An article that explores the culture of fear as a tool for establishing the Power of a capitalist, neocolonial, and genocidal governmental system.
From Mirna Wabi-Sabi
“Just as the Indian was branded a savage beast to justify his exploitation, so those who have sought social guerrillas, or terrorists, or drug dealers, or whatever the current term of art may be.” (Piero Gleijeses, as cited by Noam Chomsky)
The culture of fear has been part of Brazilian life for many years, most recently exemplified by the dictatorial military regime of the 1960-80s. To generate this fear in the population, the State used terrorist tactics to impose its control, such as censorship, murder, physical and psychological torture. State terrorism is vastly recorded as a phenomenon of governments that have formed from revolutionary factions. What is recorded is only a fraction of reality, and the little recorded is an interpretation of a small fraction of the population: a white elite.
Chomsky is an example of a white intellectual elite who succeeded in elevating the theories of Latin Americans on the topic of “genocidal and dictatorial democracy” (1996). In the same way Sartre helped elevate Fanon’s work, so we can not ignore our reliance on white people to inscribe Other thinkers in history. With or without recognition and records, State terrorism still exists today, and it’s not motivated by revolutionary interests, but instead by the reactionary interests of the elites and the preservation of the status quo.
The CIA’s supposedly secret 1969 document, The Situation in Brazil, describes the continuity of US political manipulation and praises the economic development brought about by the military dictatorship. All the men concurring describe the preliminary symptoms of the insurgency as “sporadic urban terrorism” executed by “disorganized” and “weak” “revolutionary fanatics”. At the same time, the opposition being “demoralized” through “censorship” and “oppression” is only considered an effective strategy to prevent the rise of a symbol of resistance.
Today in the United States, the categorization of ‘terrorism’ is somewhat recognized as inconsistent and racist: Arabs “are,” and white people are not. Nevertheless, being black and angry has been criminalized by so-called “Black Identity Extremists” being labeled terrorists. It’s necessary to recognize terrorist acts of the State in order to avoid racist inconsistencies such as ‘black people’ and ‘Arabs’ ‘terrorize,’ while the government and the police don’t (a clear example of institutionalized racism). To dissect this racist double standard we can look at the media as an instrument of cultural manipulation, and at what the motivation behind this manipulation is.
When the media reports, it also records history and influences opinions. There is an excess of sensationalist reports of crimes committed by poor black people, which generates widespread anxiety. The streets of Salvador are soaked with fear and remain empty at night, a desolation which in turn leads to more danger, and this way a vicious cycle is sustained.
“Today in Salvador from 8:00 p.m. it’s rare to find people strolling around in most of the neighborhoods.” (Report of a local from Salvador)
The motivation behind sensationalism is not only grabbing and expanding an audience, it is also feeding the culture of fear. This culture of fear creates a pretext for military police violence, for the racist devaluation of black lives, and consequently for the genocide of black people in poor communities. The “excess contingent” that does not benefit the capitalist system can be exterminated under the pretext of protecting the supposedly peaceful and non-criminal bourgeois white life.
The unstated and unrecorded reports are the ones from those who are devalued for not benefiting the system. The culture of fear itself has great pro-system power, it institutionalizes social control, street dynamics, product sales, and urban development. Most parts of Salvador seem to have been built for cars since many people are afraid to walk the streets. Shopping Malls, fashion, security, and segregation are profitable industries that rely on fear, they were created to benefit the bourgeoisie, and they symbolize the rebranding of apartheid.
Why do white people hide in fear and fail to rupture with this system, while others are mass murdered? White innocence is not really naive, it’s deliberate. Because in this deliberate innocence we can preserve our advantage while at the same time not be considered a racist. Which is an extremely cruel thing to do, because we destroy with one hand what we build with the other.
It hurts to recognize the violence to which we are accessories, but it hurts more for the foremost recipients of this violence. We have to see the problem clearly in order to begin solving it, and those who seek genocide as a solution to the failure of capitalism will undoubtedly be our enemies.
Considering that the Brazilian government deploys military forces to attack its own people, the so-called Nation this war aims to protect is not only white but also male. Women in particular are afraid to walk alone on the streets after sunset. Women are even afraid to drive their cars alone. They disguise themselves as men with caps, the wealthier women hire male drivers, and many just don’t go out at all. Needing men to protect women from other men is not a solution to patriarchal violence, it’s a perpetuation of it.
Trans women are not even safe at hospitals (TW: transphobic violence), much less on the streets. Even though there has been steady growth of empowering media representation, and a strong protective community, Brazil has had horrific records of transphobic violence.
Whenever a black child is murdered by the military police, they leave mothers and other family members completely devastated and hopeless. Their endless pain is exacerbated by the impunity, and by the continuous presence of the police in their communities and around other black children.
State terrorism affects all women; white, black, trans, rich or poor, though some more than others. I believe that acknowledging the urgency of this problem and coming together to solve it will finally lead to changes in this world. Coming together means listening to the voices of the silenced, not enabling oppression whenever you can with small daily acts of resistance, denouncing the army, opposing borders, and not waiting for ready-made solutions. It’s best to devise your own strategies which are most effective in your own context, because if you want a boss telling you what you need to do then maybe this is the moment to reevaluate what anarchy means to you. In the words of Tina Fey in Bossypants:
“When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.”
PS: Brazil is not the only country being lead by genocidal white men right now, so I hope you don’t finish this article feeling sorry for a ‘developing nation’. We are all connected and we are all responsible
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published in Portuguese in the first edition of the Salvador based anarchist magazine Enemy of the Queen.
Mirna is an intersectional feminist and decolonial activist from Brazil currently investigating Indigenous heritage. She publishes zines (Something Printed for Reading), and organizes educational events (DIY Workshop).
Mirna is our new co-editor, and we rely on reader donations to pay her and our writers. If our work inspires you, could you please consider helping us continue? Thanks, and resist beautifully!
We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction.
This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?
A manifesto from Rhyd Wildermuth
“Welcome to the modern world. It’s just like the old world, except it doesn’t work.”
My friend and I were both hungry; me perhaps a bit more so since I’d been traveling all day, hadn’t eaten that morning and it was now mid-evening.
“I’ll take you to dinner,” I told him. “Somewhere close–maybe pizza.”
“Okay,” he answered, and then started looking at his phone. “This place has really good reviews. Just need to take two trains.”
I was really hungry. “How long will that take?” I asked.
“45 minutes, maybe an hour.”
I shook my head. “Seems far and will cost a lot to get there. Isn’t there a place nearby?”
It was his turn to shake his head. “None with good reviews.”
“I don’t care,” I answered, probably a bit too curtly. The hunger was irritating me greatly. “Let’s just walk to one of them.”
So we did, set out into the cold city night, finally coming to an Italian restaurant. I looked at the menu, the prices were decent. “Perfect,” I said, turning to him.
“I can’t find any reviews on Trip Advisor though,” he answered. “But there’s one about a mile from here with a lot of reviews…”
Exhausted and frustrated, I snapped back: “Food’s food. I’m buying anyway…let’s go in.”
“But it might not be good,” he replied, until suddenly seeing something on his phone that made him excited. “Nevermind, I found it. Good reviews, we can go in.”
I’ve thought about this interaction very often since it happened a few months ago. My friend isn’t stupid; in fact, he’s very intelligent, and his magical insights into the world are often quite profound. Nor is he hardly alone in succumbing to the peculiar sort of paralysis of inaction I’ve recounted here. In fact, I suffer from it often too, as no doubt you likely do.
The desire to know if something is good before you try it, to want certainty about the uncertain–that’s hardly a new thing. But what is new, deeply radically new, is our reliance on social media (and the corporations which run them) and technological devices to give us that certainty, to tell us it’s going to be okay, to remove the risk that an action might not result in the absolute best conditions.
As with a night out at a restaurant or a date with a person met online, so too with any of the actions we might take towards revolution. We look to Tumblr and Twitter to gauge the sentiment of others, to divine if our groups and theories and plans are popular enough, have all the required sign-off’s from every possible identity focus-group, and nod sagely when told ‘that won’t work’ by whichever correctly-branded social justice personality happened to come through our feed that particular minute.
We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction. This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?
Those Satanic Mills
If you feel this way of critiquing technology seems bizarre, anti-modern, ‘primitive,’ or appears to ignore all the ‘good’ that technology has done, you might be tempted to describe all this as ‘luddite.’ And you’d be correct, and not in the ways most moderns have come to understand what the Luddites fought for.
The Luddites have always fascinated me. Men and women, sometimes cross-dressing, stealing into oppressive factories in the middle of the night to smash looms to stop production: that’s quite hardcore, regardless of why they did it. Besides the awesome acts of industrial sabotage, however, two other aspects of what the followers of King (or Ned, or Captain) Ludd did two hundred years ago are extremely relevant to us now.
The first aspect is their anarcho-paganism. They all claimed to follow a ghostly captain or leader who urged them on their night-time strikes against the industrialists. The stories they told about exactly who He was varied just as often as their actions: Ludd lived under a hill, or in a well, or under a church, all three places not ironically located “somewhere” in Sherwood forest, where Robin of Locksley and his fellow rogues were said to hide. Ludd was a spirit, a king, or a general (“No General But Ludd/Means The Poor Any Good” went one of their chants), or just a captain amongst them, or even the ghost of a man named Ned Ludd (killed after sabotaging a factory, goes the stories). Like other similar groups such as the Whiteboys and Molly Maguires and Rebeccas, the Luddites invoked the mythic against capitalists and the State to great effect, at least while their resistance lasted.
And that brings me to the third aspect of the Luddite resistance, the part which I find most haunting as another year on this earth passes for me (I’m 41 today, it seems). To explain this aspect, though, we need to step back a bit and look not just at the Luddites themselves but at the era in which they fought and the strange (and eerily familiar) historical circumstances which created the world around them.
If industrial capitalism has a specific birthdate and birthplace, it was 1769 in Derbyshire, England. It was in that year and in that place the very first modern factory was built by Richard Arkwright. The sound of the factory was compared to “the devil’s bagpipes,” a fact memorialized in this poem by Lorna Smithers:
When Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.
You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.
Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth…
It took forty years for Arkwright’s new terror, “those Satanic mills” as William Blake called them in 1804, to finally spark the resistance movement known as the Luddites. In that space of time, Arkwright’s first mill multiplied into 2400 similar factories spread throughout England (mostly in the major cities), an average of 60 a year.
So, in two generations, Britain had gone from a place where there was no such thing as a factory to a place where there were several thousands. In four decades, an entire society which had started out knowing nothing about industrialization appeared to become irrevocably industrialised, and it was at that point the Luddites struck.
But why then? Why not before? And why fight what appeared to be inevitable?
Against the Modern World
We must first ignore the modern interpretation of what a Luddite is. They weren’t ‘anti-technology’ or slow-to-adapt old people hopelessly left behind in a new world. Nor where they only concerned with fighting for better wages for weavers (who, before the factories, were able to support themselves and large families on the income from their specialized trade).
They were people close to my age and somewhat younger, the oldest people alive in Britain who could still remember the old world before factories, but still also young enough to actually work in them. They were a generation that stood on a threshold between the pre-industrial world and the new industrial capitalist order.
Imagine if you will what it must have been like to see your parents and the older people in your villages, towns, and cities starving because they could not or would not adapt to this brave new world. Many of them were too old, feeble, or weak-sighted to work in the factories, and anyway the factory owners preferred children as young as five to do much of the nimble work (and they couldn’t fight back). So while you see the older generation starving and destitute, you also see your own children or younger siblings coming home from the mills with broken fingers, strange bruises, and unmentionable wounds from their 14-hour day crawling under machinery to tie broken threads or retrieve loose bobbins.
And then there’s you, you and others your age, still young enough to work in many of the mills yet old enough to remember when the world wasn’t like this at all.
Now, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world before factories, even as in many modern liberal democratic countries very few of us have actually stepped foot in one. That’s not because they aren’t around anymore: they’ve moved mostly to Asia and Africa, where exhausted workers are crammed up like cattle in a slaughterhouse to make the phone and laptops you’re probably reading this on (as well as the clothes you’re wearing, possibly the chair you’re sitting on, and most of the stuff inside the home where you lay your head at night) for little or no wages.
And it is almost impossible to imagine what society was like before the factory. What was it like to only wear clothes made by yourself or people who lived nearby? What was life like before the cities swelled with displaced peasants blinking in the light of dawn before the gates of textile and steel mills, hungry and exhausted but jostling each other in line for a job that day to feed their family? What did the streets and town squares look like at night before everyone had to wake up at dawn to go to work? How did we relate to each other before wages became the only way to survive? And what did society look like before mass-production, when no one ever wore the same thing, when ‘pre-packaged experiences,’ monoculture, and conformity were literally impossible?
It is almost impossible to imagine the world before factories.
Almost, but not completely.
Because we are living in a similar world to what the Luddites experienced.
“All that is sacred is profaned…”*
(* from The Communist Manifesto)
If you can pinpoint any places in western history where technology severely altered the way human society functioned, I suspect there are three. The most obvious one is the industrial revolution, which was also the birth of capitalism. The one before that changed the world as well (but much more slowly) was the invention of the printing press, which gave to early merchants and the bourgeoisie the power to disseminate literature outside the strictures of religious and royal decree. And while we tend to see that invention as a net gain for humanity, we must remember that mass-printing and distribution has always been primarily in the hands of the rich, with the rest of us merely passive consumers.
The third–well, that’s the era we’re in now, the computer/internet ‘revolution.’
The first ‘node-to-node’ digital communication happened in 1969, 200 years after from the birth of Richard Arkwright’s steam-powered looming frame. But being military technology, it took more than a decade for that technology to filter out to non-military capitalists and become the ‘World Wide Web.’ In the following decades, we’ve gone from a world where random (“risky”) human interactions occurred only in public spaces to one where most such interactions now occur ‘online.’ Here’s some other stuff that has changed:
30 years ago, there were no smartphones or texting; in 2015, 98% of all Americans 18-29 years old had a cellphone.
17 years ago there was no Wikipedia, 14 years ago there was no such thing as Facebook, 12 years ago no Twitter, 11 years ago no Tumblr, and 7 years ago no Instagram.
In 1984 only 8% of US homes had a computer of any sort; in 2010, 77% did.
These are all merely statistics about technological saturation; they tell us only as much as the figures about factories in England between 1769 and 1810 told us. But we don’t need to dig very far to understand that this technological change has radically altered what it means to be a human in a capitalist society.
For instance: before cellphones, you could only be reached at home. That meant if you needed to wait for a call you had to stay by the phone, but it also meant that your life was less likely to revolve around the ability of someone to get a hold of you immediately. There was no expectation that your attention could be gotten at any hour of the day because such a thing was impossible.
Before texting and email there were letters. You had to take the time to decide what you were going to say to someone, write it out on paper, post it in the mail, and then wait some amount of time for a reply. Thus human interactions were slower and more ponderous and most of all more intentional. Even the angriest of letters wouldn’t arrive until the next day at the earliest, and this slowness meant there was always at least a little time to rethink your immediate fury, unlike now with our instantaneous ‘send’ buttons.
Social media, however, probably represents the largest shift in how we relate to each other and also how we see ourselves. To have large groups of friends you had to do stuff for them, and with them, call them on weekends or send them letters, catch up with them for coffee or go to their parties or invite them for dinner, take vacations to see them or host them in your home. Now you need only post an update and read theirs to feel you’ve performed acts of friendship.
Accompanying that shift has been an increasing feeling of isolation and alienation. So many people now self-diagnose with introversion (as with trauma, or social anxiety, or many other ailments) that one wonders how humans ever managed to talk to each other before the internet.
The general response to this apparent increase in alienation is to state it has always been there, that being connected to each other more via the internet has helped us talk about it more, and that anyway we are #Blessed the internet came around to let us all be social despite our fear and misanthropy.
But in this case particularly, those of us who stand on the same threshold of change that the Luddites also stood upon cannot help but remember–we all did fine without social media. Better, even. We got over our shyness and anxiety because we had to, and the internet appears to have merely enabled us to not get over such things, to not address our social anxiety and fear of rejection and instead hide safely behind a screen.
Before the internet, binge-watching television (“Netflix and chill”) or staring at a screen for hours a day was a sign you’d given up on yourself and the world around you, were depressed and really just needed a friendly face or to go for a walk. They were symptoms of serious depression, indications that some large issue in your life has been unaddressed for too long and the things to ‘get you through’ had become addictions which prevented you from seeking help.
Now those things are all proud marks of ‘self-care’ enabled by technology without which we’d all surely be miserable, lonely humans. Nevermind that we are still miserable, lonely humans, and probably more so now.
Less controversial but even more unaddressed is what this new ‘technological revolution’ has done to our ability to survive, to earn enough money to eat and pay rent. The much-vaunted and ridiculous ‘internet of things’ has made it so we rarely get to ‘own’ the things we pay capitalists for, and must re-sell parts of ourselves constantly in order to compensate for dwindling wages and no savings. This is the curse of the ‘millenial’ (a marketing term that, like so much else, somehow became a ‘fact’ in capitalist society)–to have no steady income but to have thousands of Instagram followers in the hopes of one day having enough to be an ‘influencer’. To face insurmountable college debt and no way to secure housing but to get thousands of retweets on Twitter.
It is not just the fate of millenials. I’ve had two posts shared over 100,000 times and one seen by 1.5 million people. And yet I haven’t been able to afford eating more than twice a day in years, and have been nomadic for the last five years because 1.5 million views doesn’t pay rent.
The answer to the poverty experienced by more and more people (again–not just millenials) is to ‘monetize’ your life. Or as put in a rather brilliant essay about nomads like myself at It’s Going Down (“Living In A Van Down By The Instagram”):
The point here is not to whine about how we all can’t be special snowflakes or social media super-stars; the point is to state that capital is colonizing all aspects of our lives, including online worlds, and attempting to make us in turn generate profit, content, and value during all waking moments, either online or off. And, there’s no better backdrop to do this than when we are constantly traveling, as we in turn are utilizing and activating our social networks for the sake of monetizing them. Thus, we are pushed to take photos and tag corporations in the hopes that maybe one day we could get $50 for a sponsored post. To fundamentally turn ourselves, and our lives, into brands.
As was pointed out in the new book, Now, by the Invisible Committee, this has become both the economic baseline as well as central anxiety of our time. We aren’t just driving somewhere and enjoying a podcast or randomly picking up a hitch hiker, we are instead missing out on an opportunity to sell our labor power for Uber or Lyft. We aren’t taking photos to share with loved ones, we are building up our brand and trying to gain followers, which we will then sell to multinational corporations. This is the logic of the gig economy applied to all aspects of our lives, at all times, and in all scenarios.
To monetize yourself, though, requires you make yourself more sell-able, becoming a brand, a product, constantly adapting to market demands. Or as Badean wrote in “Identity In Crisis:”, in the Journal of Queer Nihilism:
“The collapse of traditional subject positions is managed through the proliferation of a new positions: app designers, graphic designers, cyber sex workers, queer theorists, feminist publishers, social network engineers, trend hunters, eBay sellers, social justice activists, performance artists, porn directors, spammers, party promoters, award winning baristas.
We are forced to continually define ourselves, to enact countless operations upon ourselves so as to produce ourselves anew each day as someone worth taking to market — our basic survival depends on the ceaseless deployment of increasingly discreet technologies of the self.
Everything is for sale: our sex appeal, our fetishes, our tattoos, our radicalism, our fashion sense, our queerness, our androgyny, our fitness, our fluidity, our abnormality, our sociability. Facebook and Twitter function as the new resume.
We are caught in the unending necessity to be continually educating, training, exploring, perfecting, and fine-tuning ourselves. Our continual self-invention is both economic imperative and economic engine.”
No doubt this seems dire enough, but one more dark truth emerges from this constant race. Because if we are constructing our identities in order to become more sale-able to people (be that for money or Facebook likes or even just to be noticed in this new hyper-gendered micro-radical hierarchy of new identities), how do we even know who we are anymore?
To be honest, I don’t always know. I am a radical queer anarchist pagan nomad punk fag brother boyfriend theorist bard druid, but none of that actually tells me what I am, only the hashtags people might use to define me on a social media post. Labels that once gave meaning now become indelible brandings. Try to shift any of those identities and the world (or the social media world, anyway) pushes back…hard. And just as often, those labels themselves are fiercely contested: I cannot count how many times I’ve been told I’m too ‘masculine-presenting’ to be allowed to use the term queer.
So who am I? Who gets to decide? And why are we using capitalist tools to mediate those discussions in the first place? Or is it possible it’s those very tools which have triggered these crises in the first place?
Not All Revolutions Are Good
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
(The Communist Manifesto)
The shift wrought by internet technology wherein identity is now the very battlefield of our ability to survive in the world may seem utterly different from any other struggle which has come before. In context of the struggle the Luddites and the early communists and anarchists fought, however, not much has really changed.
The rise of industrial capitalism triggered vast shifts in social relations which are to this day still being constantly disrupted. It should thus be no surprise to us that ‘disruptive technology’ is a statement of pride for many of the new architects of this current upheaval, an upheaval in which we also take part when we celebrate the destruction of older forms of relating (binary gender, hetero-normative society, class-based politics). What ‘good’ comes from these disruptions unfortunately seems fleeting and probably is. Because while it is a beautiful thing that acceptance of gender variance and queer sexuality have become so prominent, it’s a sick joke to say a poor queer or trans person desperately trying to pay rent by sleeping on a friend’s couch while letting out their bedroom on AirBnb, turning tricks on TaskRabbit or bareback hookup apps, and desperately looking for the perfect filter to get their Instagram account another 100 followers has somehow had their life ‘improved’ by these disruptions.
Yet, to this current horror in which we all find ourselves, perhaps the Luddites might shrug and say, “at least you didn’t have time forced upon you.” Because along with ‘disruption’ of the factory from hand-craft and laborer to factory and wage-slave came the beginning of an oppressive order of time.
Clocks became no longer curiosities but requirements. Suddenly, knowing if it was half-past eight or just ‘morning’ became the crucial difference between feeding your family for a day or starving on the street. Time literally had to be disciplined into us during the birth of industrialization, often times by christian moralists like John Wesley working on behalf of the factory owners. Time became something that you “spent” rather than something that passed, work became measured not by what needed doing according to the season but what the factory boss demanded you do within a set number of hours.
Before industrialization, work was task-oriented. You planted at some times of the year, harvested at others, ground wheat and fixed carts, wove cloth and made clothes not when an arbitrary number declared it was ‘time’ to do so but when the thing itself needed doing. And work itself was determined by how long you wanted to take doing the task, not how many hours the boss said you needed to stand at a counter or else be fired.
When attempting to imagine what that world was like (not very long ago), we tend to imagine it for ourselves, what our own life might have been like. Harder to imagine, however, is what all of society itself was like without clocks as over-seers. Imagine then what life would be like if not just you but all your friends and all the people in your town lived life without clocks, and you get a little closer to understanding precisely what the Luddites were fighting for.
A New Luddite Rebellion
It was against such radical, world-altering shifts that the Luddites broke into factories at night, smashing looms. One imagines they wanted their time back, they wanted their children and parents back, wanted the ability to survive without working in factories back. They wanted back the rich texture of a society where you knew the people who made your clothes, talked to the people who grew your food, or were those people themselves.
We are living in another such time. People older than me lived most of their childhoods without the internet and do not (or cannot) adapt to a world where everything about them is on display, sold piecemeal through Facebook updates and Instagram photos.
Those much younger than me do not know a world without cellphones, do not remember that it was possible to make new friends and meet amazing lovers without connecting first to an always-on device in your pocket. How many of them know you can arrive by train to a foreign city with just a paper map and a notebook and have the best trip of your life? How many will ever get a chance to experience what it was like to not just survive but actually have a pretty decent life in a city on less than full-time, barely-above minimum wage as I did in Seattle 15 years ago? And most of all, how many of them will ever know that risk and uncertainty is not something to be avoided at all costs but very often the thing which makes life worth living in the first place?
I barely remember what that was like.
I also barely remember what it was like to be anonymous, to have hours and hours of free time without devices I felt like I needed always to be looking at, constantly notifying me that emails and texts and retweets and messages are coming in. To have long conversations with strangers while waiting for a bus, to make new friends on the walk to work or find an awesome lover by chance while whiling away the day at a cafe. And most of all, I barely remember what it was like to know who I am without labels–to not need to call myself anything but my name, and have that be enough.
I want that all back. If you are close in age to me, you probably do to. If you are younger than me and don’t know what that was like, perhaps my telling of it is enough to entice you to want it also, and if you are older than me you might be shaking your head, having already mourned what’s been lost.
More than anything, we need this all back. Not just our time (consumed constantly by always-on devices and relentless updates). Not just our Selves (boxed in, categorized, labeled and shelved by any number of ‘identities.’). Not just our ability to pay rent and eat and still have enough money left over to enjoy the ever-dwindling number of months and days we have on this earth. Not just all that, but we need our will back, our reckless desire to act in the face of risk and uncertainty, the chaotic and unscripted interactions between ourselves and the world which make our lives not just exciting, but mythic.
And therein’s the key to the ritual invocation we must perform to take back what we’ve watched slowly sold off of our lives with each new screech of the devil’s bagpipes. There are spirits, gods, and ancestors who keep the memory of the old worlds even as we forget. Ludd was one, and though his followers failed to stop the horror born of the factories in England, some of us still remember their attempt. Be it Ludd or the Raven King, Brighid or Dionysos, or perhaps all the old gods and heroes summoned together, we can make another go at stopping this new horror waking upon the world. From the shattered remains of the past we can reconstruct a new resistance against this increasingly senseless drive towards self-as-product.
And if we fail, we will no doubt be smeared by many for being ‘anti-modern’ just as the Luddites were, dismissed and forgotten by many others, but definitely remembered by some, just as the Luddites are still remembered now.
We may indeed fail. The risks are very, very great, and there’s no Trip Advisor listing to assure us that there will be good food and pleasant ambiance after our uprising. Perhaps our failures will be re-tweeted across the world, Facebook Live videos streaming our defeat to countless millions using greasy thumbs to scroll through the comments. We’ll lose Instagram followers and potential Influencer sponsorships while the rich and powerful of the world destroy more forests, gun down more poor people, and start more wars.
We probably won’t win. But I’m gonna try anyway, because I want my life back.
And maybe you do, too.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
“The rule in business is, if it is generating revenue, don’t fuck with it.”
“What’s new in California?” you might be asking yourself. I wouldn’t blame you for missing this story, it ranks right up there with hornless unicorns on the “shit no decent or halfway intelligent human should care about” list. Let me explain some.
Did you know that California is “ungovernable”? Did you know that the middle class is leaving the state in record numbers? Did you know that the state is on a road to hell and jail? No wait, that’s me as a teen. Anyway, an individual named Robert Paul Preston (RPP) is looking to separate out the “good” parts of California, from the rest of it, i.e. “the hippy liberal illegal immigrant loving pot smoking parts.” Supposedly, according to RPP’s white paper on the creation of a new state, the largest problems that come from the state “being ungovernable” are:
“a decline in essential basic services such as education, law enforcement, fire protection, transportation, housing, health care, taxation, voter rights, banking, state pension systems, prisons, state parks, water resource management, home ownership, infrastructure and many more.”1
Wow, that all sounds really bad, I had no idea my state was in such bad shape; because it isn’t.
Should I address the half-baked lies or the half baked pastry man telling them first? You know what? This is so awesome, because I don’t actually have to do any work to address the half-baked lies. They are a common collection of the Right’s constant liturgy of disapproval, and therefore, this work has already been done.
Thanks go out to Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, for his article, “California Is Doing Fine, Thank You Very Much.” In the article Kevin Drum addresses a lot of what RPP is claiming in his white paper, so I’m going to steal/cite highlights from his work and then move on to the slightly more interesting train wreck that is RPP, shining example of the Right in California. You might, if you have the time, also read California is Working: The Effects of California’s Public Policy on Jobs and the Economy Since 2011 written by Ian Perry and published by the UC Berkeley Labor Center. (But watch out! He worked on the Affordable Care Act, he might be one of those Nazi Commie Muslims!)
Now before I start going over the all the work someone else did for me, I just really need to point out that the white paper for New California, claims both that there is a general decline in basic services, but also, in the same paragraph, claims that California is #23 in the nation based on an aggregate score measuring economy, infrastructure, education, crime and all that crap. So it is an ungovernable nation, with a troubling decline in basic services (necessitating a completely new state to be made), that is better than more than half of U.S. states in those areas?
Yes, according to RPP, that is indeed the case; this is a level of cognitive dissonance so common for his everyday consciousness that he literally put that on paper unironically. Please keep this in mind as we continue forward.
“There’s a whole cottage industry on the right dedicated to the proposition that California is a hellhole. Why? Because California is the most liberal state in the nation, and the existence of a high-tax, high-service state that nonetheless has a great economy is an affront to their principles.”2
And that’s pretty much it. Kevin Drum’s article, which I implore you to read, Californian or not, is a debunking of the basic myths propagated by the Right. Within that context of propaganda vs. data, both matters of public record, is where RPP comes in.
He’s a talk show host that has a radio show. That show is about the U.N.’s secret agenda, Agenda 23, or something like that, and that the agenda is to destroy Capitalism and redistribute wealth and by the gods, bodhisattvas, and buddhas, why am I writing about this? Because it is literally from his “About” page.
So the U.N. is actually controlled by, …Islamic Communist Nazis? Hey! Pay attention! This is, important news. So the Islamic Nazi Communists are planning, or have been since 1992, to use environmentalism to steal your rights, redistribute wealth, and destroy Capitalism.
And I got to tell you, he fuckin’ nailed us. He’s got us cold. He (like us) understands that Capitalism and the environment can not, and have not, coexisted. The unchecked rapine of Capitalism has despoiled the Earth and is slowly making it a desert. He (unlike us) champions the continued rapine of the environment for the sake of American values. Which I have to assume, because Capitalism is the all important thing here apparently, American values are Capitalism.
He (also like us) is hip to the reality that there is no such thing as American values outside of the values of Capitalism. The two map to each other, one to one. That puts the environmentalist at square odds with the Capitalist. Or it should. I guess. Who knows what “environmentalists” get up to. I assumed doing the same things as people do. I never realized that caring about having clean air and plants and animals and shit like that made you a Nazi, or a Muslim, or a Communist.
All Communist Muslim Nazis aside, this is why I like my state so much. Stuff like this and the nice 80’s retro sunsets make the constant fire and drought worth it.
So anyway the goal is to redistribute wealth to the rest of the world and enslave Americans. So his greatest fear is that he’ll be made to answer for the crimes of his ancestors. I can empathize. When I found out my families DNA definitely filtered through Kentucky, and then later found out from my cousin that apparently all of us are descended from Daniel Boone, I did take pause for thought. But I do not believe in blood debts (yes I know, very brave of the white guy to take a stand on this), and instead call for the immediate dismantling of all remaining remnants of the dirty deed we call making America that continue the legacy of that string of crimes, and instead have a truly egalitarian society.
But this guys greatest fear is the modern day version of Dracula, in that there’s the “fear of reverse colonization.” I mean, yes, I write about corporations being vampires. But my fear is rich people eating the poor. His fear is the poor getting revenge. Totally different.
Also there is the fear of depopulation, to the tune I imagine of the depopulation of the Americas by diseases brought by Europeans. And actually, the humans that were here first were doing plenty with it. It just looked empty because they had suffered a biological apocalypse. And all that before Europeans actually even got started. So the U.N. is also trying to depopulate the Earth. I guess, because that’s easier, to force everyone to be, an, um, …Communist Nazi Muslim. Nailed it. Three by three, the spells complete.
No, for him it’s all about property rights, apparently. He mentions it on his “about” page. The whole thing seems like a diatribe against something personal that happened to him. Like his HOA voted on something they saw in a U.N. info pamphlet and that set him off on his mission to save the nation and the great state of California. “Why?” you might ask. Because he’s one of the idiots that lives in it–that’s why. But seriously I bet it’s property rights. I mean don’t get me wrong, I hate work, and that set me off on the adventure I call life. So I can’t fault him for being passionate. An asshole and an idiot, yes, but never the passion.
So the real story here is that the Right, or as I know them, the open and unashamed Capitalists, has been on a slander and libel campaign against the state for decades. Presumably because its existence proves them wrong. That the world doesn’t make any sense, that we’re all just making this up as we go along, and the best thing we can do for each other is help each other.
They hate it when that happens. They want you to believe that the world makes sense, that no one made anything up, and that the only thing left to do is step on one another. I assume to keep yourself out of the grave one minute longer. That’s how it feels to me, and I’m the same white guy in California that doesn’t believe in blood debts. But the Goddess Eris decreed that order and disorder, creation and destruction, are the watch towers of the universe. To arise in the universe is to be subject to these furies. But not the Erinyes and Demeter, another four furies.
So you die. And mindstate capture and reimbodiment is still only found in my favorite space opera series, so I die too. Everyone dies! So the moral question is, am I going to step on people, or hold them up (sometimes by leaning on them; are you holding me up, or am I holding you up?). Most people, because the trait that led to human ascendancy and the beginning of the Holocene epoch is our pro-social behavior, try to hold each other up.
The Capitalist claims to hold people up by serving them with the highest efficiency. An unsophisticated machine answer from an unsophisticated machine consciousness.
RPP, this is the man spearheading the “movement.” This month, anyway. He isn’t the first to suggest this, or something like this. I’m interested to see how far he gets with this. I guess it all hinges in how many of his listeners think it’s a great idea to form cells, I mean, county committees. It really hinges on whether or not the Archons are just going to be cool with some dude fucking with their cash cow. The rule in business is, if it is generating revenue, don’t fuck with it. That isn’t the official rule, modern businesses stress innovation and LEAN thinking. But it is don’t fuck with it.
If he’s lucky, this will come to nothing. Then Californians can get back to fighting the Nazis here.
A Discordian for 20 years, Patacelsus finally got comfortable when the 21st century “started getting weird.” When not casting sigils, taking part in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, or studying the unfortunate but sometimes amusing stories of the dead, he’s been known to wander the hidden ways of the city, communing with all of the hidden spirits one can find in a city. As Patacelsus sees it, we’re all already free; after completing the arduous task of waking up to that we can then proceed, like a doctor treating a patient, to try to rouse others from the bitter and frightening nightmares of Archism. He laughs at Samsara’s shadow-play in lovely California, in the company of his wife, two cats, and two birds.
At first, my friend didn’t realize he was a professional Democrat. When he got a job canvassing for “progressive causes,” he took them at their word: they raised money for nonprofits so they could do community work.
During his last week there, we got coffee during his lunch break. He told me how once a year, they received a list of candidates to fundraise for – not from the NGOs they contracted with, but from the Democratic National Committee. The “DNC push” meant higher quotas and heavier pressure from field managers. Now, most new hires couldn’t take the extra heat. Those who could, though, would have a chance to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming Democratic Party “bundlers” (functionaries responsible for persuading wealthy Democrats to write checks for thousands of dollars). Officially, the canvassing firm was independent. In reality, it was integrated into the Democratic Party, following the Party’s directives and funneling its most promising employees into Party careers.
If you listened to political common sense, you’d get the feeling that the Democrats are hapless, incompetent, and disorganized in the face of Republican discipline. Supposedly, they’re a loose coalition, with little in common besides opposing the GOP.
That’s false. On the ground, the Democrats are a tightly organized party with strong central discipline – much stronger than either their critics or most of their supporters realize. And unless US leftists learn how the Democratic Party actually works, their organizing will continue to fail.
Two concepts undergird this analysis. The first, drawn from Marxist-Leninist theory, is the cadre party. High school civics is wrong. Neither major US party is actually a heterogenous coalition. The tight-knit Leninist vanguard model describes them much more usefully.
The second concept here is the social and political base. Now, journalists often say “Democratic base” when they mean “Democratic voters.” However, a base is both more specific and more expansive than that. It isn’t simply the individuals who happen to support something. A base is a durable, organized community, capable of directing itself in a coordinated way. It’s brought into being by the set of social institutions whose day-to-day activities structure their constituents’ collective life.
What Is a Cadre Party?
According to Leninism, working-class revolution doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires years of careful preparation, carried out by revolutionary leadership – dedicated Marxists who organize political struggles, spread revolutionary ideas, and (above all) establish a disciplined and militant organization capable of fighting and defeating the capitalist government.
That organization is the cadre, or vanguard, party. This party pursues the long-term interests of the entire working class, agitating for revolution while leading day-to-day struggles. It doesn’t let just anyone join – party members must not only commit substantial time and effort to the party, but also adhere to line discipline, enacting and defending all of the party’s positions (even those they privately disagree with). They become professional revolutionaries (also called cadres), completely dedicated to making revolution. Sometimes, that means literally working for the party full-time.
Now, there’s a contradiction emerging here. On one hand, the party has to inspire the support of as much of the working class as possible. To effectively engage in class struggle, it needs to bring as much of the class into its orbit as it can. But, it restricts membership to those who meet very high standards. So, most of the people it wants to win over aren’t actually eligible to join.
Leninism solves that by creating a second level of organization. The party proper forms a hard core of committed revolutionaries. At the same time, it directs a network of mass organizations (or, less charitably, front groups). While they follow the party’s lead, they have a much lower barrier to entry. So, the party can incorporate a large number of people without watering down its membership requirements.
When Leninist parties have historically been most successful, those mass organizations would lead to something greater than just a pool of supporters. They’d create a base.
In the 1970s, very few people were out as gay. Gay Liberation was a fringe movement, even in places with comparatively large gay communities. However, where gays were concentrated, they began to exercise influence – they sent Harvey Milk to the San Francisco city council, and over the years gay and countercultural values came to define the city’s image. But, San Francisco has always had an overwhelmingly straight majority – how did gay people get their influence?
In the 1800s, Irish immigrants were economically and politically marginal, even in cities with large Irish communities. But, they came to exercise not just electoral power via urban political machines, but also social and cultural clout – Boston has never been majority-Irish, but St. Patrick’s Day and Irish Catholicism have become integral to its identity. How did that happen?
Even in their core areas, each of these groups has always been outnumbered. In the latter two cases, they started out categorically excluded from social and political power. Yet, they all became highly-organized forces, dedicated to pursuing their interests with vigor and discipline. That let them grow powerful.
Each of them became a base. Conservative Christians aren’t simply individuals with private beliefs. They’re constituted into a base by a network of institutions: churches, charities, para-church groups, media outlets, and even businesses (anyone who’s been to the small-town South has seen the Jesus fish on everything from auto parts stores to restaurants). Those institutions then coordinate the community’s overall activities and goals, allowing it to act in a unified way. Because they’re integrated into the day-to-day lives of their participants, to opt out of them is to opt out of the collective life they facilitate. The same analysis holds for San Francisco’s gay bars, bathhouses, publications, and activist organizations, and for Boston’s Irish churches, mutual aid societies, labor unions, and social clubs.
With a coherent infrastructure of institutions, a disjointed population can become an organized and powerful base.
On paper, the Democratic Party is a broad coalition. In practice, it is a cadre party.
It is controlled by professional Democrats – activist NGO managers, politicians’ staffers, “political operatives,” etc. These cadres set the Party’s priorities, oversee its day-to-day work, and keep any potential leftist competition under control. Some of them work for the Democratic Party proper, but most don’t. Officially, their “progressive nonprofit” employers aren’t Democrat-affiliated. Materially, they are the Democratic Party’s front groups. The small, self-selecting core uses them to bring in supporters. It’s not coincidence that the same person grant-writing for Greenpeace one year is working for Emily’s List the next. It’s the same people. They are their Party’s cadre structure, and they keep their front groups in line.
Sure, they align with different internal factions. Their competition is important enough to keep plenty of political reporters employed. But the drama of Bernie vs. Hillary obscures a deeper, more important reality. The faction fights and power struggles never step outside the overarching ideological boundaries of the Democratic “party line.” Sure, Berniecrats want comparatively more social programs, and Hillary supporters comparatively fewer. However, none of them deviates from the Party’s core program:
A capitalist economy with some regulation, but very little state ownership;
Collaboration between the government and businesses for “job creation” and social services provision;
Social liberalism, expressed through moderate affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws, official statements of support for oppressed demographics, and a few changes to police codes of conduct;
An expansive military through which the US enforces its global hegemony;
Nominal support for immigrants’ rights, but without full amnesty or open borders;
Opposition to expanding ballot access for minor parties;
A day-to-day political practice of lobbying, running campaigns for office, and symbolic “expressive protest.”
No member of the Democratic cadre structure would dare deviate from that framework. If they did, they’d risk losing their job; certainly, their career prospects would vanish. Do they always interpret the core program the same way? Of course not. But they do always uphold it.
Why does that matter, though? What, concretely, does their discipline mean? Well, nearly every activist organization in the US is a Democratic front group. After all, even if they didn’t want to be, their commitment to “conventional activism” demands it. When you spend your time waving signs and, perhaps, lobbying officials or supporting candidates, what’s your mechanism for enacting change? The only way you can bridge the gap between protest and power is through the support of Democratic politicians – and you can’t get that support if you won’t align with their Party. And, of course, activist groups don’t typically want to be independent in the first place. After all, their leaders and staffers are Democratic cadres. Their careers will take them across the whole extended Party structure.
The Democratic Party and its fronts don’t just have passive supporters. They’ve grown an entire community and social scene around their institutions. Because of that, they shape the social and cultural fabric of the places where they’re strong, wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers. In other words, the Democratic Party has a base, constituted through its fronts.
That base doesn’t overlap with the activist subculture – it is the activist subculture. There is no distinction. The activist scene exists because the day-to-day activities of the Democratic Party’s fronts bring it into being, providing an anchor for the informal activities and social networks that surround it. To participate in the activist subculture is to join the Democratic Party’s base.
That doesn’t just go for consciously Democratic liberals. Anarchist affinity groups form out of protest-based social scenes; concretely, they need protests in which to operate, and large protests only happen when the Democratic Party uses its fronts to mobilize people. The anarchist scene emerges from the Democratic base and relies on the Democrats’ institutional infrastructure.
Leninist organizations run fronts of their own, attempting to imitate the more successful Democratic ones. However, they also depend on the Democratic base. They draw on the same pool of activists, advocate for the same causes, and usually show up at the same demonstrations. So, they only attract support when they hide their Leninist affiliation and follow the Democrats’ lead – as Refuse Fascism (a Revolutionary Communist Party front) discovered in November, when it called for protests without Democratic support and nobody came.
Of course, occasionally radicals do start an organization with the potential to break away from Democratic control. When that happens, Democratic cadres work very hard (and sometimes very ruthlessly) to co-opt it. Because of its institutional position, the Democratic machine can recuperate nearly anything that emerges from the activist subculture. Just look at the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition. Founded after Trump’s election by an ad hoc left-liberal coalition, GSNAC explicitly took inspiration from the Rojava revolution. Officially, it committed to practicing direct action and mutual aid while abstaining from electoral politics. With that program on offer, GSNAC initially attracted several thousand participants. However, within a few months, a clique of professional Democrats seized control of the organization by undemocratic means. Without consulting other members, they not only began committing to liberal lobbying campaigns in GSNAC’s name, but also unilaterally filed incorporation papers, naming themselves as GSNAC’s officers. Within a couple of months, the overwhelming majority of participants left. They’d been promised something different than conventional activism, but the Democrats made sure GSNAC didn’t deliver that.
The US Left may not realize it, but nearly all of it is part of the Democratic Party’s extended machinery. However, leftists are excluded from the Democratic cadre structure; they can’t actually direct its course. That leaves them with two options: embrace the Democratic line, or marginalize themselves.
Do you support leftist politics? Leave the activist subculture.
The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.
The Left shouldn’t take part in conventional activism. But what should it do?
Well, what does the Left want? Strategy follows goals; tactics follow strategy. For revolutionaries, the goal is to literally overthrow the government. Revolution means replacing the existing political and economic system with a better one, based on the mass cooperative control of economic, cultural, and political life. The working class carries out all the activities that sustain human life and society. However, it’s excluded from power and subjected to oppression by the capitalist class of business owners and investors. So, it has the ability to carry out a revolution – the capitalists need it, but it doesn’t need them. Further, because of its position of exploitation, it stands to benefit from the abolition of class distinctions.
But how, exactly, can it go about that? If revolution isn’t on the menu yet, what’s the path from here to there? Well, the working-class must become a well-organized social force – so well organized that it can exercise power and assert its interests, even when the the ruling class uses violence to try to stop it. So, carrying out a revolution means first developing an institutional infrastructure capable of directly combatting the capitalist state. In communist lingo, a structure like that competing with the government is called “dual power.”
Now, obviously, a dual power situation can’t be willed into being overnight. Its constituent institutions must be built, piece by piece, however long that takes. Since the process of doing so means organizing the entire working class to act for itself in a coherent way, the working class must become a base. So, the “dual power strategy” for revolution is fairly straightforward: you develop autonomous institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid, through a process of base-building. Eventually, you reach a “critical mass” and can challenge the government directly.
When leftists engage in conventional activism, they pre-empt their ability to do that. Do you go to protests and wave signs? You’re competing with the Democratic Party on its home territory. You’re going to the Democratic base and telling it to stop being pro-Democrat. But it can’t stop. It only exists in the first place through the Democratic Party’s fronts. You have to go somewhere else and build a revolutionary base, instead.
Now, base-building is slow. It’s a grind. It’s not sexy and it’s rarely cathartic. You don’t get the high of being one of thousands of people in a big demonstration, chanting and raising energy. You don’t get the quick gratification of networking with established activists and feeling like you’re part of an “authentic social movement.” Instead, you spend your time serving the people: creating constituencies by creating institutions and knitting them together, struggle by struggle, project by project.
The dual power strategy is not for the impatient. This work is too important to rush. There are no shortcuts. The activist subculture may look like one. And sure, taking over a ready-made base looks appealing, next to the difficulty of creating your own. However, it’s a pipe dream. The Democratic base can’t be separated from its Party. It only exists through that Party’s institutions.
Now, the human cost of capitalism grows every day. And thanks to climate change, there’s an ecological clock ticking. Slow and patient, on the face of it, hardly feels appropriate. The need for change is urgent; can we afford such a protracted approach? The dual power strategy is an uphill fight, sure, but at this point it’s the only possible shot. There’s no more time to waste on dead ends.
“we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. The implications are inconceivable and beyond words, and calls for global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the “world community”. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources to combat three main crises: global warming, habitat loss, and accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected.”
From William Hawes
“Forty percent of the United States drains into the Mississippi. It’s agriculture. It’s golf courses. It’s domestic runoff from our lawns and roads. Ultimately, where does it go? Downstream into the Gulf.”
Our civilization is headed for a downfall, to be sure, in part due to the massive gulf between our hopes for the future and the omnipresent inertia regarding social change in mainstream politics, though a more apt analogy for our society might be circling the drain. The dark, shadow side of our industrial farming practices in the US has resulted in the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately the size of New Jersey and growing every year. Caused by excess nitrates, phosphates, and various chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides draining from farmland into the Mississippi river basin, toxic algal blooms kill millions of fish, shrimp, shellfish, and, almost certainly, thousands of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico every year. There are hundreds of these dead zones around the world’s oceans, caused by agribusiness and sewage runoff from the world’s largest cities. There are also garbage patches in the Pacific (actually diffuse swathes of ocean littered mainly by microplastics) comparable to the size of Mexico.
Meanwhile on land, we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. The implications are inconceivable and beyond words, and calls for global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the “world community”. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources (a Global Marshall plan, which will need trillions of dollars of aid redistributed to the developing nations over decades) to combat three main crises: global warming, habitat loss, and accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected.
All of this ecological destruction has been driven by America’s most popular exports: capitalism and imperialism. Eight individuals have as much wealth as 3.5 billion, with approximately 20 million worldwide at risk of starvation. This is not simply unfair: it is an immoral and indefensible state of affairs. It must be acknowledged by the general public that capitalism, buttressed by the propaganda of “liberal democracy” in the West, uses moral relativism as its framework. The externalities of a pillaged, ravaged planet, billions in poverty, and diminished resource base are not taken into account by mainstream economics. If rare earth minerals and metals were properly accounted for, a car would likely cost six figures, and a computer five figures. This would be an unobtainable and untenable situation for the average middle-class American, as only the rich could afford such luxuries, and thus, the majoritarian tyranny of our narcissistic and ahistorical culture continues.
There are half-baked refutations which reactionaries trot out to defend US hegemony, but do not carry much weight: other nations besides the US are consumerists and warlike as well, the socialist nations of the Eastern bloc had horrendous environmental records, China and Russia are also imperialistic and environmentally deranged, etc.
All of these arguments have grains of truth, but they elide the greater picture: America drives the global economy and holds it hostage at the same time, continually punishing vassals who defy it and using the World Bank and IMF as economic vampires, sucking continents dry through crushing debts, privatizations, austerity measures, as well as using diplomatic blackmail, covert espionage, and proxy death squads. Three of the most illuminating works in this realm are Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Michel Chossudovsky’s The Globalization of Poverty, and John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman.
Examples from Political Philosophy
Thus the US certainly stands out as an “exceptional” nation, pillaging the Earth and forcing other countries to do so, so as to forestall economic depression and stave off extreme poverty in the developing nation-states which must compete or die. Concomitant with this Western-led death-impulse is Agamben’s “state of exception”, where the citizen has been stripped of all notions of rights and justice in a permanent state of emergency. Under the Patriot Act and NDAA, any notion of due process has been shredded for US citizens, and of course the situation is beyond mad when considering the psychopathic torture carried out at Bagram AFB outside Kabul, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the globe-spanning “rendition archipelago” which has to be assumed is still ongoing, despite Obama’s past-tense use of the phrase “we tortured some folks”, spoken back in 2014.
If the culmination of the totalitarian impulse is the gulag or concentration camp, the infernal apotheosis of education in the United States would have to be the School of the Americas, the US Army base in Georgia which was and still remains the paragon of higher learning for torturers, right-wing death squads, fascists juntas, and drug traffickers looking to make a mark in Latin America. The US exports death-education (practical skills for legions of buzz-cut military/ intelligence clones/clowns, not just theoretical book-learnin’) at an industrial scale, which led to hundreds of thousands of desaparicidos (the disappeared) in the 1970s and 80s who were shot, hung, drowned, or thrown from planes throughout South and Central America.
Of course, if you want to peer into our dystopian future domestically, we will be experiencing more and more “blowback” from disaffected citizens and terrorists angered at our imperialism: look no further than the attack and reaction to the Boston bombing of 2013. Citizens of the greater Boston area were told to “shelter in place” and be on the lookout, creating a de-facto lockdown in the 10th largest metro area of our nation. The whole situation was Bradburyian (Bradburyesque?) and an out-of-control response to a few deaths that would barely cause a blink in terms of law-enforcement response for most parts of the world.
We are now faced with Bentham’s panopticon: an open air prison of a country where we work, shop, party to escape our drudgery and captivity, and go home to hide from the storms raging outside our doors. “Fun” is encouraged, but genuine fulfillment, spiritual and psychological health, are scorned. We are faced with a fascism that cannot be named as such, and rather than face the music, brave-hearted citizens, activists, and dissidents are faced with what Phil Rockstroh dubbed the “tyranny of amiability” when discussing issues that may cause anger, sadness, and discomfort. Personally, I have noticed this is particularly bad among the Baby Boomers, even those who’ve faced economic or personal hardships. Generally speaking, they are addicted to a cult of positivity, where any honest portrayal of our social and ecological crises is deemed “cynical” and “pessimistic”. GenXers and Millennials are not much better, with the latter crowd (my own age group) being much more amenable to socialist policies, at least. Yet there is, of course, a huge majority indulging in escapism, through our digital devices and social media: so much for a so-called “Christian nation”, where it is expressly pointed out to “put away childish things”.
We are told that the elites are continually “manufacturing consent” as Herman (RIP) and Chomsky pointed out, using Walter Lippmann’s phrase. Yet I believe it’s worth asking to what extent this applies: don’t most American consumers know and acknowledge there is “slavery stitched into the fabric of our clothes”, as Brett Dennen pointed out? We know child slave labor in the Congo provides the coltan for our cell phones, yet we do nothing. False consciousness and false needs only explain so much: many Americans seem to relish their place in the hierarchy of the global economy, which necessarily involves exploiting the proletariat in far-off countries. Apathy and lack of empathy seem to be fundamental features at play here. While we may be in an “inverted totalitarian” system, it is by and large one of our own acquiescence.
What does this tell us? For one thing, it seems to indicate that this academic terminology does not viscerally describe what is going on here: in blunter vocabulary, a brutal campaign of dehumanization, mind-control, and brainwashing of the public has been ongoing for centuries, led by the Western imperial nations.
What is needed, then, is a form of “cognitive mapping” as Jameson spelled it out. Part of this involves sketching the psychogeography of the cityscape that the Situationists had in mind. Another avenue pertains to anyone who has taken a cross-country road trip in the US, or visited a drug-infested rust belt town, or dilapidated urban area: the endless monotony of the same crappy chain restaurants, strip-malls, and convenience stores, and documenting the utter alienation from a sense of place and time that results.
The sense of transience and utter meaninglessness of living under corporate American control can be overwhelming at times. There is a “need for roots”, and if our system does not provide it, our collective culture must be reoriented or undergo a revolution, as Simone Weil wrote:
“There are collectivities which, instead of serving as food, do just the opposite: they devour souls. In such cases, the social body is diseased, and the first duty is to attempt a cure; in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to have recourse to surgical methods.”
This feeling of a being a consumer, floating above the world but never really grasping it, induces a sense of vertigo. Christy Rogers is on point when she writes that: “This is the capitalist utopia: the absolute antithesis of home.” Economic precarity is omnipresent, leading to severe stress in the poor and working classes, resulting in anomie and a rise in various criminal behaviors, as explained by Robert Merton’s Strain Theory. Peter McLaren (giant of critical pedagogy along with Freire and Giroux) and Ramin Farahmandpur write of the “Vertigo of Global Capitalism”, and Jock Young writes of this feeling as well:
“Vertigo is the malaise of late modernity: a sense of insecurity of insubstantiality, and of uncertainty, a whiff of chaos and a fear of falling. The signs of giddiness, of unsteadiness, are everywhere…”
I believe this explains the illogic behind the comments of scientific experts like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk: they feel the vertigo, realize the unstable height our civilization has reached, and yet their answer is based out of fear: to travel to other planets and solar systems rather than cleaning up our own home.
Towards a New Science: Holism and Convergence
Mapping our natural, local environment is of vital importance. The best model I can give to you all is the “Where You At?” quiz, which asks the reader to investigate bioregionalism, including your local soil, farming methods, geology, climate, local flora and fauna, and more. I first came across the quiz in Carolyn Merchant’s Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, which I recommend for everyone.
The return to sustainable, organic agriculture, cooperatively owned, has to be rapidly increased, starting yesterday. Pesticide use from glyphosate (Round-Up) and atrazine are making our entire planet a toxic environment, with cancer and chronic health conditions rising in the general population. We are still dealing with the depravations of past generations, as well. Myself and others have postulated that millions have and continue to die early from the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 50s and 60s; for me, this was confirmed as true when a top former scientist in the NIH agreed with me in private conversation.
Only a rationally planned and ecologically-aware system, locally organized and at the same time globally integrated, can solve our crises. This will require fostering an internationalist outlook: we are interconnected with human societies worldwide, and as Western nations exploit the Global South, economies are destroyed, the Earth degraded, and millions of innocents suffer and die from preventable illness and climate and ecologically-related catastrophes each year. To anesthetize the masses in the West, pharmaceutical companies will attempt to market more and more painkillers and psychotropic pills to create an ever more docile, idiotic, and ill society.
People of color continue to suffer the most. As this brilliant study tragically shows, psychological and social stressors among minorities and environmental exposures to toxic and carcinogenic pollutants have a negatively synergistic effect on minority communities, leading to cascades of disease and epidemics of suffering. Unsafe industries are and were zoned irrationally or de-facto illegally in inner cities, with housing projects and low-income areas forced to suffer the consequences.
Albert Einstein made a terrific explanation for scientific and democratic planning of society in his essay “Why Socialism?”. It should be noted that if past political and business leaders in the mid-twentieth century would not listen to the greatest scientist of their time, there is no reason why today citizens should ask, on bent knee, to try and hold power accountable simply using rational arguments. A peaceful revolution must be stoked among the populace in the West.
Obsessing over the big names in science sometimes obscures the lesser-known greats: one of my personal favorite trail-blazers was Lynn Margulis, creator and popularizer of the endosymbiotic theory (in spite of the paternalistic douchebaggery and resistance from her colleagues), which postulates that bacteria merged with the precursors of animal and plant cells (eukaryotes) in a mutually beneficial way. This applies also at the extra-cellular level (symbiosis and reciprocal altruism) and a few popular examples are lichen, corals, clownfish and sea anemone, and many species of sharks and cleaner fish. Interconnectedness and cooperation, not just random mutations, are the drivers of evolution and sustain the material existence of myriad species. We are not exempt from this rule of nature, and we call learn to model societies via biomimicry, to create a regenerative, not degrading, culture.
Today, the natural sciences are so complex that it is impossible to be at the cutting-edge of research with a narrow specialty in one field: microbiologists are in constant collaboration with geneticists who integrate advancements with biochemists, and botanists must rely on help from mycologists when examining soil ecology. E.O. Wilson explains this much better than I could, and foresees the rise of a sort of unified theory of the social sciences in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. I think Convergence Theory has a better ring to it. As Wilson says, ethics is everything, and ecology is the keystone science which explains the interconnectedness of all things, which was obvious to all ancient societies and the Earth-centered indigenous ones of today: a world culture steeped in ecological ethics is our only chance for survival.
Cooperation, reciprocation, and kindness towards strangers were the rule for 99.9% of human existence. As Pulitzer-prize nominated author Barry Brown explains in his book Humanity: The World Before Religion, War & Inequality, complex trade routes of our common ancestors existed 400,000 years ago on the east coast of Africa, and there are no records or archaeological evidence of large-scale warfare before 4000 BCE. Human society was almost totally peaceful and egalitarian throughout history.
Many other great thinkers have called for a return to harmonious and peaceful existence: Fritjof Capra, E.F. Schumacher, and James Lovelock come to mind. Yet what these authors point out is antithetical in one important sense to the mass of Westerners: advocating for de-growth, followed by a rationally, planned, sustainable, steady-state economy which distributes aid internationally based on need.
Thus the mainstream Left (we need a living wage!) and mainstream Right (bring back the manufacturing jobs!) are both deluded: our economic system is suicidal for the planet and our own species in the long term. As long as the masses cry out in favor of short-term economic growth instead of the need for generational rational planning of society, neoliberal hegemony will continue.
Decentralization and direct democracy are key here, although a hierarchy of scientists must be able to inform the public through deliberative councils, spreading environmental information as it evolves, explaining the consequences in layman’s terms. Thus we avoid the issue of false balance, where the media provides “equal space” to sides of issues like global warming, where an IPCC scientist is countered with an oil executive or lobbyist in a debate for “fair and balanced” reporting.
Further, a Green constitution must be put in place as a safeguard against majoritarian voting which threaten the environment. This is called the precautionary principle, totally needed in any Green society. The conversion to a vegetarian based diet, and the voluntary depopulation of overcrowded parts of the planet through a campaign of women’s education, gender and racial equality, free contraceptives, and monetary incentives is needed to lower the strain on the Earth’s resources. Gender equality is a pillar of the Green agenda, and rules should be in place to provide half of senior government positions to women, which would immediately create a more peaceful, egalitarian, and environmental-friendly community of nations.
Then there are issues of labor and social participation. There is the idea that a Universal Basic Income will solve all our problems, which is a fallacy. I’m overall in favor of a UBI, but there are limitations here which must be discussed, especially considering elites like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are coming out in favor of UBI.
Although it may seem like a pipe-dream today, it’s my opinion that the “left-wing” (say, Sanders/Warren) of the Democratic Party could one day promote policies such as the UBI to dismantle what remains of the welfare state. It’s also possible that more carrots will be introduced down the line such as healthcare for all, free college, and an end to student debt. The catch is that it will be a bribe to promote stability domestically, while meanwhile the American Empire will march on overseas, continuing to use economic leverage to exploit the Global South, and also deploying military force with drones and special forces to continue to destabilize entire regions and displace millions.
Also, I am wary of any imagined utopian society based on UBI which is fully-automated, the “Star Trek socialism” which I believe many Lefties secretly pine for. Let me be frank: I am by no means anti-progress: science and technology have their place if managed properly outside of a capitalist framework. Yet, I believe this must be stated clearly: I value manual and mental labor that informs, inspires, and feeds the community as sacred work. I don’t want to live in a society where rooftop solar panels totally power our hydroponic veggies grown in factory warehouses, or synthetic meat in our Petri dishes in labs, while we push buttons.
I am not entirely against this turn towards an automated economy, but I think there are limitations here in which the techno-futurists are not accounting for: namely, more worker alienation as our machines widen the gap between nature and ourselves, breeding further specialization and vertical hierarchical civic relations, which are inherently damaging to the social fabric.
Chaos Politics and a Viable Alternative
Finally, after hundreds of years of capitalism and colonialism, we’ve arrived at the great unraveling. As István Mészáros brilliantly explained, “Capital’s Historic Circle is Closing”. He writes that, our “sustainable alternative can only be a radically different social metabolic order” and correctly notes that “the requirements of sustainability imply a societal reproductive order with its consciously articulated-autonomously planned and exercised-mode of decision making”. This will require, for him, “the total eradication of the Leviathan state”.
This will mean the breakup of the USA, which of course makes many people extremely uncomfortable. Yet America is a historical aberration: land stolen from Native Americans, an early textile economy based on chattel slavery, global imperial wars, one hundred years of segregation, structural racism against people of color including a prison-industrial complex and blighted inner cities, etc. There are good reasons that, due to its internal contradictions, in a generation or two the US could go the way of the USSR or Yugoslavia, or face a crippling recession spanning decades which would reduce the vast majority of the population to increasing economic precarity.
In the event we seriously consider reorienting our culture, social justice could likely require some sort of framework of law for the return of Native lands to form their own countries or autonomous regions. Reparations and redistribution of wealth are vital, as studies have shown that white households have total assets ten or more times the amount of African-American and Hispanic families.
Where’s the money to pay for all this? There is about 32 trillion dollars stashed by the super-rich is offshore bank accounts. Just a fraction of this amount, distributed worldwide, could solve world hunger, homelessness, poverty, preventable disease, and provide a 100% renewable energy grid for the globe if properly managed. However, if this is not done, the super-rich will soon own everything, and it’s quite possible in the coming decades that significant parts of the globe could ignite into Hobbesian anarchy due to lack of food, access to clean water, and infrastructural damage due to deadly weather and global warming-driven events.
Collapse has happened many times in great civilizations, and the masses had no idea what was coming, doing little to prepare, as academics like Tainter and Diamond have explained. Through systems theory, the best scientists have explained time and time again that our world is entering a period of crisis never seen before. Politically, you can see this chaos emerging, personified in leaders like nationalist neo/proto-fascists such as Trump, Le Pen, Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Modi.
Consider Trump: many adjectives come to mind such as buffoon, clown, con-man. Yet what come to mind for me are the chthonic, atavistic impulses he embodies. This is a dark ages brand of politics.
Luckily, there may be glimmers of hope in the chaos politics Trump encourages. Thankfully, he does not seem to have any hard ideology, but is rather an opportunist, largely concerned with his petit-bourgeois hotel and real estate empire. Embodying a more venal form of capital in these very weird times, he along with his far-right brethren nonetheless around the world are forming what in chaos theory is known as a “strange attractor”: a basin (swamp pit might be the more appropriate term for these thugs) in which all points in the system of global capital are revolving in multiple dimensions. Eventually, in many of these non-linear mathematical models, bifurcations occur in the system: in a political system where “all politics is populist” as Mouffe might say, new alternatives to the system spring into existence, personified by Trump and Sanders, Corbyn and Farage, Melenchon and Le Pen.
Amazingly, non-linear dynamics in physics and biochemistry result in a higher state of order: this is how life emerged from the pre-biotic soup of fatty membranes, nucleotides, and proto-amino acids of the ancient Earth billions of years ago. In the same way, our highly complex social system allows for the possibility of seemingly disparate and splintered citizen movements, non-governmental organizations, and non-profit cooperatives to coalesce and resist.
We must combat the irrationality and “higher immorality” of the elites (Mills) by eliminating their hegemony in the areas of media, the military, and the corporate world. This won’t be accomplished by top-down government, even by well-meaning figures such as Corbyn or Sanders, who offer little fare in the realm of the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide.
Spiritual and psychological awakening among the public must be stoked by civil society in a grassroots manner: the cults of celebrity and social-media obsessions must be called out as superficial substitutes of an atomized culture, not a liberating digital space. Mindfulness and discernment must begin in early education, and a worthy model for personal reflection and social transformation is the Contemplative Mind Tree, which explores the means for actualization individually and collectively as well as the commonalities of seemingly different spiritual and cultural movements.
Necessarily, this will require disentangling from the virtual world of our screens, portals into an unreality which commodifies social alienation, fetishisizes technology, and relies on a grid powered by fossil fuels. This will mean using technology and money as means to the ends of living a meaningful life, not as ends in themselves. Nature must be defended, and regarded as having intrinsic value, not exploited for the false needs of global capitalism. Internationalism, solidarity, and reconciliation and cooperation between nations must be fostered in the public sphere via constructive debate and by progressive media dialogue.
We are a long way from this vision, and things will most likely get worse before they get better. In this period of transition, Westerners should be prodded to examine their priorities and basically accept a program of voluntary poverty regarding our extravagantly wasteful material possessions and fossil fuel use to help redistribute aid and resources to the Global South. If this were to happen, in the process, our lives would get qualitatively healthier, deeper, richer and fuller of meaning as the ethics of charity, reciprocity, and sustainability nourish our minds, bodies, and souls.
The longer we wait, the worse things are going to get, especially in terms of future effects from global warming. Westerners must overcome our apathy, renounce our privileged position in transnational capitalism, get out in the streets, use our power in numbers, and form a social movement centered on internationalism, radical democracy, gender and racial equality, and social and environmental justice.
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, The World Financial Review, Gods & Radicals, and Counterpunch. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at williamhawes.wordpress.com
It was a long day at work, a long week. You were so tired this morning you left your phone at home, too, so there was nothing to help distract you from how much you hate your job.
But it’s Friday, and you’re done for the week. You can breathe a little, maybe even go have a drink with friends.
You arrive home. You climb the steps to your apartment building. Some days, those two flights to your apartment seem daunting. Today’s one of those days.
You hear the old couple on the first floor fighting about something through their door. They’re always fighting, sometimes so much you have to crank your music up really loud to drown them out. It’s gonna be one of those days, too.
When you get to your apartment though, you see the door’s been left partially open. “Dammit,” you mutter. You’ve asked your roommates repeatedly to not do that—it makes you feel unsafe. They should respect that. You don’t want to yell at them, but... fuck.
When you push the door open you see the flood. Water’s everywhere, literally pouring in streams from the ceiling over everything.
You moan as you look at your bedroom: Your mattress is soaked, your computer is sitting in a lake on your desk, all your favorite books on their shelves are bloated with wet pages. And then you remember—you left your phone plugged in by your bed, and there it is, sitting in a puddle of water.
You grab it, pick it up, and water spills out from its case.
Now you’re shouting profanities. You survey the rest of the damage and start crying. You can’t help yourself—it’s all so much. You run to the living room to look at the painting your friend did for you last year. It’s warped, destroyed. You cry again… they committed suicide a few months ago, that was the last thing you had from them.
You search the rest of the apartment quickly—the same damage in the other rooms, your roommates’ bedrooms just as flooded.
It’s all so much, too much.
You want to sit down, hold your head in your hands and weep. But there’s nowhere dry to sit—your couch is sopping wet and water is still pouring from the ceiling above it.
Coming to your senses, staring at the ceiling, you realise the water’s probably still running upstairs. You bolt out your door, tear up the stairwell with rage and pound on your upstairs’ neighbour’s door.
He opens it as you stand there, water flowing over your feet.
“Your apartment’s flooding” you shout at him.
He nods, then hands you a wet dishtowel. “Yeah. Want to help us mop it up?”
One of your roommates is already inside with him. She looks at you, exasperated, holding a sponge and a bucket. “It’s so awful!” she says, her voice shaking, tears streaming from her eyes. “Everything’s ruined.”
You look at the sponge in her hand, and the thin dishtowel in his hand and shake your head. “Don’t you have a mop?” you ask, exasperated.
He shakes his head. “Couldn’t be bothered. Those are expensive.”
You resist the urge to punch him for being so dense, and then run back downstairs to your own apartment. You try not to look at all the damage, try to resist the urge to scream again. You grab your mop, a bucket, and a few already-soaked towels from the bathroom, and just as you are about to go back upstairs, your other roommate arrives home.
“It’s coming from upstairs,” you tell her. You hand her a towel, and start to walk past her before she stops you.
“We need to clean this first,” she says.
“What? No—we have to stop the water from coming in.”
“This is more urgent,” she says. “My girlfriend’s coming over tonight. We can clean this first and then stop the water coming in later.”
“Are you serious?” you say, and then see her face. She’s in shock, just as you were. She’s not thinking clearly. And she’s already gone into her bedroom and is trying to sop up water with the wet towels.
You try again. “We need to stop the water coming in first.”
She acts like she didn’t hear you. You say it one more time.
“We can’t just ignore all this water,” she finally says. “And I’m not helping that guy upstairs—he’s an asshole” and then shuts her door, leaving you in the hallway with the mop bucket.
She’s right. The guy’s awful. But you shake your head and run back upstairs anyway. The door’s open, and you enter to find both your roommate and your neighbor arguing and not cleaning up the water. She’s decided now is the time to talk about how loud he is when he has sex; he counters that she’s too sensitive and then starts complaining about the noise from her birthday party last month.
For a moment, you want to knock both of their heads together until you notice—there’s water pouring from the ceiling in this apartment, too.
“Shut up, you two” you shout. “The water’s coming from upstairs!”
“Stop changing the subject,” your neighbor says. “Your parties really get out of hand. I’m not racist, but I think it’s because of your loud Asian friend.”
You don’t even bother trying to calm your roommate’s reaction. In fact, you kinda hope she kicks him in the balls. But still—
“Look,” you say. “You’re a shithead. But we have to stop the water upstairs.”
“What—you’re on his side now?” your roommate says, throwing her sponge at you.
“Fuck!” you scream at them both, and run out.
You climb the stairs more slowly this time—the adrenaline has left your system, you feel exhausted. And you really don’t want to deal with this anymore.
You knock on the door anyway.
No one answers, so you knock again. You can hear running water, but no other sounds, no sloshing footsteps across carpet, nothing.
“There’s… there’s a flood,” you stutter, knocking again.
The door finally opens, and the rich dude who lives there looks at you. You look at him and see he’s dry, and there’s no water on his floors.
“Our apartments are flooding” you tell him.
He nods, gives you a condescending look. “That’s what you’re all shouting about, huh?”
“It’s coming from your apartment.”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Oh, yeah. A pipe burst in my bathroom last night. But it’s only flooding into the wall, so it’s no big deal.” He actually smiles at you when he says this.
“You have to turn off the water” you shout. “You’re flooding the entire building.”
“No I don’t. But I’ll sell you my mop if you need it.”
“What?” You scream, starting to push past him.
He pushed you back, hard. “You poor people think you can just get stuff for free.”
“I said turn off the water now, or I’ll make you.”
He looks behind you and smiles. You can hear what he hears echoing up from the other apartments—the sounds of your roommate and neighbor fighting. Beyond them you hear your other roommate crying, wringing out a wet towel, and you can even hear the old people on the first floor shouting.
“You and what army?” he laughs, pushing you out the door, slamming it in your face.
The world is flooding.
Literally: Oceans are rising, land is disappearing, islands, villages, towns and cities are drowning. Climate change caused by human economic activity is killing people, causing wars, and slaughtering species. Governments and the rich have begun investing in special security measures for the coming chaos capitalism has caused, while international climate change agreements still pretend minor changes to the way we distribute resources and pollute the earth will fix things.
We humans—the only ones who can actually stop what’s happening—are staring at a nightmare scenario. Everything is going to shit: food shortages, resource wars, increasing poverty, heat waves, super storms. Cities choked with toxic fumes, massive deforestation, spreading deserts.
But we humans can’t stop it until the tap is turned off, and no one can do that alone.
Just as in the flooded apartment, stopping the source of water won’t replace the ruined books or furniture or anything else it destroyed—ending capitalism alone won’t fix the world. Turning off that tap—stopping capitalism’s relentless destruction—isn’t going to undo any of that damage, just as overthrowing capitalism won’t magically stop racism, sexism, colonialism, or any other oppression under which we suffer.
Every single one of those things is a problem. Every single oppression, every single injustice, every single crisis—these things certainly matter. But none of these things can be resolved until the arrogant assholes above us, the rich, the politicians, all those who make sure the destruction continues, are dealt with first.
Sometimes when we talk about fighting capitalism, people ask how we intend to stop racism and misogyny, transphobia and oppression of the disabled. Sometimes they even suggest those things are more important because they are more urgent. Sometimes people insist that any revolutionary movement must do all of those things at once, or it isn’t revolutionary.
We can do all of those things. We should do all of those things. We must do all of those things.
But only one of those things has the power to affect every single person, destroy every life and make every person suffer. White and Black, First Nation and Asian, European and African, male and female, trans and cis, abled and disabled—each suffers under this thing.
It also affects the rest of the living world, the non-human beings upon which we rely for our very ability to survive. Mass extinction events, poisoned streams and lakes and oceans, soil that can no longer sustain life let alone food production, all the damage done by this one thing.
That thing is Capitalism.
By Capitalism though I don’t mean a nebulous, undefined system. I mean the Capitalists, the living humans with names and addresses who make sure this damage happens because that’s how they make their money. I mean the corporations who rip apart the earth to get at coal and petroleum to sell back to us, who tear down forests and poison rivers because it makes them money. And I mean the politicians who make sure no one challenges them, and the police and military paid to shoot anyone who wants this to stop.
That’s not a lot of people, actually. But they have all the wealth and all the guns and all the media at their disposal. We only have us, our bodies, our creativity, our desire. And there are billions of us.
We are myriad, and they are few. But we forget this, forget the power we have. We forget this when we believe what they tell us, when we accept their narrative, when we let them terrify us.
We also forget this when we decide they are not the primary problem. We forget this when we decide people in the middle of the chain between us and them are actually the problem instead. We forget this when we insist fighting one group in the same situation is more important because they don’t have it as bad as we do. We forget this when we decide the imperfect people around us are too imperfect to fight alongside.
Revolution will not save the world. The overthrow of capitalism won’t solve every problem in front of us. There will still be idiots and oppressive jerks, there will still be violence against women and disabled people, there will still be racists and transphobes.
But what there won’t be is Capitalism.
There won’t be a system that lets some people have everything and forces the rest of us to fight amongst ourselves for what’s left. There won’t be a system making sure the earth is destroyed so a small handful of people can live like kings and queens.
We can have this, but never will if we insist that other problems are more important. We can have this, but never will if we wait for perfect allies who never oppress anyone. And we can have this, but never will if we don’t do something soon.
The world is flooding, and we know why.
Let’s stop it.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
When we are unified, when we stand together, the vast horde that is The People, there would be no way of stopping us. The state knows this, and thus the only way to stop it is to distract us with infighting, brainwashing, and financial manipulation, to not let it happen in the first place.
From Emma Kathryn
In my last essay, I spoke of recognising the tools that divide us, which you can find here.
Since then, and as is often the case, some of the comments got me thinking about unity and affinity and how these concepts can be applied to the good fight.
Affinity with anything is great. When you find someone or a group of someones with whom you just click, who are like soul brothers and sisters, then that is awesome. It’s natural to stick by, stand with and fight with and for those people.
It is more difficult to stand with others with whom you may not know, or whose suffering and oppression does not affect you, when their rights and lives are under attack.
When another’s suffering doesn’t affect us, when it is seen as a snippet on the evening news, when people are so tired from the hours of graft, when family time is squeezed in between those short few precious hours between getting home, doing chores and bed before the cycle begins again, it is no wonder it is easier to turn over. To watch some mindless reality TV. To enjoy the short-lived thrill of spending money we don’t have on shit we don’t need. To switch off.
Sometimes we feel helpless. What can we do as individuals against the tidal wave of shit that this world faces, nearly all of it man-made?
When I talk about unity, I do so with the meaning that it is standing with others, even when they are not in our family, friendship, or any other group. It’s about standing with strangers when they’re under oppression, even though their oppression has no effect at all upon our lives. It’s about standing up against the corruption of state and of capitalism, even when survival is not a struggle for you.
It’s about not being divided by petty shit.
How many times do we get involved in online debates and arguments that really do not mean anything? What I mean by this is that there are so many of these discussions, where people are listening, not with an ear to really understand the other perspective (which would be a good thing), but instead to come back with a witty or clever sounding comment that refutes what the other has said, and with various links to back it up.
To and fro these discussions go, and people get so hot-headed, because they are sure in their very soul that they are correct, and therefore, the other must be wrong. It’s an argument that goes round and round with nothing ever coming from it only more dislike, sometimes even hatred. Division.
They are pointless because they achieve nothing. Absolutely nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all online debates go this way, but many do. And often times, the viewpoints or opinions and beliefs of those arguing aren’t really all that far removed from one another.
What is often lacking is genuine, intelligent discourse. The free and open exchange of ideas and opinions between people and groups can only be a good thing, can only lead to genuine understanding, but what often happens is that people argue over side issues, or try to gloss over them.
An example of this can be seen when I, or others often speak out or write against the capitalist state, or the oppression of Peoples, or the devastation we cause the planet.
Some think, that because I call for an end to unfair systems that crush the many for the benefit of the few, that I must mean that I want to put another system in charge of us. That we must all be equally poor, or that the state becomes a workers state where we are all equally oppressed.
I would no more have those systems than the one we are currently under.
It’s not about handing power over us to one group or another, but seizing it for ourselves. It’s not about voting left or right, here in Britain, Conservatives or Labour. They are both different sides of the same coin. Those politicians are not like us, indeed, I often think what it is that makes someone want power over others. It takes a special kind of arsehole. Most of them have never had real jobs, outside of the bubble of government. They ‘streamline’ the education system, cutting the budgets, but you can guarantee their kids don’t attend the local comprehensive high school. They are forever cutting the NHS, again always spinning the lie they are delivering better value for money, but you can bet they have private healthcare. Their lies and duplicity are evident.
Oh yes, I am sure there are those that enter politics because they want to help others, but those individuals are few and far between. The big guns, the cabinet members. Those who make decisions about how others should live are not like us. They think they are untouchable, that they are above the laws that apply to the rest of us. And yet they abuse their power. In the last few weeks, Parliament has been rocked by sex scandals, stories of sexual abuse and harassment covered up or totally ignored.
No, it’s not about handing power to others who would use it against us, who would abuse it. It’s not about replacing the ones at the bottom now with others. It’s about taking power back for ourselves.
I believe this starts with unity.
When we can stand together, and look out for those who are different, in whatever way, to ourselves, then we can begin to take back power.
If we’re not busy arguing amongst ourselves about which political party has done the most damage, and instead recognise the ploy for what it is, we can focus our attentions on the things that do matter, that do make a difference.
So what system should be in place then?
One where people are put first. One where people can go to work and not have to struggle to live, to survive. One where the laws are for protection of the people, and not for big business and corporations. One where people are put before profit and property. One where people are not discriminated against, where equality means equality for all people. One where nature is given the respect she deserves. That’ll do for starters.
I don’t know how we get there today, but I believe it starts with unity.
When we are unified, when we stand together, the vast horde that is The People, there would be no way of stopping us. The state knows this, and thus the only way to stop it is to distract us with infighting, brainwashing, and financial manipulation, to not let it happen in the first place.
How many of us work full-time hours, or as many as we can get, how many parents both work and still can’t afford to cover the basics of living, too tired to do anything else other than scroll through social media or watch mindless TV once the kids are in bed? How many of us worry about work, how many of us are on zero hours contracts or cannot get enough hours at work because the business wants to cut costs, doesn’t want to pay the extra tax? All of these things are distractions, all keep us separate, and harden us against the suffering of others because it is difficult to see past our own suffering, the unfairness faced by others because we too are treated unfairly.
Unity is the key to any true revolutions, to any meaningful change. Surely it has to be. If we are not unified, then how will change come, if the vast majority are silent. It only takes silence for evil and wrong doing to flourish. How many choose to ignore the abuse of others, even though they find it abhorrent, because it doesn’t affect them. It’s ‘none of their business’.
We must find unity if we are to effect any real change in this world.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!
Social justice obsession with a fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation is a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.
From Rhyd Wildermuth
Three Tales of Red Laces
The old woman hit my leg with her cane. Hard.
I was strolling through the Turkish market along the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, Berlin a decade ago. My partner and I were holding hands, getting drunk on the smells and sounds of the market. It was summer, everything felt luscious, the mundane world I’d known so far from that moment that the rap on my leg felt almost unreal.
“Ich hoffe das ist nicht nur Quatsch.“
I stopped, looked at her. She was old but energetic, flexible enough to bend down and grab my ankle with a strong grip. My German was almost good enough to understand what she’d said, but that didn’t make what she was doing seem any more sensible.
I turned to my boyfriend, panicked and helpless. “What’s going on and why is she grabbing me?”
He looked at me, looked at her, and then shrugged. “She wants to make sure your boot laces aren’t just nonsense.”
I looked at her again, sheepishly. “Nein…” I sputtered. Ich bin…Links.”
The old woman hit my leg with her cane again, releasing my ankle. “Gut,” she barked, smiled, and then told me to tie my boots better.
A few years later, I was back in Berlin again, this time with a different partner. It was Friday night, and we were getting ready to go to a club called Laboratory. For the uninitiated, Laboratory (formerly “Laboratory Faustus”) is a massive club located in the basement of a former coal power plant. The rest of the building houses Berlin’s most famous techno club, Berghain, but…we weren’t going to dance.
Watching me get ready, with a wry smile our host asked me if I needed a different pair of boot laces.
Naive me, so new and innocent in the world (I was 30), shrugged. “Why? Red’s not okay?”
He and my boyfriend both laughed at me. “I did not know you like fisting, but okay.”
“Wait–” I sputtered. “Red laces mean you’re a leftist.”
“Ja, on the street. But not in a sex club,” my German friend answered. “But all I have are yellow, so tonight you will be a piss pig.”
Last week in the bourgeois hipster enclave of Portland, Oregon, in the United States, “activists” recently became outraged at a Dr. Martens advertisement bearing hidden “racist” meanings. The advert in question features a pair of black boots with red&yellow plaid laces. According to “local anti-hate group activists,” the image of the boots are racist because, as the Southern Poverty Law Center informs us, red laces signify that the person is a fascist who has ‘shed blood’ for whiteness.
It is probably quite fair to say that those activists (or the very small minority of fascists who might wear red laces) don’t have any gay male friends, and have never met a European leftist.
Symbol & Sign
The fact that a basic symbol such as red boot laces can mean multiple things seems rather obvious. In fact, the very nature of a symbol allows it to contain multiple meanings, and those meanings can sometimes operate differently to people simultaneously experiencing the same symbol. A swastika on the foot of the Buddha or in Hopi art likely won’t mean the same thing to a holocaust survivor, for instance.
This isn’t just true of symbols, but also of words. In fact, playing with the tendency of humans to forget that a word can have multiple meanings is the core mechanism of most humor, especially in puns and other forms of word play. So, too, in literature, especially in poetry. In poetry, the various shades of meaning (connotations) of a word are what allows the poet to say much in very little, while the ‘double entendre’ in literature and drama plays specifically off the varying meanings of words, as seen in this line from T. H White’s The Once And Future King:
Gawaine and Gareth took turns with the fat ass, one of them whacking it while the other rode bareback
Most of us tend to grip towards one meaning of a symbol to the exclusion of all others, especially if we have little or no experience with other contexts for it. So unless you’re gay or familiar with gay sex jargon, you might not know that ‘bareback’ means sex without a condom. If you have not read much older literature you might have forgotten that ‘ass’ was a common word for donkey.
Sometimes we have trouble accepting the multiple meanings of a word or symbol. And sometimes, some of us insist that the word or symbol only has one meaning. This insistence, that a symbol only has one “true” meaning, is one of the core mechanisms of Christian Fundamentalism in the United States. It started with the command that the words of the Bible must be taken literally, rather than opened to dangerous ‘liberal’ interpretation. So when the authors of Genesis (God Himself, supposedly) stated that the world was created in six days, that’s literally what happened.
So it’s then quite amusing that ‘literally’ does not just mean ‘literal,’ but it also now means ‘figurative.’ I had the opportunity to witness an angry exchange by actual (literal!) fascists about a dictionary’s inclusion of that opposite definition (those are called ‘contranyms,’ by the way). “Cultural Marxists are ruining English,” one said. “They want to make women and men into their opposites and do the same for words.”
I interjected with a handful of older contranyms they’d probably forgotten:
I hope we can all literally weather the attempts of cultural marxists to literally weather away the meaning of our words. They’re literally cleaving the meaning from the words, when we know they should literally cleave together. They’re using these tactics as a literal screen for their attempts to literally screen out any of us who know that words only have one meaning.
Unfortunately, this sort of fundamentalist thinking about words and symbols is not limited to Christians or the far right. In fact, it has become one of the core doctrines in a lot of liberal ‘social justice’ thought, and not just when it comes to red boot laces.
To see this, let’s look at the term “cultural appropriation.” In its most common social justice usage, it’s come to mean theft (usually by white people) of indigenous, Black, or foreign spiritual or cultural forms. Having dreadlocks, native headdresses (like war bonnets), or calling yourself a shaman while also being white are all examples of its popular meaning, and in some cases eating ‘non-white’ food or becoming part of a ‘non-white’ religious tradition are also considered cultural appropriation.
The term cultural appropriation didn’t originally mean this, however, and only began to mean what it does now because of the explosion of internet social justice culture.
To uncover the original meaning, we need only to look at the word ‘appropriation.’ To appropriate something is literally to turn it into property somehow, and also to prevent others from using it. So, for example, when a government or a corporation takes common land or resources away from the public and makes it their own, they’ve appropriated it. Or when a museum takes indigenous cultural artifacts away from the people (including skeletons) and puts them in a museum, they’ve appropriated those cultural items.
Interestingly, when the term cultural appropriation was first used, it referred to something completely different: the way that poor and oppressed peoples took from the dominant culture in order to create vibrant subcultures. As Shuja Haidar explains:
It may come as some surprise on both sides of the battlefield, but the Left has not always understood “cultural appropriation” as a form of oppression. This connotation of the term has become ubiquitous in today’s social media-driven political climate. But when it first came into use, “cultural appropriation” denoted very nearly the opposite of its contemporary meaning.
The idea preceded the term, as a product of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. For thinkers like Stuart Hall, cultural appropriation described the way subcultures were created… But the precedents ran deeper. Indian food in England, Negro spirituals in America, bathhouses in 19th-century France — these were all contexts in which members of what we might now call “marginalized groups” used elements of a dominant culture in altered forms, generating their own communities that could hide in plain sight.
Without understanding or even acknowledging the other meanings of cultural appropriation (and specifically the word appropriation), all the arguments about what is ‘appropriative’ become fundamentalist. Basically, a white person doing, saying, wearing, eating, or believing anything that could be said to have belonged to peoples and cultures who are not white is cultural appropriation.
This might be the dominant way of understanding cultural appropriation, but it isn’t the only way. The term itself contains the key to a larger concept, that of turning things into property. When a corporation sells native headdresses, dream catchers, or African-indigenous art, they have turned cultural and spiritual forms into products for profit. This is the very same thing the capitalists do to land and natural resources like water or trees. When a person tries to sell people spiritual teachings or services that aren’t actually sold by the cultures that came up with them, they’ve turned something available for free into something you must pay for.
Similarly, most people who use the term ‘cultural appropriation’ are likewise unfamiliar with the meaning of the word ‘appropriation’ outside of American social justice jargon. It’s a great shame, because just like the social justice activists who saw the Dr. Marten advertisement and screamed ‘racist,’ without knowing that appropriation has a much larger meaning they fall into fundamentalist thinking. They miss out on a crucial understanding of what the entire term meant when it was first employed, as well as lacking the knowledge to understand precisely what is happening in cultural appropriation.
When a cultural or spiritual form is appropriated, it is literally turned into property. A company that sells native head-dresses has turned a cultural tradition into a product that can be bought and sold. The war bonnet in its original cultural context was not something that was bought and sold–it was made for specific purposes, gifted by the community to someone. Appropriating it, then, is turning something that was never a product into a product to be sold for a capitalists’s benefit.
So when the term cultural appropriation is used to refer to people who are not of African descent who have dreadlocks, or people who are not of Indian descent who revere Hindu deities, the original meaning of cultural appropriation is completely lost. There is no property involved in those examples: no one actually owns gods or hairstyles, at least until the capitalists find a way to steal them and sell them back to us.
White Purity & Woke Nationalism
So why do social justice activists insist that white people shouldn’t adopt the cultural and spiritual forms of people who are not white?
In some cases, there is a more complicated injustice as play. Take the example of dreadlocks. In the United States, Blacks were (and often still are) severely oppressed for wearing them. So whites to wear them in a culture that calls Blacks who wear them ‘dirty’ is absolutely obnoxious, and can seem cruel (even if whites who wear them have never discriminated against Blacks with dreads).
This same obnoxious turn occurs elsewhere. For instance, in many cities and towns within the United States, laws were passed in the last century forbidding gardens and urban farming. These laws specifically targeted immigrants who raised their own food in their yards, and made it very difficult for them to survive. In many of those exact same places, it has been white middle-class people (particularly women) who have gotten those laws overturned so that they can have urban chicken coops and gardens of their own.
Some have called that second example cultural appropriation. Similar to this, some social justice activists have stated that white people shouldn’t eat collard greens because they are traditional African-American food (though they were actually introduced to them by the British, who got them from the Greeks). And here’s where we can start to understand what is really wrong with the social justice view of culture appropriation: it’s white separatism.
In a podcast with Alkistic Dimech and Peter Grey, Gordon White used the term “Woke Nationalism” to describe this particular kind of purity politics. “It’s the ‘nothing on the plate can touch’ idea” he said, adding that it was not much different from white nationalism.
He’s right. White Nationalists build their fascist ideology around notions of purity and separation. Whites and Blacks should never mix, never love each other (and definitely never have children together). Whites must be kept separated from other bloodlines and other cultures, must keep their culture distinct and pure. Whites must not do non-white things, adopt non-white customs or modes of dress or beliefs.
This is unfortunately the same logic of the social justice fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation. But while a White Nationalist claims that doing non-white things is tainting the race, the social justice activist claims that doing non-white things is theft. The end result is the same: a pure, untainted, culturally-distinct white race. White Nationalism and Woke Nationalism want the same thing, just for different reasons.
When they look to cultural forms and ethnic groups with a fundamentalist perspective, social justice activists repeat the same racism of white nationalists. Whites must only do ‘white’ things, whether that is the fascist desire to purify the white race or the liberal command to avoid ‘cultural appropriation.’ Social justice obsession with white purity becomes indeed a sort of ‘woke’ nationalism, a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.
Both make the same two mistakes: there is no such thing as a white race, and cultures have never been pure.
Ending the White Race
Whiteness isn’t actually a tribal or cultural form (no one was “white” 500 years ago) and thus there is no such thing as ‘white ancestry.’ Caucasian isn’t a tribal or cultural term either–it was invented by a race theorist at the end of the 18th century.
Whiteness is a very recent idea, and comes from the complete erasure of ancestral and cultural histories. To be ‘white’ is to no longer have a cultural history; in order to become fully white, European immigrants (especially from places still not fully considered white in Europe, like Ireland, Poland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) needed to forsake their specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By doing so, they gained access to white skin-privilege in the United States and Canada and became assimilated into ‘whiteness.’ All their history, their beliefs, traditions, modes of dress and food and their languages were bleached out of them, but in return they gained a new settler-colonial identity which granted them a little more access to wealth and security.
We need to go a little farther here, though, because there is actually no such thing as ‘ancestrally-French’ or ‘ancestrally-German.’ Neither of those places actually existed three hundred years ago. Instead, one might have been ancestrally-Breton or ancestrally-Bavarian. Go back a little further and those ancestral connections existed on the level of village or countryside, not ethnic people-groups.
Even more fascinating, however, is that there were no pure or pristine cultures back then, either.
People moved, and moved a lot. They traded, they inter-married, their cultural and religious forms becoming mixed in precisely the way that terrifies both social justice activists and white nationalists. Vikings “culturally appropriated” by making clothing with Islamic verse on them. Celts “culturally appropriated” Egyptian and Greek deities in what is now London, 2000 years ago. Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims and Iberian pagans mixed their cultures and languages fluidly in Al Andalus. Semitic Phoenicians traded as far up to Cornwall, littering the Atlantic coasts of Europe with their artifacts.
Cultural exchange is not only an ancient thing, but it is unavoidable. When peoples come into contact with each other, they trade, they talk, they borrow, they teach and mimic each other. Likewise, racial purity is impossible–people have an odd tendency to want to sleep with each other, regardless of where they’re from.
That both social justice activists and white nationalists have trouble understanding this comes from the very same mechanism by which social justice activists saw red boot laces on an advertisement and screamed ‘racism.’ Both are certain that ‘whiteness’ means something, and both insist that whites cannot be anything else but what they’ve decided they are.
To get out of this mess isn’t easy, but it’s possible.
First, we must release our fundamentalist death grip on symbols and meaning, and especially our white-knuckled grasp on ‘whiteness.’ To do so, we’ll need to look at our past with a different perspective, rejecting the fundamentalist narratives of both white nationalism and ‘woke’ nationalism.
Because though whites have lost their ancestral connection, European spiritual and cultural forms didn’t just disappear because Americans forgot them. Here where I now live in Bretagne, spiritual and magical traditions still exist–there’s no need for anyone here to hire a plastic shaman or join an online witch course to learn about Ankou, the Korrigan, or any of the other spirits and gods of their land–they can just ask their grandparents. The same is true in many parts of Europe, especially in non-urban areas.
Reconnecting to cultural and ancestral traditions will require giving up something, though. Because whiteness is not just built upon the erasure of ethnic and cultural history, but also upon the lie that whites are enlightened, progressive, and ‘modern’ while all the rest of the world (now and in the past) was primitive, unenlightened, superstitious, and stupid.
Here, again, liberal social justice ideas actually get in the way of dismantling whiteness by painting the current regime of rights and technology as more enlightened than anything that existed before. Whiteness itself is founded upon this idea, the certainty that we know the true meaning of things. That the order of the world that came about with whiteness is the best one, that all other ways of being are wrong. In this way, even people who are not white but who hold on to this lie are making sure whiteness never ends.
And finally, we must talk about cultural appropriation in a way that actually fights those who are turning what belongs to everyone into property. The pharmaceutical companies and petty capitalists that patent ancient medicines, the universities that steal indigenous artifacts for ‘research,’ the media conglomerates who sell us fictive versions of our own history, all the plastic shamans and spiritual teachers who sell us knowledge that was once free, and anyone who would try to police our cultural, spiritual, and social expressions, be they white nationalists or ‘woke’ nationalists–they are the ones stealing meaning from the world.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
The primary reason that white people, especially white Americans, appropriate from marginalized traditions is because they’ve been stripped of their own. And if we want white Americans to stop doing that, the best remedy is to encourage them to respectfully and carefully learn about and reclaim their own ancestral traditions.
From Alley Valkyrie
I spend a lot of time reading right-wing critiques of leftist tendencies and behavior. I do this not so much because I’m a masochist, but for many practical reasons. Part of it is the old ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ adage, especially in terms of what they’re discussing and thinking as it pertains to me and my kin. But more so, underneath the inevitable layers of distortion and exaggeration and hyperbole, there is almost always a kernel of truth in the critique. Very often that kernel of truth concerns a crucial point of error in the thinking or actions of those on the Left. And that error in thinking is so often related to points of nuance….or lack thereof.
The Left’s lack of attention to nuance only validates and strengthens the critiques of the Right.
Let me say that again for the kids in the back: it greatly strengthens their arguments, and as a result greatly strengthens their base. And in case you’ve been asleep for the past few years, their base is already quite strong, ever growing, and rather terrifying.
One of the best examples of this is the subject of cultural appropriation. Let me make the following clear at the onset: cultural appropriation is an actual problem, one incredibly damaging to marginalized peoples and cultures. That is not up for debate, nor would I ever try to debate it. And the general position of the right-wing (and sadly, far too many liberals as well) is that any and all complaints of cultural appropriation are nothing more than the overly-PC whining of “snowflakes”. Which is false. Absolutely false.
However, one of the things that has led the Right to such a conclusion is a very real, very specific, and very damaging behavioral tendency coming from the social justice-oriented Left. It comes more often than not from white people who aren’t actually part of the marginalized groups they are claiming to defend, acting from a sort of ‘purity politics’ as opposed to having an actual stake in the issue. These folks are quick to label pretty much anything as cultural appropriation, often without any historical understanding of what they are calling out and absolutely without any attention paid to detail or nuance.
I witnessed an epidemic of this behavior over the past month, in the form of online discussion going back and forth– almost solely by white people in the United States–regarding Day of the Dead and cultural appropriation. There was a dizzying number of personal posts, shared articles, and “community call-outs” warning all people of European descent to “stay in their lane” regarding “Day of the Dead,” lecturing them on how any attempts to celebrate such a holiday was an act of cultural appropriation that was harmful to Latin American people.
This is the perfect example of where the right-wing is actually quite accurate in their critiques. Such proclamations, especially without any real citations or historical backup, are nothing more than moral righteousness gone awry. They also double as erasure when it comes to the actual history of such celebrations.
When it comes to those of European descent, Americans in general are a people that lack ancestral or cultural ties. The loss of culture that comes with assimilation in the United States is not just a product of isolationism and exceptionalism, it’s also very much a product of our Protestant roots. Related to this is the fact that Catholicism was historically a minority religion in the United States that was often repressed, attacked, and subjected to widespread discrimination, especially prior to WWII.
Protestantism and Catholicism, while both acting in similarly hegemonic manners, with similar goals in terms of domination of thought, belief, and behavior, operate quite differently in their means towards that end. Catholicism has exerted and spread its power by adopting the crucial cultural elements of any given culture that it overtakes, rewriting and re-inscribing those elements into its own narrative. This accounts for why holidays like Christmas and Easter are chock full of pagan symbolism, for why the Romans built temples to Egyptian gods in Germany during the later years of the Roman Empire, and why practically any given ancient church or basilica in Europe was built right on top of a former Pagan sacred site. The Catholic strategy has predominantly been to annex indigenous traditions, and historically speaking it has been a very successful strategy.
Protestantism has often taken a different strategy, one most clearly seen in the birth, growth, and development of what we now call America. Instead of adopting the cultural elements of those they subjugated into their own narrative, Protestantism demanded an abandonment of those elements. It demanded that one forsake their own cultural traditions and assimilate into Protestant culture. This may not have been so painful for those Americans whose ancestors came from Protestant cultures, but for those whose ancestors came from Catholic cultures, it was a great loss. Countless celebrations, rituals, and folk traditions which are still practiced widely in Europe today are mostly lost to Americans whose ancestors came from those very countries and cultures where they are still practiced.
And of course, given how much Protestantism and Capitalism are and have always been close and convenient bedfellows in the United States, Capitalism has always been able to fill the void left by the abandonment of non-Protestant ancestral cultures. This is the primary reason why Halloween is not only considered by the rest of the world to be an American holiday, but within America it is arguably the most popular in terms of mass participation and cultural buy-in.
Despite a small but vocal group of fundamentalist Christians who argue otherwise, Halloween is the most part a secular holiday, one embraced by immigrants and American-born folks alike. It is for the most part focused on fun and consumerism, so much so that the majority of the population fails to recognize the way it acts as a substitute for what, in most cultures of Catholic origin, is a rather somber and reverent time of year, one in which remembrance and worship of the dead is the primary focus.
This takes me back to my point regarding the misguided claims of cultural appropriation. “Dìa de los Muertos” and the much larger concept of “Day of the Dead” are not the same thing. The former is specifically the form that the latter takes in Latin American countries. The latter is a tradition that both historically and currently is recognized across the Catholic world, both amongst colonized people as well as those who have historically been colonizers.
And yes, there are many problematic aspects when it comes to white Americans celebrating the former, especially the way it has been fetishized and commodified. Absolutely no argument there from me: as I said above, I would never argue that cultural appropriation is not a real issue that results in tangible harm. But extending that to referencing “Day of the Dead” as being something that white Americans should not touch is extremely misguided, especially because a significant amount of white Americans come from ancestral backgrounds in which Day of the Dead was and still is widely celebrated.
November 1 in France is what is known as “Toussaint”, or All Saints’ Day. Most businesses are closed. Most people have the day off. Church services on this day are as detailed as they are on Christmas or Easter. Florists work double-time all week to satisfy the number of orders of flowers that people take to the graveyard that day. Beyond the specific aesthetics and traditions that define Dìa de los Muertos, what’s going on in France here today looks rather similar to the former in terms of tradition and ritual.
Why, you ask? Because they have the same origin.
And the same can be seen over the course of the same week in Italy, in Spain, in Ireland, in Portugal, as well as other countries with strong ties to Catholicism. Because Day of the Dead as a whole is a Catholic tradition, one that was mostly lost to the descendants of Catholic immigrants to the United States due to the US being a country and culture conceived in Protestantism, a country which demanded assimilation into a Protestant aesthetic in exchange for the benefits of the ‘American Dream’.
Mind you, it’s important to recognize that the true origins of traditions such as Day of the Dead pre-date Catholicism and have pagan origins. That’s another reason why they are so insistently eschewed and suppressed by Protestants: because the Protestants recognize those origins full well and consider them (as well as so many other aspects of Catholicism) to be evil and “Satanic”.
And while in terms of pre-Christian traditions regarding the dead, “Samhain” is by far the most well-known (and therefore adopted into the majority of modern Pagan traditions), the traditions that currently take place in the aforementioned European countries not only are linked by Catholicism, they are similarly linked in regards to their pre-Christian origins.
When I read and hear this constant righteous lecturing on how and why white people have no business participating in Day of the Dead rituals, I also can’t help but to think back to the three weeks I spent in Mexico in 2010. I was there from mid-October to early November, over the course of the Dìa de los Muertos celebrations. And being a culturally-aware, social justice-oriented type who was always very careful to not engage in cultural appropriation and who wanted to “stay in my lane,” I decided at the onset to adopt the position of an observer throughout the various celebrations and rituals that were taking place.
But every single time that I stood back and chose to watch rather than participate, I was met with looks and gestures that ranged from confusion to hurt feelings. And every single time one of the locals encouraged me to step up and participate and would explain in detail what was occurring and why, as they were always under the impression that I was standing back due to lack of knowledge, as opposed to the fear and/or belief that to do so was inappropriate for a white person. Every single time, it was made very clear to me that not only was I welcome to engage in the ongoings, but that they actively wanted me to do so, that they considered it a matter of hospitality to make sure that I was actively engaged. Not only that, but a few people confided in me that in general, although they knew it was not my intention, it was considered rude not to participate.
And while I’m very aware that there’s a difference between being invited to participate in cultural rituals that are not your own and commodifying and fetishizing said rituals, whenever I see the most extreme versions of “white people cannot do this no matter what,” all I can think of were the reactions of my hosts when I chose to step back.
The bottom line is this: aside from the capitalist influence, which obviously is huge, the primary reason that white people, especially white Americans, appropriate from marginalized traditions is because they’ve been stripped of their own. And if we want white Americans to stop doing that, the best remedy is to encourage them to respectfully and carefully learn about and reclaim their own ancestral traditions. We can’t have it both ways. American identity is in part defined by a cultural hole, one which the shallow creations of capitalism simply cannot adequately fill. And so those who recognize that loss will try to fill it.
And they will likely try to fill it with what is easiest for them to access, which is why erasing the history behind celebrations like Day of the Dead and framing it as though it is solely a Latin American tradition that white people should not touch is a disservice to everyone affected. It does very little to stem the tide of cultural appropriation, it erases the history of Day of the Dead as it pertains to European ethnic groups, and the lack of nuance in such arguments only feeds and adds to the legitimacy of right-wing criticisms.
And so I repeat, once more: specificity and nuance are so fucking important when we criticize and/or judge and/or discuss issues such as cultural appropriation. If you’re going to call something or someone out, do your homework. Know your history. And for the love of the gods, stop sharing un-cited, prescriptive social justice articles that lecture people on what they should and should not do.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.