The Factory Floor & The Witch’s Stake

To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.

From Rhyd Wildermuth

The following essay is adapted from Rhyd Wildermuth’s speech, “Witches In A Crumbling Empire,” to be republished as part of his next collection, Our Time of Springs, Our Time of Flames (August, 2018)


The Empire under which we all suffer, under whom we are all ruled, was born upon the factory floor and upon the witch’s stake.

Industrialised capitalism started in England around 1760. Before then, almost everything humans used was made by humans with human effort, without the input of petroleum. So, in the early 1700’s, any clothing you wore and any food you ate was made or grown completely without fossil fuels.

The first coal-fired factories were built in cities swollen with refugees from the surrounding areas. Those people had just lost all access to land and the means to support themselves because of laws called the Enclosure Acts. No longer could they raise animals and plants from the earth with their own two feet firmly planted on the ground; now, their only option was to stand on wood and stone factory floors for 14 hours a day making things for other people.

Humans are hard to control. Humans don’t like working all day for someone else. They have to eat, and piss, and shit, and rest. Many women bleed every moon, sometimes they get pregnant and have to care for their children.

But Coal doesn’t tire. Coal doesn’t show up to work late after a night of drinking or fucking. Coal doesn’t need a rest, doesn’t get menstrual cramps, doesn’t daydream about how life can be better. Coal also doesn’t demand wages.

So the great ‘revolution’ of industrialisation was the slow replacement of human labor with black carbon labor from the earth. In the Americas, the people called Black were also used to replace waged labor. In both cases, the rich tried to find a low-cost, easily-managed, fully-predictable means to gain wealth.

Slaves revolt, though, and kill their masters. Coal and oil blacken the cities and skies with soot, but burned through filters, the carbon becomes invisible, escapes quietly into the atmosphere, warming the earth at such imperceptible rates that it could be ignored until recently.

What could not be ignored was the tendency of humans to revolt against their masters, be they slaves or peasants, workers or servants. Humans don’t make very good machines, we are unpredictable, tire easily, and anyway would rather be creating art or eating, then doing monotonous work for little pay.

The same era which saw the birth of industrialised capitalism also saw the birth of all modern forms of government and control. The modern city, the nation-state, so-called Democracy, representative government, prisons resembling factories resembling schools which resemble prisons. It also saw the birth of the modern police and the political order under which we now live.

But what is Empire?

By Empire I mean America, but I also do not.

By Empire I mean Capitalism, but I also do not.

By Empire I mean colonization. I mean industrialisation. I mean the slaughter of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. I mean the carbon in the air and the worker in the factory. I mean all the newly extinct species and all the dying forests. I mean the corporations which own the internet and the corporations who profit from the computers and smartphones you read this on.

By Empire, I mean the foreign wars. I mean an Arab woman cradling the corpse of her decapitated daughter and shaking her fist at the gay Black dude from Los Angeles who only joined the Army to get money to support his mother.

By Empire, I mean the Mexican child screaming as her father is taken away by an ICE agent whose grandparents fled the Nazi advance in Europe.

By Empire, I mean the Black father mourning his son killed by a cop whose ancestors sold themselves into indentured servitude rather than starve to death during the famine in Ireland.

By Empire, I mean the intersectional feminist writing essays about the exploitation of women and children on a computer made through the exploitation of Asian women and African children.

And by Empire I mean the Arab man who massacres gays in a nightclub to retaliate for atrocities none of those people committed.

By Empire, I mean the single white mother driving her disabled kid to a doctor’s appointment over roads lain by migrant workers who are about to get deported.

By Empire I mean the civitas and the polis. I mean civilization and the police, the laws and logic, the political order, the thou shalt nots and the prisons where you go when you refuse to listen.

But more than anything, I mean the Empire in each of you and the Empire in me.

I mean all that was once wild and raw and sacred in us that is now ground into machine-parts and mechanical obedience.

By Empire I mean you, and by Empire I mean me.

And finally, by Empire I mean this thing that is crumbling around us, gasping for air, begging us to keep it alive.

The Empire that is crumbling around us was born on the factory floors and the witch’s stake, and both were assaults on the human body.

Silvia Federici said it, in her essay “In Praise of the Dancing Body:

Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance…. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.

If the first task of Capitalism was to separate us from land and nature, they have more than succeeded. One need only look at the vastly artificial surroundings we all live in, the devices we use to speak with each other, the manufactured foods and synthetic medicines. Can you walk outside your home and find something edible growing by the pavement? Do you know which birds share your neighborhood with you? Can you point to where precisely the sun will rise tomorrow morning without a compass? Without looking outside tonight or at the internet, which phase is the moon in?

But it’s useless to rail against this disconnection. What separates us from the land and nature is not a current assault in an ongoing struggle: the war was won by them long ago. We are an occupied people, often occupying occupied land cleared long before any of us were born.

If that war was lost, though, the other war is still on going. Says Federici again:

Mechanization—the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine—has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.

Capitalism has needed us to act like machines so we can fit into the system as mere, fully-interchangeable cogs. Many of use don’t fit, though: be it our bodies themselves or our failure to conform, the process of turning us into machines is never fully complete.

Those of us who gum up the gears aren’t welcome in the factory, but Empire has a place for us too.

Empire was born on the factory floor, and it was also born on the witch’s stake. Failure to file down your rough bits, refusal to conform to the will of the political order, and worst of all encouraging others to do the same will land you at best in jail, or riddled with mental-illnesses that were non-existent in pre-capitalist lands, suffocated with a crushed trachea for daring to sell loose cigarettes or bleeding to death in the street for looking non-white when the polis tried to enforce its will.

There are countless technological distractions and institutions which have helped us forget our bodies: the masturbatory fantasies of video games and pornography, the medicalisation of any bodily refusal to be a good worker. Gyms look like factories for a reason, for it’s in the mills and on the mechanical looms where we first lost the meaning of muscle and blood. And then there is clock time, our smartphones and alarm clocks, schools which teach kids to move from class to class to prepare them to move from task to task.

Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our body because it is the land and the body which tells you this is all wrong. The land screams as species go extinct, forests die, icecaps melt. Your body screams when you treat it as a machine.

Your body tells you this is all wrong. Starting from the body, you know you tire faster when you are doing meaningless work. You know the food on offer to you at the supermarkets is empty, you know that the air you breathe is often toxic. You know sitting for eight hours staring at a screen hurts more than just your eyes, that standing behind a counter slinging coffee to exhausted people makes you a poorly-paid drug dealer.

All that knowledge is what capitalism needs you not to know.

All those feelings are what Empire fears you’ll feel.

Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies for another reason.

Your body is always in contact with something else, something outside yourself. Your feet, the lowest part of you, the easiest part to ignore until they hurt, they connect to the entire world-soul. Taking your shoes off, standing on the grass or the sand or stone, you become no longer a machine but a body again, part of something always bigger than yourself, with a different logic, a more intuitive time, a deeper truth.

Your feet on the earth, you cannot be disconnected from the earth and the seasons, because you are also the earth and its seasons. Work in summer is not work in winter, the time of your waking and the cycles of your sleeping follow a different rhythm fully separate from the time of money-making, the time of machines.

Capitalism needs you to forget this.

Witchcraft tells you to remember.

If Empire was born on the factory floor and on the witch’s stake, it spread into every last bit of our existence, making subjects out of each one of us. While Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies, Empire needed us to become passive subjects of the political order.

Passivity is not receptivity. As a gay man I can assure you, more action goes into receptive sex than merely closing your eyes and thinking about the Empire. I suspect most women would concur.

Receptivity opens us to the world of senses, of feelings, of meaning. You are being receptive now, taking my words into you, playing with them, weaving their meaning into the tapestry of you. But passivity makes you a victim, a mere tool in the hands of the powerful. Passivity is consumption, selection between lifestyle options, an identity defined not by what you do but by what you choose. Did you vote Democrat or Republican? Drink Coke or Pepsi? Use an iPhone or Android?

Passivity reduces will to mere consumer preference. No longer will to power but a mere checkbox on a ballot or a selection on a screen. No longer desire and suffering but mere distractions to dull the fatigue of work and the anxiety of alienation.

You cannot force someone to become passive except by long applications of torture. But there is another route, a slower one, by which you can conquer the will of others by telling them not ‘thou shalt not’ but ‘thou cannot.’ Like the God of Eden’s lies to the woman in the garden, we are told we cannot survive without capitalism, cannot be safe without police, cannot find meaning outside of waged work, cannot find love without cosmetics.

And so what we did not lose on the factory floor we lost with the death of witches. Not only the women with herbs and poison roots, not only the crones bearing stories from times before private property, not only the maidens urging worship in temples of wild lust, not only the mothers feeding us from their bodies. Not only them, but also them: the women who reminded us an entire world can be made not from city and machine but forest and dirt.

Not only them, but also the heretics, the mad, the dreamers, the rebels. The men dressed like women tearing down fences along with women drest like men, refusing the enclosure of the sacred commons and the seizure of land for the profit of the few. The indigenous elders gunned down by settlers, the traditional healers dead in the hulls of slave ships. All of them taught what Empire needed us to forget: the earth knows what the computer never will, that the body bleeds a liquid more powerful than petroleum.

With them gone, we started to believe we can-not. We cannot heal ourselves without pharmaceuticals, we cannot feed ourselves without factory farms. We cannot make our own clothes, cannot craft our own homes. We must now suckle at the toxic teat of the Market while it slaps us with an invisible hand.

We started to believe we cannot resist.

But in the screaming defiance of the immolated witches was a reminder: we can refuse to submit, even in death.

It took centuries to shape us into what we are now, passive sniveling subjects of Empire and Capital. Though this may seem long, we lived outside Empire much longer. Capitalism is new and short-lived, compared even to Feudalism. It differs only in its full permeation of all our existence, and it is for this reason I call it Empire.

It is also collapsing.

The climate change caused by Capitalism cannot be stopped any longer, and its effects already cause famines and resource wars throughout the world. Between 30,000 and 140,000 species go extinct every year now; at the beginning of the 1800’s, this number was no more than 1000 yearly. Cities are beginning to flood, water tables depleting, while the oil-wells which makes the entire Empire run are going dry. Climate change will increase the refugee crises currently fueling the nationalist parties in Europe and the US, and whether they are fleeing from resource wars or unmanned drone bombers, they are undoubtedly the first quakes of Empire’s impending collapse.

Empires always pompously declare themselves eternal. The British swore the sun would never set on them, the third reich was supposed to last 1000 years. Western Democratic Capitalist Empire declared itself ‘the end of history’ in the 1990’s, but of course Fukuyama’s prediction sealed its fate.

Empires have always tried to cheat death and this one is no different. But the crone that stands on the other side of death’s door revealed her trump card, and now few can deny what this means.

Some still cling to the vain hope that Donald Trump is merely an unfortunate set-back to the progress of civilization. But reversing civil protections, installing fascist theorists in positions of power, rattling the chains of other world leaders, building a wall to keep the Mexicans out—these are not mere reversals of Empire’s progress, they are Empire trying to save itself.

Consider this wall between the US and Mexico. See past the obvious racism of such a thing and its absurd cost to what’s lurking beneath the political veneer. Consider the impending flood of climate refugees: remember your geography, look at a map displaying where the major destruction will occur first, and suddenly Trump’s idea isn’t mere xenophobic delusion.

The increase in surveillance powers, the militarization of police forces, the dismantling of the courts and the rights they are sworn to protect, the stoking of fascist flames: these are not just the actions of a psychopath, but of an engineer shoring up the ruins of Empire.

The same is happening everywhere else in the world. The capitalists know we are remembering to resist again, and so they are raising again the stakes, piling faggots beneath them, waiting for our next sign of revolt.

To accept what is around us now, to call such things “good” and “necessary,” is to laugh in the faces of the screaming witches who died so this Empire could arise. To chase after like mongrel dogs the trinkets and crumbs the capitalists throw down to us on the floor–the “rights” and “freedoms” and all the glossy junk cluttering store shelves–is to jeer at the sorrow and sufferings of our ancestors hauled to work in chains or prodded into mills by the terror of starvation.

To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.

To fight Empire is to stare in the face of our own deaths and laugh, knowing the worst that might happen is Empire might burn us, too.

But to the witches who risked the stake to avoid forever the factory floor, the insurrectionists who risked bullets to forever avoid submission, and any who risked the rage of Empire for the possibility that Empire might fall, the choice was an easy one.

So is ours.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals Press and a co-editor of godsandradicals.org.


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We Can All Be Arks

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“You, reading this essay: you are an ark.”

From Asa West

From a car window, California fuchsia might look like just another ornamental flower. A few bright spatters of red along the parkway, surrounded by the kinds of no-fuss shrubs installed by landlords and people who spend most of their time indoors. Compared to the exotic species like hibiscus or ficus, species that simulate lush tropical landscapes, California Fuchsia might even look rather scraggly and small. Is it the type of plant a driver will notice at all? Maybe people appreciate the showy little tube-shaped flowers, or maybe it’s not impressive enough to warrant a glance.

But you don’t get California fuchsia’s whole story from the window of a car.

Epilobium Canum ssp Canum, native to the California Floristic Province, is an integral member of foothill and coastal ecosystems from Oregon to Mexico. If you suspect that the size and shape of the flowers would be the perfect size for a hummingbird’s beak, then you’d be right: it’s a favored flower of several species of hummingbirds, along with the white-lined sphinx moth, the giant swallowtail butterfly, and the California dogface. What’s more, California fuschia also has a long and beneficial relationship to humans; it’s historically been used by the Chumash as a vulnerary herb, healing wounds in the same way that calendula has been used by Europeans.

Speaking of vulnerary herbs, did you know that yarrow is a California native plant? The feathery plant with the corymb inflorescences, a favorite of #WitchesOfInstagram, grows around the world and may have been propagated by ancient settlers and explorers. Gardeners savvy to its healing properties will eschew the brightly colored cultivars and look for Achillea Millefolium, with its plain white flowers that work well in salves and attract butterflies and bees. But, like California fuschia, yarrow can look pretty plain compared to all the exotics.

In fact, that supposed plainness is why so many native plant communities have been obliterated by developers fixated on turning California into a hybrid of England and Hawaii. You can buy a white sage smudge at Whole Foods to go with your essential oils and appropriated dream catchers, but when you pass real live white sage on the street, it looks like a vaguely pretty but rather uninteresting background shrub. The elder tree (ssp. cerulea) is summer deciduous in California and looks dead during the hottest months. The seedheads of sages and buckwheat turn brown after flowering. The authors of California Native Plants for the Garden are stark in their description of the colonization of California: “Compared to the rich greens, bright flowers, and bold textures of subtropical species,” they write, “the natives must have seemed dull and gray.”

How sad, that a shallow and limited idea of beauty can lead to the deaths of entire ecosystems.

#

Last spring, my husband and I scoured Los Angeles for a new place to live. Our options were limited, especially since we had one kid and another on the way, but I found a listing for a two bedroom condo in Koreatown from which the commute to our jobs on the west side wouldn’t be too catastrophic. (Nine miles, only an hour each way, not too shabby by L.A. standards). We went to look at the place and found it had a back door, and outside were two neglected alleyways and a cramped ficus tree. My daughter promptly tried to climb the tree while I wandered the alleys to look at the soil, which was compacted and rocky and covered in garbage. The land was hurting, its surface a raw abrasion, and I knew as I felt the quiet weight of a geis settle onto me that this was where we would live. The spirits of this place had been waiting goodness knows how long for someone, anyone, to come and stick up for them.

After we moved in, I set about getting permission to clean up the alleys, install a small container garden, and plant some drought-tolerant natives. The backlash was immediate. Two neighbors dismissed new plants as against the rules and thus self-evidently bad, citing decades-old regulations in the building’s covenant. Another got upset and tried to get the building manager to shut me down, calling plants a fire hazard (although it was unclear how plants were a fire hazard when a path littered with junk apparently wasn’t). The status quo bias was formidable: anything perceived as unruly or out of the ordinary was attacked like a virus. I couldn’t make sense of it. I still can’t. Is this the same bias that makes people resist renewable energy and doggedly support capitalism, even as it sucks away their resources and erodes their lives?

If only, I found myself thinking, my neighbors could have heard Lili Singer speak.

My husband and I had taken one of Lili’s gardening classes at the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit in the San Gabriel Valley that propagates native plants. He and I had sat with 30 other gardeners in a little classroom with no AC, taking notes as Lili described plant communities and design principles. For the most part I happily geeked out over wildflowers and sages and coast live oaks, but at one point, the class suddenly turned profound.

Gardeners and conservationists preserve these native species, Lili told us, not to keep them on life support for all of eternity, but in the hopes that someday they’ll be able to flourish on their own again. “California fauna evolved alongside these specific plants, and they need these plants to survive,” she said. “If you save the plants, you’re also saving the insects, and the birds that eat the insects, and the animals that eat the birds. You’re saving whole ecosystems. Your backyard can be an ark.”

She was referring to Noah’s ark, of course, but stories of devastating floods can be found in mythologies all over the world, a specter of annihilation that haunts our collective psyche, a warning whispered by the gods. In the Epic of Gilgamesh,* a group of gods decide to destroy the world, but Ea, “the cleverest of the gods,” warns Noah’s predecessor Utnapishtim:

Reed fence, reed fence, listen to my words.

[Utnapishtim,] King of Shuruppak, quickly, quickly

Tear down your house and build a giant ship,

Leave your possessions, save your life….

Then gather and take aboard the ship

Examples of every living creature.

In this version, the gods are not unanimous in their decision to destroy humanity; in fact, they quickly come to regret it, “cower[ing] by the palace wall, like dogs” to escape the rising water. To me, this version feels truer to our experience of climate change than the Noah myth, in which the instigator of the flood decides which humans are virtuous enough to survive. If climate change were a punishment, then the corporations, lobbyists, and politicians responsible, rather than the most vulnerable and innocent among us, would be hit the hardest. Indeed, we can almost see the 1% in Gilgamesh’s council of gods: foolishly believing themselves to be above destruction, deciding that the world is theirs to destroy and all its lives theirs to take, only too late realizing that they, too, are vulnerable.

I thought about just going ahead and planting the plants, even doing it in secret to avoid getting fined, but after I experimented with a little flower bed and someone kicked it to pieces, I realized my neighbors were not above simply tearing up anything mysterious they found. The sickness plaguing our land isn’t just physical. A dark and troubling thing happens to people’s minds when they live long enough under capitalism. They begin to hold life itself in contempt, seeing any other organisms not as partners and companions, but as competitors and threats. They view the new family down the hall with suspicion and anxiety, ready to attack if property values sag. They grow used to monocultures and conformity and balk at the sight of an unruly hedge. They forget how to be a community; one neighbor plays loud music at 3 a.m. and shrugs at the thought that it might bother people, while other neighbors call the police instead of knocking on his door. There are literal floods happening, yes–and droughts and famines and hurricanes and wildfires–but we’re drowning in something else, too.

We can be arks, I found myself thinking after the class. On the first full moon after we moved in, I brought my ritual supplies to the roof of the building to perform my first esbat in our new home. Not for the first time, I found a part of myself preparing to instruct my daughters in witchcraft when they come of age (if they want it, of course). This is how you’ll explain the compass, a little voice said as I conjured the quarter spirits. This is how you’ll teach scrying, it murmured as I closed my right eye and gazed at the moon in my bowl of water. Then I thought: I am an ark. My body, my mind, my knowledge, the traditions and wisdom I’ve stored up inside me. I carry them through the years so that I can pass them on, and so that their recipients can pass them on, and so forth until the calamity has passed.

You, reading this essay: you are an ark. The god Ea whispers to you through the reeds. What are you carrying that’s worth saving? What do you hold that must be protected and sheltered until conditions are right for it to fly free? Your devotions to the old gods and your knowledge of the Ways? Your friendship with the good folk? Your gateways through the hedge? The mass-produced books on Paganism, as lovely and important as some of them are, are not living knowledge. The written word kills the witchcraft. What’s alive lives in your body, and nowhere else.

#

Happily, I eked out the majority board approval I needed to plant my natives. I bought my seedlings–some fuchsia and sagebrush and golden currant and blue-eyed grass and elder, plus some California poppy and baby blue eyes seeds, and a compact Cleveland sage that wouldn’t tolerate the clay but might do all right in a pot–and, after a good rain, put them all in. I was afraid the soil was just too bad for them to thrive, but as I dug, I noticed it was teaming with earthworms. The land was impatient to be healed.

Gardening might seem to some like a paltry, even indulgent form of activism when Nazis are killing people in the streets. But the nurturing of threatened species requires radical hope–which Jonathan Lear defines as hope that “is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is,” and which Junot Diaz says “is not so much something you have but something you practice.” There’s a chance, and not a small one, that someone will kill all my native plants after I move away; after all, people all over Southern California are still hard at work tearing up natives to replace them with sod and concrete. But the act of planting keeps despair at bay. Perhaps one of my plants will release one seed that will fly somewhere safe and carry the species forward. Besides, liberation becomes easier to imagine when you get a tiny glimpse of what lies on the other side. Your body remembers a future with gardens, and that promise propels you to action.

After I put the plants in, I tamped the moist soil down and made the berms and offered each plant a little breastmilk to welcome it. I went inside and fed my children. My husband and I hope to move out of the city in a few years, to a place near a forest where I can tend a real garden instead of an alley, but my geis puts me firmly in this place until these plants are established and the birds and insects have learned of their presence. I hope that when I leave, the spirits will be able to protect these plants, or at least that status quo bias will work in their favor. I hope this patch of land will be a sturdy ark, sailing patiently towards a time when riotous, joyful life will thrive again.

*Translation by Stephen Mitchell


Asa West

Asa West is a sliding-scale tarot reader blending traditional witchcraft with earth-based Judaism. Her writing has appeared in Witches and Pagans Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, and other outlets, and you can find her at tarotbyasa.com and instagram.com/tarotbyasa.

 


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Class and Identity: Against Both/And

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Image credit: Lotta Femminista, via Viewpoint Magazine

I’m sitting in a punk bar in April with an out-of-town socialist. He gets passionate, telling me how disappointing he finds May Day rallies back home – how the local AFL-CIO plays it safe by stumping for Democrats, while other activists demonstrate about immigration, feminism, and “anything besides class.”

“Why can’t this one day be for workers?” he sighs.


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A Jill Stein supporter protests Hillary Clinton during the DNC. Via Wikimedia Commons.

After Hillary Clinton’s failure in November, erstwhile Bernie supporters blamed Clinton’s “identity liberalism” for “abandoning the white working class.” In return, centrist Democrats repeated the accusations they’d made against Sanders during the primaries: supposedly, denouncing Wall Street is only another flavor of the white male reaction that uplifted Trump, and class-based politics means throwing away feminism and anti-racism for the sake of unity with “hillbillies.”

However, the revival of social democracy that Bernie helped catalyze didn’t slow. Often (though not exclusively) through the organizational vehicle of the Democratic Socialists of America and anchored by the audiences of Chapo Trap House and Jacobin, social democracy seems to be edging out “anarcho-liberalism” as the US protest scene’s default ideology.

As it’s grown, its proponents have rebutted the claim that class doesn’t mix with anti-racism and feminism. While criticizing the excesses of the Clintonite politics of representation and “identitarianism” in general, they’ve maintained that they actually oppose racism and sexism more effectively than centrists. After all, their case goes, “universal public goods” and “redistributive social-democratic programs” disproportionately benefit oppressed identity groups because their oppression leaves them poor, unemployed, and uninsured far more often than white straight men. Therefore, the best way to support women and people of color is to avoid divisive, class-effacing privilege analysis. Prioritizing economics doesn’t mean dropping anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry commitments. It’s simply a more effective strategy to pursue them. They agree with the centrists that those are non-negotiable moral imperatives, while disagreeing about how they best can be accomplished.

Overall, they both claim that US progressivism must pick one of their two competing orientations: liberal centrism or social democracy. Identity politics or universalism – which way forward?

Should workers have a holiday to themselves?

But there’s a flaw underlying the clashing-visions narrative. Both worldviews fundamentally misunderstand the nature of race, gender, class, and capitalism – and they do so in precisely the same way.


But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break. In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James

Liberals say that opposing identity oppression means letting class politics go. Social democrats respond that they can walk and chew gum – class-based organizing can and should coexist with a strong anti-discrimination program.

But does either stance square with what race, gender, and privilege materially are?

Under capitalism, most people take part in the work that keeps society running and produces all goods and services. Sometimes that work is paid; sometimes it isn’t. In either case, though, it isn’t controlled by the people who do it. Rather, economic activity is governed by a ruling class of investors and business owners, called capitalists. They accumulate wealth by exploiting the paid and unpaid work carried out by everyone else: the working class, broadly defined. The capitalist class holds power by owning capital (productive property, the objects that workers use to produce goods and services).

The capitalist economy is enormously complex. It requires an elaborate, worldwide division of labor. The ruling class dictates the terms on which that happens. Further, the capitalists know that they don’t actually contribute to the work. Their role boils down to accumulating capital and keeping themselves in charge.

So, when dividing up labor, they hit two targets at once.

There’s nothing in human biology that makes people do extra housework and emotional labor when they’re perceived as women. There’s no law of botany that assigns farm work mostly to immigrants.

But the ruling class has figured out that it can associate different social categories with the expectation and/or requirement that their members will engage in certain types of work. When they do that, the working class itself begins to organically adapt to the capitalist division of labor. The gender role of womanhood, for instance, has unpaid gendered labor built into it. The capitalist class doesn’t send a memo to every individual woman each morning that reads, “Today we need you to clean the kitchen and comfort you boyfriend when he’s upset.” But on the ground, women, not men, are almost always the ones who do that type of work. How does that happen? Well, men have learned a social role that includes having that done for them, and women have learned one that includes doing it. Every time they re-enact those roles, they re-create them; the repeated experience of behaving the way others expect based on gender causes people to internalize those expectations, which then leads them to project them back onto others. The division of labor happens through identity categories, and it plays out in a way that keeps reinforcing them.

Of course, capitalists don’t rely on the working class to keep doing that entirely on its own. They actively intervene in daily life to keep the categories strong. While that does involve the mass media, religious doctrine, and the education system promoting stereotypes and unequal expectations, propaganda is only part of the story. Rather, the ruling class sustains and reinforces identity groups by treating some of them much worse than others. By punishing (legally or socially) those who cross category lines, it keeps the distinctions clear. Racial profiling by police helps keep certain neighborhoods white. When a church excommunicates gays, it ensures that its parishioners’ households are headed by men and produce lots of children.

Additionally, by granting cultural, legal, and material benefits to some identity groups but not others, the ruling class shores up its power. After all, when part of the working class does comparatively better as a result of the division of labor, it’s less likely to unite with the rest of the class to challenge the system overall. That’s how privilege works: it simultaneously emerges from and contributes to the capitalist division of labor, and does so in a way that pits privileged workers against the rest of their class.

That’s not incidental to capitalism, either. When it first emerged, the capital-owning class didn’t want self-sufficient peasant villages. As long as peasants had their land and worked it, they were unwilling to hire themselves out to other people’s businesses. But capitalists need people who own nothing, because such people have no choice but to work for them. So, in the early modern era, the emerging capitalist class created the current working class by enslaving Africans, committing genocide against Indigenous nations to steal their land’s raw materials, and privatizing the land that had once been the European peasant Commons. The categories of gender, race, and nation imposed by that process are the ancestors of today’s identity divisions. Unequal treatment both sustains them and makes them useful to the system.

Privilege is built into class.


Activists must understand the ways that the particular historical experiences of the United States wove race and class together that makes fighting white supremacy central to any revolutionary project. In other words, those who wish to fight against all forms of authoritarianism must understand one crucial fact of American politics—in America authority is colored white.

Roy San Filippo

Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.

My acquaintance in the punk bar, however, didn’t view gender and race as indispensable ingredients of the class system. He wasn’t a bigot, and he supported anti-racism and feminism on moral grounds. Even so, his understanding didn’t root them in the everyday, material life of capitalism. He knew that women workers and immigrant workers are workers, no less than their white male counterparts. But, he still operated with the implicit assumption that capitalism, in general, tries to make workers as interchangeable as possible.

After all, the logic goes, doesn’t capitalism tend to de-skill specialized trades over time in order to drive down those jobs’ wages? In a parallel manner, liberal centrists argue that the market punishes racism and sexism – isn’t it in a company’s self-interest to always hire and promote the most qualified candidate, whatever their identity?

Apart from the skilled trades, the only jobs in which individual qualifications make a substantial difference are professional and white-collar work. Now, it’s true in principle that a less-diverse and less-qualified administrative workforce operates less effectively than one that rewards talent, rather than whiteness and maleness. But a big-box retailer doesn’t need a stocker to have an unusual talent for stacking boxes. The nature of the work is such that most any worker can do it as well as another. For most jobs, unique individual qualifications don’t really make much difference.

As more and more jobs get de-skilled, employers lose the incentive to hire based on applicants’ distinctive qualifications. Over time, specialist knowledge declines as a factor in assigning work. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism don’t. Maintaining those divisions of labor allows companies to exploit non-white, non-Western, and non-male workers at extra-high rates. That then creates downward pressure on privileged workers’ pay. De-skilling doesn’t make the working class less differentiated. It makes it more so.

And every corporation knows that whatever it loses by discriminating against qualified administrators, it makes up a thousandfold by keeping the overall division of labor intact.

Capitalism is a totalizing social system. It’s not just fiscal. Race, nation, and gender are among its components. Without them, it could not function. Had it not imposed them, it would not have been able to come into being. But social democrats and liberals don’t quite grasp that. Instead, they view gender, class, and race as more-or-less independent “vectors of oppression” that might inflect each other when they intersect, but still don’t reduce to any shared underlying cause.

And so, liberals and social democrats end up holding in common the view that class, in principle, is ultimately raceless and genderless. They agree that capitalism and privilege exist, but that opposing one doesn’t require opposing the other. They differ on only one point: social democrats say “both/and” to identity and class, while liberals say “either/or.”

Neither view is adequate. Their shared assumption isn’t true.


White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class. This cross-class alliance represents the principle obstacle, strategically speaking, to revolution in the United States. Given the United States’ imperial power, this alliance has global implications.

The central task of a new organization should be to break up this unholy alliance between the ruling class and the white working class by attacking the system of white privilege and the subordination of people of color.

Ruckus Collective

But what difference does this make on the ground? Doesn’t good socialist practice still mean pro-worker economics plus anti-racist, feminist social politics? Whether or not it’s all a unitary system, what is concretely at stake?

If race, gender, and empire are inherent to capitalism, the meaning of “good socialist practice” starts to shift.

If a socialist revolution is to happen, the working class must unite. If the class is to unite, revolutionaries must challenge the material and cultural basis of its disunity. So, every political project the Left undertakes needs to specifically challenge privilege within the working class, not sweep it under the rug to avoid “divisiveness.” If your organizing doesn’t meet that standard, you’re not building class unity. You’re tearing it down. There is no raceless and genderless class politics because there is no raceless and genderless class. So, trying to compartmentalize anti-privilege and anti-capitalist work is implicitly chauvinistic (except when it’s explicitly so!). The Left must reject all politics that doesn’t break down intra-class privilege, even when it comes from “our side.”

The social-democratic revival waxes nostalgic for the postwar welfare state, calling for “universal social goods” with anti-discrimination laws tacked on. Its proponents posit a revival of Scandinavian-style social programs as a bulwark against the populist Right and a viable “long game” anti-capitalist strategy. But welfare nostalgia doesn’t naturally lead towards revolutionary socialism. Due to its backwards-looking frame of reference, it fits more intuitively with welfare chauvinism: the tactic used by far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Richard Spencer, of promising to restore not only the social-democratic redistribution, but also the much harsher identity hierarchies of the pre-70s years. And in practice, even avowedly left-wing social democrats are not immune to welfare-chauvinist temptations. Jeremy Corbyn and Sahra Wagenknecht‘s stated anti-racism hasn’t kept them from demanding immigration restrictions.  Angela Nagle‘s claimed feminism doesn’t stop her from scapegoating trans people for the sins of online call-out culture.

The social-democratic “both/and” doesn’t work. Why should it? It attempts to sidestep the question of privilege within the class, not attack it. Opposing privilege as a matter of class-neutral morality rather than working-class strategy leans, over time, towards chauvinism.


For the consequences of the ending of white supremacy, which can only be ended by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the entire working class, would extend far beyond the point of spreading out the misery more equitably. The result of such a struggle would be a working class that was class conscious, highly organized, experienced and militant – in short, united – and ready to confront the ruling class as a solid block. The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.

Ted Allen and Noel Ignatin (Noel Ignatiev)

Does this mean radicals should take a two-stage approach: anti-discrimination now, socialism later?

Both privileged and specially-oppressed parts of the working class have two sets of interests: long-term and short-term. For non-privileged workers, there’s a long-term interest in abolishing capitalism and a short-term interest in eliminating privilege. Privilege is part of capitalism and specially-oppressed workers stand to benefit straightforwardly from getting rid of the system and all of its parts. Privileged workers, though, are in a bind. They share other workers’ long-term interest in ending capitalism. But in the short term, privilege makes their lives better. So, their long-term and short-term interests contradict each other; they share the former with their entire class, but the latter keeps them from recognizing it. Strategically, the trick is to organize privileged workers around their long-term interests – even though that means opposing their own short-term interests.

Liberal anti-discrimination, however, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t want to. There’s a reason it focuses on academia, middle-class professions, and the coverage of media stars with oppressed backgrounds. That flows naturally from its class basis. It aims to remove the barriers that keep middle-class and upper-class members of oppressed identity groups from enjoying full middle/upper-class success. However, that success consists of exploiting working-class people, including those who share their identities.

Privilege and class aren’t separate. The Left’s work against them can’t afford to be, either.

If May Day is about immigrants and feminism, doesn’t that mean it’s about workers?


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Image Credit: Q-Patrol of Seattle

So how should the Left proceed?

If the unitary view of class and privilege rejects liberal anti-discrimination, it also leads away from standard welfare-statist anti-austerity. Should leftists oppose austerity? They shouldn’t support it, since its implementation (like the welfare state’s before it) is done in a way that strengthens capitalist rule (including by shoring up privilege). But the Left’s goal can’t be a return to the postwar “golden years.” Revolutionaries can’t afford nostalgia.

Rather, directly tackling the basis of class rule (including privilege) can best happen outside the framework of state services and legislation. You can conceptualize it through an anarchist, Marxist, municipalist, or whatever other lens, but in the end, only the dual power strategy‘s institution-building approach allows radicals to confront the capitalist class while challenging the division of labor it imposes.

What does that look like in practice?

Q-Patrol in Seattle, WA claims that gentrification in the gay district is behind the past several years’ sharply-rising hate violence. The influx of wealthy software engineers drives up rent and displaces LGBTQ people (replacing them with sometimes-homophobic tech yuppies). Consequently, the neighborhood’s ability to function as a safe haven declines. Losing that “critical mass” of LGBTQ people makes the area more attractive to straight college students looking for nightlife. So, with more drunk, conservative straight people in the district, increased hate violence isn’t exactly a surprise.

Gay business owners, though, have called for more police in the area to quell attacks. But a greater police presence actually accelerates the process. The people most targeted by homophobic and transphobic assaults are often people of color, unhoused people, and/or sex workers. The police themselves harass and sometimes attack members of those groups. Meanwhile, their ambient presence emboldens the same well-off bigots who are behind the violence in the first place.

Q-Patrol’s solution is a community safety patrol, preventing and intervening in attacks while monitoring the police, Copwatch-style. Q-Patrol therefore resists gentrification (which threatens all working-class people in the area, LGBTQ or straight) by displacing an ostensible function of the police (protecting the community). The institution-building strategy hinges on this kind of function displacement. Capitalist institutions organize different aspects of life in ways that reinforce privilege and the division of labor. If leftists build counter-institutions, people can use them organize those same parts of life in ways that don’t do that.

Because its basic work is preventing hate violence and its roots are directly in the LGBTQ community, Q-Patrol directly challenges straight privilege. However, it does so in a way that simultaneously furthers the interests of the neighborhood’s entire working class, straights included. There’s no “both/and”-ism – it doesn’t artificially pin anti-discrimination onto supposedly raceless and gender-free “class issues.” Instead, its work intrinsically and organically does both at once.

That’s the approach the Left needs. The conflict between social democracy and “identity politics” is a red herring. They share a worldview in which privilege and class exist independently of each other. Because of that, both end up supporting capitalism and privilege, since materially, they are the same system. Neither liberals nor social democrats, though, are interested in attacking that system as the coherent, integrated whole that it actually is. Revolutionaries can’t afford that limited perspective. If May Day isn’t about women and immigrants, then it’s not about class.

The Left must confront the class system itself, challenging the ruling class and its division of labor. Radicals shouldn’t fight one limb of the system in a way that strengthens another. Autonomous working-class politics, based on the dual power strategy of institution-building, has a chance of breaking out of that trap.

Welfare nostalgia doesn’t.


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


The Pre-Sale for A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing has begun!

 

Paganism™

We are pitted against an industrial industry which fabricates our dreams for us and insinuates them through our culture and our language. How can we dream when our vocabulary of symbols has only the nuance of newspeak? These are spectres of desire and though marked for sale, remain unattainable.
–Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft

“But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”

–Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra

ONE: CIRCLES FOR THE STONE

Fast past villages with both English and Welsh names he drove us. She sat between us. I tried on her hat. It amused me. It amused them.

And then we were there, the top of an ancient high hill still wet from recent rains. We walked, speaking. I missed some of the threads of our conversation, distracted by the distant vistas. Eyes constantly drawn north: Gwynedd, Snowdonia, over which dark clouds gathered. The wind echoed a promise reminded, an oath I gave in one of those valleys.

In the remnants of a cromlech we stood, its stones worn down near nothing by wind and rain. From the centre to the tallest a line formed, extended towards those mountains. It felt important, that stone, that direction, a prehistoric compass directing the eyes to a place wherein something older than stones breathed and waited.

By the “offerings” arrayed at its base, others had thought the stone important, too. Baubles, pink plastic fairies, bracelets, a few slivers of quartz, the coins of empire.

“Neopagan trash,” my guide said, sweeping the offerings up in his hands. His eyes burned with something deeper than disgust, and something older. He flung them from the circle with a deft, calm rage. My eyes followed their flight through the air, then met his, then quickly turned away.

“They leave this shit everywhere,” he said.

Something about the innocence, or really the pinkness, of the proffered plastic fairy moved me. I imagined some child leaving it, or one of those addled-but-loveable Goddess-type women who are always telling you “we are all-one.” Misguided and naive, but their gesture of offering felt at least benign, harmless.

I said so.

I think I said, “There’s hope in their search for something authentic. They just don’t know what to do yet.”

My companions did not answer. They did not need to. As the words spilled out of me, the unbidden image of low-wage Chinese women stamping pink plastic into the form of cartoon-style fairies answered my objection.

TWO: DO WE DARE?

“People lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. They also begin to engage with the fantasy without realizing what it really is. They seek happiness and fulfilment through the simulacra of reality… and avoid the contact/interaction with the real world.”

Jean Baudrillard

A little more than five years ago I stood in an open field, staring into an abyssal sea of stars circling about me, speaking aloud the answer to a question.

Do you dare?

“Yes,” I said, losing the ground below me. “I dare.”

I cried. My mind shattered. I slept, I didn’t sleep. The smell of earth choked me, the stars above my tent screamed distant songs, wheeling as I tried to cling to the wheeling planet upon which I supposedly belonged.

I say five years ago; it might have been forty, the length of my life thus far. I stopped being able to count after that; calendars make no sense any longer, the procession of hours no longer relevant. Only season after season repeating means anything, but even then I cannot clutch to their movement like I once could. Time itself changed, or my place within it. I changed: broken, reforged, broken again, remade, remade, remade.

Before all this I was a chef and a social worker, a partner to a man, a citizen of a city, a denizen of a home. Before all this, Pagan was an identity, like ‘gay’ or ‘gamer.’ Paganism was something I liked, a shared interest, an aesthetic. After this, it became the only way I knew how to describe why I slept among stones, sat long nights on fallen trees in cold wet forests. Why I stood shirtless in winter upon a rock as dragon fire shone through a drop of rain falling from a branch, knelt in circles of crow feathers, bled upon an ashen blade, knocked on shields, lay down across rivers, pulled the beards of giants and fucked in moon-silver shadow of antler and branch.

Paganism is the word I’ve used to explain why I have sat at council with dead hooded men around fires, flew past a guardian into the blood of an enemy and there clotted those hidden streams, turned great edged wheels to grind down the mind of a dangerous fool, stood upon hills watching how some worlds end, why I stole glimpses of toads impaled on pencils and turned that sorcerer’s malice into his catastrophic downfall. It is the shorthand for why I have awakened a forest and watched smiling as strangers brought in their gods, ran barefoot through nettles alongside a river of blood, been summoned by children to a tomb across an ocean, argued with the angry hearts of mountains, learned to walk invisible through city streets, and spoken the names that plants call themselves.

But for all the wisdom I’ve since gathered from bodied and unfleshed teachers guiding me through thick bramble or dark forest, I still didn’t know why I called any of this Pagan.

THREE: PAGANISM™

Every word is an utterance for the inexpressible, but once uttered can become the thing itself.

To name yourself happy is to leave the moment happiness is meant to describe. Every mystic knows the moment words are found for the vision, the vision is over.

The land and stars which initiated me into the Other scream of a thing for which Paganism is mere translation. Like all sounds given to the pre-literate, pre-vocal thing-ness below what we call things, its expression can ossify in our mind, wall us from its world. So to name what I have lived and seen and been these last five years “Pagan” has been in some way to betray it.

Yet words waken. A call to arms, a shouted warning to watch out; “I love you” whispered in the trembling of night, “I’m sorry: she’s dead” from the lips of a doctor, “fuck you” and “help me”: these open gates to new existences even as they close others.

Were it only up to the poets and mystics, the word Pagan would always evoke, always call us outward. Were it only up to me, Pagan would be the sound I make to initiate desire into others, a beckoning into realms of vision and connection.

But it is never up to the poet or the mystic.

Like land that has become property, work that has become labor, and art that has become commodity, Paganism has been enclosed. Paganism is now mostly product, sign without signification, representation without represented. You can go to Pagan conferences, listen to Pagan music, buy Pagan products made by Pagan artisans in Pagan shops. You can read Pagan blogs written by Pagan writers published by Pagan publishers. You can apply Pagan like a label upon any thing you do or say or think, investing by every action and transaction into a Global Brand through which the “Pagan” capitalists draw dividends.

By calling all that I have seen and learned, all that I have written and created, and all that I have known as truth “Pagan,” I have inadvertently fed into this branding, improved its market reputation, and helped increase the profits of those for whom Paganism is a thing that can be sold, not become.

Yet under all this are still my experiences which cannot be sold, the moments of the Other inexpressible, for which I have no other word except Pagan.

The Pagan of the hotel dress-up convention or the pink plastic fairies littering ancient stone exists. We can point to such things, such brandings and say—here! Here is a Pagan thing. We cannot do the same for the trees at which I stared at as I first began to type this, trees beyond which lie the last remnants of the great Celyddon once covering much of Yns Prydein. That cannot be bought. That cannot be branded.

The Witchcraft of the glossy books or online-teachers can be regarded with certainty: this here is “witchcraft.” Not true, however, for the moments which I know as witchcraft. A few days ago on the Isle of Skye, encountering my accidental initiator ‘by chance’ upon a street corner just after thinking his name, both of us six thousand miles from where we last lived—that is the Witchcraft I know.

But it is not a thing I can show to you, nor is it a thing I can sell.

A refrain of a song never before sung yet we already, somehow, know the words. An echo from a past we have not yet lived, dreams which speak truth by measures for which we will never find metric. The reflection of sky in water which displays an additional dimension of perception in which we can not move except in dream: all these things I call Pagan, all these things are my witchcraft. All these things cannot be bought.

Witchcraft and Magic and Paganism exist. But they cannot be found through the very means by which we lost them.

FOUR: “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”

Perhaps because they refuse to shake off their Protestant culture, American Pagans are fond of speaking of the “big tent,” under which all the many of “us” gather: Heathens, Polytheists, Occultists, Wiccans, Reclaiming witches and Feri witches, Unitarian-Universalists and solitary practitioners, all crowded under a massive canvas  painted blue with white stars like some hokey wizard’s hat or, closer to the truth, a U.S. flag without the red- and white- stripes.

The “big tent” is supposed to be about inclusion or some rot, but since it’s the same phrase the Democratic Party has used to justify why anti-capitalists, environmentalists, and pro-corporate war-mongers should all be in the same political gathering, there’s likely something else happening here. Perhaps what they’ve always meant isn’t ‘tent’ at all, but corral, wall, or internment camp.

Because ultimately, the “big tent” benefits only the vendors of pink plastic fairies, the sleek white gaywitches with their laughable invocations to “The Dark Goddess,” the dottering old racist uncles hailing the ‘folk’ in Alt-Right rallies, the altars photographed and filtered in devotion to the #instawitch hashtag. It does not benefit you, but instead the right-wing Christian corporation that runs a Pagan blog site, the ‘community news’ organisation constantly skewing capitalist, nationalist, and ever-so-libertarian, and all the pay-to-pray traditions eager for your money and attention.

The ‘big tent’ isn’t a shelter, it’s a Market. Within the tent, Paganism isn’t a belief or a culture but an interest, spirituality just another thing for you to buy in a world that already has too much shit anyway.

But the story of how Paganism became a product is not just the story of opportunistic women and men seeking profit. It is the story of disenchantment itself. It is the story of displacement and colonization, the wakened horror from which spawned Empire and Nation, Race and Identity. More than anything it is the story of our divorce from land and ourselves, a sickness for which Paganism is sold not as cure but placebo for a necrotic wound we really ought to get checked out.

People seek Paganism to find magic or gods or authentic ways of being and meaning. But the magic and gods have never been gone: they are only buried deep below the asphalt over which they drive, the concrete upon which they walk, the steel and cement in which they live. The gods of rivers are buried beneath the cities, poisoned; we wipe our asses with the corpses of forest gods. The magic of human will and sense is psychologized, medicalized: “aberrant” perceptions of the myriad are disciplined or drugged out of us, then sold back to us on spiritual retreats.

The search for authentic meaning and ways of being which draws people to Paganism springs from a rejection of what else is on offer, a malaise of what is available to us by mundane, Modern means: 40-hour work weeks, concrete housing blocks, relentlessly mediated life in which too many of us only see breath-taking views of forests or communal celebrations on screens. Those depictionspixelated, fed and filtered through Instagram feeds; or used as mere backdrop for mythic television series like Vikings or Game Of Thronesserve not to draw us closer to what we seek, but push us even more distant from the world we have lost.

FIVE: MAGIC IS EVERYTHING BUT WHAT YOU CAN BUY

“And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream.”

Jean Baudrillard

We search for the authentic in the only place it cannot be found. We seek the gods and spirits not in the land around us but in empty symbols, poorly-written books and “mystery traditions” led by leaders for whom their unwitting initiates are their only way of getting laid.

We scroll endlessly through blogs promising to teach us how do magic, purchase special oils and candles to stave off the terror of modern life and maybe make us not feel so lonely. When none of that works, we try again, and again, forgetting that magic has nothing to do with what you buy or which online-tradition gave you a certificate of completion.

Magic has nothing to do with the teachers of magic, the vending tables at the con’s or the Etsy shop, none of which are much different from the pink plastic fairy left at the base of a stone.

Magic is you.

It has always been you, you and the world around you. Magic is the breathing forests, the scream of owl and raven as you wander alone through darkness. Magic is in the stars above and the stars you see after your eyes close, the wind from distant mountains and the loamy breath of the grave.

Magic is the stone, and it is also the circle, and especially in all the forgotten wisdom with which ancients living millennia before anyone called themselves ‘Pagan’ raised them.

Magic is what it has always meant to be human, before the makers of the pink plastic fairies and the ringmasters of the Big Tent set up shop.

Magic, connection to the earth, the experience of the Otherthese things the merchants of Paganism™ cannot sell us, and the fact that they try is proof they have never experienced those things themselves.

Let them be honest. We are all only selling books and candles, art and skills. Let these things be judged on those qualities, without the false promises and dishonest marketing.

And let us all be honest: The real magic is the world the capitalists have been selling off from under our feet, the real connection is our reclamation of the earth, and the real Paganism is resistance to all commodification of what it means to be human.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is the managing editor and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He trucks with Welsh gods and lives in Bretagne, or Dublin, or old Scottish port cities, or pretty much anywhere he feels like it. He’s a theorist, punk, nomad, anarchist, and all kinds of other stuff.

You can follow him on Facebook or Instagram, read his primary blog here, read his true sex stories here, and if you really like him you can support him on Patreon.


Looking for our journals and books? They’re over here.

Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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


Jonathan Woolley

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


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What Is the Left Without Identity Politics?

This question was asked in an article written amongst the glut of Leftists attempting to find a reason why Hillary lost the election. This glut is rife with finger pointing, denial, and beating around the bush. It got me thinking of my own answer to the question, apart from the obvious reason, that she is as fake as any politician but not good enough of an actor to hide it.

First we’d have to ask the question, “What is the Left”? And honestly, outside of looking up an encyclopedia or dictionary definition, I don’t know anymore. I could try to define it by describing what it does instead of what it is, but what does the Left do? As a whole, it does nothing, because there is no monolithic “LEFT”, there is just a blanket identifier used for the convenience of the non-Left.

identity-pullWhat is the Left without Identity Politics? One should ask instead, “What is the Left without solidarity?” The answer is, “nothing”. If the word “Left” is just a category that describes disparate groups, a word used for the convenience of others, then the Left is identity politics, and without identity politics, it is nothing.
Identity politics is the memetic virus that has ripped the Left to pieces and left it a husk of a word, writhing with the independent organisms trapped in said husk; they are not powerful enough to break out of that husk nor are they powerful enough to devour their siblings and assume control of the body.

How has Identity Politics kept the Left from opposing Capitalism?

To understand why a Left which is at its core a collection of Identity Politics groups can not oppose Capitalism, we have to look at Capitalism. The Capitalism of the 21st century is not the Capitalism that Karl Marx wrote of. There are two major developments that have happened since Marx wrote Das Kapital that have evolved Capitalism into a form more fit to do what it does best: generate cash, use that cash to convert material into more of itself. The Capitalism of the 21st century is the “grey goo” of economics, whereas the Capitalism of Marx’s day was the Star Trek “Borg” of economics. The old Capitalism wants to convert you, but is too clumsy, repulsive, and slow moving to be threatening unless you encounter a lot of it at once. The new Capitalism, even in small amounts, can be deadly if you get it on you!

The two developments I speak, that have made Capitalism leaner and meaner, are psychologically targeted advertising (via the focus group), and of course, the internet. The former, the brainchild of a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, has been a bane to humanity for over a hundred years now; the latter, a tool which by itself is neither bane nor boon, until its user turns it to beneficial or nefarious purpose

Sex sells… what?

“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

~ Paul Mazur, Harvard Business Review 1927

There is a fantastic documentary that I wish the whole world would watch, but I’ll settle for the readers of this article (watch it!). Wikipedia summarizes the documentary very well:

“The documentary explores the various ways that governments and corporations have utilized Freud’s theories. Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed in part one; His daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in part two. Wilhelm Reich, an opponent of Freud’s theories, is discussed in part three. Along these lines, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of consumerism and commodification and their implications. It also questions the modern way people see themselves, the attitudes to fashion, and superficiality. […] In part four the main subjects are Philip Gould, a political strategist, and Matthew Freud, a PR consultant and the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud. In the 1990s, they were instrumental to bringing the Democratic Party in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power through use of the focus group, originally invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations to allow consumers to express their feelings and needs, just as patients do in psychotherapy.”

What follow then is my own rough timeline for the development of psychological methods for use in advertising (Capitalism) and social engineering (the State) based on this documentary:

1919 to 1945 –

Edward Bernays opens public relations consulting office. Publishes first book 4 years later, in 1923. Edward Bernays methods spread, being used to make World Wars more palatable, cigarettes fashionable for women and Calvin Coolidge palatable as a person. Capitalism at this point is still mostly the slow moving, lumbering beast of Marx’s day.

1950 to 1968 –

Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, specialized in child psychoanalysis, particularly the ability of the ego to be trained. Psychoanalysis now during this period dominates the culture of the West, its cultural expression the suburb. People who fall out of the area of what is acceptable by social engineers psychoanalysts are drugged up, institutionalized, electrocuted, or all three. Capitalism seemingly reigns supreme. All threats within are eliminated or inert. This is the apotheosis of classical Capitalism. It is not to last.

1968 to 1990 –

The inevitable reaction to the era of the gilded cage comes, like a freight train out of control. The baby-boomers, the products of the suburban gilded cage, seek to break free. But from what? And how? Without knowing the answer to these questions, the era of the “Hippie” is an era of confused spirituality, encounter groups, and, yes, identity politics. As many break out of and away from the single “normal” identity created for them by the psychoanalyst, new identities are created. This is a devastating but temporary blow to Capitalism. Originally minority groups used identity politics to form coalitions with majority groups, to rightly ensure that their own concerns and needs were heard and met. But with so many people looking to fill the void of identity created by a rejection of the psychoanalysts “healthy” identity, identity politics would not long remain simply a tool of minority civil rights activists. How did Capitalism survive the age of radical individuality?

1990 to Present…

Capitalists have no common belief, ethos, or political program outside of making money and growing the business. As a collective gestalt, this translates economically to grey goo. Gather material and energy, make copies. Capitalism only suppresses or destroys what gets in the way of this. It nurtures and spreads what helps this. How then did Capitalism survive the age of radical individuality, itself the reaction to capitalist consumerism and stifling cultural blandness? It is actually very simple.

identity-pullCapitalism changed its shape; it changed itself, and absorbed what threatened it. Like the eponymous blob from the movie, it absorbed what it came into contact with and got bigger and stronger. As manufacturing became cheaper and more sophisticated, and other technologies more advanced, screaming toward post-scarcity, Capitalism’s need for everyone to fit into a certain mold, and to think they needed a narrow range of certain things, became obsolete. So to, did the politicians who were still of the notion that they needed to appeal to a person’s rational intellect. The early 1990’s saw the birth of the internet, and with it, the niche market. At this same time, the focus group came to politics.

The focus group, for the uninitiated, is technically very simple. You gather a group of people. You give them a product to look at, inspect, touch, etc. Or a commercial to watch, if you’re thorough you show them many things that have to do with the product you have in mind to sell, as well as the product. Then, quite simply, you ask them how they feel about it. Then you ask them why they feel that way, and so on. A single focus group tells you little, many focus groups, done over time, give you a very deep look into the collective subconscious, a look that Capitalists have been taking for almost 100 years.

tinsh7sx58y-tiko-giorgadzeHow do you market to a large group of people that feel they need to be individuals (some need this so bad they will seek it at any cost)? The answer is you appeal to this need, you sell them on individuality. It works, it works depressingly well. For about 50 years, amid the use of sex to sell alcohol, masculinity to sell cigarettes and cars, the promise of individuality to sell anything and everything has come to the fore. The psychological and spiritual fallout of this is that the burning need for individuality, fostered by the Capitalist, is so finely targeted and so expertly set aflame, first by television, then by the much more efficient means of mass communication of the internet, that even a glut of consumerism cannot fill the hole left in the consumer’s soul. The internet, the morally neutral tool available to so many, can bring people together for mass protest and resistance, and equally it can bring hollow souls together to writhe in their own desperate need.

The identity of identity politics

Contemporary technology makes niche consumerism the most profitable business model. One hundred years of experience in appealing to subconscious desires has made the Capitalist advertiser a very well adapted predator, the consumer, a very well trained consumer. The consumer does not just consume, the consumer does not just internalize the psychology of the consumer. The consumer exists in a culture of consumption; there is no internalization of the consumer psychological mindset because the consumer has never had any other mindset. There is no culture outside of consumer culture, there hasn’t been for some time.

For this reason, participating in any culture with sincerity is at once an act of liberation and rebellion. Small wonder then that the individuals who attempt to participate in culture get shouted down and told they are immoral. But who is telling them this?

identity-pullThere was once a weirdo, who used to wander in the desert and tell people he was the son of god, who asked a rhetorical question in answer to the question, “Are you the devil?” That question was, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Identity politics cannot resist Capitalism because it is a product of Capitalism. The reason identity politics will never and can never defeat or counter Capitalism is because identity politics is the latest, most virulent, most irresistible form of Capitalist consumer culture.

Those I knew who participated in a culture, instead of merely consuming it, were always glad to share their culture with me, and were glad to see their culture growing and interesting others. They were honored that I wanted to learn, and I was always grateful they were eager to teach. Culture is something we share with each other. It is given and taken freely. It may have a clear center, but is always fuzzy around the borders. Cultures mix where people mix, again, because culture is shared.

That is, until Capitalism got into the culture game. Now you have to “earn” the right to participate, or you have to be “native” to that culture, or it is appropriation. These are the demands and words of the fascist and capitalist. No mixing! You must pay to play! Consumer culture is now consuming culture, and the psychology of Identity Politics bears this out.

Suddenly the failing of the “Left”, and its identity politics, to counter The Donald is brought into sharp definition. Identity Politics is the culture of Capitalism. The Donald himself rode a wave of identity politics to the White House; it just wasn’t the identity politics of the Left. It was however Capitalist consumer culture, both on the Left and on the Right.

The Left couldn’t counter the rise of The Donald because Capitalism does not fight itself, it only helps itself.


Patacelcus

A Discordian for 20 years, Patacelcus finally got comfortable when the 21st century “started getting weird”. When not casting sigils, taking part in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, or studying the unfortunate but sometimes amusing stories of the dead, he’s been known to wander the hidden ways of the city, communing with all of the hidden spirits one can find in a city. As Patacelcus sees it, we’re all already free; after completing the arduous task of waking up to that we can then proceed, like a doctor treating a patient, to try to rouse others from the bitter and frightening nightmares of Archism. He laughs at Samsara’s shadow-play in lovely California, in the company of his wife, two cats, and 2 birds.


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In Praise of the Dancing Body

By Silvia Federici

The history of the body is the history of human beings, for there is no cultural practice that is not first applied to the body. Even if we limit ourselves to speak of the history of the body in capitalism we face an overwhelming task, so extensive have been the techniques used to discipline the body, constantly changing, depending on the shifts in labor regimes to which our body was subjected to. Moreover, we do not have one history but different histories of the body: the body of men, of women, of the waged worker, of the enslaved, of the colonized.

A history of the body then can be reconstructed by describing the different forms of repression that capitalism has activated against it. But I have decided to write instead of the body as a ground of resistance, that is the body and its powers – the power to act, to transform itself and the world and the body as a natural limit to exploitation.

There is something we have lost in our insistence on the body as something socially constructed and performative. The view of the body as a social [discursive] production has hidden the fact our body is a receptacle of powers, capacities and resistances, that have been developed in a long process of co-evolution with our natural environment, as well as inter-generational practices that have made it a natural limit to exploitation.

By the body as a ‘natural limit’ I refer to the structure of needs and desires created in us not only by our conscious decisions or collective practices, but by millions of years of material evolution:the need for the sun, for the blue sky and the green of trees, for the smell of the woods and the oceans, the need for touching, smelling, sleeping, making love.

This accumulated structure of needs and desires, that for thousands of years have been the condition of our social reproduction, has put limits to our exploitation and is something that capitalism has incessantly struggled to overcome.

Capitalism was not the first system based on the exploitation of human labor. But more than any other system in history, it has tried to create an economic world where labor is the most essential principle of accumulation. As such it was the first to make the regimentation and mechanization of the body a key premise of the accumulation of wealth. Indeed, one of capitalism’s main social tasks from its beginning to the present has been the transformation of our energies and corporeal powers into labor-powers.

In Caliban and the Witch, I have looked at the strategies that capitalism has employed to accomplish this task and remold human nature, in the same way as it has tried to remold the earth in order to make the land more productive and to turn animals into living factories. I have spoken of the historic battle it has waged against the body, against our materiality, and the many institutions it has created for this purpose: the law, the whip, the regulation of sexuality, as well as myriad social practices that have redefined our relation to space, to nature, and to each other.

Federici land pullCapitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance. Generally, we stress the economic aspect of this process, the economic dependence capitalism has created on monetary relations, and its role in the formation of a wage proletariat. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.

Nature has been inorganic body and there was a time when we could read the winds, the clouds, and the changes in the currents of rivers and seas. In pre-capitalist societies people thought they had the power to fly, to have out-of body experiences, to communicate, to speak with animals and take on their powers and even shape-shift. They also thought that they could be in more places than one and, for example, they could come back from the grave to take revenge of their enemies.

Not all these powers were imaginary. Daily contact with nature was the source of a great amount of knowledge reflected in the food revolution that took place especially in the Americas prior to colonization or in the revolution in sailing techniques. We know now, for instance, that the Polynesian populations used to travel the high seas at night with only their body as their compass, as they could tell from the vibrations of the waves the different ways to direct their boats to the shore.

Fixation in space and time has been one of the most elementary and persistent techniques capitalism has used to take hold of the body. See the attacks throughout history on vagabonds, migrants, hobo-men. Mobility is a threat when not pursued for work-sake as it circulates knowledges, experiences, struggles. In the past the instruments of restraint were whips, chains, the stocks, mutilation, enslavement. Today, in addition to the whip and the detention centers, we have computer surveillance and the periodic threat of epidemics as a means to control nomadism.

Federici mechanisation pullMechanization—the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine—has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits. Animals too are turned into machines, so that sows can double their littler, chicken can produce uninterrupted flows of eggs, while unproductive ones are grounded like stones, and calves can never stand on their feet before being brought to the slaughter house.

I cannot here evoke all the ways in which the mechanization of body has occurred. Enough to say that the techniques of capture and domination have changed depending on the dominant labor regime and the machines that have been the model for the body.

Thus we find that in the 16 and 17th centuries (the time of manufacture) the body was imagined and disciplined according to the model of simple machines, like the pump and the lever. This was the regime that culminated in Taylorism, time-motion study, where every motion was calculated and all our energies were channeled to the task. Resistance here was imagined in the form of inertia, with the body pictured as a dumb animal, a monster resistant to command.

With the 19th century we have, instead, a conception of the body and disciplinary techniques modeled on the steam engine, its productivity calculated in terms of input and output, and efficiency becoming the key word. Under this regime, the disciplining of the body was accomplished through dietary restrictions and the calculation of the calories that a working body would need. The climax, in this context, was the Nazi table, that specified what calories each type of worker needed. The enemy here was the dispersion of energy, entropy, waste, disorder. In the US, the history of this new political economy began in the 1880s, with the attack on the saloon and the remolding of the family-life with at its center the full-time housewife, conceived as an anti-entropic devise, always on call, ready to restore the meal consumed, the body sullied after the bath, the dress repaired and torn again.

In our time, models for the body are the computer and the genetic code, crafting a dematerialized, dis-aggregated body, imagined as a conglomerate of cells and genes each with her own program, indifferent to the rest and to the good of the body as a whole. Such is the theory of the ‘selfish gene,’ the idea, that is, that the body is made of individualistic cells and genes all pursuing their program a perfect metaphor of the neo-liberal conception of life, where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity with own ourselves. Consistently, the body disintegrates into an assemblage of selfish genes, each striving to achieve its selfish goals, indifferent to the interest of the rest.

To the extent that we internalize this view, we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. Industries have been built on the fears that this conception of the body generates, putting us at the mercy of forces that we do not control. Inevitably, if we internalize this view, we do not taste good to ourselves. In fact, our body scares us, and we do not listen to it.

We do not hear what it wants, but join the assault on it with all the weapons that medicine can offer: radiation, colonoscopy, mammography, all arms in a long battle against the body, with us joining in the assault rather than taking our body out of the line of fire. In this way we are prepared to accept a world that transforms body-parts into commodities for a market and view our body as a repository of diseases: the body as plague, the body as source of epidemics, the body without reason.

Federici reappropriate pullOur struggle then must begin with the re-appropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.

Dance is central to this re-appropriation. In essence, the act of dancing is an exploration and invention of what a body can do: of its capacities, its languages, its articulations of the strivings of our being. I have come to believe that there is a philosophy in dancing, for dance mimics the processes by which we relate to the world, connect with other bodies, transform ourselves and the space around us.

From dance we learn that matter is not stupid, it is not blind, it is not mechanical, but has its rhythms, has its language, and it is self-activated and self-organizing, Our bodies have reasons that we need to learn, rediscover, reinvent. We need to listen to their language as the path to our health and healing, as we need to listen to the language and rhythms of the natural world as the path to the health and healing of the earth. Since the power to be affected and to affect, to be moved and move, a capacity which is indestructible, exhausted only with death, is constitutive of the body, there is an immanent politics residing in it: the capacity to transform itself, others, and change the world.


This essay originally appeared in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are.


Silvia Federici

is a feminist activist, teacher and writer. Her published works include: Revolution at Point Zero. Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (2012); Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004); Enduring Western Civilization: The Construction of Western Civilization and its “Others” (1994 editor).

Staring Down the Precipice: An Interview with Richard Oxman

By William Hawes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Hawes

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

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

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

The commons, as I would call it today, is those social systems in which people create their own alternatives to capital, where they reproduce their own values and value practices which are completely different to that of capital. The commons empower us, essentially. It empowers us not only to define our own way of doing things collectively, together, but also to make us more powerful to sustain the attack of capital, IF we are organized.
–Massimo de Angelis
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To speak of the commons in the 21st century requires long memory and fierce forgetfulness. For not only has the commons been fenced off from memory, but we must also overcome a few hundred years of capitalism’s deep magic, ensorcelling us to not even be able to recognize, much less formulate and articulate, the commons.

The magic of capitalism runs deep.

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

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

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

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

I’ve long been interested in the history of crime — and here I don’t mean the thieving that is at the base of capitalism, when our subsistence is taken away — instead I mean that thieving for subsistence, which poor people have always been forced to do when their own means of subsistence, namely the land, was taken away. So my first study had to do with the history of crime, which I rapidly learned was the history of people trying to obtain subsistence in a regime of privatization…. Labor history is the history of life, and the history of life can’t be written without the commons.
–Peter Linebaugh
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Except, it’s a lie. There are many alternatives, including the older, deeper magic of the commons. The deeper magic that capitalism knew from Day One it would have to bury, to eradicate from peoples’ minds.

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

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

The magic of capitalism runs deep.

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