How to Buy a Religion

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Source

What’s wrong with Sephora’s witch kit?

Is it crass to reduce a religious practice to $40 of mass-manufactured perfumes and Tarot cards? Probably, but haven’t Pagans been debating “pay-to-pray” back and forth for years? Sure, an independent Etsy artisan needs to make a living. But doesn’t Sephora also have to tap new markets to survive? The scale’s different, but what about the essence?

Is the mall any worse than the metaphysical shop?


Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

Karl Marx

Capitalism alienates.

It takes parts of you and makes commodities out of them. Your time, your physical activity, and your mental energy all get sold on the labor market like Tarot decks and perfume. Your body contains more than itself – it carries your community, the work and care of your loved ones, everything they do to keep you physically and psychologically functional. Without all that, how would you make it out of your door every morning with enough resiliency to work? After all, capital is hungry. A business needs to grow, or else other companies out-compete it in the market and force it into bankruptcy. The ones that can grow, survive. The ones that find more ways and things to eat, grow. They need your ability to work, to produce goods and services they can sell. All of the ingredients that go into your work, they consume.

Capital imposes its needs onto the dispossessed, the ones who don’t own businesses or rental properties and so have nothing to live on but their ability to work. The whole community depends on the money its wage-workers earn, so it has to organize its collective life in whatever way maximizes their employability. Wage-workers are exploited, and they incarnate entire communities of labor, exploited alongside and through them.

Religion is one way the dispossessed survive. Capitalism cuts you off from your basic nature: your capacity to flourish, to form relationships as a free being. It demoralizes in both the current and the older sense: the mindlessness and futility of wage-work, housewifery, and unemployment teach despair and induce depression, but when capital reduces you to an instrument, it de-moralizes you in a larger sense. The more of you that goes to satisfy capital’s hunger, the less of you is left for self-cultivation, creativity, and relationship-building. You are alienated from yourself.


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Pop-culture resurgence: Internet tabloid Vice offers dozens of witchcraft-themed articles. Source

Sephora sells to women.

The social base of religion (Pagan and otherwise) is not only the dispossessed in general, but specifically the specially-oppressed along racial, national, and gender lines. Even when the ministers and bishops are men, it’s women who cook meals for sick parishioners, clean up after services, teach Sunday school, and fill most of the pews. Capitalism, by definition, only pays for waged work. But, the health and functionality of wage-workers is costly; it takes a vast expenditure of unpaid work in the home and the community to feed and support wage-workers, take care of their kids and elders, and ease the emotional strain of their alienation. So, there’s a division of labor between paid and unpaid work, and it falls along the lines of gender. Culture, ideology, and discrimination harmonize with the pervasive reality of anti-woman and anti-LGBT violence, forming an elegantly self-reinforcing feedback loop; gender roles both flow from and reinforce the overall social system. Those who don’t fall in line get hurt.

Religion sits at a key point in the cycle. It allows the racially and nationally oppressed to rely on each other for support, fellowship, and existential meaning without their oppressors in the room for a few hours each week (is it a coincidence that in the US, Black people report being “absolutely certain” of God’s existence at a higher rate than self-identified Christians do?). Religion takes the edge off of alienation, offering a relationship with something bigger than you, your job, and your daily life – a bedrock of connections and values deeper and older than capitalism. At the same time, it transmits gender roles and racial social segregation from generation to generation, helps the dispossessed stay psychologically healthy enough to work, and gives bourgeois clergy a medium to preach patience and forbearance towards oppression rather than revolution and collective action. From time to time, though, it takes on an opposite role, providing mass movements with a moral language and the institutional infrastructure they need. Religion is politically contradictory. It keeps the dispossessed in line – except when it’s helping them liberate themselves.

Paganism has an even sharper gender skew than most religions. After all, it actively encourages women to take on sacerdotal and leadership roles (not to mention its historical ties to lesbian feminism and LGBT culture). Sephora sells to women, so selling women’s religion is an intuitive next step, especially given that pop culture is currently more infatuated with witchcraft than it has been since the 90s. When Sephora sells Paganism, it’s offering more than a deck of cards and some quartz.  Sephora is no less responsible for capitalism’s crushing alienation than any other business. It helped create the ailment. Now, it’s promising a $40 cure.


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Metaphysical shopfront. Source

Unlike most religions, modern Paganism’s basic institutional anchor isn’t the congregation. Rather, it’s the metaphysical shop. Jonathan Wooley explains:

The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

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

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

In other words, Sephora and a PantheaCon vendor don’t differ in essence – only in scale.


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The nitrogen cycle. Source

When Paganism is commercial, it’s filling religion’s conservative role, reconciling the dispossessed to their oppression. After all, if shopping is the way out of alienation, then capitalism, if not benevolent, is at least neutral. Collective action isn’t even on the radar.

But that’s not the only Paganism.

We’re all of us embedded in a living relational web – humans, the biosphere, the land and sea and sky, the gods and the dead. The nitrogen cycle and the water cycle have a sacredness. It’s holy when through death, an organism becomes food, transmuting into new life. The Sun is slowly spending itself. It feeds plants and algae with its energy, and that energy sustains the same animals who then nourish plants when they die and decompose. Gods are at once embodied in and emergent from each nexus of the process, standing at the fulcrums where nature moves humans and is itself moved. Paganism is what the mutually-conditioning cycles of ecology and evolution teach you when you pay attention to them, learn their rhythms, find where you are inside them. Prayer, devotion, myth, and ritual all orient you towards that ground of your being and make a sacrament of your participation in it. Reciprocity is cosmic, both an imperative and a fact. Do ut des, I give so that you may give, is at the heart of both polytheist sacrificial theology and the Mystery that governs the process of life.

You were born with a capacity for eudaimonia: balanced, all-sided human flourishing, the Greatest Good of ethics and philosophy. You can develop eudaimonia if you cultivate virtues: self-knowledge, self-control, justice, and right relationship. Capitalism is a social process that alienates you from that capacity, but it doesn’t destroy it. It does, however, determine the form that it needs to take.

Self-development, ritual and political practice, and reverence for the Gods, the dead, and the natural world are the foundation stones of revolutionary virtue. Paganism holds a radical seed: given the reality of capitalism and empire, the communist organizer, the Stoic sage, and the nature-mystic devotionalist must all become the same person. Each component of revolutionary virtue is incomplete by itself. They need each other, just like plants, decomposers, and nitrifying bacteria.

And it’s all unbuyable. The people trying to sell you Paganism are promising to cure your alienation with more alienation, only in disguise. They can sell you a Scott Cunningham book, a handmade pewter pendant, or a $40 “starter” box, but do those contain the Mystery? At best, they’re dispensable props. At worst, they’ll actively mislead you; like any religion, Paganism can teach you to accept your oppression or it can teach you to fight it.

If you really want to buy something, get Marcus Aurelius or an ecology textbook. Read myths. Go out and see how mosses and lichens grow on trees and how trees that die feed mushrooms and bacteria, fertilizing the soil. The relational web spreads out from there. It reaches to the sun, the atmosphere, the microorganisms, and the gods who take their embodiment in that dynamic interplay. Find your nature, your inborn potential for virtue, eudaimonia, and right relationship. You are in the web. Root yourself. Capitalism uproots you and disrupts your nature. It’s throwing the whole world’s processes so off-kilter that if it isn’t stopped, the ecosphere will endure – but it will be so changed that humans won’t be able to live in it.

Paganism lives in that knowledge. It’s a method – you learn the context of human life and you choose to act accordingly. Sephora can’t sell it to you, but neither can the vendors at Pagan Pride.

You can’t simply opt out of the alienation capitalism imposes. But, you can choose what to do about it; you are existentially free. Paganism can be a path to knowledge and revolutionary virtue, or it can be an “opiate of the masses.”

Sephora wants to sell you one of those. But you’re free to choose the other.


Sophia Burns

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


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A Standing Rock Story Part 2

“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”

From Lisha Sterling

Photo by Tim Yakaitis.

“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”

– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of  people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.

The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.

That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

You Are Not In The United States

One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.

Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:

No Weapons of Any Kind.

No Alcohol Or Drugs.

Not on you and not in you.

This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.

Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.

Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”

“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.

We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.

People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.

Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.

This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.

FirstDayOnHopHill-ByRobertoMonge

Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer

The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.

I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.

On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.

One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.

In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.

“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.

“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.

“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”

“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.

“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”

She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”

“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”

The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.

The Ancestors Stood With Us

In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.

From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.

I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.

Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.

When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”

“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.

“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.

“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.

As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”

I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.

That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.

When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”

“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.

“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”

I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

The author’s brother, photo taken in 2005.

One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.

One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.

“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”

I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.

One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.

“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’

“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”

I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.

I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.

One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.

After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.

I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.

Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.

Fixing equipment on the communications tower that brought Internet into Oceti Sakowin on a freezing winter day.
Photo by Scott Golder.

Experiencing Communalism

“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart

One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.

There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.

Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.

There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.

There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.

Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.

All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.

The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.

It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.

And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

A Place That Changed Lives

I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler

Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.

The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?

I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?

Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.

Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.

Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.

Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.

Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.

Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

In the Vale of the White Horse, within sight of Uffington Castle, there is a large rectangular field, where until recently members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids gathered to celebrate Lughnasadh. Every year in late August, under the light of the waxing moon, 200 people, of all ages, would materialise out of the summer heat and the ripening corn. After setting up a wide circle of bender tents and yurts around a central fire, they’d make sure to beat the bounds; processing clockwise around the field, playing instruments and clapping loudly, greeting the directions and the spirits of place. The same thing happened every morning throughout the festival.

This practice highlights an important truth; although any visitor to the camp would easily recognise the importance of the central hearth, those hedges around of the field were every bit as sacred. As if to highlight this fact, at the southern edge of the field, within the hedge itself, stood a hidden grove, with a holy oak at its heart – this venerable being oversaw all the naming ceremonies, initiations, and other secret rites in the community. When I first ventured into that grove, some seven years ago, I felt like I was on a threshold; beyond which, through which, the whole world began.

Hedgerows are perhaps one of the most quintessential features of these islands*. They wend their way between gardens, grass and crops, catching the bounty of the Earth like a net catches the wealth of the sea. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences, like that mentioned above, have taken place along and within hedges. They are – to borrow a term from Celtic Christianity – “thin places”, locations where the veil between this world and the other is light, and the divine is close at hand.

The state of “in-betweenness”, or liminality as anthropologists call it, carries a great deal of significance in cultures all around the world; boundaries, be they intellectual or physical (and they’re often both), fascinate us and ensnare our imaginations; so we sanctify them, or joke about them, or wrap them up in taboos. Hedges – neither in one field, nor the next – are no exception.

It’s unsurprising then, that we find the hedge playing a major part in the sacred geography of Anglo-Celtic Pagan traditions. The hedge, we are told, is the domain of the hedgewitch – a folk healer-cum-shaman; a cunning man or wise woman, who works in service of their community from its edges. For these workers of craft, the hedge is a medicine cabinet, an altar, and an axis mundi. It gives us herbs for healing, a place to meet the gods, and a means of journeying into the Otherworld. It is from this latter use that we get the name “Hedge-rider”.

In ancient times, we are told, every village would have been surrounded by a hedge that protected it from the wilds beyond – the village witch would have negotiated this barrier; mediating between the spirits of the forest and the human folk of the village.

The trifecta of wilderness, hedge and village never sat quite right with me. For one thing, you simply didn’t see this feature anywhere in the British landscape in which I grew up. No village I know is surrounded on every side by hedges, nor are woodlands pushed to the rim of each parish like the scum on a bath. Lots of villages – including the one in which I grew up – have a dispersed, not nucleated, pattern. The houses are spread out, not clustered together.

For most of its history, my village was a string of homesteads, scattered around a large area of common land – land that was only built on in the 20th century. Commons – often in the form of pasture, woods, reed beds, and heathland areas, frequently imagined as “wild” places – are usually carefully managed in Britain and Ireland, and were created in spots that, either due to steep topography or infertile soils, were not suited to agriculture. Instead of a landscape in which humans live apart from nature in little enclosures, what you see in reality is something quite different – a patchwork of different types of land use, according to a mixture of geography and human choice. Hedges, in this landscape, are the needlework; the green thread binding everything together. The hedge, in other words, is not the interchange between the village and the wild; but rather the connective tissue between places of all kinds.

We find this pattern reaching far back into the history of the landscape here. While the Celts or Anglo-Saxons would have surrounded their villages with fences made from wooden palisades if they chose, they would head out into the woods to clear patches for agriculture, wherever the soil, aspect, and water supply was preferable. Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most renowned naturalists, tells us that rather than surround villages, the first hedges delimited these clearings. The edges of these clearings, enclosed by bushes and trees, were called haga – the root word for “hedge” today.

It is not hard to imagine how, perhaps while working on until dusk, these first farmers would have spotted haegtessa at the edge of the forest – ephemeral figures of women, skulking between the trees. Sometimes, it might have turned out that what they’d seen was one of their own wives or grandmothers, gathering herbs or praying to the gods. At others, no human visitor to the haga could be identified – and the apparitions would have been attributed to ghosts, fairies, or other beings.

The association between mortal wise women, the haga, and ephemeral spirits stuck. As these early farmers hollowed out more of the wildwood, they left threads of trees and bushes standing, to mark out one field from another. Over time, they trained these plants into a barrier against livestock – the first true hedges of the kind we know today. The shadowy haetessa would live on, as the word “hag”. In a very real sense, then, the hedge represents the essence of the wildwood, living on in the cracks of the British landscape.

But the ancient origins of the hedge are not the whole story; the recent past of these green walls is an altogether more chequered affair. Throughout the Medieval period, the ancient hedges retreated – being cut away to make more space for farming. Across much of England in particular, it ceased to be as important to set apart different fields. In many parishes, agrarable fields and pasture was held in common, as part of the open field system – managed centrally by the entire community through manorial courts. Under such economic conditions, hedges served little purpose.

But this situation did not last. Enclosure – the process by which common land was sold off to private individuals – was carried out steadily throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, before dramatically accelerating, with the assistance of several acts of Parliament, over the course of the 18th century. As environmental historians such as Nick Blomley and John Wright have documented, one of the first acts taken by new owners was often to plant hedges; hedges being a means of excluding commoners from the land that had been taken from them. Prior to enclosure, the rural poor relied on common land – especially pasture – to supplement their diet and obtain fuel. Once deprived of these resources, they had little alternative but to move to the industrialising cities or emigrate.

The rage felt by former commoners was considerable, and riots resisting enclosure were common – with hedges often being crossed through acts of mass trespass and grubbed up as criminal damage in the process. The old saying – Horne and Thorne Shall Make England Forlorne – encapsulates the feeling of the time; with both profit-oriented sheep farming (horne) and enclosure through hedge-laying (thorne) being identified as key instruments through which the poor were immiserated. Under such circumstances, we encounter another incarnation of the “hedge-rider” – the impoverished commoner who leaps across a newly planted line of thorns, to reclaim his birthright.

The hedge, then, emerges from the history of the British landscape in particular as a deeply ambiguous, yet highly potent force from my point of view. The hedge’s origins as the mysterious barrier between cultivated and uncultivated space, as the ubiquitous remnants of primordial woodland, retains much of the power of the original image of the hedge as the border between village and wild, while correcting that image’s flaws. If we imagine the hedge as a barrier between the human and the non-human, this can reinforce the problematic divide between nature and culture; a divide that so bedevils our attempts to live and think sustainably. The hedge’s more recent history as an instrument of enclosure; that kept people off the land, and eventually forced them off it for good; shows precisely the damage this sort of rhetoric can do. We cannot allow hedges to shut us out of nature.

If, on the other hand, we think of hedges as stitching that connects up landscapes of which humans are already a fundamental, and numinous part, then they become a constant reminder of the presence of the other natures in all our lives. Hedge-riding becomes as much a matter of crossing boundaries in defence of the commons, as it is a case of journeying along green roads into the Woods From Which We Come.


Notes

*The islands of Britain and Ireland. The term “British Isles” can imply continued overlordship of the Republic of Ireland by the British crown, and so it is not used here.

Image by Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Raising the Power of the People: Protest as Magickal Ritual

“When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Standing in a circle, we start to chant. Full-throated, rhythmic, and loud, we invoke the honored dead and name our intent. As our bodies move, I feel the energy rise and flow. Hundreds of people are here, focusing all our wills on a single point, sensing the nature of the physical space change around us and hearing an egregore form itself out of us. We process through downtown and find the laws of the ordinary world negated, transcended, pushed aside by our raised fists and the beat of our legs as we shout, “Whose Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter!” Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the hundreds of other Black women and men and nonbinary people that the police have murdered this year – we know the dead are with us, demanding justice. We know that white supremacy will fall because it will be made to fall; we will see this working through.

 


liftarn_a_raised_fist
A well-known magickal hand gesture

Mass protest is magick. That’s literal. It’s not just the accouterments of ritual – although, of course, chanting and processing and invoking the dead often feature prominently. When hundreds or thousands of people gather and focus their collective intent to effect a change in the world, that’s magick. And, indeed, anyone who’s been to a truly powerful demonstration can testify that energy gets raised there, and it’s strong. The surrounding space becomes something different. It’s no longer a shopping mall or an intersection, any more than a consecrated altar is just a few knickknacks on a coffee table. It’s where the protest egregore – “The People,” let’s call it – redefines the marketplace or the thoroughfare as the agora or the Nordic Thing, the self-aware Commons, where the powerful become weak and everything becomes possible.

And, indeed, the ordinary rules do collapse. The People can occupy busy intersections, shut down the infrastructure of commerce and government, and block interstate highways. Under normal circumstances, no one could do anything like that, and very few would want to try. We have to raise the egregore and sanctify the urban space first. Protests happen between the worlds as surely as any devotional ritual or coven working.

 


“My initiations and elevations changed my perception of reality, and they eventually brought me closer to the things that matter.”

Jason Mankey

If an initiation’s done right, you come away transformed. The world doesn’t look the same afterwards, and eventually, you start forgetting how you ever could’ve seen things like you used to. Once you receive the Mysteries, you don’t simply lose them again; once you realize how racist-patriarchal-imperial capitalism dictates the social world, you no longer can’t notice it all around you. Sure, that awareness can come through study or conversation or – rarely – individual perception sharp enough to push past the hegemony of the ruling class. In real life, that’s rarely enough. It usually takes initiatory ritual to break through a lifetime of ideological conditioning. Most of us get there through the direct, firsthand experience of the power of the People. March in protests and participate in that egregore, and you won’t be the same. It’s no coincidence that both ritual theory and Marxist philosophy use the language of inducing a shift in consciousness. Once you’ve encountered the Mystery, your old worldview is no longer sufficient. There’s a change in you, and you find the world changed in turn.

Sometimes, Pagans bemoan our relative lack of developed theology. Our self-definitions are less likely to dwell on systematized belief than on experiences 0f ecstasy. By and large, “Paganism” is a heterogeneous mix of initiatory esoteric currents and orthopraxic public polytheisms. What links us is partly just a shared subculture, but also a broadly held sense that religion needs to be rooted in relationship and practice, rather than textual authority or assent to particular articles of faith. Pagan theology certainly exists (and, considering how young our traditions are, it’s probably better developed than the odds would have suggested). However, it mainly tends to explicate ritual practice and ecstatic subjectivity. Our exegesis isn’t of holy books or infallible prophets’ words; rather, we create theory to account for what we do.

Of course, revolutionary political theory does the same thing with regard to the practice of participatory social change. This website, in large part, involves individuals who find themselves in both streams, identifying and expanding the points of resonance between them. Most of us here have gone through the initiation of protest. We’ve helped raise the egregore of the People, and that necessarily informs our worldviews. We can (and do) theorize at great length about those experiences – but, at the same time, reading isn’t enough. No one should confuse a Book of Shadows with a practical tool like an athame; no one should confuse political theory with practical tools like the People’s Mic, the banner, and the megaphone.

You can encounter it yourself. Don’t take this on faith. Confirm it. Go protest. Raise power. Evoke the People. Shift your consciousness. Transform the world.

 


IMAG0432

Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the Pacific Northwest. They’re a writer and editor for The North Star and an officer in RATPAC and the Communist Labor Party.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

 

 

Staring Down the Precipice: An Interview with Richard Oxman

By William Hawes

Richard Oxman is an educator living in Santa Cruz County, California. After talking both on the phone and by email with him the past few months, he has already become a dear friend to me. As someone interested in revolutionary politics, peace, and in providing a livable world for our children, I grew more and more interested as he began to share his plan for social change in his home state, which he calls Transforming our State of California (TOSCA). The following are excerpts from our ongoing (never-ending!) conversations.

William Hawes: Hey Richard, can you start by telling us a little bit about your past in academia and activism, what you are up to now, etc.?

Richard Oxman: First of all, I’d like everyone to know that I’m dedicating my part in this exchange to Arundhati Roy, who — I know — loved Howard Zinn and his work. In the name of possibly getting the word to her that I want to delineate the nuts and bolts of the “proposal for action” which I’m about to reference, a new paradigm for moving ahead in solidarity which Howard approved of; her “involvement” could create a watershed in history. If nothing else, hearing about the proposed “game plan” would, I’m sure, gladden her heart (and the hearts of many others we both respect).

I’ve been a professor and worldwide educator on all levels for half a century. I’ve taught Dramatic Art, Speech Arts, Comparative Literature, English as a Second Language, all sorts of subjects under the auspices of English departments, Cinema History, U.S. History, Creative Writing, Poetry, and Journalism at many different institutions, including Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey, Long Island University, Seton Hall University, New York Institute of Technology, St. Giles College, and Bronx Community College. In addition, I’ve volunteered the last nineteen years as a tutor and mentor for youngsters in middle schools and high schools all along the demographic spectrum. Here and abroad.

Working in communities of so-called “people of color” has been a special focus of mine, ever since I became an activist at the age of seven in 1949. Following WWI pilot Eugene Bullard almost getting beaten to death a few feet in front of me by a racist, “patriotic” crowd at the Peekskill Riots got me started. It was at a Paul Robeson concert where Pete Seeger was also on the bill, and where his children were almost killed too. So-called “law enforcement” enabled the horror to occur, and — in fact — I saw members of the local police and state police actually enthusiastically participate in the abominations taking place. That experience embedded itself in my blood and bones, and I buried it for decades, not talking about it even with people who I was most close to. That said, it’s always been a current running underneath all I’ve done.

I can’t go through my entire “career” as a proactive concerned citizen, but I should underscore something truly significant about the activist realm today, something I’ve experienced over the last dozen years or so. That is, that the most well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced souls have given up on the so-called Big Picture. Just about everyone is resigned to not being able to do anything on the macroscopic plane in meaningful solidarity. Look at how few writers on our alternative media outlets even give their contact information out… to get a taste of what I’m talking about here. They write their piece, they have their piece posted… and, the value of their work notwithstanding, they return to their treadmills. The same is true for the many who meet occasionally to march in circles with placards in Washington, D.C., the minions who mix it up now and then with obsolete forms of protest which come and go with no sense of hope regarding the Big Picture. No authentic interaction about their personal sense of impotency. Or, from another angle, no sense of the feebleness of the form of protest they’ve embraced.

There’s a lot of fighting the good fight going on, of course, but it’s taking place in tiny little corners, with no one and no organization effectively addressing what Derrick Jensen called the “source of the bleeding” not too long ago. He offered up that image in a Counterpunch article “Confronting Industrialism”, which had medical professionals rushing a stabbed patient into an operating room on a gurney, while the guy who stabbed the patient ran alongside the wheeled stretcher continuing to stab his victim. His point was that no one was really dealing with that source of the bleeding, the so-called madman. Which, in the final analysis, is us, and our lifestyle.

WH: Our political and civic climate here in the US seems to be disintegrating in front of our eyes. How has our social landscape become so fractured over the past 50-plus years? Also, can you explain why today’s activists, social justice groups, and protest movements are not getting through to those in power?

RO: Permit me to work backwards in responding. With regard to “not getting through to those in power,” one must acknowledge — as a very first tiny baby step in the name of participating in meaningful activism — that career politicians (by definition, too self-serving for the Collective Good) are never going to do what “protest movements” are — on bent knee, essentially — asking them to do. They are no longer built of the stuff that’s required to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean that activists shouldn’t ask. But the begging must be supplemented. Everyone is familiar, I believe, with Frederick Douglass’ mantra about power never conceding anything without a demand being made. Well, yes, demands and requests should be made. The “kicker”, though, is that these days that cannot be our primary or exclusive means for bringing about change, the radical institutional changes which are now necessary. In short, we must secure reins of vital decision-making capacity vis-a-vis our collective crises. People with heart, head and soul in a healthy place must be in the driver’s seat. Power knows “the truth”… and, though there’s value in repeating it for them, that must — now — not be one’s only contribution. Speaking truth to power is no more effective in terms of the Big Picture than having one’s head bashed in at the barricades, or participating in a candlelight vigil.

I was at Riverside Church in 1967 when Martin Luther King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. He called for a “radical restructuring of society” at that juncture, a year to the day before they killed him for crying out against what he called the three evils of poverty, racism and militarization, the latter being the main reason that they got rid of him. Well, it’s half a century later, and — on virtually all scores — things have gotten infinitely worse. The two students who stood by me at Riverside, poor kids from the South Bronx who I had gotten off the streets and got into Bronx Community College and Long Island University dropped out of school shortly after the speech for economic reasons, and were both killed in Southeast Asia in 1970. That dynamic, youngsters joining the military and parents giving their offspring over to our war abominations, not only continues fifty years down the road, it has increased immeasurably. Anything written by David Swanson, by the way, you can count on being spot on on this score.

And so… why are we still looking to the career politicians and compassionate corporate heads (that pull the power strings and scams) to be open to our getting through to them? Prestigious UCSC is in my backyard in Santa Cruz County, California, and I can tell you definitively that they and their counterparts nationwide — having been taken over by corporations — have a helluva lot to do with our continuing to compound such ignorance with ignorance. Henry Giroux is worthwhile on this count.

Cabrillo College is very close to where I presently live. If you go onto campus there you’ll find a bust near the Quad of MLK. The caption under his head says something about him being a fighter for civil rights, but says nothing about his stance against our military abominations or their relationship to poverty and racism. Well, our “social landscape” — to a great extent — has been shaped by our institutions of so-called higher education, and when our mainstream media outlets confirm all the misconceptions that are taught in those hallowed halls… well, our political and civic disintegration could be said to be, in part, a function of such dynamics. I mean, is there anyone out there who doesn’t get that corporations are calling the shots with our mainstream media outlets?

In middle schools and high schools — public ones and the charter variety — all still think that a student reading daily, say, The New York Times represents quite an advance. Well, it’s great to encourage reading, but there’s no critical thinking going on among the educators who are compounding ignorance with ignorance among their students by shilling for such tripe. What one gets from the Washington Post and its first cousins with the way such publications are handled does more damage than good. Way more.  And, please, I’m not foul-mouthing a particular publication here. Rather, I’m saying that ALL our common sources of news — the ones most prized in Santa Cruz High School and Stanford University (and their East Coast and Midwest counterparts) are contributing to what you’re calling our fracturing.

WH: Let’s talk about your proposal for your home state, which you call Transforming our State of California (TOSCA). How would it work?

RO:  First of all I want to underscore that — by design — whatever I spell out here in public is not the whole kit and caboodle. One of the huge problems these days in the activist realm is that groups which have something they’re keen on immediately pick up megaphones and make use of social media to tell the powers that be exactly what they intend to do (in full)… and where and when. The “element of surprise” is dispensed with completely with 98% of our activism. Aside from that, though, another reason for intentionally holding back on select nuts and bolts is that providing a telegraphic sound bite inevitably makes red flags spring up for everyone. This or that mentioned on the fly — condensed — begs for in-depth Q&A. And that’s what I’m seeking in agreeing to do this interview.

In short, however, I want to help ordinary citizens (not people interested in a career in politics) secure significant reins of vital decision-making power in California (or any state or country). ASAP. In  the so-called Golden State that means, securing the Sacred Seat of Sacramento, the gubernatorial office. I want the person who is elected to campaign — essentially — on a zero budget. And I want that person — at the very beginning of her/his political campaign — to make it clear to the voting public that — if elected — he/she will serve on an equal basis with eleven other “ordinary” citizens. Meaning, the governor would have one vote out of twelve as the gubernatorial coalition made decisions respecting our collective crises. And all interaction related to our collective crises, among members of the gubernatorial coalition, and between them and lobbyists et alia, would be totally TRANSPARENT. In addition, I want to have the gubernatorial coalition (with top alternative/advocacy journalists) provide “the news” for the Golden State (and beyond) — early on, via their own media outlet — with the idea, in part, of replacing our mainstream media outlets for the general public. This latter point is crucially important for the governor to be able to walk concerned citizens through the necessary direct action steps required to bring about personal transformations and the radical restructuring of society… which petitions to the powers that be will never achieve, as things stand. Please note that I’m not talking about an executive leader with a cabinet at work. I’m talking about what people no longer believe in: Something new under the Sun. I ride on Rocinante all day long.

WH: In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed absolute horrors, from Baghdad, to Orlando, Istanbul, Dallas, and now, Baton Rouge. Also, police killings and brutality against minorities is continuing unabated. How can we fight the terror and counter-terror of the corporate state, which is turning the world into a killing field? And how can a movement like TOSCA lead us to the Promised Land?

RO: It’s necessary to deal — first — with the apathy, cynicism, resignation, ignorance, complicity, bad habits and the inclination to (increasingly) live atomized lives. Among both the general public, and within the ranks of proactive concerned citizens (with their high tech gadgets in hand) To do that, it will be necessary to provide unprecedented inspiration with a singular stirring up of the creative juices of one and all. And that can’t be done with a book or posting or through any presentation taking place on the lecture circuit.

There needs to be an undermining of the myth that money is necessary to secure influential power, so that people can embrace the notion that they can pull off the miracles now necessary without the fruits of Moloch. Without money. Miracles don’t require money, they demand something else. And so… by achieving the miracle I’m proposing vis-a-vis the Sacred Seat of Sacramento without money (HOW having to be another discussion at another time in confidence), the gubernatorial coalition (represented by the governor who has heart, head and soul in an authentically healthy place) can inspire common folks, help them to rise above the psychological and spiritual hole they’ve dug for themselves. Such a sweet soul could help one and all to self-educate and walk them through the steps necessary to “influence” the gangster politicians to pass the appropriate legislation down the line… by encouraging unprecedented direct action. Nothing now will be accomplished which is worth the heartbeats without blending unique direct action with the electoral effort I’m advocating… in a way that the world has not witnessed to date. And this, again, is part of the reason why I’m not delineating all the nooks and crannies of TOSCA here. By the way, TOSCA is just a working title of sorts. I’ve been tweaking it with lots of grassroots input over the last decade plus, and — not too long ago — some local Hip Hop activists recommended that I use 12 Citizens instead. I know that that resonates with you, Will, and it’s fine and dandy with me; the number twelve has all sorts of wonderful references.

The members of the gubernatorial coalition could literally get on their knees and beg out loud in public for forgiveness for what they’ve been complicit in, what we’ve all contributed to. Which is something Hollande should be doing at this very moment with the victims in France, and, arguably, more importantly, with a message to the victims of France these days. The TOSCA/12 Citizens governor could make it very, very clear on her or his own media outlet that such apologies are absolutely necessary for starters. That owning the past that one is complicit in — something career politicians can never do — is essential to taking Step Number Two, which has to do with stopping the killing, as per the pleas of the late Daniel Berrigan. Which translates in my Golden State into the gubernatorial coalition making sure that animal torture on UC campuses is terminated. That the University of California’s relationship to Lawrence Livermore Labs is seriously undermined. That, perhaps, the BDS Movement be given a shot of adrenaline. And on that latter note, why do students continue to beg the Head of the Regents to do the right thing when they could be the Head of the UC Regents? The Regents appoint the President of UC, you know.

I should insert here that I’m citing UC-related matters because the governor of the state — as Head of the Regents of the UC system — can unilaterally and virtually overnight transform life throughout California. Athough he/she has to vote along with other members of the Regents by law, in terms of de facto influence as Head of the Regents, the Governor could actually create a watershed in history on UC’s 26 campuses. I could give you a list of what could be done unilaterally (and post haste) if you want (which would include being able to serve the homeless in historic fashion), but perhaps I should underscore instead what could be done in an off-of-the-campus context. I’ll give one monumentally important example. The Guv can — without as much as even having a conversation with the gangster legislators who are only into self-serving action — pardon thousands of the incarcerated. Virtually overnight. Using any one of a number of approaches to pull that off without a hitch. And in doing so he/she would be reinvigorating the lives of the presently incarcerated souls, and — simultaneously — doing so for their loved ones while inspiring the members of all their communities throughout the state to embrace a Don Quixote attitude about what is possible. Getting everyone onto Rocinante.

The Executive of the State of California could — for the first time in history — call a shovel a shovel. It’s particularly important to do so when that shovel is being used to bury one with. And that would mean being very clear about how rotten U.S. politics and culture is at its very core. The terror sponsored and inspired by the corporate state can only be countered by radically restructuring society as per the pleas of MLK. And that really means revolution. The business of taking over the Sacred Seat of Sacramento to do so is motivated by my desire to have that “revolution” be as nonviolent as possible. The leader of California would have a shot — having secured the gubernatorial office on a zero budget — of grabbing and maintaining public attention long enough to help citizens to self-educate about what role their personal transformations must play in bringing about institutional changes. Would have enough unprecedented respect from the public to get people to (maybe) really get down with, and (maybe) get rid of the bad habits they’ve personally embraced. The ones that prop up the status quo. Runaway consumerism and waste cannot be dealt with without someone pushing the envelope on that score. To say nothing about… much more.

All of the inevitable questions which arise from my saying what I’ve just said beg to be addressed leisurely, not on the run. The red flags and points which people will tend to be dismissive with out of hand must be talked about in great depth, and that’s absolutely essential. None of this can be accepted or rejected wisely or legitimately unless a discussion of what’s here gets into gear leisurely. And everyone’s on the run these days with the fighting the good fight that they’re doing in tiny, tight little corners… having given up on politics, or embracing the electoral arena in obsolete fashion. California’s going to have to be led to do something that’s tantamount to secession of a sort. For no one’s dealing with what I call our frayed cables.

Imagine our getting on to an elevator. I usually use a metaphoric eleveator to make my point, but to save time I’ll invoke a literal elevator here. We get on and we notice that someone’s on their knees in the corner on our left. And they’re wearing a t-shirt which reads Do Not Disturb. They’re feverishly fighting the good fight with their back to us, circulating a petition, calling their elected rep, maybe preparing to get arrested in some nonviolent confrontation with the police. Engaged in some obsolete form of protest which begs for a supplement.  We look to our right and we see a counterpart of that person on the left. Also on their knees with their back to us, wearing the same t-shirt. I turn to you and whisper something. I whisper because soon in this country it’ll be illegal to say what I’m going to say, and do what I’m going to do. I quietly say, “Look up.” And I point to a hole in the ceiling of the elevator. Through the ceiling you can see the cables, and — clearly — they’re frayed. Well, I can tell you definitively — and I have the documentation at home to back this next statement up — that no one in the country — no individual, no organization — is presently up on that ceiling effectively engaged in repairing those cables. No one is addressing that Big Picture. The “documentation” I speak of comes from my having interacted with well over 15,000 concerned citizens during the last dozen years nationwide. And I don’t believe anyone else in the country has come across what I’ve learned about how citizens are thinking and/or working on those cables. Regardless, I’d like the chance to share what’s been so instructive for me. See, what I’m trying to do — bottom line — is to get a handful of proactive citizens to come to the center of the elevator so that we can climb on one another’s shoulders to simply have a chance at dealing with those frayed cables. I haven’t been approaching people as if I have THE answer. Rather, I’ve been all about merely wanting us to have a shot at repairing the cables before it’s too late. And the first step in doing so has to be an acknowledgement about the fact that no one’s up there. There’s no need for everyone to take time out from their tiny little corners. Just a select few who can do it; some people are locked into very necessary work in those corners. I’m already actually on a few shoulders (of people from my past, like Lorraine Hansberry, Jimmy Baldwin, Iris Chang, Adrienne Rich and Howard Zinn) already, and it wouldn’t take many more to make it possible for someone to get up there.

WH: Can you comment more on most of today’s activists, who can be categorized as “reformers” and “progressives”? Most of whom quite simply want to advance social well-being, but do not see the connection to the industrial-corporate state, which must be dismantled for revolutionary change to occur. Which is to say, even if you get that $15 an hour wage, or end homelessness, or kick Halliburton out of one country, those actions will not cut it in today’s interconnected world. You speak wisely about the need to stop working in tiny corners, while no one is seeing the Big Picture. The train has no conductor, and our civilization is headed for a precipice. Can you expand on that?

RO: See, the challenge is this. Someone can lead by having the public change from one brand of toothpaste to another, but what’s needed is tantamount to getting folks to stop brushing their teeth. No one’s slated to do something that’s not in vogue, as things stand.

To bounce off of a chess analogy, the task is not to replace a white rook with a red one, or to substitute a black bishop with a — forgive the pun! — a green piece. Our collective challenge would be to upend the uneven, toxic game board on which we’re being played (on which we’ve been splayed forever), and to do so legally and nonviolently. The pieces, then, would be picked up — ideally — by “ordinary” folks, and placed back onto a brand new board as they see fit. That’s what’s called revolution. Radical change.

It seems the height of insanity for, say, a local organic farmer being content with being exclusively engaged in carving out inroads to grow healthy produce, distribute food nearby regularly, offer some products gratis and/or fighting for proper organic standards with legislators (and helping the public to self-educate about their diets). To not be engaged whatsoever in proactively/directly dealing also with matters like nuclear waste storage, nuclear weapons proliferation, incompetency with regard to nuclear-related control, and the increase in money spent for nuclear reactors, or the ongoing operation of dated nuclear facilities. Any citizen who’s not involved to some degree with addressing such matters — and there are many such matters to deal with, of course — is either not being clear-headed about what’s happening, or having no clarity on what’s headed our way. Kind of like my lovely first born who’s living in New York near Indian Point.

Or — perhaps — not having compassion for the future of children and all of Mother Earth’s lovely creatures. That organic farmer I invoked is not just subject to the horrors being perpetrated by neighbors embracing Monsanto’s products. He/she is also an increasingly likely victim of nuclear holocaust courtesy of NATO. Tiny little corners won’t cut it anymore. Feeling personally good about oneself, and fighting the good fight as per one’s personal passions is no longer enough. The Great American Mantra of Do Your Own Thing has absolutely infected the entire realm of activism. Joseph Campbell would turn over in his grave, I believe, if he knew how his Follow Your Passion had played out down the line.

One wouldn’t want to support someone in WWII Germany who was, say, fighting for having a moratorium on the use of gas chambers for gypsies in 1943 exclusively. Or which was only focused on giving a year’s reprieve to the jews or homosexuals. And yet in Santa Barbara there are lots of well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced concerned citizens spending their activist heartbeats on the agenda of the A Year Without War. It’s a well-meaning organization, just like the organic farmer is likely a sweet, hard-working soul. But none of that expenditure of time and energy is enough now. Anyone who doesn’t see the need for new collective action on the macroscopic plane vis-a-vis the potential of pandemics, nuclear dynamics, climate change and medical access/cost/quality — to name only four of four hundred crises plus — simply isn’t paying attention. The only problem with saving the world is expecting someone else to do it. Well, right now no one’s doing it. And a fresh paradigm for doing so is being begged for.

WH: You often bring up Derrick Jensen with me, an amazing author and ecological thinker. As he and others have pointed out, the domination of man over man is intimately connected with the idea of man’s superiority over nature. For an egalitarian culture to flourish, respect for the non-human world must increase immensely and unconditionally. Can you address the suffering, the loss, the sense of grief many of us bury and repress, that comes with the environmental and social devastation our culture produces? How can we stop, as you say, “compounding ignorance with ignorance”?

RO: Derrick Jensen’s new book (The Myth of Human Supremacy) should be read, by the way. All of what he puts on the table for our kind consideration should, whether or not we agree with every nut and bolt he uses to put together his passionate pleas in his many articles, books and speeches. And I say the same respecting Noam Chomsky. His new Who Rules the World? provides enough for anyone to get busy with moving in solidarity along effective lines. In addressing environmental issues in that work, he underscores that the only folks who are really getting down with what must be done to deal with the powers that be and the horrid momentum they’ve created by having citizens embrace abominable habits and maintaining exclusive control on decision-making are indigenous people.

Once one tunes into exactly what indigenous folks are doing these days to fight, say, extraction of fossil fuels, it’s clear that Noam is tactfully touching upon the need for revolution. Indigenous people, typically, are infinitely more in touch with Mother Nature than the vast majority of U.S. citizens. The reasons for that are multiple, and we need not beat that horse to death right now, I think. Rather, our focus should be on the fact that each of us must start on a very personal note here. How can we do this? How can we do that in solidarity? How about starting with the injunction of Rilke’s (from “Archaic Torso of Apollo”) which goes, “You must change your life.”

A non-politician governor could help citizens immeasurably respecting that monumental challenge potentially. The right person pushing the individual and collective envelope would give people a chance at least of being motivated to go out of their firmly ensconced personal comfort zones… which no politician ever gets into. And — at the same time — send positive ripples nationwide and worldwide concerning exactly what’s needed to blend with Mother Nature and to not go over the precipice. It’s not even being talked about presently in any way that is slated to translate into action. People say, Be the Change You Want. And they say this and that.  But they’re missing the Big Picture of what’s happening and not happening with the frayed cables. There’s talk talk, not walk talk, for the most part. And the walking the walk that is taking place is moving at the pace of an arthritic snail with no real sense of deadlines and/or with no potential for delivering the knockout we need. We have to floor the powers that be. We are in a toxic ring with them, and they won’t let us out. The fight as it’s being waged must end. But most of our activist pugilists have given up on securing a new venue.

WH: Why is TOSCA better poised to make an impact at the state level, than say, a new iteration of the Occupy movement, or a grand coalition of Independents, Socialists, Black Lives Matter, Greens, Libertarians, etc.?

RO: First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that no “new iteration” of Occupy is gathering steam; any form of the Occupy movement — in terms of what’s needed in the Big Picture — is presently marginalized, not moving toward securing the kind of decision-making power on any level that is slated to make a big enough difference soon enough. And there is absolutely no acknowledgement of the “deadlines” I’ve been referring to among any of the groups you’ve cited. Lots of talk is going on, but — at best — the whole kit and caboodle is involved with the application of necessary tourniquets. Much of the work that many individuals within those organizations are doing is praiseworthy and essential in this or that tiny corner. But all the folks you’ve cited are permanently marginalized respecting their being able to secure significant reins of decision-making power.

Let’s take any third party. None of them tell their members that even if their candidate for a major office (like a governor’s office in a given state) were to legitimately win sufficient votes to take office, the powers that be would undermine the victory so that that person (if they were radical along the lines I’m saying is necessary, intending to radically restructure society) would never take office. They have a Plan A, which is focused on securing a sufficient number of votes, but they don’t have the necessary Plan B in gear. Meaning, they don’t really see that the powers that be would either assassinate their candidate, or make sure that electoral fraud kicked in. They’re kind of like the non-profits that are spotlighted in Cowspiracy (fighting climate change). Those organizations — the top ten which are addressing Climate Change are intentionally not mentioning (animal-related) methane matters as a major factor in their battle. Over 50% of the problem. Why? Because they do not want to jeopardize fund raising by raising attention to the need for people to personally transform. Easier to rally folks for contributions if one is not asking them to change their diets. Calling a shovel a shovel in the electoral arena and the realm of activism may lose you members, numbers, money, but that envelope has to be pushed (along with the one that asks for financial support).

TOSCA is all about trying to secure significant reins of power on the gubernatorial level on a zero budget, so finances are not a concern whatsoever. And it has a Plan B to supplement its Plan A. Its approach is not — as is the case with the others — to secure numbers, members by bonding on a superficial/passing basis, as the vast majority of Bernie supporters did recently. As Jill Stein’s followers are doing, their wonderful intentions notwithstanding. As all participants in traditional third parties do as a rule. The “bonding” is not ever very deep, and so any movement in solidarity that’s generated comes and goes. I’m not saying that lovely seeds aren’t planted, but I am saying that what they’re planting — these groups you’ve cited — is not slated to bloom in time. Again, I’m talking about collective deadlines, which the groups you’ve cited are not acknowledging in meaningful action whatsoever. Greens will be quick to say that they are meaningfully engaged in doing something. But not a single Green nationwide has been willing to discuss that with me one-on-one without watching the clock. That dynamic — which is not just limited to the Greens — enables them to hold onto their delusion. And I invite any reps from any of the groups you’ve cited, Will, to engage with me on the score I’m spotlighting leisurely. To test the waters. To allow themselves to be truly challenged. I’m not talking about debate. I’m talking about getting down to relaxed/detailed interaction which does not include anyone judging the exchange.

The TOSCA approach is all about bonding — first — one on one. And instead of using social media to quickly secure great numbers of like-minded souls, it embraces the notion that the only way to proceed initially (in spite of the fact that we do have serious deadlines looming) is to urge someone who you bond with (over what needs to be done) to go to their loved ones, people who trust them… with the prayer that additional bonding will take place. Neither flyers nor appearances with appeals on shows, nor use of films or social networking are important means for getting the ball rolling. None of what’s usually relied upon. Mitch Hedbert, the late great comedian, once told me, “When people come up to me with a flyer, it’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, you throw this away for me!'” That’s got it’s counterpart within the realm of social media.

The apathy, resignation, cynicism, ignorance, complicity and atomized living cited earlier all preclude any “grand coalition” from coming together at present. Look at the depth of the ignorance for a moment of the Sanders campaign. Again, I’m not saying that valuable seeds weren’t planted. I’m saying that everyone should take a good hard look at how many heartbeats were spent on the four-year extravaganza which regularly distracts citizens from doing something together that must be done. The word “revolution” was bandied about cavalierly for the entire campaign, but no one still seems to get the fact that the federal level is lost to us. The offices and the agencies, everything at this juncture related to it is not worth devoting so many heartbeats to. The activist realm cannot afford to have so much time and energy focused on any presidential race. Vote, as you please, but get down (with the vast majority of your heartbeats) with others who are truly involved in bringing about a radical change.

TOSCA asks citizens to use their imaginations respecting what kind of impact securing a gubernatorial office on a zero budget would actually have. I’m riding on Rocinante with that one, I know. But what’s the alternative? To shoot for what people refer to as realistic? In every quarter — including the engaged realms of people you cited — concerned citizens are embracing dated approaches. We need to transform our “state” as we engage in citizen action in solidarity. Meaning, both our psychological and spiritual states must be dealt with as we address the political state. In California, the acronym TOSCA could translate as Transforming Our State of California. Or, from another perspective, Taking Over Our State of California. To secede from the so-called Union. Not to “take over” a public place as per activism that’s in vogue. Take over The Commons permanently. The groups you cited all believe that it’s still possible to be part of the U.S. and be morally and spiritually okay. It is not. We are embedded in something which is rotten to the core. And the celebrities in all quarters who serve as models for our youth are whores. I’m rhyming here to drive home the note that we have to call a shovel a shovel on many levels. Which we are not doing, except with marginalized activist talk talk in tiny corners. It amounts to mental masturbation in groups.

WH: What a novel idea, using our imaginations! It’s all we have, after all! Here’s the thing. Political imagination, converted into action, seems to require a collective scene of artists, workers, and intellectuals, who are informed about history, radical theory, charity for the poor, and world solidarity. This is missing in the frontier, barbaric ethos of US political thought. In Germany Bassam Tibi uses the term “Leitkultur”, which can translate into “leading culture”, or “core culture”. This entails a high European sociological worldview, with respect to human rights, democracy, secularism, universal values, etc. In France, to cite one example, it was the political imagination of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and later the Situationists who opened the world up to new possibilities of social organization. Is it realistic that a movement like what you propose can take hold here in the US, with such flimsy cultural roots?

RO: Yes, even though the culture and the politics here are abominable, imaginations can be stirred up, tapped into. Your wondering how that might be possible, I believe, has to do with being on automatic about numbers. Everyone jumps (prematurely) to a concern about securing the participation of a critical mass when they discuss making a difference in either the electoral arena or the realm of direct action. That’s a huge, common death knell of a mistake. A mental deal breaker, if you will. Meaning, again, the way to proceed has to be one-on-one initially. Contrast that contact with how activists go about stirring up movement in solidarity right now. Let’s get a crowd together that feels abused and scream bootless cries! [Only, exclusively.]

Use your imagination respecting viable options for embracing the more intimate approach. Yes, all is not lost. But how one secures the intimate interaction is daunting; it will require knocking on doors incessantly; standing outside with infinite patience. Meaning, what a given activist will have to go through to come across a single soul who’s open to such exploration will demand many heartbeats. The hopeful note to hang on to, I believe, is that once a core group comes together miracles can be performed. Think of what a handful of women accomplished on that hot summer day in 19th-century upstate New York. With numbers and delusions of all kinds aligned against them.

Regarding imagination, when I ask people to imagine what the impact would be of securing a gubernatorial office on a zero budget, they go blank on me, as a rule. Or they take what I’m throwing out as a red flag, and they prematurely dismiss TOSCA/12 Citizens out of hand. They can’t handle, it seems, being asked to imagine how things could be different with such a new ingredient injected into the activist mix. And tackling that challenge is the kind of thing activists have to get down with, the reality presented by each and every concerned citizen they encounter. Working with that… paying close attention — like a curious child (without answers) — to what emerges from the intimacy. Not being concerned, at first, with numbers. Not embracing cookie cutter ways of proceeding. Preparing for the next meeting in a hurry, harried with flyers in hand.

The documentary Inshallah, Kashmir has a shot of a broken down schoolhouse which has a beautiful set of words scrawled on its crumbling outside walls: Children are God’s way of telling us He hasn’t given up on us. Something like that. That’s what we have to lock into as we engage with one another now, next. The child in one another who has — embedded in his soul — the new paradigm which begs to be implemented. THE answer. I conclude by quoting from E.E. Cummings’ “Children guessed, but only a few, and down they forgot as up they grew.” Something like that. Something far from what adults are practicing. Something that might look lyrical to the likes of little ones. Standing at the opposite end of the spectrum from the end-of-the-world thinking and actions of prosaic adults.

WH: How can interested souls reading this learn more about TOSCA, take action, and get involved?

RO: They can write to aptosnews@gmail.com. And I do hope that someone does. And soon. For we are documenting, debating, demonstrating, diverting and delaying ourselves to death in lieu of doing something new in solidarity that stands to make a big enough difference in time, as one of my home schooled youngsters  has said. I almost didn’t agree to do this interview because of that dynamic, but I’m glad I took advantage of this opportunity. Those who are sensitive to our being the United States of Abominations understand that they are surrounded by bullies in the playground. Bullies, partially blind people and — for the most part — folks fussing about themselves in the mirrors they hold (most dear to their hearts). This interview should be taken as an invitation to rendezvous to create the watershed in history which will enable us to have fun in the playground once again.

William Hawes

is a writer specializing in politics and the environment. You can find his e-book of collected essays here. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, and Dissident Voice. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com

Crafted Recordings Podcast Episode 7: The Deeper Magic of the Commons

This episode is an extended discussion of the Commons, with contributions from David Bollier, George Caffentzis, Massimo de Angelis, Peter Linebaugh, and our own Dr. Bones. Thanks to The Droimlins — Eddy Dyer on guitar and Jimmy Otis on accordion — with their songs “Horse Hooves on the Steppes of Eurasia (765 AD)” and “Tenement Polka.” Also thanks to Eddy Dyer for his vocals and Ethan Winer for his bass on our punk-tinged cover of “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” by Ral Donner. Above all, thanks to the birds in the forest for allowing me to record their conversations one morning.

The commons, as I would call it today, is those social systems in which people create their own alternatives to capital, where they reproduce their own values and value practices which are completely different to that of capital. The commons empower us, essentially. It empowers us not only to define our own way of doing things collectively, together, but also to make us more powerful to sustain the attack of capital, IF we are organized.
–Massimo de Angelis
massimodeangelis

To speak of the commons in the 21st century requires long memory and fierce forgetfulness. For not only has the commons been fenced off from memory, but we must also overcome a few hundred years of capitalism’s deep magic, ensorcelling us to not even be able to recognize, much less formulate and articulate, the commons.

The magic of capitalism runs deep.

There’s a sort of intellectual violence that has brought us to repress our understanding of the commons, and there’s also been a raw military and political violence that made it, for a period of time, dangerous to talk about it.
–George CaffentzisGeorge Caffentzis

Capitalism is perhaps the most powerful sorcery in human history, just in terms of its ability to get shit done. It is a brutally efficient organizing principle, since it can quantify and commodify virtually everything it encounters. A few centuries after its rise, capitalism is by far the most dominant form of social relation in the world. This is not because capitalism somehow benignly ascended to this position through its merit, because people willingly chose it, or even because people accept it as the “least evil” economic system among a litany of poor choices. We must never forget that capital is always imposed by force, by violence if necessary (and it is always necessary, even if the violence is out of sight for those who benefit most from capitalism).

The world as we know it is wrapped up in fences and borders because we allowed others to rule us, to tell us it was their property. Don’t touch this! Don’t do that! This belongs to someone! Well, why? Why does it belong to them? Don’t you see the laws of property are nothing more than a way to get you to obey? What right does someone have, other than an illusion created by the state to buy a building of hundreds of people and increase their rent for no reason? What right does anyone have to take a forest that is sacred to me and my allies? Why am I not consulted? Ah, because I don’t have that falsehood, that lie, called property.
–Dr. Bones
DrBones

Deep Magic Speaks: ‘There is no alternative’

We are taught to believe that there is no alternative to capitalism, and to see the world in a way that reflects this idea. Or if people can imagine an alternative, it’s a free-for-all resource grab with no rules except might makes right. Eventually, we forget that we can have any other kind of social relation than capitalism or chaos. We repeat its incantation —“there is no alternative”—to ourselves and one another, and we deepen our enchantment. And in a strange way, we are unified by our enchantment, because we can always perceive others—both people and resources—in terms of the capitalist vision. And this vision requires that we look at it selfishly—what can I get from this person? How can I profit from this commodity? The deep magic of capitalism entails an indifference to the suffering of others, which makes it sociopathic, and on those occasions when we realize we are a society of sociopaths, we accept it because we have become convinced that there is no alternative.

I’ve long been interested in the history of crime — and here I don’t mean the thieving that is at the base of capitalism, when our subsistence is taken away — instead I mean that thieving for subsistence, which poor people have always been forced to do when their own means of subsistence, namely the land, was taken away. So my first study had to do with the history of crime, which I rapidly learned was the history of people trying to obtain subsistence in a regime of privatization…. Labor history is the history of life, and the history of life can’t be written without the commons.
–Peter Linebaugh
peterlinebaugh

Except, it’s a lie. There are many alternatives, including the older, deeper magic of the commons. The deeper magic that capitalism knew from Day One it would have to bury, to eradicate from peoples’ minds.

Capitalist institutions are more vulnerable than we realize. It remains to be seen if capitalism can survive the pressures of climate change. I tend to have my doubts.
–David Bollierbollier_logo

The signifier of deep magic is participation and complicity. For instance, when our full participation in capitalism is expected, automatic, and unquestioned, then we are under its enchantment. And we all are, to some extent. The poor kid who enlists and finds himself shooting at strangers in the desert participates. The low level cubicle-dweller with a 401k participates. The single mother buying food for her family at WalMart, having had any other mode of social reproduction stolen from her, participates. Every non-cash transaction, using credit or debit cards, Paypal and similar services gives the wizards of financial capital 3-5% right off the top, which doesn’t even include the draconian interest rates, sometimes more than 20% annually if you are really poor, that they charge for the privilege of using their payment system. Paying cash is one step better, since there is no percentage off the top that goes to capital. Yet, even cash is fiat currency: In the US, the Fed invokes a dollar into being, with a mere word that no longer requires breath behind it. Instead, there is debt behind each dollar from its inception (capitalists never create money for nothing). People take those dollars and circulate them, everyone behaves as if they are real, more real than the homeless camp hidden at the edge of town. These wizards’ tendrils dig in to nearly every transaction most of us do. So we participate. All of us do.

The magic of capitalism runs deep.

Actual commoning is generally only recognized when it’s taken away. When you lose the sidewalk in the suburban development, or when you lose the water fountain in the school you attend, you realize that, oh, I had part of the land where I could walk. I had water that was healthy that I could drink for free. So this expropriation or removal of the commons is often the first time that we get to see that such a thing ever existed.
–Peter Linebaugh

Review: The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles claimed, in The Communist Manifesto, that the history of all societies has been that of class struggle.  In a later edition, however, Engels inserted the following footnote:

“That is, all written history.”

What led to that clarification? Specifically, the discovery by anthropologists that pre-literate societies in Russia and elsewhere had held land in common. While all written histories of the world were founding narratives for the right-to-rule of the upper classes, unwritten histories told a different tale: stories not of hierarchies and class, of propertied rulers and priests, but of ways of being where property belonged to everyone and no-one.

In the footnote, Engels adds:

“with the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes.”

It’s tempting  to call these primeval societies ‘pagan’ and perhaps we should.  As Oscar Wilde suggested, the best way to overcome a temptation is to give in to it.  Besides, much of modern Paganism draws from the myths and relationality of less hierarchical societies, borrowing from the later-recorded oral histories of gods and spirits–with very liberal applications of imagination and dreaming—to create a New/Old way of being.

Likewise, Paganism can be said to be reaction to Civilisation, or at least a certain understanding of it. The alienation of modern workplaces, the vapidity of technological distraction, and the apparent emptyness and Authoritarian nature of major religious forms compel many of us to look elsewhere for our meaning.  For most of us, Paganism as we currently create it provides exactly that alternative.

If our desire to live according to Pagan forms of being is compelled by more than mere dissatisfaction with what’s on offer from the marketplace, churches, malls, televisions, cubicles and burger stands–that is, if it isn’t only a matter of consumer preference, but actually a resistance to those things—then no day embodies that desire, that compulsion, that celebration of the body and the natural world like Beltane, or May Day

But May Day doesn’t just belong to Pagans. While perhaps hundreds of thousands celebrate Beltane, many millions more in cities across the world have enacted a different sort of ritual, the revolt of worker against boss, renter against landlord, marcher against cop, of world-time against clock-time.

Are these May Days so different?

History From Below

Ask that question to Peter Linebaugh, and one imagines he would laugh, and then give you some very wild–and dazzling–history lessons.

In The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, a new collection of his essays published by PM Press, Peter Linebaugh explores both threads of May Day, the Pagan threads (what he calls “The Green”) and the anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist threads (“The Red”).

The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day is a collection of 11 essays, each written about and for May Day (and, as he cheerfully notes in the introductory essay, sometimes written ‘the night before’ the occasion) which dance and weave into each other like the ribbons of a maypole.

Linebaugh doesn’t tell history in lines, and that’s a good thing. Linear history is the story of the machine-age, the mechanistic world of the factory and the skyscraper, the narrative of progress and the line-up to the gas chambers. Such a history wheels along, unstoppable along iron tracks past the present. Through its windows we might catch a glimpse of the ‘great men’ of earlier times, the generals and warlords, men of religion, men of industry, men of science; if, that is, the black smudge of coal and petrol smoke does not obscure our view.

Peter Linebaugh doesn’t tell the story of those people, he tells ours, the ‘History from Below,” and he recounts it not in lines but in webs, nets, drawing threads and throwing cables across vast distances to connect the people who actually live history, rather than watch it parade by.

For Linebaugh, the worker and the witch, the coal miner in Appalachia and the prisoner in London, the dead Sioux and the Italian anarchist, the daughter of an African slave and the German philosopher are all part of the same dance, each holding a coloured ribbon about the pole which unites us.

The Dance of the Red & The Revolt of the Green

The Green of Beltane and the Red of May Day are interwoven through their shared acts of resistance against Authority and the demands of the bosses. As he explains in the title essay (originally written as a tract in 1986):

Green is a relationship to the earth and what grows therefrom. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red designates death with surplus labor. Green is natural appropriation; Red is social expropriation. Green is husbandry and nurturance; Red is proletarianization and prostitution. Green is useful activity; Red is useless toil. Green is creation of desire; Red is class struggle. May Day is both.

(p.11)

The essay opens with a history of the Green, the pagan and irreligious celebrations from which most modern witches and pagans reconstruct the holiday. That it needed to be reconstructed at all further entwines the red and green threads together:

The farmers, workers, and child bearers (laborers) of the Middle Ages had hundreds of holy days which preserved the May Green, despite the attack on peasants and witches. Despite the complexities, whether May Day was observed by sacred or profane ritual, by pagan or Christian, by magic or not, by straights or gays, by gentled or calloused hands, it was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. Whatever it was, it was not a time to work.

 

Therefore, it was attacked by the authorities. The repression had begun with the burning of women and it continued in the 16th century when America was “discovered,” the slave trade was begun, and nation-states and capitalism was formed.
(p.14)

 

As Authority and the needs of Capitalists sought to form humans into machine-workers, festival days during which no work was to be done (as he points out, hundreds, and all of them sacred) became sites of battle. The celebration of May Day was banned, but as Linebaugh shows, this only made the celebrations more anti-authoritarian. In England, the May Day games were thereafter called the “Robin Hood Games” by the peasants, initiating the ‘Red’ current.

Of course, May Day is better known to the world not as an ancient European tradition, but a day of mass strikes, revolts, and marches to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. The events that day came about as part of a workers movement to reduce the length of the workday to 8 hours and to protest State repression and murder of labor activists. For Linebaugh, this is both the Red thread (leftist organisation against Capital) and the Green thread (the demands of the people for time to actually live life, rather than toil).

The Great Tapestry of Resistance

Other essays in the collection explore more of the modern class struggle centered on May Day. His essay X²: May Day In Light of Waco and LA explores the relationship between class struggle and social justice through the lens of Exploitation and Expropriation (the source of the X²).

1992 saw the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, during which 55 people were killed, thousands of people injured, and millions of dollars of property destroyed after a jury found the police officers who had severely beaten Rodney King not guilty of excessive force.

A common trick of Authority and the media is to de-legitimize the political anger in such uprisings, particularly amongst Black folk. Because much of the damage to business occurred not to white-owned establishments but to Asian-owned shops, the Rodney King Riots were written off as blind rage or even racist.

But Linebaugh sees in these events (which occurred during the few days before and few days after May Day that year) the same repeating form which led to the Evil May Day Riots in 1517. Artisans in London attacked foreign merchants and bankers who had been brought in by the King to undercut wages and destroy the organising power of the guilds.  Manipulating immigration policy has always been a trick of the powerful against the lower classes.

It’s in such places that Linebaugh’s historical narrative becomes most powerful and truly international.  Linebaugh is particularly adept at showing the relationship between events in Europe and events in North America, a transatlanticism unfortunately rare in most histories.

Europe and North America are not the only continents where Linebaugh finds the spirit of May Day. Africa, the Middle East, and Asia all birth the repeating form of resistance. The threads intertwine fast and taut: anti-colonial struggle in Kenya connects to the Black Panthers, the struggle for the commons in Indonesia to student movements in the United States, striking soldiers from England to Ghandi and displaced Arabs, and eastern European vampire myths connect to privatisation and austerity moves in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

By the final essay (his retirement speech from the University of Toledo), the world of the Red and Green, the histories from below, have become a great tapestry of resistance which, like the title of the book, is True, Wonderful, Authentic….and Incomplete.

Like his other works, Peter Linebaugh leaves you dazzled, full of great optimism and the sense that the world is much smaller and an end to Capital much closer than you ever dared hope. But just as quickly, the stories end, the tapestry seems to fade away and you are left holding the colored cords, unsure what comes next.

His history of May Day is indeed incomplete. There are many, many more May Days to write about, including the one approaching. Will the Green and Red finally win this time? Will they twine together, braiding with all the other colors of the earth’s fecund life? The Black threads are there too, as are the Asian, the First Nations (see particularly his earlier work on Tecumseh in Stop, Thief!.) the Arab and the white, great ribbons all suspended from the top of a great tree.

Will we dance the world Peter Linebaugh shows us into existence around that pole this year? Or will it be the next? Either way, in his final lines Linebaugh invites us to that dance:

We have the world to gain, the earth to recuperate. M’Aidez! M’Aidez!


Incomplete True Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day can be ordered direct through PM Press. Also recommended is his essay Ned Ludd and Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811–12″


 

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is a writer, theorist, Anarchist, Marxist, and Pagan living in a city by the Salish Sea in Occupied Duwamish Territory. He laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, growls when he’s thinking, and does all those things when he’s in love. He’s the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals, also writes at Paganarch, and can be supported on Patreon.


 

Speaking of May Day, the second issue of the Gods&Radicals Journal A Beautiful Resistance, “We Bring The Fire” is due for release soon. There’s still time to pre-order or subscribe!

 

The Cutting Edge

“The fragmentation and decay of global industrial civilization could also encourage the revival of [technologies…] discarded along the path of capitalist development but highly applicable on a small scale. These considerations could inform the construction of the alternative material and social spaces that anarchists construct in the present tense — from eco-farms and occupied factories to urban squats and community gardens. [This would be a] “subversive micropolitics of techno-social empowerment” that experiences it “in an open and participatory process that seeks social conflict and technical difficulty as spaces in which to construct ourselves for ourselves.” ~ Uri Gordon

Recently I found myself in the unlikely position of learning how to use a scythe.

Where I live in suburbia, a group of local volunteers have been turning a stretch of disused railway line into a wildlife reserve. At first glance such a narrow strip of land seems an unpromising place for this type of project, but the steep gradients of the railway embankment have protected it from development, while the shape of the space creates an important wildlife corridor. Already it has started to become a remarkable local habitat and I can pretty much guarantee any of my walking companions that I will be able to show them birds such as the beautiful Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula); a species otherwise in rapid decline in England as whole.

The railway track also has meaning to me as the path that I take when headed out to visit some of my tutelary Others. To put it one way, it’s a place where ‘the unity of self-benefiting and other-benefiting’ is very tangible for me. So I wanted to do something to say thank you and, a couple of years back, began to get involved with maintaining the reserve.

Bullfinch_male
“Bullfinch male” by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

About three-quarters of the railway line is high up on an embankment covered in a wide-variety of trees, shrubs and plants including feral rose and honeysuckle (escaped from nearby gardens) and silver birches which seem to love the bed of old grey ballast stone in which the rails used to rest. Further along, the track declines and runs through a cutting with a narrow area of meadow either side which merges into bramble thickets and steep tree covered slopes. This meadow has to be cut or it becomes rank, loses bio-diversity and reverts to scrub. Using traditional tools such as a scythe to do this work avoids reliance on fossil fuels and can also prevent the indiscriminate damage that powered machinery such as strimmers cause to certain plants and young trees.

 

A body full of life & consciousness of its own

Like any tool, a scythe can be hard work and easy to damage if you don’t have the right technique down. As I worked my way along the meadow I could easily see and feel how I was improving as time went on. One morning of work is not enough to allow me to speak with any confidence on the subject but as far as I could tell the main rule is to trust the blade.

A scythe is to a machete as a violin is to a toy drum. As you find the right angle for the blade, and the perfect arc of the scythe around the body, the effort involved reduces enormously and it becomes about rhythm rather than force. Every ten minutes or so you stop and sharpen the blade with a whetstone – which you actually wet, something I never knew before – with a couple of pulling movements of the flat of the stone on the cutting side, and then brush the ‘burr’ off the near side with the edge of the stone.

Niittomiehet
“Niittomiehet by Pekka Halonen

“The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.”

~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Embodied experience that is held in common

I picked up the scythe as an offering and act of gratitude, and for no other reason. When using it, though, I couldn’t help thinking of all the people who have used that venerable tool throughout time; from the Swiss that I still see using scythes to cut their meadows, way back to the Roman period when the tool is thought to have been developed. I say ‘thinking’, but it was more ‘feeling’. When we wield tools we immerse ourselves in an embodied experience that is held in common. The beauty of this was that I wasn’t engaged in ‘re-enactment’. Rather I was communing with an aspect of the physical experience of our human ancestors, and to an end that was not nostalgic or recreational, but practical, educational, and reclaiming.

“Tolstoy was not so foolish as to pretend that a day’s mowing could be the making of fallen mankind. But at least it is real, direct experience…” (Source)

I don’t think any readers of Gods & Radicals need reminding of the myriad causes for despair and alienation that surround us, and yet with a will – especially a communal will – it’s still sometimes possible to find opportunities for re-embodiment, ancestral communion, and creative wholeness in the cracks and interstices of suburbia.

Either way, if systems such as Capitalism try to turn us into tools, while others such as Communism use the symbolism of tools as manipulative propaganda, perhaps reclaiming our bodies and minds must start with intimately knowing the tools which we use and engage with in our daily lives.

What tools do you use and how do they shape your experience of embodiment, or your engagement with the Other-s?

———

Accipiter Nisus is a Mahāyāna-influenced animist, based in the U.K. East Midlands. His practice is eclectic but particularly emphasises divination, drift-walking, and mandala offering.

On the Wings of Birds

The phrase ‘Gods & Radicals’, was something of a koan to me when I first considered submitting material to this journal. I’m wary of the term ‘radical’ which so often slips from its original meaning of ‘seeking change from the root up’ into the values-empty ‘change by whatever means necessary’. On a recent walk, however, I found the two words ‘Gods’ and ‘Radicals’ suddenly coming together very naturally …

'Nature Reserve' by Accipiter Nisus (C)
‘Nature Reserve’ by Accipiter Nisus (C)

Making Space for the Other-s

Sometime ago I made a small contribution to a fund-raising campaign to save a gravel pit near my home from commercial development; the intention being to turn it into a wildlife reserve and public space. Amazingly, even in this time of economic austerity, the appeal raised the full amount needed; including £90,000 ($13,7228) from the local community. Then, within mere months of the local Wildlife Trust carrying out the initial habitat creation work, many previously unrecorded or rare species quickly began to arrive; including over a 1000 spiritually iconic and critically endangered northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). That, I realised, is radical! And the fact that so many lapwing arrived so quickly got me to thinking about the status of other displaced beings, including gods, and how they may be wandering and dwindling for want of a place. 

Diversity is a hallmark of Gods & Radicals, and a happy one, but I suspect that a common value we may well all share is the certainty that just as we are embodied beings in need of a tangible life-world, so too – in a different but parallel sense – are the gods. One of the definitive phases in the history of disenchantment was surely when people were successfully sold the idea that we need only make a shrine for the sacred ‘in our hearts’.

'Nature Reserve' by Accipiter Nisus (C)
‘Nature Reserve’ by Accipiter Nisus (C)

Not only is there now a new place for a much wider-diversity of beings to exist in my immediate area but local people have gained access to a 115 acre space were they can interact with those beings and with the elements. This again is radical since nearly every other sizeable green space in the area is a private golf course (and our one public local wood is threatened by development). You could say that it is a win for local people’s mental health as much as it is for wildlife.

From a polytheistic point of view it is also, I believe, a small strategic victory in the long-term project of acknowledging the gods and Other-s. A 2014 BBC survey found that two thirds of the British public could not identify the songs of common garden birds such as blackbirds, sparrows or robins. Another 2014 survey by the British Wildlife Centre found that 95 per cent of young children were unable to identify UK animals such as squirrels and otters. If people are unable to identify, are unaware of, or fail to pay attention to other beings such as these; how will they ever apprehend the gods and spirits (especially those which are elusive and reticent after centuries of neglect)? Gradually extending people’s opportunities to encounter the Other-s is a vital step in the process of reenchantment.

What could be an agalma for today?

I think that my comments above make a pretty strong case, but consider this also  …

In many historical polytheistic religions, and some modern ones, we find the concept of making gifts or forms to attract and woo the attention of the gods and Other-s. In Hellenic polytheism – at one time – such a gift, often a votive statue, was called an agalma (άγαλμα).

Back then producing something like a bronze statue would have demanded a considerable sacrifice from an individual or community and so it was a highly meaningful gift. [1] While I am not claiming that producing such an item would be cheap nowadays, the fact remains that what constitutes a sacrifice to us now is very different. Although I’m currently between contracts, the public servant’s wage that I earnt for a decade (which was several thousand pounds below the national average salary) put me in the richest 4% of the world population. In such circumstances, for many of us, what constitutes scarcity is not material goods but space and so-called ‘free time’. These are the two things that are hard for us to access and therefore some of the most precious things we can give.

Another illuminating thing about the history of the agalma is that Lacanian theory borrowed and psychologised this term, allowing Slavoj Žižek to make the striking observation that:

‘What characterizes European civilization […] is precisely its ex-centered character—the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object-cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of our own civilization.’ [2]

Considering what might constitute an agalma for today, I’ve suggested that this is time and space. Bearing Žižek’s comment in mind, it then becomes clear why we fall so easily into the activity of colonisation, and it also becomes clear why the careful creation of common spaces within our own societies is so important as an anti-colonial activity.

Equally important to note is that when engaged in both of these activities, colonialism or anti-colonialism, we tend to fill the spaces and time that we claim or reclaim so as to constitute what we – in our loss and yearning – imagine would be a suitable divine lure. In other words we are impatient and assume too much, creating a mirror of our own wants rather than a habitat for the Other-s. As such, excited though I am about what beings I may encounter, I’ll not be preemptively anticipating the presence or attention of any specific deities at the site of the new nature reserve; instead heeding the advice of the poet and anarchist Gary Snyder who says in his book The Practice of the Wild:

‘There’s no rush about calling things sacred. I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future. The cry of a Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of a Grey Squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof – are signs enough.’ [3]

Given time and space – both reclaimed in an ethical way – displaced gods may return and new ones arrive; their coming heralded by the wings of birds.

~ Accipiter Nisus

Sources:

  • I could not find an average cost for an agalma type image but Judith Swaddling states on a BBC history article that “Statues of bronze or marble [commissioned by Olympic athletes] could cost up to ten years’ wages for the average worker” (and would often have to be sponsored by the state). Today a 21 cm tall lost-wax bronze statue imported from Nepal via an ethical company costs around one to two months average UK discretionary income (what’s left after paying for food, utilities and travel).
  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, (Counterpoint: Berkeley 1990, pp.102-103)
  • Slavoj Žižek, From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001)