How to Buy a Religion

i-1-sephora-is-selling-witch-starter-kits
Source

What’s wrong with Sephora’s witch kit?

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

Is the mall any worse than the metaphysical shop?


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

Karl Marx

Capitalism alienates.

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

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

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


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

Sephora sells to women.

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

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

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


SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503
Metaphysical shopfront. Source

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

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

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

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

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


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The nitrogen cycle. Source

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

But that’s not the only Paganism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sophia Burns

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


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TRUE TO THE EARTH: Pagan Political Theology (A new release from Gods&Radicals Press)

Go directly to the advance sale page at this link.

Much more than traditions and customs are lost when an animist culture is suppressed or destroyed. Into the abyss of forgetting goes also an entire way of seeing humans, animals, gods, and the rest of nature, as well as the relationships these things constantly forge with each other.

These were also the worldviews of ancient Pagan cultures before the dominance of writing and monotheism supplanted them. Organic pluralism, an embrace of multiple, conflicting truths, and a deep understanding of the interconnection between humans and the natural world: all were core values of oral and animist cultures.

As global climate change and the collapse of Empire throw the earth and our modern societies into crisis, these core values are what humanity and the nature it destroys desperately need again.

In True To The Earth: Pagan Political Theology, author and professor of philosophy Kadmus weaves a narrative from the lore of Celtic, Greek, Norse, and indigenous traditions to show us how we once saw the world and how we can see it again. He unveils the modern assumptions which blind us from seeing the past and what we’ve lost, challenges the core foundations of literal, universalist thinking, and shakes us free from the unseen bonds monotheism has placed upon our understanding of ourselves and the world.

Well-researched and erudite, yet written in an engaging and accessible manner, True To The Earth offers back to us what we have lost, and gives us fertile soil from which a new earth-centered political understanding can arise.

About the Author:

Kadmus is a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. He is also a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities.

Pre-sale

True To The Earth: Pagan Political Theology will be released 15 October, 2018. Gods&Radicals Press is offering advanced purchases at reduction from the regular price.

Advanced-purchase single copies of True To The Earth are available for $12.50 each (regular $16)

In addition, True To The Earth can be purchased together with Pagan Anarchism (by Christopher Scott Thompson), A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer (by Alley Valkyrie & Rhyd Wildermuth), and Witches In a Crumbling Empire (by Rhyd Wildermuth) for $37.50 (regular $52.00).

All orders will ship before the full release. All books within the package orders ship together when True To The Earth is released.

To order, please use this link.

The Songs I Know

“The Spirit of the Depths had shown me how to awaken the dead,

How to bring forth the lost memories of the dream world,

How to touch the primordial power

That I thought I had banished from the world,

When I filled the womb of the gods with blood.

For the well beneath the tree is the well of dreams.”

From Ramon Elani

Odin-Norse-mythology-Wanderer

“The wheel of time cannot be turned back. Things can, however, be destroyed and renewed. This is extremely dangerous, but the signs of our times are dangerous too. If there was ever a truly apocalyptic era, it is ours. God has put the means for a universal holocaust into the hands of men.”

“The shadow is nonsense. It lacks force and has no continued existence through itself. But nonsense is the inseparable and undying brother of the supreme meaning.”

—C.G. Jung

I am a man of extraordinary violence.

I am the one who roars in the heart of battle.

I am the At-Rider, who drives down my foe.

I am the Evil Worker, the Man of the Spear.

I ride forth.

I am the one of Gaping Frenzy.

I drive men to madness.

I am the Resounder.

I am the Master of Slaughter.

I am the One Who is Merry in War.

I am the Hanging God.

I am the bringer of Runes.

I am the War Father.

 

I slew my father,

He Who Existed Before Time,

The First Being,

The undifferentiated consciousness,

The Slumbering God,

Substance and spirit of the cosmos.

He was beyond good and evil,

Though he was grim and terrible.

How he howled in the abyss of night.

What memories drifted and floated through his mind?

In a somnolent universe, what did he dream?

Will, Thought, and Spirit arose in fierce arms.

With my brothers I sundered him and split him.

And his blood drowned the world,

It spilled over from the Yawning Gap,

It drenched the stars.

And a shining fragment of ice,

The Primal Cosmic Egg,

The heart of ice,

The pattern of all things,

The bridge between the seen and unseen,

Burned through the fabric of the world.

And the ice poured into the Realm of Mist,

And there his kin grew strong and proud.

And upon those frozen plateaus

A lost kernel was buried in ice

And its power dripped between the worlds

And formed a well beneath the Tree.

For god is in the egg.

Far_away_and_long_ago_by_Willy_Pogany

I have Nine Twigs,

I see beyond the nine worlds,

And into the endless cycles of time.

I have seen the devastation that will come,

I have seen the vision of the Wolf that will come for me.

The Wolf is always there in the darkened forests of my mind.

I know that he is my ruin and doom.

I know that he will bring blood and fire upon the world.

And I know that I will see the world born again in water.

The Gods are not immune to fate.

I follow my destiny.

I am the Son and the Father,

I am the Cold Sky,

I am the Wanderer and Deceiver.

Those who wander do not remember.

I seek my shadow.

He is the damp and the moist,

The One beneath the dirt,

He is the sacrifice and I am the blade.

In the hollow beneath the tree,

He remembers everything

For he sits by the pool

That is fed from waters that flow

From that savage realm.

I have forgotten,

The world lives through forgetting.

But he who dwells among the mosses and dripping roots,

He alone carries the memories of what I destroyed.

My hoary uncle,

Lost in an infinity of dreams.

 

And I went down to him,

From my golden palaces and joyful battles.

I went down beneath the tree.

And I found him there lost in his endless wisdom.

I went down

To become whole,

To repair the gaping wound,

To atone for rending the world.

As I had climbed the tree,

As I had hung myself from the branch,

As I had pierced myself with spear,

As I had gone up

To gain the power of the Runes,

To gain the power to bind,

To control,

To create order,

The fire of the sea and the path of the snake,

The horror of the clouds,

The ruin of the harvest,

The Cliff-Dwelling horror,

The Home of Mortification,

The grain that brings famine,

The Grief of the humanity,

The rivers of ice,

And the destroying Sun,

The One Handed God of Temples,

The adornment of ships,

The iron that bends.

As I went up for these things,

So I knew I must go down to complete myself.

For chaos must join order.

 

My ancient uncle made me look into the murky waters of the well.

And in the well,

I saw rage unconquerable,

I saw power ungovernable,

I saw a consciousness unreasonable,

I saw a force unstoppable.

And I knew that I was blind,

I could not see myself,

Could not see the way.

I knew what I had rejected,

The spirit of the womb.

Among the clouds and winds, the lord of the sky,

I had lost the earth,

The body of my father, who was also my mother,

In the landscape I had carved in his bones,

This truth was written.

The truth was etched into the mountains,

Into the fjords,

Into the forests,

Into the rivers,

Into the glaciers.

But I could not read it,

For I could only read the runes,

The language of artifice and doom.

I could not longer read the words of the world below.

And therein dwelt my weakness.

I had made myself strong

Only with the power of heaven.

I knew that I was spirit without body,

And the spirit is nothing on its own,

But my destiny is to walk both paths,

To walk in two worlds,

To walk in all the worlds at once.

 

And so I begged my uncle to drink from his well.

And I learned the Nine Songs,

And what my uncle requested,

I gave him.

And I took my hand and raised it to my face,

And my fingers dug into my skull,

And I ripped my eye from my face,

And the world became all blood,

And the tree shuddered above me,

And the gods wept,

And tears of blood dripped into my beard.

My grim uncle took the quivering eye in his hand

And he cast it deep into the well.

And I fell upon my knees

And I plunged my fingers into the rich, wet dirt

And I screamed

As the cosmos became one

Within my shattered mind.

And I saw stars exploding,

Galaxies being born,

I saw the dragon stirring.

I saw everything that had ever been and would be.

I felt fate burning me.

I saw that all my knowledge,

Was nothing more than an attempt

To impose something knowable

Onto a universe that defied me.

Or had defied me.

 

Then I understood,

That all my wandering had led me back to myself,

Back to this madness.

How far must a star travel through space

Before it finds the part of itself

That it once thought lost?

As my soul came together,

The child came forward:

The knowledge that transcends knowledge.

The meaning that surpasses meaning.

That which can only be achieved through

The cosmic union.

The Spirit of the Depths had arisen within me.

And for all my rune might

I could not teach it,

I could not share it,

It was mine to bear alone.

The Spirit of the Depths had shown me how to awaken the dead,

How to bring forth the lost memories of the dream world,

How to touch the primordial power

That I thought I had banished from the world,

When I filled the womb of the gods with blood.

For the well beneath the tree is the well of dreams.

And in my dreams was the only path of truth.

And a thousand voices spoke to me,

And I heard the destiny of time,

That will outlast the longest night.

And my Sun became darkened

And my Moon rose on the horizon of my consciousness.

And as I had once lost everything

Upon that gallows tree,

So I lost everything again,

Beside the well of dreams.

For I am the God that is to come,

I am the God that is becoming.

 

And my uncle smiled gently,

For he knew as well as I,

That his destiny was to die for me,

Though his kin would survive the great destruction of the world.

He smiled patiently, lovingly,

And he showed me the horn from which he drank,

The horn that signaled the end of things,

The end of my power,

The time when the wolf within me

Would step out of the shadows and engulf me utterly.

And my uncle touched my arm,

For long before the time of the wolf

He would be cut down

And his head severed from his body

And I would use my charms and herbs

Upon it and keep it with me always.

The_twilight_of_the_gods_by_Willy_Pogany

It’s coming now, it’s coming soon.

The world of dreams will swallow up this rotten thing.

Our lives and struggles

Occur as so much flotsam

Upon a sea of unfathomable depth.

Sometimes gracefully, sometime fully of woe,

We float, dreamless, through a galaxy of powers.

Countless pasts and futures, overlaid upon each other.

The world we walk through is part ruin and part verdant growth.

Cycles, which, though we may long to escape, shall never end.

The world drives itself to its doom, unrelenting.

I have given up separating dreams from wakefulness.

I have abandoned the task of assigning truth to one,

And illusion to the other.

Give me deep and muddy waters.

 

“Without a mother, one cannot love. Without a mother, one cannot die.”—Hermann Hesse


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.

Down, Down to Troy Town

“But with what desperation do we seek to deny the cycles of time! That it were not so is the dearest wish of humanity. Any catastrophe imaginable would be preferable to the secrets hidden in Troy Town.”

From Ramon Elani

307160

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. The God’s name is Abraxas.”

—Hermann Hesse

“In this world is man Abraxas, the creator and the destroyer of his own world.”

—Carl Jung

Roused from my sleep by turbulent dreams, I came to the riverbank. The river opened its eyes to me and galaxies were born and died in its eddying currents. Mist rose in hissing tendrils from moss and fern. The moon, a cold shining knife blade. Two figures emerged from the darkened wood, one wearing a mantle of straw, the other clad in twigs and alder and hazel leaves. Each was crowned with bark, with ferns upon their feet and masks of wood covered their faces. One carried a wand of hawthorne, the other a wooden sword. Hands clasped, they stood before me in silence. Then came forth a third figure, darker than the night and in its hands, a flaming sword. At the approach of this fell thing, the Wild Ones bowed their heads in unison and knelt upon the ground. The executioner raised his dire sword and I turned my head as the dolorous stoke found its mark. Soundlessly the two figures, hands still entwined, slumped to the earth and the dirt was stained with bright blood, which poured into the river below. A thong of shadowy mourners came and lifted the bodies onto a litter of branches, decorated with antlers. At the executioner’s behest, the procession began to move, and I, compelled by an urgency in my blood, followed. Then we came to a tarn, deep and still, surrounded by oak trees and standing stones. And the bodies of the Wild Ones were thus drowned in that black water. Down and down, through uncountable fathoms, I saw the bodies sink. A shudder passed through the world. The lips of the executioner moved: “guilty,” “guilty,” “guilty.”

Then came a number of young girls, with flowers in their hair. And they sang this song:
Now carry we Death out of the world,

The new Summer into the world,

Welcome, dear Summer,

Green Little corn.

Death will sleep beneath the oak tree,

Summer will soon be here,

We carry Death away for you

We bring the Summer.

Give us a good year

For wheat and for rye.

We carry Death out of the world,

And the New Age into the world.

Dear Spring, we bid you welcome.

Green grass, we bid you welcome.

We carry away death.

And bring back life.
The girls carried between them a small coffin and when they set it down, the executioner and all his attendants entered the coffin and the girls buried it beneath an oak tree. Then one among the girls spoke: “Of what was he guilty? For he was so good.” And three girls stepped forward, each bearing a chalice. “Weep not,” they spoke. “For what is sweeter than milk, honey, and brandy?” And the first of them poured sweet milk upon the dirt, the second, honey, and the third, brandy. At that, the sound of a horn broke the silence of those grim woods and a jubilant crowd passed before me. At its head, upon a fair horse, rode a figure robed in bark and crowned with gold. He was adorned with flowers and ribbons hung from his breast. Behind him came boys and girls bearing straw effigies upon tall poles. I remembered the words:
Those trees in whose dim shadow

The ghastly priest doth reign

The priest who slew the slayer,

And shall himself be slain.

 

And the King of the Wood came again into his kingdom.

And I awoke by the side of the river.

And I knew that as I slept, she goddess of the river had placed her tynged upon me. That I would be cursed to see the dying of an age and know that not I, nor any other, can prevent what is coming. For this world is truly a fortress of turns. And what has come is always fated to return. Against whom do we war but ourselves? To go out, one must go in. The law of history and the law of the maze are one and the same. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.” One must not approach the hilltop but by the ringed paths that surround it. Remember, with every step, I have been here before, I will be here again. Nothing could be more profane than to walk straight to the center. No, the lines of seven folds must be obeyed. And why? Because unless we follow the circle path, we will find nothing at all when we reach the end.

But with what desperation do we seek to deny the cycles of time! That it were not so is the dearest wish of humanity. Any catastrophe imaginable would be preferable to the secrets hidden in Troy Town. We will come, in time, to deny everything in the world in our attempt to be free. Destiny, fate is abhorrent to the modern mind because it is so self evident. A vision of humanity that sits, impervious, upon a shining pyramid, looming over the barren plain cannot abide the notion that powers beyond us direct the course of all things. Borges, one haunted by the labyrinth:

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am.

We are the body of the cosmos. We are the dreams of the world. And we, and the world, are no more than mist and dew.

Within the maze, we look up at the eternal stars. Their implication suddenly becomes clear. We find that past and future are the same. We find that the present is the only illusion. There is only the endless rhythm of the tide. A wave that is always coming and going. There is a sensation, most acutely felt, of being pursued throughout our lives. Something implacably seeks us. It finds us in our dreams, in Troy Town.

Modernity fails because it teaches us to kill the monster. Confine it because we fear it. Trap it and bind it. Instead of the hallowed offerings we once gave freely, it now will take its own bloody rewards. And on its own terms, the price will be arbitrary and cruel. Then, when it has trespassed too far, we will hunt it, drive it down to Troy Town and butcher it and declare ourselves rid of its vileness forever. And then we will act surprised when its bloody lips spread wide again to devour us. We only sin against ourselves. Joseph Campbell:

Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

The cycles turn, without end. We can escape nothing. We are destined to fight the same battles forever. Just as Holly and Oak, winter and summer, life and death. When we embrace this awful truth and walk the spiral path in Troy Town, we will once again dwell in the bosom of the living gods.

 

Amor fati, amor fati.

 


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.

Revolution Is Not a Metaphor: A Response to Critics

barricade18march1871
A barricade in the Paris Commune. March 18, 1871. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leftists love youth organizing.

Why shouldn’t they? Contemporary activism descends directly from the youth and student movements of the 60s, so anything that recalls the glory days inspires activists. It gives them a sense that the US’s long rightward drift might be reversed.

No wonder so many of them cheered for March’s pro-gun-control “March for Our Lives” rallies. In the wake of a school shooting, what could be more uplifting than high schoolers coming together, launching a protest movement, and responding to their experience of violence with political organization? How could any leftist not support that?

But the “movement” was stage-managed by the Democratic Party. The protests were choreographed media spectacles focused on boosting Democratic voter turnout in the midterms. Further, the students’ demands were outright reactionary, calling for more police in high schools, the expansion of mass incarceration, and the loss of medical privacy rights for people with mental health diagnoses.

Political substance matters. The form taken by the March for Our Lives (“youth organizing”) drew leftist support, but the actual content was antithetical to everything the Left claims to value.

 


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Émile Friant, “Political Discussion.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week, two people have published critiques of my work, using it as a stand-in for the political tendency I’m part of: revolutionary base-building, exemplified by the Marxist Center network, Cooperation Jackson, and parts of DSA Refoundation. Revolutionary base-building means rejecting “activist networking” in favor of organizing the unorganized outside of elections. It involves independent workplace organizations, tenant unions, community self-defense, and mutual aid.

Antonio Balmer argues that base-building is just empty populism. He compares it to the Narodnik movement of 19th-century Russia, which saw middle-class anti-monarchists “go to the people” by moving to peasant villages and occasionally assassinating aristocrats. Balmer contrasts them with the Bolsheviks, who built an organized political party capable of leading a revolution, and suggests that base-builders pay too little attention to Marxist theory and revolutionary leadership.

Shamus Cooke takes a different angle. He quotes Lenin’s pamphlet Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder to claim that I reject class struggle in favor of a depoliticized mutualism. (Mutualism is a flavor of anarchism that calls for worker-owned co-ops to peacefully replace capitalism by out-competing traditional firms in the marketplace.) According to Cooke:

Burns’ gradualist approach ignores the fact that revolutionary situations are often brief, requiring a battle for power at all levels of society. Nearly all revolutions begin as massive, mostly-spontaneous mobilizations, so it would behoove a revolutionary to understand the abc’s of organizing mobilizations. Mass mobilization, however, barely registers as an activity that Burns believes a revolutionary should engage in.

The term class war implies there is an open struggle between the classes. Burns wants us to only engage in guerrilla tactics that don’t attract the attention of the establishment. But if ever such tactics actually succeed in challenging power, the ruling class would aggressively respond, since their economic and political power would actually be threatened, at which point Burns’ approach would be rendered useless, requiring a completely different strategy.

The “completely different strategy” he advocates involves combining base-building methods, electoral work, and conventional activism to shift “the balance of forces” against “the establishment.” What does that look like concretely? Cooke repeatedly cites the city-level electoral and lobbying efforts of his own organization, Portland Tenants United.

Balmer and Cooke agree: revolutionary base-builders are anti-theory, anti-political, don’t believe in party-building, don’t believe in class confrontation, and don’t have a vision for socialism or revolution. Base-building means mutual aid, and mutual aid is another word for depoliticized charity work. Base-builders say they want socialism, but don’t have the stomach to fight for it.

Now, if you reduce revolutionary base-building to mutual aid, you’re misrepresenting it. Workplace and tenant organizing (along with community self-defense) account for much more of what base-builders actually do than mutual aid. But, it’s true that “base-building” is itself not a political strategy; it’s a set of techniques.

So, what defines revolutionary base-building? Is it just methods? Are Balmer and Cooke right – do base-builders really expect to win socialism without a strategy, without the bother of class struggle?

 


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Tools. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Means and Ends

Anyone can base-build.

How does any organization develop a base of support? It organizes previously-unorganized people. It campaigns against their enemies while offering mutual-aid, cultural, and social activities. It puts its own work above networking with the already-converted. Churches, businesses, political parties, and fan clubs all use some variant of the formula. Base-building methods, in that sense, are just how you build an effective organization.

Since revolutionary base-builders use those techniques and most of the activist Left doesn’t, they provide the tendency’s form. They don’t provide its content. Base-building is a tool, nothing more. A hammer can help you make a table; it can also smash a flowerpot. “Youth organizing” can mean the March for Our Lives. It can also mean the Black Panther Party. Without the methodology of base-building, you can’t organize a constituency capable of exercising social power. But who are you organizing? What is that social power for?

We are revolutionaries. That’s literal.

We seek “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” That includes the private ownership of economically productive property; the division of labor and benefits according to white supremacy, patriarchy, and empire; and the existence of the capitalist government.

That won’t happen by winning elections or voting for socialism. It won’t happen through one-cooperative-at-a-time mutualism, either. Rather, it means building up revolutionary capacity by cultivating a mass base within the working class. When the conditions are right, it will mean launching a revolutionary uprising to establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by participatory-democratic organs of the working class. It will mean restructuring the economy according to a democratic, ecological, and scientific plan based on production for human use, not private profit.

Our ideas don’t make us revolutionary. Ideology runs deeper than the things you think. What’s the long-term trajectory implied by what you’re actually doing? That’s your ideology. We build institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid outside of the state, against the state, and in order displace the state. That trajectory makes us revolutionary – what we are, not what we say. Electioneering, lobbying, and waving signs may well involve revolutionary slogans, taking the form of radical politics. But, they lack the content. What happens when activist leftists have a mass movement? They tie it institutionally to the state, cutting off its ability to exercise social power directly, on its own terms. That road doesn’t lead to collective power – just brokerage within the existing order.

We don’t base-build for the sake of base-building. Our practice flows from and, in turn, shapes our revolutionary agenda. We are not cultivating an electorate for “movement” politicians. Revolutionary base-building is a process of preparation for collective self-government, for the seizure of power by the working class. Sure, delivering here-and-now gains does matter, but it’s never the point. Socialism means more than “a chicken in every pot.”

 


 

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A line in the sand. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drawing Lines

Government socialism can’t end capitalism. Structurally speaking, the capitalist state can’t be separated from its function; it serves the ruling class, bottom to top. Expanding it doesn’t advance socialism. At best, it just rearranges exploitation (while institutionally tying the Left to the survival and success of the state). The impulse to deliver real gains, even if they’re small, make sense, but government socialists squeeze the revolutionary essence, the political content, out of socialism.

Protest militancy isn’t up to the task either. Small-group heroics don’t make history. Organized power does. Confrontational protests feel “more revolutionary” to their participants because they’re more disruptive. But do they lead to oppressed people becoming organized in a durable way? Do they increase their long-term capacity to exercise collective power?

Government socialists want tangible benefits and ignore or defer revolutionary ideas. Protest militants treat their ideas as a substitute for mass organization. Revolutionary base-builders, though, synthesize organizing for tangible gains with the long-game commitment to literal revolution. That synthesis doesn’t mean talking like protest militants and behaving like government socialists, though. Rather, it’s built into the process of organizing the unorganized to change their own conditions and confront their enemies themselves, rather than mediating it through the nonprofits or the state. (Indeed, the Marxist Center network takes its name from the course between those two possible distortions.)

Base-building methods aren’t conventional activism. That matters, if only because “base-building” is another word for “organizational techniques that actually work” – but revolutionary base-builders are after more than just a social base. No matter what Bernie Sanders says, political revolution means replacing the government, not reforming it.

The point is to create organizational structures through which power can be transferred from the few to the many, from the ownership class to the dispossessed. That transfer doesn’t happen piecemeal. It isn’t a gradual process where reforms (or mutualist co-ops!) stack on top of each other until one morning, you wake up to find that capitalism is gone. The capitalist state can’t not uphold the rule of the capitalist class. Base-building just to create another electoral or activist constituency, without that revolutionary goal and opposition to the state, has nothing to do with socialism. It doesn’t weaken capitalism. It just creates another avenue for capitalist politics, even if you call it “socialism,” even if it takes the form of base-building.

And for revolutionary base-builders, that will never be enough.

 


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

The House of Cold Rain

“To join our essence and consciousness with the world was once the common inheritance of humanity. Now, it can only be found in the hinterland, the lands beyond. Beyond techno-industrial society. For what is there to join with in concrete and steel?”

From Ramon Elani

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Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

—W.B. Yeats

In the House of Cold Rain there is mirth and joy. The children sing and dance and gambol among the violets. The smell of lilacs is heavy about the place. Bread is baked in the bright oven and old stories are told. The pots and pans in the kitchen are of black iron. There are but few things within those wooden walls that might frighten the household spirits. Any number of cats mysteriously peer out from shadowy corners, grey with cobwebs. A broken staircase leads down beneath the house, where there is naught but black dirt, from whence come the songs and whispers of the Fair Folk. The garden is thick and overgrown with cabbages and potatoes. Visitors are welcome, though perhaps regarded with a touch of suspicion and the hounds howl always. Moss creeps up slowly from the ground, washing over gnarled apple trees like a wave from the sea and dripping from the roof. A cairn of stones stands beneath an old white pine. And it always rains. Merwin’s “old house in the dawn rain.” And the world is still burning. Or perhaps it burned down entirely long ago and we live among the ashes, unknowing.

The House of Cold Rain sits within a defile between two hills. A roaring brook lies beside it, singing and moaning and shrieking. The rain trickles down the slopes in rivulets. From the top of the hill, crowned with an old stone wall, the valley opens up beneath. Mist rises from the piney woods and drifts and dances. It is a place of strength and a high place. It is a tower and refuge from the world. This tower is build of loving charms and songs of peace and silence, rather than stalwart bricks or stone. But a tower nonetheless. For there is a great horror upon the land and I would protect my family and any others who seek shelter within these walls. A place of peace in a broken world. And not by human hands can the world be remade and restored. There is no shame in turning away from the world. It is no surprise that the sages of all people fled from the world, to live out their days among the spirits of the forests and mountains.

Even in the month of May, when all is bright and green, the House of Cold Rain lies under shadow and mists that hide. Even in May, when the Druids light the goodly fire and guide the cattle to pasture and singe their tails with the Sun God’s flame. When the spirits of the dead come a’ night to seek their ancient homes and at the House of Cold Rain are they fed and appeased with gifts and libations are poured. When primrose is cast about the threshold, to keep the Fair Folk at bay in their merry-making. When the White Heifer stands upon the mountain and the Sun shall not burn her and the Moon shall bestow kisses upon her. When the ruddy maidens sing:

“Yarrow, yarrow, yarrow,
I bid thee good morrow,
And tell me before to-morrow
Who my true love shall be.”

For it is known that in the Maying month the Fair Folk are strong in their power and roam abroad the land. And I shall place garlands of marigold over the door and around the necks of my wife and daughter, for I know well that Fionnbharr stirs from his rath and searches for comely women to snatch away to his halls beneath the hills.

Alas, Fionnbharr, cursed to sit in his crystal court and remember forever the lost glory of his people. Time diminishes all, true enough and even the gods themselves have retreated to hidden places. So remember, Fionnbharr, remember the stature and greatness of the Children of Danu. Remember the coming from the Four Cities of the North, remember the spells and charms that brought them to regain their inheritance, in fire, smoke, and the sword. Remember, Fionbharr, how the Children strode with long, vigorous steps and slew their enemies until the earth was sticky and black with blood and mounds of the fallen blotted out the sun. So fight your little battles, Fionnbharr, only that you may recall the thrill of the blood. And neglect your golden haired Queen for the fleeting pleasures of mortal flesh. Your Queen who is arraigned in dew drops and sweeps the ground with her golden hair. And sing, above all, sing those songs of loss and remembrance so sweetly and painfully that any who hear shall have nothing but madness and death for the rest of his days. Sit in the violet twilight and remember, Fionnbhar.

Cast out of the world and scornful of modernity and it’s hatred for all things slow, dark, and messy, the Fair Folk retreat deeper and deeper in the wilderness. There are few places left that have not been touched by the contagion of techno-industrial society and it’s dreadful mechanistic logic. So the Fair Folk remain in their palaces of gold and pearl, deep beneath the earth. What is there left for them in the world? A world forever haunted by the specter of causality. The Children of Danu once burned their ships so they could never return to the Four Cities of the North. So too, the Fair Folk now seal themselves within the realms of grove and glen and hillock. And I seal myself in the solitude of the House of Cold Rain.

On the hill above the House of Cold Rain, I put the salve upon my eyes and watch the Fair Folk dance under the moon. Of reason and modern, they know nothing. Theirs is a world animated by intuition and instinct. Madness is the price, but then again, do we not have our own madness borne from rationality and overmuch technology? And though the Fair Folk are doomed in their souls for they have no hope of life eternal, as Osian once said to Saint Patrick, “if there is no fighting and drinking in heaven and my kinfolk are not welcome for being pagans, then what need have I of heaven?” So if the old gods have been chased out of the world by the spirit of modernity and its accusations of superstition, then I will welcome them into my heart. And I will walk nine times around Fionbharr’s rath at midnight and drink his wine and eat bread. Primrose and marigold notwithstanding.

As Carl Jung wrote, “Civilized man…is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct—a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be a purely manmade environment.” The march of techno-industrial society is inexorable. It will continue until it destroys itself and much else along with it. Jung saw this clearly even in the early 20th century. When he was forty-eight, he went to the shores of Lake Zurich and built a stone tower by hand. He pumped water from the well, chopped wood for the fire, and read by candlelight. The rooms were simple and bare and smelled of “smoke and grits, and occasionally of wine and smoked bacon.” Here, he felt, his ancestors would be honored and his own wound would be healed. The spirits shun the cities and the works of man. Jung knew that only in his tower at Bollingen could the covenant be restored. He longed to see humanity fleeing from the cities and returning to the wild world, of “terminals deserted, the streets deserted, a great peace descend upon us.” The vital world of intuition remains and we bear its mark. But each day that we remain in society, the mark fades and our connection to the spirits weakens. It was in the Bollingen tower that Jung dreamed that he stood beside an ancient chief: “We both know that at last the great event has occurred: the primeval boar, a gigantic mythological beast, has finally been hunted down and killed.” The Promethean, Apollonian impulse of techno-industrial society has finally succeeded in its horrifying task: it has killed the beast, at last.

At the Bollingen tower Jung found the primeval self, the intuitive self restored at revitalized. If there is hope for the world, it lies in the ancient spark within our hearts. The tiny whisper that calls out to the trees and the hills. The small door that opens into a universe without end inside of us. So too did Jung find himself stripped of his fragile, misguided ego and dissolved into the living world around him. There are few errors more profound in the modern perspective than the horrifying notion that consciousness is limited to humanity. All things have their consciousness, not merely living creatures. The landscape itself is conscious. And just as important is the recognition that our own consciousness is constituted precisely by the interplay with the consciousness of the cosmos. As a species alone, we are nothing. This is precisely what Jung found at Bollingen. He writes, “here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.” To join our essence and consciousness with the world was once the common inheritance of humanity. Now, it can only be found in the hinterland, the lands beyond. Beyond techno-industrial society. For what is there to join with in concrete and steel?

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In 1950 Jung built a stone monument at Bollingen, beside his tower. Having ordered a shipment of stones to build a wall around his garden, Jung found that the cornerstone had been measured incorrectly and was a large cube rather than a triangle. The mason was about to take the stone away but, as Jung writes, the stone called out to him, spoke to him and in that moment he knew he must have it. As we will see in what follows, there is something in the task of hewing stone, building with stone , communing with stones that connects us profoundly to the world beyond, the world of the cosmos. There is a intelligence in all things that may express itself to us, if we have the power to listen. At Bollingen, Jung reconnected himself to the animated universe and to the spirits of the past. He writes,

my ancestors’ souls are sustained by the atmosphere of the house, since I answer for them the questions that their lives once left behind. I carve out rough answers as best I can. I have even drawn them on the walls. It is as if a silent, greater family, stretching down the centuries, were peopling the house.

This sense of a “greater family” extends beyond the individuals and communities that make up our own personal history. Like Jung’s collective unconscious, our lineage stretches back to the birth of the cosmos itself. We contain within us the memories of dying stars and galaxies uncountable. In the swampy regions of psyche, the memories of the dinosaurs are alive. The Fair Folk are there too, dancing in the moonlight. But there is no room for ancestors and spirits in the world of techno-industrial society. We must create a physical place for them, as well as an inner place. They need silence, for their voices are hard to hear from centuries of being unused. Or rather, they have shouted themselves hoarse because we have not listened for so long.

It was at his tower, among his stones and solitude, that Jung developed his rhizomatic metaphor, which has since inspired so many great thinkers, most notably, of course, Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari:

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away—an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.

It is no surprise that this idea came to him in that setting. Far away from the techno-industrial world we can perceive the eternal world. As the walls of our own little, determinate, particular, historically constituted identities fracture and crumble, we perceive the self that is present in all things. We are bonded to the cycles of death and rebirth. The true nature of time, which is to say its cyclical nature, becomes clear. The techno-industrial world denies this. It postulates time as ruthlessly linear, hurtling toward perfection. Though we all know that the only place it will lead us to is doom.

Around the same time that Jung was building his stone tower by hand on the shores of Lake Zurich, another stone tower was being built by hand, thousands of miles away, upon the edge of the abyss, at the very end of the world. This tower was built by American poet Robinson Jeffers. After the conclusion of World War I, Jeffers purchased a piece of land on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California. There, in 1919, Jeffers built a stone cottage called ‘Tor House’ for his wife Una and went on to construct a stone tower adjacent to the cottage, which he named ‘Hawk Tower.’ Like Jung, Jeffers found discovered something within himself through the process of working with stone. In fact, scholar Tim Hunt goes so far as to describe masonry as Jeffers “other lifework.” The work inspired his poetry and features largely in many of his most famous poems. His first major book was only published during the final phases of construction.

We can clearly perceive Jeffers belief in an animate cosmos in poems such as “To the Rock that will be a Cornerstone of the House.” Mirroring Jung’s own private conversation with a cornerstone at Bollingen, Jeffers addresses the stone thus:

You have been dissevered from humanity

And only known the stubble squirrels and the headland rabbits

Or the long-fetlocked plowhorses

Breaking the hilltop in December, sea-gulls following.

Screaming in the black furrow; no one

Touched you with love, the gray hawk and the red hawk touched yourself

Where now my hand lies. So I have brought you

Wine and white milk and honey for the hundred years of famine

And the hundred cold ages of sea-wind.

Through his poetry, Jeffers devoted himself to the stones and the cliffs and crags of his refuge, evoking them as models for the beauty and violence of the cosmos. Entrenched in the human world, Jeffers argues, the universe becomes nothing more than a reflection of ourselves. We see our own smallness, our own weakness, our own ugliness radiated throughout the cosmos. In order to escape this apocalyptic solipsism, Jeffers urged a reconnection with the non-human world. A reckoning with the vast powers and forces of the world. But precisely in seeing how small we truly are, and in recognizing how awe-inspiring the non-human world is, lies our hope for rediscovering ourselves as kin to the world. Techno-industrial society makes a titan of humanity, only to make us worthless and alone. The brutality and transcendent beauty of the wild world makes us small but in that we find our redemptive unity. This fundamental belief, which Jeffers described as ‘inhumanism,’ is defined in the poem “Double Axe,” as “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the trans-human magnificence.” This shift requires a necessary detachment from the human world, from techno-industrialism, and from the entire constellation of moral and conceptual apparatus that we have inherited from centuries of disconnection with the wild world.

While Jeffers built his stone tower, he was visited every day by a single hawk that came and perched on the stones. On the day he finished the tower, the hawk disappeared. Like the stones, the hawk became a symbol for Jeffers. Of the hawk, Jeffers writes,

I think, here is your emblem

To hang in the future sky;

Not the cross, not the hive,

But this; bright power, dark peace;

Fierce consciousness joined with final

Disinterestedness;

Life with calm death.

Rejecting the monotheistic religions as well as human society, Jeffers posits the hawk and urges us to follow its path. High above the human world, the hawk does not see our struggles. It burns with the light of creation and finds its unity in the indifference of the world. The hawk perceives the death that it is inherent in life and remains unconcerned. Contrast this to the vanity of techno-industrial society, which views death as the ultimate enemy to be resisted by any means. For Jeffers, the wild world conveys much of what Jung saw from his tower at Bollingen, the permanence that underlies all change and flux. Humanity, and techno-industrial society even more so, is a passing thing that lives, decays, and dies in its time. There is no force that could make it otherwise. And yet, the our society seems devoted to the idea that we stand equal or perhaps beyond the natural world in force and durability. Jeffers reminds himself and us that the stone tower he builds will outlast him by generations. And the cliffs upon which it is built will outlast the house by millennia. And the sea will outlast the cliffs for countless aeons.

Living in the midst of human society we are deafened by countless voices. Competing morals and ideologies, each promising an eternal answer. And yet each hungering for the blood of the other. The world we live in is not the world. All the rationality and cleverness of modernity comes to nothing. For Jung, the path away from this world depended upon perceiving and awakening the dormant memories of the old ways, the gods and spirits. For Jeffers, the illusions of society are burst apart by the majesty of the wild world:

I believe that the beauty and nothing else is what

Things are formed for. Certainly the world

Was not constructed for happiness nor love nor wisdom. No, not for pain,

Hatred and folly. All these

Have their seasons; and in the long year they balance each other, they

Cancel out. But the beauty stands.

In the dark woods and upon the craggy mountaintops, we stand in the immanent power of that beauty. To live apart from human society is to live among the undying things and to find a fragment of ourselves among them. We are not exempt from the beauty that Jeffers describes. But we forget the source of that beauty: it is not derived from what makes us human, it is precisely derived from the parts of us that are not human. The parts of us that can hear the voices of the stones. The parts of us that hear haunting songs drifting over hill and valley. The parts of us that awaken suddenly on moonlit nights and frantically look toward the meadow at the edge of the woods.

In the end, for all his urging us to abandon society to itself and even turn away from ourselves as human, Jeffers’ vision is not a pessimistic one. Like Jung, for whom the turn away from the modern world facilitated a resurrection of banished demons and a healing of a wounded humanity, Jeffers argued that in detaching ourselves from a rigid and poisonous conception of what it means to be human, we discover a strength within us that can endure the agonizing flux of history. The horrors of the world are no less horrifying but we can be made to be much more resilient than we are. The late poem “Carmel Point” perfectly illustrates this hopeful quality in Jeffers’ thought:

The extraordinary patience of things!

This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—

How beautiful when we first beheld it.

Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;

No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,

Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—

Now the spoiler has come: does it care?

Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide

That swells and in time will ebb, and all

Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty

Lives in the very grain of the granite,

Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. — As for us:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;

We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident

As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

The world burns and the ruins gather in piles all around us. There are those who criticize quietism and the desire to escape. In answer to them I will paraphrase the great Ursula Le Guin: What’s wrong with escaping? What else should a prisoner seek to do?


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England.


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Strategize, Don’t Moralize

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away.  It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics (Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive? Is mutual aid just charity?). But how does it approach strategy?


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tactics follows strategy.

First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?

To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.

What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.

When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.

But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.


 

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Tintoretto, “Allegory of the morality of earthly things,” 1585. Via Wikimedia Commons

US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?

But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.

Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:

  1. Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
  2. Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
  3. Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.

Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?

When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.

US leftists have no mass base inherited from their precursors. However, for the first time in decades, the overall objective conditions are favorable: most Millennials would rather live in a socialist or communist society. They overwhelmingly support and/or participate in the labor movement. Liberalism and conservatism are both struggling to break out of a sustained crisis of legitimacy. If there ever was a ripe time to revive mass socialism in the United States, it’s now.

But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.


 

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher

 

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Fredric Jameson

Do you believe revolution is possible?

Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).

So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.

Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.

So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.


 

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

Chasing Ambulances

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Demonstrators flooded streets across the globe in public protests on Saturday, calling for action against gun violence. Hundreds of thousands of marchers turned out, in the most ambitious show of force yet from a student-driven movement that emerged after the recent massacre at a South Florida high school.

The student activists emphasized that they would soon have access to the ballot box as they hope to build support for candidates who support universal background checks and bans on assault-style weapons.

[Source: New York Times]

How should leftists have engaged with this weekend’s March for Our Lives?

Over a million people attended nationally-coordinated rallies calling for federal laws restricting the sale of firearms. Students who survived the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL headlined the main Washington, DC march (alongside performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities). Meanwhile, more than 800 satellite events featured Democratic office-holders, from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plenty of socialists showed up as well, hoping to “put forward an alternative to this system that is built on violence at its core.”

Similarly, the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia inspired enthusiastic leftist support, with radicals “stand[ing] in solidarity with the teachers of the state in their fight for better pay and better healthcare and offer[ing] our full support.” However, few of the leftist groups either attending the marches or urging solidarity with the teachers had done any prior work to speak of among either anti-gun high schoolers or West Virginian teachers. So what did “fully supporting” or “putting forward an alternative” concretely mean?

Any time a protest event receives significant media coverage, radical groups put out similar statements. Where does that impulse to endorse come from? Does responding in the same way every time obscure deeper differences between one self-declared “movement” and another?

What place should this “support” have in revolutionary strategy?


 

A political group employing an activist-networking approach is looking for a new campaign. They read the news to find “hot issues” that are being reported on in the media. Once they’ve determined the issue they want to agitate around, they look for an NGO they can “partner” with, providing warm bodies to show up at the NGO’s events and to help actuate the already-existing strategy of the NGO. Often this looks like showing up to City Hall or the state capitol, as part of a coalition of “the usual suspects,” to lobby legislators to support or oppose a particular bill, or showing up at a rally put on by the NGO in command of the campaign. Usually the passage of a law is the primary goal of these campaigns.

Maybe the group might try to recruit one or two participants from the action, but since most of these people are already organized and are members of one of the larger groups, only a handful of people are brought into the organization. As enthusiasm inevitably drains from the campaign in the face of setbacks, participation bleeds away, so the group ends up back at square one, or worse, end up with fewer people involved than they started with. At this point, groups usually cut their losses and look for the new “hot issue” of the day, thus repeating the cycle.

Tim Horras

While their desire to support popular movements is well-meaning, activist leftists are basically ambulance chasers. When they see the media cover something politically exciting, their instinct is to show up offering “leadership” and “the socialist perspective.” Generally, no one takes them particularly seriously when they do. Why should they? The radicals have no pre-existing relationship with them and haven’t shown why they deserve anyone’s attention. So, the socialists’ efforts go nowhere. They lose a few people, pick up a few more, rinse, and repeat. They come to exist for the sake of existing rather than serving a particularly useful role. If an organization’s practice boils down to providing “boots on the ground” for “movement” nonprofits’ campaigns and rallies, why bother with the organization at all? Isn’t it easier to just work with the nonprofits directly? That’s why so few people in a given movement join any of the socialist organizations that try to involve themselves. When a group has made itself superfluous, people can tell. So, leftists continue to exist on the margins of the activist subculture, never realizing that they’ve no one but themselves to blame for their irrelevance.

Your ideology is not the beliefs you affirm. It’s what your actions show that you value. If your practice consists of listening to podcasts and arguing on Facebook, then that’s the substance of your ideology, not the particular ideas you agree with. If you mostly wave signs at protests and issue calls for things you can’t deliver, then your ideology is about bearing moral witness within the activist scene (which, don’t forget, is just the organized infrastructure of the Democratic Party).

You are always promoting your ideology to the people around you. That doesn’t mean you’re telling them your opinions. Ideology isn’t made of opinions. Rather, you’re teaching them through example what you actually consider important – and that’s what will determine their perception of radical politics. Ambulance chasing teaches that leftists are basically flaky: they make promises they can’t keep and don’t stick around after the news cycle moves on. People learn that socialism offers them nothing because your actions have taught them that it means talking big and not following through.


 

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West Virginia teachers on strike. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The March for Our Lives and the West Virginia teachers’ strike were fundamentally different phenomena.

The former was a choreographed, slickly-branded rally organized and promoted by Democratic Party front groups, especially Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords (named after a retired Democratic member of Congress). The teenagers from Florida weren’t actually calling the shots; the whole thing was run by a nonprofit called the March for Our Lives Action Fund, whose decisions were made by a board of professional Democrats (albeit in consultation with a powerless “student advisory board”), and the satellite marches prominently featured sitting Democratic politicians. That’s why they so heavily emphasized voting in the midterms for candidates who support the Democratic Party’s legislative priorities around gun control, and why explicitly left-wing and anti-police demands from student groups without the official March for Our Lives franchise (such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia) were generally ignored. The Democratic platform, after all, is more amenable to outright reactionary policies like the expansion of police presence in poor, working-class, and non-white schools and the abolition of basic legal rights for people with psychiatric diagnoses.

Conversely, the teachers’ strike was collective action, not media spectacle. West Virginia’s unionized teachers, not Democratic fronts or politicians, organized it themselves. It was a non-symbolic, illegal strike. The point was not media coverage or Democratic voter turnout. The teachers wanted better pay and benefits, so they withheld their labor until they got it. They used their access to meaningful social and economic power to improve their lives. They didn’t have to trust Democratic candidates to keep their campaign promises. Collective action works because class struggle defines class society. But high-profile Democratic Party rallies, like the March for Our Lives and the Women’s March, ultimately only benefit the Party itself.

However, leftist conversations about the strike and the march mirrored each other closely. Are their demands sufficiently radical? How much criticism is too much? How can leftists help? In both cases, the Left offered its support reflexively because “organizing is good.” But there was a category difference between the events. Where was the corresponding category difference between left-wing responses to them?

Well, when you’re an ambulance chaser, you lack a meaningful social base. You act as a club for hobbyists within the protest scene who happen to prefer a socialist or anarchist brand to a liberal one. So, whether it’s a Democratic media event or an actual instance of class struggle, you find yourself on the outside looking in. In either case, your “support” consists of waving placards at demonstrations and publishing official statements until the news cycle moves on. Ideology is practice and for you, there is no practical difference. So, your ideology considers them equivalent. Anything that feels like mass politics is equally attractive, whether that feeling is just PR (as with the March for Our Lives or the Women’s March) or has a basis in something real (as with the West Virginia strike).


 

A crisis will only catalyze a well-formed communications network. If such networks are embryonically developed or only partially co-optable, the potentially active individuals in them must be linked together by someone . . . In other words, people must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.

Jo Freeman

When a constituency mobilizes (whether it’s for a strike, a march, or a show at a nightclub), it’s not because all of the individuals involved just happened to show up at the same time. Just as a venue, sound equipment, etc have to be acquired and set up beforehand, attendance and participation have to be deliberately organized. When the West Virginia teachers struck, they did so through preexisting organizing networks: their union and a private Facebook group. When people attended the March for Our Lives, that was also done through preexisting networks: activist, religious, and campus-based groups went together as groups, and the march’s sponsors hired publicists to reach out to the unaffiliated. Similarly, the crowd at a show mobilizes through friendship networks of clubgoers, performers’ fan bases, and promoters’ advertising efforts.

The importance of organizing networks doesn’t mean that a constituency can’t act for itself on its own initiative, “from below.” Rather, an infrastructure of organizing networks is the means by which it’s able to do so. Leadership doesn’t impose itself from outside. It happens when people within those networks persuade others to act collectively. Distinct from leadership, organizing means constructing those networks in the first place.

Leftists often want to be leaders. They should instead prioritize being organizers. After all, by the time a strike or a rally is on TV, the participants don’t need radicals. They already have their organizing networks and their leadership within them. At that point, revolutionaries can express support in words, but from the point of view of the people mobilizing, they’re unnecessary. It makes perfect sense to ignore them. Then, when the leftists realize their efforts are getting no traction, why wouldn’t they move on to something else? So, radicals are always moving on. They never develop long-term political relationships or a stable base. That keeps them extraneous, marginal, and ineffective.

That’s the ambulance-chasing cycle. It needs to be broken.


 

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The mass line: a basic communist technique of social investigation and leadership. Source: Hope & Timmel, Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers, Book 1, via Revolutionary Initiative

Do you want to spread revolutionary ideas?

Remember what ideology is. It isn’t words – it’s a living, physical thing. It’s practice and what practice teaches. Don’t take words at face value, not even your own. The ideology you spread is the ideology you practice (whether you realize you’re practicing it or not).

Is a teachers’ strike important and exciting? Sure. Does that mean most leftists can participate in a meaningful way? By and large, no. They aren’t needed, so why should the strikers care what they have to say? Trying to piggyback on someone else’s organizing and leadership is opportunistic, and people can tell. So, they quite reasonably conclude that radicals are opportunists, not long-haul organizers. The same goes for events like the March for Our Lives (although the weakness of socialists at Democratic media spectacles is probably a good thing on balance. Leftists have no business supporting reactionary goals in the first place).

Being a revolutionary should mean, before anything else, building a revolutionary base. That means identifying a constituency in a neighborhood or industry and making a long-term commitment. Do you have even a small group of friends or fellow radicals interested in doing political work together? That’s enough to start! Go out and talk to people in your target constituency. Find out what their lives are like. What are their needs and aspirations? Then, come up with ideas for programs that tangibly address their lives, have a low barrier to entry (so that as many people as possible can participate), and that can grow your group’s membership and organizational capacity. Reach out – canvass, hold cookouts and potlucks, have public meetings for people to express their needs and views. Build organizing networks. Make promises and follow through. Win credibility. Then, in five or ten years, you’ll have a base of your own. You’ll have created the networks and you’ll have earned enough respect to provide leadership within them. You’ll be the ones putting together exciting mobilizations, and other groups will be the opportunists trying to tag along.

Working and unemployed people don’t need to be told they’re oppressed. They live it out every day – those from specially-oppressed demographics, even more so. But that doesn’t mean revolutionaries don’t have a central role to play! As feminist writer Jo Freeman says, “[P]eople must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.”

No constituency automatically becomes a revolutionary base. Because liberalism and conservatism enjoy cultural hegemony – they’re so widely accepted that most people don’t realize there are alternatives – social movements tend to become conservative or liberal by default. But, if socialists, communists, and anarchists create the organizing networks through which a constituency can act collectively, then provide effective leadership within them, a movement can be revolutionary instead. Revolutionaries are just as capable of proving, through practice, the value of their ideology as conservatives and liberals. If that’s what your actions teach, that’s what people will learn.

But that means being more than “boots on the ground.” It means taking on the slow, patient work of knitting together a base, year by year, project by project. It means earning the ability to lead, not claiming to have it already.

And no amount of external “support” for the teachers’ strike, the March for Our Lives, or anything else can replace that.


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


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Opening the Seals

“Death is not the enemy of life, but godlessness. The despair of humanity today is the product of centuries worth of both the denial of the spiritual life of the world and the suppression of the natural urge to reintegrate with that world.”

From Ramon Elani

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For those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality.—Mircea Eliade

We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.—D.H. Lawrence

Death is not the enemy of life, but godlessness. And I do not speak of an impersonal and immaterial God, who dwells in the realm beyond the earth, demanding slavish obedience. Rather I speak of the living soul of the world, which has many names and it’s law is written into the mountains and rivers. There can be little doubt now that the end has come. And though we cannot hope to avert what is coming, we may still take stock of ourselves in the darkening twilight and reconsecrate bonds long forgotten. Since the beginning, humanity has misunderstood the doom which it has wrought upon the world. As we shall see in what follows, however, I believe there were moments during the birth of industrialization when brave souls perceived the vastness of what had occurred.

Our dialogue surrounding the end of the world is part of the problem. This is particularly true for those who have not yet accepted its inevitability. What is the nature of our crime? The extinction of countless species, the collapse of the world’s oceans, the eradication of the world’s forests. Do we weep for them? Or do we weep for ourselves because we know we cannot live without them? As it turns out, both are misguided. The world will rebuild itself in time and our civilization is not worth saving. Whether or not our species is will be determined by forces far greater than ourselves. But if, as Robinson Jeffers wrought, the death of millions of humans is no more than the death of so many flies, then what does that say about the value of the fly? The flaming heart of the universe is indifferent to the deaths of countless billions, whether they are humans, bears, whales, bees, or daffodils. What matters is that every breath and every drop of blood sings in reverence to this spirit of the world, pulses with the energy and vitality of the gods. And in this regard, is humanity chiefly lacking.

Do we imagine that something is irrevocably lost when a species is extinguished? The cosmos is a spiral and what has come will come again. The earth does not need our tears. This should be clear to all who do not imagine that humanity is the architect of the universe. Likewise, how many can truly weep at the fall of techno-industrial society? Did we ever imagine that the world could or should sustain so many billions of human? How else was this ever going to end? Wherein, in other words, does the sacredness of life reside? Death is not the enemy of life, but godlessness. We think too highly of our power when we talk of destroying the earth. The purpose of life is not that nothing should ever die. Species come and go. The universe will not weep for the salmon because we turned the oceans to barren acid anymore than it wept for the Irish Elk because its own glory condemned it to death. The world has been ruined and remade countless times. We imagine that we are special because we have caused the present crisis, which confirms our believe that humanity stands at the center of the universe. And we live in terror of our own destruction because we cannot stand the idea that the world will be fine and perhaps better without us. Thus either of the two dominant perspectives is inseparable from an anthropocentric orientation.

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The sin of techno-industrial society is not that it kills and destroys. But that it denies the divinity of the world and within humanity. To take the life of an animal and honor the spirit within it is to assert the sacred world. To take the life of an animal and treat it as nothing more than so much biological material is to deny its meaning, which is far worse than taking its life. Thus what is needed at this moment of reckoning is a resacralization of the world. This is the closest we can get to atoning for what we have done, by addressing the precise nature of our crime. Not in killing, as humanity has done since it first appeared on the earth, in full reverence of the divine cosmos. But in denying the spirit of the world itself. In other words, the true horror of our age and the content of the crisis we now face is the triumph of a disembodied, dualistic conception of humanity and the earth. And it is likely that we will not survive the consequences of this division, the product of the logic of industrialism.

As we have said elsewhere, D.H. Lawrence had a particularly astute understanding of what had been lost through industrialization. Nowhere was this understanding better articulated than in his final work, which was completed only months before his death. Apocalypse, Lawrence’s reflections on the Book of Revelations, is a strange text by any estimation. It is part exegesis and part manifesto. In the first case, it may seem strange that Lawrence wrote a book about the bible at all. While he described himself as being “passionately religious,” his hostility towards Christianity was undisguised and vociferous. But despite having abandoned his Christian upbringing early in his life, The Book of Revelations nevertheless exerted a tremendous influence on his later work. For Lawrence, the significance of Revelations was as a sort of manual for humanity to rediscover the nature of the world that had been forgotten over long centuries of industrialism, both in terms of the alienation is caused within the human race and in terms of the vile destruction it had caused in the natural world. It was, for him, a path that lead to both the liberation of the self and restoration of nature.

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As renowned Lawrence scholar Mara Kalnins writes, “revelation, he [Lawrence] argued, was a symbolic account of how to attain inner harmony as well as a sense of living connection with the greater universe.” Indeed, it is surprising that Lawrence is so rarely thought of as an ecological writer. As deep ecology pioneer Dolores LaChapelle and others have argued, however, Lawrence deserves to be counted, alongside Thoreau and Muir, as one of the preeminent environmental writers. Like Jung, Lawrence’s childhood was defined by experiences in the natural world centering around deep, dark places. Quarries, caverns, and caves. Lawrence heard the echoes and whispers of the dark gods of the earth in those places, and never forgot them. Only in the sense that for Lawrence, it was enough to recognize the presence of those chthonic forces, rather than dedicate his life to delving deeper and deeper into their world, does he differ from Jung.

Lawrence’s main attraction to the Book of Revelations lay in its symbolic and allegorical qualities. Having read widely in the esoteric and occult, although he rightly dismissed Helena Blavatsky’s racist hokum as “not very good,” Lawerence was especially drawn to the pre-Socratics and Heraclitus in particular. The latter’s conception that the universe is governed by battling divine, elemental forces, which both stem from and return to a primary fountain of boundless energy, echoes the cataclysmic struggles of the apocalypse. The essence of the divine is one of constant flux. Creation and annihilation. Most importantly for our purposes, Lawrence’s orientation was never backward looking. His goal was always to discern what could be gained in understanding for the purpose of achieving a reintegration of humanity within the living cosmos. As techno-industrial society appears to triumph, the question becomes more vital than ever: what is the nature of humanity’s relationship to the divinity of the world?

Following Jung, Lawrence saw modern humanity, like the forces of the cosmos, at war with itself. Torn between the rational scientific logic of industrialism and the intuitive religious power of the living world. Just as the former seeks to divide, reduce, and sever, the latter aims toward reintegration and wholeness. Mara Kalnins describes it thus:

Lawrence was keenly alive to the mystery and beauty of the non-human universe and to the sense that the human species is a part of a vast creative pattern. At the same time he saw modern man as willfully divorcing himself from that world through the products of human intellectual consciousness; all too often the quest for material gain and technological advance violate the integrity of the world of nature.

And if the apocalypse is a metaphor for Lawrence’s conception of restoring the integrity of the world and humanity’s place in it, we may find that our current situation, though it is a far less metaphorical kind of cataclysm, may afford us a similar opportunity. Ultimately, Lawrence’s position argues for a rejection of rationality and science in order to rediscover the brightness of the noumenal world and our place in it.

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Early in Apocalypse, Lawrence writes “I would like to know the stars again as the Chaldeans knew them…but our experience of the sun is dead, we are cut off. All we have now is the thought-form of the sun. He is a blazing ball of gas.” The pre-industrial world finds the universe vibrantly alive with spiritual power. By denying the animistic essence, the souls in all things, we are left with a world that is deprived of beauty and meaning. Again, this is ultimately the tragedy we face. Not a dead world but a world that never truly lived. A universe of molecules and matter swirling about according to mathematical models and equations. We are left with a view of the cosmos that is consistent with the earth that we have created: lifeless and mechanistic. Oceans of plastic. Poison in the air, water, and dirt. Lawrence: “The Chaldeans described the cosmos as they found it: magnificent. We describe the universe as we find it: mostly void, littered with a certain number of dead moons and unborn stars, like the back yard of a chemical works.” But of course, and herein lies it all, it is not the world that has changed. Only our perception of it. The stars still burn and dance with the sacred fire. But in denying the soul of the world, we have only made ourselves blind to the only thing that makes life worth living. We cannot return to a time before industrialism. We cannot forget the horrors that a mechanized view of the universe has unleashed. But perhaps we can restore something of what has been lost, by reconsecrating ourselves to the living god of the world.

What Lawrence foresaw for this severed humanity was a state of suicide, both for the individual and the collective. In this present moment, it is very difficult to see that he was wrong. It is clear that humanity will choose death over meaninglessness. A world dominated by techno-industrial society is not worth living in. As Lawrence observes, humanity would gladly extend this suicide to the cosmos themselves, if it had the power. This again, is all too clear in the 21st century. Death is not the enemy of life, but godlessness. The despair of humanity today is the product of centuries worth of both the denial of the spiritual life of the world and the suppression of the natural urge to reintegrate with that world. Can one imagine the sort of tortures required to break down the most fundamental impulse within a living thing, to be connected with the whole? Sadly, it is likely that we all have some sense of what that feels like now. Hundreds of years worth of denial cannot expunge what every blade of grass and drop of water knows. So we bury it within ourselves, and as Jung has observed, we trade the living gods of the old world for the psychotic demons of this world.

Nevertheless, despite all of this, there is an optimistic tone to Lawrence’s Apocalypse. A grim kind of optimism, perhaps, but optimism no less. For when things come crashing down, there is the potential for growth, for change. While it might be tempting to see our crisis as a final crisis, we must not forget that this is the linear view of history and time promoted by the rational mind. The end is never really the end. Time is cyclical and destruction brings creation. As Mircea Eliade puts it: “myths describe the various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred (or the ‘supernatural’) into the World.” The apocalypse is one such moment. As structures collapse, a door appears for the old gods to re-enter our world. By losing ourselves in the noumenal world, we are able to break free from the profane world. Mythic time, bursting with spirit and life, repeats itself over and over again. The moment of crisis opens up a world of possibilities. Our present moment shows us plainly what we have lost and what must be restored. This is the true meaning of apocalypse for Lawrence, it shows us

the things that the human heart secretly yearns after. By the very frenzy with which the Apocalypse destroys the sun and the stars, the world, and all kings and all rulers, all scarlet and purple and cinnamon…we can see how the apocalyptists are yearning for the sun and the stars and the earth and the waters of the earth.

We know what truly matters to us when we see it dashed to fragments before our very eyes. As yet, techno-industrial humanity is so far from even acknowledging its true pain. The crisis has evidently not reached a dire enough threshold. Perhaps we can perceive here and there a sort of blind grasping, which appears as despair more often than not. The more suicidal we become, the closer we are to crying out for what we truly want. What will it take, we might ask, for humanity to recognize that what it has lost is wholeness itself. Lawrence writes, “We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet now perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea.” But as long as we deny a cosmos that is alive, there will be nothing for us to be a part of.

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Deny the spirit of the world and we deny ourselves. That in the process we will also bring death and ruin to the earth goes without saying. The rational, scientific mind drives us over this cliff, no longer tethered at all to the earth, intuition, and religion. It is the enemy of the universe, it is the architect of time. No more cycles, no more birth and death. A flaming arrow into the dark void of space. All things shall end, once and for all. And the light will go out of the universe. Lawrence:

How they long for the destruction of the cosmos, secretly, these men of mind… How they work for its domination and final annihilation! But alas, they only succeed in spoiling the earth, spoiling life, and in the end destroying mankind, instead of the cosmos. Man cannot destroy the cosmos: that is obvious. But it is obvious that the cosmos can destroy man. Man must inevitably destroy himself, in conflict with the cosmos. It is perhaps his fate. Before men had cultivated the Mind, they were not fools.

Techno-industrial society is a war against the universe, against the gods, against life. Its dreams and aims are nothing less than an end to all things. But this an illusion. Several hundred years of technological advancement has given some the hopes that their mad fantasies can be achieved. Thankfully this is not the case. Lawrence ends his text with the following words: “What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth…Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.” Find the living gods of the world once again and restore the cycle of time. Profane time will always give way to sacred time.

Death is not the enemy of life, but godlessness.


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.


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