Valdres Roots: Enclosure, Ancestral Displacement, & Domestication

by James Lindenschmidt

“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. Without these moments of force, money would have remained a marginal aspect of human history. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. This flight ended with “producers becoming more dependent on exchange” since they had no other way to survive but by either selling their products or selling themselves or being sold. Thus did “exchange become more independent of them,” its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove “everyone” into the monetary system.”
George Caffentzis, “The Power Of Money: Debt and Enclosure,” In Letters Of Blood & Fire

It is spring, 1870. My great-grandfather, Mons Olsen Fuglie, then an 8 1/2 year old boy, left his ancestral home in Valdres, Norway, traveling south to Kristiana (what had been, and is now, called Oslo). He boarded the Argonault under the command of Captain S.W. Flood, bound from Kristiana to land in Quebec, before continuing the journey to their new life in Minnesota. The journey across the Atlantic took two months, with 237 passengers aboard a ship whose length was 147.5 feet and beam 29 feet, depth of 11 feet. With Mons were his 3 siblings, his mother Ambjor Monsdatter and his father Ole Arneson. Pre-industrial transatlantic travel was grueling, so much so that Ole was weakened from the journey and collapsed, 25 days after landing in Minnesota, dying of what they called heat stroke. My great-grandfather thus grew up on a new continent, in a new ecosystem, in a place with new languages, without his father.

Ancestral Homelands?

Does this look like an ancestral homeland to you? It's where I grew up, seen from above with technology.
Does this look like an ancestral homeland to you? It’s where I grew up, seen from above with the aid of technology. I moved here with my family when I was 8. Image created by the author.

When I was growing up in a midwestern middle class suburbia of the 70s and 80s, I don’t remember hearing much about displacement. When we did, it was usually in the context of studying the standardized, whitewashed account of slavery in the Americas, where African people were kidnapped from their homelands, taken against their will in slave ships across the Atlantic, and inserted into the capitalist system as slaves. In one sense, I was lucky that my high school had a good racial mixture of people. European-Americans like myself were the majority, but there were a lot of African-Americans and Asian-Americans as well. Despite an interest in my genealogy as a child, I never thought much about displacement as it applies to my own life and ancestry until the past decade or two. It is no accident that I have also spent this time cultivating my connection with place, as part of my spiritual practice.

It is also no accident that this spiritual connection with place was developed around the same time I moved to Maine. Maine is an extraordinary place, with some astounding ecosystems and nature spirits. I have an ocean, beaches (both sandy and rocky), marshlands, mountains, rivers, forests, springs, small cities, lakes, ponds, parks, trails, and farms all well within an hour’s drive of my home. I have spent more time in nature in the 1/3 of my life in Maine than all the other places I have lived or visited combined. I have slowly picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the ecosystem, learning to identify plants, trees, animal tracks, scat, game trails, and geological formations. I find it fascinating, but despite all I’ve learned I know that my knowledge is dwarfed by the knowledge any child who has seen 8 summers in an indigenous culture with an ancestral connection to place would have. Despite my increasing comfort level with the ecosystem here in Maine, I know and recognize that I am “from away” (in the local parlance). As beautiful as Maine is, and as much as I love “my” 2 acres of it, I know that on some level — the most primal, ancestral level — that I don’t really belong here. I have no doubt that the Arossagunticook people who lived here for hundreds of generations prior to the arrival of the Europeans would concur.

Maine is also as close as I can get to my ancestral homelands without leaving the US. I’m sure the fact that I ended up here is a coincidence. Of course.

Valdres Roots & Husfolk

“The visitor to Valdres … by traversing its whole length between Spirilen and the wilds where Sogn meets Gudbrandsdalen, with excursions into the many spots of beauty or grandeur on either side, … has the opportunity of seeing some of the best that is to be found of a practically all elements of scenic attractions that Norway offers the sightseer anywhere, and he will understand why the native of Valdres thinks his Valley the most beautiful region of all the old Fatherland.”
Andrew A. Veblen, Book of Valdris, p 19
Picture of Lake Helin in Vang, Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. Taken on top of Åkslefjellet showing Mountain Grindane in the North and Gilafjellet to the right (east). Photo by Trarir. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Picture of Lake Helin in Vang, Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. Taken on top of Åkslefjellet showing Mountain Grindane in the North and Gilafjellet to the right (east). Photo by Trarir. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

For dozens of generations, my Norwegian ancestors were Husfolk — “land tenants” who subsisted in mostly feudal arrangements with the landed lords — in Valdres, a fogderi (county) in southern, central Norway, just south of the Jotunheimen mountains. From 1750-1850, the population of Norway doubled, from about 700,000 to 1.4 million. This was the period of Enclosure in Norway, which drove my ancestors from their subsistence on the land, and destroyed the ancestral link they had with it. Much of the potential farmland, that had lain uncultivated and intact since the Black Plague in the 1300s, was enclosed as private property. For the Husfolk, this gave them fewer options; since they didn’t own land and had no way to buy it, they could only be subsumed within the labor exploitation of capitalism. Yet, industry hadn’t really come to Norway, certainly not to the Valdres valley away from the cities. As a result of the lack of “opportunity” in Norway, 900,000 Norwegians emigrated to America between 1825-1914, such that by 1920, there were more people in America descendent from Valdres than there were people left in Valdres.

One can therefore see the appeal for the landless Norwegians to emigrate to America, particularly in post-slavery America, the land of “manifest destiny,” provided that the Europeans were courageous (or desperate) enough to risk the frontier, in its wildness and with the last remaining packets of resistance from the Indigenous peoples of the continent protecting their ancestral claims to the land. My ancestors, therefore, left Norway for both sides of the capitalist enclosure coin. Norway had been completely enclosed, and there were too many people there without land rights struggling to eke out a living. On the other hand, in the so-called New World (or if you prefer, Turtle Island), enclosure hadn’t yet begun if you went far enough west, where there remained millions of acres of fertile land and far fewer Europeans to claim them. So while my ancestors were being pushed out of Norway, they were also being pulled toward Minnesota.

Blood Roots & Mud Roots

“The ancestors are such an important part of our spiritual tradition. When we call to our ancestors in ritual and prayers, we may be asking for specific guidance from those who are conscious of our existence and coherent in their form, but perhaps more poignantly we are waking our own perception to their unceasing presence. We speak of their stories humming in our blood and bones, and this is true in terms of our genetic inheritance, yet felt too in the sense of their presence being everywhere. We speak of the breath we breathe having been breathed by our ancestors, and in this too we accept the practical logic of our globe’s one body of air, yet also in the poetry and omnipresence of their consciousness.”
Emma Restall-Orr, Living Druidry, p 204-5.

I never knew my grandfather, Milton. Cancer claimed him long before I was born, when my mother was 12. Mons, Milton’s father, also died when Milton was a child, having been kicked by a horse. So along with Ole, who died shortly after arriving in Minnesota, the three consecutive generations preceding me all grew up without their paternal connection to their homeland. This is, through my mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather, my connection to Valdres. I find it interesting that despite these generations of disconnect, I feel the strongest connection to this quarter of my family tree, over and above my Irish (Mom’s Mom’s side) and German (Dad’s side) ancestry.

"Albrecht Dürer, The Fall Of Man, 1510. This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work." -- commentary by Silvia Federici
Albrecht Dürer, The Fall Of Man, 1510. “This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work.” — commentary by Silvia Federici

In Druidry, we talk about Mud Roots and Blood Roots. Mud Roots are a connection to a particular place. Blood Roots are those who came before, the ancestors. For more than a thousand years, as far back past history and into mythology as we can see, up to the late 19th century, these Blood and Mud Roots were intertwined in Valdres, until the connection was broken by the capitalist enclosure movement. Think about that for a moment. This ancestral connection to place was strong enough to withstand centuries of hardship, famine, plague, warfare, the imposition of Christianity by force (spearheaded by Olaf the Saint, another one of my ancestors, but that’s another story), not to mention a thousand harsh Norwegian winters, only to finally be destroyed by something so powerful, yet so insidious, that people today have to be taught what “enclosure” means. The notion of “private property” remains so abstracted, such a given, that many believe it has always existed, assuming that feudal Lords “owned” property in the same way as today’s landlords, and that serfs were much closer to slave status than we ever could be in these enlightened times. On the contrary, as Silvia Federici reminds us:

The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lords’ land (the demesne), the serfs received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves, and pass down to their children…. Having the effective use and possession of a plot of land meant that the serfs could always support themselves and, even at the peak of their confrontations with the lords, they could not easily be forced to bend because of the fear of starvation. True, the lord could throw recalcitrant serfs off the land, but this was rarely done, given the difficulty of recruiting new laborers in a fairly closed economy and the collective nature of peasant struggles.”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, 23-4).

The Husfolk of Valdres, therefore, were not slaves, or mere servants of the lordly class in Norway. There was a powerful bond between them and their place, a bond that, by the mid-1800s, after more than a century of capitalism and enclosure, had grown weak enough that more than half the population of Norway had been displaced.

It is only in the past 300 years — far less than 1% of homo sapiens time on this planet — that we must distinguish between mud roots and blood roots. Prior to that, as rates of migration were much slower, they were much more intimately intertwined.

Domestication & The Capitalist Accumulation of Labor

“In the aftermath of the Black Death, every European country began to condemn idleness, and to persecute vagabondage, begging, and refusal of work. England took the initiative with the Statute of 1349 that condemned high wages and idleness (author’s note: with higher wages, workers could work fewer hours and therefore had more leisure time), establishing that those who did not work, and did not have any means of survival, had to accept work. Similar ordinances were issued in France in 1351, when it was recommended that people should not give food or hostel to healthy beggars and vagabonds. A further ordinance in 1354 established that those who remained idle, passing their time in taverns, playing dice or begging, had to accept work or face the consequences; first offenders would be put in prison on bread and water, while second offenders would be put in the stocks, and third offenders would be branded on the forehead.”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, 57-8.

After my great-grandfather Mons settled in Minnesota, where he lived until he died in 1925, he raised a large family there. But displacement caused by capitalism would strike again, this time in the form of the Great Depression. It would cause my grandfather to leave most of his family in Minnesota and settle in Ohio with his sister and her husband. In due course, he met my grandmother, married, and started a family before his premature death in 1958.

So of course, the winners of this game of severing ancestral connections to place are, and continue to be, the capitalists. A people united with the land they occupy will give much more formidable resistance to enclosure, accumulation of land and labor, and exploitation of all the resources it can than a divided, domesticated people severed from their ancestral place. Capitalism requires workers to exploit, and most people, given the choice, will not enter into such an exploitative relationship. Therefore, the choice had to go, and capitalism had to make people more dependent on what they were offering. Human domestication, via displacement and other strategies, had to be stepped up to a new level.

By most estimates, human domestication has been underway for 10,000 years, but it has accelerated dramatically in the capitalist era. Ostensibly, it doesn’t matter where we live now. Just in my generation of my family, a few stayed in Ohio (where they’d been for only 2 generations), but I have siblings or cousins in Indiana, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Missouri. As strangers in strange lands, our domestication and dependence on the infrastructures of industrialized production grows more complete and absolute, such that not only are we uprooted from our ancestral homelands, but our connection with any place at all is broken. How many of us have a sense of place, where we humans are part of an ecosystem, when the majority of us go not to the land for subsistence, but to the grocery store, buying factory-farmed food that has traveled thousands of miles before landing on the shelves?

Domestication is what happens when a connection to land is severed, and subsistence, provided by an industrial infrastructure, becomes abstracted from place. At one time, exile was a fate as bad as, or worse than, death, because it meant one had little or no access to subsistence via the tribe, a collection of people working together for the common good. In this new, domesticated world, access to the tribe is mediated by money. Those without money — the poor among us — are on some level exiles who must fend for themselves. And the quickest way to end one’s exile is to allow oneself to be (re-)assimilated into the capitalist system of labor exploitation.

Looking Ahead

My daughter, unlike I who am still “from away,” is a Mainer. She was born in Portland and has never lived more than 20 miles from the city of her birth. She still most strongly resonates with the streets of Portland, rather than the far more rural area where we live now (check out her music, by the way, it’s really good, said the proud immediate ancestor). I wonder, having grown up in this place, how her children and subsequent generations will be connected to their places, and whether their place will be in Maine.

The world is undone. In the age of neoliberal capitalism, otherwise known as “globalization,” our people and our cultures are scattered to the four winds. Most ancestries in the 21st century are intertwined and complex; the stories I have told of my ancestors above are but one branch of my genealogy. Virtually everyone is, in some way, a victim of ancestral displacement. My point is not to level out the differences between the different cultural victims of displacement, colonialism, and capitalist enclosure. While nearly all people of nearly all cultures, races, ethnicities, and groups have now experienced displacement, the fact is that my white ancestors who arrived in Minnesota found themselves inserted into a different place in the power hierarchy than earlier peoples from Africa, kidnapped from their ancestral homeland, to be slaves in the Americas.

Re-enchanting the world will not occur in an office, in the checkout queue at Whole Foods, or in the blogosphere. It will require humans to get out into nature, and work ceaselessly to re-establish relationship with what they find there. There are some positives we can take from this situation we find ourselves in — for instance, most geneticists agree that diversity in our gene pools is a good thing — but until we exist in better relationship with our place, rewild ourselves, resist our domestication by rejecting the infrastructures of capitalism where we can, and begin re-weaving an ancestral connection to place for future generations, the world will remain little more than something to be owned and exploited.


Support our work by buying our books and stickers here.

Ragnarök, The Magic Of Capitalism, & The Transformation of Consciousness

“Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök”

I have heard this statement from more than one source in the past few days. This is often the case for me with statements that resonate in my soul as strongly as this one did when a friend of mine uttered it and I heard it. When consciousness hears a resonant idea for the first time, it will often see iterations of that same idea all around, and would otherwise remain hidden without the spark of the initial idea feeding it.

Perhaps, therefore, I am keener to the idea; since it is already in my consciousness, I more easily recognize it. My inner psychologist concurs.

Or perhaps it is the will of the gods, manifesting themselves & their wills in specific patterns discernible to those sensitive to such things. My inner gnostic concurs.

Or perhaps it is delusion, and a sure sign of mental illness. My inner atheist concurs.

Or perhaps it is mere coincidence buttressed by wishful thinking, with the always-yearning consciousness assigning meaning to the coincidence that has no correspondence “in the real world.” My inner skeptic concurs.

In other words, there are a variety of ways to interpret the statement, and through the process of interpretation, creating truth. All of these interpretations have some element of truth to them. Philosophers speak of epistemology as the theory of knowledge creation, but for me, another word is more applicable for this phenomenon.

The Magic Of Capitalism

It’s a controversial word, magic, as in “the art of changing consciousness at will.” For me, magic is the correspondence between what one holds in one’s mind, and what happens outside consciousness, in the world. It is not superstition, delusion, wishful thinking, or illusion.

You can see magic in operation every day, indeed every moment.

For instance. one man this week had an idea in his head, that People of Color are “the biggest problem for Americans,” that they are “stupid and violent” (oh, the irony), and “inferior.” These ideas did not originate with this man, but he accepted them as true, and they certainly manifested from consciousness into the world, in Charleston.

Interestingly, magic has many different connotations for most people these days. Most of them aren’t particularly positive: prestidigitation, illusion considered real by naive observers, conjuration, deception. And it can be these things.

But capitalism has its magic. It has its thought-forms that seep into our consciousness. In some ways, the contents of an accountant’s spreadsheet are more real to many of us than a homeless person starving or freezing to death in an alley. These ideas govern the very fabric of society, of resource allocation, of comfort & suffering for every living thing on the planet. The world is seen through the lens of quantification, reduced to a mere number, and capitalist wizards work their arcane lore to manipulate these numbers to their favour, manifesting their will to profit in the real world.

And the costs are externalized, as always. This is part of capitalist magic and privatization in general. When the numbers come in, they belong to the owner-wizards. But when the numbers need to go back out, it’s everyone’s problem.

Have you ever been to a corporate training seminar? They are really common these days. They cover a lot of areas, like exemplary customer service, or sexual harassment in the workplace, or assertiveness training for women in business, or techniques for results-oriented communication, or effective employee motivation, or really just about anything that a “limited liability” corporation needs to sign off on, so they can create the appearance that their employees know all about the topic the seminar covers.

Whether or not all the employees actually do understand these things is not important; what is important is that the corporation is no longer liable if trouble ensues when an employee acts in a way that clearly shows he does not understand. Usually when these conflicts occur the liability shifts from the corporation to the employee, who is disciplined or simply fired. And then everyone pretends this is normal, and as it should be.

But here’s the thing. There is a key component missing from a lot of the capitalist magic going on out there: will. The most important task for an occultist is to turn inward, into the self, beyond the veils of illusion, and learn to discern what the will is. The will is not whim, it is not passing fancy, it is not going along with what everyone else around you is doing. By suppressing and thwarting the ability of millions of people to discern their will, and choosing to move forward and defend the very system that oppresses them and benefits their oppressors, capitalism works its magic.

So we resist, those of us who reject the received will of capitalism. We struggle to find new social relations within paganism, though it’s difficult to resist assimilation of our spirituality into capitalism.

Capitalist magic is particularly prone to what Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is “merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” The problem is, the abstract & the concrete (or theory & practice, seen from another angle) are not always two separate worlds, forever cleaved in half. One influences the other. The abstractions we carry in our minds usually regulate our behavior. If we focus on changing behavior without addressing the fundamental thought patterns that underlie it, we will forever be chasing small fires that keep arising. Overthrowing capitalism will require a transformation of human consciousness — the very essence of magic.

Ragnarök & The Transformation of Consciousness

So yeah, Ragnarök. For those unacquainted, it is the end of the world in Norse mythology, the twilight of the gods, deaths, disasters on a vast scale. It’s not difficult to imagine in the 21st century, where sensitive souls can see the damage being perpetrated on the planet. We are now in an extinction event, where some scientists think that humans will be extinct within a century. And many of the most ardent radical anti-capitalists feel hopeless to stop it, that there is nothing we can do.

But if we follow the example of my polytheist friends and take the statement — Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök — literally, there is plenty we can do. This perspective not only shows that Gods are aware of the problems we are facing, but that they are fighting against it and recruiting help. This is comforting.

Or, we can take the statement metaphorically, and realize that the machinations of capitalism also have their opponents in those of us who would protect the precious ecosystems of the planet against capitalist exploitation and destruction. We can re-enchant the world, but we must also re-enchant consciousness.

Shopping Malls Are Awesome (A Post About Burnout)

So this happened: Obama was in town yesterday morning and it took me over an hour to get to my daughter’s preschool, which is five miles away from our apartment. For the first half of the drive, I fumed about the traffic. 2.5 miles an hour? Really? This is the best we can do? It didn’t have to be this way. Los Angeles is the city whose comprehensive streetcar system was forcibly dismantled by the oil industry. For the benefit of Angelenos, you might ask? Oh, goodness, no. For the oil industry’s benefit, my dears. For their benefit.

Santa monica traffic jam
Rush hour on the 10 (Image credit Wikipedia)

During the second half of the drive, I switched to fuming about the sprawl. Why was the only affordable preschool five miles away? I was mad at myself for having normalized something so absurd. When you combine SoCal sprawl with a wealthy minority able to pay $2000+ a month for fancy preschools–and let’s not forget a public university in the center of the richest part of town, forcing public employees like me to either spend way too much on rent or commute 3 hours a day–then you get bonkers situations that just become people’s realities. When I visited New Orleans a few years ago, a friend of a friend said she’d just turned down a job offer. “It was too far from home,” she said. “It was four miles.”

I choked on my sazerac.

When I finally got my kid to preschool yesterday, I was ready to cry. This was my telecommuting day, surreptitiously granted to me by my supervisor (the official request got lost somewhere in the bureaucracy and we gave up), but I was stranded five miles from home. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy another coffee this week; I’d make my own. I hate spending the money and I’m always forgetting my travel mug. But you know what? After living through Obamajam, I went ahead and got a latte. And a croissant.

I don’t want you all to think I’m looking for pity, because among LA horror stories, mine is incredibly mild. (Although I will throw this out there: if anyone knows of any librarian positions opening up in Portland or Olympia, please let me know.) Rather, I want to call your attention to the bit about the coffee. Before I worked 9 to 5, I made myself coffee every morning. Sure, I’d often write in coffeeshops, but the idea of buying my morning coffee was absurd. Making coffee is such an easy thing.

It’s such an easy thing when you’ve got the energy.

* * *

A couple of years ago, David Cain went back to working 40 hours a week after 9 months of traveling. Realizing he was spending way more money on stuff than he had before, he made this observation:

[T]he 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.

Of course, you’re here at a radical anti-Capitalist blog, so you know the history of the 8-hour day. Capitalism cares about Capitalism, not people. Still, I first read that article right after I’d finished library school and started the first full-time gig I’d ever had in my life, so seeing my exact situation so clearly articulated felt like the moment you look in a mirror after wiping away the steam.

And what’s hilarious is that the organization I work for isn’t for profit, at least in theory. Libraries don’t make money. But you’d better believe we’re expected to put our forty hours in each week. Why? Well, because, that’s why. I get work emails timestamped 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night. My colleagues and I have entire conversations about how tired we are.

For most of my life, I’ve hated shopping malls. The sterile environment, the false sense of public space, the asinine stores filled with mass-produced crap. Ugh. But a creepy thing happened after I had a child and started working full time. One day I needed a new pair of sunglasses. Another day, a birthday gift for my husband. Then a pair of flats for work. Each time I walked into the mall, I found…I enjoyed it.

I liked being there.

Partly it was because I didn’t have the kiddo with me and I felt free. But honestly? The atmosphere was soothing. There was something about the airiness, the pleasant temperature, that calmed me. And then, of course, there was the little endorphin high of buying a thing. Malls are a laughable substitute for the healing properties of nature, of course–but here, they’re a lot easier to get to than regional parks.

Because parenting in a nuclear family (another gift of Capitalism) and working full time with a commute drains the fuck out of you. Which is exactly what it’s designed to do. So all of your highfalutin ideals–I’m gonna clean my counters with vinegar and grow all my food in a container garden and ride my bike everywhere and use the flat bar skate rails to go to all the rallies and sit at my altar every night–start to crumble. Because they take effort you don’t have and they don’t seem to be making a difference anyway.

Again, I’m not trying to solicit pity (or, it should go without saying, advice). What I’m describing is the norm for those who have the remarkable good fortune of nabbing full-time jobs.

If you do a Google search for “burnout,” you’ll get tons of articles on how to recognize/prevent/deal with burnout at your job. But our economic system has zero incentive to keep you energized and interested in your work. Because if you’re like most Americans, there are few other jobs you can just skip off to, and you’ll spend more money trying to make yourself feel better. Burnout makes you apathetic. Ironically, cynicism can make you quite compliant.

* * *

After the Charleston massacre, I’ve been thinking about an incident I witnessed a few months ago involving some white radicals. These white radicals decided to host a group discussion about police brutality. I wasn’t there for the first half so maybe something really transformative and inspiring happened, but when I came in, the more radical radicals were yelling at the less radical radicals and everyone was loudly crying. I wondered: what did they think they were accomplishing? We librarians are really into assessment, and I found myself mildly curious about what a survey six months out would reveal. Had the more radical radicals won anyone over to the cause? Did they make anyone measurably less racist? Or did everyone settle right back in to whatever beliefs and habits they’d had before the discussion, except with a nice new layer of resentment?

As I sat there, numbly listening to the sobs and hiccups, I thought back to the feminist blog I’d once written for, whose main writer didn’t give a shit about women of color and spent a conspicuous amount of energy hating on mothers. (“How dare they ask for milk on airplanes! How dare they bring their kids to restaurants!” It was really noticeable.) I thought back to all the wars I’d witnessed in the feminist blogosphere, symptoms of a movement devouring itself from the inside out.

I remembered why I’d faded out of radicalism, even faded out of activism altogether for a time. It was so exhausting. You could pour an infinite amount of energy into activist work and never feel like you were making a difference. I knew way too many people who either began to fetishize anger, lashing out right and left, or just gave up and faded back into the mainstream. Started buying sweatshop clothes again. Let their subscriptions to radical magazines lapse.

* * *

Obviously not all radical circles are the same. I know there are perfectly healthy radical cells and movements out there, and I applaud them. This post is for those who have had less-than-inspiring experiences.

There are two cures for burnout. The first is obvious: don’t work so much. I’m glad self-care is emphasized in radicalism, but unfortunately, things are looking bleak for the rest of society. There is absolutely no reason why we need to work forty hours a week or more, but here we are.

The second cure isn’t as immediately apparent. The work you do has to have an outcome. Something measurable. Something meaningful. A thing that wasn’t there before that makes you feel good. Think about your Paganism: would you continue to give offerings to a deity or perform a spell for weeks or months or years if the practice never had any positive effects? Sure, you might turn your frustration into shame and become a religious fanatic, but more likely you would just stop doing it.

Again, not so applicable to paid work. But crucial for justice work.

And here’s where assessment gets really challenging: when you realize that the work you’re doing isn’t effective, you have to be willing to stop and switch to something else. Because throwing yourself into pointless work is nothing more than a slow spiritual death.

* * *

I really don’t want my daughter to grow up in a place like LA. My Reclaiming community and my coven are here, so it’d be really painful to leave, but I think it’d be worth it to get to a place with forests. A place where I could have a real garden. A place with less traffic and lower housing costs. A witch in a traffic jam is not a happy witch.

In the meantime, I go easy on myself for stumbling once in awhile. I buy the coffee. I linger at the mall. But these things are just anesthetics. All they can do is numb you.

Here’s to a future with healthy communities and vibrant landscapes: a future that we create by doing what works and letting go of what doesn’t.

Putting Out

By Rhyd Wildermuth

salvation army girls
At the Bar (Salvation Army Girls) by Jeanne Mammen, 1926. ‘Salvation Army Girls’ were women who sold sex exclusively to other women in Germany during the Wiemar period.

Early in the summer of 2009, I whiled a fantastic summer with a lover in a beautiful apartment in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

In the mornings (or what passes for morning in a city where Capitalism has not fully conquered the human day), we’d stumble down a short flight of steps into a scene of wonder–into a stone courtyard, out through the heavy wooden gate on the cobbled sidewalk, grapevines and trees and street art soaking my senses in luxurious intensity.

From there, one could walk to the tree-lined Canal, the enchanting and very crowded outdoor Turkish Market, along a bustling street filled with food-shops and stores.  Or cross a bridge to one of the nearby 15 gay bars (a fraction of the full number in that city), or descend underground to the U-bahn and travel briefly to anywhere else in that gorgeous, intoxicating city.

He was there to do research for his master’s thesis on queer occult societies during the Weimar Republic, a period of unrivaled gay and Pagan culture in the period just before the Nazis rose to power.  Set powerfully into the collective memory by the writings of Christopher Isherwood and the musical Caberet, Weimar Berlin was a fascinating mix of radicalism and sexual experimentation in the midsts of a breakdown of Capitalist power.  People were poor but sexy, and Berlin became both a pilgrimage site for queers in the Western world as well as a ‘degenerate’ symbol of all that was wrong with the world for the rising Nazi party.

Berlin had a church attendance rate of 1%, hosted occult events nightly, and the literature and art from that time speaks to an almost utopic exploration of the human soul.  Oh, and it was also full of prostitutes, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve never made much money, never much more than minimum wage.  Thing is, Berlin is cheap, or was when we first stayed there.  One of the ways to keep your costs down when traveling is to find an apartment to sublet. Costs of food go down significantly when you’ve access to a kitchen, and generally the cost of renting someone else’s home is usually much lower than a nightly hotel.

To do this, I searched a few free listing sites on the internet.  There was no AirBnB or other ‘services’ yet, but sites like Craiglist.org existed where people could list for free.  Each time I stayed in Berlin, the cost of renting an entire apartment (including the aforementioned one) was a little less than 100 euro (110 us dollars at the time) per week.  As a matter of fact, in each instance, I rented someone else’s home for the exact cost that they incurred for rent on their place.

One time we asked the person from whom we rented why they weren’t charging us more. Their answer was quite shocking, and they sounded awfully offended.  They’d said: “I’m not trying to make a profit here! What sort of person would do that?

While I’m near 40 years old now, this is a good time to tell you that I’m not engaging in nostalgia for an economy that existed several decades ago.  This was only 5 years ago.

Kapital Über Alles

Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores
Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores

Now, however, things have changed there, as they have also changed here, on account of a shift of social relations described by cheerleaders of Capitalism as “The Sharing Economy.”

On the face of it, AirBnB, a company which offers to set up people looking for sublets with hosts for a fee, appears to have made it ‘easier’ to find lodging at a cheaper rate than hotels.  However, it has actually all but displaced the older model which enabled someone poor like myself to stay in a foreign city.

The advent of businesses such as AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Taskrabbit, and many other ‘services’ are all part of this brave new economic world, where people can sell or rent their services to strangers at a piece-rate in return for money.  The enthusiasm for these Corporations and their ‘apps’ is intense, soaked in the usual optimism any new Capitalist venture generates through the Capitalist media.

It may seem almost a sort of liberation.  If you own a car, you now have the option to make money from it.  If you’re in need of extra cash, you can turn extra hours into waged-labor by running errands through Taskrabbit or Postmates.  And on the off-chance you’ve got an empty room in your home, have an extra home, or have the option to stay elsewhere, you can rent out your place to others for more money than you pay in mortgage or rent.  It’s a brave new world, full of opportunities to make money at every turn, the possibility of liberation from the drudgery of the old ways breathing down your neck before us.

Except, it’s not new. And it’s not liberating. 

To understand this matter, we need first to deconstruct and discard the ridiculous description of this activity as “the Sharing Economy.”

Let’s take the first part, ‘Sharing.’  What precisely is being ‘shared’ when a driver signs up with a company like Uber?  Uber’s not doing any sharing–in fact, Uber provides nothing to a driver except for access to their application system which provides drivers with customers. According to Uber’s VP of operations:

Uber currently keeps 20% of each trip as a lead gen cost. This percentage is common in the industry and commonly referred to as a farm out fee. There are no monthly fees to be a driver on Uber, outside of a minimal data charge for the iPhone. [emphasis mine]

Does ‘farm out’ sound familiar at all?

If you remember anything about the early history of Capitalism, you may be familiar with ‘Putting Out,’ the system by which merchants distributed raw materials to individuals in homes to assemble products (textiles, pins, matches, etc.).  ‘Farming out’ is a similar process, a loaning-out of access to resources in return for a high percentage of profits or income.

Uber, AirBnB, and all the other players in The Sharing Economy are not actually sharing at all, they’re ‘putting out’ access to customers.

Likewise, though, those who are using these services to make money from their homes or cars are not ‘sharing’ either, unless sharing no longer means what we were taught it meant in kindergarten.  I was told it meant letting someone use something you weren’t using, and I don’t remember a monetary exchange.

Let’s be clear.  Charging money to allow someone to use something of yours is called renting.

The Means of (Re)Production

Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happily here, I think.
Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happier here, I think.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was mostly homeless.  23, gay, new to a city, with only two friends to rely upon who lived in a suburb.  To find a place, I needed money, and to find money, I needed a job, and all the jobs were in the city, not the suburb.

I slept ‘rough’ many nights in those first few months.  Sometimes on a stranger’s couch, sometimes in an alley, often in a park, once in a while in a friend’s car. More often than not, though, I’d find myself trading sex for a place to sleep, not something I’ve ever admitted in public ’till now.

I’m hardly ashamed.  I found myself in some fantastic condos with great views, waking in the morning occasionally even to breakfast and once to a marriage proposal.  It was a way to survive, most of the men were polite, and it was usually consensual except for the whole “you have a roof, I don’t” bit.

It’s called ‘sex-work.’  And it’s a common means of survival for the poor, particularly when they have no access to the things you require to survive.

“Things you require to survive,” by the way, is called the Means of Reproduction in Marxist theory.  This includes food, housing, and leisure–the stuff that keeps you alive.

The Means of Production is slightly different–it’s access to the ability to create things others find socially useful, like cooking, art, coding…pretty much anything that we call ‘work.’  In Capitalist countries, most people don’t have the Means of Production and have to rely on the rich for ways to do things others will want to trade for.

The one thing a human always has, by the way, is their body.  Though not all sex-workers do so from extreme poverty (in fact, some of the greatest, most creative and powerful folks I know are sex-workers), the body is the one thing we can always fall back upon when we have nothing else.

In fact, that’s what all waged-work is–our bodies being used in exchange for money.  The sex-worker is no different from the tech worker, except one’s a lot more likely to be beaten, raped, or vilified than the other, and, also, one’s more likely to be a woman.

But, oh!  We were talking about The Sharing Economy, which we’re now calling The Renting Economy.

My Means of Production as a homeless person happened also to be my Means of Reproduction, as sex is a social relationship and part of the ways in which we create meaning in our lives.  In the best scenarios, sex is a freely-given exchange between two or more people; in patriarchal marriages, or in rape, or in situations of economic disparity, that exchange is not freely-given.

But this is the same with that category of social-relations called labor, too.   I only work for someone richer than myself because they have money and I do not–while I have some choice in who I work for (just as I had some choice in who I let fuck me when I was homeless), it’s difficult to say that I was fully able to exercise my free will.  We who have no wealth must work to survive in a Capitalist society because the laws ensure we have no other choice.

We are always trading our Means of Reproduction (again, the very essence of our life) for access to the Means of Production.  We sell our body (whether that be our mental faculties, our social skills, our muscles, or our genitals) in exchange for money we use to purchase what will give us the life we can get, to feed our ‘Reproduction.’

Pimp My Life

19ukhomeWhen I traded sex for a place to stay for the night, there was no one else directly mediating that exchange.  Guy takes a homeless guy back to his place, homeless guy gets a place to sleep, housed guy gets sex with someone younger than him, and that’s the end of the transaction.

But…what if there were some enterprising person eager to get in on this social exchange?  Say, some agent who helped make such connections in return for money from the ‘buyer’ or oral sex from the seller?

Such folks exist, of course.

A pimp or madam offer both a steady stream of clients to a sex-worker as well as some semblance of security.  The better ones keep the prostitutes they manage safe from abusive buyers, provide safer places for the sex to occur, and even screen customers beforehand.  They may even help those under their employ get to the hospital or pay for contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted infections (that is, ‘work injuries.’)  Basically, benefits.

Much, much more common, however, are the abuses.  A pimp or madam wields great power over their sex-workers, and the litany of horrors people endure must be remembered.  One of the most common is stolen wages–the person acting as the intermediary demands a cut of income from the sex-work, despite not performing any of the work themselves, justifying this extortion through their ‘services’ of providing protection and a steady stream of clients.

Worst of all, the sex-worker cannot easily end their relationship with the pimp or madam out of fear of violence, poverty, and losing access to customers (that is, their Means of Production).

There was no pimp to arrange these meetings between myself and the men I slept with, though I’ve had plenty such pimps in my life.  They’re called employers.

Aside

I realize, for many, my comparison between Capitalist employment and sex-work may be upsetting.  For some, sex-work is always exploitative, while waged-labor is seen (particularly by those who are not convinced Capitalism is all that bad) as more respectable and free-willed. 

To those of this opinion, I’ll admit–it’s a lot easier to talk of my time working in restaurants than it is my time trading sex. And let’s be awfully honest–sex work is not highly paid.  But favoring one sort of work over another is why a CEO is paid millions while an immigrant janitor’s paid pennies.

And to those worried I’m ignoring my male privilege, I’ll admit–I’m pretty strong and a little scary looking–my experiences were certainly less dangerous than many of my trans and non-male friends who’ve engaged (and currently engage) in sex-work face. 

That said, we should insist that sex-work is work, just as any other work is work.  And work when you have no choice is exploitative.  Either all work should be legal, or all work should be illegal (I vote for the latter).

There’s an App For That

rhyd 2001
Me, streetpunk

So, hey…let’s return to that Sharing Economy thing, huh?

I guess you could kinda say that I was ‘sharing’ my body with those men.  On the better nights, with the more attractive and fascinating and kind men, it did kinda feel like sharing, except, well–no.  I was renting myself to them.

Again, I was turning my Means of Reproduction into something I could trade so I could get what I needed, which is the deal we all make with the Capitalists.

This Sharing Economy shit is a really pretty name we put on people renting out their life in exchange for money, turning their cars and homes into the Means of Production.  And we must be really clear about what AirBnB, Uber, and all these companies really are.

They’re pimps.

They’re extracting money from social transactions we make with each other.

When you need a ride from a friend, you offer to pay them gas money.  Now, you pay Uber who pays the driver less than what you paid, while the driver bears all the responsibility (insurance, car payments, gas, repairs).

When you’re going to be gone from your home for a few weeks, you might ask a friend to house-sit or even offer to let a stranger stay if they pay your rent while you’re gone.  Now, AirBnb gets to make money off of you doing so.

What gushing white tech CEO’s and their slobbering fan-boys declare is a ‘new economy’ is really just another way to extract money from the most basic of human activities, a new Enclosure of the social Commons.

Capitalism in Crisis

There’s that quote about remembering history, that I won’t repeat here, ’cause it’s lost its meaning.

Better to say this: certain forms repeat throughout history, and recognizing when they recur is a great way of learning to fight them.  The ‘open-plan office’ that many tech-workers rightfully complain about bears a strong resemblance to the factory floor of the 19th century, and though working for Google is nothing like working in a sweat-shop, noticing the similarities helps remind us when the powerful are relying on something that’s worked for them in the past.

Our current society is not really like Wiemar Berlin just before the Nazi’s rose to power, mostly because what passes for art and culture and sexual experimentation is rather mundane and banal compared to what they came up with.  Nor is using Uber or renting out your apartment with AirBnB quite like the putting-out industry of 1700’s England.  And selling your sex is not the same as using TaskRabbit.

But the forms repeat.  In Berlin, the weakness of Capitalism compelled people to rent their bodies for money.  In early 1700’s England, greedy people ‘put-out’ resources to have the poor make money for them.  And really awful people have always tried to get a piece of us, whether it be our sex or any of the other social relations we create.

Capitalism is in another crisis.  It does this, repeatedly, and in those moments where the rich aren’t certain they’ll be able to hold onto their wealth, they turn all their attention towards finding new ways of extracting our Means of Reproduction and turning it into their profit.

You’re being pimped.

What are you gonna do about it?


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-edged revolution here.


Support our work by buying our books and stickers here.

Radical Books for Radical Kids

Over at my personal blog I have a feature I call “What We’re Reading,” where I talk about what books I’m in the middle of and what I’m reading to my kids. I’d like to share a few of the books we’re reading that might relate to readers of Gods & Radicals.

AisforActivistA is for activist is a fantastic board book for babies, children, and grown ups alike! It walks readers through the alphabet, from activist to zapatista, educating people on collectivist and community ideas. Bright colors, plays-on-words (in more than one language!), and find-the-cat on each page make this book a lot of fun. I have found it a great way to slowly start discussing political ideas at an early age in a way that is non-polarizing. Plus, it always impresses the pants off adults when a kid can tell you that vox populi means voice of the people! Thanks, Innosanto Nagara!

You can purchase this book straight from the publisher, in English and Spanish. Plus, there is a publisher in Sweden who translated it into Swedish! I’m looking forward to adding the next book, Counting on Community, to our bookshelf.


 

Another beautiful board book is Kim Krans’ Hello Sacred Life. Krans is the creator ofhellosacredearth the fabulous Wild Unknown tarot deck (one I use regularly). Her simple book for the very young is a favorite in our house. The pictures are simple and exquisite, encouraging a reverence for the entirety of the world around us.

In my opinion, this book is appropriate for any family from any religious or spiritual tradition. Babies will love the colors and soothing repetitive quality of the words. Parents will love how easy it is to read. Personally, I find it quite relaxing to read – and we read it a lot!

For older kids, a fabulous book on gender diversity is Talcott Broadhead’s Meet Polkadot. Using a fictionalized version of Talcott’s sweet kiddo to demonstrate the myriad ways gender can be expressed, kids get a lesson in the basics of gender theory, lived experience, and ways they can be an ally.

This is a book that can be read on multiple levels. It’s very wordy, so when I read it to my 4 year old I might not read every single word, but read the bigger points on a page. For my older kid, I will read all of it. This book has led to some great discussions in our house! I love that my kids know transgender people in real life and in stories – and this book helps explain a lot of what that means. When we meet people of any or no gender they already have a bit of language under their belt, so they don’t have to get caught up on words and theory, and can jump straight into getting to know people as people.

Click on the picture below to purchase this book directly from the publisher.

MeetPolkadot

 


 

Last, but not least, is the wonderful, inspiring Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. This is another alphabet book, with each letter highlighting an amazing American woman. Featuring a diversity of races, backgrounds, and sexualities, from across the centuries, this book highlights the incredible women that mainstream histories often gloss over. So many of these women were involved in abolition, socialist movements, workers’ rights, and the Civil Rights Movement. Angela Davis, Temple Grandin, Kate Bornstien, Sonia Sotomayor, WIlma Mankiller, and many others are featured here. The letter X is particularly moving – no spoilers!

Click on the image below to purchase.

rad

Each of these books revels in the beautiful diversity of our world and the collective efforts it takes to be whole, healthy, and thriving – that’s my take away, at least! These books reflect the values I wish for my kids: freedom of self-expression; love of this embodied and created world; virtues of strength, justice, and solidarity with others; feminism, socialism, and beauty.

Another aspect of these books I want to point out, one that your kids probably won’t appreciate, is that all of them are published by independent presses; three out of the four books were the impetus for their authors’ publishing companies! You can order these books directly from them or you can order them through your local, independent bookstore.

 

*Important note: this review is in no way suggesting that Gods & Radicals as an entity endorses these books, or the purchasing of them. These books were purchased by or borrowed from the library by me. The authors have no idea I’m reviewing their books.

Words for Sale: A Critical Political Economy of Paganism

by Jonathan Woolley

Image from flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Image created by Tax Credits, sourced from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of days ago, Rhyd wrote an excellent essay on the Faustian pact of Google Analytics, and other similar software packages. Sure, you get all sorts of interesting information out, he explained, but at its heart, this seemingly benign, innovative means of objectively assessing impact and reach – the sort of thing authors endlessly agonise about, particularly in such a crowded forum as the internet – allows Google and other organisations to collect detailed information about your readership; for sale to the highest bidder. Like so much in our society, when you reflect upon the ways in which influence, money, management and labour intersect within SEO, social media, and the like – a form of reflection called “political economy” – an unsavory commercial logic emerges from the undergrowth.

Sadly, Paganism is no different.

Going Critical

It is possible to write a political economy of any human community. From tiny Amazonian villages, to vast multinationals; all can be understood in terms of flows of power and produce, that are quite literally the meat and drink of our existences.

It is interesting, therefore, that despite the universal scope of this method; nobody has yet – to my knowledge, anyway – attempted to explore Paganism in such a fashion. Magliocco focuses on folklore; Luhrmann on logic; Salomonsen on gender; Hutton on history; Harvey on cultural comparison – in all their analyses, they touch upon the political and economic activities of Pagans, but no scholar has yet attempted a full-bore political economic analysis of contemporary Paganism itself. Of course, this generation of scholars belong to a very specific project; seeking to normalise Paganism in order to protect it from accusations of spuriousness from academics, and immorality from the mainstream. As such, they tend to stress the extent to which Pagans are also “normal people” – with normal jobs, normal houses, normal relationships, and the normal range of political and social opinions. Irrespective of our eccentric dress, our fantastic language, our rites, spells, conversations with gods and poetic madnesses; we are, first and foremost, part of the modern world. Because of this, the study of Pagan political economy becomes a non-subject; our economic relations are simply the same as those of everyone else. In such circumstances, the development of a critical account of Pagan political economy – that problematised this “normalness” of Pagans, and attempted to unpick it – was intellectually unnecessary, and politically undesirable. But in the past 20 years or so, Paganism has matured, and so now the time is ripe for such an analysis.

When one takes this critical stance, the forms of organisation normally described within Paganism – covens, groves, traditions and so on – fade away, and a very different structure emerges. Different, not just from how we describe ourselves, but from the social orders we find in other religions. We find few churches, monasteries, temples, or mosques – those that do exist, often struggle. In Paganism, centre stage is taken a small circle of private individuals – primarily authors and teachers. In Britain, this means names like Philip Carr-Gomm, Vivianne Crowley, Nigel Pennick, Prudence Jones, Caitlin and John Matthews, Pete Carroll, Rae Beth, and Emma Restall-Orr. They make their living – partly or wholly – by selling their ideas; through writing books, and holding workshops. Around this core of content creators, you have a network of bookshops, occult suppliers, robemakers, celebrants, and healers – all working in ways inspired by the writings of those at the centre of the network.

Surrounding this central core of those who are primarily or solely employed in Paganism, you have a second group – employees of the muggle world. Some – like those working in Forest Schools, or Counselling – have employment that dovetails neatly with the ideas at Paganism’s core. Others – those working in more “ordinary” jobs – from Estate Agency, to Local Government, from IT to Retail – do not. In both cases, however, Paganism is something they have to fit in to their spare time, and is something through which they spend their wages, rather than earn them. Financially, this outer corona supports the core – those at its heart would not be able to make a living speaking, celebrating, and writing if those employed outside “the Pagan business” did not buy their products. And, of course, those in the corona are supported emotionally, creatively, and spiritually by those in the core – if they were not, they would not buy what those at the core have to sell.

What I am describing here is quite unlike other religious communities; these are first and foremost collective enterprises – funded by donations, or the state. For all the world, the Pagan community sounds less like a church or a network of temples, or an ummah – for its social order is fundamentally commercial in nature. The corona of those who do Paganism in their free hours is fundamentally a space of consumption – wages spent on services rendered. It is often said, that the difference between Paganism and the New Age is the number of noughts on the workshop ticket prices. This joke is a sword that cuts both ways: although it points out the rapacious greed of certain New Age gurus, it also highlights that Paganism is just as fundamentally market-oriented as they are. With this consumer-vendor dynamic in mind, what becomes clear is that Paganism is less a religion – in terms of its political economy – and more akin to a literary genre, with an accompanying fandom. If we compare worldwide Paganisms to some of the more established fan communities – such as Trekkies, for example – the similarities become almost painful. Both hinge upon a small circle of content creators at the hub of the wheel, whose writings and performances inspire all sorts of sub-creations from fans. It is fitting, therefore, that the largest Pagan gathering on Earth should be a “Con[vention]”.

Pagan Business

With this in mind, we can see how consumerist logic has leached through Pagan culture, even though elements of it that do not carry a price tag. What is the moot, if not a book group? What is the public ritual, if not a LARP? The fact that these things are done for free by passionate and often very well-intentioned supporters, does not negate the fundamentally capitalist exchange that preceded them. The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

The point here is not that those who make their living through Paganism are being greedy or venial. On the contrary, writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community. Before all else, you have to pay. By relying upon the Market to directly transmit our lore, to fund our gatherings, to supply our goods, we become complicit in it. It means the fortunes of our traditions turn not with the wheel of the year, but with the shifting fashions and stock prices of the global publishing and wellness industries. Our community is directed less by the will of the gods, and more by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The heartbeat at the core of our living traditions becomes the ring of a cash register.

This dominance of the logic of the Market within Paganism is not surprising, even if it is disquieting. Paganism is one of the few religions to have arisen within the Modern Age, when Capitalism was in its ascendency. This has very real consequences for us all. Let us not forget the prototypical “gateway experience” for a seeker – traditionally – was buying a book from an occult book shop. The fact that the internet and Amazon have replaced the knowledgeable local bookseller is to be lamented; but it is not so meteoric shift as we might suppose. Whether your spirituality is expressed through buying knowledge from a kooky shop on Glastonbury High Street, or from Amazon, your spirituality is still being expressed through shopping. Equally, this shift demonstrates the extent to which our infrastructure is dependent upon the vagaries of the market to survive: the rise of the internet has caused many Pagan bookshops to close; depriving local communities of an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn, and socialise. Indeed, it is precisely because we have relied on the Market that this transition – from a friendly, in-community, low-profit enterprise, to a distant, global, high profit one – has taken place. The very means by which our lore is spread has been transformed for the worse by the dictat of the Market.

The most fundamental problem, though, is how this allows unhealthy class dynamics to spread within our community. For every one successful Pagan author, there are many many more who dearly wish they could make it in the “Pagan Business”, but instead work in some mind-numbing office job to make ends meet. The vocation of the former, is bought and paid for by the drudgery of the latter. Even those who do succeed are constantly threatened under Capitalism – whether it’s through being out-competed by multinational competitors, exploited when your publisher is bought up by a Market leader, or being ruined when your austerity-hit consumer-base can’t afford your £30 tarot readings or £8 herbal poultices anymore. This is not a game any of us can win.

The dominance of consumer goods – books, candles, incense, space enough in your home to cast circle, salt and so on – within the Pagan sphere sets up obstacles for poorer people wishing to participate, and often relies on exploitative labour in Chinese or Indian factories as part of their manufacturing cycle, or the use of precious resources from fragile ecosystems. Although many fee-charging camps and festivals have ways you can work to earn a ticket – through volunteering in the kitchen or setting up beforehand – even this can create a gulf between those who earn enough to pay outright, and those who have to work.

In all these ways, Paganism is little different from wider society. Our community, like any other under Capitalism, is shot through with consumerism. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What’s more, it shouldn’t.

Disorganised Religion

I find the most frustrating thing about the political economy we currently have – of two concentric rings; of the Content, and the Consumers – is not that it’s undesirable, or unsustainable: rather, what really sticks in my craw is that it’s not even planned. It’s not as if some dark coven, or evil magician has concocted this – that would, at least, give us somebody to blame, and me somebody to castigate here. Rather, this set up has appeared entirely organically; merely as a result of Pagans also being (largely) liberal Western individuals. We simply are repeating the economic patterns that govern our society as a whole, without really thinking about the consequences of this choice, or if there might be a more truly Pagan alternative. Indeed, I suspect many of us doubt that such an alternative is even possible.

It’s common for Pagans to describe the fact that we express “disorganised religion” with some degree of pride. I firmly support the moral of this boast – that there should be no compulsion, no Byzantine hierarchies, no exploitation, in matters religious. But the liberal individualism that many Pagans treasure does not automatically create a utopia, in which we are free to do as our consciences and our gods dictate, in contrast to the rest of society. Rather, the true result is that – without a firm commitment to a different vision of how society might be organized – we just end up replicating the unhealthy relationships that we all experience everyday under capitalism.

Used under Creative Commons, sourced from Wikipedia.

Beyond the crossing of palms with silver

What we need to do is find “cracks”, where our communities, like pavement weeds, can grow. In these autonomous spaces, the strictures of capitalism are held in abeyance, and we are able to live instead under our own laws and principles.

There are many ways in which such cracks can be formed, depending upon the legal and political jurisdiction you find yourself within. I first experienced one such crack with the tribe at Four Quarters Farm in Pennsylvania where I did my undergraduate fieldwork. I was so inspired by their heady mix of sustainable ethics and earthy magics, I resolved to find a tribe living in a crack close to my own landscape. I found such a crack – or the beginnings of one – with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids here in Britain. Philip Carr-Gomm has written an excellent piece on his vision of how Druidry should be organised – not as an ashram, with a guru-like Archdruid ruling the roost at the heart of it all, or a clamorous New Age fair, but rather like a Maori village, with all the people contributing different skills according to their own abilities, and obtaining what they need from others. Societies have existed happily without the Market for thousands of years: providing resources and mutual assistance along ties of love and kinship, rather than through the medium of money and debt. As the OBOD community matures, this is exactly what it is starting to feel like – a network of friends and family, whose common culture and bonds of friendship is beginning to annihilate the distinction between “The Pagan Business” and those who consume its products. Instead, people are beginning to give what they can, to those that need it, for no other reason than they’re part of the same tribe. We might not be able to escape the Capitalist system – yet – but we can at least try to create our own spaces where we can liberate ourselves as far as possible from its pernicious influence. We certainly can change the way we live together, so that our philosophers and ritualists don’t have to hawk their wares, our relics are made sustainably, and our seekers may learn for free,  I’m sure other examples must exist of this nascent “living Paganism” – a network of villages, thriving in the cracks as Capitalism begins to fall. I’d love to hear about them.

There is much more still to be done. Personally, I wonder if what we need now is more ambition within the Pagan community – a drive to build our own structures and spaces, that have the strength and clarity of purpose to resist capital, and to attract like-minded others to our cause. Let’s not have our seekers running the gauntlet of Amazon and MBS-bullshit, wasting money they don’t have before, they can be made welcome into our tribal federation. As a people, we are not averse to seeing visions; let the visions we have now be political and economic visions, and may all the good that we see in them come to pass.

Blowing the Ram’s Horn

A Review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years

by George Caffentzis

Book Cover (Fair Use–Review).
Book Cover (Fair Use–Review).

Few issues are attracting so much attention in our time, and not just in social movement circles, as the question of debt. Student debt, mortgage debt, household/personal debt, governmental debt: it is hard today to find anyone in North America or worldwide not affected by the hook indebtedness plants into our flesh. Thus David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is more than timely, and this is certainly part of the reason for the response it has generated. It is also a genial book, generous with bold hypotheses, interesting facts, telling anecdotes, and insightful jokes. From the opening pages, I felt I had come on a Gargantuan carnival of thought. Graeber’s many syncopated voices speak from its pages. As I enjoy his poly-vocal discourse, I found Debt to be a fruitful and exciting read.

Jubilee & Debt Forgiveness

Debt is a political book clearly intended to provide arguments in favor of a “Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt” (390). As Graeber writes: ”Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again” (391) than to impose a Jubilee, presumably in the style of the Ancient Hebrews who mandated the cancellation of debts and the freeing of those held in debt bondage every seven years. Debt echoes a popular sentiment, amplified after the great bailout of 2008, “If the government could buy up these banks’, corporations’ and firms’ bad debt, why can’t it cancel my infinitely smaller one?” But as the Jubilee 2000 movement of the 1990s discovered, there are serious obstacles in the way of such a move — including a foundational moral principle — that the book addresses.

The first and most important obstacle is the mass sense that paying back what one owes is the right thing to do and any refusal to accept debt obligations amounts to an egregious violation of ethical standards. The second obstacle is the futility of debt payment refusal felt by even those people who have managed to reject the morality of repayment given the many instruments of terror banks (with government collaboration) unleash on a debt refuser. Graeber is well aware a Jubilee may be proscribed as immoral or impossible. I read the first half of Debt (Chapters 1-7) as confronting one horn of this dilemma (the assumed immorality of defaulting on one’s debts). I read the last half of the book (Chapters 8-12) as confronting the other horn of the dilemma (the assumed political impossibility of refusing to pay one’s debts). In sum, the overall political aim of Debt is to show that a Jubilee is both moral and possible.

The Morality of Debt

Graeber’s first aim in this process is to challenge “the moral sanctity of the debt,” a sentiment expressed by creditors throughout the ages. He does so by showing that debt repayment has been made sacred because morality itself in our society has been modeled on the debt relation and is its mirror image. Drawing on a large body of linguistic, anthropological and historical evidence, Graeber explores how the nexus of debt, guilt and sin has ruled the commercial world, from China to the Roman Empire, codified in religious texts and legal doctrines dating back thousands of years.

As Graeber tells the story behind the identification of morality with paying back one’s debts, Debt allows for other moral principles to come to the fore. Graeber gives us two options here. One is based on communal expectations of mutual aid, on “base-line communism” as he calls it, where the adage “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability” is dominant. The other is based on the principle of hierarchy that presumes one party in a relation is superior to the other and consequently no “fair” exchange is possible between them.

Why has morality been identified for eons with debt and the rest of the concepts in its immediate semantic territory (credit, default, interest, etc.)? Graeber’s answer is that when the monetary world of buying and selling (especially of human beings in slave markets) gripped a society, older forms of hierarchy and of mutual aid (or communism with a lower-case “c”) imploded. The resulting chaos led to a morphing of morality into debt repayment categories that has never been reversed. Older forms of communism and hierarchy persisted and newer ones developed even after the rise of “pure” monetary exchange but, to this day, they have been indelibly marked by the centrality of the money-debt nexus.

Graeber contests the reduction of morality to debt repayment, noting we need not “insist on defining all human interactions as matters of people giving one thing for another,” for in this case “any ongoing human relations can only take the form of debts” (126). He shows us that there have been other social arrangements relying on radically different principles — heroic societies, human economies, baseline communism — that we can use to forge models of moral behavior sans exchange. Once we are alive to these possibilities, the hegemonic conceptual power of the “exchange model” vanishes and we can acknowledge that repayment of debt leading to harmful consequences can be legitimately and morally opposed, especially if it creates slave-like conditions on a mass scale and social polarization (as denounced most recently by the Occupy Wall Street movement). Graeber’s Debt, then, is like the blowing of the ram’s horn announcing the ancient Hebrew Jubilee — it lays the logical foundations for our liberation from a self-destructive prejudice attributing moral sanctity to “honoring one’s debts.”

The Fluidity Of Money

Having proven that a Jubilee is moral, since morality can and should be based on a non-exchange principle, Graeber proceeds to demonstrate its feasibility. Crucial here is his claim to have discerned a social/historic law operating for the last five thousand years: a long cycle of monetary oscillations between periods of virtual credit money and periods of coinage and metal bullion.

He notes that at the end of each oscillation the dominant economic systems become more vulnerable. In the course of these transitional periods, especially those from coinage/bullion to virtual credit money, empires crumbled and prohibitions against debt-enslavement intensified. The last transition from coinage and bullion to virtual credit money, for example, occurring in 600 CE, resulted in “a widespread movement to control, or even forbid predatory lending” (251) with both Christianity and Islam moving to forbid usury at that time.

This long wave cyclic theory of money forms has relevance for the prospects of a Jubilee according to Graeber who draws an analogy between the transition from coinage/bullion to credit money that occurred in the early Middle Ages and the change initiated by President Nixon’s 1971 decision to end the direct convertibility of the US dollar into gold, which returned the world economy to virtual credit money. If it is true that collapsing empires are less capable of resisting the demand for liberation from debt, we might be in a better position (runs the argument), in our emerging credit money world, to break from the capitalist imperative to “never [allow] anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts” (391). Hence, Graeber argues that the tide of monetary history makes a Jubilee possible.

Debt stimulates our sense of possibility by breaking with neo-liberal concepts and sentiments that have dominated the discourse of debt and money in the financial crisis. It also presents fresh arguments in support of a debt Jubilee. However, the book stops short of examining what a Jubilee in our time could look like. Graeber’s case (along with the arguments of others) convince me that Jubilees are both moral and possible, but he does not clarify why they should top our political agenda, nor does he distinguish between reformist and revolutionary Jubilees. The main purpose of the ancient Mesopotamian and Hebrew Jubilees, after all, was to preserve hierarchical social systems by means of periodic reforms that literally dispersed the pressure put on ruling classes by mass opposition to debt repayment. Debts were cancelled in these Jubilees, so that the oppressive machine could keep grinding on.

There can be, however, Jubilees that have a revolutionary impact and mark the beginning of new forms of social organization. What might this new social organization be in our time? Debt does not say, but let me propose that Graeber might follow it up by considering the concept of the commons. Indeed, for his next project I suggest he direct his prodigious energies to writing on the commons with a lower-case as well as a capital “C.“

In conclusion, let me once again commend David Graeber for the labor he put into producing this very useful book at the moment when the anti-capitalist movement is organizing around and against the politics of debt. In the spirit of Debt’s argument, building a movement capable of imposing a Global Jubilee would be the best way to repay him for his labor.

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992; Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War; A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities.


Support our work by buying our books and stickers here.

The King’s Injustice: Choices and Consequences

by Naomi Jacobs

Under the Conservative-led government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London.
Under the Conservative-led UK government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London. By Victoria Johnson.

After that, Lugaid mac Con was a year in the kingship of Tara, and no grass came through the earth, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. So the men of Ireland expelled him from his kingship, for he was an unlawful ruler.
– Aislinge Meic Conglinne, trans. Preston-Matto, 2010

A ruler’s truth overpowers armies. It brings milk into the world, it brings corn and mast.
– Early Irish text cited in Ó hÓgáin, 1999

In ancient Ireland, the king’s justice, the King’s Truth – fír flathemon – was the condition of sovereignty on which the prosperity of the land depended. If the king ruled with justice, the land prospered. If he failed in this, the land was barren, and the people suffered. Eventually, he would be deposed and a good king would replace him.

On May 7th, the UK had a general election, and a Conservative government was elected. This post is not about party politics. It is about political activism, and why it is needed – especially when the king’s justice is by no means certain for the future.

The Conservative-led UK government has spent the past five years implementing all manner of economically and socially conservative legislation and programmes. These cuts and measures have disproportionately targeted the poorest and most vulnerable* people in UK society. Here are just a few examples. I could have cited many more.

Injustice limits access to justice

Legal aid is an extremely old concept, found in the Bible and other ancient legal systems. It’s been a pillar of the UK social security system for generations, and it exists in many other countries too. The UK government has made sweeping cuts to legal aid, limiting most people’s access to financial support for legal representation. People in the foster care system, homeless people and parents in custody battles are all having to represent themselves in court. The worst affected area has been family law, which has seen a reduction in the use of mediation, which is likely to have had negative effects on families and children. In an unintended side-effect of the implementation of the cuts, people who experience domestic violence have been asked to show evidence of this before legal aid will pay their legal costs. The evidence is required to be no more than 24 months old. And it must be police evidence, which is a serious problem if the police haven’t believed you, or if you’ve been too afraid to report the abuse. Meanwhile, employment tribunal fees are no longer being paid by the government, as a result of which the rate of tribunals has dropped by 90%. This means less justice for those working in insecure jobs, in poor conditions, not receiving minimum wage, or facing discrimination at work. Injustice entrenches itself in the system.

Injustice compounds injustice

Then we’ve had the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. If people in social housing have more bedrooms than are deemed necessary, they have to pay more for them. Often this occurs in housing where people have lived for many years, where there can be many reasons for extra bedrooms (including the need for space to store disability-related equipment or to have a care worker sleeping nearby), and which they are now being made to leave. This measure is very badly timed, hitting people simultaneously with other serious housing issues, including a rental market that is spiralling out of control, as landlords charge more and more in rent, especially in the cities. As a result, thousands of people are being forced to move away from their home towns, relocated to cheaper housing elsewhere. This is having a knock-on effect on families, with parents even losing their children to the foster care system. Injustice compounds injustice.

No extra rooms allowed, no matter what you need them for. Photo: wheelchair in a room at home. By Wheelz24.
No extra rooms allowed, regardless of need. Photo: wheelchair. By Wheelz24.

Injustice destroys the weakest

Another horrendous move has been the closure of the Independent Living Fund. This fund helps to pay for the care of the most severely disabled people in our society, ensuring that they do not have to live in care homes, allowing them a measure of independence despite severe impairment. The fund is due to close in July. The government claims that the funding will move into the general local council social care budgets – but it is not ringfenced, i.e. the government will move the funding over without forcing local councils to spend it on the care of disabled people. Local council budgets have been cut by up to 30% across the board, and they are already struggling to pay for the care of disabled and elderly people, whose support is being cut as a result. This moving video features disabled people who are currently supported by the ILF, talking about their fears for the future. It’s worth watching. Injustice is brutal.

Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.
Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.

There’s also been ‘reform’ of disability benefits – by which the government really means cuts to benefits. Disabled people have been affected by government cuts 18 times harder than non-disabled people, some statistics suggest. Employment Support Allowance, an out-of-work benefit for those who can’t work due to disability, has been scandalously implemented via a ‘fitness to work’ test that has certified people as ready to go back to work just before they died from their conditions, as part of a system which has negatively impacted many people’s health. ESA has since been time-limited for many thousands of people, while ill people are being penalised and having their benefits removed if they cannot keep appointments (because they are sick).There have also been changes to funds that help to pay for the extra costs of disability, regardless of whether or not a person is in work. Without some of this funding, I will have no money to pay the soaring costs of disability in a society that increasingly doesn’t have room for me. I fear for my future and ability to work when I do. Injustice is expensive.

Injustice tramples the rights of the people

The government is now attempting to scrap the Human Rights Act, which allows us such terrible things as the right to freedom of expression, the right to an education, and the right to a private family life.

According to ajgcanada.com, these are all reforms that entrench poverty and increase inequality. Reforms that leave people in desperate situations. Reforms that destroy local services, including social care for elderly people and the National Health Service that all of us rely on (there is very little in the way of decent health insurance available to anyone in this country, except for those who are very rich and healthy). Reforms that kill. Injustice is relentless.

Fír flathamon – our truth, our justice

In a system that allows free elections, we are complicit in ensuring justice for all, and in denying it to anyone. We are the king’s justice, and the absence of it. We voted in a government that plans to aim further cuts at an already-ravaged population of poor and disabled people. We will only be able to blame ourselves when the land is torn apart by fracking, the foxes begin to die again if the hunt returns, homelessness numbers rise and rise, the people suffer because food banks are not enough to meet the needs created by government austerity programmes, and more poor and disabled people die.

16190104839_b37554c3bb_q
Photo: protester holds sign that reads ‘Ban fracking and support clean green energy’. By The Weekly Bull.

 

One of the worst kickers has been that, when I’ve told US citizens about this situation, hoping for commiseration and support, their reply has mostly been “Welcome to America.” Thanks for the schadenfreude, friends, but I think we can do better than that. One country’s injustice does not mean we have to support a string of unjust systems across the world. If anything, it should make us more keen to fight for justice, both in our own lands and abroad. The UK has a history of an excellent welfare state that was a true safety net for those in trouble. We should all fight its collapse, not celebrate it.

Religious institutions have been slow to respond to the injustice of the austerity measures and cuts in Britain. So slow, in fact, that our Prime Minister recently felt able to co-opt Christian frameworks in support of his cuts. But members of various religions are starting to step forward and speak out against the situation. Pagans need to do the same. We have access to many myths and metaphors that highlight how social injustice can lead to social and economic collapse for all. Some of those myths have been validated in the modern world – we know that societies that emphasise social justice and reduce inequality tend to do better economically and socially. The good judgments of the king really do lead to a prosperous and peaceful land. The opposite is also true. The land will not prosper while the people are oppressed. No grass comes through the earth in Britain today, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. It’s just that not everyone can see that yet.

Today, the King’s Truth is our responsibility. It is our truth. Today, the majority has failed the minority in society, those who are weakened to sustain the power of the rich, of the more privileged. The bankers who get away with economic collapse. The politicians who get away with murder. We give them their power. We can take it away again.

But on May 7th, we failed to do that. We elected a government that we knew were planning to extend austerity measures and to create even more devastation and destruction. We could have deposed the king and replaced him with wise and just ministers. We chose instead to sustain and support gau flathemon, the injustice of kings.

The question is, what are we going to do about it now?

8647362117_5e54e9df03_q
Photo: a large sign held up by protestors reads “Thatcher’s gone – now let’s bury Thatcherism”. By Darren Johnson.

*Generally I dislike the word vulnerable, but in this case it’s true. Society is making disabled people, and others, ever more vulnerable in this country. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s another thing that we choose to allow, to stand by while it becomes ever more true.

References

Preston-Matto, 2010, Aislinge Meic Conglinne (the vision of Mac Conglinne). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Ó hÓgáin, 1999, The Sacred Isle. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.

All photographs used under Creative Commons licence.

The Roots of Our Resistance

By Rhyd Wildermuth

View from my window, 2009
View from my window, 2009

I stood in the street-front garden on a languid August evening.  The sun had set, the heavy Friday commuter traffic dwindled on the arterial street before me, a pause of quiet settling over the city before the raging hoards of week-end revelers awoke to earlier memories of life.

The gloaming light faded just as the street-lamps ignited, shining amberic yellow across the concrete stones radiating the last of the day’s heat into the cooling night.  I breathed in, deeply, taking in the intoxicating scents around me. Nicotiana filled the heavy, thick drunk air as I unraveled the garden hose, my bare feet brushing against chamomile and mint. I opened the spigot, directing a slow spray of water on the baked-earth in which nasturtium, victorian lilac, and heather rooted amongst human-high blades of vetiver and taller-still sunflower.

Nothing ready to harvest those weeks in August; all the greens had long-before gone to seed, and the tomatoes and peppers not yet ready.  I liked that time of year best, in between one harvest and the next, my garden planned to explode in heady blossoms while vegetables and roots swelled pregnant in the long heat.

This was my home, a shared house in the middle of the city in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, then still an enclave of queers, artists, urban service workers, hipsters, and old Black families sharing the same streets and cafes in the 10 blocks near my garden. One of the first neighborhoods established on the forested hills, ancient trees still winning out over perpetually cracked concrete, centuries-old roots throwing off asphalt and brick with easy indifference.

The house was built early in the 1900’s, but I was much newer to it, having moved just after the WTO protests in the last year of the last century. The neighborhood was gorgeous, playful, the spirits and animals curious and kind, the side-streets as much a foot-path as the sidewalks, alleys hiding mysteries, swelling with quiet contentment. It was a good place, all I needed and wanted of a neighborhood, a city, a world.

That night I stood outside to water my garden somewhat distracted.  Several things weighed on mind, particularly the increasing costs of living where I did. The neighborhood was in upheaval, that slow war of gentification and displacement, increasing costs without increasing wages. The rent on our place had not yet gone up, but all the other expenses were becoming difficult to manage on my full-time social work income, even after sharing the burden of rent, utilities and food with my lover and roommates.

My lover was inside at the time, with another lover. I’d wanted to give them some time to each other, and I’d wanted to stand in the garden. I’d suspended candle lanterns from the branches of an Elder tree another lover had rescued 6 year before, other lanterns swayed from wrought-iron sections of fence we’d found in alleyways and converted into trellises for climbing Cathedral Bells, Morning-Glories, and Black-eyed Susan vine. Amongst those planted vines, ivy–cut back years before—crept back to war with a rather resilient clematis, and amongst those candles and vines, wild lupine and scotch broom and opium poppy peeked through, each flower and shrub and vine a story, each planting of it a relic of my life always ready to be relived.

I sat for awhile, perhaps over-watered, lingering, wondering if they’d had enough time alone, wondering if I should make maybe take tea in thegarden.  It was a beautiful night–all options seemed pleasurable, all paths leading towards contentment.  I’d decided on tea, but just as I turned, I heard my neighbors’ voice call out.

Hey! You got a transfer?” he asked.  I turned, glad to see him.  We’d known each other for over a decade, and he’d been there long before I’d arrived. At 15 years in my home, I was a newcomer—he’d lived there his entire 45 years, which were short compared to his grandmother’s 96 years.

“Yeah,” I said, digging the paper bus ticket from my over-full pockets.

We had an illegal trade going. He started it a decade ago, running across the street to hand me a crumbled purple ribbon of newsprint, an unexpired bus transfer.  I’ll admit, a stranger running at you, shouting as you wait for a bus, is a bit startling, and I was probably awfully defensive that first time.

Don’t pay,” he’d said, stopping in front of me.  “I got a transfer.”

At first I’d refused.  Metro transfers are non-transferable, and I was more a liberal then, and less the anarchist.  I imagined it my moral duty to pay for public transit, regardless of how poor I was.  But the man was nice, and he’d sprinted a hundred feet across a busy street to give me a free ride, so I accepted.

That act started our long friendship.  Whenever I’d see him, I’d say hello, and offer him any unexpired transfers that I had if he was waiting at the stop.  Sometimes he’d leave his on the sign-post by the bus shelter, and then I started doing that too.

My large balcony overlooked the street and the bus stop, and I’d sometimes spot him offer used transfers to others, too.  Most would refuse, particularly the well-dressed white women, and I’d watch their body language show their fear or disgust of the large Black man trying to save them a couple of dollars.

That evening, I handed him mine–an ‘Owl’ transfer, good until the next morning, and then offered him a cigarette, though he hadn’t asked.  I enjoyed his company, despite always forgetting his name.  He always forgot mine, too, no matter how many times we’d offer them to each other.  After most of a decade of talking, laughing, sharing a beer or sprinting across a busy street to save the other guy a few dollars, names really didn’t matter as much as everything else.

We stood outside together, talking, watching the street lamps flicker and the increasing weekend traffic begin to flood the street. My mind was still a bit distracted by my lover’s guest inside, though not from jealousy. The man inside was a writer, too, a left-leaning journalist for a local alternative paper, who’d written several articles about this recent wave of gentrification in our neighborhood. We didn’t agree on much—he saw the changes as good and inevitable; I saw them as horrifying as my steady income seemed to pay for less and less each month.  We’d talked amiably about it, though, but the matter weighed on me.

In the garden, I asked my neighbor and co-conspirator against the rising cost of public transit a question I’d been meaning to ask for several months. As my friend had lived in his home his entire life, and his grandmother was the first to live in their century-old house, I figured he’d have some insight.  And I’d wanted to know how he’d fared during the sub-prime era a few years before, when predatory mortgage brokers would go door-to-door trying to get poorer families to take out equity loans or to sell their home altogether.

“Hey,”  I asked.  “Did you and your grandmother ever get hit by the loan sharks a couple of years ago?”

“Shit,” he’d said, dragging his cigarette, one eye scanning the street for the bus. “We still do, and the real estate agents.  There was a woman here just yesterday–she comes by every week trying to get my grandma to sell.”

I probably looked a bit stupid from the shock.  His grandmother was almost a hundred years old, suffering from age-related dementia, could barely remember her own name let alone make such a decision.

He told me he had to chase another out of his house a month before–his grandmother had let the real estate agent in while he was gone, and by the time he’d arrived his grandmother was already fumbling with a pen to sign away the home she’d been born into. He’d torn those papers up in a fury and pushed the woman out.

A house next to us had sold for almost a million dollars a few years before, after its owner had paid my landlord and another to cut down trees to increase the view from its windows onto Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains (I never learned how much my landlord was paid).  The house next to my friend’s rented for six thousand dollars a month, the house on the other side of him had sold and was being torn down for new apartments.

The hyper-inflated market for housing in a dense and vibrant neighborhood offered quite the buy-out for those whose desire for money outweighed their sense of place and ties to their home.  For him, though, despite being employed only part-time while caring for his very elderly grandmother, it made no sense to sell and move from the house built by his great grandfather.

He told me there’d been plenty of times he was tempted when the electricity was about to go out because of unpaid bills.  Worse, several of the mortgage brokers pitched hard–he was in his mid-forties and had never owned a car, never traveled.  A mortgage or a sale would mean he could buy a car and wouldn’t need to bus all the time, wouldn’t need to trade transfers with his neighbor to make ends meet.

Making a Killing

You might not know the scam here, particularly if you are white–I was ignorant of this myself until about a decade ago.

Black home-owners are continuously targeted by real estate agents and predatory lenders in neighborhoods primed for ‘urban renewal’ (that is, gentrification).  Because they’re minorities, their plight and position elicits little sympathy and solidarity from the middle-class white liberals who dominate the politics in many cities, and their high unemployment rates often mean they are more likely to endure long periods of poverty and have less access to the lines of credit freely offered to middle-class whites.

But many of them owned homes, particularly in areas that were once considered poor and undesirable neighborhoods.  And for families like my friend’s, the home was theirs, long-ago paid off or never borrowed for in the first place. Without income, though, and without easy credit, the house becomes the only thing they can draw from, and banks are too-often willing to take a house as collateral on an ‘equity loan.’

There are many ways a loan can go wrong, the most obvious one being that jobs are lost or medical crises ensue, and the failure to repay that loan (often for relatively small amounts compared to the value of the house) means everything is lost.

Because we live in a racist, Capitalist Democracy, profit is the only religion and any problems you endure are considered your own responsibility, even if those problems were caused by manipulative land speculators and bankers composing confusing loan agreements. And speculators often target Black home owners because they know they are poor, often strapped for cash, less educated than their white neighbors, and their lack of political power means their complaints are often ignored or considered hysteria by those outside their communities.

Mortgage brokers and loan officers (who, like real estate agents are often paid on commission) see Black home-owners as easy targets, particularly since the pay-off for a loan default is often extra-ordinarily high compared to the amount lent.  During the sub-prime mortgage crisis, when interest rates were low and regulation was lax, brokers and real estate agents targeted Black home owners particularly, approving loans with variable rates (often interest rates that tripled after a year of repayment), making a ‘killing’ in new housing markets.

During the heady days of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the new rage in home ownership from friends and strangers. Everyone wanted to get in on ‘Flipping,’ where you buy a house, hold it for a year or two, and sell it for $50- to $100 thousand more than your original loan, pocketing the difference as profit.

“In fact,” a long-time friend of mine explained after he flipped his first house, “you wouldn’t have to work for others anymore.  Rhyd–you could write while fixing up a house.  And they don’t care how much money you’re making now–they’ll give a loan to anyone.  You’d be stupid not to.”

Lax regulation, high unemployment, and government policies to push home ownership as the ‘American Dream’ created an overheated engine of profit for those who did the transfers.  And each sale meant a little more profit, and many people were buying only to sell again, with no interest in the communities they bought homes in.

It all seemed really, really wrong…and it was.

A friend got caught on his second house as the market collapsed, and he, along with many, many other people, were all ‘underwater’ (owing more on their loans than the resale value of their houses).  But worse than the obvious game and great ‘forgetting’ of everyone involved (they, like me, had witnessed the dot.com bubble in Seattle, after all), was the fact that this shell game was being played at the expense of poor and Black folk, who lost their homes in droves when the money they’d borrowed to pay down medical debt, perform long-needed repairs, or get them through an economic rough-patch couldn’t be paid back. They lost not only the roofs over their heads, but also the decades and almost centuries of rootedness that came from living in the same home as your ancestors.

Street art protesting Gentrification in Seattle. Copyright John Cristello. Retreived from #CapHillPSA
Street art protesting Gentrification in Seattle. Copyright John Cristello. Retreived from #CapHillPSA

And in the last 6 years, another round of the shell-game had begun in our city and our neighborhood. Large internet technology companies had begun expanding their profit-ventures and needed more workers to help them do it. Traditionally Black and gay neighborhoods became war zones again, threatening to push both him and I out in favor of a whiter, straighter population.

Ancestral Trauma and the Cycle of Violence

The ancestors of many Black folk in America were hauled from their homes in chains in the hulls of ships, becoming an uncompensated labor force to subdue the colonized lands of the Americas.  From one great break of ancestry to another, the descendents of folks living on the continent of Africa found their traditions severed by the ravenous lust of Capital both through slavery and through the pillaging of land speculation.

Marxist historians speak of a process called “Primitive Accumulation,” [Primitive as in ‘primary’ or ‘initial,’ not as in the ‘opposite of civilized,’] the plundering of natural resources (wood, minerals, people).  This accumulation usually involved violence–the Crusades, imperial conquest of South America, and slave-taking were all acts of Primitive Accumulation, and all resulted in great wealth for European rulers and merchants.  That initial accumulation of wealth at the point of the sword then became the wealth that we now call Capital.

Primitive Accumulation caused massive displacements of people and destruction of societies–the deaths from conquest in the Americas and the hauling of humans in chains across oceans being obvious examples.  But this way of gaining wealth is never very sustainable–one can only plunder so many ancient cities of their gold and people before there’s no longer any gold or people left to plunder.

Capitalism is a more systematic and efficient method of plunder, as it invests those stolen resources into localized cycles of oppression.  Consider–the effort to hire an army willing to risk death to conquer another people for its wealth is intense, requiring state sanction and ideological support (the Crusades, the War on Terror)–and this method is usually only available to kings.  For lesser lords (and their descendents, the ‘Bourgeoisie’), it was easier to exploit the people around them rather than traveling overseas.

slave auction, Virginia
Slave Auction, Virginia, USA

But Capitalism operates, still, on the same logic as primitive accumulation–the ‘creation’ of wealth from finite resources.  Humans can only work so long before they tire, and consumers can only buy so many of the same dress before they no longer need any more dresses.  There is always a limit to the amount of money that can be made in any venture, whether it is conquest of ancient societies or mass-produced trinkets.  The wells run dry, the mines empty, the storehouses fill to overflowing.

The Capitalist, like the conqueror, is never sated, since the entire point of both Capitalism and Conquest is to gain ever-increasing amounts of wealth (unlike for the worker or the slave, which is do do as little work as possible while still surviving or not getting beaten). So Capitalism must find new ‘markets,’ new fields of conquest from which wealth can be derived.  And sometimes, it does so by destroying what is already there in order to make profit from rebuilding it.

When a neighborhood undergoes gentrification, land and buildings are changed or replaced in order derive more wealth from them. Old houses that are only being lived in or rented at stable rates become targets for Capital-seeking investors and real-estate agents. If you own a house your entire life, you’re not making money for anyone else by living there. Renters  provide some wealth for landords, but because there’s only so much that can be squezzed from a renter’s income before they must move, Capitalists actively displace renters in favor of higher-income people.

Old houses are torn down to make room for denser apartments and condominiums, old apartments are renovated or sold as condominiums, and the people who lived previous are either ‘priced out’ or forced to leave through lease terminations.

This cycle of upheaval is not new.

Consider some of the earliest upheavals caused by Capitalism, not in the Americas or in Africa, but on the very islands where Capitalism started.  The Highland Clearances and other Enclosure movements were the first salvos in the transition from Primitive Accumulation to Capitalist exploitation of peoples.

The Highland Clearances, a prime example of Capitalist displacement of peoples. In the 18oo's, Scottish tribal chieftains began expelling people from land in order to 'improve' production. Supported by the English Crown which had already begun the same process, landlords forced people off their ancestral lands to turn land into Capital. The subsequent emigration also caused violence in the lands to which people fled, as indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia became secondary victims of Scottish Capitalism.
The Highland Clearances, a prime example of Capitalist displacement of peoples. In the 18oo’s, Scottish tribal chieftains began expelling people from land in order to ‘improve’ production. Supported by the English Crown which had already begun the same process, landlords forced people off their ancestral lands to turn land into Capital. The subsequent emigration also caused violence in the lands to which people fled, as indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia became secondary victims of Scottish Capitalism.

Wealthy landlords and tribal chieftains pushed people (often kin) from land they’d worked for centuries in order to derive more wealth from that land through ‘improvements’ (in essence, the beginning of industrialised farming).  Some were sold as indentured servants because of unpaid rents, others were marched away and left to die, and the vast majority faced a choice–move to the towns and work in the factories other Capitalists had set up to turn their lifeblood into wealth, or travel across oceans to the conquered lands of North America and Australia in order to start again.

Of course, the lands those displaced peoples moved to were already inhabited, and the history of all European colonies is written in the blood of indigenous peoples. Those First Nations and Aboriginal peoples had varying responses to these newcomers.  Some sought peace, others sought war, but neither tactic proved successful in keeping their own ancestral lands from the Enclosures that sprung from the British Isles.

The United States, particularly, has seen multiple waves of displaced peoples.  Enslaved peoples from the African continent, indentured servants and refugees from the “Progress” of Capitalism in Europe, and of course, the very people who lived on this land before the whole cycle began–they are all victims.

‘Round the Prickly Pear

Gentrification is seen by many as a natural process.  In a way, it is– it;s initiated by a very small but particularly destructive element of the natural world—humans, or more specifically, Capitalist humans. And though displacement of peoples is not new, the kinds of economic displacement seen since the birth of Capital, is a different thing altogether than what was seen in the past.

Gentrification is a kind of opening of a new Capital-producing market , created by destroying what was already there–and it’s a super-heated engine of destruction in many cities of the United States currently. I’ve many friends in the Bay Area, for instance, for whom the exorbitant rent-increases has become so absurd that they’ve taken on a sort of war-trauma.  The same occurs in Seattle now, with apartments friends rented 4 years ago at $1000/month now renting for $2000, a 100% increase over half-a-decade.

Similar in Portland, Oregon, as well as neighborhoods in large cities across the country. In other cities, natural disaster (like in New Orleans) or economic collapse (Detroit) have led to even more damage to Black folk, as investors and traitorous politicians have colluded to rebuild cities without their traditional inhabitants. In all cases, though, the mechanism is the same, and the victims have much more in common with each other than they do with new residents moving into their respective cities, yet rarely do they fight in solidarity.

But why not?  Some of this absence of solidarity derives from racism, but there’s an understated problem in our understanding of Gentrification which also prevents united fronts against Capitalist displacement.

Too much written about this process situates it in a narrative of cycles,  a progression of neighborhoods derived from natural law and inevitability.  From this view, the answer to complaints about rising rents and destroyed communities range between ‘get over it’ or ‘there’s nothing that can be done.’

A less-heard point sometimes arises, though, and it has more merit.  I heard it often from my anarchist friends in the middle of the last decade, an important reminder that whites did this to First Nations peoples before, and we’re all on stolen land.

This is true. Unfortunately, the result of that argument is usually a complete  dismissal of the very real damage done to people when their homes are taken through predatory loans or their rents increased so much they have no choice to become displaced.

The problem arises because so many different peoples, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, have all fallen victim to Capitalist displacement. The land I currently live on was stolen from the Duwamish peoples more than a century ago; it is still stolen from them, and worse–the Federal Government does not recognize them as an tribal group, and therefore all their claims are legally null. The Black families who lived here were descendents of people displaced by force from their homes in Africa, victims of primitive accumulation and the European thirst for Capital.

And then…there’s me.  Some of my ancestors were displaced from the British Isles during the Enclosures and the birth of Capital.  Others fled mainland Europe during the Enclosure of their land, or became refugees of Capitalist wars.  Not all, mind.  I’ve a rumored but unverified First Nations ancestor on one side of my family, and on the other, an unfortunate “Boston Brahmin” ancestor.  And I’ve already been displaced several times in my life through poverty or rent-increases.

We could construct a hierarchy of victimhood in the relentless history of displacement by employing metrics of innocence, complicity, and ancestral ties. And we should and must tell those stories, and we should and must do everything to right those wrongs.

But here’s the problem– the insidious trick of Capitalism is that the violence it perpetrates upon people determines their future actions, too. White (a false racial construction) settlers, displaced from a myriad of European lands, helped displace (sometimes by direct violence) indigenous peoples and each other, like abused children who grow up to repeat their childhood trauma upon others. The violence enacted on them became the violence they enacted upon others.

More horrifically, Capitalism offers a path out of poverty and ancestral trauma if one agrees to renounce all kin, class, and ancestral ties.  The descendent of African slaves who becomes an immigration enforcement officer, the victim of the Enclosures and the Clearances who agreed to help the English enforce its laws against the Irish, or became a colonial administrator in India, the Irish descendents who swelled the ranks of violent police forces in New York, Boston, and San Franscisco, the “Buffalo Soldier,” the Tribal leader who signed away mining rights for personal benefit,  the poor-born of any race who becomes a manager or foreman–each is preyed upon twice-over by Capitalism, forced into horrible circumstance and then offered a treasonous path to personal survival.

When we try to parse out all the histories of complicity, we miss the point, much like sorting buckets of bailed water on a sinking ship according to half-full/half-empty dichotomies.  The question should not be, “who suffered most?” but rather “why haven’t we stopped this suffering?”

In a gentrifying neighborhood, newcomers are often confused by the reactions of those their presence is displacing.  No one person displaced another; in San Franscisco and Seattle and in all these other cities, each person is making an individual choice to live in a different place, often times following work.  The problem is never each individual person, but the systematic weakening of the communities being displaced (long before real estate agents and property owners identified the neighborhood as a new market), a state which not only enables but often encourages the destruction of older neighborhoods, and under all of this, entire societies which have lost touch with the spirit of the land beneath their feet and the meaning of place.

And it’s that weakening of ties to place where our primary resistance and revolutionary assault against Capitalism must begin.

From Strong Roots, We Fight

CC. Alley Valkyrie
CC. Alley Valkyrie

Capital requires new markets to expand, but the earth is limited and we only need so much shit.  Enclosures are an old trick, and the displacement they cause generate both more profit for the rich, but do something even more vital for the smooth running of Capital: displaced peoples lack community, become desperate, and most significantly of all, have no access to their history.

Slaves hauled across oceans cannot visit the graves of their ancestors; peasants forced off land cannot visit the old wells and stones which rooted their world firmly in the other.  Old contracts with the land are broken, old gods forgotten, and the standards once used to judge if an act would serve the community or damage it fall away.

Capitalist displacement is also Capitalist disenchantment; it is the reason for which the traditions of people are perpetually destroyed. Rootless people are easily controlled and coerced, people without the stories, myths, and spirits of a place have nowhere to turn beside the market for the creation of their meaning.

Capitalism needs us to be displaced, pushed around by its invisible hand.  We must stand in fight, root ourselves in place, learn the names of our neighbors and the trees on our streets, seek out the sources of our water, trace our streams under pavement, learn the origins of our food and the histories of our homes.

We must tell the stories of our place to each other, creating new communities, new peoples unwilling to move when they tell us to go, untempted by profit in other towns, unafraid to confront the haunting ghosts of those buried in our graveyards, uncowed by threats of property laws and poverty outside the logic of the time-sheet and the work-day.

For those of us in the Americas or in other former colonies of the proto-Capitalist empires in Europe, we must begin by seeking out, offering our aid, and helping to restore the peoples displaced by our ancestral traumas. The Duwamish are not the only First Nations people written out of existence in the United States, and the successor states of British Imperialism have a particularly horrible history of violence against the people they conquered—the British, after all, started Capitalism.

We must become rooted in the land and communities, and we must refuse the Capitalist’s game of divide-and-conquer.  In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, waves of ‘tech workers’ are displacing others. They, moving to cities for high-waged work, have no ties to the land, and no community when arriving except their (Capitalist) employer and others working for them.  The 100-year old Black woman whose house they might purchase means nothing to them; they don’t know her story any more than they know that of the land upon which her home was built.

But we must remember—they are mere tools, ‘buying in’ to new Capitalist ventures and selling their labor to powerful Capitalists. They contribute to the destruction of communities by renting and buying homes at exorbitant rates (against their own self-interest). They become the weapons Capitalists wield in new wars of accumulation, often unwitting and too-often indifferent, rootless themselves, colonial settlers no different than those who became colonial servants in India for the British crown. They are not the direct cause of gentrification, but they become ‘class traitors,’ slobbering on their knees and choking at the altars of Capital—just like the rest of us. They, and we, must refuse to destroy the lives of others in return for scraps from the tables of the rich.

And from our position of rootedness and solidarity, we must directly attack Capital. It is the Capitalists who are in power, who start this engine and keep it stoked hot, making a killing from our attempts to make a living.  Aided by complicit governments bloated and drunk on tax money, political donations, and their lust for power, the Capitalists have perfected the pillaging wars of Colonialism in a system so pristine we cannot fully unravel its knotted patterns of destruction.

But that knot cannot be unraveled; it must be cut.  We cannot ever hope to find an answer to Capitalist displacement of peoples without fighting Capitalism, nor can we hope to rectify the wrongs that Capitalism has caused to peoples until Capitalism is no longer a threat.

The answer’s under our feet, in the places we live, the communities from which we’re alienated, in the spirits of the air and tree and grass in our neighborhoods.

The answer is both a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen). Even when displaced (as I was), we must see every place as our home and a site of beautiful resistance. And those who refused to leave, those who, like my transfer-trading friend and neighbor, who bravely choose land, history, and community over the treason of the Capitalist buy-out, must be be honored, supported and defended, because it is they who can show us best the importance of roots.

We have allies, seen and unseen.

We must join their fight.


Support our work by buying our books and stickers here.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-soaked revolution here.