men with money. In all these countries, white men without money are given more privileges by the powerful (note the language here: privilege is something given, not something inherent to the person) than others, in return for their support of the governing class.

Not all Liberal Democracies are white (but most are!); however, they all follow the same pattern of favoritism given to a lower class of people who resemble the people in control.

Those who are given fewer privileges tend to dislike having fewer. In fact, they tend to resent this greatly, and either demand more rights (as in the Civil Rights movement in the United States) or stop seeing themselves as part of society—unconsciously withdrawing from the Leviathan. Those in that latter case have less respect for the laws (many of which are designed to keep them in line anyway) and for the unspoken sacredness of certain institutions and modes of being. That is, they become criminal.

That’s not to say that criminals are all making conscious choices to reject the ruling class, or that criminal behaviour doesn’t have other causes too, like abject poverty. In fact, Liberal Democracies actually create the conditions which lead to criminal behaviour, including defining criminal behaviour in the first place.

And what does the State do to criminals? It uses violence against them, violence derived from its supposed ‘divine mandate’ from the people.

That violence takes many forms, and here’s where we can finally start to define violence. Police employed by the State are empowered to physically detain, assault, subdue, imprison, and even kill ‘criminals’ on behalf of the State. Of course, this is all before a trial has occurred to determine if the victim of state violence was actually ‘deserving’ of these actions (that is, was ‘guilty’ of a ‘crime’).

Of course, if the victim is dead, there is no way to determine their guilt or innocence, so in many places (especially the United States), killing a ‘suspect’ is actually a wiser choice than arrest for many police officers worried about civil rights lawsuits for wrongful arrest.

Since police officers are employed as agents of State violence, and since the State acts on our behalf, than the police, also, are acting as our agents of violence. When we call the police because of a robbery or assault, we are notifying the police that we would like them to find and enact violence against those who wronged us, rather than us doing so ourselves. And though there are many cases where someone else perpetrating violence on your behalf makes sense, it is the victimization of one person (or group) which then demands the victimization of those who perpetrated the violence.

In essence, the police act as agents of violence for others, no different from hired mercenaries or assassins except in one specific way: they are actually paid for and under the employ of the State, not by the victims.

Within Liberal Democracies, the people (who give the divine mandate to the State) are both separated from the violence the state enacts and also intimately connected to it at the same time. When police kill a murderer, we feel a sense of relief and of justice being ‘served,’ though we did nothing at all and may not even be able to know if the person actually murdered anyone. We become accustomed to believing that the police, because they act on our behalf, are doing good things, and except in rare cases we tend never to question their actions.

If anything, our relationship to them is similar to that of a fan of a sports team, overly identifying with players they’ve never met. “Our team won” means nothing at all, unless you are on the team or one of the owners of the sports franchise, yet that identification is unshakeable. That same identification occurs between us and the police and the military, particularly if we are within the class of people who are given more privileges than others by the government–and thus less likely to be on the wrong end of a police officer’s nightstick or assault rifle.

Violence is always subjective—that is, subject to our perceptions. A fist to the face is violent, certainly, but it’s less violent if we feel that the person deserved it, or if that fist was meant to stop more violence. A rape is violent, absolutely, yet those who are more likely to identify with the perpetrator than the victim are quick to re-conceptualize that violence through that same logic (how was she dressed, how drunk was he). Basically, we skew our judgments about justice according to our identification with those involved.

Liberal Democracy benefits greatly from this process. In fact, it encourages and abuses it, wielding our identifications and subjectivity as a bludgeon against enemies both foreign and domestic. As much as we all mitigate violence through identification with either the victim or the perpetrator on an individual level, we do the very same thing to a greater (and more destructive) degree with State violence.

Did any of the recent unarmed Black men in the United States ‘deserve’ to be killed by police? The answer, unfortunately, depends on whether or not any of us have done the work to see beyond our identifications with State violence. It also depends on whether or not we identify more with the interests the State is trying to protect by such murders, or with the victims. A white Capitalist who relies on the police to prevent theft from his business in a Black neighborhood is likely to identify with the police, rather than victim.

Do anti-capitalist protesters deserve to be beaten, pepper-sprayed, and arrested? That depends on how much we identify with the State and its protection of Capital and Property, or with the concerns and actions of the protesters.

And what about in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria—do the people there deserve to be killed by ‘our’ soldiers? Again, it depends on whether or not you identify more with the military or the people being killed by them, and for the majority of people in the countries whose governments are engaged there, the soldiers are more culturally, racially, and linguistically familiar than the victims are.

There’s one vital thing that none of these examples addresses, though. In each case, the question is whether or not the use of violence is justified, and this is always a subjective question. But what is almost never questioned is the role of the State (the police, the military) as agents of violence.

This is how Liberal Democracy is able to obscure its true violence from us, whether we identify with the unarmed Black men or the police officers who shoot them. Liberal or Conservative, ‘Social Justice Warrior’ or Right-wing racist, none actually threaten the State’s monopoly on violence, only question its uses and demand it be used to implement their vision of Justice.

And so Liberal Democracy has been able to carry on, unchallenged in its core violence, a lumbering Leviathan with tanks and guns, until the zero-sum game of Terrorism began.

The Upturned Table

anti-terrorism soldiers, Toulouse, France
anti-terrorism soldiers, Toulouse, France

Acts of non-state violence in the cultural and financial centers of Liberal Democracies have occurred for centuries, both from the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ Regardless of their causes and justifications, so-called acts of ‘terrorism’ challenge the Liberal Democratic state more than any progressive or reactionary ever could.

The reason is simple: while Left-wing or Right-wing political movements can at any time take over the government, they never actually threaten the existence of the government. Communists on the Left and Fascists on the Right only want to claim the State for their own to enact their political goals. “Terrorists,”on the other hand, destabilize the State, forcing it either to abdicate its monopolistic claim on violence (which they’ll never do) or to further solidify its monopoly on violence.

That, unfortunately, is where we are now. Every Liberal Democracy has enacted anti-terrorist legislation and claimed new powers in order to combat the threat of non-state violence. To do so, they have necessarily had to curtail the freedoms granted to the people they rule over, and no longer bother much even with the appearance of law and constitutional guarantees.

One can argue, as Georgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt all have, that this process started much earlier than the recent ‘wars on terror.’ Liberal Democracies began to pass ‘State of Emergencies’ all throughout the 20th century, particularly during times of war, but not until World War II did these exceptions start to become the rule.

It was a Nazi jurist, Carl Schmidt, who first defined for all later governments the justification for the suspension of law. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception,” he wrote, asserting that it is the very fact that a State can suspend all rules in order to survive that grants the State power, not the supposed ‘divine mandate.’

From the actions of recent governments, it’s clear Liberal Democracy took his words to heart. “Free speech zones” in the United States, individual interdictions (including house arrest) from attending protests in France, suspension of freedom of movement and just-cause in the name of anti-terrorism in the UK and elsewhere—Liberal Democracies have responded to terrorism precisely as Fascist theorists would have urged them to.

And just as we tend not to question State violence against those we do not favor, we are now caught in an even greater trap. As terrorist actions continue, we are faced with the apparent choice of either supporting the restrictions of our freedoms ‘for our own good,’ or risking our lives when the next bomb or mass shooting happens. And since acts of terrorism only increase whenever the State goes to war, the cycle is likely to accelerate, pushing all of the Liberal Democracies into crisis for which, unfortunately, Fascism has always offered an answer.

It’s one we must not accept.

 

Next–“Assuming the State” (on Social Justice, Human Rights, and the Crisis of ‘The Left.’)

(for more on Leviathan and recent events, see Heathen Chinese’s  essay at The Wild Hunt)

Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_c8489ee1-3139-487c-92b9-271ba38254daRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

The Death of Liberal Democracy?

This is the first in a series addressing the failure and apparent destruction of Liberal Democracy, and what might–and can–come after.

On Thursday, June 23th, 2016, a majority of people voting in a referendum in the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union.

On June 19th, 2016, the Mexican state began arresting and killing striking teachers in Oaxaca.

On June 17th, 2016, French workers filled the streets of every major city as part of a general strike against a new labor law.

Though each of these three events involved radically different circumstances, politics, and players, they are alike in one specific way: they are reactions to State power and its collusion with Capital.  That is, they are also crises of Liberal Democracy.

To compare the three may seem initially irresponsible. Many people have died in the latest uprising in Oaxaca, while no one has died in France from the strikes. And despite a leader of the Brexit campaign stating that ‘no shots were fired’ in the movement to leave the European Union, one Labor MP was indeed killed by a far-right gunman for her insistence that the UK remain as part of the EU.

Likewise, the movements in Oaxaca and France are being led by Leftists; in France, the uprising against the government’s Loi Travaille (which would significantly destroy hard-won worker protections) comes from Left and Far-Left unions and poltical parties, while in Oaxaca, the resistance comes from Leftist autonomist movements. In the UK, however, the majority support for the exit vote came from the Right and Far-Right; in fact, the referendum was initiated by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in order to deal with divisions in his own party between reactionaries and more mainstream politicians. More so, the Brexit vote was heavily fueled by anti-immigrant (particularly anti-muslim) sentiment; in France, the far-right party (Front National) is a primary supporter of the Loi Travaille, and Oaxaca (as well as the rest of Mexico) has a net loss of population to immigration, rather than on account of it.

Obscured by these many differences, however, is the primary agent of the conflicts which led the UK to vote to leave, French workers to protest en masse, and Oaxacan teachers to risk getting murdered or disappeared.

In all three cases, the cause is Capital, and the primary agent of Capital is the State. And while French workers and Oaxacan teachers rose up to fight their government’s collusion with Capital, people in the UK (many with racist and xenophobic intentions) voted to strengthen their own government against the influence of foreign Capital while—frightfully–setting the stage for a vast reduction in government protections for their own minorities.

All of these cases are symptoms of the impending death of Liberal Democracy, and a crisis of Capital. For Pagans, queers, transfolk, disabled folk, people of color, immigrants, and every other minority who relies upon the State for their protection, this should be very worrying—and also a wake-up call to build something more resilient, and soon.

To understand how to do this, though, we must understand the relationship between Capital and the State, and before that, we need first to look at what Liberal Democracy is.

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Smashed Bank, Rennes, France (photo by Alley Valkyrie)

“The End of History”

In 1989, an advisor to president Ronald Reagan named Francis Fukuyama wrote a highly influential essay called “The End of History?”, in which he suggested the Liberal Democracy is the end point and highest evolutionary state of political governance. Citing the fall of Fascist governments in Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as the failure of State-Communism as seen in the then-crumbling Soviet Empire, Fukuyama suggested that Capitalism and Democratic forms of government were the destiny of humanity. Though his essay (and subsequent book) have fallen mostly out of favor, the sense that we are now living in the most peaceful, advanced, and static form of society has become so entrenched that few even see the matter as open to debate.

The consequence of this thinking, however, is that most people see Capitalism as an inevitability and the modern Liberal Democratic State as unquestionable. Not only that, but it’s difficult for many people to conceive of a form of existence outside of the present state of affairs, as the system in which we live has become almost invisible as a thing at all.  Thus, Capitalism seems to have ‘always existed,’ and many instruments of modern State violence (the police, the military, private property) seem to be as necessary as air or food for the existence of humanity.

Only in moments when Liberal Democracy doesn’t function the way we have been taught to believe it does do we ever notice its existence. When police kill an unarmed Black man in the streets in America without reason, when we see photos or hear reports of wretched prisoner abuse by US soldiers, or in large-scale terror (in Paris, in Orlando) or riot (Ferguson, Oaxaca), the invisible tapestry of Liberal Democracy seems to rip before us.  At such times, it is almost as if a wall we never noticed is breached, and we get a brief glimpse into the world outside before the opening is repaired.

Thus,  if it were really true that Liberal Democracy is the best form of government, then events like those in Oaxaca and the United Kingdom make no sense. Why would the Mexican government gun down teachers for protesting an educational reform? Why would the United Kingdom vote to leave perhaps the greatest triumph of Liberal Democracy, the European Union? And why would workers in France choose to shut down commerce, energy distribution (including nuclear power plants and gas refineries) rather than just vote for a more sympathetic government?

To some degree, all three events seem regressive or reactionary, a revolt of backwards people against the flow of history. And that’s precisely how these events become painted by the media and by leaders: the Oaxacan teachers are violent primitives, the Brexit-Leave voters are all racist and idiots, and the French strikers are lazy and unwilling to adapt to the future.

These narratives function as a way of closing the breached wall, or repairing the invisible fabric of our present world-view. Once the crisis is averted or resolved, the events are re-written in our histories (not just by historians, government officials, or the media but by ourselves, as well) to return to the status quo we were familiar with before. Life returns to normal and the State is no longer questioned. That is, we return to ‘The End of History’ where Liberal Democracy is the highest form of society, Capital is unquestioned, and the State continues.

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The Core of Liberal Democracy

Before I continue, I should to define some stuff, as terms like the State, Capital, and Liberal Democracy are not always clear-cut, and it will help to make sure we’re on the same page.

First of all, Capital is wealth used to derive more wealth through investment. Capital refers to all the money invested in factories, tech companies, stocks, property, and anything else that might make a profit for the investor. Capital seems to have a logic and an egregoric life of its own. That logic? To reproduce itself—basically, to have more Capital through profit.

By “The State,” I mean governments and all the instruments of government. So, in the United States, “The State” is the president, the congress, the supreme courts, as well as all the other government agencies and agents (including police and the military) which exist to enforce its will. Just as with Capital, The State functions as an egregore, a created entity which seeks its own survival and reproduction, which is its central logic.

Liberal Democracy is the name of a specific sort of relationship between State and Capital, a specific kind of government for which Capitalism is the primary economic relationship (“Liberalism”) and Democracy (that is, the appearance of collective will of the people) is the primary mode of governance. The United States, all the countries in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and also Mexico (as well as many, many other countries in the world) are Liberal Democracies.

Liberal Democracy has several primary attributes that are important to remember (and will be addressed again later in this series).  They are as follows:

    • The State is the agent of the People (the Leviathan): Under Liberal Democracy, the government is seen as the voice of the people it rules over and their empowered representative. Since people can vote for their rulers, it is expected that their rulers are imbued with the power to enact the will of the people, and act not only on their behalf, but as their sole agent.  Similar to the Catholic doctrine of the Pope as the “Vicar of Christ,” governments speak and act not just through the will of the people, but as if the people speak through them.
    • The State Monopoly on Violence: In Liberal Democracies, the government is authorised to enact violence on behalf of the people, and as the sole agent of violence. By ‘violence,’ I mean both the overt and obvious forms (foreign war, police arrests, capital punishment, imprisonment) and the less overt forms (laws which curtail freedoms, determine and enforce boundaries and borders).
    • The State As Sole Agent of Justice: Because the State is the only one who can enact violence, Justice can only be accomplished through government action and the legal system.  So, in a rape case, it is up to the government to find and punish the rapist, or if a corporation pollutes the air of a poor neighborhood, the only ‘just’ way to fix the problem is to go through the courts or environmental agency.  Individual or group action outside of the legal system to right a wrong can–and often is–harshly punished by the State.
    • The State as the Protector/Originator of Rights: What distinguishes Liberal Democracies from earlier forms of government is a contractural agreement between the State and the people it governs regarding the rights of citizens. Often times, these contracts were born of some struggle which threatened the ability of the State to maintain power (for instance, the Magna Carta in Britain, or the US constitution).  Also, rights are constantly negotiated: female–and later Black–suffrage, the protection of disabled people, sexual and other minorities, the 35-hour work week and 5 weeks paid vacation in France are all examples of rights demanded by people and later “recognised” and enshrined into law by governments.  In exchange for recognizing these rights, the government gains the consent to rule the people, and becomes the sole guarantor of those rights.
    • The State as the Protector of Capital: Liberal Democracy is ‘Liberal’ on account of its relationship to Capitalism. Though ‘Liberal’ has a very narrow definition in the United States, more broadly it is understood as a position towards the freedom of Markets.  Even under ‘conservative’ governments, States privilege the economic activity of wealthy individuals and groups over the potential damage that activity may cause to the poor or less wealthy.  Thus, Liberal Democracy guarantees the right to “Private Property” (land and its uses) so that Capitalists can make money and help fund the activities of the State (including wars) through taxes.
    • The State as the Sovereign Exception: Along with the previously mentioned attributes, Liberal Democracies claim the ability to suspend rights, protections, and other guarantees in order to protect the State from crises which may cause the State to be destroyed.  Anything seen as an ‘existential threat’ to the government, then, can be met with a ‘State of Emergency’ where the contract between people and the leaders are temporarily suspended until the crisis is averted.  This, by the way, is not an idea originating with Liberal theorists at all, but rather from Nazi jurist Carl Schmidt and later adopted by Liberal Democratic governments after World War II.

To understand each of these need to look at the relationship of Liberal Democracy to Capitalism, and the best way to see this is through the state guarantee of Private Property.

(Future essays in this series will cover these aspects of Liberal Democracy. What is likely to replace it, if we do not create something better, should terrify anyone who cares for equality, peace, freedom, and the earth. What could replace it, though, is precisely why Gods&Radicals exists in the first place.)

The Dance of State and Capital

Liberal Democracy is ‘classically liberal’ precisely because of its stance on freedom–that is, the State should guarantee the freedom of the people it rules in order to continue governing.  And while freedoms such as the Right to Free Speech or the Freedom of Religion are definitely worth keeping around, other freedoms such as the Right to Private Property are the foundation of Capitalism and directly curtail the freedom of others.

Private Property, of course, doesn’t refer to the socks on your feet or your personal electronics; rather, it refers to the right to own land and be the sole person who may use it as you will.  Unlike other rights like religion or speech, Private Property is founded upon a pre-requisite that is not available to the majority of humans in the world: wealth.

Private Property requires money to purchase. More so, it also requires exclusion.  Unlike Freedom of Speech (which doesn’t require other people stay silent) or Freedom of Religion (which doesn’t require other people be excluded from religion), Private Property is a guarantee that the government will protect your right to keep other people from using your property.  More so, you are free to own as much of it as you like and never sell it, thus taking away the ability of other people to own property, as land is a limited resource.

Though framed as an individual right, Private Property is a guarantee only to a specific class of people within Liberal Democracies: those with property or the money to purchase it.  Though apparently meant to protect people who own small bits of land where they might subsist or live, the right to Private Property instead favors those who use their property to derive more wealth from it and therefore gain more property.

That is, the right to Private Property is a protection of Capital.

What interest might a State have in protecting Capital, though?  The primary argument of Liberal Democracy for the protection of Capital (and therefore Capitalism) is that the rich ‘generate’ wealth for others by paying others to work for them.  The poor who have no property have no other way to survive, and because hungry people are likely to steal or revolt, the poor need access to food. Capitalists pay their workers, who then use the money to buy food from other Capitalists who pay their workers, who then use the money purchase other goods from other Capitalists who pay their workers, etc..

In an ideal version of such a system, everyone is fed and can get access to what they need, and thus the government doesn’t need to use violence to sustain its existence and doesn’t need to use its resources to keep its citizens alive.

Of course, that’s not how any Liberal Democracy has ever functioned, but because we accept the idealised situation as the way it ‘should’ function and see exceptions as aberrations, Liberal Democracy and Capitalism continue mostly unchallenged. But there’s another reason why Liberal Democracies safeguard this system–taxes.

Without money, a government can do nothing. It cannot pay its soldiers or police, its representatives or chancellors or presidents or judges. And because Capitalism is predicated on individuals and groups being free to act without interference by the government, Liberal Democracies cannot generally make money outside of taxes, unlike State-Communist governments or so-called Petro-States.

So, all the governments of Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world rely primarily on tax revenue for their income.  Without active (and inflationary) economic activity, there is less of a resource pool to tax.

Liberal Democracies tend to glean their taxes from exchange (sales, VAT, wages/income) and static wealth (land, houses). If an economy is inflationary (that is, always growing), a government can have a constant and increasing access to taxes without raising tax rates.  And fortunately, taxes on static wealth (land, housing) help insure that economies become inflationary and more Capitalist.

This latter part is particularly interesting, and rarely addressed by urban activists concerned with gentrification. When taxes on housing increase, landlords can either take less profit from the rents they charge their tenants, or increase the rent. Increasing rents then reduces the amount of money the tenants have after their income, so they must either work more, spend less on other things, or find a cheaper living situation.  Pressured in such a way by government taxation, the tenants (who are usually workers and already paying income taxes) ,then either demand higher wages (increasing income-tax revenue), work more (again, increasing income-tax revenue), or reduce their spending (causing the government to raise property taxes to increase revenue, thus causing Capitalist property owners to seek more profits and increasing the cycle).

Photo by Alley Valkyrie
Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Held Hostage by Liberal Democracy

As I mentioned, though Capitalist exchange seems to be an ideal situation for the state to maintain itself, Capitalism never delivers the ideal. More so, people who cannot secure what they want through the economy are liable to do so outside of legal means or even revolt.

Thus, Liberal Democracies have adopted certain Socialist programs in order to lessen the damage that Capitalism causes. Universal health care, funding for the un-employed, food and transportation aid, minimum wage guarantees and other such programs act as bandages on the places where Capitalism causes more damage than good. And while Liberal/Progressive/Social Justice movements in many Liberal Democracies see such programs as signs of increasing fairness and justice, these programs actually function to pacify resistance to Capitalism and the State, particularly since they are funded by revenue derived from Capitalist activity.

In fact, such a contradiction is a great benefit to the continuation of Liberal Democracy.  People who might otherwise be very critical of Capitalism and the existence of the State find themselves in a position where they rely on the continuance of both for their existence. People suffering from illnesses for which medication subsidized by the government (and paid for by Capitalist-derived taxes) is the only way to survive thus need Liberal Democracy to continue.

This is where the Brexit vote becomes primarily interesting. Many leftists in the United Kingdom are quite terrified of the likely reductions in benefits and social programs for vulnerable people after the exit from the European Union. They have great reason to worry, too, as the European Union did significantly help increase funding for social programs and force the UK government to adopt more open policies on immigration, gay rights, and other protections for minorities.  The European Union represented the height of Liberal Democracy, and the U.K.’ exit from it signifies not only an early symptom of the death of Liberal Democracy, but a significant short-term (and possibly long-term) increase in suffering for those who relied on its promises.

But it also means a blow to Capitalists, as well, who now face new barriers to trade and cheap labor through immigration. Also, the Liberal Democratic policies of the European Union significantly stabilized markets, making it so that Capitalists could plan profits long-term. The drop in the Euro and the Pound, as well as respective stock markets, is a symbol of the panic felt by Capitalists who fear loss of profit.

To see the other side of the European Union one only need to look at the situation in France. The Loi Travail in France was crafted as a way to liberalise (that is, open up) the labor markets in France, giving employers more flexibility in hiring by taking away worker guarantees. French workers still have some of the strongest protections and benefits in Europe, and empowered workers mean less profit for Capitalists. Thus, Liberal Democracy, particularly through the open-market policies of the European Union, needed to reduce worker rights in order to ensure Capitalists invest enough money to start the economic cycle which generates taxes.

More so, French workers enjoying more protections than many other workers in Europe destabilizes the labor market, encourages Capital to look for cheaper workers elsewhere, and gives basis to workers in other countries to demand more. The manifestations and strikes in France, then, are not just an attack on employers but on the State and Capital itself, as well as the Liberal Democratic foundation of the European Union.

The situation in Oaxaca has nothing to do with the European Union, but operates on the same logic.  Mexico is a Liberal Democracy that faces financial ruin on account of a Liberal Democratic trade agreement (the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA). In order to generate more tax revenue, as well as stave off the governance problems associated with widespread poverty, the government borrowed money from international financial organisations in return for ‘liberalizing’ their markets and creating new ones, including in education:

The reasons why the Mexican government wants to impose the Educational Reform, even if it means killing people, as with the massacre in Nochixtlán by repressive state forces on June 19, are rooted in economic objectives guided by international financial organizations. The reform, proposed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with the OECD-Mexico Agreement to Improve the Quality of Education in Schools of Mexico, aims to lay the groundwork to shift education from being a State responsibility to instead being resolved in the realm of the financial market.

In order to comply with these objectives, the Mexican government passed educational reforms which took away rights from teachers. In Oaxaca, one of the strongest bastions of Leftist organisation, the teachers went on strike, and the state responded with violence.

While both Capitalists and the poorest will initially suffer from crises of Liberal Democracy, as in Brexit, Capitalists are usually able to recover from such crises.  In fact, it’s precisely in such crises that Capitalists are able to influence their own governments more, convincing them to lessen worker protections (including wages) as in France, or selling off specific resources as in Oaxaca.

And if the people resist, Liberal Democracy has a particular weapon that proves generally irresistible: violence, upon which it holds a monopoly.

Next: Liberal Democracy and Violence

 

Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_c8489ee1-3139-487c-92b9-271ba38254daRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


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