The Time of Your Life

In the 2011 sci-fi film In Time, Justin Timberlake plays a factory worker in a dystopian future where each person is born with a set allotment of time-currency. The poor work to buy more time from their bosses, while paying their time to others for rent, or food, or other necessities, constantly checking their time-balance (a digital clock embedded into their flesh) to ensure they have enough to survive the next day. In the constructed world of the movie, when you are out of time, you die.

Elsewhere in this future world, others have plenty of time–the wealthy hoard hours and days from the masses of the poor, living long and opulent lives. Their own days seem near infinite; their worries minor compared to the workers in other ‘Time Zones,’ who scramble constantly in time-debt trying to have enough minutes to feed their children.

The film is a fantasy, of course. But despite its fictional nature, In Time is uncomfortably real—no work of film or literature comes quite so close to depicting the unspoken truth behind the Capitalist economy and its adage that “Time is Money.”

Most of us work for a living, selling our time to employers in return for wages, for currency that we use to purchase the necessities of living like food and housing. We exchange pieces of sacred paper inscribed with glyphs, or digital ciphers abstractly representing those dollars and euros and pesos–all which become for us a currency bearing crystalized meaning of minutes, hours and days.

It seems a pristine and precise system. My time compensates the time of others, and I spend spent hours on goods and services created with the spent hours of others in a great bazaar of equivalent exchange. The very abstraction, the symbolic extraction seems near beautiful—an hour of me is worth an hour of you, and we humans share and trade the time of our lives for the time of others in ever-equalizing currents.

Hours and minutes and seconds swirl ’round like clock-hands, like a finely-honed machine so eternally-present it seems as if Nature itself birthed such exchange of time for money.

But we know this is untrue. An hour of me is not worth an hour of a tech worker. He can buy 5 of my hours with an hour of his, and I can buy 40 hours of a Haitian’s life with an hour of mine. According to this system, my time is worth more than many, worth much much less than many others. Embedded in our symbols of money are invisible accountings of time we cannot quite unravel and cannot quite see.

Like many other changes wrought into the world these last 400 years, we have trouble understanding how this happened, or that it even happened at all. The ubiquity of systems like Capitalism and Monotheism seem to obliterate the past, or re-write themselves into history so that they always seem to have been there, our Modern life merely a completed tapestry of threads woven from the dawn of humanity. And Time seems the same; we cannot easily remember a Time before Time.

But this particular sort of Time is new, and this accounting newer still, and it is not Pagan, and it is not good.

We live in the Time of Capital; in Machine Time. We are refugees from a war on a Time we cannot remember; a war nearly erased from our collective memories. The Time of Nature is hidden from view, and we are crippled by our loss of Time.

Seems a bold statement, I’m sure. But follow me back a few hundred years to the War on Time.

Clockmakers and Preachers

clock-flikr-cc
Toni Verdú Carbó (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In his study, Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, British historian E.P. Thompson traces the birth of Western Time conceptions through the upheavals of the 16th through 19th centuries. These centuries also saw the Enclosures, the Witch-Hunts, the mass slaughters of European Imperialism, the Reformation, and the birth of new forms of state control over people — 400 years of pitched battle, in which leaders of the Church and powerful warlords (called ‘kings’) fought to repress, restrain, and exploit increasingly politically and religiously independent peoples.

It was, also, the birth of Capitalism.

The Birth of Capitalist Time is inextricable from the birth of the factories, and the story of the birth of factories cannot be told without mentioning the Clockmakers. In fact, many of the machines of the factories were made by clockmakers, who had experience with the timing of gears, and E.P. Thompson notes that many of the most powerful industrialists of the early period of Capitalism, as well as early 20th-century ones like Henry Ford had also been chronomancers.

The human body is not a machine; no matter the usefulness of such metaphors. Our heart-rates are irregular, subject to alterations in times of fear, passion, lust, happyness, sorrow, or even sudden stimuli. Neither do we rise from slumber or fall into sleep at regular intervals, as the natural ways we measure time are ever-shifting, subject to daily, seasonal, and biological variations. In summer, the sun rises hot and bright, in winter cold and distant. Clouds may obscure the light, or the work of the day, or an illness, or a new lover may all cause us to rise later.

Nature is no strict manager of our lives. Nor do we humans labor always at regular intervals and at equal strengths; fatigue, sorrow, distraction, illness may all slow work; impatience or eagerness may hasten it.

But the logic of the factory and industrial Capitalism requires standardized working hours, regular and predictable output. A factory or business cannot operate if workers come in whenever they choose; a Capitalist cannot plan production or profits if he cannot be certain he will have enough workers present–those unpredictable Human components–at the wheels and levers of his pristine, regulated, inanimate machines.

How then could a Capitalist, intent on turning the labor of humans into the fuel for his wealth, cause unruly and undisciplined people to work his machines?

He turned to the clock.

At first a curiosity for the wealthy, a tool for the astrologer and the alchemist, the modern clock became more prevalent and more available as demand for its other uses increased. Like many other human inventions (one thinks of gunpowder and the combustion engine), it did not become ubiquitous until the powerful learned they could wield it against others. Time-pieces had existed for thousands of years, water-clocks and sundials and hour-glasses, but mechanical time was unneeded but for a few specialized professions and studies.

Soon, bell-towers which had rung out to townsfolk the calls to prayer or alarums of fire became also clock towers. As wealthy merchants, nobles, and industrialists saw time-discipline crucial to their profits, many of them funded the placement of clocks in every town, village, and city, often upon the sacred houses called Churches.

That placement’s important, and religion too had its role in the birth of Capitalist time. The prevalence of clock-time was not enough to compel the average person to measure out their days and ways by the regulated hour. Just as it was fortunate for the Capitalist that the Clock existed, it was doubly to his fortune that Protestant preachers roamed the countryside and the warrens of the towns, observing the chaotic and un-Christian lives of the commoner and seeking, through sermons and tracts, to bring the light of an ordered, regulated life to the poor.

Those same centuries saw a flurry of tracts, primers, almanacs, and sermons against the venial sin of sloth and the most deadly moral failing of the poor, sluggardly staying in bed. Like the Puritan attempts to regulate the sexual activities of the poor (sleeping with boards between husband and wife, having sex only on certain days, avoiding touching), these guides were authoritarian and prescriptive, codifying the best times for waking, for eating, for working (incidentally, every day but the Sabbath) all to attain a purity of life in accordance to the will of God and the proper functioning of Christian society.

John Wesley was one of the most famous of the religious preachers to issue such strictures, and more importantly developed an entire religious movement based upon perfecting the human soul in relation to God through methodical order and disciple—Methodism.

Religious teachers were not the only ones to write such guidelines—statesman, humanists, and industrialists issued their own screeds against the tendency of the poor to laze-about and drink tea (a serious problem, judging by how many warnings were issued about the sinful Tea Table.) And consider “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” Benjamin Franklin’s decades-long publishing of facts mixed with maxims, including that most tyrannical truth mentioned earlier. It’s from Franklin (incidentally a clockmaker in his younger days) we first learned that Time is Money.

Capitalists needed workers to show up on time, on regular schedules, in order to run the new mills and factories. Protestant ministers and preachers (many of them invested both in the factories and in the Capitalist ethic, which is distinctly Protestant, as Max Weber has shown) saw the introduction of time-discipline as a way of better managing the faithful and ridding society of non-Christian activities which they alternately described as Pagan or Devilish. Thus, both became allies in the War on Time against the masses, whose transition from unregulated life and work-as-you-will seemed never complete.

But we should consider what non-Capitalist time actually was and what the stakes actually were in this war.

Machine Time, Machine Discipline

50Dark-Satanic-Mills

Clocks had been around much longer than factories, mills and work houses. Personal clocks were much rarer, often out of economic reach of the poor until watchmaking became a more common skill and the lower classes had enough money to purchase them (often, as E.P. Thompson notes, as an investment for wealth, as a watch could be hawked or put up as collateral against credit).

The keeping of time, then, was the province of the upper classes, the urban dwellers, lords, aristocrat who sought power over the poor. During this period, there were actually two conceptions of times: the rural/common/peasant recognition of tasks and Nature (the time of the sun and the times of human activity like meals) and the time of the upper classes, measured first in imprecise hours until the perfection of the pendulum allowed time to be divided into discrete minutes and eventually seconds.

What’s the difference? In Machine Time, the human day is broken into machine-regulated denotations trumping natural patterns. Waking happens not according to the rising of the sun but of the stroke of a bell or the sounding of an alarm; 6.30 am and one must leave the bed, shower, eat, prepare the children for school all to meet another impending time-marker, 9am, when you are expected at work. Leave at 8:30 and you arrive ‘on-time,’ leave a little later and you are late and perhaps disciplined, punished, or at least scolded not only by your manager.

Lunch, not at ‘noon’ when the sun is directly overhead but at 12:00. Return half-an-hour later and the work-day commences. Work ends not when work is done, but at another set time, 5:00, as you, along with millions of others leaving work fill streets with cars rushing home on highways built wide to accommodate the predicted flood.

And those workers, home finally, regulate their day further by the logic of the machine by returning to their beds at a ‘decent’ time, not necessarily when they are tired or when their thirst for life’s been sated.

The way work is compensated in Machine-Time is disciplined, too—hourly wages, expected time commitments (40/hour weeks—and that only because workers fought and died for the 8-hour day), salaries all managed and configured to standardize payments not of work performed but time given. Piece-work and task work eventually fell out of favor because it was more difficult to manage–workers completed their tasks only as money was needed and would not regularly show up otherwise, and thus the adoption of a new form of compensation–waged Time.

On the other hand, Natural Time is not so easy to describe, because it’s as varied as the people who experience it and the communities and cultures they are a part of, as well as the work performed. There is the time of agriculture, starting and stopping work according to the light of day, with hard and long work performed socially for several months broken up by long periods of little work. The time of the fishing community, measured not by the clock but by the tide and the moon’s light. The time of the migrating cultures, measured by many First Nations peoples according to the moon as well (The Flowering Moon, the Wolf Moon, etc.,).

Even in Europe before Capitalism, time was measured by the feast days and festivals, many surviving still in Catholic countries like France where even non-Catholic workers are notorious for claiming those holidays and ‘faire le pont’ (making the bridge—taking an extra day between a holiday on a Thursday or Tuesday to make a four-day weekend).

Natural time exists everywhere Capitalism has not supplanted it, but on those frontiers the war rages on. Cultures which do not live by machine-time are often called ‘primitive’ or ‘backward.’  One BBC interview program a few years ago provides a great example: international businessmen and local entrepreneurs lamented the lazyness and tardyness of Africans and Arabs. Those interviewed complained that Africans just didn’t get time, even when they owned watches. Or that Arabs couldn’t quite ‘comprehend’ the urgency required to live in a Modern and Advanced world.

Worst of all, one local North African interviewee suggested that the reason Africa was a continent full of so much poverty was due precisely to the lazyness of his fellow continentals. That is, they were poor because they were never punctual. They even called it “African Standard Time.” [Remember this the next time you hear someone complain about ‘Pagan Standard Time’]

Natural Time is culturally-specific, rather than universal, constructed upon events and activities, work and festival. It relies both upon the rotation of the earth and apparent movement of the moon, sun, and stars, as well as the specific needs of a community. Time to migrate, or to put the livestock out to pasture or to bring in the harvest, all recurring activities which generate their own patterns of time, rather than the tyranny of a machine. And it’s the time of Animist cultures, which is why Westerners, after finally submitting for centuries on their knees at the alarm-clock and time-sheet have such trouble understanding ‘mythic time.’

Capitalism’s obsession with the clock and the machine did much more than affect the way workers were corralled into factories in the morning or return to their homes, though—it affected the way the entire world was seen.

Mechanical Laws, Non-Mechanical World

Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon," in which people never knew if they were being watched and so thus act as if they are always being watched.
Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” in which people never knew if they were being watched and so thus act as if they are always being watched.

What arose from the conquering of Natural Time has been called the Mechanistic World-view, a crucial aspect of Capitalist thought and a brutal guardian against the return of Pagan religions to the world. In Mechanistic thinking, the world is governed by immutable laws which both predict and constrain everything. Both the basis of modern Science-thinking and the foundation of many political ideologies, including many totalitarian ones (consider that statement about Fascism and punctual trains…).

Iterated by thinkers such as Isaac Newton, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon and eventually filtered out into the rest of Western society as a part of the Protestant/Capitalist Work ethic. Nature and its chaotic tendencies became foes to be vanquished and subdued. Many Pagans make the mistake of equating the Judeo-Christian Bible as having instituted anthropocentric ‘dominionism’ over Nature, but this, like many other things Capitalism has wrought, is several thousand years newer than popular histories ever let on.

Machine-thinking provided not just a moral justification, but also a moral imperative for the subjugation of peoples and of Nature. If Time could be known and regulated like a machine, thus, too, could all the world. James Watts, the ‘father’ of the coal-fired Steam Engine and Francis Bacon, the much lauded (but very vile) founder of the Scientific Method, both spoke and wrote of Nature as a passive woman, waiting to be wooed, subjugated, even raped. Naomi Klein, in her book on Capitalism and Climate Change, tells it best:

If the modern-day extractive economy has a patron saint, the honor should probably go to Francis Bacon. The English philosopher, scientist, and statesman is credited with convincing Britain’s elites to abandon, once and for all, pagan notions of the earth as a life-giving mother figure to whom we owe respect and reverence (and more than a little fear) and accept the role as her dungeon master. “For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings,” Bacon wrote in De Augmentis Scientiarum in 1623, “and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again…Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his sole object.” -Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. p.170. [Emphasis mine]

Even popular notions of the Divine changed with the advent of Machine-time. Deism, which saw the Monotheist’s one-god as a “Divine Watchmaker,” shifted the understanding of humanity’s relationship to the Other not as one of co-creators, but one in which God left all the world to ‘man’ to be regulated, known, and perfected. It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the same mechanistic thinkers who changed civilization’s view of time and Nature were also Deists, including, of course, Benjamin Franklin.

Such a mechanistic worldview runs counter to quite a few important threads of Pagan thought, particularly Animism, which sees the world and all things in it alive, breathing with spirit, rather than inert cogs in the machines of progress which churn out human wealth.

Reclaiming Time

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Light from inside Newgrange during midwinter Solstice. Photo by Rhyd Wildermuth, 2014

Our pre-Capitalist ancestors were not stupid, nor did they have no conception of time. Societies cannot exist if everyone is late or cannot determine when to sleep, wake up, or plant grains. What’s changed under Capitalist Time is our individual participation in time, our inherent timing of our lives according to natural phenomenon and culturally-constructed needs.

The birth of Capitalist Machine-time should not be seen as Technological ‘Advance,’ because Enlightenment thinkers and Factory managers were hardly the only ones capable of understanding precise time. Sidereal time, the tracking of the stars over a year, was practiced for millenia before Capitalists came up with time-sheets and punch clocks, and we need only think on Newgrange, Stonehenge and countless ancient monuments in the world to recognize that precisely timing an event is at least 5000 years old. Likewise, ancient chronometers which could precisely tell the positions of stars during any time of the year were what helped many sea-faring civilizations travel thousands of miles long before the British and Dutch ships brought slaves and Capitalism to the Americas.

Machine-time must be inculcated, and Capitalist Time is taught to us in school in almost laughable ways. Shifting from one classroom to the next each hour was a pedagogical innovation not because it would help children learn better, but because it would prepare them better for the factories, the mills, and the assembly lines.

In fact, Capitalist industrialists had a very strong hand in the development of universal education in both England and the United States. You may have heard of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller? Here’s from their mission statement in 1913 as they created and funded educational policy to prepare children for their factories.

“In our dreams, we have limitless resources and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply…The task we set before ourselves is very simple as well as a very beautiful one, to train these people as we find them to a perfectly ideal life just where they are. So we will organize our children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm.” – General Education Board, Occasional Papers #1

Universal education is hardly only about enlightening children, but also about making them time-disciplined workers, ever more productive than their parents.  In schools we are punished for being late, our marks on papers reduced just as pay is docked for tardyness, all to systematically continue the War on Time the early industrialists waged against the lazyness of humans.

Time-discipline is taught in our youth because Capital thinks not with the mind of Nature, but the mind of the Machine. We must be managed, both internally and externally, so that the great cogs and gears of Profit grind on, even as our own time is crushed into death by the logic of the wealthy and powerful.

Internalizing machine-time is not about developing a discipline, it is about undergoing discipline. It is a management, an un-wilding of our nature. We become more like the machines which control us, forgetting who created whom, and like many other modern enslavements, Paganism and Witchcraft stand against it.

And standing against Capitalist Time is an idea from a very unlikely source, from traditions hardly known for their revolutionary stance. Both Wicca and many forms of modern Druidry have, as core beliefs, the vital observance of the natural cycles of sidereal (astrological) and solar time. The Wheel of the Year and the marking of the Moon’s cycles are, if anything, a radical reminder of what Time means outside the Machine and how humans, in concert with Nature and all its beings, co-create our own conceptions of time.

To escape Machine Time isn’t to destroy it—we do not need smash the clocks and watches of the world like Protestants smashing pagan idols in the cathedrals (Protestants who, we should remember, also helped create Machine time!)

Rather, we should challenge those who wield it against our numbered hours for profit. Cheat the time-sheet, abandon the alarm? Those are honorable tactics, and a great start. But it is not always possible for many who are trapped deeper in the machine than others.

Unwaging our hours is perhaps a better strategy, one we can do best by finally putting to rest that horrid mantra which encapsulated hundreds of years of Protestant and Capitalist time discipline. We must remind ourselves, repeat endlessly until our time is again our own:

Time is not Money.

Money is Not Time.

And we will never be machines.


[this piece originally published at The Wild Hunt on 6 June, 2015]


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


Editorial: The Blue-Black Stain

A few years ago, I lived next to a small bit of forest.   The place became my grove, my hiding place from the world, a place of raw nature and unmediated experience away from the city and the internet and people.

It became a place of ‘pure being,’ and damn I fucking loved that place. There, I could  ignore the really miserable conditions of city life. Capitalism didn’t matter there. Left/Right didn’t matter there. My rent payments and utility bills and job didn’t matter there.

The forest was Outside all that, a gate to the Other.

One day, it rained, so I hurried to the forest to go play in the stream. I loved that stream. I loved the spirits there– they always jabbing me for being too serious.  We’d play, or I’d play and feel them playing with me. In fact, that whole place was the only site in the world I could truly be a kid again, could play without care.

I was playing on a log when I saw the blue-black stain. I’d been watching the water cascade under pressed leaves and fallen branch, listening to the laughter of the small waterfalls.  I would let my fingers trace patterns into the water, something I used to always do as a child, but this time I pulled my hand  out of the water and saw it.

It was motor oil.

I sloshed through the mud to try to find the source, hoping someone had just discarded a near empty bottle of the stuff somewhere upstream. But no–the blue-black stain came from farther up, pouring through one of the culverts from which the stream was daylighted.

Forest 4It was fucking everywhere, this blue-black poison, so much of it I couldn’t stop seeing it even when I closed my eyes.

I cried.

I tried to gather dead plants that could filter this stuff out, but the rain was pouring so hard that I couldn’t. And once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it–the stuff was everywhere.  Worse–I could tell that it had been there for a while, much of it there much longer than I had ever noticed.

In my horror and panic I slipped, fell face-first into the mud, getting so much of it in one eye that it became infected..

Laying face-down in the mud, I could feel the spirits with whom I’d always played, and the gods I’d invited to share the space looking at me, sadly.  It seemed they were watching a beloved child first learning an awful truth about the world.

I had lost my innocence, but the place hadn’t.  The spirits there would have known all this long before I did. I wonder if the attention I felt from them–one of sorrow and sympathy–was them remembering the first time that oil came into the stream. Remembering the time the blue-black stain entered their home, the moment they knew they were not safe.

This forest had felt like a completely apolitical, safe, wild, raw place where I could speak with my gods and be spoken to.  It was a sacred place where I could revere them, build them small shrines and leave offerings in the trunks of trees.  But it was also, undeniably a site of politics.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

–The Communist Manifesto

Perhaps the most common worry about the work we do with Gods&Radicals is that, because we are writing about the gods, the earth, the ancestors and each other through a political lens, we are somehow politicizing the sacred. Ritual circles, magic, ancestor veneration, polytheist reconstruction–these are things we like to consider as safe, set-apart, all existing in a realm where government and economics don’t matter.

Forest no dumpI sympathize deeply.  Like the forest grove where I went to escape all the horrors of the city, our beliefs and magics and spirits seem set-apart, outside, Other, sacred.

But unfortunately, like the blue-black motor oil coating the stream of my grove, the places we think of as outside the political never actually are. In fact, our very notions of ‘outside’ and ‘sacred’ were  created through politics. Our idea of what is Sacred (‘set apart’) comes from Roman law by way of Christianity.

In Rome, sacer meant something that was set apart, outside common use, outside society or the city.  Sacer also made no distinction between what was holy or cursed. Sacer, was both a religious and a legal concept. It was the place where Roman law couldn’t apply. Things made sacer were outside the realm of politics, but the category of what was sacer was created through the political order where the political order did not apply.

People who were banished from the cities for broken oaths or horrible crimes were consigned to that realm, their fates left ‘to the gods,‘  becoming ‘homo sacer,‘ or ‘sacred man.’  And because they were excluded from society, they were also excluded from the protection of the law.  Anyone could kill people in the category of homo sacer without fear of being punished.

Through Christianity, sacer became ‘sacred.’ As in Rome, it was also a political category, becoming the opposite of both ‘the profane’ (which the original sense never meant) and the opposite of the Secular.

The Church then named themselves the authority on what was within the sacred realm.  Just as Rome had used priests, diviners, and the gods as justification for their political authority, The Church continued this tradition, becoming the ‘sacred authority’ which justified the rule of monarchs, or what was called the Divine Right of Kings.

‘Sacred,’ then, was always tied to the political, but there was always at least some degree of separation between the two (in Rome, the realm of sacer; in Europe, the split between ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ authority).  Unfortunately, under both Capitalism and Democracy, there is nothing outside the reach of the State or the exploitation of Capital–not even our bodies.

Is the body a sacred place, free from politics? Ask most women.  The fact that birth control pills require a prescription in many countries is proof that sex, conception, and a woman’s uterus are controlled by politics.

The problem is this–there is no legal definition of what is untouched by politics and power.  There is no “bare life,” no sacred.  And this doesn’t just affect how governments see human life, but also how we see our own lives, our own bodies, and the sacred.

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoē and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city….

 

…In the camps, city and house became indistinguishable, and the possibility of differentiating between our biological body and our political body — between what is incommunicable and mute and what is communicable and sayable — was taken from us forever.
Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

Our very notions of what makes us human were also created through political processes, much of which occurred in the last few hundred years.  Gender, race, sexuality–all these are political categories, rather than deriving from nature.  And, worse–Nature is another politically-created category, and the physical places we go to in order to be in Nature are also subject to politics.

Not convinced?  Consider National Parks and Wildlife Reserves in North America–not only are such places created by law, but they were once previously inhabited by indigenous peoples who were displaced or killed, in many cases to create those parks in the first place.

Forest TrashThere is no ‘outside.’ There is no realm where our existence is out of the reach of political forces. No matter how much we pretend, no matter how much we try to ignore the blue-black stain in the streams of our sacred places, there is no place to escape.

Feeling disenchanted?  It’s okay.  When I saw the blue-black stain in my sacred grove, I felt that way too.

But seeing how political forces have shaped our existence, seeing how there is nowhere sacred anymore is really the beginning of wisdom. Disenchantment isn’t just failing to see the world as magical, it’s also losing our illusions about how easy it will be to get that magic back.  The world didn’t stop being sacred, we did.

But, as I said–this is the beginning of wisdom.  Pretending that there are still parts of our existence that are safe from politics won’t get us anywhere.  And recognizing this but falling into despair won’t help, either.

Instead, we must fight. We must become magical again.  We must become the sacred.

Every part of our existence has become colonized–even our very ideas about magic, the gods, the sacred and ourselves. Reclaiming the sacred will take a lot more than just casting ritual circles and spell, setting up altars or giving worship to forgotten gods.  Though these are certainly great places to start, ritual and magic, devotion and offerings become no more than fantasy-play if it changes nothing in the world or about ourselves.

Seeing the blue-black stain is the beginning of wisdom.

Everything after is revolt.


 

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd 2016Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. His second book, A Kindness of Ravens is available now.

Being good storytellers isn’t enough

The milieu of Gods & Radicals is full of people who are great storytellers and communicators. Many have been brought up on the ‘mother’s milk’ of sagas, epics, spirit lore, the voices of plants, or whispers out of Faerie. I suspect a high proportion have degrees in creative writing or work in a creative field. So, if we choose to work for common causes, this is one of our major strengths. And yet, as the bards and diviners know, telling a good story isn’t always the whole picture; often what matters is sharing an appropriate narrative for the situation. This holds especially true when it comes to activism.

These days many campaigners have started to try and get heard and to access power by talking in the language of the antagonists. ‘You’ve got to use language they understand,’ goes this argument. An example would be conservation charities engaging with the corporate-political archons by speaking of woodlands as ‘natural capital’. It’s a fatal mistake. As George Monbiot notes, ‘you can never win by adopting the values of your opponents’. This is because once you concede to your opponents’ values, all you have left is facts and unanchored emotion, both of which are much more easily manipulated – especially when media ownership is dominated by a narrow capitalist elite who have the means to live nearly anywhere and therefore little to no interest in issues of local concern.

You can’t put ‘nature’ in a box

Recently I took a walk through the fields around my local wood. Six years ago the Planning Inspectorate gave permission for this area of Green Belt to be built on, in the face of strong local opposition, on condition that the land to the west of the wood is transformed from wide open fields into meadows, copses and hedgerows. Since then, however, development plans have been altered so that the proposed community park will be reduced to a third of the originally agreed size.

Setting aside the question of the role of the park as a community ‘amenity’ (on which more below), many of the species that live in the woods – such as badgers and buzzards – rely on the surrounding fields as an area of food supply, but this seems to be entirely forgotten. It’s as though planners and developers think that you can simply detach a wood from its surrounding landscape and expect the biodiversity it contains to remain unharmed. Or maybe they just don’t care.

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Field with poppies. (Photo by Accipiter Nisus)

Sadly such is the power of the housing development lobby that many conservation organisations seem to be starting to give in to the false narrative that nature can be packaged up into parcels. For instance a conservation society I’ve been a loyal member of for nearly my whole life, the RSPB, not long ago adopted the horrendous slogan ‘Giving Nature a Home’. It’s precisely this paternalistic attitude to ‘nature’ (the ecosystem which actually sustains us) that has got us into this mess in the first place.

The failure of the Labour government at the last UK parliamentary election was to meekly acquiesce to the Tory’s austerity narrative despite the fact that history contains many examples of successful alternatives to deep cuts to public services. In a similar way we are being sold a false narrative that ignores and denies the fact that life is characterised by reciprocity and interdependence. We are not separate from some abstract ‘nature’, and neither we or the natural world have a long term future while we think that a few shoeboxes full of ‘wild’-life set amongst sprawling housing estates are going to be adequate to the holistic well-being of humans, or the Earth processes and systems on which we depend.

It’s not all doom and gloom

A small digression to cheer you up before I continue …

While by no means perfect (they’ve used the ‘natural capital’ frame from time to time), one organisation making some positive moves toward a more holistic approach in the UK is the Woodland Trust that has been working to mitigate the impact of ash dieback on 12 million trees outside of woods which risks the loss of vital wildlife ‘corridors’ across the landscape.

I should also mention that the RSPB, despite their terribly misguided slogan, are actually doing a great deal of good work in the field of environmental connectivity too; such as in their support of the Fair to Nature food label which requires accredited farmers to put at least 10% of their production area (i.e. the area of land on which they produce crops, livestock, milk, etc.) into five types of wildlife habitats.

And finally, while speaking of environmental connectivity, having cut a hole in my garden fence as per the advice of the Hedgehog Street project, I now have an enchanting visitor every evening — and with little to no cost or effort am doing something to help a local endangered species.

Effective Framing

‘A frame is a story, composed of ideas, memories, emotions and values attached to and associated with a given concept. Framing is a communication tool, that we use (consciously or unconsciously) to provoke a particular kind of reaction to that concept.’
~ Bec Sanderson

Earlier I briefly mentioned the question of community ‘amenity’. I’ve been reflecting on this concept a lot since filling out a recent survey by a conservation charity. In the survey, a question asked was, “How often do you use a park (urban green space) or wood for any of the following activities…” and one possible response was: ‘Escapism / spiritual connection with nature’.

I found this an odd pairing. Most people I know who interact with woodlands and ‘natural’ spaces for ‘spiritual reasons’ do so to engage rather than to escape. I don’t want to make too much of one little survey answer of course (I suspect that enduring supporters’ pedantry is one of the main occupational hazards of charity survey writers) but it can serve as an important illustration of a bigger issue, namely effective ‘framing’. The careless elision of the two non-identical motivations illustrated above accidentally plays into a ‘frame’ that woodlands are best protected by promoting them as as leisure amenities: a place to escape so-called ‘real life’. It also implies that the ‘spiritual’ is ‘otherworldly’ which need not be true, and is – in my experience – particularly untrue of the spiritual understanding of many who are passionately engaged with their local woodlands and environments.

Frames and Values Diagram (© Common Cause)
Frames and Values Diagram (© Common Cause)

These seemingly small framing errors can however be easily hijacked by developers and government who often use them to argue that they are ‘only being pragmatic and realistic’; offering them an excuse to overlook the uniqueness of woodlands and of specific woodlands in particular. It allows them to argue that the ‘escapism’ and/or ‘spiritual connection’ sought in a specific woodland can just as easily be found in another ‘amenity’; perhaps a leisure centre, shopping precinct or local churches or mosques (Since for most architects of monoculture all spiritually and religiously inclined people must practice their devotions communally, indoors, on designated days, and in socially acceptable ways that do not disrupt the wheels of work and commerce!)

Effective framing is also vital in campaigning not only in terms of ‘winning’ short-term goals, but because there are many unintended longer-term consequences that can flow from a poor choice of frame. Take as an example the term ‘Bedroom Tax’. The widespread media adoption of this phrase has been celebrated as a winning frame by people campaigning against the benefit restrictions set out in the British Welfare Reform Act 2012.  However the ‘under-occupancy penalty’ isn’t actually a tax, so the frame is open to a defensive attack, and much more seriously it suggests the idea that ‘Tax = Bad’. Considering that the ‘Bedroom tax’ campaign is one against cuts to state welfare, which is funded from taxation, the implication that taxation is an evil could well prove to be a longer-term strategic error.

So to sum up, it can be worth asking if the way an issue is framed corresponds to one’s values. Sometimes another frame might seem more likely to gain support or get a short-term win, but what will have been conceded in the bigger context?

For more information on ‘Frames’ check out the Common Cause Handbook.

~ Accipiter Nisus

Article based on material originally published by Accipiter Nisus at: http://vernemeton.tumblr.com/

The Patriarchy is About Class, Not Gender

Credit: J. Howard Miller, Public Domain
Credit: J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

A Battle for Our Bodies

We women know a hard truth of our culture; our bodies are not our own.

We are told how our bodies are supposed to behave.  How they are supposed to look (age/weight/height/hair/skin colour/breast size/genitals; the last of particular interest to women not visibly born “female”).  What we should feed them.  How we should decorate them.  Whether or not we should use them as incubators and what we are allowed to do with them once a zygote starts growing.  We are told to hide, and suppress, our body’s needs and natural functions.  We are told that the functions that formulate the incubator are supposed to be hidden from polite company, from menstruation to breast feeding.  We are told how we should wrap them, under what conditions it’s okay to unwrap them, and whom we should (or should not) unwrap them for.

After I overcame my childhood conditioning to suppress my sexuality, I wondered why.  This is something that has puzzled me for many years.  Why in the world does anyone else care about what I do with my body, whom I choose to have sex with, or how?  I mean, think about it.  How does it affect anyone else that I’m not sleeping with (or someone who’s sleeping with someone I’m sleeping with?)  I don’t give two figs what kind of car my neighbour drives because its effect on my life is exactly zero.

I read all the Dianic literature and found it empowering: The Wise Wound, Goddesses in Everywoman, The Chalice and the Blade.  Their theory was that because, until recently, your mother was a certainty but your father was an opinion, controlling women’s sexuality assured paternity and therefore, men would not find themselves in a situation in which they were struggling to feed someone else’s offspring.  I believed it because it was the only thing that sounded plausible to me.

The men in my life were angered by this theory.  They are feminists, and they are stepfathers.  They chose to raise someone else’s offspring, knowing full well it was someone else’s offspring, and give their love even when that love has not always been returned.  I didn’t give their anger much heed.  I figured it was a case in which they did not recognize their privilege.  I figured they would come around.

But there’s another theory, one that I’ve recently stumbled upon that makes much more sense.  Like anything else it’s not new; I was excited when I discovered, as I was reading it for the first time, that Starhawk had touched on it in the Appendices of her classic book on magick and activism, Dreaming the Dark.

Patriarchy exists to preserve inheritance.

Patriarchy is all about class.

Expropriation and Estrangement

Starhawk believes that we can find the evidence in enclosure.  In the sixteenth century a movement spread through England to enclose what was previously common land.  All of a sudden, which family controlled the land and its use became of paramount importance.  All of a sudden the people who lived on that common land became threats, because if land was held by common “squatters,” it could not be enclosed.  Often, lone widows lived in such places and so they were favourite targets of the would-be landowners, since they couldn’t do much to fight back.  Persecution increased against marginalized groups; that and widespread famines and possibly ergot poisoning led to revolutions and pogroms.  Enclosure forced most of us out of the woods and fields and into places in which our livelihoods depended on wages, and since one could only farm what was now on one’s land, trade became vital, and not an enhancement to existing living conditions.  We have seen the culmination of this trend in our current world economy, which depends on trading in raw resources and the forced labour of the developing world.

Knowledge became a marketable commodity in the new mercantile culture that was developing.  Universities developed.  Knowledge became something you could only have if you had the money to pay, and thus, graduates of those universities worked to preserve their monopoly on knowledge.  This particularly affected medicine.  Graduating university doctors spread the idea that anyone who did not have their certification was dangerous and stupid and might possibly cause real harm, even when the folk healing tradition was well ahead of the medicine of universities.  Often this was also a women’s profession, so once again women became an incidental target.  And “women’s medicine,” as a natural and unavoidable consequence of all of the medical practitioners being male, lagged behind and became a method of social control, culminating with the myth of the “hysterical woman” in Victorian times; an excuse to institutionalize women who did not behave according to the desired social mien.  We are currently seeing the culmination of the ownership of knowledge, with every task requiring (expensive) papers to certify your capability, bizarre trademark and copyright laws that allow corporations to claim intellectual property over ideas created 700 years ago, and tuitions so high that only the moneyed class can generally afford to pay them.

In order to justify this culture of ownership and expropriation, the world had to be disenchanted.  If the world has no life and no spirit other than what can be used as resources, there is no reason not to use it up.  Once again, the bodies of (cisgender) women, who are bound visibly by biological needs and changes, and who hold the power of the womb, became incidental targets, as the needs of the body and the needs of the earth and its creatures were denigrated, and “spiritual perfection” came to mean transcending anything as filthy and low as biology and nature.  We are seeing the culmination of this disenchantment now, in which faith is painted as a choice between the binary of absolute obedience to a patriarchal, distant god; or utter denial of the possibility of anything spiritual.

All of this is part of a culture of expropriation that derives from estrangement; estrangement from our nature, from our bodies, from the sense of the spiritual in the material, from people who are different from ourselves, even from one another.  We are almost seeing the culmination of it now.  We no longer know our neighbours.  We no longer live in families any larger than the nuclear.  Most of us these days are raised by single mothers.  We don’t even talk to each other any more, except through phones and computers.  As a result we are siloed in echo chambers of the ideas we support and our children sit across the table from each other and use their phones to converse.  Almost by definition, Paganism and Polytheism, which see gods and spirits here within the earth, are natural enemies of this culture.

I was excited!  Starhawk articulated it so much more effectively than I was able to.

Of course, it started long before that.  While the theory of the ancient matriarchy has been essentially disproven at this point, it is likely that inheritance did not matter in the prehistoric world until there was something to inherit that did not belong to the clan as a whole.  Chieftainships created a class of haves, and have-nots, which made tracking inheritance “necessary.”

How I Stumbled on This

I was writing a science fiction novel.  In the process I created a society in which all the men were warriors, so of course, the women were required to do everything else.  This society also had a noble caste who ruled over the other classes.  And I found that the society quickly developed, through a natural process of cause and effect, into a patriarchy.  Fascist societies, the ultimate in Corporatism, usually develop into patriarchies for this reason.

So I changed one condition; I made inheritance dependent on the female bloodline.  Now clans were organized around the females of a particular family, and to become nobles of the clan, males had to marry into it.  Technically the males inherited, but only through the females.  Suddenly, it looked to outsiders like the males were in charge, but in reality, the females were controlling marriages and fertility, and through that, the process of inheritance.  Over time, males began to develop traits that the females found desirable, and eventually it led to the breakdown of the class system and changing roles for males and females.

Corroborating Evidence

Why is it always the right wing who seems to support ideas that restrict the freedom of women?  You would think that powerful women of the moneyed class would be in an ideal position to challenge the supremacy of the patriarch.  But consider it.  Keeping the classes divided is the only way in which to assure that there are haves and have-nots.  In order to separate the classes, it is necessary to assure that the poor and the rich never mingle, and that requires controlling a woman’s fertility; and subsequently, her sexuality.  This is why it’s so important to the moneyed Conservatives to prevent cisgender women (and trans-men) from controlling their own fertility and claiming their own sexuality outside of the imposed rules of the patriarchy.  If women could do that, we wage-slaves wouldn’t continue to breed fodder for factories, would we?  Especially not in the developing world.  And what if a low-class male has sex with a high-class female and she has a child?  That elevates him out of the have-nots, doesn’t it?

We women impose these unconscious limits on ourselves.  Did you know that women do not call each other “sluts” based on their level of sexuality activity?  According to a study conducted at university campuses by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, the key trigger to being called a slut by another woman is being from a different economic class.  Why on earth would women perceive each other as being “trashy” for being more, or less, affluent than themselves?  It seems to me that this is a subconscious method of social control, to prevent the classes from breeding together.

Also, we choose mates based on perceived status.  It’s such a cliche that we make jokes about it; trophy-wives and sugar daddies.  Men with money are considered sexy.  Men buy expensive gifts and seek good jobs to impress women, and it’s considered the height of romanticism from him to buy us jewelry or that coveted diamond ring that proclaims our status as desired property.

We feminists think we’re above that.  After all, we believe in making our own way in the world and not relying on other people for financial support.  But consider this; assuming you are heterosexual, would you marry a man who made less money than you do?  Most of us won’t.  We think that “we can do better” and men who make less than we do are often perceived as freeloaders and “bums,” no matter how hard they work.  Fortunately this is changing.

There’s one last point of note that supports this theory, and that is the Mosuo people of China.  Often called “the last matrilineal society,” they have evolved a society in which all property rights pass through the female line.  There is no permanent marriage and partners do not live together, even if they have a long-term relationship.  Men live with their female relatives.  And all the behaviours of control and sexual dominance are displayed by the women; all the behaviours of social manipulation and preoccupation with appearance is displayed by the men.  In other words, property equals power.

The Real Enemy: Kyriarchy

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkriɑrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.  (Source: Wikipedia).

It is in the interests of the Capitalists to maintain divisions of haves and have-nots.  Kyriarchy is how they go about this in a (nominally) free, democratic society.  They teach the rest of us to see one group as being superior to another, which leads to an interconnected system of privilege and disadvantage.  Notice that the poor are the only identifiable group that it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against?  Institutionalized discrimination limits the ability of the poor to get education, houses and jobs, and forces them to pay more for simple things due to interest payments, bank fees and “planned obsolescence.”

This is why it is necessary to consider all disadvantaged groups.  The truth is that Kyriarchy cannot exist if we all stand together and refuse to see these artificial divisions.

In other words; sisters, men are not the enemy.  Those who teach us that one group is better than another, are.  And those who benefit from the status quo the most are usually the ones most invested in preserving it.  The ones who benefit the most from this current status quo are white, white-collar, straight, wealthy, older men; in other words, the Corporatist 1%.

By extension, this means that anyone who challenges this status quo and demands change is our ally.  It would help us all to march in Ferguson.  It would help us all to defend women’s reproductive rights.  It would help us all to support labour unions, advocate for anti-poverty groups, and march in the Pride Parade.  Any one of these activities is a blow to Kyriarchy; which, in its death throes, will take the Patriarchy with it.

Why the Patriarchy is Doomed

Don’t worry; it can’t last forever.  It was doomed from the invention of the Pill.  When you can’t control a woman’s fertility, you can’t control her sexuality.

But social sanctions will try.  And as long as we allow groups which are invested in the idea of patriarchy — such as religions or corporations — to dictate morality to us, then it will continue.  We must stop calling each other sluts.  We must stop trying to dictate to each other when it’s okay to sleep with someone and when it isn’t.  We should feel free to make our own sexual choices and respect the right of others to do likewise.  We should support the rights of all genders, especially because challenging the binary breaks up the division that is based in haves (men) and have-nots (women).  The Kyriarchs know this and that’s why they find it so threatening and fight it so hard.

A great victory was recently won when the United States finally caught up to the idea that marriage should be a right for everyone.  I am pleased to see another nail being hammered into the coffin as the worldwide movement for the rights of sex workers grows and we stop looking down on women who get more action than others.

When our social customs catch up to our physical and scientific realities, patriarchy’s inevitable end will crumble the support pillar that sustains the Kyriarchy; and it will collapse like a house of cards.  We will see the dawn of a new age which is not dependent on human beings dividing themselves into superior and inferior classes.  That day is coming.  I believe it’s not far away.

  • Sept. 2 Update: edits made in response to suggestions from Keen on how to be more gender-inclusive (see commentary below).

Revolution At The Witching Hour: The Legacy of Midnight Notes

by James Lindenschmidt

It is no great surprise to me that Silvia Federici‘s book Caliban & The Witch has gained so much traction in the Pagan community in recent years. When I first read the book more than a decade ago, I knew it would be important for Pagans, simply because it told our story, our history, from the most complete and insightful historical and theoretical perspective I had ever seen. I am on record as saying it is the most important political book yet written in the 21st century, since it deals with the story of the transition to capitalism, with all the violence, blood, fire, and greed that accompanied and forced the transition. But since I have been a Pagan for nearly 30 years, I tended to see the subject matter less in terms of the transition to capitalism, but rather more in terms of the final transition away from Paganism, in the multitude and myriad of ways various paganisms were expressed before they were crushed and assimilated into the new mechanistic worldview of capitalism.

But Silvia Federici is not a ‘Pagan,’ despite the great service her work has been to our community. The context of her work, however, can be just as valuable to us as Caliban itself has been. Three or four decades before that book was published, a few groups of thinkers, writers, students, and teachers began working together. Two of them were the feminist Wages For Housework movement, as well as the Zerowork Collective. Both are worthy of investigation and further study. But by the end of the 1970s, a new group had emerged, which will be the focus of this piece.

A Brief History

History tells us that the Midnight Notes Collective began in the late 1970s with discussions between Monty Neill, Hans Widmer (aka p.m.), and George Caffentzis, with John WiIlshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh getting involved early on. Indeed, the membership of the Collective has been quite fluid over the years, both because people naturally tend to come and go over the years, and also because there were years when they intentionally remained anonymous to avoid overt harassment and repression form the establishment, an important strategy of self-preservation for a group demonstrating a “commitment to revolutionary possibilities.” They also wanted to avoid the “rock star” cult of personality, which was common in academia at the time. In addition to the people directly involved with Midnight Notes (including the above as well as Silvia Federici, Dan Coughlin, David Riker, Vasilis Passas, Johnny Machete, and Michaela Brennan, among others ), there were also various friends & associates over the years, including Steven Colatrella, John Roosa, Harry Cleaver, and Massimo de Angelis.

Despite the fluidity of the group, there was an important coherence to their ideas, expressed in a variety of publications over the years, starting in 1979 and running through the Reagan Years into the Bush era, all of which are now available online:

  1. Strange Victories (1979)
  2. No Future Notes: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Anti-Nuclear Movement (1979)
  3. The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse (1980)
  4. Space Notes (1981)
  5. Computer State Notes (1982)
  6. Posthumous Notes (1983)
  7. Lemming Notes (1984)
  8. Outlaw Notes (1985)
  9. Wages — Mexico — India — Libya (1988)
  10. The New Enclosures (1990)

These earliest publications from Midnight Notes are worth checking out, as a great glimpse into the political climate of the Reagan/Bush years, as the transition of capitalism from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism was cemented.

After these original issues, there were several more publications, some of them book-length, from the group:

Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 (1992, Autonomedia)
This anthology is an analysis of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which they framed as a “work/energy crisis,” as well as a look at the evolution of capitalism in the 1980s. It contains several of their previous writings from earlier publications, namely The New Enclosures and The Work/Energy Crisis And The Apocalypse, with other articles written to fill in some of the theoretical gaps, additional analysis, and history. This book might be the best overall introduction to the thought of Midnight Notes in general. While in some ways it is dated from the 2015 point of view, it is my personal favorite analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, and broadened my understanding of today’s capitalism.

Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local & Global Struggles of the Fourth World War (2001, Autonomedia)
This book is an anthology of writing, using the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as the focal point for anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-globalization theory and history. Midnight Notes saw that this uprising was “a luminous crack in a clouded sky,” the first “movement that consciously pitted itself against global capital and at the same time was rooted in a territorial reality.”

Promissory Notes: From Crisis To Commons (2009)
This much shorter piece, published in 2009, is an analysis of the 2007-2008 “Great Recession” or global financial crisis. It also showed that the crisis was largely yet another “apocalypse” or evolution of capital from the neoliberalism from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and represented neoliberal “capital’s flight into financialization,” or the “attempt to ‘make money from money’ at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed.”

After barraging you with so many links to their writings over the years, I will now attempt to distill their writing into a few of what I perceive to be their key ideas over nearly 40 years of writing.

3 Key Ideas

I remember when my own political outlook begin to evolve away from mainstream partisan politics in the US and toward a more radical outlook, I felt a dearth of information. Most of this was getting used to where information comes from: learning how to disengage from the received dialogues and worldview propagated by the capitalist media and the prevailing cultural outlook I grew up with in suburbia, and toward more obscure, alternative sources was a challenge. To this day, I think that truth discernment is arguably the biggest challenge facing alternative thinkers in the information age. In some ways it’s even more challenging these days, since you can encounter just about every possible viewpoint articulated somewhere on the Internet.

In the late 90s, I was lucky enough to begin studying philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, where George Caffentzis was a teacher. It was a small department, so if you hung out at the philosophy house it was easy to get to know some of the folks who taught there. I was intrigued by George’s ideas and thoughts right from the beginning. There are a lot of great teachers there, but I knew right away that I had a lot to learn from George. I remember early in my freshman year, he did a senior seminar on the philosophy of money, and being really bummed that I was nowhere near far enough along in my philosophy study to be able to take it. So I began to poke around for some of George’s writings, and before long I discovered Midnight Notes. This was in the early days of the Internet, before the writings were available online. I began to read them, and they were definitely challenging. I hadn’t yet read Marx or really any other radical political writings, and in retrospect Midnight Notes served as not only a fabulous introduction, but also an enduring foundation for my radical political thinking. I am grateful for this bit of serendipity that brought me to Maine at this point in spacetime.

Having studied Midnight Notes over the past 15 years, I think these are the most important ideas to glean from their writings:

1. Capitalist Crisis/Apocalypse Is Always About Class Struggle

Automobiles lining up for fuel at a service station in the U.S. state of Maryland in the United States, in June 1979.
Automobiles lining up for fuel at a service station in the U.S. state of Maryland in the United States, in June 1979.

This idea was first articulated in their 3rd issue: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse, written in 1980 after the so-called “energy crisis” of the 1970s had been underway for the better part of a decade, peaking in both 1973 and 1979. I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember seeing the long lines for gasoline, complaints about OPEC and Jimmy Carter, but very little about class struggle. Interestingly, this was also the last decade where labor strikes were common, since strikes were more or less wiped out by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 when he fired the air traffic controllers who had unionized under PATCO and voted to strike. Their argument is quite detailed, but the essence of it is that

Capitalist crises stem from a refusal of work…. The term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the “work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis.” For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it…. Through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle (Midnight Notes, The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse).

2. The New Enclosures

Arguably the most important insight that came from Midnight Notes’ writings is the notion of the New Enclosures. Before this insight, enclosure, or “primitive accumulation” in Marxist terminology, was largely seen as a historical artifact from the beginning of capitalist society. Midnight Notes showed that enclosures

“are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of class struggle. Any leap in proletarian power demands a dynamic capitalist response: both the expanded appropriation of new resources and new labor power and the extension of capitalist relations, or else capitalism is threatened with extinction.” (Midnight Oil, 318)

Midnight Notes then argued that the New Enclosures took five forms:

  1. Ending communal control of the means of subsistence
  2. Seizing land for debt
  3. Make mobile & migrant labor the dominant form of labor
  4. The collapse of socialism
  5. Attack on our reproduction

They — both the collective itself, and several of the writers working outside the collective — have continued to develop these ideas of enclosure since then.

3. Commons & Commoning

The last idea I think is the most important to come from Midnight Notes is reclaiming the notion of the Commons and Commoning. This idea is the logical extension of their insights about Enclosure, since the Commons is the very thing that is being enclosed. These insights came later in the Midnight Notes, particularly through their admiration and analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico beginning on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Midnight Notes argues that these struggles represent

on one side, capital’s attempt to form a new level of global superstate and economy and, on the other, an anti-capitalist struggle moving from a multiplicity of localities to large-scale confrontations like the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999. The Zapatistas have aptly named this struggle “the Fourth World War.”

Commoning is at the center of this struggle, since the commons provides subsistence for resistance, and “this power to subsist/resist is exactly what capital wants to eliminate throughout the world.” In general, and to some degree, capital is always enclosing, whereas the working class is always commoning, and commoning is central to resistance against capital.

Caffentzis, Federici, Linebaugh: 3 Contemporary Thinkers

After this all-too-brief look at the Midnight Notes Collective itself, I now want to turn to 3 new books, published by PM Press, from three of the most important voices within Midnight Notes. While George Caffentzis and Peter Linebaugh have been involved with Midnight Notes from its earliest days, it is important to note that Silvia Federici has remained a bit more aloof from the collective over the years. While she was part of the collective for a few of the later original Midnight Notes publications (namely The New Enclosures), and her writings appear in Midnight Oil and Auroras of the Zapatistas, she is not listed as a member of the collective in either of those books. While I do not pretend to be privy to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics and ideological differences within the group, I suspect that Silvia’s unwavering commitment to feminism is at the root of the aloofness. And I should also point out that George Caffentzis conveyed to me in a conversation that for the most part it was Midnight Notes responding to Federici’s work rather than vice versa. All three of these books are anthologies of writing from the careers of each writer, to which I now turn.

In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis Of Capitalism

George Caffentzis, In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis of Capitalism
George Caffentzis, In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis of Capitalism

Of the three, George Caffentzis is the most traditional, albeit radical, “philosopher of the anticapitalist movement.” In Letters Of Blood & Fire is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Work/Refusal, Part 2 is Machines, and Part 3 is Money, War, & Crisis. Part 1 begins with the aforementioned “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” which remains foundational to much of Caffentzis’ subsequent work. These analyses contain wonderful insights, such as this analysis of the relationship between capital’s production, value, and prices:

The hand of capital is different than its mouth and its asshole. The transformation of value into prices is real, but it also causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around “mineness,” the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system: capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected to us — its little agents of complaint, excuse, and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. “Mineness” is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and it is also as pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, whose blindness capital needs to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.

Part 2, on Machines, is a more technical analysis of the place of machines within capitalism, and particularly within the Marxist analysis of capital. Central to his arguments is the piece from 1997, “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines,” whose argument is self-contained in the title.

Part 3 contains a very short and succinct piece, which I recommend as the briefest and most coherent introduction to Caffentzis’ work overall. “The Power of Money: Debt & Enclosure” is a very brief look at money in the human experience:

For most of human history, money either did not exist (before roughly the seventh century BC) or it was of marginal importance for most people on the planet (until roughly the nineteenth century AD). Why is it so important now?

He then articulates the “economist’s fairy tale,” which is the received story about the function of money simplifying exchange as compared to barter, as well as “lowering costs” of trade. He points out that money, too, has its transaction costs that mostly go overlooked by capitalist economists.

All in all, these writings convey Marx’s image that the story of the origins of capitalism, and its reproduction, are written “in the letters of blood and fire used to drive workers form the common lands, forests, and waters in the sixteenth century.” I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the most technical analysis of capitalism, from a detailed philosophical perspective.

Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, & Feminist Struggle

Silvia Federici, Revolution At Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle
Silvia Federici, Revolution At Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

As previously stated, Silvia Federici is the feminist of these three thinkers. Revolution at Point Zero, an anthology of her work over the past 40 years, all of which explore the “zero point of revolution” which is where “new social relations first burst forth, from which countless waves ripple outward into other domains.” It, too, is divided into three parts. Part 1 is Theorizing and Politicizing Housework, containing her earlier, foundational work such as “Wages Against Housework” from 1975, as well as “Why Sexuality Is Work” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet.” Part 2 is Globalization and Social Reproduction, and contains 4 essays including “Women, Globalization, and the International Women’s Movement.”

Part 3, Reproducing Commons, has her most recent work including “Feminism and the Politics of the Common in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” from 2010, which contains the powerful argument that there is an “oblivion” in “our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, the computers with which we communicate.” For Federici,

Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan “no commons without community…. community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.

Federici’s writings here concentrate on “social reproduction,” which is the ways in which society and the people in it reproduce themselves. It is the food we eat, the social relations we share outside the work environment, our basic needs down to clean water & air, shelter and clothing. All of these things are “the most labor-intensive work on earth, and to a large extent it is work that is irreducible to mechanization.” It is also work that is largely unwaged, and exists in the context of capitalist enclosure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in not only a feminist perspective, but also in very practical, day-to-day ideas about how we can be commoning and resist capital.

Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance

Peter Linebaugh. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance
Peter Linebaugh. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

Finally, Peter Linebaugh is the historian and storyteller of the three. He is an engaging writer, and the stories he tells need to be heard and retold. Stop, Thief! is divided into five sections. Section 1, The Commons, is the best primer I know of to exploring what Commons & Commoning is. Start with “Some Principles of the Commons,” which is a very short introduction, showing us that the commons “is best understood as a verb,” and then “Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning” fills in one’s understanding that the commons “is not a thing but a relationship” as it applies to various modes of living & knowing.

Part 2, “Charles Marks,” are some of Linebaugh’s contributions to Marxism in history. Part 3, The “UK”, are looks at English History including “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” which shows us that the Luddites were not technophobes but rather were cross-dressing warriors, “anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” Part 4, The “USA,” contains “Introduction to Thomas Paine” and “Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons,” which take a look at the vast commons that existed in pre-colonialist North America. This analysis is continued in Part 5, “First Nations,” with its three essays, “The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck”, “The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx,” and “The Invisibility of the Commons.”

Of the three, Linebaugh’s writing might be the most readable. I agree with Robin Kelley, who wrote about an earlier book from Linebaugh that there is “not a more important historian living today. Period.” I highly recommend this book for people who want to broaden their understanding of the Commons and Commoning, through the voice of a master storyteller, an engaging and agile writer.

The Witching Hour Legacy

These three thinkers, as well as The Midnight Notes Collective and all who have participated in it over the years, represent a vast treasure trove for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of capitalism, crisis, resistance & class struggle, enclosure, commons/commoning, and revolutionary possibilities in the 21st century. These writers and ideas were foundational to my own development as a radical thinker and writer, and I remain grateful for their work.