“Strange dreams are stirring, drifting into the sleeping consciousness of mystics, visionaries and revolutionaries. Dreams of the fallen and most often the forgotten—those who fought in all of the uprisings and revolutions since the beginning of history. They stir on the edges of sleep like revenants besieging a presidential palace. They want us to hear them and to heed their call.”
Gods&Radicals is thrilled to announce the pre-sale for Christopher Scott Thompson’s Pagan Anarchism
What is Pagan Anarchism?
Witches who poison bosses and landlords. Slave revolts instigated by a god of ecstasy. Eviction notices issued in the name of land spirits and Faerie queens. A ghostly general leading loom breakers. Elves who destroy factories.
Were these all merely myths, they’d still be more true than the superstitions upholding Empire and Capital. Yet they’re not myths, but our own history: the history of uprisings, of a fierce magic and a revolutionary current woven throughout the threads of Paganism and anarchism. As historian Peter Linebaugh named them, they are the ‘Red and Green,’ the revolutionary and the Pagan threads which comprise the yearly celebration of May Day.
Poet, writer, anarchist, and Pagan Christopher Scott Thompson pulls and spins these threads that run from Rome to the Occupy Movement, from the Levelers and Luddites to the witchpunx and Wobblies–and from them weaves a tapestry of revolution.
Book Information: Nonfiction, 6×9 inches, perfect-bound paperback, matte cover, b&w with images.
The current state of American politics must make us question whether any of our leaders in the Beltway can be described as “grown-ups”, i.e., fully mature and sane individuals. Between the endless war crimes, corporate corruption, lobbyists who bribe congressmen and write legislation, and the ineptitude of federal entities who are supposed to protect our health such as the FDA, EPA, and CDC, it would appear that leaders in all three branches of government, as well as the leaders of the corporate world, are either insane, suffer from various psychological disorders, as well as suffering from a type of collective hallucination, the common denominator being an utter lack of empathy for others humans, or respect for the Earth.
Further, we must at least question whether collectively, we the citizenry, are as susceptible to mass delusions as our psychopathic leaders are. Our society can be effectively generalized as forming what Paulo Freire calls a culture of silence, many of whom see no problems with exploiting and despoiling other countries, looting wealth, and killing millions; and many more that are simply afraid to speak out against the indignity of the US empire, in fear of socio-cultural reprisals. This culture of silence, which we are taught at a young age, indoctrinates and effectively eliminates the ability of people to form critiques of our rotten political and economic systems. This is who Richard Nixon was really referring to, when he spoke of the “Silent Majority”: citizens too naïve, dumb, childlike, and afraid to confront the injustices inherent to our system were exactly who Tricky Dick was appealing to.
While many of us pretend that something as silly as “American exceptionalism” exists, and fall victim to the myth of rugged individualism that permeates all aspects of civic life and economics, the sad truth is that we’ve become a nation of petulant children. While we fantasize about Jeffersonian notions of small businesses and republicanism guiding our way of life, transnational conglomerates control our agricultural output(killing us slowly with GMOs and pesticides) and our media landscape (brainwashing us with neoliberalism and propaganda).
Marx and Engels tuned us into the ideological war imposed by capitalism, which distorts and confuses workers’ belief systems, alienates workers from themselves and their work, and attempts by subterfuge to shift the blame of ruthless exploitation away from the ruling class. This was called false consciousness, and later, Sartre used the term mauvaise foi (“bad faith”). Gramsci defined the ideological control of capitalists over the socioeconomic system as cultural hegemony. Many readers are intimately familiar with these ideas. So why does this critique of the left from John Steinbeck still ring so true:
“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
As Paul Goodman explained so lucidly, we’ve all been Growing Up Absurdfor generations, trapping many in the chrysalis of adolescence for their entire lives. As he pointed out:
“The accumulation of the missed and compromised revolutions of modern times, with their consequent ambiguities and social imbalances, has fallen, and must fall, most heavily on the young, making it hard to grow up.”
There is no mystery why Goodman entitles his chapter on missed revolutions in the fields of the physical environment, the socioeconomic model, political and constitutional reform, morality, and reforms dealing with children and youth, “The Missing Community”. For youth today, just as in his day, have few responsible role models, a repressive and prison-like atmosphere in schools, with consumerism and technology determining every aspect of a child’s search for joy and wonder, and now, the artificial edifices of social media and “augmented reality” is replacing genuine interaction. Indoctrinated to fit into a system of war, corporate monopolies, vapid pop culture, and not encouraged to think critical about their country or world cultures, children become jaded as soon as they realize that the notions of freedom, equality, and sharing that their parents and teachers taught them were based on lies. We must reverse this tide, lest we forget Walter Benjamin’s saying that:
“Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.”
Studies have shown that about 7-8% of the general populationsuffers from PTSD at some point in their life. This is almost certainly a severe underestimate. Most cases of severe trauma, abuse, and PTSD go unreported and untreated, leading to years, decades, or lifetimes of suffering. Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD as men, due to rape, sexual and/or domestic abuse, and harassment.
These conditions of extreme trauma and stress, rooted in the coercive, exploitative aspects of schools, corporations, jails, and organized religions, permeate every aspect of society, and reinforce our deepest ideological confusions: the line between personal property and coercive private property is purposely blurred by the bourgeoisie, fulfillment is replaced by “fun”, civic duty is replaced by retreating into the shell of private life, and diplomacy is usurped by war. Brought up in such a totality of fear and violence, it is no surprise that many never progress psychically beyond the stage of the child, or to seek out fulfillment instead of base entertainment.
The wit of the novelist Trevanian is instructive when addressing the Western symptoms of ennui and anomie:
“It’s not Americans I find annoying, its Americanism: a social disease of the post-industrial world that must inevitably infect each of the mercantile nations in turn, and is called ‘American’ only because your nation is the most advanced case of the malady, much as one speaks of Spanish flu…Its symptoms are a loss of work ethic, a shrinking of inner resources, and a constant need for external stimulation, followed by spiritual decay and moral narcosis. You can recognize the victim by his constant efforts to get in touch with himself, to believe his spiritual feebleness is an interesting psychological warp, to construe his fleeing from responsibility as evidence that he and his life are uniquely open to new experience. In the latter stages, the sufferer is reduced to seeking that most trivial of activities: fun.” (2)
This is corroborated by Jean Liedloff, whose experiences with the Yequana and Sanema tribes of Venezuela allows her to contrast their indigenous traditions and child-rearing with the failure of civilized parents, and the resulting insipid, infantile behavior of Western adults and general culture:
“Novelty…is so much a part of the present phase in our culture that our natural resistance to change has been distorted…Nothing is ever allowed to be good enough, nothing ever satisfactory. Our underlying discontent is channeled into desire for the latest things…Among the things high on the list are those that save labor…When success as a passive baby has not been experienced, there is a penchant for button-pushing, for labor-saving, as an assurance that everything is being done for, and nothing expected of, the subject…The impulse to work, necessarily a strong one in a healthy continuum, is stunted…Work becomes what it is to most of us: a resented necessity. And the labor-saving gadget gleams with a promise of lost comfort. In the meantime, a solution to the discrepancy between the adult desire to utilize one’s abilities and the infantile desire to be useless is often found in something aptly called recreation.” (3)
The implications are clear: our culture does not allow us to grow up, because to do so would invoke a critical response and a revolution against the forces of tyranny. Recently, Henry Giroux asked:
“Where are the agents of democracy and the public spaces that offer hope in such dark times? What role will progressives play at a time when the very ability of the public’s ability to translate private troubles into broader systemic issues is disappearing? How might politics itself be rethought in order to address the pedagogical and structural conditions that contribute to the growing intensification of violence in all spheres of American society? What role should intellectuals, cultural workers, artists, writers, journalists, and others play as part of a broader struggle to reclaim a democratic imaginary and exercise a collective sense of civic courage?”
First, we must accept the fact that each of us is an agent of democracy, and we must reclaim the public spaces, and smack down the harmful myth regarding “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The answers to Giroux’s plea lie in our ability to raise healthy, strong children who are not seduced by the siren calls of capitalism and patriotic-approved state violence. This should be supplemented by alternative education programs for children and adults, and basic life and practical lessons passed down from parents, grandparents, etc. This doesn’t mean each parent has to teach their kid trigonometry. It means each town has to model itself to promote a viable village atmosphere, and foster a sense of community, with renewable energy, grassroots arts and music, and small to medium scale organic agriculture.
It will mean embracing the truth that industrial civilization is destroying the world, and rather than wallowing in self-pity at having our illusions destroyed, rising up and embracing a culture based on ecology, enlightenment, and virtuous edification of our youth.
1.) Jensen, Derrick. Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, Vol. 1. Seven Stories Press, 2006. p. 69-70.
2.) Trevanian. Shibumi. Three Rivers Press, 1979. p. 306
3.) Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. Da Capo Press, 1975. p. 114-115.
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, The World Financial Review, Gods & Radicals, and Counterpunch. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This episode was a treat. I was lucky enough to interview A Peoples’ Remembrancer, Peter Linebaugh, on Bastille Day. These comments are taken from that conversation. We spoke about a lot of things, including Bastille Day; the Green and Red struggles of May Day; prisons, plantations, & the factory as locations of struggle; coal miners; the lungs as part of nature; rewilding the cities; welfare as referring to wellness; how the magical Will is a social creation and becomes more powerful when shared collectively; and revolt as a Peoples’ Magic.
The excitement, the joy, the emotions, and the will is collective when it becomes powerful, and then it produces events that are totally unthought of. Who could have possibly imagined that a wall 90 feet high, in parts 30 feet thick, surrounded by a moat deep enough to drown in, who would have thought that such an edifice which had remained for centuries could be brought down in the space of less than 24 hours. That’s what we’re celebrating on the 14th of July, 1789. This edifice of tyranny, this edifice of repression, this action of people who are rewilding it has provided inspiration for every urban revolution that has ever taken place, and it provides us inspiration now that the carceral archipelago, the huge military prison complex of the USA, can be brought down in a twinkling. These are the miracles of history, but it’s just as accurate to say these are peoples’ magic.”
Several months ago, I had an opportunity to record Moore, Wild, & Lynch in a living room in Maine. The music in this episode, an instrumental called “The Jig,” is from that session, along with several ambient recordings of city people celebrating and the ocean.
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.
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.”
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.
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 email@example.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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I imagined to myself that the House of Commons were going to divide the common lands among the poor. But what was my astonishment and my indignation, when, by the after-clauses of the bill, I found that the poor and indigent were to be driven from the commons; and the land which before was common to all, was now to become the exclusive property of the rich! – The honourable House of Commons vanished from my sight; and I saw in its stead a den of thieves… (John Oswald)
The founder of anarchism as a modern political philosophy is generally held to be either William Godwin (1756-1836) or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Some of the most influential ideas in anarchist philosophy come from Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), who proposed a system of anarcho-communism. Kropotkin’s ideas later influenced Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), whose philosophy has now been taken up by the Kurds in Syria. Bookchin’s system -which is not strictly anarchist – is based on networks of directly democratic people’s assemblies.
Forgotten in all histories of anarchism is the extraordinary and obscure figure of John Oswald, a veteran of the Black Watch Highland Regiment who turned his back on colonialism, lived for a time with the Kurds, joined the Jacobin Club in Paris, taught martial arts to the revolutionaries and then died in combat in the Vendée.
In a short work called “The Government of the People, Or A Sketch of a Constitution for the Universal Commonwealth,” Oswald proposed a system of directly democratic people’s assemblies in 1792 – a year before Godwin and decades before Kropotkin. Oswald never became as influential as these other thinkers, but you could make the case that he should be considered one of the founders of modern anarchism.
He was also, at least in some sense, a pagan. Consider this passage from his vegetarian tract “The Cry of Nature”:
But not to the animal world alone were the affections of man confined: for whether the glowing vault of heaven he surveyed, or his eyes reposed on the greeny freshness of the lawn; whether to the tinkling murmur of the brook he listened, or in pleasing melancholy melted amid the gloom of the grove, joy, rapture, veneration filled his guileless breast: his affections flowed on everything around him; his soul around every tree or shrub entwined, whether they afforded him subsistence or shade: and wherever his eyes wandered, wondering he beheld his gods, for his benefactors smiled on every side… From that joyous commotion of his heart arose the Queen of young desire; on the fond fluctuation of his bosom glided the new-born VENUS, deckt in all her glowing potency of charms. And thou too, O CUPID, O CUPID, or if RAMA-DEVA more delight thine ear; art thou not also with all thy GRACES a glad emanation of primal bliss?
Oswald’s writing style tended to be even more florid than 18th-century tastes required, but to sum up what he’s saying here in one sentence: humanity in prehistoric times worshiped the powers of nature under the names of the pagan gods, through instinctive gratitude for the beauty of the world.
Oswald was definitely what we would now call “anti-civ.” He goes on to say:
misled by the ignus fatuus of science, man forsook the sylvan gods… hence the inequality of ranks, the wasteful wallow of wealth, and the meagerness of want, the abject front of poverty, the insolence of power…
While I do not personally agree with his primitivist stance, I find it fascinating that Oswald linked the abandonment of pagan religion and the birth of inequality. Some of the ideas we talk about here at Gods and Radicals are not as new as people assume – they go right back to the birth of anarchism and the earliest days of the modern pagan revival in the late 18th century.
At that time, both paganism and atheism were seen primarily as statements of rebellion against Christian orthodoxy, and most people made no clear distinction between them. Godwin’s son-in-law, the poet Shelley, portrayed himself as an atheist in some contexts and as a pagan in others. Oswald was much the same, and was known for his intense hostility to organized religion. The few historians to write about him usually describe him as an atheist, but his own writings make it clear that Oswald was at least highly sympathetic to paganism. If he was still alive today, he would probably be one of the pagan humanists or atheo-pagans. According to Oswald:
The first adoration of mankind was paid, no doubt, to heaven and earth, and this worship was nothing else than a sentiment of gratitude emanating from the heart… The offerings of gratitude, which in the first ages the human race sacrificed to the gods, consisted simply of grass. In proportion, however, as men multiplied their enjoyments, more costly offerings were made of honey, wine, corn, incense.
In his own lifetime, Oswald was often accused of being a Hindu due to his vegetarianism and his frequent references to Indian deities such as Rama. This was not exactly true, but Oswald’s unusual political and religious opinions did have a lot to do with his exposure to Hinduism while fighting in India in a Scottish Highland regiment.
The Black Watch
The Black Watch began as a military policing unit in the Scottish Highlands, tasked with suppressing the Jacobite clans and preventing cattle raiding. It was eventually incorporated into the regular British Army as the 42nd Highland Regiment, and used in many of Britain’s colonial wars. This pattern is as old as the Roman Empire: after the conquest of a warrior society, the empire then recruits those warriors to fight on its behalf. The Highland Regiments were one of the earliest examples in British history, to be followed by Sikh regiments, Gurkha regiments and so on.
Oswald himself was not a Highlander, but a Lowlander from Edinburgh. His parents were the owners of a popular café. Other than this, little is known of his early life or why he decided to enlist in a Highland regiment. When he joined the regiment, he would have received instruction in the Black Watch style of Highland broadsword fencing. (Another Black Watch veteran who served around the same time as Oswald preserved this system in a fencing manual now studied by historical fencing enthusiasts.) Oswald carried a sword at his waist for many years, so we can assume he continued to practice Highland swordsmanship.
However, he seems to have had problems getting along with his new comrades at first, leading to a pistol duel with an officer named Norman MacLeod. As often happened after a duel, MacLeod and Oswald became close friends, and many years later MacLeod spoke up for Oswald in the British Parliament when news of his revolutionary activities raised the possibility of a treason charge.
Oswald fought with the Black Watch in India, but he became disgusted with Britain’s colonialist policies and the war crimes he saw committed by the army. He was impressed by Hindu vegetarianism, and became a passionate vegetarian himself. Resigning from the army, he wandered for some time through the Middle East and lived among the Kurds. He ended up in London, where he became a hack writer for the Scottish publisher William Thomson. (Oswald may have ghost-written the biography of the famous swordsman Donald MacLeod.)
When the French Revolution broke out, Oswald went to Paris and became an active member of the Jacobin Club. However, he did not share the authoritarian views of fellow Jacobin Robespierre, with whom he publicly clashed on several occasions – before Robespierre had the power to do anything to retaliate.
Due to his military background, Oswald was an obvious choice to train the revolutionary sans-culottes of Paris. He designed his own system for using the pike, a kind of spear favored by revolutionaries without access to firearms. Oswald’s pike unit trained and drilled under his instruction in Paris, but when they were sent to fight the counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée they put down the pikes and took up guns.
Unfortunately for Oswald, he seems to have placed too much faith in the Highland Charge he had seen in action during his time with the Black Watch. The Highland Charge was originally a tactic for Highland swordsmen who had to fight regular troops armed with muskets. Knowing that the musket took some time to reload, the clan warriors would simply draw their broadswords and run straight at the soldiers while they were reloading. More often than not the soldiers would panic and run, and the Highlanders would claim the victory. In the final Jacobite uprising in 1746, government soldiers stood their ground and did not panic, and the Highland army was destroyed.
After the disastrous defeat at Culloden, the Highlanders were banned from carrying weapons except in the British Army’s Highland regiments. Many of them joined these regiments and fought for the British Empire, although not always willingly – families that refused to give a son to the army could be evicted or have their houses burned down over their heads.
The British Army was happy to use the tradition of the Highland Charge for its own benefit, sending countless Highlanders to die as cannon fodder, trying to storm almost impregnable enemy positions. (In the words of British general Wolfe, “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”) Despite the high cost in human life, the Highland Charge often succeeded through sheer courage and force of will. Oswald must have convinced himself it would work again.
When Oswald tried to get his sans-cullottes to stage a Highland Charge against the counter-revolutionaries, they shot him instead. It’s a sad ending for an idealistic revolutionary, although if he had stayed in Paris instead he would almost certainly have fallen victim to his old rival Robespierre during the Reign of Terror.
The Universal Commonwealth
Oswald’s attempt to get Parisian sans-cullottes to fight like Highland clan warriors got him killed. From the perspective of the men who followed him, charging straight at a fortified position must have seemed like suicidal stupidity. They reacted as many other soldiers have done under the same circumstances – by fragging the officer. Despite his death under these ignoble circumstances, Oswald’s political ideas were strongly anti-authoritarian, which is why I refer to him as a forgotten founder of anarchism.
Oswald called himself as a “universal patriot,” or what a modern radical would refer to as an “internationalist.” He strongly disagreed with the statist tendencies of his fellow Jacobins, and proposed a new system of localized government through directly democratic assemblies open to everyone equally. Networks of these assemblies would replace the nation-state, creating what Oswald called “the Universal Commonwealth.”
Unlike the silent hand symbols of an Occupy assembly, Oswald’s system was based on noise. Anyone in the assembly could stand up and make a proposal, and the crowd could either vote for it by shouting enthusiastically or against it by groaning. Oswald had nothing but disdain for the representative democracy the liberals wanted to establish, declaring that as long as one man could not piss for another, a man could hardly be expected to think for another either!
Oswald not only anticipated anarchist ideas about how to organize society, but Marx’s analysis of labor as well:
No, say some with an air of triumph, those only should have a right to vote who are men of property. But, pray, is there any man without property? Is not the daily labor of the peasant, or the mechanic, as much his property, and as precious to him, as the wide possession or funded wealth of the landholder, or man of money?
Although Oswald’s proposals lack the detail of later thinkers like Kropotkin and Bookchin, his emphasis on local and directly democratic assemblies places him in the same intellectual tradition, and his example of the sort of thing his assemblies might decide upon makes him an early anarcho-communist. According to Oswald, the first order of business was to decide:
Whether the land should be cultivated in common, or divided equally between the individuals of the nation?
Oswald did have some unexamined prejudices. For instance, he accepted the idea that some nations were “civilized” and others “savage,” and he never really addressed what role he thought women should have in his revolution. However, Oswald and his allies were also anti-slavery activists, and Oswald was friendly with Théroigne de Méricourt, a feminist revolutionary who carried a sword and trained an all-female pike unit using the system he had created. (Fore-runners of today’s YPJ among Oswald’s old friends the Kurds!)
The only book-length study of Oswald in English is Commerce des Lumieres by David V. Erdman, which includes more of Oswald’s writing and many details of his revolutionary activities. It isn’t a particularly readable work, but it does gather all the available information about Oswald in a single place.
“The Government of the People” has been out of print for a long time, but selections from it can be found at the end of Erdman’s work. Oswald’s vegetarian tract The Cry of Nature is available as a reprint, and some of his poetry can still be found online – although readers should not expect too much from it as poetry. Oswald may not have been a great writer or a major thinker, but he did anticipate some of the ideas that were to become important in radical circles over the next century. Like Kropotkin after him, he saw clearly that representative democracy would ultimately serve only the ruling classes – but also that authoritarian forms of radicalism would not fulfill their promises. The revolution Oswald wanted was egalitarian and decentralized, directly democratic and communist, and it included reverence for nature and the pagan gods.
When I leave offerings to my ancestors, his name will be among them.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/
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.
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.
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.
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 Massacrein 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 DayRiots 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!
Rhyd 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.
The feet should set perpendicular to the ground, the knees almost together. It would be uncivil to stretch out the legs, or place one foot on top of the other. If you are in special company, do not cross your legs. Among friends of the same level, it is normal to do so.
from “A Catholic Manual of Civility,” a primer used to educate Brazilian boys (many of them indigenous) how to act like Christians. [emphasis mine]
Picture with me a man I’ve seen quite often. He’s large and sits on a bus, taking up several seats. He’s got his legs spread out, one completely into the aisle. Also, to one side of him are several bags and a backpack. He’s taking up a lot of room and doesn’t seem to notice or care that others could be sitting in those spots. Worse, he’s clipping his fingernails, and he’s listening to loud music.
This man is engaged in manspreading. You’re maybe aware of the concept—it’s in the Oxford Dictionary now:
The practice whereby a man, especially one traveling on public transportation, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats.
And the problem of ‘manspreading’ was significant enough to lead the MTA in New York to being levying fines to men for spreading their legs, as well as posting signs stating, “Dude…Stop The Spread, Please.”
If you ride public transit, you’re probably recalling all the times you’ve sat next to some ass who’s taken up too much space, or found yourself standing because there’s no room. And maybe you agree with certain Tumblr blogs and internet memes that his callous disregard of others is an obvious display of The Patriarchy, because women either can’t, don’t, or wouldn’t do such things.
Before we go on, though, I should tell you two things. The man I mentioned? He’s Black and homeless. The bags he carries contain all of his human possessions. And he smells a bit different from the rest of the folks on the bus, ‘unpleasant’ to most people. And he mutters to himself. And he grooms himself, all things which are considered rude to do in public spaces. And we’ll talk more about him later.
The second thing I should tell you? I ‘manspread’ too.
Why? It’s not, as some ridiculous Men’s Rights Advocates have suggested–and popular anti-manspreading Tumblr accounts have asserted–that I’m attempting to give more space to my genitals. Any man with testicles so large (and fragile) that sitting upright would crush them probably shouldn’t be sitting at all. Nor is it because I think I deserve more space than others in cramped quarters.
There are actually two reasons I ‘manspread.’ The first reason may elicit a bit of sympathy from you and make you hate me a little less, and the second reason may give you a crucial key to understanding how Capitalism shapes all of our existences, creates social conflict, feeds racism, establishes the patriarchy, and ensures we fight each other rather than the rich.
Bear with me, yeah? And I’ll try to give you a little more room here.
Work is Anti-Yoga
Mechanisation–the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine–has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.
Silvia Federici–In Praise of the Dancing Body
I was a chef for several years, working in quite a few restaurants in Seattle. Restaurants are Capitalist enterprises, and they’re one of the best ways to see how the imperative for profit is always at war against the lives, desires, and bodies of workers.
At one of them, I fucked up my knee in the walk-in refrigerator. It was a very busy Friday night, and one of our servers asked me to move a keg for her. It wasn’t ‘my job,’ but she was small-framed and didn’t have the strength to move it, so I moved it for her. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that someone had spilled some water on the floor, and I slipped, contorting my leg so badly in the fall that my ACL (one of the ligaments which keeps the knee attached to the leg) snapped.
That hurt, by the way. A lot. And my bosses tried to fight my worker’s compensation claim, which anyway wouldn’t have paid for the $18,000 surgery I needed to replace the ligament. Fortunately, my partner at the time had just gotten a full-ride scholarship to grad school in Canada and I was able to come with him and get it fixed for free.
That surgery didn’t fix the other problems that came along with the injury. I walk with a swagger now, my right foot is always askew from my left foot. The inclination of my body, when sitting in any sort of chair (except a straight-backed, wooden chair) is to slump forward to reduce the pressure on my lower back with my legs splayed. That is, I ‘manspread,’ but not because I’m a jerk: I’m actually trying not to experience significant pain.
I still try to compress myself as much as possible in tight situations, aware the experience of being in crowded spaces is uncomfortable for everyone. There’s a calculus involved; is my pain likely greater or less than the discomfort someone sitting next to me might feel?
Most people can’t claim this injury as an excuse, though. But plenty of people (mostly men) still do this, apparently clueless (or worse, unconcerned) about the experiences of others around them. Are there so many assholes in the world?
Maybe. But the language and ethics we use to understand and judge ‘manspreading’ or other ‘anti-social behaviors’ is pretty insufficient. For instance, it certainly can’t be said that having ones knees spread open is “The Patriarchy” in action when we consider documents like the Catholic Manual of Civility (quoted at the beginning of this essay) or other Christian primers which were used to do ‘educate’ poor and indigenous peoples into acting ‘Civilized.’ After all, the Catholic Church is pretty much synonymous with Patriarchy.
So, what’s going on with manspreading and our generally angry reactions to it? Let’s go back to the kitchen where I hurt my knee, and I’ll tell you another reason why I think most men ‘manspread,’
That kitchen was poorly designed, like almost every restaurant in which I’ve ever worked. When building a restaurant, an owner is faced with a calculus the customers rarely see. Space is always a premium, especially in an urban setting, and because an owner wants to maximize profit, the dining area receives priority when deciding how the space will be set up.
The more tables available in a restaurant, the more customers can eat at once. More customers equals more profit in the mind of a restaurant owner, and under capitalism, profit is the primary imperative. Thus, the more space devoted to customers, the more potential profit.
But the more space devoted to dining, the less space can be devoted to the kitchen and server-stations. Obviously, a restaurant requires a kitchen in order to operate, but more often than not, the kitchen is quite small. I’ve worked in quite a few of excruciatingly small spaces, and applied for two jobs where, at 6 foot 1 inch and 200 pounds, I was told “You’re too big to work in our kitchen.”
Another thing about many of these kitchens—the counters are often a little too short if you’re of above-average height. Counters on ‘the line’ (where most of the preparation was done) are often slightly too short to work without slouching over, something my tall co-workers often complained about but something my shorter co-workers claimed never to notice. Shorter co-workers experienced other problems in these kitchens, though. Many shelves were often placed very high in order to maximize the use of space (sometimes so high that even I had trouble reaching them). One liked to think that the inconveniences, body-aches, posture problems, and other difficulties the taller workers experienced balanced out the same problems experienced by the shorter of us.
Besides, work is anti-yoga, right?
In all these cases, though, we workers needed to contort, squeeze, stretch or bend our bodies to fit the space allotted us. We had no control over the design of the kitchens (and definitely not the size), but ultimately faced the choice: transform our bodies to fit the work, or hope to find a place our bodies fit better.
Cramped, Crowded, and Capitalist
My experience in kitchens initiated me into an understanding of the conflict between space and profit-imperative. And my experience with my knee injury led me to understand a bit more about the design of public spaces, particularly in transportation.
In Capitalist societies, public transit operates under the same profit-imperative that affects work-spaces, even if there’s no money being made. Costs must be kept to a minimum, revenue must be maximized, and accommodation of human bodies are often an afterthought (if thought about at all). Calculations are made to ensure the least amount of buses or trains are run on routes to move the most amount of people, keeping labor cost (bus-drivers, mechanics, etc.) down, and human difference is an unfortunate problem to be overcome, not a primary logic.
The seats in public transit are standardized–that is, the same seat is available to a person who is 6’5″ as someone 4’10”. In a situation where all seats were built large enough to accommodate a very tall person, everyone would be likely quite comfortable (particularly those for whom such seats would mean a lot of extra room). But, of course, this is not the case. Designing such spaces for very tall people would reduce the amount of available space, increasing the overall cost while decreasing the potential profit (excess revenue) from transit riders.
If you are tall and find yourself sitting in a seat too short for you, your knees either hit the seat in front of you or are a little higher than your waist. The first problem is quite painful after just a minute or two (try pressing your kneecap against a wall for a couple of minutes and describe the feeling), while the second situation puts quite a bit of pressure on your lower back and spine (try this by sitting in a chair, putting a few books under your feet so your knees are slightly higher than your waist, and feel where it starts to hurt).
In both cases, widening the distance between your knees relieves the pain. That is, splaying your legs (‘manspreading’) is one way the body tries to fit in a space not designed to fit it. In fact, this position could be said to be the body attempting to act like a body, rather than a machine.
But let’s consider what else the Capitalist logic of standardization of space and disregard for human difference does. The situation for those in wheelchairs is awful. On most buses in the cities where I’ve lived, there’s often only 2 spots available for them. These spots are also the same spaces allotted to the elderly, blind, or otherwise impaired. On top of this, women with children in strollers, homeless folk with hand-carts, or travelers with luggage must compete for these same spots, and a hierarchy arises to determine who is most “deserving” of the space.
I’ve watched a tragic number of fights between harried single mothers with children and elderly folks over that last remaining seat, and unsuprisingly, they are often of different skin colour. Worse, support and intervention from other passengers tends to fall along racial and class lines, too, a pitched social battle to determine which vulnerable person should be favored over another.
The scarcity of space and disregard for human difference generates strife and conflict, as is the potential for all scarcity. But let’s look at another aspect of this scarcity of space to find the answer to a question very few ever seem to ask.
There’s Only One Thing Between Us
I recently returned from a week visiting my sisters, and had the delightful pleasure of sitting in between two financial managers who were taller–and wider–than I was on a flight with an ultra-low-cost airline.
You can perhaps imagine the experience. Middle-seats are already uncomfortable, whether you’re tall or not. Add to this my posture issues from the aforementioned knee problems and the fact that all three of us were too large for the seats in which we sat. Figure in to this the fact that airlines have increasingly reduced the distance between rows of seat, and you’ve got an unpleasant experience altogether.
Airplanes, particularly, seem to generate their own realms of conflict. On a flight to Ireland from Orlando a year ago, I watched a woman hit an older man repeatedly with her carry-on luggage and shout at him when he asked her to be more careful. It looked almost like it’d come to fists, the woman becoming increasingly belligerent and threatening, her antagonism increasing the more the old man insisted she stop hitting him. And others were starting to take sides, and it was awful.
Of course, we were all cramped. We had all passed through intrusive security measures in an airport which treats humans less like people and more like cattle being led to market. We all had an impending 8-hour flight in an enclosed steel tube. The seats were small, the overhead compartments hardly designed to ensure it was easy to put things in and take things out. Though the woman was being quite awful to the old man, I couldn’t deny she was reacting to the stress of the space and the utter lack-of-control any human must endure when traveling by air.
Put a bunch of people in a tiny cage for 8 hours and they’re likely to act out, yes? But since we’re talking about standardized space and the Capitalist profit-motive, it’s particularly worth looking at the cold war that occurs in every seat over the arm rest. If you’re in the middle, you’ve got it worst—the person on your left and your right are likely to dominate the armrest to either side of you, and you are faced with the choice—force your way to a little more comfort, or stew for the duration about the assholes on either side of you?
But wait—there’s an obvious problem here we take for granted (if we even notice at all):
Why is there only one arm-rest between two seats???
It’s certainly not that chairs come with only one arm rest, nor that it’s impossible for seat-makers to make them large enough that two people could put their arms there.
The reason, again, is Capital. To give each person enough room to move and to rest their arms without struggling against another person would require larger seats, and gaps between them. Doing so would run directly counter to the imperative of the Capitalists who profit from air-travel. In fact, to sit in comfortable seats where you are not compelled to battle in a long war of ‘micro-aggressions’ with the people next to you requires paying an extreme premium to sit in ‘first class.’
Here we can finally see the crux of the problems we face in public places. All those petty conflicts, all those micro-agressions, and all the hierarchies which arise between people in crowded theatres, airplanes, public transit, and elsewhere arise in response to the conditions created by Capital.
The Body Is a Very Rude Thing
Rude: late 13c., “coarse, rough” (of surfaces), from Old French ruide (13c.) or directly from Latin rudis “rough, crude, unlearned.”adj. perhaps related to rudus “rubble.” Sense of “ill-mannered, uncultured; uneducated, uncivilized” is from mid-14c.
Pagan: late 14c., from Late Latin paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant” noun use of adjective meaning “of the country, of a village,” from pagus “country people; province, rural district,” by extension, pejorative) Savage, immoral, uncivilized, wild.
The imperative to profit leads an airline to cram as many people into as small a space as possible, just as business owners and other capitalists expect workers to adapt their bodies in order to earn a living. The imperative to keep costs down means seats in public transit and other places are not large enough to accommodate the wide range of human size and mobility difference.
None of this is to excuse wretched behavior in public spaces: there’s rarely any good reason to hit an old man with your valise, nor to prevent others from sitting by splaying your legs and laying out your bags. We still have expectations of public behavior and preferences against people being rude to us, strangers or otherwise.
But what passes for morality and civics (either amongst the codes of social justice or traditionalism) will always meet a dead end if the very conditions which create the conflict are ignored, dismissed, or denied. Worse, many of these concepts of morality and civics aren’t even our own, anyway, but have been shaped by the constant need of the rich to have better-behaved and better self-disciplined workers.
The Birth of Bourgeois Morality & The War on The Rustic
“…the violence of the ruling class was not confined to the repression of transgressors. It also aimed at a radical transformation of the person, intended to eradicate from the proletariat any form of behavior not conducive to the imposition of a stricter work discipline. The dimensions of this attack are apparent in the social legislation that, by the
middle of the 16th century was introduced in England and France…”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch
Since the birth of Capitalism, humans have been increasingly compressed together into urban spaces because that is where most work is to be found. We should remember, though, that the people who filled the cities were often displaced people unaccustomed both to city life and particularly to factory life. In fact, it’s taken centuries for those factory owners (capitalists) to train rural, peasant and ‘uncivilized’ peoples to endure the conditions of those factories.
On top of this, the peasants who came to the cities had been otherwise ungoverned. They were literally un-civilized and un-disciplined, and this made them very difficult to rule. The process of turning those people into what we have become now (that is, workers) was long, bloody, and involved altering the conditions of society itself so that the behaviors, patterns, manners–basically, civilization–required of those uncultured, unwrought, undisciplined people became not just part of the requirements of employment, but the actual basis of society.
The class of owners who needed disciplined workers? They’re called the Bourgeoisie (‘those in the city,’). That Class Struggle that Marx wrote about between the workers and the Bourgeoisie wasn’t just pitched-battle, strikes, and police murder, but also a long period of shaping the behaviour of the poor (through laws, education, punishment, and public shaming) until the poor finally internalized that behaviour that would make them good workers.
This is the process Silvia Federici wrote about in Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, and it included the eradication of the belief in magic:
Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. “Magic kills industry,” lamented Francis Bacon, admitting that nothing repelled him so much as the assumption that one could obtain results with a few idle expedients, rather than with the sweat of one’s brow (Bacon 1870: 381)
Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided?” (p. 142)
…as well as a complete change in the relationship of humans to the body:
It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark. According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition “the ultimate purpose of life,” instead of treating it as a means of the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life (Weber 1958: 53). Capitalism also attempts to overcome our “natural state,” by breaking the barriers of our natural state by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set b y the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself, as is constituted in pre-industrial society.(p.135)
That is, the process of creating the working class involved disciplining, taming, and civilising people, stripping them both of their relationship to magic and particularly their relationship to the natural world and from their bodies, including the enjoyment of the body. Or put another way, Capitalists required workers who had lost their rustic, rude, and rural qualities, which included their Pagan tendencies.
To do this, they got plenty of help from Christian leaders (John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was one of their primary weapons in England) and other moralists who would help inculcate new social codes and norms into the unwashed, uncultured, rude poor. And as the Bourgeoisie continued to gain power, the scourge of rudeness, uncivilized behavior, and ‘immorality’ amongst the poor became an increasing topic of discussion. Primers of all sorts arose, aimed primarily at women and the poor to teach them how to act better, more polite, more like them.
Bourgeois Morality & Social Policing
While the war between the upper classes and the unwashed masses upon whom they relied was always being waged in Europe since the beginning of Capitalism, it got particularly intense in the early 20th century as very rich industrialists needed to find even more disciplined workers for their assembly lines. Henry Ford instituted a ‘morality police’ to monitor the personal lives of his workers, and John D. Rockefeller created an educational foundation to shape and advise government in creating better workers. The stated philosophy for it is revealing:
“In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds, and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.We shall not try to make these people, or any of their children, into philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen — of whom we have an ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”
What’s particularly important in this quote is the tension between parent and child, and the direct attempt to break behavioral patterns passed through tradition. Though many of these efforts took on the shape of benevolence (or paternalism), taken together they show that our actions, our self-discipline, and much of our morality has been shaped by the rich, not by our own self-generated ideas of what makes one a ‘moral’ person.
Again, what we should also give attention to here is that this is the same logic that comprised the ‘white man’s burden’ or the mission civilatrice of European missionaries, entrepreneurs, and civil servants in colonies on the African, Asian, and South American continents. The rhetoric used by wealthy industrialists towards ‘white’ poor people echoes exactly the rhetoric of paternalistic education of the ‘uncivilized’ peoples an earlier generation of Bourgeois needed to shape and mould through education and punishment.
We have inherited a system of morality that is not our own, but rather those of our rulers. We’ve been shaped and moulded into a class of people who have internalized the morality of the Bourgeoisie and made it our own, while being alienated from our own bodies, the cycles of nature, and older beliefs in magic. This is, at least partially, the unacknowledged and rotten root of much of our tendencies to belittle and even hate those with disabilities (they are not ‘good workers’), the very poor (they are rude, unhygenic, lazy–all anti-bourgeois traits), the messy (consider the popularity of voyeuristic shows about ‘hoarders’ in US television), and all manner of other ‘anti-social’ behaviours.
Moralism has quite the history of creating social conflict. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out in The Burden of Our Times, many moral codes and associated ideologies are rarely adopted by the powerful unless they are useful for governing. Race-theory (a relatively new ideology–there was no real notion of racial difference before the Enlightenment, and certainly not one inhabiting the general opinions of commoners) became useful as a governing ideology only when the rich needed to keep slaves and former slaves from uniting with European-immigrant workers against their bosses. Anti-Semitism is another such (im)moral code: rulers and the rich in Europe whipped up anti-Jewish sentiment amongst the poor and workers in the 1800’s most often when they found themselves unable to pay the substantial amounts of money they’d borrowed from Jewish lenders to fund their own wars and colonial exploits.
In all these cases, it’s quite difficult for us to see what is actually shaping our own morality, standards, and ideologies. This is hardly any excuse for being awful to people, of course, only a reminder that our ethical systems are too often inhabited by an almost invisible, almost Archonic, spirit of morality.
Let’s return to the question of the so-called manspreader now. The person taking up too much space on a bus is not playing along with the rules of the space, but what are those rules, and who sets them?
We experience those spaces as ‘community’ spaces, but they aren’t actually created by us, nor do we actually have control over them. This is more obvious in an airplane where it’s easier to see that the passengers are not a community, but only temporarily stuck in the same space together. Public transit seems more like a communal space, but who actually controls them? Not the people who ride them or use them, except in very, very indirect ways like voting. And voting, anyway, only gives the illusion of influence, not actual say in any matter.
Someone who takes up several seats in a public bus when there are others who could sit there is being certainly awful. But what they are doing is not much different from many of the other anti-social behaviours which have been criticized in the past by the rich. Rustic, rude, uncivilized, ‘low-class’ qualities: being loud, eating in public, grooming, having ‘unruly’ children, breastfeeding in public–all of these are the sorts of activities the poor and ‘undisciplined’ traditionally engage in, activities they have not been disciplined, educated, and socialised against.
That last aspect is most relevant to the question of ‘manspreading’ and other misplaced ‘social-justice’ crusades, because socialisation against unacceptable behaviors is most effective when it’s performed by people within the same economic class as the offender. If the rich were to be going about telling women or men how to act in public spaces, disobedience of these standards would approach open revolt. But fortunately for then, we police each other, particularly through public shaming.
Since manspreading has been taken up as part of a Bourgeois Feminist critique and prescribed a heavy-dose of public shaming, we should recall two previous social menaces which attempted to bring men in line with proper social behavior: Prohibition, and the public shaming of war-resisters by women–including Suffragists–during World War I with white feathers.
The Order of the White Feather, supported by prominent early feminists and suffragists, which publicly shamed men for not volunteering to fight in World War I
Lest anyone misunderstand my point (and missed my heavy reliance on Federici here), let me be clear: the metrics and narratives of Feminism are crucial to any revolutionary understanding of our social conditions. Patriarchal forms persist and are the dominant ruling ideology within Capitalism, and none of this should be used an excuse to undermine truly radical Feminism.
But we should be particularly wary of the tendency to adopt Bourgeois Morality within our attempts to right the systemic wrongs caused by Capitalism, particularly when we find ourselves suddenly taking positions on questions that further oppress people whose very bodies stand as resistance to Bourgeois demands. Thus, Feminist leaders (for instance) who find themselves employing violent anti-trans rhetoric as part of their hopes to eradicate the Patriarchy are only helping Capitalism: the transperson, if anything, embodies a physical resistance to the Bourgeois need to divide the working classes into easily-managed categories.
Moreso, we must remember that a great many of the complaints about anti-social or ‘rude’ behaviours are directed toward the poor, homeless, people-of-colour, immigrants, and others who are traditionally the enemies of Capital and the Bourgeoisie, and precisely whom any revolutionary project must not only include, but be led by. Anything which polices their behaviour and re-inforces ‘respectability,’ work-discipline, and Bourgeois moral standards must be rejected.
The Revolt of the Rude
None of this is to say that there is no place for morality or standards of social behavior. Nor is this to assert Patriarchal attitudes do not persist in the behavior of men in public spaces. On the contrary, I’d argue that we actually cannot attack the Patriarchy, nor create community standards, without first attacking the problem of Bourgeois Morality and the illusory society it creates.
When someone’s actions prevent us from using or enjoying a space, we feel wronged. This is an essential feeling, and one we need to cultivate. In fact, it’s precisely the feeling which fueled widespread resistance to Capitalism, Enclosure, and the creation of private property (land).
Before Capitalism, land was shared by a community who could use it as they saw fit, but custom, tradition, and social pressures kept them from over-using it. Overhunting or overharvesting in a forest, over-grazing or over-fishing in fields and streams meant the entire community suffered. The logic of The Commons was one of shared resources and shared obligations, and those who tried to ‘squat’ or ‘enclose’ shared spaces for themselves would be ostracized by the community.
But that older, rustic morality has been replaced by Bourgeois Morality in which we castigate the woman with too many shopping bags or the man with splayed legs on a subway while ignoring or even rewarding and praising the developer who turns open fields or run-down buildings into condos.
A person with their legs splayed, or their shopping bags filling the seats next to them, or the person apparently callous and indifferent to the needs of others in public spaces is violating the same sorts of societal standards which once held together The Commons, except for one difference: these are not The Commons. Our sense of fairness, of charitable social interactions, and our expectation that others around us will not ‘take too much’ linger, but the social spaces where such morals matter actually don’t exist.
An airplane, a restaurant, a park, and even public transit in a Capitalist society are nothing like The Commons, because there is no real or direct community control over the size, shape, design, or use of those spaces. Instead, we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world, believing the illusion of our jailers, parroting their moral codes, mistaking proximity to community.
We should consider the man I mentioned at the beginning of this essay again. The Black homeless man on the bus, with his legs spread apart and his bags on the seat next to him, unshowered, cleaning his nails, talking loudly to himself and listening to a radio without headphones: is his behavior on account of poor upbringing (the conservative answer), male privilege (the pseudo-feminist answer), systemic injustice (the ‘Social Justice’ answer), his Blackness (the racist answer), or his homelessness (the Liberal and Capitalist answer)?
Or do we rush to judgment specifically because he reflects back to us our own imprisonment in the Capitalist work-ethic and Bourgeois Moralism? What if it’s only our own submission to the centuries-long moralistic training of the Capitalist classes that makes us think we have the right to police his behaviour in the first place, or even that there’s anything wrong at all with what he’s doing in a public space?
And what if he is actually showing us the gate to our own liberation?
I should here admit: it is hardly an easy journey through that gate. My own reactions to this man I mentioned embarrass me to no end, but I’ll admit them, because you’ve probably felt some version of them, too. I’d often encounter him on days I really didn’t want to go to work. He’d slow the bus down, take a long time to get on and an even longer time to disembark. He had a broken, swollen foot which extended far into the aisle, and it was never easy for people to get past him. And he smelled. It was evident he rarely showered, rarely washed his clothes. And despite being a social worker who regularly worked amongst people with poor hygeine, his existence frustrated me.
No. He didn’t just frustrate me, he annoyed me, and I obsessed over him. I’d blame him for making me late. I’d be irritated by his music. The sound of him clipping his nails pissed me off. When it was cold or raining, his body odor really made me angry, because I couldn’t open the windows.
I wasn’t the only one, either. An awful camraderie develops between people sharing a mutual annoyance at ‘anti-social’ behavior. Women and men, all of them white and well-dressed, rolled their eyes and held their nose and made other signs to each other, sharing an imagined solidarity of suffering in the presence of this human. You’ve seen this, I know. You’ve been part of it. We all have.
If anything, though, I almost hated him, because he made me confront the very real conditions of my own life. He and I are both subjects of Capitalism, but I’m luckier. I had a job, had a home, could go to a bar or buy a latte as my reward for being a good worker, for doing what I’m supposed to do. He had no home or job, no place to shower, no place to store his stuff, no private place to clip his nails or listen to music without anyone judging it.
He was me, or me if I didn’t obey.
More than that, though, he didn’t have to worry about all the internalized fear about his public presence. He didn’t bother compressing his body into a tiny space, he gave no regard to how much stuff he was carrying in public. He was free to enjoy music in public without giving a shit what other people thought, and he’d laugh off (or sometimes just say ‘fuck you’) to anyone who’d ask him to turn it down. I think I was a little envious of him—not his poverty or homelessness, but his freedom from the regime of Bourgeois respectability and hatred of his body in all its rustic, unwrought, uncivilized, and unapologetic glory.
But more than anything, he reminded me that all the freedoms and luxuries and comforts that I ‘earned’ as a good worker came with the sacrifice of my soul and the internalization of the very logic which causes him to be homeless. And then I’d start thinking about how much I’d rather not be going to work, and how uncomfortable the tiny seat into which I’d crammed myself, with my knees pressed hard against the seat back in front of me, was.
And I’d start thinking about my illusion of control and the false ‘community’ I’d let myself believe I was a part of. I didn’t know anyone on these buses, and they weren’t created with people my size in mind, nor were they really ‘socialist.’ They existed to help ensure workers could get to their jobs, because without them Capitalists would have no one to exploit.
The man before me was the Abyss into which any of us must stare, if we are ever to hope to lose our chains and become free. He (and not I) was the true Pagan, the rustic, rural, rude remainder of Capitalist civilisation, and the price he paid for his freedom was homelessness, poverty, and the hatred of the rest of us on the bus.
Manifesto of the Rude
We can, of course, allow things to remain as they are, instituting increasing rules and public-shaming crusades against people who don’t act civilized. The rewards for doing so are waged out in hours and shiny products, evenings at restaurants and weekends at bars.
We can even convince ourselves that we are doing some good, fighting ‘the patriarchy’ or making a more ‘socially just’ society by policing each other, making sure we act in-line, keep our heads down, and never let our bodies be anything but efficient machines to be tucked-away and put out of sight after use.
Or, we can revolt, re-claiming the rudeness of our bodies, refusing to apologize for the amount of space we take up, our difference in size and shape and ability. But to do so requires a sort of de-colonization and an overthrow of the Bourgeois Morality which has shaped what we believe to be polite, civil, and good.
What would such a morality look like? What would be our demands?
We could start by refusing the easy answers in uncomfortable situations. Instead of demanding that others follow the rules we’ve internalised, we should interrogate those rules and our reactions to the bodies of others. Are they really doing us harm, or are we actually struggling against our own desires for liberation?
We could also start by demanding an end to the Capitalist logic of standardization. If a body doesn’t fit in a space created by Capitalist logic, it’s not the fault of the body. We should stop demanding others squeeze themselves into such spaces, and demand there be more room to be human. This is particularly essential in regards to those with disabilities
Likewise, we should stop pretending that public spaces are anything like The Commons. It is not the person taking up too much space in a bus or train who is the enemy, it is the rich who own the land under our feet. This would be the first step to reclaiming actually-existing Commons, land shared by communities where the poorest amongst us can subsist outside the imperative of Capitalist work.
And finally, we must embrace all that is rude and rustic about others in order to liberate our own bodies. As noted by Federici in her reference to Max Weber, Capitalism requires us to see our bodies as means to gain wealth while forfeiting spontaneous enjoyment. Therefore, leisure, frivolity, and celebration must not only be part of our resistance, but the foundation of our morality. Rather than shame (or worse—report) the person brushing their hair or eating food in a bus, shouldn’t we rather delight in such things? Are they not caring for their body the way the rest of us do? Couples engaged in public displays of affection—is there not something beautiful—and Pagan–about people expressing love? Or the rude person playing loud music on a bus, what if we danced to that music or sang along? Is there anything more Pagan than music in a public space?
If anything, such a revolt of the Rude would also be a revolt of love. Love would cause us to demand more space for ourselves, more enjoyment of our bodies. Love would stand against the logic of the machine and the shaming of the stranger. Love would claim the right to live outside the demands of profit.
Love would make us bodies again, rather than workers.
Love is a very, very rude thing.
Let’s be in love.
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest, and A Kindness of Ravens, and a columnist for The Wild Hunt.
He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love.
He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch.