The Factory Floor & The Witch’s Stake

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

From Rhyd Wildermuth

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what is Empire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalism needs you to forget this.

Witchcraft tells you to remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We started to believe we cannot resist.

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

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

It is also collapsing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is ours.


Rhyd Wildermuth

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


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The Police Aren’t Here For You

“The police are an increasingly militarized arm of an increasingly fascist state, hired thugs for capitalist oligarchs, the modern-day version of slave catchers, a terrorist organization. When I came to see this, then abolishing the police didn’t seem so crazy anymore.”

From John Halstead

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Don’t you feel safe now?

“In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency. But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution—meaning the next revolution, not the last one. The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed—at least not yet.”

— George Orwell (1932)

On a cool Saturday morning in September, about 75 people gathered in the parking lot of the Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, situated in a mostly White, mixed-income neighborhood in Northwest Indiana. There were people of all ages. Parents with children, some in strollers. Retirees and students. Self-described activists and people who had never been to a protest before. There were some people of color, but we were a mostly White group. Several people were drawing on the blacktop with sidewalk chalk, messages about climate change and pollution.

A police officer on an ATV passed by on the road. Overhead, the sheriff’s helicopter circled.

“Are they here for us?” someone asked, looking up at the helicopter.

“They’re not here for you,” my friend responded. “They’re here for you.”

We laughed nervously, as the double entendre sank in.

The reason for the gathering was a pipeline walk organized by a local chapter of 350.org. It was not a protest, per se, but an educational walk. Ten kilometers, starting at the terminal of Enbridge Line 6A in Griffith, Indiana, and walking north toward the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, the largest tar sands refinery in the country.

The Enbridge terminal sat adjacent to the nature preserve that we were standing on, about a quarter mile away. The massive petroleum storage tanks were visible through the trees in the distance. The pipeline carrying tar sands oil ran directly under our feet, directly under the nature preserve.

When we left the preserve, we followed the path of the pipeline, marked by high-pressure pipeline markers, by people’s yards, two elementary schools (including the one my son attended), a high school, a municipal playground. We walked over several waterways. Throughout the walk, the police were as ubiquitous as the pipeline markers.

The goal of the walk was to draw attention to the existence of the pipelines in such close proximity to our everyday lives, and to activate people who might not come to a more confrontational event. No one carried any signs, and no one shouted protest chants. We stayed on the sidewalks. I think we were as non-threating as any group that size can be.

And yet, all the while, the helicopter circled above. Everywhere the police presence was visible: on foot, in police cars, on ATVs, in ominous black vans. At least four different police agencies were present. It was hard to estimate the numbers, but there must have been one police officer for every two walkers. All of that for fewer than a hundred people walking on the sidewalks in a suburban neighborhood. The size of the police presence was all the more remarkable for the fact that the organizers of the walk had met with the police prior to the event, explained it was a non-confrontational, educational event, and even provided a map of the route.

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Hey kids! Did you know that Officer Dugan is a corporate tool?

Throughout the walk, the police were courteous and obliging. They helped us negotiate the more dangerous road crossings. And some of the walkers expressed gratitude and even relief at the presence of the police. But for many of us, their presence was oppressive.

We couldn’t help but feel that they were not really there for our safety. Did we really believe they were there to help us cross the street? No, they were there because we were assembled in close proximity to a piece of major fossil fuel infrastructure. They were there to protect Enbridge and BP.

I also couldn’t escape the suspicion that they were also there to intimidate us, to remind us of their power. None of the officers acted aggressively toward us. (The press was present.)  But the sheer number of armed state actors in our vicinity had a psychological impact. And I don’t think it was unintended.

Growing up White, I had always believed that the police were there for me, to protect me. With the exception of some minor adolescent law breaking, the most I ever had to worry about from the police was getting a speeding ticket. And I never really had to worry about getting shot by the police when I was pulled over.

But as I got involved in street activism, I found myself in a more confrontational relationship with the police. And I began to see that the police are not there to protect me, at least not principally. They are there to protect the social order. As long as I was playing my part in that order, I was protected by the police. But as soon as I stepped just a little bit outside of that order (by exercising Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to assemble and speak), it became apparent that they weren’t there for me; indeed, they never had been.

For most people of color, LGBT folk, and other underprivileged persons, I’m sure this isn’t any revelation.

About a year before the pipeline walk, I was marching with Black Lives Matter activists in Chicago. They were calling for the “abolition”–a word chosen deliberately–of the police (as well as prisons). As I walked in solidarity with BLM, I wrestled with my emotions. I have to admit that the idea of abolishing the police sent an instinctual tremor or terror through my being.

I understood rationally that, rather than making Black and Brown communities in Chicago safer, the Chicago Police Department actually make them less safe. And so abolishing the police makes perfect sense. The police may make most White people feel safer, but the fact is that they do so by carrying on a campaign of terror against Black and Brown people. I understood that rationally, but when marchers called for the abolishment of the police, my socialization as a White person kicked in, and I couldn’t help wonder, “Who would protect me?”

Several months later, I drove into the small airport in Gary, Indiana for a protest against ICE deportations being conducted at that airport. I had been to a previous protest at the airport and there had been just one police officer present. On that prior occasion, a group of frustrated protesters had broken off from the main group, opened an unlocked gate, and walked out onto the runaway. That single police officer had remained calm as organizers talked to their fellow protesters and convinced them to return to the main body of the protest. There were no threats of arrest and only a minimal expression of police authority.

So this time, when I arrived at the airport, I was surprised to find a large contingent of police in SWAT gear herding us into a fenced-in area. I had volunteered to be the police liaison for the event, so it was my job to find out what in the hell was going on. The officer in charge brusquely informed me that we were being put in a pen “for our own safety”. He claimed that they had received reports of the possibility of counter-protesters (who never showed up, of course). I was also informed that no one was allowed to enter the airport building (which was usually open to the public), even to use the restroom, and if we left our designated area, we would be arrested.

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In other words, let us “protect” you, or we will arrest you.

When the buses with the windows covered up, carrying undocumented immigrants who were shackled hand and foot, drove into the airport, there was no ambiguity in my mind about the reason for the presence of the police. They were not there to protect us from counter-protesters, real or imagined. They were there to protect the system, an unjust system which, at that moment, was deporting people who had committed no major crimes, and which included parents with children, tax-paying workers and business owners, and even veterans.

None of this will come as a surprise to those educated about the origin of the police as a means of quashing protest by urban workers. Or to those who have noted the connection between the role of the antebellum police in catching runaway slaves and their role today in systematically enslaving people of color in a for-profit prison system. None of this will come as a surprise who have noted the coincidence of peak oil and the militarization of the police. Or to those who have observed how the practice of ticketing people for minor violations is used to redistribute wealth from poor communities and communities of color to the state (and hence to the wealthy).

None of this should come as surprise to those who have been paying attention to the growing body of video documentation of police violently assaulting and murdering people of color. And, of course, none of those will come as a surprise to people of color or many poor people, who have always been on the business end of the police baton.

“The police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.”

James Baldwin (1966)

But it did come as a surprise to me. I’m White and economically privileged, and so its perhaps not too suprising that, all my life, I have thought that the police were protecting me. But my recent encounters with the police helped me see that that what they have really been protecting is the gilded cage I live in. I’m protected because I’ve stayed in the cage. But if I so much as rattled the bars of my cage, the police revealed themselves for what they are: an increasingly militarized arm of an increasingly fascist state, hired thugs for capitalist oligarchs, the modern-day version of slave catchers, a terrorist organization.

The more I realized this, the more the calls for abolishing the police made sense. I’m now convinced that imagining a world without police means is part and parcel of imagining a just society.

“To a population domesticated from the moment it fell out of the womb such a question seem ludicrous. All our lives we’ve been told cops, judges, and prisons are the pinnacles of civilization, needed to keep our innate savagery in check. …

“We do not need cops and we do not need prisons. We cling to these institutions not because they are necessary but because we can’t imagine a world without them.”

Dr. Bones

“But who would protect me?” the old voice still comes. But now, there is another voice as well, with new questions: “Do the police really protect you now? From whom? Why do you think you need to be protected? Where does that belief come from? Who taught it to you? What unspoken assumptions is it based on?”

Recently, my Unitarian church invited the local police department to give an active shooter training to the congregation. The officers began the training by playing a 911 recording made from inside Columbine High School during the 1999 massacre. There was no pedagogical function. They didn’t refer to the calls once throughout the presentaton. As far as I could see, the only purpose of playing the recording was to make us afraid … and thus, more dependent on the police themselves. The police could not justify their existence, or the violence they perpetrate on us, without our continued fear of a world without them.

But the fact is the police don’t make us safer. For most White people, they only provide the illusion of safety. And for most people of color, not even that. About 90% of police time spent penalizing infractions of administrative regulations. As David Graeber has observed, the police are essentially bureaucrats with guns. Of the remaining 10% of their time, during which they are responding to violent crime, they are largely ineffectual, or worse.

I guess this is for our own good?

Crime is a natural and predictable result of inequality and injustice. If we really want to reduce crime, we should invest in full employment, universal healthcare (including mental health), free university education, and comprehensive sex education (including education about consent), and we should decriminalize drug use. These things would be far more effective in reducing violent crime than the police. But when we call for these things, the response we get is more police.

I’m not suggesting that abolishing the police is a simple answer. Imagining a world without police requires unlearning a lot of conscious and conscious beliefs. For one thing, it means White people like me unlearning the fear of Black people. The mystique of the police is sustained, in part, by racist stereotypes of the Black male “thug” or “super predator”, stereotypes which have historical antecedents dating back to the times of slavery.

Imagining a world without police also means unlearning capitalist ways of relating to other people.  As William Anderson has written,

“To end capitalism, we have to end capitalism both within and around us. When we liberate our relationships from patterns of thought that replicate the inequalities built into our social systems, a great love can exist that gives us a new feeling of freedom.”

This means learning how to relate to each other on the basis of cooperation, rather than competition. It means building community, spending time with people, and getting to know them. It means and taking responsibility for our communities, rather than abdicating that responsibility to the state. And, of course, it means finding ways to reintegrate those who violate community norms, rather than just warehouse or punish them.

As Chicago activist, Mariame Kaba, has said,

“Abolition is not about changing one thing. It’s about changing everything, together.”


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


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Strategize, Don’t Moralize

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away.  It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics (Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive? Is mutual aid just charity?). But how does it approach strategy?


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tactics follows strategy.

First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?

To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.

What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.

When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.

But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.


 

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Tintoretto, “Allegory of the morality of earthly things,” 1585. Via Wikimedia Commons

US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?

But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.

Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:

  1. Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
  2. Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
  3. Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.

Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?

When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.

US leftists have no mass base inherited from their precursors. However, for the first time in decades, the overall objective conditions are favorable: most Millennials would rather live in a socialist or communist society. They overwhelmingly support and/or participate in the labor movement. Liberalism and conservatism are both struggling to break out of a sustained crisis of legitimacy. If there ever was a ripe time to revive mass socialism in the United States, it’s now.

But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.


 

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher

 

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Fredric Jameson

Do you believe revolution is possible?

Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).

So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.

Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.

So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Chasing Ambulances

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Demonstrators flooded streets across the globe in public protests on Saturday, calling for action against gun violence. Hundreds of thousands of marchers turned out, in the most ambitious show of force yet from a student-driven movement that emerged after the recent massacre at a South Florida high school.

The student activists emphasized that they would soon have access to the ballot box as they hope to build support for candidates who support universal background checks and bans on assault-style weapons.

[Source: New York Times]

How should leftists have engaged with this weekend’s March for Our Lives?

Over a million people attended nationally-coordinated rallies calling for federal laws restricting the sale of firearms. Students who survived the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL headlined the main Washington, DC march (alongside performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities). Meanwhile, more than 800 satellite events featured Democratic office-holders, from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plenty of socialists showed up as well, hoping to “put forward an alternative to this system that is built on violence at its core.”

Similarly, the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia inspired enthusiastic leftist support, with radicals “stand[ing] in solidarity with the teachers of the state in their fight for better pay and better healthcare and offer[ing] our full support.” However, few of the leftist groups either attending the marches or urging solidarity with the teachers had done any prior work to speak of among either anti-gun high schoolers or West Virginian teachers. So what did “fully supporting” or “putting forward an alternative” concretely mean?

Any time a protest event receives significant media coverage, radical groups put out similar statements. Where does that impulse to endorse come from? Does responding in the same way every time obscure deeper differences between one self-declared “movement” and another?

What place should this “support” have in revolutionary strategy?


 

A political group employing an activist-networking approach is looking for a new campaign. They read the news to find “hot issues” that are being reported on in the media. Once they’ve determined the issue they want to agitate around, they look for an NGO they can “partner” with, providing warm bodies to show up at the NGO’s events and to help actuate the already-existing strategy of the NGO. Often this looks like showing up to City Hall or the state capitol, as part of a coalition of “the usual suspects,” to lobby legislators to support or oppose a particular bill, or showing up at a rally put on by the NGO in command of the campaign. Usually the passage of a law is the primary goal of these campaigns.

Maybe the group might try to recruit one or two participants from the action, but since most of these people are already organized and are members of one of the larger groups, only a handful of people are brought into the organization. As enthusiasm inevitably drains from the campaign in the face of setbacks, participation bleeds away, so the group ends up back at square one, or worse, end up with fewer people involved than they started with. At this point, groups usually cut their losses and look for the new “hot issue” of the day, thus repeating the cycle.

Tim Horras

While their desire to support popular movements is well-meaning, activist leftists are basically ambulance chasers. When they see the media cover something politically exciting, their instinct is to show up offering “leadership” and “the socialist perspective.” Generally, no one takes them particularly seriously when they do. Why should they? The radicals have no pre-existing relationship with them and haven’t shown why they deserve anyone’s attention. So, the socialists’ efforts go nowhere. They lose a few people, pick up a few more, rinse, and repeat. They come to exist for the sake of existing rather than serving a particularly useful role. If an organization’s practice boils down to providing “boots on the ground” for “movement” nonprofits’ campaigns and rallies, why bother with the organization at all? Isn’t it easier to just work with the nonprofits directly? That’s why so few people in a given movement join any of the socialist organizations that try to involve themselves. When a group has made itself superfluous, people can tell. So, leftists continue to exist on the margins of the activist subculture, never realizing that they’ve no one but themselves to blame for their irrelevance.

Your ideology is not the beliefs you affirm. It’s what your actions show that you value. If your practice consists of listening to podcasts and arguing on Facebook, then that’s the substance of your ideology, not the particular ideas you agree with. If you mostly wave signs at protests and issue calls for things you can’t deliver, then your ideology is about bearing moral witness within the activist scene (which, don’t forget, is just the organized infrastructure of the Democratic Party).

You are always promoting your ideology to the people around you. That doesn’t mean you’re telling them your opinions. Ideology isn’t made of opinions. Rather, you’re teaching them through example what you actually consider important – and that’s what will determine their perception of radical politics. Ambulance chasing teaches that leftists are basically flaky: they make promises they can’t keep and don’t stick around after the news cycle moves on. People learn that socialism offers them nothing because your actions have taught them that it means talking big and not following through.


 

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West Virginia teachers on strike. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The March for Our Lives and the West Virginia teachers’ strike were fundamentally different phenomena.

The former was a choreographed, slickly-branded rally organized and promoted by Democratic Party front groups, especially Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords (named after a retired Democratic member of Congress). The teenagers from Florida weren’t actually calling the shots; the whole thing was run by a nonprofit called the March for Our Lives Action Fund, whose decisions were made by a board of professional Democrats (albeit in consultation with a powerless “student advisory board”), and the satellite marches prominently featured sitting Democratic politicians. That’s why they so heavily emphasized voting in the midterms for candidates who support the Democratic Party’s legislative priorities around gun control, and why explicitly left-wing and anti-police demands from student groups without the official March for Our Lives franchise (such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia) were generally ignored. The Democratic platform, after all, is more amenable to outright reactionary policies like the expansion of police presence in poor, working-class, and non-white schools and the abolition of basic legal rights for people with psychiatric diagnoses.

Conversely, the teachers’ strike was collective action, not media spectacle. West Virginia’s unionized teachers, not Democratic fronts or politicians, organized it themselves. It was a non-symbolic, illegal strike. The point was not media coverage or Democratic voter turnout. The teachers wanted better pay and benefits, so they withheld their labor until they got it. They used their access to meaningful social and economic power to improve their lives. They didn’t have to trust Democratic candidates to keep their campaign promises. Collective action works because class struggle defines class society. But high-profile Democratic Party rallies, like the March for Our Lives and the Women’s March, ultimately only benefit the Party itself.

However, leftist conversations about the strike and the march mirrored each other closely. Are their demands sufficiently radical? How much criticism is too much? How can leftists help? In both cases, the Left offered its support reflexively because “organizing is good.” But there was a category difference between the events. Where was the corresponding category difference between left-wing responses to them?

Well, when you’re an ambulance chaser, you lack a meaningful social base. You act as a club for hobbyists within the protest scene who happen to prefer a socialist or anarchist brand to a liberal one. So, whether it’s a Democratic media event or an actual instance of class struggle, you find yourself on the outside looking in. In either case, your “support” consists of waving placards at demonstrations and publishing official statements until the news cycle moves on. Ideology is practice and for you, there is no practical difference. So, your ideology considers them equivalent. Anything that feels like mass politics is equally attractive, whether that feeling is just PR (as with the March for Our Lives or the Women’s March) or has a basis in something real (as with the West Virginia strike).


 

A crisis will only catalyze a well-formed communications network. If such networks are embryonically developed or only partially co-optable, the potentially active individuals in them must be linked together by someone . . . In other words, people must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.

Jo Freeman

When a constituency mobilizes (whether it’s for a strike, a march, or a show at a nightclub), it’s not because all of the individuals involved just happened to show up at the same time. Just as a venue, sound equipment, etc have to be acquired and set up beforehand, attendance and participation have to be deliberately organized. When the West Virginia teachers struck, they did so through preexisting organizing networks: their union and a private Facebook group. When people attended the March for Our Lives, that was also done through preexisting networks: activist, religious, and campus-based groups went together as groups, and the march’s sponsors hired publicists to reach out to the unaffiliated. Similarly, the crowd at a show mobilizes through friendship networks of clubgoers, performers’ fan bases, and promoters’ advertising efforts.

The importance of organizing networks doesn’t mean that a constituency can’t act for itself on its own initiative, “from below.” Rather, an infrastructure of organizing networks is the means by which it’s able to do so. Leadership doesn’t impose itself from outside. It happens when people within those networks persuade others to act collectively. Distinct from leadership, organizing means constructing those networks in the first place.

Leftists often want to be leaders. They should instead prioritize being organizers. After all, by the time a strike or a rally is on TV, the participants don’t need radicals. They already have their organizing networks and their leadership within them. At that point, revolutionaries can express support in words, but from the point of view of the people mobilizing, they’re unnecessary. It makes perfect sense to ignore them. Then, when the leftists realize their efforts are getting no traction, why wouldn’t they move on to something else? So, radicals are always moving on. They never develop long-term political relationships or a stable base. That keeps them extraneous, marginal, and ineffective.

That’s the ambulance-chasing cycle. It needs to be broken.


 

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The mass line: a basic communist technique of social investigation and leadership. Source: Hope & Timmel, Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers, Book 1, via Revolutionary Initiative

Do you want to spread revolutionary ideas?

Remember what ideology is. It isn’t words – it’s a living, physical thing. It’s practice and what practice teaches. Don’t take words at face value, not even your own. The ideology you spread is the ideology you practice (whether you realize you’re practicing it or not).

Is a teachers’ strike important and exciting? Sure. Does that mean most leftists can participate in a meaningful way? By and large, no. They aren’t needed, so why should the strikers care what they have to say? Trying to piggyback on someone else’s organizing and leadership is opportunistic, and people can tell. So, they quite reasonably conclude that radicals are opportunists, not long-haul organizers. The same goes for events like the March for Our Lives (although the weakness of socialists at Democratic media spectacles is probably a good thing on balance. Leftists have no business supporting reactionary goals in the first place).

Being a revolutionary should mean, before anything else, building a revolutionary base. That means identifying a constituency in a neighborhood or industry and making a long-term commitment. Do you have even a small group of friends or fellow radicals interested in doing political work together? That’s enough to start! Go out and talk to people in your target constituency. Find out what their lives are like. What are their needs and aspirations? Then, come up with ideas for programs that tangibly address their lives, have a low barrier to entry (so that as many people as possible can participate), and that can grow your group’s membership and organizational capacity. Reach out – canvass, hold cookouts and potlucks, have public meetings for people to express their needs and views. Build organizing networks. Make promises and follow through. Win credibility. Then, in five or ten years, you’ll have a base of your own. You’ll have created the networks and you’ll have earned enough respect to provide leadership within them. You’ll be the ones putting together exciting mobilizations, and other groups will be the opportunists trying to tag along.

Working and unemployed people don’t need to be told they’re oppressed. They live it out every day – those from specially-oppressed demographics, even more so. But that doesn’t mean revolutionaries don’t have a central role to play! As feminist writer Jo Freeman says, “[P]eople must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.”

No constituency automatically becomes a revolutionary base. Because liberalism and conservatism enjoy cultural hegemony – they’re so widely accepted that most people don’t realize there are alternatives – social movements tend to become conservative or liberal by default. But, if socialists, communists, and anarchists create the organizing networks through which a constituency can act collectively, then provide effective leadership within them, a movement can be revolutionary instead. Revolutionaries are just as capable of proving, through practice, the value of their ideology as conservatives and liberals. If that’s what your actions teach, that’s what people will learn.

But that means being more than “boots on the ground.” It means taking on the slow, patient work of knitting together a base, year by year, project by project. It means earning the ability to lead, not claiming to have it already.

And no amount of external “support” for the teachers’ strike, the March for Our Lives, or anything else can replace that.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


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A New Luddite Rebellion

We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction.

This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?

A manifesto from Rhyd Wildermuth

“Welcome to the modern world. It’s just like the old world, except it doesn’t work.”

–Peter Grey

My friend and I were both hungry; me perhaps a bit more so since I’d been traveling all day, hadn’t eaten that morning and it was now mid-evening.

“I’ll take you to dinner,” I told him. “Somewhere close–maybe pizza.”

“Okay,” he answered, and then started looking at his phone. “This place has really good reviews. Just need to take two trains.”

I was really hungry. “How long will that take?” I asked.

“45 minutes, maybe an hour.”

I shook my head. “Seems far and will cost a lot to get there. Isn’t there a place nearby?”

It was his turn to shake his head. “None with good reviews.”

“I don’t care,” I answered, probably a bit too curtly. The hunger was irritating me greatly. “Let’s just walk to one of them.”

So we did, set out into the cold city night, finally coming to an Italian restaurant. I looked at the menu, the prices were decent. “Perfect,” I said, turning to him.

“I can’t find any reviews on Trip Advisor though,” he answered. “But there’s one about a mile from here with a lot of reviews…”

Exhausted and frustrated, I snapped back: “Food’s food. I’m buying anyway…let’s go in.”

“But it might not be good,” he replied, until suddenly seeing something on his phone that made him excited. “Nevermind, I found it. Good reviews, we can go in.”

I’ve thought about this interaction very often since it happened a few months ago. My friend isn’t stupid; in fact, he’s very intelligent, and his magical insights into the world are often quite profound. Nor is he hardly alone in succumbing to the peculiar sort of paralysis of inaction I’ve recounted here. In fact, I suffer from it often too, as no doubt you likely do.

The desire to know if something is good before you try it, to want certainty about the uncertain–that’s hardly a new thing. But what is new, deeply radically new, is our reliance on social media (and the corporations which run them) and technological devices to give us that certainty, to tell us it’s going to be okay, to remove the risk that an action might not result in the absolute best conditions.

As with a night out at a restaurant or a date with a person met online, so too with any of the actions we might take towards revolution. We look to Tumblr and Twitter to gauge the sentiment of others, to divine if our groups and theories and plans are popular enough, have all the required sign-off’s from every possible identity focus-group, and nod sagely when told ‘that won’t work’ by whichever correctly-branded social justice personality happened to come through our feed that particular minute.

We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction. This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?

Those Satanic Mills

If you feel this way of critiquing technology seems bizarre, anti-modern, ‘primitive,’ or appears to ignore all the ‘good’ that technology has done, you might be tempted to describe all this as ‘luddite.’ And you’d be correct, and not in the ways most moderns have come to understand what the Luddites fought for.

The Luddites have always fascinated me. Men and women, sometimes cross-dressing, stealing into oppressive factories in the middle of the night to smash looms to stop production: that’s quite hardcore, regardless of why they did it. Besides the awesome acts of industrial sabotage, however, two other aspects of what the followers of King (or Ned, or Captain) Ludd did two hundred years ago are extremely relevant to us now.

The first aspect is their anarcho-paganism. They all claimed to follow a ghostly captain or leader who urged them on their night-time strikes against the industrialists. The stories they told about exactly who He was varied just as often as their actions: Ludd lived under a hill, or in a well, or under a church, all three places not ironically located “somewhere” in Sherwood forest, where Robin of Locksley and his fellow rogues were said to hide. Ludd was a spirit, a king, or a general (“No General But Ludd/Means The Poor Any Good” went one of their chants), or just a captain amongst them, or even the ghost of a man named Ned Ludd (killed after sabotaging a factory, goes the stories).  Like other similar groups such as the Whiteboys and Molly Maguires and Rebeccas, the Luddites invoked the mythic against capitalists and the State to great effect, at least while their resistance lasted.

And that brings me to the third aspect of the Luddite resistance, the part which I find most haunting as another year on this earth passes for me (I’m 41 today, it seems). To explain this aspect, though, we need to step back a bit and look not just at the Luddites themselves but at the era in which they fought and the strange (and eerily familiar) historical circumstances which created the world around them.

If industrial capitalism has a specific birthdate and birthplace, it was 1769 in Derbyshire, England. It was in that year and in that place the very first modern factory was built by Richard Arkwright. The sound of the factory was compared to “the devil’s bagpipes,” a fact memorialized in this poem by Lorna Smithers:

When Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.

You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.

Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth…

It took forty years for Arkwright’s new terror, “those Satanic mills” as William Blake called them in 1804, to finally spark the resistance movement known as the Luddites. In that space of time, Arkwright’s first mill multiplied into 2400 similar factories spread throughout England (mostly in the major cities), an average of 60 a year.

So, in two generations, Britain had gone from a place where there was no such thing as a factory to a place where there were several thousands. In four decades, an entire society which had started out knowing nothing about industrialization appeared to become irrevocably industrialised, and it was at that point the Luddites struck.

But why then? Why not before? And why fight what appeared to be inevitable?

Against the Modern World

A Foxconn factory (maker of most smartphones) in Wisconsin.

We must first ignore the modern interpretation of what a Luddite is. They weren’t ‘anti-technology’ or slow-to-adapt old people hopelessly left behind in a new world. Nor where they only concerned with fighting for better wages for weavers (who, before the factories, were able to support themselves and large families on the income from their specialized trade).

They were people close to my age and somewhat younger, the oldest people alive in Britain who could still remember the old world before factories, but still also young enough to actually work in them. They were a generation that stood on a threshold between the pre-industrial world and the new industrial capitalist order.

Imagine if you will what it must have been like to see your parents and the older people in your villages, towns, and cities starving because they could not or would not adapt to this brave new world. Many of them were too old, feeble, or weak-sighted to work in the factories, and anyway the factory owners preferred children as young as five to do much of the nimble work (and they couldn’t fight back). So while you see the older generation starving and destitute, you also see your own children or younger siblings coming home from the mills with broken fingers, strange bruises, and unmentionable wounds from their 14-hour day crawling under machinery to tie broken threads or retrieve loose bobbins.

And then there’s you, you and others your age, still young enough to work in many of the mills yet old enough to remember when the world wasn’t like this at all.

Now, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world before factories, even as in many modern liberal democratic countries very few of us have actually stepped foot in one. That’s not because they aren’t around anymore: they’ve moved mostly to Asia and Africa, where exhausted workers are crammed up like cattle in a slaughterhouse to make the phone and laptops you’re probably reading this on (as well as the clothes you’re wearing, possibly the chair you’re sitting on, and most of the stuff inside the home where you lay your head at night) for little or no wages.

And it is almost impossible to imagine what society was like before the factory. What was it like to only wear clothes made by yourself or people who lived nearby? What was life like before the cities swelled with displaced peasants blinking in the light of dawn before the gates of textile and steel mills, hungry and exhausted but jostling each other in line for a job that day to feed their family? What did the streets and town squares look like at night before everyone had to wake up at dawn to go to work? How did we relate to each other before wages became the only way to survive? And what did society look like before mass-production, when no one ever wore the same thing, when ‘pre-packaged experiences,’ monoculture, and conformity were literally impossible?

It is almost impossible to imagine the world before factories.

Almost, but not completely.

Because we are living in a similar world to what the Luddites experienced.

“All that is sacred is profaned…”*

(* from The Communist Manifesto)

If you can pinpoint any places in western history where technology severely altered the way human society functioned, I suspect there are three. The most obvious one is the industrial revolution, which was also the birth of capitalism. The one before that changed the world as well (but much more slowly) was the invention of the printing press, which gave to early merchants and the bourgeoisie the power to disseminate literature outside the strictures of religious and royal decree. And while we tend to see that invention as a net gain for humanity, we must remember that mass-printing and distribution has always been primarily in the hands of the rich, with the rest of us merely passive consumers.

The third–well, that’s the era we’re in now, the computer/internet ‘revolution.’

The first ‘node-to-node’ digital communication happened in 1969, 200 years after from the birth of Richard Arkwright’s steam-powered looming frame. But being military technology, it took more than a decade for that technology to filter out to non-military capitalists and become the ‘World Wide Web.’ In the following decades, we’ve gone from a world where random (“risky”) human interactions occurred only in public spaces to one where most such interactions now occur ‘online.’ Here’s some other stuff that has changed:

  • 30 years ago, there were no smartphones or texting; in 2015, 98% of all Americans 18-29 years old had a cellphone.
  • 17 years ago there was no Wikipedia, 14 years ago there was no such thing as Facebook, 12 years ago no Twitter, 11 years ago no Tumblr, and 7 years ago no Instagram.
  • In 1984 only 8% of US homes had a computer of any sort; in 2010, 77% did.

These are all merely statistics about technological saturation; they tell us only as much as the figures about factories in England between 1769 and 1810 told us. But we don’t need to dig very far to understand that this technological change has radically altered what it means to be a human in a capitalist society.

For instance: before cellphones, you could only be reached at home. That meant if you needed to wait for a call you had to stay by the phone, but it also meant that your life was less likely to revolve around the ability of someone to get a hold of you immediately. There was no expectation that your attention could be gotten at any hour of the day because such a thing was impossible.

Before texting and email there were letters. You had to take the time to decide what you were going to say to someone, write it out on paper, post it in the mail, and then wait some amount of time for a reply. Thus human interactions were slower and more ponderous and most of all more intentional. Even the angriest of letters wouldn’t arrive until the next day at the earliest, and this slowness meant there was always at least a little time to rethink your immediate fury, unlike now with our instantaneous ‘send’ buttons.

Social media, however, probably represents the largest shift in how we relate to each other and also how we see ourselves. To have large groups of friends you had to do stuff for them, and with them, call them on weekends or send them letters, catch up with them for coffee or go to their parties or invite them for dinner, take vacations to see them or host them in your home. Now you need only post an update and read theirs to feel you’ve performed acts of friendship.

Accompanying that shift has been an increasing feeling of isolation and alienation. So many people now self-diagnose with introversion (as with trauma, or social anxiety, or many other ailments) that one wonders how humans ever managed to talk to each other before the internet.

The general response to this apparent increase in alienation is to state it has always been there, that being connected to each other more via the internet has helped us talk about it more, and that anyway we are #Blessed the internet came around to let us all be social despite our fear and misanthropy.

But in this case particularly, those of us who stand on the same threshold of change that the Luddites also stood upon cannot help but remember–we all did fine without social media. Better, even. We got over our shyness and anxiety because we had to, and the internet appears to have merely enabled us to not get over such things, to not address our social anxiety and fear of rejection and instead hide safely behind a screen.

Before the internet, binge-watching television (“Netflix and chill”) or staring at a screen for hours a day was a sign you’d given up on yourself and the world around you, were depressed and really just needed a friendly face or to go for a walk. They were symptoms of serious depression, indications that some large issue in your life has been unaddressed for too long and the things to ‘get you through’ had become addictions which prevented you from seeking help.

Now those things are all proud marks of ‘self-care’ enabled by technology without which we’d all surely be miserable, lonely humans. Nevermind that we are still miserable, lonely humans, and probably more so now.

Non-Binary Poly Radical #Blessed Vegan Cruelty-Free #Resister Queer Theorist Influencers Unite!™

Less controversial but even more unaddressed is what this new ‘technological revolution’ has done to our ability to survive, to earn enough money to eat and pay rent. The much-vaunted and ridiculous ‘internet of things’ has made it so we rarely get to ‘own’ the things we pay capitalists for, and must re-sell parts of ourselves constantly in order to compensate for dwindling wages and no savings. This is the curse of the ‘millenial’ (a marketing term that, like so much else, somehow became a ‘fact’ in capitalist society)–to have no steady income but to have thousands of Instagram followers in the hopes of one day having enough to be an ‘influencer’. To face insurmountable college debt and no way to secure housing but to get thousands of retweets on Twitter.

It is not just the fate of millenials. I’ve had two posts shared over 100,000 times and one seen by 1.5 million people. And yet I haven’t been able to afford eating more than twice a day in years, and have been nomadic for the last five years because 1.5 million views doesn’t pay rent.

The answer to the poverty experienced by more and more people (again–not just millenials) is to ‘monetize’ your life. Or as put in a rather brilliant essay about nomads like myself at It’s Going Down (“Living In A Van Down By The Instagram”):

The point here is not to whine about how we all can’t be special snowflakes or social media super-stars; the point is to state that capital is colonizing all aspects of our lives, including online worlds, and attempting to make us in turn generate profit, content, and value during all waking moments, either online or off. And, there’s no better backdrop to do this than when we are constantly traveling, as we in turn are utilizing and activating our social networks for the sake of monetizing them. Thus, we are pushed to take photos and tag corporations in the hopes that maybe one day we could get $50 for a sponsored post. To fundamentally turn ourselves, and our lives, into brands.

As was pointed out in the new book, Now, by the Invisible Committee, this has become both the economic baseline as well as central anxiety of our time. We aren’t just driving somewhere and enjoying a podcast or randomly picking up a hitch hiker, we are instead missing out on an opportunity to sell our labor power for Uber or Lyft. We aren’t taking photos to share with loved ones, we are building up our brand and trying to gain followers, which we will then sell to multinational corporations. This is the logic of the gig economy applied to all aspects of our lives, at all times, and in all scenarios.

To monetize yourself, though, requires you make yourself more sell-able, becoming a brand, a product, constantly adapting to market demands. Or as Badean wrote in “Identity In Crisis:”, in the Journal of Queer Nihilism:

“The collapse of traditional subject positions is managed through the proliferation of a new positions: app designers, graphic designers, cyber sex workers, queer theorists, feminist publishers, social network engineers, trend hunters, eBay sellers, social justice activists, performance artists, porn directors, spammers, party promoters, award winning baristas.

We are forced to continually define ourselves, to enact countless operations upon ourselves so as to produce ourselves anew each day as someone worth taking to market — our basic survival depends on the ceaseless deployment of increasingly discreet technologies of the self.

Everything is for sale: our sex appeal, our fetishes, our tattoos, our radicalism, our fashion sense, our queerness, our androgyny, our fitness, our fluidity, our abnormality, our sociability. Facebook and Twitter function as the new resume.

We are caught in the unending necessity to be continually educating, training, exploring, perfecting, and fine-tuning ourselves. Our continual self-invention is both economic imperative and economic engine.”

No doubt this seems dire enough, but one more dark truth emerges from this constant race. Because if we are constructing our identities in order to become more sale-able to people (be that for money or Facebook likes or even just to be noticed in this new hyper-gendered micro-radical hierarchy of new identities), how do we even know who we are anymore?

To be honest, I don’t always know. I am a radical queer anarchist pagan nomad punk fag brother boyfriend theorist bard druid, but none of that actually tells me what I am, only the hashtags people might use to define me on a social media post. Labels that once gave meaning now become indelible brandings. Try to shift any of those identities and the world (or the social media world, anyway) pushes back…hard. And just as often, those labels themselves are fiercely contested: I cannot count how many times I’ve been told I’m too ‘masculine-presenting’ to be allowed to use the term queer.

So who am I? Who gets to decide? And why are we using capitalist tools to mediate those discussions in the first place? Or is it possible it’s those very tools which have triggered these crises in the first place?

Not All Revolutions Are Good

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

(The Communist Manifesto)

The shift wrought by internet technology wherein identity is now the very battlefield of our ability to survive in the world may seem utterly different from any other struggle which has come before. In context of the struggle the Luddites and the early communists and anarchists fought, however, not much has really changed.

The rise of industrial capitalism triggered vast shifts in social relations which are to this day still being constantly disrupted. It should thus be no surprise to us that ‘disruptive technology’ is a statement of pride for many of the new architects of this current upheaval, an upheaval in which we also take part when we celebrate the destruction of older forms of relating (binary gender, hetero-normative society, class-based politics). What ‘good’ comes from these disruptions unfortunately seems fleeting and probably is. Because while it is a beautiful thing that acceptance of gender variance and queer sexuality have become so prominent, it’s a sick joke to say a poor queer or trans person desperately trying to pay rent by sleeping on a friend’s couch while letting out their bedroom on AirBnb, turning tricks on TaskRabbit or bareback hookup apps, and desperately looking for the perfect filter to get their Instagram account another 100 followers has somehow had their life ‘improved’ by these disruptions.

Yet, to this current horror in which we all find ourselves, perhaps the Luddites might shrug and say, “at least you didn’t have time forced upon you.” Because along with ‘disruption’ of the factory from hand-craft and laborer to factory and wage-slave came the beginning of an oppressive order of time.

Clocks became no longer curiosities but requirements. Suddenly, knowing if it was half-past eight or just ‘morning’ became the crucial difference between feeding your family for a day or starving on the street. Time literally had to be disciplined into us during the birth of industrialization, often times by christian moralists like John Wesley working on behalf of the factory owners.  Time became something that you “spent” rather than something that passed, work became measured not by what needed doing according to the season but what the factory boss demanded you do within a set number of hours.

Before industrialization, work was task-oriented. You planted at some times of the year, harvested at others, ground wheat and fixed carts, wove cloth and made clothes not when an arbitrary number declared it was ‘time’ to do so but when the thing itself needed doing. And work itself was determined by how long you wanted to take doing the task, not how many hours the boss said you needed to stand at a counter or else be fired.

When attempting to imagine what that world was like (not very long ago), we tend to imagine it for ourselves, what our own life might have been like. Harder to imagine, however, is what all of society itself was like without clocks as over-seers. Imagine then what life would be like if not just you but all your friends and all the people in your town lived life without clocks, and you get a little closer to understanding precisely what the Luddites were fighting for.

A New Luddite Rebellion

It was against such radical, world-altering shifts that the Luddites broke into factories at night, smashing looms. One imagines they wanted their time back, they wanted their children and parents back, wanted the ability to survive without working in factories back. They wanted back the rich texture of a society where you knew the people who made your clothes, talked to the people who grew your food, or were those people themselves.

We are living in another such time. People older than me lived most of their childhoods without the internet and do not (or cannot) adapt to a world where everything about them is on display, sold piecemeal through Facebook updates and Instagram photos.

Those much younger than me do not know a world without cellphones, do not remember that it was possible to make new friends and meet amazing lovers without connecting first to an always-on device in your pocket. How many of them know you can arrive by train to a foreign city with just a paper map and a notebook and have the best trip of your life?  How many will ever get a chance to experience what it was like to not just survive but actually have a pretty decent life in a city on less than full-time, barely-above minimum wage as I did in Seattle 15 years ago? And most of all, how many of them will ever know that risk and uncertainty is not something to be avoided at all costs but very often the thing which makes life worth living in the first place?

I barely remember what that was like.

I also barely remember what it was like to be anonymous, to have hours and hours of free time without devices I felt like I needed always to be looking at, constantly notifying me that emails and texts and retweets and messages are coming in. To have long conversations with strangers while waiting for a bus, to make new friends on the walk to work or find an awesome lover by chance while whiling away the day at a cafe. And most of all, I barely remember what it was like to know who I am without labels–to not need to call myself anything but my name, and have that be enough.

I want that all back. If you are close in age to me, you probably do to. If you are younger than me and don’t know what that was like, perhaps my telling of it is enough to entice you to want it also, and if you are older than me you might be shaking your head, having already mourned what’s been lost.

More than anything, we need this all back. Not just our time (consumed constantly by always-on devices and relentless updates). Not just our Selves (boxed in, categorized, labeled and shelved by any number of ‘identities.’). Not just our ability to pay rent and eat and still have enough money left over to enjoy the ever-dwindling number of months and days we have on this earth. Not just all that, but we need our will back, our reckless desire to act in the face of risk and uncertainty, the chaotic and unscripted interactions between ourselves and the world which make our lives not just exciting, but mythic.

And therein’s the key to the ritual invocation we must perform to take back what we’ve watched slowly sold off of our lives with each new screech of the devil’s bagpipes. There are spirits, gods, and ancestors who keep the memory of the old worlds even as we forget. Ludd was one, and though his followers failed to stop the horror born of the factories in England, some of us still remember their attempt. Be it Ludd or the Raven King, Brighid or Dionysos, or perhaps all the old gods and heroes summoned together, we can make another go at stopping this new horror waking upon the world. From the shattered remains of the past we can reconstruct a new resistance against this increasingly senseless drive towards self-as-product.

And if we fail, we will no doubt be smeared by many for being ‘anti-modern’ just as the Luddites were, dismissed and forgotten by many others, but definitely remembered by some, just as the Luddites are still remembered now.

We may indeed fail. The risks are very, very great, and there’s no Trip Advisor listing to assure us that there will be good food and pleasant ambiance after our uprising. Perhaps our failures will be re-tweeted across the world, Facebook Live videos streaming our defeat to countless millions using greasy thumbs to scroll through the comments. We’ll lose Instagram followers and potential Influencer sponsorships while the rich and powerful of the world destroy more forests, gun down more poor people, and start more wars.

We probably won’t win. But I’m gonna try anyway, because I want my life back.

And maybe you do, too.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.


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Grandmother of the Revolution

“Because revolutions don’t only spread like wildfire, they spread like forests and especially trees. An old tree puts out many seeds that become saplings that become trees of their own. And then those trees put out more seeds, more saplings, more trees, and next thing you know the world is a forest again.”

A brief tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, from Rhyd Wildermuth


 

“To die was merely to go on in another direction.”

Ursula K. Le Guin has died. Or returned.  Or really, she’s merely gone off in another direction.

There will be a thousand tributes and remembrances to her. You should read them all, even if you’ve never read her work. Especially if you’ve never read her work. Because you’ve no doubt noticed all the really cool inspiring mystical/anarcho/revolutionary sorts you know are all in tears right now, like they’re mourning their favorite grandmother.

Because we are.

Ursula K. Le Guin was like a grandmother, but also like a tree. Trees can be grandmothers, you know, and they often are. Because trees don’t just grow and die, they do lots of other stuff in their very long lives. They shade the ground, shelter and feed small animals and birds. The leaves they drop compost into more soil, while their twigs and branches get gathered for nests. And their roots, oh those roots. They hold the earth together around them, even long after the tree itself has died.

But what trees also do in their long lives is make more trees. Unlike humans who make more humans, trees scatter their children everywhere. The wind shakes their branches and more trees happen thousands of feet away. A bird plays in their branches and then flies miles away and more trees happen there, too. And then those trees that happen from that first tree live long lives, shelter and feed animals, hold the earth together, and then also make more trees happen.

Le Guin was like a tree. When I first saw her at a reading in the crammed back room of a bookstore, I didn’t just see a woman there, nor did my companions.

“She’s like an ancient tree” one of my friends whispered. “It’s like a tree lived for a thousand years and decided to walk around and write and tell us stuff.”

My friend was right. And also wrong, because she was a human. But actually what’s the difference? Because trees and humans aren’t so different, and the truth of the matter is not for science and logic to decide but for art.

“I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie.”

Le Guin was a grandmother tree and not a grandmother tree. Or maybe great-grandmother tree and not great-grandmother tree, because who knows yet how many generations of other trees happened because of her? So many ideas happened because she happened, so many worlds.

Many of the tributes to her will be about how she inspired the fiction of many others (ahem–wizard school, a matter she herself shrugged off and laughed about, because ideas didn’t belong to people anymore than trees belonged to their grandmothers who themselves were grandchildren).

But what shouldn’t be under-stated is how much she inspired those of us who learned fiction could tell the truth, and truth could be completely fiction, and the difference didn’t matter nearly as much as people like to think.

For a long time as a writer she fought the demands of literary critics and the publishing industry to define her books according to a marketing category. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Why were both different from fiction in general? They were all beautiful lies telling the truth; some had imaginary dragons, some had imaginary people, but it was all imaginary.

And of course if it was all imaginary, yet we also found truth in it, then what does imaginary actually mean? And who decides?

Well–we decide. That was always her point anyway, wasn’t it? That was her point about capitalism as well (because she was as anti-capitalist as they get, though you might not always notice from the big-name tributes). And about anarchism (yeah, she was one of those too). And really her point about love, and gender, and everything.

We decide. We make the world. But sometimes people get in the way, particularly greedy people who profit off others’ suffering. And so we have to stop them, but without imagining that stopping them will make every problem go away:

There would not be slums like this, if the Revolution prevailed. But there would be misery. There would always be misery, waste, cruelty. She had never pretended to be changing the human condition, to be Mama taking tragedy away from the children so they won’t hurt themselves. Anything but. So long as people were free to choose, if they chose to drink flybane and live in sewers, it was their business. Just so long as it wasn’t the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people.

Le Guin never coddled us as she led us through the worlds she created, never tried to make the paths through forests clean of debris. The truth was beautiful and messy, beautiful because it was messy, messy because it was beautiful. The Dispossessed, more than any other work, made sure we knew just what liberation looks like, as did her short story about the founder of the world that book speaks of:

“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”

Most of the best quotes are from that short story, most of these quotes are, too. And here’s where I start to cry while I type. Because sometimes a thought would come into my head: there will be a day without Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a funny thought to have, one I’d have quite often. And it turns out I am not the only one, either–so many of my friends have said the same thing.

It’s because of that story. But also because grandmother trees will not always be around, even if the forest that rose up around them continues to grow. I’m part of that forest, and so are you. So is this site and publisher, so are quite a few others.

And it’s that story (gods I’m crying) that maybe made us think about how one day she would go in another direction. But also we would still be around, and that would mean something and so would her passing.

That story, The Day Before The Revolution, tells the last day of the woman who changed a world. And of course Le Guin changed a world already, but maybe is about to change it even more. How she already changed it will take thousands of tributes (and again, read them all). How she is maybe about to change the world even more, well–I think we will see very soon.

She was and wasn’t a grandmother tree. She wasn’t Odo, the mother of the revolution, but maybe she also was. Because revolutions don’t only spread like wildfire, they spread like forests and especially trees. An old tree puts out many seeds that become saplings that become trees of their own. And then those trees put out more seeds, more saplings, more trees, and next thing you know the world is a forest again.

“Tomorrow? Oh, I won’t be here tomorrow,” she said brusquely. Whoever had asked her smiled, another one laughed, though Amai glanced round at her with a puzzled look. They went on talking and shouting. The Revolution. What on earth had made her say that? What a thing to say on the eve of the Revolution, even if it was true.”


If you’ve never read Ursula K. Le Guin, here’s a short list of recommendations on where to start.

Changing Planes: a really accessible collection of short stories about other worlds all threaded together. Some of them will make you cry.

The Wizard of Earthsea: the first of her Earthsea books, a gorgeous story that doubles as an ethics manual for magic.

The Birthday of the World: Another collection of short stories. Again, some will make you cry.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, The Day Before The Revolution, and The Dispossessed: these three pieces (the first two are short stories, the last is a novel) outline maybe the best theory of anarchism ever written.

Gifts/Voices/Powers (“Annals of the Western Shore”): three ‘young adult’ novels that I really wish had been around when I was a teenager.

The Left Hand of Darkness: one of the many novels that takes place in her “Hainish Cycle.” Explores what would happen if sex was only something you did, never something you were.


 

A Wildness Comes on the Heart of the Deer

From Christopher Scott Thompson

 

A Fianna warrior running. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

It is the month of May is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.

 Summer is lessening the rivers, the swift horses are looking for the pool; the heath spreads out its long hair, the weak white bog-down grows. A wildness comes on the heart of the deer… (Poem attributed to Finn)

The thing that I love most in the world, other than people of course, is poetry. And thus, by extension, religion and philosophy. Which causes me to love justice and seek truth. Which forces me to admit that the world is currently ruled by injustice and lies. Which drives me to anarchism and revolution.

Poetry is at the heart of my reality; it is how I feel anything at all. It is how I understand what I feel. It is how I express it. When poetry is used in the service of horror and ugliness, I call that an obscenity. I call on my gods for the strength to defeat it.

Men Who Are Not Wolves

A torch blazes in the center of a table scattered with ritual implements. A man dressed in a black leather jacket leans forward slightly as if receiving a benediction from the shirtless man whose hand rests paternally on his back. A man kneels, holding a spear, nearby. Another kneels with an animal skull. Their faces are marked with runes and thick white face-paint. The scene might look like a black metal album cover, but to the men participating it is clearly solemn, mysterious, a spiritual experience. This is a ritual of the Wolves of Vinland, a white supremacist heathen sect that refers to itself as a “tribe” and has chapters in Virginia, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

The power of the mythic is one thing fascists understand. Appeals to reason will never reach them, because their belief system doesn’t have anything to do with reason. Liberals may not want to admit it, but no belief system is truly based on reason. Reason is a powerful tool for defending or questioning a belief if you choose to do so, but the real foundation of any belief is the primal emotions and core values of the person holding it. The deepest and most personal parts of the self are beyond the reach of argument. The language of the deep places is the language of myth.

We must not surrender the mythic to the fascist enemy. If we want to drive fascism back into the abyss and create a world of justice and equality, we must make the mythic a contested ground.

Tribal Fantasies

The fantasy tribalism of the Wolves of Vinland is empty at the core, based on an imaginary conception of what a tribe is by people who were not born into anything of the sort. The “tribalism” peddled by writers like Jack Donovan (a member of the Wolves of Vinland) is more similar to a Conan comic than any actual tribe, ancient or modern.

That doesn’t change how appealing it is to the men who fall for it, and the many others who feel the same deep sense of need. People want to have a tribe because they want to be part of something meaningful, something with mythic power, something they can give themselves to and be ennobled by.

The left used to understand something about how to create that kind of myth. Millions of people devoted their lives to communism, for better or worse. The lived for it, fought for it and died for it. They didn’t do that because they rationally agreed with a certain economic theory. They did it because the dream of creating a classless society was something big enough to give your life to. Millions of people fought for anarchism for the same reason – they wanted to be part of a heroic struggle to make a better world for human beings to live in, a world without hierarchy or fixed authority.

The dream of the fascists is not about creating a better world, but transforming the world into something even crueler than it already is. A world in which violence is fetishized and exalted while any form of perceived weakness is degraded and despised. A world in which the only thing that matters is whether you are an insider, because all outsiders are slaves or prey.

It may seem strange and horrifying that this appeals to anyone, but the truth is that it has proven to be as powerful an idea as anything the left has ever offered. It cannot be defeated by rational argument alone, and still less by smugness and sarcasm. Defeating this idea requires courage. It requires sacrifice. It requires heroism.

We need to meet esoteric fascism on the same ground it is attempting to claim, armed with a better and nobler myth, and defeat it there.

If pagan fascists have a warrior magic, we need a better one.

Warband Culture

Among the ancient Celtic cultures, most warriors fought on behalf of a particular tribe, or a clan faction within a particular tribe. As in several other Indo-European cultures, there were also warriors outside of any tribe or clan, warriors who lived in the deep forests and survived by hunting, raiding and banditry. These warriors were organized into small warbands, united by loyalties that were personal rather than tribal. If the Irish lore is an accurate guide, the warbands were often in conflict with the tribal kings.

Warbands of this type could also be hired as mercenaries. In Celtic Gaul they were known as Gaesatae, in Celtic Ireland as Fianna. Members of a Fianna warband were specifically not considered members of any clan or tribe, and were absolved from the ties and obligations of kinship while in the warband:

And there was no man taken into the Fianna until his tribe and his kindred would give securities for him, that even if they themselves were all killed he would not look for satisfaction for their death. But if he himself would harm others, that harm was not to be avenged on his people. (From the Finn Cycle)

Although there is an entire cycle of Irish legend based around the Fianna chief named Finn MacCumhail, there are also references to Fianna warbands in the older Ulster Cycle.

Fianna bands were among the last groups in Ireland to resist the conversion to Christianity, and the early Irish law codes associate them with the final remnants of the druids. In at least one case, a Fianna band is described as being led by a druid.

A small but tightly-knit band living outside the tribe and outside the law, close to nature and uncontrollable by any power structure. This sounds like the perfect model for a pagan anarchist affinity group…

The Fianna Ethos

The Fianna were defined by small autonomous bands. The standard size of a Fianna warband was 27 fighters, as seen in this passage from the Finn cycle:

AND the number of the Fianna of Ireland at that time was seven score and ten chief men, every one of them having three times nine fighting men under him.

The Fianna band of Cathbad the druid had 27 warriors, as did the band of Nessa the woman-warrior:

Conchobar was called from the name of his mother, mac Nessa. But her name in the beginning had been Assa, “docile “or” gentle,” and it was on this manner that it was changed to Niassa, “ungentle.” She was daughter of Eochaid Yellow-heel, king of Ulster, and by his desire she had been trained up by twelve tutors, to whom she was ever docile and full of teachableness. But in one night the entire number of her tutors fell by the hand of Cathbad the druid, who from the southern part of Ulster went on a raid through Thin with three times nine men. He was a man of knowledge and of druidical skill; moreover, he was endowed with great bodily strength. Now the girl had no knowledge who they were who bad slain her guardians, but from that moment she turned woman­warrior, and with her company set out to seek the author of the deed. In every district of Erin she destroyed and plundered, so that her name was changed to Niassa (Nessa) after that, because of the greatness of her prowess and of her valor. (From the Ulster Cycle)

The Fianna of legend were required to display personal integrity, generosity, and immovable courage:

And every man of them was bound to three things, to take no cattle by oppression, not to refuse any man, as to cattle or riches; no one of them to fall back before nine fighting men. (From the Finn Cycle)

Given that Fianna warbands lived by raiding and banditry as well as hunting, what does it mean to say “take no cattle by oppression”? In my opinion it can only mean that the raids of the Fianna should target those with cattle to spare, not those who are barely surviving. In other words, expropriation.

“Not to refuse any man, as to cattle or riches” refers to the extravagant generosity expected by the Celtic society of which the Fianna were a part. These outlaw warriors were oathbound to refuse nothing to anyone:

Finn never refused any man; he never put away any one that came to his house. If the brown leaves falling in the woods were gold, if the white waves were silver, Finn would have given away the whole of it.

There is no conception of “private property” here, no concept of wealth for its own sake. No honor is gained by keeping anything; honor can only be gained by giving everything away. The warband takes from those who have more than they need, and gives all of it away without a thought for the morning. Sounds sort of… communist, doesn’t it?

“No one of them to fall back before nine fighting men” may sound like a tall order, but I’ve seen it done. I’ve been in situations where a small group stood outnumbered and exposed, faced with a much larger opposing force… and held its ground. There is much to be said for the hit and run mentality, the mindset of living to fight another day, but there is also much to be said for standing firm and immovable in the right circumstances. Based on raiding as it was, the Fianna’s mode of warfare is most similar to that of the modern guerrilla, so my assumption is that this rule applied only in a situation where the Fianna had determined to stand their ground.

The Fianna warrior also lived by a martial creed, expressed in the triad “Truth in our hearts, strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.”

“Truth in our hearts” means exactly what it sounds like: integrity and honesty. “Strength in our arms” refers to physical strength, but also to skill with weapons. “Fulfillment in our tongues” means that a person’s actions should match their stated principles. So, this triad calls for the Fianna warrior to cultivate personal integrity, martial ability and accountability.

Mystery of the Deer

The Wolves of Vinland use initiation rituals to build a sense of spirituality, group identity and esprit de corps. Their mysteries are based on a mythos of elite yet predatory outsiders living outside of a corrupt society – a band of wolves.

The Fianna loved to fight and could even be bloodthirsty. As the lore says of Finn’s son Osgar:

A desire of the desires of Osgar was to listen to the striking of shields; to be hacking at bones in a battle, it is what he had a mind for always…

As warriors, the Fianna were expected to be ferocious:

If you were to search the world you would not find a harder man, best of blood, best in battle; no one got the upper hand of him.

However, the mysteries of the Fianna did not identify them with a wolf pack, but with a herd of deer – the same animals they hunted and ate. Finn and several other figures associated with the Fianna are named after the deer they hunted. Finn’s boyhood name of “Deimne” means “a young male deer.” His wife Sadhbh often changed into a doe. His son Oisin’s name means “fawn.”

This may very well have some connection to the Cernunnos panel on the Gundestrup cauldron, where the stag-headed god is surrounded by wild animals of various kinds. In any case, the mentality of the hunter identifying with the target of the hunt, rather than with a predatory animal, is strikingly different from a warband referring to its members as “wolves” or other predatory animals. (Some warbands in ancient Ireland did refer to themselves as “werewolves.” These may have been the diberg, an explicitly antisocial version of the Fianna. In other Indo-European societies warbands are often identified with wolves, and there is nothing inherently fascist about this symbolism.)

The initiation mysteries of the ancient Fianna also emphasized poetry and druidism. Finn, the greatest of the Fianna, sought wisdom from the sage Finneces at the Boyne river, the mystical source of poetic inspiration or Imbas. Identification with the hunted animal, love of poetry and mysticism, and fighting for the sheer joy of fighting. The Fianna were not predators but warrior-poets.

The initiation tests of the Fianna were severe indeed, beginning with the requirement to have a deep understanding of poetry and followed by an intense test of martial skills:

And there was no man taken into the Fianna till he knew the twelve books of poetry. And before any man was taken, he would be put into a deep hole in the ground up to his middle, and he having his shield and a hazel rod in his hand. And nine men would go the length of ten furrows from him and would cast their spears at him at the one time. And if he got a wound from one of them, he was not thought fit to join with the Fianna. And after that again, his hair would be fastened up, and he put to run through the woods of Ireland, and the Fianna following after him to try could they wound him, and only the length of a branch between themselves and himself when they started. And if they came up with him and wounded him, he was not let join them; or if his spears had trembled in his hand, or if a branch of a tree had undone the plaiting of his hair, or if he had cracked a dry stick under his foot, and he running. And they would not take him among them till he had made a leap over a stick the height of himself, and till he had stooped under one the height of his knee, and till he had taken a thorn out from his foot with his nail, and he running his fastest. But if he had done all these things, he was of Finn’s people.

Note how the martial skills being tested here emphasize defense – the warrior has to be impossible to hit, rather than adept at destroying others – and the ability to run and jump in near silence through the forests while being chased. This test puts the would-be Fianna in the role of a hunted deer, not a pursuing wolf. The paradox is that the initiated warrior then joins the hunters. The Fianna initiation ritual dramatizes a transformation, from the one who is chased to the one who chases, while retaining the ability to identify with the hunted.

Poetry of the Fianna

The poetry of the Fianna displays a deep love of and familiarity with the forests in which these warbands roamed. In later legends, Finn’s son Oisin, the “fawn,” made a voyage to Tir n an-Og, and returned several hundred years later to meet St. Patrick. This provided the storytellers with an opportunity to contrast the pagan lifestyle of the Fianna with the Christian ethos. In theory, all this material was written by Christians and for Christians, yet paganism is given a remarkably sympathetic treatment. The pagan love of nature and delight in physicality is contrasted with the Christian tendency toward self-hatred and disdain for the flesh, and it is often the pagan ethos that comes off better in these poems.

It is what Finn had a mind for, to be listening to the sound of Druim Dearg; to sleep at the stream of Ess Ruadh, to be hunting the deer of Gallimh of the bays…

 The call of Osgar going to the hunt; the voice of the hounds on the road of the Fianna, to be listening to them and to the poets, that was always his desire.

 The music that put Finn to his sleep was the cackling of the ducks from the lake of the Three Narrows; the scolding talk of the blackbird of Doire an Cairn, the bellowing of the ox from the Valley of the Berries.

 The whistle of the eagle from the Valley of Victories, or from the rough branches of the ridge by the stream; the grouse of the heather of Cruachan; the call of the otter of Druim-re-Coir.

 The song of the blackbird of Doire an Cairn indeed I never heard sweeter music, if I could be under its nest.

 My grief that I ever took baptism; it is little credit I got by it, being without food, without drink, doing fasting and praying.

“Sometimes Antisocial, Always Antifascist”

Imagine the lifestyle. Living in the forest with other fighters, hunting and listening to poetry and fighting fascism and capitalism, giving away anything that comes into your hands so that no one ever goes without. Uncontrollable by anyone, but bound by oath to resist oppression. If you can honestly tell me that doesn’t appeal to you, I can honestly tell you I will never understand you.

You may not be in a position to live that way. Obviously, most people won’t be. However, here are a few ideas for those who may be inspired to take this path.

A radical Fianna band could base its training activities broadly on the mythical description of the Fianna initiation test, including:

  • Games of defense in which one person has to fend off the attacks of several using a shield and stick.
  • Chasing games, in which one person has to escape several while running through the forest.
  • Obstacle courses involving jumping and crawling at speed.

In physical conflicts, martial skill is not always as important a factor as an immovable spirit. On the other hand, martial training tends to produce and encourage that spirit. So never neglect your training!

But don’t forget the poetry either. I would suggest that a day of hard training should always be followed by a night spent sharing poetry, stories and songs around the campfire, and that these stories and songs should exemplify the ethos of the Fianna:

Take nothing by oppression, refuse nothing to anyone in need, and hold your ground.

Show personal integrity, build martial ability and let your actions match your words.


Christopher Scott Thompson

CSTshortbeardBW

Christopher Scott Thompson is an anarcho-communist, martial arts instructor, devotee of Brighid and Macha, and a wandering exile roaming the earth. Photo by Tam Zech.


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You Have to Deliver

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Black Panther Party free sickle cell testing in Boston, 1973. [Credit: It’s About Time BPP]

Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.

Amílcar Cabral

The US Left is having a renaissance. It’s more visible now than it has been for generations. Left ideas have wide exposure and most Millennials oppose capitalism.

So why is the Left so weak?

The Left’s growth hasn’t translated into concrete power for the working class. It hasn’t developed a mass base of participation (at least outside of the pre-existing protest subculture and the “weird Twitter/Facebook” corners of the internet).

Now, some of that can’t yet be helped. After barely existing for decades, the Left has re-emerged into an environment dominated by neoliberalism. But ultimately, external conditions don’t excuse its failure. Yes, the rules of the game are stacked against it. You can curse that fact all day and all night, but in the end, leftists have not adapted to a situation that they know will remain hostile. Sure, they’re hampered by unfriendly conditions – but the Left’s internal problems are what prevent it from meeting that challenge. Unless revolutionaries change their political practice, they will remain what they are now: visible and ineffective.

But what can radicals do differently?


women2
Despite his ideas, this man is not being taken seriously. [“The Morning Ride,” James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, 1898]
Your ideas do not entitle you to be taken seriously.

Socialists know their theory and they know their Russian history. So what? That by itself does no one any good. Nobody owes you a hearing – the people you want to organize don’t owe you a single thing.

How many times have you seen socialists show up for something they have no prior connection to, thinking that they’ll “explain the revolutionary perspective” and then, somehow, be welcomed as leaders on the sheer strength of their ideas? Activists keep hopping from cause to cause based on whatever’s currently getting media attention. Does that develop collective power for anyone? Political ambulance chasing is fine for NGOs (and the micro-sect fronts that impersonate them). Unless they’re on top of whatever’s in the news, they’re at a disadvantage in competing for donors. Besides, the lack of deep and sustained community work lets the activist scene’s big fish keep their pond nice and small. But revolutionaries aren’t after careers in the nonprofit-industrial complex. If you want a mass revolutionary movement, you can’t afford that provincialism.


leftysymbols
Are these symbols outdated? That isn’t the right question to be asking.

This isn’t about branding. Should radicals say “communism,” “socialism,” or a euphemism like “economic democracy?” Should they drop 20th-century leftist iconography? Who cares? The issue isn’t which symbols the Left uses. Rather, it’s the way radical organizing so rarely commits to specific communities, stays for the long haul, builds up useful institutions, and lays the groundwork to expand them.

Sure, it’s better to have compelling rhetoric than not; neither talking down to people nor academic obscurantism does leftists any favors. The dichotomy between impenetrable theory-speak and over-simplified sloganeering both proceeds from and reinforces the distance between most socialists and the constituencies they seek. Those are bad habits not only of speech, but also of thought. If you don’t talk like a human being to people, it doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is true. It ends up irrelevant to real life, and it makes you sound like a jackass.

In the end, though, language and presentation aren’t the root issues. Your ideology isn’t necessarily what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through practice. If that mostly consists of debating on Facebook and reading articles, then your language and thought patterns will reflect that. Intentionally or not, you learn to think and speak in the way that works best for what you’re actually doing. Similarly, if most of your activism involves going to protests with liberals, then you’ll learn to be concerned with how to make radical ideas sound good to moderate ears. Why wouldn’t you bend over backwards to avoid scary words like “communism?” (Of course, that does mean other activists will think you’ve got something to hide. They aren’t fools – if you aren’t quite saying what you mean, then people will treat you accordingly. Trying to dodge the stigma attached to radicalism rather than confronting it just comes off as dishonest.)

That said, though, revolutionary leftism does still carry a lot of stigma. Most people’s default attitude towards it is skepticism. But if innovative rhetoric isn’t enough to push past that, what is?

What does get taken seriously?


tcd

You have to deliver results. You have to prove that when you act on your ideas, your community’s life gets better. You have credibility only to the extent that when you organize a project, it gives people more power and a better conditions in a concrete, tangible, material way. If you put that off until after the revolution (or after your socialist candidate wins), your revolution will never arrive. No one will support you besides a few political hobbyists – and why should they?

Are your ideas insightful and true? Prove it. If you can’t deliver, your ideas are wrong. No one will or should listen to your arguments unless you show, in practice, that they mean something (no matter how hostile the external conditions).

In Washington State, Tacoma Clinic Defense believes that anti-abortion fundamentalists should not be allowed to picket in front of clinics. Its participants began claiming that when anti-choicers are marginalized and isolated, life improves for the whole community. So, they went out to prove it: they physically placed themselves in front of the protesters at reproductive health clinics. By providing a calm, positive, and visible pro-choice presence, they functioned as a “lightning rod,” drawing the anti-choicers’ attention away from their intended targets. They did so every time the fundamentalists showed up – and, over time, the picketers got demoralized. Fewer and fewer of them turned out, and those who did became less bold. Now, after several years of attrition, the fundamentalists no longer come to the clinics at all. They’ve been reduced to holding small, silent prayer circles several blocks away, out of sight of the patients. People respect Tacoma Clinic Defense and its ideas – it got results. It went into the field and proved its ideas true.

How many socialist groups can say the same?


And a lot of people will tell you, by the way, Well, the people don’t have any theory, they need some theory. They need some theory even if they don’t have any practice. And the Black Panther Party tells you that if a man tells you that he’s the type of man who has you buying candy bars and eating the wrapping and throwing the candy away, he’d have you walking East when you’re supposed to be walking West. Its true. If you listen to what the pig says, you be walkin’ outside when the sun is shining with your umbrella over your head. And when it’s raining you’ll be goin’ outside leaving your umbrella inside. That’s right. You gotta get it together. I’m saying that’s what they have you doing.

Now, what do WE do? We say that the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that by practice, we thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory. What’s more important? You learn something just like everybody else.

Fred Hampton

Why do so many working-class people align with Protestant fundamentalism?

Christian Right churches give them reasons to join. Their safety net often out-competes the government’s; they offer food and clothing and shelter, community, existential purpose, social support, help with childcare and elder care, and even mental health services (through pastoral counseling and 12-step groups). That’s how the Christian Right has gotten such a massive and well-organized base. Its network of parallel institutions allows it to wield disproportionate power. In Texas, for instance, the Christian Right dominates state politics – but only 31% of Texans are evangelical Protestants! There is power in a base of autonomous institutions.

The revolutionary Left doesn’t offer much competition. Why not learn from the enemy? Radicals can prove through practice that they can build programs that not only improve people’s material conditions, but also operate according to participatory democracy (which Christian Right churches do not). If that alternative was there, how many more poor and working people might become radical? Most people don’t choose to become socialists because socialism isn’t offering them anything they need. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject an ideology that talks big but isn’t actually improving your life.

If you want support, build something that works.


Nothing better defines Trump’s appeal, nor Obama’s before it, than a feeling of finally being heard. Though Trump made some memorable campaign promises (the wall, the travel ban, etc.), he offered participation in an affect — despair where Obama once offered “hope” — more than he appealed with plausible political proposals. And the liberal reaction to the Trump presidency continues in this political mode. When liberals insist that the point of protest is to “have your voice be heard,” they are actually describing the fascist mode of political participation. To be satisfied with “feeling heard” in and of itself, as the goal of political activity, without pointing that expression toward building real material power, is to be a contented fascist subject.

Willie Osterweil

Ideas come from social practice. Whether or not you’re conscious of it, your worldview is made of the lessons your practice has taught you. For instance, most working-class people reject electoral politics not due to revolutionary theory, but because it’s shown itself to be useless – no matter which politicians win, things keep getting worse. Until revolutionaries start delivering actual results, the class they want to organize will not embrace their ideas, either. All the rhetoric in the world means nothing if it can’t help feed your kids.

The approach most US leftists take isn’t working. However, a few groups have found success by taking a different approach:

Don’t believe it when people say that there could never be a mass revolutionary movement in the US. It won’t be easy to create one. The Left will be struggling every step of the way, since larger political conditions do make a difference. But so do conditions within the Left. The US Left may not succeed. But, if it adopts a strategy of institution-building through confrontation, construction, and deep organizing, then it will, at least, stand a chance.

The only alternative is to keep failing.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Click here to support her on Patreon.

 

The Problems of Liberal Anti-Fascism

If we want a fascist-free world, we need to break from what we have and build a better one.

From O. Berkman

 

Nazi “German-American Bund” rally in Madison Square Garden (New York, 1939)

Some Starting Thoughts

I write this piece not to drive people away from anti-fascist movements or to create sectarian division. But, I write this piece instead to draw attention to flaws in our movements and push us—collectively—to be better. If we wish to truly defeat fascism, it cannot come at the expense of the peoples and movements most affected by them and indeed, will not come through means that lack a grounding in material reality (ie. through liberalism).

In the following sections, I’m going to walk you through a synthesis of thoughts which critique liberal approaches to anti-fascism, as I believe these approaches limit our ability to build movements and grow beyond a reactive (usually reactionary) position.

For the purpose of this piece, as well, I wish to make several things clear. Firstly, I will not be making great distinction between white nationalist movements of earlier eras, the classic fascists of the 1930s, and every formulation since. All arise from similar conditions and practices—and indeed, are entirely aligned today. While it may not be precise enough for some, for the purposes of our work here, it is enough to be correct.

Secondly, much of this piece will rest upon this premise: Fascism is the logical, violent, and near-certain extreme of Capitalism and the State. If for some reason you have no will to consider this, then you will find yourself at a crossroads with me. But, I will delve into this in more detail as we go forward.

The Mythologization of Fascism

To begin, let’s set out another simple premise. Fascism is not an incomprehensible evil. To cast fascism in such a way—as an evil outside of human understanding—separates the capacity of humankind to carry out fascistic acts and how those acts build from more deeply ingrained structures of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, et al. In fact, even our own movements have dabbled in such structures historically through scientism and eugenics.

Fascists inject themselves into every subculture they can manage and recruit broadly across class lines—they form real movements and have held real power, bringing about real consequences. The point of this is best described in summary in the introduction to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem where it is said that

[n]early everybody who attended the trial of mass killers after the war, some of them respected doctors and pharmacists, came away with the disconcerting impression that the killers looked pretty much like you or me. The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him,” the implication being that the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explode our ordinary conceptions and present the true enigma of the trial. In a similar vein, Simone de Beauvoir said that at his trial after the war the French Nazi Pierre Laval seemed commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow.

While one may not agree with Arendt’s broader perspective in other matters, insights found here and elsewhere regarding the trials of Nazis are illustrative. One could surely make similar observations of most Klansmen, neo-Nazi punks, and online Pepe-pinned ‘western supremacists’—that these people and their movements arise from normal people under the conditions of our world and through the slow embrace of fascist ideology.

This is not to downplay the vileness of fascist acts, but to highlight that such acts are not distant from where we stand or from the everyday. Fascism can grow anywhere under the right conditions and in banal kinds of people. Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” has become somewhat cliche, but its reality is underplayed in liberal discourse.

To portray the fascist as an unspeakable monster is to salve ourselves of the reality that such beings share in our humanity and immersion in the society in which we ourselves were forged. It is but our ethics and convictions which separate us from them, rather than the fascist zeitgeist serving as some Elder God out of the pages of Lovecraft bringing forth people to thralls. For the liberal, this lack of introspection serves to preserve the sanctity of their existing society and cast the fascist as an aberration to be cleansed—rather than as much a part of that system as their own liberalism.

But to hold to such a view weakens the ability of anti-fascist movements to act. With every thought of the fascist as an impossible evil, there becomes less motivation to engage in counter-education or community defence and more desire to rely on State protection. When, in truth, the State will just as-easily defend the fascists as it will our own.

In liberal anti-fascist conceptions then, we are left with an inaccurate depiction of the enemy (the fascist) and limit our own understanding of both how they arise and what tactics can stymie their growth. However, this is not the sole issue created by liberal anti-fascism.

Reduction and the Other

While painting fascist ideology as the creeping shadow beyond the horizon, the individual fascist receives a different look in liberal conceptions of antifascist struggle. Too often, the fascist is passed off as an uneducated working class Joe against an enlightened, if not beloved, liberal elite. And while there are fascists that arise from the working class, too often liberals engage in a class reductionism of the issue and ignore the cross-class nature of fascist ideology. This cross-class nature of fascism is one of the key dangers of the ideology itself—as it displaces class solidarity with solidarity centered on white racial (or ‘western’) supremacy.

One only needs to look at Chris Hedges paean to solely non-violent confrontation with fascism to see this at work. In the hackneyed How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right’, Hedges decides to needlessly attack anti-fascists who engage in confrontation and bring forward a softening of the fascist image.

In a classic liberal maneuver, Hedges claims that all sides are equal and that “The two opposing groups, largely made up of people who have been cast aside by the cruelty of corporate capitalism, have embraced holy war”. An analysis which engages in the very class reductionism of fascist movements I’ve mentioned earlier. Also, it’s clear that Hedges simply doesn’t understand the history of radical movements on the left.

Why do I malign this so-called Marxist professor so? Because he states that fascists and anti-fascists “mirror each other, not only ideologically but also physically—armed and dressed in black, the color of fascism and the color of death”, which frankly reveals his complete (and likely willful) lack of understanding of black as a colour used by anarchists and other revolutionaries. But this equivocation seems aimed to soften the fascist image.

The softening of the fascist image comes to its furthest extent, however, as Hedges proclaims that “[t]he white racists and neo-Nazis may be unsavory, but they too are victims. They too lost jobs and often live in poverty in deindustrialized wastelands” and so on. Again, Hedges’ oversimplifies fascist movements and engages in a reductive narrative. Why? Because this narrative supports a bland, disengaging liberal fascism. Instead of (or complementary to) the great fascist shadow, comes the notion of sad, white underclasses drawn to fascism without choice. While this leaves out the many who choose not to engage so, it continues to erase the ruling class engagement with fascism.

This narrative of Hedges has a contemporary in the-fascist-as-crazy narrative. While being incredibly ableist, this narrative is meant to remove agency from fascists. Just as in Hedges’ narrative of white underclasses pulled irrevocably to fascism, here the fascist is an aberration and drawn to fascism due to their so-called ‘insanity’ or other ableist garbage. This saneist discourse should be equally and vigorously dismissed—most importantly due to the insult this serves to those engaged with mental health and other disabilities. Othering these peoples as a means to condemn fascists is never justifiable, accurate, or based in anything but a need to deflect from dealing with the systemic roots of fascism. Both of these narratives disconnect people from the fascist struggle, as they are kept outside of it. In turn, liberal anti-fascism remains distant from other, everyday struggles.

Disconnect from Everyday Struggle

As established above, fascism neither creeps in from the shadows or arises out of places centered in liberal condescension. As noted in the first section, these fascists are still part of the societies we live in and grow within those very spaces while violent and vile.

But just as vile fascism is part of the fabric of the societies we live within, so too is resistance within ourselves. However, liberal anti-fascists distance this singular form of resistance from broader struggle. By focusing solely on fascism in a vacuum, liberal anti-fascism robs our resistance of its groundedness in other, deeply related struggles. Fascists feed on Islamophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism to recruit and grow their ranks. But the liberal anti-fascist addresses these issues separately or arising solely out of a legalistic narrative of rights bestowed by the State. What people truly desire though, is an anti-fascism that does not leave them behind and connects to deeper, inherent principles of our lives. Replacing a liberal reliance on the State with principles of community defence and resilience can only grow our movements.

Indeed, anti-fascists that tie their work to attacking the structures that oppress our peoples and allow for fascists to thrive, will find they have beaten back more than just the individual or small collectives of the enemy—but opened avenues to uproot them. At Gods and Radicals, the phrase ‘beautiful resistance’ is raised and I think it’s a good one to consider for this struggle. If we do not have a beautiful vision beyond what is, what has allowed the fascist to rise forward, why would people aim to follow us into combatting them and not fall into the all-sides-are-the-same rhetoric used by liberals such as Hedges or fascists such as Trump? Our vision has to come alongside our diversity of tactics.

As well, while Hedges is wrongheaded in his approach, it can be said that fascists feed on poverty and systemic economic inequality—you know, capitalism—in both their targeting of rich and working class folks (though, for entirely different reasons of course). We cannot truly beat back the fascists without grounding in these struggles. We cannot work in a vacuum, as the fascist certainly does not. If we make effort in our work to include tackling what white and western supremacy actually means in the everyday then the resistance to fascism will take on the character of those who fight it. We, those who are left out by liberals and sometimes by our comrades, can fight not just for some idea—but for our communities, for our future, for our lives.

But, if fascism is so tied to our broader struggles, what does that make it in relation to our interlocking systems of domination and control?

Fascism-within-the State and Capital

Fascism exists, as I stated in the beginning, as the logical, violent, and near-certain extreme of Capitalism and the State. The legitimacy of the State and the current arrangement of Capital rests on fundamental grounds that allows for the growth (and regrowth) of fascist movements across Europe, the colonial so-called Americas, and beyond. For this commentary, I’ll bring my focus to the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe shared territories where I currently lurk, but these comments could apply more broadly with some modification.

First, look to the arrangement of territory under the settler colonial state in these territories (and the colonialist mentalities here and in Europe that built them). The scientific eugenics, displacement of territory, and supremacist fervor—all of which express themselves in fascist ideology—were critical to the founding of these colonial states. The State is built, from its first stone, either through such a process or in other territories through the capital generated by such processes. Until these underlying foundations are toppled, fascism will remain a threat.

Second, look to the targeted and vast police brutality towards Black lives—even if many anarchists don’t seem particularly up to that task—and ask yourself, is fascism not bolstered by a State which carries out such violence with-or-without them? Can we be surprised when white nationalists rise up, knowing that the State already well-endorses their program? Sure, this hides behind a liberal facade of bad apples and lone actors—but that’s never quite true, is it? Look at the case of Pedro Hernandez and see one of the few cases where the State is caught out—without an outright body on its’ hands, if not a soul—for another reminder of what the truth is here.

Third, with every monster like Arpaio, there are deportations and restrictions to freedom of movement across these territories everywhere. It can be no wonder that groups like PEGIDA, Soldiers of Odin, La Meute, and countless others can wander these territories with impunity and inspire further violence, when the State has tacitly approved of it. For the liberal narrative, these people—like all the arms of the State above—are fundamentally exceptions and these foundation stones of the State are historical curios. Or, at worst, these things should inspire actionless pity.

And all this aside from the State defending fascists or outright starting and funding fascist organizations.

But, this should underlie why liberal anti-fascism ultimately falls short. The liberal narrative relies on making the fascist an aberration to the system, rather than a function of it. Particularly comfortable, white, upper and middle class liberals seem to think that if they break down individual fascists, if they talk them out of their immediate actions, if they just say the right words, arrest the right people, and let the system go back on humming then everything will be fine.

This is false. The State rests itself—as all the above attests—on grounds which allow for the fascist to thrive. If we want a fascist-free world, we need to break from what we have and build a better one. We can’t do that just by addressing far right groups in a vacuum, just as much as we can’t ignore the threat they pose. We have to build an anti-fascist movement that allows for a diversity of tactics, yes, but a fullness of objectives. We have to create visions—even if not unified in what those are—that take fascism up from the root, the State, and address the underlying causes that allows them to recruit across class and attack those vulnerable.

To The Liberals Who’ve Read This Far

At the very beginning, I said that my purpose here was not to drive people away from anti-fascist movements or to create sectarian division. But, I wrote this piece instead to draw attention to flaws in our movements and push us—collectively—to be better. And I’ve spent all of that time being fairly hard on liberal anti-fascists. I don’t, for a moment, wish to see this propell you away from anti-fascist organizing. Instead, take a breath. Take a moment.

If you can see from all I’ve said that there is more to this than passively talking to Nazis and ignoring wider systems of oppression, then we’re on the same page again and you know to abandon your previous liberal approach. As an individual, as a collective, you all can take up different ways of approaching this issue of anti-fascism. I’m not demanding that you necessarily close your laptop right now, pick up a brick, find your best black hoodie and hankie, and club the nearest fascist you see (though, what you do is up to you, really). Instead, take up whatever tactics you feel are best—no need to front here—that fit with this wider analysis you’re now considering and the radical group you’d want to work with. Learn from those around you, listen to those who’ve been impacted by the fascists and by the State most—those criminalized and marginalized, those who’ve long-fought fascists and the State with radical and revolutionary perspectives.

But don’t back down now. If you can see that there is so much more work that interlocks with anti-fascist struggle, then it’s time to take stock, reflect, and build a deeper, radical, and effective anti-fascist movement.

Yet, if after all this you still want to maintain the existing order of things and be a liberal anti-fascist. Well, maybe, you’re part of the fucking problem.


O. Berkman

O. Berkman is an indigenous anarchist writer on topics of history and currently anti-fascism located in shared territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe (so-called Southern Ontario, Canada). They write about other stuff too, but we’ll include that here as we go.