Debt, Stories, & The Violence Of Silence

by James Lindenschmidt

Lately, I’ve been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber. I recommend the book wholeheartedly for anyone who wishes to understand the theory, history, psychology, and ethics of debt. This is not a review of the book, but look for a review by George Caffentzis coming soon to Gods & Radicals. Graeber’s book has been food for thought to say the least, and has me thinking about the function of debt under capitalism. It pervades the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about not only our individual places in society but also the structure of society itself. One of the main themes of Graeber’s book is that debt functions as the primary arbiter of morality in society; many contemporary religions speak in terms of debt help & advice as well as repayment in their cosmologies, often in terms of the afterlife. Debt can also function as “fate,” in the sense that with debt, one can accumulate restrictions that limit the potentialities of one’s existence, further chaining us inside the capitalist workforce. As Graeber shows us, these stories about debt are worth further attention.

The Tiv Flesh-Debt & The Society of Witches

Graeber reminds us repeatedly that these questions of debt and economy are, above all, human stories, and as such are well served by his anthropological approach. One of the human stories he tells is of the Tiv flesh-debt and the society of witches, a story worth quoting at some length:

“The mbatsav, or society of witches, was always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people into eating human flesh. A witch would take a piece of the body of one of his own close relatives, who he had murdered, and place it in the victim’s food. If the man was foolish enough to eat it, he would contract a “flesh-debt,” and the society of witches ensured that flesh-debts are always paid.

Perhaps your friend, or some older man, has noticed that you have a large number of children, or brothers and sisters, and so tricks you into contracting the debt with him. He invites you to eat food in his house alone with him, and when you begin the meal he sets before you two dishes of sauce, one of which contains cooked human flesh….

If you eat from the wrong dish, but you do not have a “strong heart”—the potential to become a witch—you will become sick and flee from the house in terror. But if you have that hidden potential, the flesh will begin to work in you. That evening, you will find your house surrounded by screetching cats and owls. Strange noises will fill the air. Your new creditor will appear before you, backed by his confederates in evil. He will tell of how he killed his own brother so you two could dine together, and pretend to be tortured by the thought of having lost his own kin as you sit there, surrounded by your plump and healthy relatives. The other witches will concur, acting as if all this is your own fault. “You have sought for trouble, and trouble has come upon you. Come and lie down on the ground, that we may cut your throat.”

There’s only one way out, and that’s to pledge a member of your own family as substitute. This is possible, because you will find you have terrible new powers, but they must be used as the other witches demand. One by one, you must kill off your brothers, sisters, children; their bodies will be stolen from their graves by the college of witches, brought back to life just long enough to be properly fattened, tortured, killed again, then carved and roasted for yet another feast.

The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps on coming.”
–David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, emphasis added

Interesting, but more than a little morbid, right? This story of debt & cannibalism is useful precisely because it horrifies our western minds, and yet it reveals the arbitrary construct of the psychology of debt as it operates in our consciousnesses. A few points about the above passage:

Trickery & entrapment as foundational recruitment practice. The “society of witches” are “always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people.” This is a political organization, in the sense that they have a certain amount of power in the Tiv culture. This political organization reproduces itself through trickery, bonding its new members after the trick to use their “terrible new powers” in service to the group.

An ability to ignore one’s conscience and act in ways that are normally repugnant. New members of the society of witches must have “a strong heart,” which means that they are able to overcome their distaste and disgust for the group’s cannibalistic activities which are repugnant to the core. It is interesting that an ability to shut off one’s conscience is seen as “strength.”

Blame-shifting & corroboration of a lie benefiting the conspirators. The deceptive recruiter then confronts the new recruit: he “pretends to be tortured” which shifts the blame for murdering, cooking, and eating another human away from the very person responsible for the deed. Instead, everyone already invested in the society of witches pretends that there is nothing at all unusual about the arrangement, and that the flesh-debt is the fault and responsibility of the person tricked into cannibalism. They not only tell the story & believe it, but also behave as if the story is true. The society of witches, after all, ensures that “flesh debts are always paid.” As always, the repayment of debt is always seen as sacrosanct and legitimate, no matter how abhorrent the story of any specific debt might be.

Debt is now a tool of capitalism

All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org
All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org.

These structures of the debt relationship repeat themselves through many of Graeber’s examples of how debt works. I invite the reader to take a look at how the above structures of debt relationship manifest in our culture, indeed in many of our lives, since the amount of debt people carry these days is greater than ever. Indeed, as Jacques Laroche pointed out at strikedebt.org, debt might be the single unifying factor in all the various struggles going on against capitalism.

Debt is arbitrary, and not always tied to the value of specific things that have been purchased. As an example, one needs only look at the story of student debt and the “deal” between the capitalists and the working class of my generation, growing up in the 80s. This deal was reinforced in our young minds, and continues to be reinforced in schools across the nation. The story is something like this: “hire education” is mandatory for those who wish to work at well-paying jobs. Those who don’t achieve this hire education are fated to mop floors or flip fast food burgers — a story accepted as axiomatic by millions despite the fact many successful capitalists are not college educated. Furthermore, even more so than debt in general, student debt is completely arbitrary. My wife and I have the exact same degree from the exact same educational institution. One of us managed to get this degree without incurring any debt, whereas the other one accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt, again, for the same degree from the same institution. I will leave it to you students of kyriarchy to determine which of us was saddled with the debt (hint: it wasn’t the straight white male).

Debt is not the same thing as capitalism, having been around at least 10x longer than capitalism has. Debt is now a prime mechanism by which the working class is kept under control, giving millions of people no other choice but to sell the only thing they have left to sell: their labor power in order to survive. Debt underlies all aspects of class struggle. Since the destruction of the Commons, there is no other possibility for most people to subsist and reproduce their lives.

Robert Anton Wilson had a great thought-experiment, where instead of using the term “money” (which also is not the same as debt, by the way, despite their close relationship) he suggests using the term “survival tickets.” This thought-experiment shows that money and debt introduce an abstraction into the most basic survival impulses in the most primitive parts of our consciousness. We humans evolved with “fight or flight” instincts to protect us from imminent danger, such as being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. Now, few of us are in danger of being consumed by a wild animal, yet these instincts remain with us. The “survival ticket” concept illustrates this fear beautifully, as these completely arbitrary and abstract tickets are the way we survive, and the fear of their lack drives many of our actions.

Most of us, of course, don’t really have enough money, at least not to live the way we wish to live. Most of us will use our limited “survival tickets” to buy food and shelter, meeting our most basic needs for survival, while in the meantime the spectre of unpaid debt keeps growing in the back of our minds, gnawing at us, creating fear that eventually men with guns will come and take away our limited survival tickets and our home. This fear keeps us willing to engage the capitalist system, so that we can struggle for more survival tickets, showing how powerful this story of debt is in our culture.

The importance of stories & violence of silence

“When you begin to believe in your own B.S., you enter the state that I call self-hypnotic ideational trance, and pretty soon you’ve got a headful of S.H.I.T.”
Robert Anton Wilson

Wilson also had some other fabulous ideas about the ideas we hold in our minds. He warned us to be mindful of our B.S. (belief systems), and to make sure we don’t operate with destructive S.H.I.T. (self-hypnotic ideational trances) that we aren’t deliberately cultivating for ourselves. I would call this process decolonizing the mind. Graeber’s book can certainly help us see through some of the constructs lurking below our everyday awareness, that help push capitalism forward and reproduce itself. This leveling process of capitalism requires us to lose sight of stories, whether it be the debt-stricken person being thrown into the street, or the ecosystem being raped and its inhabitants destroyed, because capitalism cannot operate under the nuances of existence:

“To make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence.”
—David Graeber, from Debt: The First 5000 Years

We must refuse to be silent. We must insist on stories, both in telling our own and hearing those of others. Don’t believe the same old B.S. that capitalism sells, and get that S.H.I.T. out of your head. We are Pagans, and we are (or should be!) sensitive to the stories that lurk, undiscovered, in the corners of consciousness and the forest. It is these stories that will transform & re-enchant the world.


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Death and Taxes: Real and Artificial Scarcities from an Eco-Psychological Perspective


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau

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“From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear.” (image credit: publicity still from the 2008 film, “Revolutionary Road”)

From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear. Sometimes I could give voice to this fear, but mostly it remained unspoken. It threaded through all of my conversation, all of my activities, all of my thoughts. The fear was with me even in my dreams.

It was the fear that there is not enough.

This fear appeared sometime in my childhood, and it has stayed with me as I moved into adulthood. It stayed with me as I graduated from college and law school and got a job. It has stayed with me even as my annual income has doubled and tripled. No matter how much I had, there was always the fear. The fear of going hungry. The fear of not being able to pay bills. The fear of not being able to pay for a doctor. The fear of not being able to pay for my kids’ college. The fear of not being able to support myself in retirement.

I would find myself, in my distracted moments, whispering, “If only I had …” or “All I need is …”.

Does this sound familiar? This fear that there is not enough, that there will never be enough?

This fear even played out in my romantic relationships, which had a desperate, grasping quality to them, my need for someone to “complete” me. It even manifested in my relationship with my God, whose love always seemed conditional, something which could be hoarded by the “righteous” and withheld from “sinners”.

The strange thing was that this fear did not lessen as my life circumstances changes, as the objective measures of my economic security increased. Nor was it lessened by the knowledge that I and those like me enjoy a level of material security unknown in other parts of the world, and undreamt of in the history of the humankind. The fear might seem to go away for a little while when I went shopping, when I bought something I didn’t need. But it always returned.

Why?

Because this fear is not based on anything real — it is manufactured.


“You can’t take it with you” — Alan Parsons Project

supermarket-empty
“This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it.”

This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it. An artificial scarcity is created by systemic maldistribution. This artificial scarcity creates the fear. It is fed by advertising. It is perpetuated by our public discourse, the things we say to each other, the hidden assumptions behind statements like: “Raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.” and “Easy access to health care will create consumers with an insatiable demand for medical services.”

This fear is perpetuated by the cycle of boom and bust, economic “bubbles” followed by economic downturns, which encourages both hoarding and conspicuous consumption. It is encouraged by the government in the name of “patriotism”. The fear encourages compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, compulsive sex — all of which feeds back into the system.

There are real scarcities, of course. Real insecurities. But they are hidden, masked by the artificial scarcities and manufactured insecurities. Artificial scarcities obscure the real scarcities, the absolute scarcities. We live on a planet with finite resources and we are growing without restraint, because of an economic system premised on infinite growth, and because of a belief that unlimited offspring are inalienable right. Clean air, clear water, fertile land, trees, fossil fuels — these are real scarcities, but we consume them like they are inexhaustible. We consume resources that are truly scarce in order to stave off the fear of artificial scarcities: money, jobs, consumer goods. I can’t grow enough food to sustain my family, I can’t make my own clothes, and I can’t build a house: these are real insecurities. But they are not the insecurities that are driving me on a day-to-day basis.

So long as we’re caught up in the system, we can’t tell the difference between the real scarcities and the artificial ones. Not only do we mistake artificial scarcities for real ones, we also mistake real scarcities for artificial ones. And so, believing that the real scarcity of earth’s resources is artificial — i.e., the product of artifice — we put our faith in another kind of artifice, a technological fix that we hope will save us from rising temperatures and rising sea levels. And believing that the earth itself is the artifice of God, we put our faith in a divine savior who will rescue us and carry us away to a similarly artificial paradise. All of which leads to more overconsumption — “make hay while you can” — and more hoarding — storing up against the inevitable “end times”.


“And death shall have no dominion.” — Dylan Thomas

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“At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of ‘me’.” (image credit: “death and the maiden 1” by paperskull )

We need to root out the source of the fear that drives this cycle. Yes, artificial scarcity is created by maldistribution, but the fear of scarcity has a deeper root. Yes, advertising and our collective myths perpetuate this fear, but they just take advantage of something much more primal. Not enough money, not enough possessions, not enough love: At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of “me”. All fear of scarcity derives from this fear of death.

“To Have or to Be” is how Erich Fromm framed our ontological dilemma. Because we cannot be infinite, we seek to consume infinitely. We hoard wealth as a hedge against death and squander resources as a way of denying our finitude. We strive for dominion over mother nature, not just to end suffering, but hoping thereby to attain dominion over death. But ironically this fear of death drives us to destroy the very material conditions of our lives, to murder the earth of which we are part. Or if we cannot maintain the illusion of control, then we take refuge in a state of dissociation from matter, from our bodies, from the natural world, surrounding ourselves with artificial world of non-biodegradable plastics and the never-ending stream of stimulation from our electronic screens. Here we can be immortal — for a little while at least.


“Our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

l-1crop
“I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species.” (image credit: still from the 2014 movie, “Lucy”)

It should have happened on a mountaintop. Or in a redwood forest. Instead, it happened to me in a movie theater, of all places. It wasn’t even a particularly good movie. I guess we don’t get to choose the time and place of our epiphanies. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. If I had not been immersing myself in eco-Pagan discourse and practice, I might not have been primed for the experience.

The climax of the movie in question was a montage of images connecting the heroine to her ancestral primate past and to the physical universe as whole. It triggered something in me, and as I walked out of the theater, I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species. I felt both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the earth and to universe as a whole.

I didn’t realize it right away, but in the coming days and months, it dawned on me that the ever-present anxiety about my own death was not so ever-present. I’m not saying I was suddenly careless when crossing the street, or that I was unconcerned about what would happen to my kids if I died at a relatively young age. But the end of my life just did not seem to matter that much in the cosmic scheme of things. Yesterday I turned 40, which for many people is an anxiety-ridden transition, but as the day approached, I felt only an increasing lightness of being. It might be an overstatement to say I no longer fear death, but I no longer experience each moment like a stopwatch running backward. And my personal death no longer looms over me like Nemesis with her sword. Instead, I feel that one day I might actually be able embrace it, like an old lover.

I also noticed that the perpetual fear of not having enough was strangely absent. And I started to see how this sense of scarcity which had been my constant companion was an artificial creation of a sick system which actually obscures the real scarcities. Everything seemed different in this new light. I still went to work and paid my bills, but I did this with a new sense of detachment. The anxiety which had previously underlain all of my activities, all of my thoughts, had largely evaporated. There are still days when I lapse back into my old patterns of thought: “If only I had …”. But I can still call back the vision, the sense of being a part of something so vast that my fears are dwarfed by it. And then that fear of not having enough loosens its hold on me.


“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself?” — The Gospel of Luke

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“We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself.”

This shift in consciousness which I experienced is what ecologist Arne Naess calls “Self Realization”, an experience of the shifting of the center of one’s identity from the ego-self to the “eco-self”. We realize that we are not who we thought we were. We are not our minds. Even our bodies are not our own, but are colonized by other living organisms, just as we colonize Gaia. Our skin, the boundary by which we measure where “I” end and “it” begins, is not solid after all, but is permeable, the thinnest of veils. As ecologist David Abram explains, we realize “that we are a part of something so much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves […] that our own life is entirely continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, that our breathing bodies are simply a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth”.

We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself, and as such has special responsibilities. Paul Shepard describes this change in this way:

“If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own—or rather, our own as part of it. To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”

With this shift in the locus of our identity comes a new perspective on our individual lives and our place in the cosmos. Somewhere along the way, we lose that fear that was our constant companion — the fear of never having enough, and the fear of death. Writing at the end of the 19th century, socialist and nature mystic, Edward Carpenter, described a “cosmic consciousness” in archaic humankind, a sensibility which he hoped to see return in modern times:

“To the early man the notion of his having a separate individuality could only with difficulty occur; hence he troubled himself not with the suicidal questionings concerning the whence and whither which now vex the modern mind. For what causes these questions to be asked is simply the wretched feeling of isolation, actual or prospective, which man necessarily has when he contemplates himself as a separate atom in this immense universe—the gulf which lies below seemingly ready to swallow him, and the anxiety to find some mode of escape. But when he feels once more that he, that he himself, is absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly a part of this great whole—why then there is no gulf into which he can possibly fall.”

With this cosmic consciousness, comes a new perspective on everything. We can see artificial scarcities for what they are and can distinguish them from real scarcities. And we come to see that what matters most is not economic security or personal immortality, but the survival of the human race and of all of life. And so, in loosing ourselves, we gain the whole world.


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Capitalist Leveling and the Problem of Pagan Values

By Kadmus

In my essay from April 27th, “Towards a Pagan Politics”, I claimed that capitalism levels all values while paganism is committed to a pluralism of irreducibly different values. I lacked time and space then to fully flesh out this point, but I would like to dedicate myself here to clarifying and expanding upon the claim.

What is Value?

IMAG0432

I think that my claim could have been made even stronger, specifically that while capitalism starts out as the dominance of one value over all others it becomes a complete loss of all sense of value. Capitalism is a nihilism of the most banal sort. Paganism, on the other hand, is dedicated to the rich complexity, vibrancy and value-laden nature of life. To see how and why this is the case we need to investigate the concept of value rather closely.

Today we have a highly subjective concept of value (which is, itself, largely an effect of capitalism). In other words, we understand the noun “value” from its verb form – we primarily understand value as what a thing has because it is valued by someone. Without human valuing, on this reason, nothing would have value. In other words, value has no reality in and of itself but rather derives from human actions or resides in human minds alone. The models here, of course, are the little pieces of paper and metal which we make into valuable money because we treat it as such.

But the actual word for value, and the origins of the concept behind the word, comes from words for strength and power. Relative terms, surely, but not subjective ones. Value, valor, virtue, virility all share the same origin. Far from the model of money, their most primordial model is fire (another word which is cognate with value) and, we might suggest, the incontestable importance of light and the sun.

Value shines. It is that which shines-out to us, that which shines for us. It does not shine because we make it shine, but rather it calls to us as the sun draws the plant that leans towards it. Nature, everywhere, values because it responds to the obvious presence of real value. At the most basic level we might say that wherever there is the force of attraction there is value. The earth values the sun when the day-star sets its path and motivation.

Human values are no different, they are the draw of things of power and importance that appear to us and define us as those who can see them. Value, then, is inseparable from the concept of a calling. We do not, cannot, determine or choose what will call us. We can only listen, or refuse to listen, to the call.

If we contemplate the model of values as fire and as light we see that values determine how the world shows up for us. Certain things leap out at us, whether dramatic or small, as important, worthy of respect, or in need of a response from us. Values, then, are reality’s opening of a conversation with us – a conversation to be enacted through what we do. The light determines the look of things, what shows up and what doesn’t, and how things appear. It is in the light of how reality reveals itself to me, as value – worth – beauty – truth – that I become who I am and act upon the world as it has appeared.

Divinities and Nature

WALDEN4
Walden Pond

One of the oldest forms of value are the goddesses and gods whose shining appearance cast the whole of reality into a certain aspect and form. Since before history, when values called to humanity they called through the voice of the divinities. For the same reason, when ancient heroes displayed valor or virtue they were understood to embody or be empowered by one of the gods, they become the active body of value. This is, in fact, what virtue first meant, to embody value i.e. the power and truth of a divinity. Far from subjective creations, value was understood to be the revealing of a truth most frequently encountered as a divinity.

This connection between values and divinities explains, as well, the connection between divinities and nature. In the power and beauty of the river shone forth the face of a goddess or god, the aspect of a value. In the terror and force of the mountain or storm unveiled the might of some divinity and a demand – a value.

None of this is to suggest, however, that divinities are symbols of values. The situation is far more the reverse. We have emptied values of their active vitality, and so find it hard to understand that values are experienced in the action and event of basic truths, forces, powers and realities appearing to us. Values, as active agents, are better taken as symbols of the divinities than the reverse.

To repeat a few points from my previous essay, pagan values will be distinct in being plural. The recognition of several diverse and separate divinities is, at the same time, the recognition that reality is made up of a plurality of irreducible forces and truths. There are always many values, and they cannot be translated one into another or reduced one to another. The many values, as the many gods, are incommensurable – they share no common measure against which they can be organized and unified. There is no unity, no totality, no final truth and ultimate value. Despite that, however, certain values and gods will call to each individual in a unique manner. I will serve certain divinities, enlightened by certain values, and you others. It is only together that we gain a better grasp of the endless plurality that is reality but not through totalizing the diversity of values, truths and ways of life.

Profit and Power

Ancient Greek coin replica by Slavey Petrov
Ancient Greek coin replica by Slavey Petrov

Capitalism is necessarily monotheist in its metaphysics in the sense that it reduces all values to one ultimate value, specifically the standard of price. The market admits, indeed relies upon, the fact that people will value different things and disagree about a given thing’s value but one element is asserted (and echoed in economics) without question – that all things will be reducible to a price either individually or based on the statistical average of what people are willing to pay. We see obvious examples of this in terms of risk calculations that determine how many people can be injured or killed by a product before the risk gets too expensive for a company. Human life, suffering, and death can all be reduced to a price. So too can environmental destruction. How much profit, it is asked, can be extracted from the earth before the destruction outweighs and benefit? Forest and mountains, entire species and nations, all have their price. For the market and the capitalist there is absolutely nothing which can not be numbered, calculated – price checked. In this sense capitalism is leveling, it levels the diversity of values to the basic point of price.

It is easy to assume, then, that capitalism places wealth or profit as the ultimate value to which all others may be reduced but this is, in fact, naïve. For many the goal might be wealth or profit, but the illusory nature of wealth is inherent to capitalism’s own system. Money is just worthless paper and metal unless people behave as if it is not, and the wealthiest people and wealthiest businesses have far more money than the search for wealth would really justify. Wealth is a finite value, but capitalist leveling knows no end. Wealth is finite in the sense that it can only be used and enjoyed up to a certain point, beyond that point you have more than you can use or you have too much for there to be anything or anyone left to buy. A society made up of three wildly wealthy people and a hoard of the desperately poor is a society in poverty for poor and rich alike, there will be nothing to own because nothing produced and no one to sell it. This is why the collapse of the middle class is always the death knell for those who value wealth.

Capitalism knows no limit because it isn’t about wealth, it is about power and control. The rise of capitalism wasn’t about the desire and valuing of wealth conquering all other values, it was about certain social classes and members of professions attempting to gain power over other classes and roles. In this sense the dream of capitalism and science are similar: complete and total control – the ability to order and measure all things. This move, however, from profit to control is the move from leveling to nihilism. We might, similarly, understand it as a transition from trade to The Market. To understand this transition it will be necessary to briefly turn our eyes to Karl Marx and the analysis he offers in Capital.

Money and Market, from Leveling to Nihilism

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Money and trade have been around for a long time, long before capitalism proper. The most ancient cultures engaged in trade and, indeed, had gods of trade. But despite the existence of money trade wasn’t about profit measured in cash, it was about concrete diverse goods. In Capital Marx lays out two primary and different processes of exchange in which money might function. First, and most ancient, is the use of money as a medium for exchange. We can represent this in the following way in terms of Money (M) and the concrete goods of Commodities (C):

C -> M -> C

This process represents the use of a good you have, say grain you have grown, to arrive at money through trade that is then used to purchase another good such as shoes. This is the same basic process as direct trade of goods where grain would be exchanged for shoes but money as a medium allows for a wider range of trade since it can be used to buy many things and so doesn’t require the grain producer to find a shoe maker in need of grain. The goal here is goods, or commodities, and the process can be used in service to any set of values since various values can be served through the goods/commodities we aim to purchase. This process can also be in service to wealth, as the collective commodities the process aims at might by those of luxury, riches, and so on. This is what, indeed, most people think goes on in the market, which misses the fundamental nature of capitalism.

The above ancient process transforms in more modern capitalism into this process:

M -> C -> M

Here the goal of the process and the starting position of the process are different. We begin with money, and use it to purchase commodities (or the means to produce commodities) in order to then sell the commodity for a profit. It is only here that profit can make sense, and indeed the basic idea of investment – the process through which one uses money to make money. While in the first process the diversity of values determines what might be worth pursuing for yourself, the second process equates all goods and values to a basic monetary value, which is what ultimately comes out of the process at the end. These two processes can be distinguished in terms of use-value versus exchange-value. A things use-value is how much it is worth to any given person based on their needs and desires. How valuable are shoes to me at this time? It is not a type of value which is easily or naturally reduced to a number. A things exchange-value, on the other hand, is what amount of money I can get for it when selling it. It makes sense to say that, at this time, shoes have the use-value for me of about the same as a pair of pants but not as much value as a new computer. But we can not say this of exchange-value, which is always immediately presented in terms of money and can only be tied to goods through a secondary process.

We can see the contrast between these two processes clearly if we consider the difference between ancient trade, and the values it frequently served, and the modern Market economy. Ancient trade was most distinctly in service of diversity and plurality. Its gods, such as Janus and Hermes, were gods of new beginnings and doorways. Trade was united, unavoidably, with travel and so the gods of trade were also the gods of travel. The collection of values which group around these related ideas of newness, beginnings, openness, and travel make clear that trade was undertaken in the spirit of curiosity and cultural enrichment rather than strictly of profit or wealth. The image of ancient trade was the wild diversity of the agora marketplace or bazaar. The marketplace was a failure if it lacked a pluralism of goods and life. Money, while perhaps used for exchange (though not always so used), hardly features into it at all.

In contrast, the image of the modern Market is the bank or stock exchange, replete with numbers and abstract symbols of exchange-value – money. An ancient marketplace can’t function without diversity and strangeness, but the modern Market does not require diversity. This is why it is possible to use money to buy money and then, in turn, to make money from the exchange. This is what happens in currency exchanges, or the purchasing and selling of debt. The modern Market can be strictly empty of commodities and still function, because what is being bought and sold are certain patterns of money. It is not, however, just that the modern Market doesn’t require diversity of goods. Rather, it actively militarizes against it. Since all things on the Market must be reduced to price, i.e. exchange-value, there is already inherent in the Market a basic drive towards interchangeability and similarity. Things that are too new, or too weird, become difficult to price and must, at all cost, be either dismissed from the Market or made to conform to the Market’s prices. But, of course, in contemporary capitalism the world is the Market, and vice versa, so all things must be reduced and ordered. Even “priceless” works of art are insured for specific amounts.

The fact that money itself, much like luxury and wealth, can be exchanged and priced makes clear that the final goal of capitalism and its one world Market is not money, wealth or profit. The goal is order, of a very special sort. The Market’s goal is an ordered world in which all things are reduced to their Market price, a world in which one need never deal with faces, textures, sights or feelings but rather numbers alone. The essence of the Capitalist Market is the force of translation and reduction. In this it shares an essence with modern industrial science, whose goal is the reduction of all things to raw materials from which power (might like price) is to be extracted and transformed. Mountain to coal, coal to energy, energy to work and so on – the process of transformation pursues only its own growth so that anything that is produced is so only to increase the power of production. Ultimately in each case power seeks only its own growth without end or purpose, and this growth of power is a process of leveling or pricing.

It is precisely this lack of goal or purpose that represents the nihilistic nature of the Capitalist Market. It ultimately knows no goal and no specific values. It is without commitment. In this sense, it is also without actors. The C.E.O. is a tool of the ongoing growth and ordering of the Market as much as anyone else. None escape the invisible claw. There is no outside the process, and so no ultimate leader or beneficiary of it. Even the richest and most powerful people in the world have a very specific market value that marks the point at which they can be exchanged for someone or something else.

This unbounded nature of capitalism may derive from its historical and conceptual connection with monotheism with its transcendental creator god. For many pagan theologies the divinities are present within, indeed are part of, reality. For most forms of monotheism, on the other hand, the one god transcends reality and pre-exists it. Taking this one transcendent god as an ultimate value requires a rejection, whether explicitly or implicitly, of nature and the world.

We see here, for example, the place of the myths of the Fall which define both human nature and nature in general as corrupt and human life as a punishment and trial. Paganism, on the other hand, most frequently embraces life and the world while avoiding the world and life rejection of transcendental monotheism. Max Weber demonstrated convincingly that capitalism is deeply tied to Christian theology. It enshrines the virtues of hard work and moderation and translates the presence of god’s grace and salvation into success on the market. Since, however, the ultimate goal of salvation is never to be found in this world, the “grace” experienced or demonstrated through work and capitalism similarly aims at an infinite transcendent goal that can never be captured in this world. We should not, then, be surprised that capitalism disregards all worldly values, realities and lives (human, animal or plant) in much the same way monotheism frequently does.

Integrity and Reality

Flickr - Argenberg - Sand dunes (2007-05-226)

There is, ultimately, one thing that the Capitalist Market cannot tolerate, and that is integrity. We have made clear the sense in which the Market process is a process without limit. It will allow, and can calculate the price and profit of, any action. Cities and nations have a price, as indeed the capitalist resistance to acting on Climate Change makes clear, as do capitalist machinations leading to warfare. The day will come when the full planet will have a price, once the possibility of moving elsewhere becomes a reality.

Integrity consists of a commitment to a given value or set of values, it marks the limit of action beyond which a person will not go. We use the term “integrity” because it is the unifying point, the ultimate defining commitment, which constitutes any given person’s character. Discover what is most important to a person, what they will never harm or destroy – what they will die for the sake of, and you have uncovered that person’s character and the point of their integrity. The Market has no such limit, and those in full service to it such that they will always do what the Market reveals as profitable likewise have no character. They exist in a world in which the call of reality – its revelation in terms of beauty, divinity, or truth – is ignored as impractical.

In this way we can see that the Market requires a dramatic ignorance of reality and truth which results in divorcing what it insists is “practical”, “profitable” and “reasonable” from what is grounded in reality and the world. The Market is a phantom, an illusory claw, a mathematical dream run hopelessly awry. It demands that we ignore, at first seemingly temporarily but ultimately permanently, everything that calls to us as worth pursuing or preserving and all that we are drawn to love and revere. For many of us this is the earth and its children – animal, plant and human. Also it might be the full richness of different ways of life, various cultures, complex history, the spectrum of visions revealing the wild complexity of meanings and values. In the face of the Market the pagan says “No” to the dominance of any one value and “No” to a limitless nihilistic process of destruction and control. Here, in part, is our integrity, where we draw the line and state clearly that some things, many things, even most things have no market price. We live in the Priceless World because it is a world of Real Values.

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .


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Bonfire Circle

The Enchanted

Imbalance

Everything is spinning out of balance. The world is being polluted and corrupted, and it’s decaying while still alive. Mega-storms, droughts, fracking quakes, and rising seas eat entire island nations and devastate helpless communities which are then swarmed by hungry, opportunistic corporations that sell off and buy up what’s left, and build hungry empire in their place. Entire mountains have been eaten by mining operations, which also leave the land and water around them toxified. Racism bides within social institutions and quietly mows down swaths of people of color, and stands on the necks of those who remain. Colonies of bees die off, Monarch butterflies cannot make their annual migration to overwinter and reproduce, hundreds of birds fall from the sky at once, mysteriously slain. Many, many species of Earthlings are going extinct and taking a lot of the balance and creative diversity of nature with them — taking pieces of the whole with them — now forever secret. Most members of our own species live difficult, oppressed lives in or under the purview of stratified societies and empires which invented poverty and wealth, race and class.

 

Empires

What need did humanity have of empire, in its incredibly long existence? It had none, for hundreds of thousands of years… eons filled with kin and culture and integration with the abundant world. We had wholeness. Now we have fragmented, unbalanced lives being pushed by clocks, pulled by disjointed narratives and misconceptions, stomped by greed, and our only defense the solid reality of community, love, and nature… when we are lucky enough to find islands of it amidst the cacophony of ticking time-which-is-money, manufactured desires, and hyper-individualistic isolation in which this terminally ill culture is drowning.

The decision to unbalance society and exclude all of the community (even the eco-community) except the men (and often only certain privileged men, at that) from the communal decision-making and interest-considering was one of the first steps on this unbalanced, destructive path. Pathological patriarchy arose to control women, and to ensure the tracking of sired children — tracking which hadn’t been necessary in matrilineal societies that took care of all children. Some long-ago group of men thought they needed to ensure that their efforts would only benefit their own children, not the community. Selfishness triumphed over communal responsibility, and became codified into law.

Ownership and inheritance became important to them. Their society was stratifying, and they needed to get on top of the heap. The alternative was poverty and slavery. Dominance became important too. Having dominion over not only your family and community, but neighboring communities and even all living creatures became a cultural value and driving subtext in the script. If [empire], then [be emperor]… or as close to it as you can get, otherwise you’ll [be fodder]. A LOT of fodder lies at the bottom, and only one emperor at the top, with an inverse pyramid of wealth held at the top and a heavy lack of enough resources at the bottom. It’s pyramid shape of hierarchy is inherently unfair and unjust.

 

Cultural Script

We’re still working from this script, a few thousand years later. But not for long. This script is not sustainable. This play chews up the set and buries most of its actors. There won’t even be an audience left, at the end.

This is not the only script ever performed, nor the only one possible. It’s only the most recent. Imperialism is relatively new in human history. Capitalism is even newer – only about 300 years old — and even more destructive. Capitalism is a natural outgrowth of the kyriarchal complex of cultural concepts like patriarchy, dominionism, hegemony, colonialism, wealth, and hyper-individualism that have busily been infecting the cultures and peoples of Earth and rewriting their cultural DNA, re-scripting their histories and futures with lies and false promises.

And we can be done with it.

We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.

Bonfire Circle
Image from https://500px.com/lehoslav

 

The Call

We are some of the first in generations to hear the call of nature, spirits, gods, and ancestors, and our own connected souls. We are some of the first to gather again in circles and remember, to listen to wind and stars and recall. We are organic circles of community, not mechanical pyramids of empire. We remember who we are, we remember all Earthlings are family, and we remember that we belong to the Earth — the Earth does not belong to us. We are now charged with finding the paths again and showing each other the way before this path leads an entire world into chaos and premature death. We must heal this sickness, for are we not the healers Earth has produced in her time of need? Do you not feel the calling of the oppressed, the ancestors, our children’s children, and the Earth, chanting our names and the great need?

We are the enchanted, who will answer the call of justice and of healing, and re-enchant the world, singing up reconnection and dancing up a real future. We have the magic – will and intention, the calling and the help of truth. Let us be the good ancestors who take up these Witches’ brooms, Druids’ sickles, and Heathens’ hammers to clear away, to build, and to relight the sacred flame at the heart of the world.


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Pagans Are A Conquered People

By James Lindenschmidt

We Pagans are a conquered people. Our people have been systematically tortured, murdered, domesticated, and exploited. Our tribes have been displaced and scattered; we now live in tiny, redundant, inefficient and resource-hungry enclosure-cages creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, while plugged in to the matrix with its feeding-tubes and thought-machine programs. Our traditions of dwelling with nature have been mutated, assimilated into the dominant culture of exploitation and resource extraction. Our gods have been relegated from vibrant, living beings and companions in relationship with us to mere characters in old, forgotten stories. Our magic and wonder have been dismissed as superstition, while the hegemony of the laboratory masquerades as wisdom, replacing Truth with mere facts. Our sacred connections to the land and its ecosystems have been severed, made so abstract that only a tiny handful of us could survive away from the infrastructures of civilization for more than a few days, or only a few hours in adverse conditions.

We Pagans are a conquered people. The conquest of Paganism is so complete, so fundamental, that it’s obscured from our view: many of us couldn’t even identify our conquerors. Today, while we sort our recycling bins, putting the refuse-relics of our consumerism into the proper containers for “disposal,” our culture argues about whether or not Climate Change is real, whether planetary rates of extinction are happening 10,000 times faster or only 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. We get online, sipping our lattes, and we argue about whether a vegan diet or a paleo diet is healthier for people or the planet.

We Pagans are a conquered people. We don’t even know who we are anymore. Getting Pagans together is like herding cats: we joke, we celebrate our diversity, and gossip about our witch wars. There are many types of Neopagans today, and all of us have been conquered. It doesn’t matter what kind of Pagan you are, which specific tradition, subculture, or set of Pagan values you embrace, we Pagans are a conquered people.

What kind of Pagan are you? Not that it matters….

Are you a Druid? The Druids were wiped out by Romans, though there have been attempts to revive the traditions. At best, we are guessing at what the Druids were, and the ways of modern Druids — connecting to the land, being in relationship, guarding the stories of the tribe, and questing Awen — are in opposition to the mainstream culture. We are no longer aware of our direct relationship with the land and its ecosystems. There is only property to be exploited, to be conquered and “improved” for private gain subject only to the laws of free-market mythology. The Awen of direct experience, of intimate relationship and engagement, is being replaced by vicarious, secondary experience. Rather than gather by the thousands to wander in the wilderness, we gather in stadiums to watch other people run on artificial grass, elite athletes clad in kevlar armor. Rather than commune directly with the wild divinity in nature, we gather in megachurches to listen to other people sing & tell us about God, passing around a collection basket. The “tree wit” of Druidry lingers, but we must learn to see it.

Are you a Heathen or an Ásatrúar? In most places you will be seen as a racist, a white supremacist, or simply as deluded. The hagiographers say that Olaf The Saint, one of my ancestors, was responsible for converting Norway over to Christianity. The Gods of the Northern tradition endure, even if we must look deeper than portrayals of Thor as a blonde, hot-tempered hottie who is merely a quaint albeit archaic member of an elite group, aloof from humanity, who fight the evil space-aliens bent on their own agenda of colonization.

Are you a Polytheist? Two thousand years of hegemonic monotheism means that you are not likely to be taken seriously in most places in the Western world when you speak of your gods, and your relationships with them. No longer is the question of many gods up for debate; instead it is which god is real, with the rest being imaginary with frauds or infidels for worshipers. And even this is among those who acknowledge the possibility of divinity at all — for many others, talk of divinity is madness and delusion.

Do you work with magick? Your work will be derided as superstition, under the epistemological monopoly of science. Indeed, a favorite tactic of modern, fundamentalist pseudoskeptics is to reduce an idea or a concept to mere “magical thinking” so that it can be dismissed entirely as folly.

Are you a Goddess-worshiper? You are a threat to patriarchy, by even having the audacity to suggest that the feminine can be on the same plane as the masculine, and that a divine feminine is even possible. There is no room for the Sacred Feminine in Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, in Allah and His Prophet, in YHVH, much less in the “human resources” departments responsible for writing smaller paychecks to its female employees.

Are you an Animist? A Pantheist or Panentheist? Then you live in a place, on a planet, that has been systematically disenchanted, desacralized, and despoiled, a place that almost certainly bears little or no resemblance to what the place looked like a few short centuries ago before Capital got its clutches onto it, extracting all the resources it could for private profit without regard to the intraspecies genocide it left in its wake. Anyone who spends enough time out in nature has heard its call, its lament, crying out to anyone, anyone who will listen, in a language not audible to domesticated ears.

Are you a Reconstructionist? The reason you have to reconstruct your spiritual path is because it was wiped out in the first place. That these old, Pagan ways of being are not glaringly obvious even to a child in our culture is perhaps the biggest indicator that we Pagans are a conquered people. Some ancestral wisdom has been lost forever, wiped out by a mere few hundred years of colonialist hegemony, and its reconstruction will require another few thousand years of indigenous human experience as part of their ecosystems.

Are you a Witch or a Wiccan? Untold thousands of Witches were burned at the stake for over a century, one of the most widespread examples of genocide in human history. This genocide was not limited to one nation-state or one single power-structure, as one of the first historical examples of a unified, global assertion of power. The ways of the Witch are beyond forgotten, they were deliberately and systematically stamped out under direct threat of death and torture, replaced by other mechanistic social orders ripe for exploitation.

The smell of smoke lingers

Image in the public domain.
Image in the public domain.

Even today, the smell of smoke lingers. To those who learn to be attentive, to quieten the mind and pull one’s awareness away from the thousandfold distractions of modern life, the past will whisper its stories into the ears of the present. We must look at our history to discover all the layers of our identity. Who are the Pagans? What stories from the past helped to shape who we are today? I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.

The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.

Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age: at the same moment that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values that we fetishize — the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of science as the best (indeed the only) epistemology, the rise of capitalism and its notion of property and profit as the fundamental organizing principle of society and the planet’s resources — there occurred some of the most brutal examples of repression and genocide ever witnessed, a brutality that was unprecedented in its scope and scale:

In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
—Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.

This past, once we clear the irritation of the acrid smoke from our eyes, will begin to speak. As we learn to listen, we begin to understand that this time is best described as a turn from Pagan values, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of entire populations who embrace these values, the marginalization of Pagans within the new power structures created at this time, and the demonization of these values within our consciousness.

The new power structures used fear both as a means of social control and to engineer this shift in values. They cultivated fear of the witch-hunters and the Inquisition, who could exercise nearly complete power-over in the most horrendous and unspeakable ways, and ultimately fear of that which they claimed to be eradicating: witches, demons, devils, and magic. Pagan ways weren’t quaint practices or ignorant superstitions that faded away because now we know better. They were deliberately and systematically repressed until they were all but stamped out. We must now reconstruct them.

In this culture of fear, our Pagan values were nearly lost. Today, the signs of this loss reveal themselves to souls attentive to the world’s condition. The first hint is a vaporous sense that is hard to put a finger on: something is fundamentally wrong with the world, with the way the world is organized, with the flows of power structures in the world. As we look deeper, they become more apparent.

Eight signs

Fallujah, Iraq (Nov. 8, 2004) - An air strike is called in on a suspected insurgent hideout at the edge of Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. Marines. Image in the public domain.
Fallujah, Iraq (Nov. 8, 2004) – An air strike is called in on a suspected insurgent hideout at the edge of Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. Marines. Image in the public domain.

First, there is always war. From the massive mobilizations and armaments of World War II, to the development, use, and threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to the wars against hidden threats such as communism and terrorism, to the resource wars seeking to control supplies of oil across the globe, to the political and economic dominance of the military industrial complex, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Poverty. War, war, war. No sane person wants it, yet it is all around us, organizing much of society.

Systematic deceit is not linked to either "side" of the dominant power structure. Above, At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs. Image in the public domain. Below, on January 22, 2009, Barack Obama signs an executive order to close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open to this day.
Systematic deceit is not linked to either “side” of the dominant power structure. Above, At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs. Below, on January 22, 2009, Barack Obama signs an executive order to close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open to this day.

Second, there is habitual, widespread, and systematic deceit by those in power. These are most easily spotted in the various antics of the US government, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. From the destruction of the USS Maine in Cuban waters leading up to the Spanish-American war, to the Reichstag Fire preceding Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, to the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the illegal “detainees” of Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of 9/11, to the Watergate scandal, to the empty rhetoric-posturing in any political “debate” preceding an election, it is clear that those in power do not say what they mean, much less do what they say. Indeed, it is fundamental to the preservation of their power that they don’t. This is not a problem of either side of the US power structure; both Democrats and Republicans systematically operate from this place of deceit, and for both parties the main goal is to preserve, consolidate, and expand their power bases, each serving the larger power structure in slightly different but related ways.

Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street - photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park. Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street – photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park. Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Third, there is an unprecedented stratification of wealth that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor, for individuals, businesses, corporations, and nations. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. An economy exists to help regulate the use and distribution of wealth, which can only be created through labor and enclosure of natural resources. Awareness of these injustices reached a crescendo in 2011 in the various Occupy movements, and continues today with Strike Debt and countless other movements.

Fourth, humanity’s relationship with food is completely out-of-balance. In some places of the world, people starve, barely eking out adequate sustenance for survival. In other places, food is not a way to sustain life, a gift of nature of which humanity is a part, but rather a mere sensual pleasure, packaged in plastic, with a myriad of choices as to which flavor variety will suit one’s whim that day — indeed thrice daily. As a result, nearly a billion people struggle with getting enough food (to say nothing of adequate nutrition), while nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. There are many causes for obesity, and the problem isn’t this simple, but the poor almost never get adequate nutrition whether they are consuming too many calories or too few. In addition, because of the way food is produced on our planet, there is alarmingly little quality topsoil left, and it is deteriorating 10-40x faster than it can be replenished. The aquifers of the earth are running dry, due to both irrigation and the bottled water industries, to say nothing of fracking.

Fifth, healthcare is nearly impossible to navigate for many people in the world. In some parts of the world, there are not enough doctors, healers, educators, and above all, resources; in another part of the world, healthcare has become so profit-driven with costs so inflated that it is inaccessible to millions. The system is bogged down by the allopathic medicine machine — insurance companies driven by profit, actuarial tables, and entire departments of workers whose sole purpose is to find specific ways to deny coverage for its patients; pharmaceutical companies who hoard knowledge of health techniques through patents, who overcharge patients in certain countries so that it is more profitable, who advertise their drugs in mass media, promoting the idea that wellness can only come through chemistry, and reinforce that it is OK to profit from the suffering and misfortune of others. The witches used to be the healers. Every community had them. These healers were attuned to local ecosystems, and knew how to make medicines of all kinds. The community supported them. People didn’t lose their homes and everything they owned when they got sick.

Sixth, and related to the pharmaceutical industry, there is rampant mental dis-ease in the west. Depression, angst, and eating disorders (anorexia & bulemia on one side, emotional binge eating on the other) are everywhere one turns. Usage of psychotropic drugs are at an all-time high, including mandatory prescriptions for “difficult” (which usually means unusual or hard-to-control) children in public schools. This problem of overmedication stems from and reinforces the notion of “compulsory neurotypicality” explored by Sean Donahue, which “decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variation from the norm.” Furthermore, these drugs are widely advertised on television, creating a sense of never-having-enough. No longer are commodified neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter modifiers tools to chemically assist people in navigating the emotional and psychological pain they are experiencing, but instead have become “happy pills” for millions of people, sold to exploit our culture’s deepening sense of unease and malaise.

Seventh, the problem of wageslavery is fundamental to western culture. There are a few who derive happiness from their jobs, but the vast majority of people would immediately quit their jobs if earning money was unnecessary. It’s one thing to expect people to contribute to society — including the unpleasant jobs that no one really wants to do — to the best of their ability, but how many jobs are truly essential to a healthy, well-managed society? Does society really need a fast-food restaurant on every corner, providing two-dozen underpaid jobs each, in order for people or the neighborhood, much less the ecosystems it extracts resources from, to thrive? Do marketing executives truly make the world a better place? Are corporate lawyers responsible for maintaining a smoothly-functioning society? In short, no. There are far more work-hours of labor performed each week than are necessary to maintain a healthy society. Our time performing these tasks should leave plenty of leftover time for adequate self-care and wherever our personal liberty takes us. It’s more difficult to enjoy and pursue one’s liberty when you have a work schedule during most of your waking hours. This is the opposite of liberty, or our culture’s promise of the pursuit of happiness, as Marcuse reminded us in 1966:

“I hesitate to use the word — freedom — because it is precisely in the name of freedom that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. This situation is certainly not new in history: poverty and exploitation were products of economic freedom; time and again, people were liberated all over the globe by their lords and masters, and their new liberty turned out to be submission, not to the rule of law but to the rule of the law of the others. What started as subjection by force soon became “voluntary servitude,” collaboration in reproducing a society which made servitude increasingly rewarding and palatable. The reproduction, bigger and better, of the same ways of life came to mean, ever more clearly and consciously, the closing of those other possible ways of life which could do away with the serfs and the masters, with the productivity of repression.”
—Herbert Marcuse, “Political Preface 1966,” Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) xiii-xiv.

Circular crop fields in Kansas, characteristic of center pivot irrigation. This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA.
Does this look natural to you? These are circular crop fields in Kansas, characteristic of center pivot irrigation. This file is in the public domain.

Eighth, unprecedented weather patterns rage across the planet. The Earth’s environment — in terms of its ability to support human life — is rapidly deteriorating. The “global warming” debate rages on in yet another dualism, where each side thinks the other is somewhere between mad and stupid. Limiting this discussion to one parameter (temperature, ie, warming) or even a few (broadening it to include “climate change”) does not look at humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. It is clear that humans are affecting the ecosystems of the world in a profound way; all one has to do is fly over the US and look down to observe the effects industrialized human activity has had. Everything is in muted colors or artificial, mechanical, geometric patterns attached the natural landscapes. Humanity is beginning to see the effects of a few centuries of industrialization, which accelerated the desertification of the planet by way of human domestication for the past 10,000 years or so. These effects have been all-too-easy to deny because they have taken longer than one lifetime to manifest.

How did this happen?

I could go on. Many do; indeed the present (not to mention the future) seems quite bleak.

What happened? Where are the ideals of scientific progress, of Enlightenment notions of “perpetual peace” and “equality and justice for all”? After 500 years of ostensibly chasing these noble goals of the “century of genius” — the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, the dawn of Capitalism, the first experiment with modern republics and “representative democracies,” the Bill of Rights — these ideals have not fulfilled their promise.

The complex web of problems we see today is an extension of this history of Paganism over the past 500 years, a history that can be characterized primarily as a move away from Pagan values. There is a disconnect between these core Pagan values and our daily experiences within our present, 21st century world, a disconnect which produces not only the global crises outlined above, but also a spiritual and psychic conflict and crisis within each observant, thinking Pagan whose life is all-too-rarely in harmony with these values. We Pagans are a conquered people indeed. But even worse, we have been assimilated, which means we directly participate in our own suppression. This is both the horror and the genius of colonialism.

We Pagans are a conquered people. But many questions remain, and indeed will be explored in future columns in these pages. Among them:

  • What exactly are the Pagan values that have been lost?
  • If Pagans are a conquered people, then who are the conquerors?
  • What benefit are Pagans getting from this relationship of conquest? What should we do about it? Should we resist, and if so, what are the most effective modes of resistance?
  • Will Pagans be courageous enough to decolonize themselves?

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Towards a Pagan Politics

We all must begin in our own way. How does a pagan address capitalism?

To answer this question I feel the need to make clear and sure the foundation of my own views on paganism’s relation to politics. If, as pagans, we are called to a social mission and not just a spiritual one then we must get clear on how the one translates into the other. So, I will attempt here to investigate the meeting of politics and paganism in preparation for more concrete adventures later. So let us go and see what wars amongst the gods settled by human juries, the imperialism of Athens and Rome, and the community councils of the Akan people can teach us about where and who we are.

Politics and Metaphysics

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“The Last Senate of Julius Caesar” by Raffaele Giannetti

Each aspect of our lives reflects, whether we see it or not, our deepest beliefs about the nature of reality and the place of humans within it. Our ethics, our politics, our religion all enshrine our most basic grasp of what exists and how these existents relate to each other. It is tempting to think that religion has, or need have, nothing to do with politics. Yet every politics rests on an ethics, a belief about the nature of right and wrong or, even more basically, a belief about the nature of the good life and every ethics is based on a metaphysics. Until we have some ideas about what the universe is like we cannot know how we are to live in it and amongst one another. Often our metaphysical commitments are most clear in our religion and, to that extent, religion and politics are inseparable.

If I think that humanity is vicious, brutal, lacking in self-control and natural harmony I will likely favor a powerful centralized government or totalitarian regime that alone can rule the unruly with might. With similar views I might favor the same form of government out of the belief that power alone is valuable and worthy of pursuit, and so seek at all costs to make myself ruler over the vicious. If my view of human nature is of a gentler creature, prone to harmony and capable of self-organization, I will favor a moderate or minimal government seeking to interfere as little as possible with humanity’s natural affections.

These are, of course, simplifications and the complex weave of anyone’s views of reality are not so easily untangled. They do, however, allow us to ask the question I would like, here, to begin answering. What politics flows from the metaphysical beliefs of Paganism and how does Capitalism stand in relation to this politics?

I don’t presume to speak for all pagans, it is a term that covers so expansive and fertile a ground that any generalization will be hazardous at best, but I do hope to offer some suggestive glimpses at the unique view of reality and politics that some aspects of paganism offer. I don’t claim my usage to be exclusive, but by paganism I will mean polytheism or the belief in a plurality of independent gods.

There is a fundamental difference between paganism and monotheism that is so simple and basic that it is frequently forgotten or overlooked. From a uniquely pagan perspective reality and truth are irreducibly plural. Monotheism in its many forms, on the other hand, asserts that reality is ultimately one and so too is truth. There is one god, one truth, often one creator and so one purpose, and ultimately one totalizing picture within which all being can be united, simplified and explained. It is hard to appreciate the incredible difference between this view, the historically later one, and the view of a reality that is never reducible to one final explanation, one rule or purpose, and one source or structure.

Paganism is the thinking or worship of the many and, after the rise of monotheism, the rejection of the reductive, totalizing one. Where there are many gods we find many purposes, if any, for existence and many ways in which one might exist well or poorly. A rather direct statement of this belief might be that there is no one right way to live and so, too, no one proper politics or collection of traditions. The politics of paganism, then, must be a politics of resistance to totalization, an assertion of the inherent value of the many ways of human life. For this reason, paganism must be committed to the complexity of all reality while casting a suspicious eye on simplifying reductions and explanations.

Conflict and its Preservation

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“Orestes Pursued by the Furies” 1921 by John Singer Sargent

The commitment to complex plurality is the reason that, oddly, pagan mythology is a story of conflict. For a pluralistic view of reality, conflict must be basic, whether it be the conflict of play or that of war. Any wholesale rejection of conflict can only be put forward by means of some one final totalizing view of how all people must behave and what values all people must share. The plurality of gods, and the traditions and practices of worship and value those gods teach, must embrace the productive inter-relations amongst these often dramatically different forces and truths whether those relations are friendly or more contentious.

We see a clear example of this in the story of Orestes in Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays, the Oresteia. We see here, as well, a political response to the conflict inherent within paganism that rejects any ultimate unification or simplification of reality’s complexity and pluralism.

In the final stage of the story, Orestes has killed his mother who had previously killed his father. Apollo, having inspired him to avenge his father in the first place, officially cleanses him of the crime of matricide. The Furies, an older order of gods sworn to a different set of values, refuse to accept Apollo’s judgment and instead insist that the crime of killing one’s mother must be punished and Orestes must pay with his sanity or, eventually, his life. There is no sense throughout the story that either the values of Apollo or those of the Furies are wrong. Both are legitimate and deeply enshrined in the complex power struggles of the Ancient Greek tradition. Neither the Furies nor Apollo are willing to back down nor, indeed, should either give up their basic commitments and view of the fundamental truths of reality. Violence, and ultimately a new war between the younger and older gods, threatens to break out due to the actions of a human son.

The solution to this inescapable conflict is found in Athens with its patron goddess. Apollo, Orestes and the Furies gather there before Athena and present their case for her judgment. But she, too, cannot achieve any final absolute judgment– for she is just as much a party to the issue as Apollo or the Furies. As a goddess herself, and the child of Zeus, her own values can not allow her to judge against Apollo, the rule of the father, and the younger gods. Her solution, then, is a political one. She gives up the absolute authority to judge the case even as Apollo and the Furies had given up their authority to her. Instead, she assembles a jury of human citizens and has the case presented to them. We see here the use of democracy to settle the problem of irreducible conflicts amidst truths, none of which can be rejected.

Council and Consensus

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Akan symbol for Sankofa, meaning “to go back and get it” best captured in the saying “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

There are a few points we should consider in response to Athenian democracy as a model of pagan politics. First, this can’t of course be the one and only model because the numerous Pagan Greek City States all had their own version of political organization– from military rule in Sparta, Tyrannies, Oligarchies, Aristocracies and Monarchies to the radical majoritarian Democracy of Athens. We will have something to say about this plurality of pagan political forms later. Second, democracy cannot be understood as a neutral position free of values from which the conflicting norms of the multiple gods can be judged. Rather, democracy can itself be understood as embodying the basic valuing of difference and pluralism. Without diversity in views of truth democracy is neither possible nor necessary. In our contemporary world democracy is often thought necessary because of an inability to come to agreement on certain unanswered questions or questions which have no answer. Thus, one can still assert that there is always one right answer but because we either don’t always know it or some people refuse to see it we turn to the compromise of democracy. In a pagan context, however, democracy is predicated on the rejection of any final reductive truth. Because reality is made up of many conflicting forces and truths the necessary political form is one that can embrace these conflicts without, at the same time, surrendering decision-making capabilities.

Third, and finally, we must recognize that the term democracy covers a variety of political formulations. Athenian democracy was direct, majoritarian and contained very few checks on the power of the majority. For example, the political majority could in many cases vote their representatives and generals to death. Modern American democracy is representative rather than direct, still majoritarian, but contains basic limitations on the power of the majority through the concept of rights. Other forms of democracy limit the majoritarian aspects of democracy by insisting on higher percentages of votes for a decision to be put into action, forcing representatives to form temporary coalitions out of their diverse interests, or set up proportional representation such that a party with twenty percent of the vote would hold twenty percent of the representatives in the legislative body. In a majoritarian system twenty percent simply represents a loss.

We see a nice counter model to the urban empire oriented majoritarian politics of Athens in some of the traditional pagan cultures found in Africa. The Akan culture traditionally governed itself through communal councils made up of the leaders of the community. Each council was presided over by a leader whose primary job was to moderate the discussion of the council and execute its decisions. For this reason Akan sayings capture such wisdom as “There are no bad leaders, only bad advisors”. Since the leader only acted on the decision of the council, any failure in action was a failure of the council.

This form of government, similar to many forms found in North American Native cultures, was democratic in the sense that the members of the council were representatives of the people and open to the judgment of the community should they fail in their representation. Perhaps most importantly, however, these councils were overtly non-majoritarian. The aim of the council was to arrive at consensus. The councils did not recognize majority will, but rather sought to bring any points of contention to a place where each side of the issue was willing to agree. The process of council was not complete until this agreement was reached. Despite this, however, the belief was not that consensus arrived at the one ultimate truth, but rather that it was the best means of bringing conflicting truths into harmony. For the Akan “One head does not go into council”, making clear that council itself requires a multiple of irreducibly different views, and “Wisdom does not reside in one head”, meaning that only a collection of these different non-totalizing grasps of reality allow for wisdom.

We might say, in this regard, that Akan communitarianism represents the idea that while there are many conflicting truths, wisdom consists in the ability to appreciate and see as many of these truths as possible without allowing any of them to dominate. While the ability to do this is limited in individuals, it is possible in a community of those seeking wisdom. There is no reduction or normalization of difference here, but rather an embrace of the productive play amongst difference. Only in difference is there truth.

Empire and Domination

Athena_Orestes_Erinyes
Orestes at trial with Apollo, Athena, and the Erinyes The Erinyes of Clytaemnestra pursue Orestes. Beside Athena, who presides the court, sits Apollo. Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912

We can find models, then, in pagan cultures for how their religion feeds into what my early representation of pagan metaphysics might expect us to see in politics.

However, there is a problem we need to face: not all pagan cultures gave rise to democratic or communitarian forms of government. Certainly these are the most common forms we find in traditional pagan cultures in Africa, Northern Europe and the Americas but history is replete with counter-examples. The Athenian empire, cherishing democracy for itself but frequently refusing it to its vassal states, is such a counter-example as is, perhaps most notably, the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire, like the Athenian, harbored democratic institutions within it for much of its history while showing the world a face of domination and absolutism, to of course say nothing of the internal failures of both democracies to offer real freedom to the majority of their peoples.

Part of the internal domination found in pagan cultures can be explained by a failure to adequately navigate the pluralism of their metaphysics and religion and the necessary conflicts arising from this pluralism. It is clearly an aspect of paganism for many to believe their own god or cultic practice to be superior to the others. It is clear that the conflict between Apollo and the Furies could have just as easily not been successfully navigated, giving rise to wars seeking supremacy or settling into the enslavement of one part of the community by others. This is one reason to rise from the religious perspective to the metaphysical, for the metaphysical allows us to see the contours of pagan culture irrespective of particular religious commitments while at the same time admitting the limited and fallible nature of our metaphysics in light of its own pluralistic commitments. Even this metaphysics will be just one amongst many, as it would itself predict.

The paradox we are attempting to address between a pluralistic metaphysics that fails to embody a pluralistic politics can be seen most clearly in the contrast between the exceptionally common cultural and religious tolerance of pagan cultures and their not infrequent political intolerance. Despite what you might expect, Athenian and Roman cultures were consistently open to cultural and religious variety. We could go even further and point out that they were almost greedy for new religious ideas. There are exceptions, of course, people were still put to death for impiety from time to time, but the appearance of new gods and new religious practices within both cultures was constant. We see similar elements throughout Greece, with many of the Greek gods originating from foreign cultures. Rome, while busy conquering the known world, did not impose its gods upon conquered people along side its political dominance and, instead, liked to bring new divinities and traditions to Rome to enrich its own cultural complexity. We can see this aspect of Roman culture most clearly if we consider it in contrast with the events following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity. Almost immediately the forces of monotheism resorted to rioting and the destruction of pagan temples and documents. Political suppression of paganism took a bit longer to be put in place, but it too soon followed and eventual gave rise to the goal of Catholic monoculture and the destruction off all other religious practices.

The pluralism we see in Rome and Athens is even more obvious when we look at the more recent interaction between Christian monotheism and traditional African cultures. The interaction between Africans and Christian missionaries and slavers played out the way it did at least partially because of the radically different way each side of the conflict treated the other. Most traditional African cultures had been prone, amongst themselves, to an open-minded curiosity about the beliefs and practices of their distant neighbors. As has been pointed out by numerous African philosophers and anthropologists, the attitude of most traditional African communities towards both their own gods and the gods of others, tended to be highly experimental and practically- minded. Gods were respected to the extent that they provided material benefits and wisdom. These gods, then, could be tested to see which worked better or worse for certain goals. When a god or religious practice repeatedly failed to deliver, when it no longer proved useful, it was frequently abandoned. The same thing went for the gods of foreign peoples. They were openly accepted as new proposals for useful ways to navigate the world. When they proved to not be useful they were rejected, though that did not mean those who still found them useful were in any way forced to “convert”.

We can see in the interaction of African communities with Christian missionaries a key example of the conflict between pagan and monotheist metaphysics. The conversation between missionaries and their prey is strikingly one-sided. The traditional Africans are curious about the newcomers and willing to discuss their views and debate the possible usefulness and plausibility of the new god they propose. The missionaries, on the other hand, do not accept that they have anything to learn or gain from the Africans and repeatedly insist that their own god is not just a god, but rather the One and Only God. This proposal is generally met with laughter by the Africans who found the very idea obviously ridiculous. The Africans are at a clear disadvantage for, while they are seeking to understand and expand their own wisdom, their interlocutors are seeking only to dominate, convert and destroy.

Within pagan cultures we frequently see similar conflicts between cultural openness and the drive for political domination and power without, nonetheless, the particularly pernicious metaphysical commitment to access to the One Truth. We might say, then, that within paganism, domination arises as a conflict amidst powers; while, within a monotheistic culture domination takes the form of a conflict amidst claims to truth. For Christian missionaries, someone was right and someone was wrong. For the Roman conqueror someone was strong and someone else was weak.

The failure that arises in the case of pagan domination of others, we might suggest, is a failure to see the extent to which a pagan metaphysics teaches that there is a plurality of types of power, all of which are important, useful and worthy of a type of respect because each derives from a different truth and reality. This clarifies the way in which pagan religion, and the metaphysics it contains, holds the potential for an open culture and politics while this potential has too often been only partially actualized. We might propose, then, that it has been left to us to more fully develop and achieve what previous cultures have frequently only imperfectly envisioned.

Paganism and Capitalism

janus
Roman coin featuring the God Janus

Communitarian or democratic views with a focus on the value and inescapable nature of robust difference are not the only existing proposal on the table for how to navigate the diversity of interests and values existing in a complex society. If pagan cultures seek to elevate difference to the point of its greatest creativity, capitalism exists as a way in which to reduce all values and views to a base line of control and comparison. In other words, capitalism can be seen as a way to navigate pluralism through the reduction of differences to the one totalizing value of money. The power of numbers and mathematics is that they provide a standard lens through which all things can be ordered. In natural science mathematics provides the basis for a totalizing theory of nature. In economics and especially capitalism mathematics is applied to all human interaction and belief. The dream of capitalism is that all things can be numbered and, in being so numbered, owned, bought, sold and ultimately controlled. Capitalism is, in its essential nature, dominating and leveling. It always reduces to one level of value and rejects any resistance to this leveling reduction, this totalizing.

Despite claims to the contrary, the market is not democratic because it is predicated upon the necessity that not all agents in the market share the same buying power or selling power. There must always be centers of control in every market: the wealthy and the less wealthy, the owners and the workers, etc. In reducing all ways of life to monetary exchange, and positing this exchange upon necessary inequality, capitalism opposes communitarian and democratic concerns. As we can see in the history of politics and economics, the move to capitalism was not a neutral or natural transition but rather the outcome of one force in society – the landed wealthy and/or business classes – attempting to defeat other forces and dominate the people as a whole. This is why, for example, hereditary aristocracies and capitalism were frequently historically in conflict as were military regimes and capitalism. What we witness is a war amongst the powerful for which segment of the population will rule.

Capitalism is, to put it bluntly, monotheist in its metaphysics and, whether directly or indirectly, must be opposed to the pagan assertion of inescapable differences irreducible to any one system of values. Pagan cultures have gods of commerce and religious practices to govern such human activities, but it was clear that these gods could never rule over all the others and that, in fact, commercial and monetary values were minor in comparison to a vast plethora of others. We can see this when we notice how, in comparison to our own prejudices, many pagan cultures had a much more limited conception of ownership especially over such things as land and natural resources. In some cultures, such as the African Akan culture and many Native American cultures, the words often taken to mean “ownership” mean rather something more like “trusteeship”. To own is rather to be entrusted with the responsibility of protecting and developing something for the sake of the community and the world as a whole. Even very personal goods were entrusted to one by the gods who had granted you with personal guardianship. The goal of your own well-being existed beside the much larger claims of the well-being of the full diversity of entities and truths.

Pagan Politics, an Outline

What, then, might be pagan politics and how does it relate to capitalism? I will draw here a few tentative principles from what I have said so far and am anxious to hear any suggestions, thoughts, objections or disagreements you might have. At the very least, I hope this will be part of a productive ongoing conversation.

A Pagan Metaphysics might Assert that:

1. Reality is irreducibly multiple, made up of numerous different forces. In other words, truth and reality are always plural.
2. Insofar as these truths are irreducible there is no one final truth or god and conflict (whether constructive or destructive, whether play or war) is an unavoidable aspect of reality.
3. There is no one right way to live, best culture, highest value or single purpose.
4. Wisdom consists in a gathering of diverse truths beyond that attainable by any one individual, “Wisdom does not reside in one head.”

A Pagan Politics might be Committed to:

1. The rejection of all totalizing claims and authorities.
2. The promotion of productive rather than negative conflict (play over war) and an increase in different ways of life.
3. The commitment to creating an environment where each way of life can reach its fullest most creative form as far as is possible, thus rejecting the Roman model of one type of power ruling over all others.
4. The insistence that no one standard of evaluation can be applied to all things.
5. The recognition that most things should not be characterized in terms of monetary value and so the resistance to the reduction of all values to market values.
6. In a World Without Council, i.e. one already under the domination of one reductive way of life, pagan politics would be committed to the pursuit of the actions necessary to make pluralism possible.


Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .


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Social Darwinism; Detachment from Community Accountability in Modern Pagan Culture

breadline-great-depression

“ Social Darwinism characterizes a variety of past and present social policies and theories, from attempts to reduce the power of government to theories exploring the biological causes of human behavior. Many people believe that the concept of social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalization behind racism, imperialism, and capitalism. The term has negative implications for most people because they consider it a rejection of compassion and social responsibility.” – Robert C. Bannister, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

 

“The core idea of Social Darwinism is that the wealthy and powerful enjoy the privileges they do because they are more fit in terms of the traits favored by natural selection. The poor and powerless have less fit traits and therefore it is best to let them perish since their elimination will represent natural selection favoring fitter traits and the spread of fitter traits is a form of progress. This line of thinking about moral issues, politics, and social policy was used to justify colonialism, extreme laissez-faire capitalism, and aggressive militarism. In any military conflict the fitter army would prevail and this would constitute a form of progress. It also justified withholding assistance from the poor and restriction of immigration to the U. S. from regions of the world deemed to have less fit populations.” – William Irons, Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University

The idea that the strongest survive is nothing new, it is actually one of the founding principles of America. Those who are strong enough, fit enough, smart enough or skilled enough are the very people who survive the conditions and situations they are subjected to. America is not alone in the legacy of this principle, we can look to the colonization of countries throughout the world and see how this fundamental concept has influenced the actions of people throughout history. Whoever is strong enough gets the rewards, whoever is weaker has the responsibility for failure and their ultimate demise.

The roots of some of our most horrific historical moments come from a place enmeshed with the idea that we are somehow not accountable for the needs of others, and we are rewarded with the riches and privileges we can take. Capitalism as a system relies on this fundamental principle, and all things are born from that pivotal point.

It is not a far stretch to see how this connects to the notions that strips people of their humanity, making them only a representative of something other than their person. People become objects void of human compassion, empathy and protection. Individuals become a reflection of what they represent or possess, detached from our ability to see ourselves within the same reflection. This detachment allows for the horrors of rape, murder, disempowerment and oppression in the most horrific of circumstances, and a complete disconnect from the experiences of another human being in the best scenario. From either side of this spectrum, social Darwinistic approaches push us to become voyeurs to the pain of others while we separate from the ability to recognize the harm. We become a part of the complexity of a system that watches people perish in front of us while we excuse and dismiss the devastation of the outcome within our society.

We as a society have pushed against the views of Eugenics and other popular theories that fall under the umbrella of Social Darwinism, but we often dismiss how these types of theories are conditioned into the way that we relate with one another today.

The inherent belief that power or riches dictate strength or the ability to exist in the current social climate, and that those without power will inevitably cease to exist in the current dynamic, is dangerous and yet ever present in all facets of our interlocking communities.

 

A Dot in the Corner of the Big Picture

Paganism is a microcosm of greater society. The intersecting elements of larger societal culture have overlapping connections with the smaller sects. Pagans are not devoid from the structures, principles, thoughts, conditioning or history of macro society or culture; We still live within the constructs that exist outside of our spiritual realm and community.

Gated_Community WikimediaWe see these things within our own community; they surface in the ways we are conditioned to respond to the needs of others, how we engage with issues of equity, and how we conceptualize our personal and collective responsibility for the success of others. Some practitioners within the modern Pagan movement are more community minded individually, yet we find that the Pagan “community” does not share like values in how we acknowledge, support, advocate or commune with others that differ from our individual paths. Many of the big issues that have happened within the Pagan community have shown this very dynamic, where infighting sprung from competing values and a lack of flexibility around supporting the common good. People are apt to tokenize issues and people to a cause instead of looking at the humanity each of us possesses, and the differing needs that come as a result.

We have too often seen people labeled and sorted into categories that do not reflect their human aspects. Classifications that then come with judgements or belief systems that extend to ideals of inclusivity, or the opposite, for reasons that are laced with our perception of normative values and expectations.  We also see the separation between how people connect their spiritual place in the world and what is often referred to as “politics”, making a definitive line between personal needs and the needs of others. I have personally heard these statements made by Pagans in relationship to social justice issues, including but not limited to matters of racial inequity, mass incarcerations and other issues of systemic injustice.

The question then becomes, what is the responsibility of the average Pagan practitioner to support the highest good of all within community? How are we responsible for the collective outcome? And how do we bridge the gap between our individual paths or relationships with our Gods, to a more community minded perspective that has a sense of accountability for the resources and supports of others who are trying to thrive? And what about those who are not a part of the Pagan community? Do our resources stop at the barrier of our bubble?

These questions are challenging within any community. Paganism is no different. We are so focused on our individual needs, our normative views, and wrestling with our understanding of intersectionality and privilege, that we often struggle with a collective community minded view. Instead it becomes about me and mine, and you and yours need to figure it out for yourselves; And as individuals, groups and organizations within the community fall flat we tend to dismiss their failures as an individual issue of strength, value and worth.

It is with the lingering shadow of theories such as Social Darwinism that we allow racism, sexism, ageism, and elitism to continue to thrive within our community, and in general society. It is within the awareness of these harmful dynamics at play that we might be able to make decisions to build a healthier community. Movements to support marginalized communities inside of the Pagan umbrella have become stronger over the years, and I have been lucky enough to participate in some of that coalition building. As I have experienced more incidents of racism and discrimination within the community, I have come to understand more that our societal problems do not dissipate when the pentacle is put on. I, like many others, have been “sized up” within the community to judge my worth based on ethnic purity, my education, my profession and especially my initiatory degrees within what would be considered an approved or accepted tradition. The moment I was told I was unable to join a specific group because I was not of “primary” European descent, I began to really question how we individually and inclusively use the tools of oppression within our own groups and within the many cultures of Modern Paganism. In this specific situation I questioned what method was used to determine primary European descent status, and whether my blond hair and blue eyed son would be welcomed; There was no clear answer for either question. It became increasingly clear to me that values of worth meant something different in this context.

It is important that we no longer use the oppressive tools handed to us to oppress one another, and instead uplift and empower each other to find the paths that help us to thrive and connect us to a healthier togetherness.

Competition At The Table

Carnegie believed that the inequality that inevitably resulted from industrial capitalism was not inherently bad. Competition in society, as in the natural world, sorted people out according to their abilities. But this inequality did not preclude everyone, from millionaire to industrial worker, from playing a useful part in the collective task of human progress. “ – Peter Dobkin Hall, School of Public Affair, Baruch College, City University of New York.

This statement about Social Darwinist Andrew Carnegie really brings to light some challenges and questions I have about the underlined dynamics of our community and how we assess the value of others and our collective responsibility to one another. Are we purposefully participating in a culture that perpetuates the competitive nature of capitalism to distinguish between those who are viable within our community and those who are not? Does the Pagan community thrive on competition, power struggles, worth based assessments and perpetuated challenges to somehow filter out the weak? Who are the weak? Why are we resistant to look at how we are “playing a useful part in the collective task of human progress” and the value in collaboration based community?

I do not know the answers to these questions in totality, and yet some of the dynamics that perpetuate these issues are clear. If we are too busy competing with one another, we are not seeing one another for the qualities that we possess but we are focusing on the things that are not present. We are essentially exploiting the weaknesses in the landscape of our community, and that is a reflection of capitalism at its finest.

So what does this mean for the modern Pagan community moving forward? I am one of those who feels like spending the time to explore the hiccups in community can result in an awareness that allows personal and societal growth, but I am a Social Worker so that makes sense.

Allowing social and cultural capital to be as important as any other foundational concept could serve our community in many different, productive and supportive ways. Our community looks at a person through the lens of what we find to be valuable, important or meaningful to us. This can be a narrow glimpse. We forget that sometimes an individual’s value will sit right outside of the box we’ve created, thereby dismissing the usefulness or importance of their contributions. We have a pattern of dismissing the capital of others that do not give us an immediate sense of connection to our own normative values. Instead of “not ready”, “incapable”, “too young”, we can look at how people are growing, innovative, creative, and the bearers of new thoughts and approaches.

We should not confuse having healthy boundaries with the shedding process that is often used to eliminate people who we assume are not suited for our covens and groves. Instead of eliminating people based in perception, we should consider how we are able to encourage, inspire and uplift others in our community. And we need to stop assuming that when someone goes away it is because they were not meant to be here. It is in that same thread of thought, whether conscious or unconscious, that we see a lack of diversity within the Pagan community yet cannot understand why. It is this same stream of behavior that creates a culture of acceptable sameness and rejects those things that are outside of the realm of our comfort; we actively and passively are pushing away people that do not fit and often forget to evaluate the impact. It is within that same cultural norm that we lack accountability for the roles that we play and the outcomes that are generated as a result.

Conclusion… Sort Of….

Patterns, beliefs, behavior and our reality lay the framework for culture. Unchecked patterns of behavior denies everyone the ability to dig deeper and reflect on how our contributions harm one another.

The bottom line is this, we are still accountable. If we are comfortable categorizing and then dismissing the importance of Black people, trans people, people of color, disabled people, younger people, or any other marginalized group of people in our circle, the problem is us and not them. If we are not evaluating the needs of the greater society and dismissing the injustices around us, the problem is us. And we are accountable for that.

In a true community, we are connected to all things, and they are still connected to us. A survival of the fittest foundation within our community relies on the power of privilege. We can replace that with a different foundation, one made of equity and love, if we are willing to do the work.

 

The Spirit of the Free Market

thespiritofthefreemarketThere are many ways of looking at the problems western societies face today. All have their uses: larger than life problems call for numerous and varied angles of analysis. Seeing a spiritual dimension to the issues at hand is one way of seeing the world. Yet this angle is often overlooked, ignored, or even ridiculed in a general discourse. We leave it to monotheists to interpret the world in terms of a spiritual battle between benign and evil forces. They are welcome to this monopoly, it seems. Pagans and the like often shy away from the monochrome dualism of good and evil. In our world, it comes in shades and hues. But while acknowledging nuance is a good thing, closing our eyes to clear and present evil is not.

The birth of a bully

During my lifetime, an ill wind stirred once more in the west and now blows freely, like a chilly draught we only truly start noticing while we are already shivering. From where does it hail? ­The spirit who insidiously tears down the fabric in societies formerly striving for equality and opportunity was not born yesterday. Maybe it arose from the first larger villages, where specialised trades started to develop.

Just like children are not born bad, this spirit was not either. It was born from the buzz of free people, working and competing with each other, bringing out the best in themselves. You could even call it a noble and a just spirit, for as it grew, it rewarded the ones who put in the extra time and effort into perfecting their craft. Enveloped in a strong sense of community, it could do little harm.

Yet as soon as coin came into existence, the spirit clung to it. It started to travel the world and broadened its horizon. The spirit grew strong and tall in the cities and was no longer satisfied with impartially hovering in the marketplaces. It fed itself on greed and selfishness. This bloated youngster drew quite a following to itself. Many who understood its mechanisms worked with the spirit to get what they wanted. Their opulence came at a high price, but others were forced to pay it with their dignity and humanity. Through these priests and priestesses, it came of age during the time of the industrial revolution, until people united against it. Laws bound it and tied it down. It was never banished though. It just bid its time. ­

Western European countries have a modest tradition of strong, public institutions. It is easy to forget how young this tradition actually is. 200 years ago these institutions did not exist and many public services only came into being after the Second World War. It seems that lack of awareness of how things used to be has made us careless. Our forgetfulness has left us prone to the same old spirit again. And it is smarter this time around. It has been forced to clean up its act, like a white collar criminal. It has done its homework. The spirit has smelled greener pasture. There, it can feast upon a domain in which it has no business at all. It feeds on public healthcare, utility companies, education, railway services, indeed on all former collective institutions that everyone needs at some point in their lives. Its priests and priestesses are not factory owners with top hats. They are politicians and administrators; many of them even mean well. Demographic and economic trends call for new, sustainable public services. But they fail to recognise that the spirit is not the one who will help to solve their problems. It only drains the public domain and favours a select class of people, while the collective is impoverished. The spirit lures them in with promises of efficiency and effectiveness. It spins the story like cotton candy and its priests sugar-coat the mechanisms by which the spirit aims to rule, saying that we will all profit from it. The numbers add up, don’t they? They do at first. And they certainly do for the high priests and high priestesses, who have created a caste of minion-managers, marching like blinkered donkeys with a carrot dangling in front of them.

It is dangerous to meddle with the spirit of the free market. Even the ones that have served it loyally throughout their life, might find themselves sidelined in old age, when help is no longer available and pensions have evaporated. The emphasis on work and profit has dismantled communities. The lucky ones, with either money or family to take care of them, make good their escape. All for one and none for all.

Exorcism

There are many sociological and political explanations for the state of our society. It has to do with the weakening of communities, growing individualism and globalisation. That is all true. Yet none of these reasons can, by themselves, explain the blind faith our governments have put in the mechanisms of the free market. This ruthless automaton, which goes about its business-as-usual, takes no heed of what it destroys on its path. We should recognise it for what it is, something that was long ago wholesome in itself, but spoiled and rotten now, like a bad egg. Pagans and indeed all people who consider themselves spiritual beings should be aware of this powerful ethereal dimension. The acknowledgement of its presence will help us to fight it accordingly.

So question its precedence over all other values. Strip and flail it, expose this spirit for what it is. Interrogate its priests and priestesses, for the havoc their blind trust in the spirit’s mechanism has caused in our societies. Fight it with words, images, and actions that are inherently valuable. Truth.  Beauty.  Art.  Quality of Life. Nature. Compassion. Escape its narrow confines and its desire to capture the world in numbers and graphs. Put it back in its place, where it belongs, as an impartial mechanism in the free exchange of goods and services, in a strong community of people unburdened.

The Quality of Mercy

Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most people’s knee-jerk response to a question of external ethical systems (are good and evil relative or absolute?) is that morals are human-derived and cultural. On the one hand this is true— in humans everything except fear of falling is learned and therefore culturally derived. On the other hand it is false. All human ‘laws’ are actually justifications: because you have transgressed/ been convicted /are guilty, society as personified by myself or my nominees is justified and right in this punishment. As is most always the case when justification is employed, the justifiers (or ‘right’) are scraping up a bunch of quibbling props to allow them to behave badly towards the guilty party (the ‘wrong’). ‘In this case’, ‘Ordinarily I wouldn’t’, or ‘Now you have forfeited the right’ are all just politer circumlocutions of ‘I know I am acting wrongly, but’ because at heart you know you are dishing out to someone else what you wouldn’t eat yourself. On the gripping hand, it is the impulse towards kindness and consideration, towards mercy— the kernel of ‘nice’ inside the shell of ‘right’— that defines good.

The other knee-jerk response is that (as the absence of light is dark) evil is merely the absence of good and, like moral systems, exists only inside the human mind. Sad to say, belief in Incarnate Evil is an integral part of my world view. Although light (again physics intrudes unpleasantly) has odd properties, it is, however, a real thing— measurable, stable, and part of the external world. We see poorly ‘in the dark’ and cat’s eyes see ‘better’ (more effectively) in low light but the light is the same; the difference is in our equipment, the rods and cones in our respective eyes. If we typify humans as= ‘moral’ and cats as ‘amoral’ then it is our differing ethical equipment that allows the distinction.

Part of our equipment is extrapolation— if a cat wants to sit where another cat is sitting ze will use stern looks, pushing, threats (both auditory and physical), and finally whacking-on-the-noze. Humans sometimes use this same cascade but the civilized expectation is for request and negotiation before pushing. Humans can teach cats with moderate success to not scream and whack in the presence of humans. The cats are employing an external moral system in exactly the same way that many humans do— ‘if I am seen to be doing what is forbidden I will be punished’— the guilt lies in discovery.

Cats extrapolate slightly— if they are not aware of humans they will scream and whack freely, although they will stop and pretend no whacking was occurring as soon as they realize their mistake. Humans do this as well (although they do not break off their fights to groom) but humans can carry this one step further if they choose. Humans can place themselves in the other point-of-view. ‘I would not want to be stuffed in a trash can by someone twice my size‘ ….. ‘perhaps being twice the size of someone does not justify pushing them around’. Cats (as far as I have ever seen) never do this, humans sometimes do.

This extrapolation, the assumption of commonality, is the first step of goodness. Nothing in it actually supports Right Action— if a bully fully and unreservedly expects to be abused by those larger than ze than any action is acceptable. As well, if I like cilantro than I am completely justified in making everyone to whom it tastes like soap eat it too. Giving other humans the choice of self-direction is the other side of ‘moral law’. Free will is everything’s birthright. Not that every being gets to keep their inherent free will; since it is the fulcrum on which everything pivots it is under attack constantly.

On the one hand, systems and individuals try to grab up the free will of others— my laws, my beliefs, my culture, my ‘more powerful than you’ allows me to dictate your behaviour, your beliefs, your right of possession. On the other hand, people constantly tell themselves lies— the laws I live under, the beliefs taught to me, my powerlessness/ unworthiness constrain my thoughts and actions against my will. People search long and hard for ‘masters’ who will accept the responsibility of taking away the power of decision from their followers.

But first, their followers let them.

On the gripping hand, when someone takes away another’s free will by force or when someone denies themselves their own birthright and gives their will to another, they are choosing. When they choose to act (or decide not to act, only the other side of the labrys) their action reverberates— they define how they want the world to be, they pick their own rightness or wrongness, and they inform the Gods and make an offering of that action. It seems a ridiculous weight to put on ‘throw down the wrapper/put it in your pocket for later disposal’ but everything counts. The lie that ‘this is trivial, when it’s important I will make a different choice’ is one of the oftenest-told. A little thought will almost always indicate right action. (sigh) It’s almost always the (slightly or immensely) more difficult action.

The prime directive (don’t be a douche) and the first law (everybeing has free will) are the ideal that underlies not only all human moral systems but also, to some extent, are reflected in the Gods’ interactions with us and each other–and so they are neither culturally learned nor human based.

Sometimes when I discuss my archaic beliefs I am informed with pious condescension that “the Gods are not human”, by which the people I am talking to generally mean ‘the Gods can use dictatorial force and pre-emptive actions and make arbitrary demands if They want to‘. And of course They can because They are not human and are much more powerful than we as well as being largely inscrutable to us. Sometimes our powerlessness and incomprehension seem to make us unable to tell Them ‘no’ when They ask with Their Large Voices (and sometimes we go crazy or die with the ‘no’ on our lips) but They always ask.  Examination of multicultural lore shows us this.

The Father of Lies and His Minions, the crafty lying F***ies, have to obtain permission from their victims. They, the ultimate free-market capitalists, unhesitatingly tell lies about their offers but if they can convince people that rotten husks and stagnant water in a hovel is a magical feast in an other-world castle, they will honestly come through with the husks and water. Like robber barons throughout time, they will laugh through the cigar smoke and assure each other that those poor folk do not feel things as they do (I’m not a douche and you’re not one either) and that if only they weren’t so stupid and not-really-like-us they would be one-of-us (only everybeing we give ‘being’ status to has free will). Even Yahweh, the toughest game-show-host ever, is playing ‘let’s make a deal’ with Abraham.

This we read in lore; what is undocumented belief on my part is that the Good Gods (not Those who act with demonstrable ethics, They all do, but Those who act for the betterment of Their acolytes) are more powerful than the Not-Good UnGods. And that They are aware of and amenable to an on-going communication (as in ‘I speak to You who have often spoken/ Let the bond between us be unbroken’). When I am threatened by Evil or by my own stupidity, often the Good (although fairly demanding) Goddess to Whom I am dedicated will nudge aside the worst outcome:

The Hand of the Goddess over me,
The Gods between me and harm.
Let it be so; so let it be-
Your power works the charm.

 

Judith O’Grady is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’). She’s also the author of God-Speaking.