The Death of Liberal Democracy?

This is the first in a series addressing the failure and apparent destruction of Liberal Democracy, and what might–and can–come after.

On Thursday, June 23th, 2016, a majority of people voting in a referendum in the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union.

On June 19th, 2016, the Mexican state began arresting and killing striking teachers in Oaxaca.

On June 17th, 2016, French workers filled the streets of every major city as part of a general strike against a new labor law.

Though each of these three events involved radically different circumstances, politics, and players, they are alike in one specific way: they are reactions to State power and its collusion with Capital.  That is, they are also crises of Liberal Democracy.

To compare the three may seem initially irresponsible. Many people have died in the latest uprising in Oaxaca, while no one has died in France from the strikes. And despite a leader of the Brexit campaign stating that ‘no shots were fired’ in the movement to leave the European Union, one Labor MP was indeed killed by a far-right gunman for her insistence that the UK remain as part of the EU.

Likewise, the movements in Oaxaca and France are being led by Leftists; in France, the uprising against the government’s Loi Travaille (which would significantly destroy hard-won worker protections) comes from Left and Far-Left unions and poltical parties, while in Oaxaca, the resistance comes from Leftist autonomist movements. In the UK, however, the majority support for the exit vote came from the Right and Far-Right; in fact, the referendum was initiated by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in order to deal with divisions in his own party between reactionaries and more mainstream politicians. More so, the Brexit vote was heavily fueled by anti-immigrant (particularly anti-muslim) sentiment; in France, the far-right party (Front National) is a primary supporter of the Loi Travaille, and Oaxaca (as well as the rest of Mexico) has a net loss of population to immigration, rather than on account of it.

Obscured by these many differences, however, is the primary agent of the conflicts which led the UK to vote to leave, French workers to protest en masse, and Oaxacan teachers to risk getting murdered or disappeared.

In all three cases, the cause is Capital, and the primary agent of Capital is the State. And while French workers and Oaxacan teachers rose up to fight their government’s collusion with Capital, people in the UK (many with racist and xenophobic intentions) voted to strengthen their own government against the influence of foreign Capital while—frightfully–setting the stage for a vast reduction in government protections for their own minorities.

All of these cases are symptoms of the impending death of Liberal Democracy, and a crisis of Capital. For Pagans, queers, transfolk, disabled folk, people of color, immigrants, and every other minority who relies upon the State for their protection, this should be very worrying—and also a wake-up call to build something more resilient, and soon.

To understand how to do this, though, we must understand the relationship between Capital and the State, and before that, we need first to look at what Liberal Democracy is.

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Smashed Bank, Rennes, France (photo by Alley Valkyrie)

“The End of History”

In 1989, an advisor to president Ronald Reagan named Francis Fukuyama wrote a highly influential essay called “The End of History?”, in which he suggested the Liberal Democracy is the end point and highest evolutionary state of political governance. Citing the fall of Fascist governments in Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as the failure of State-Communism as seen in the then-crumbling Soviet Empire, Fukuyama suggested that Capitalism and Democratic forms of government were the destiny of humanity. Though his essay (and subsequent book) have fallen mostly out of favor, the sense that we are now living in the most peaceful, advanced, and static form of society has become so entrenched that few even see the matter as open to debate.

The consequence of this thinking, however, is that most people see Capitalism as an inevitability and the modern Liberal Democratic State as unquestionable. Not only that, but it’s difficult for many people to conceive of a form of existence outside of the present state of affairs, as the system in which we live has become almost invisible as a thing at all.  Thus, Capitalism seems to have ‘always existed,’ and many instruments of modern State violence (the police, the military, private property) seem to be as necessary as air or food for the existence of humanity.

Only in moments when Liberal Democracy doesn’t function the way we have been taught to believe it does do we ever notice its existence. When police kill an unarmed Black man in the streets in America without reason, when we see photos or hear reports of wretched prisoner abuse by US soldiers, or in large-scale terror (in Paris, in Orlando) or riot (Ferguson, Oaxaca), the invisible tapestry of Liberal Democracy seems to rip before us.  At such times, it is almost as if a wall we never noticed is breached, and we get a brief glimpse into the world outside before the opening is repaired.

Thus,  if it were really true that Liberal Democracy is the best form of government, then events like those in Oaxaca and the United Kingdom make no sense. Why would the Mexican government gun down teachers for protesting an educational reform? Why would the United Kingdom vote to leave perhaps the greatest triumph of Liberal Democracy, the European Union? And why would workers in France choose to shut down commerce, energy distribution (including nuclear power plants and gas refineries) rather than just vote for a more sympathetic government?

To some degree, all three events seem regressive or reactionary, a revolt of backwards people against the flow of history. And that’s precisely how these events become painted by the media and by leaders: the Oaxacan teachers are violent primitives, the Brexit-Leave voters are all racist and idiots, and the French strikers are lazy and unwilling to adapt to the future.

These narratives function as a way of closing the breached wall, or repairing the invisible fabric of our present world-view. Once the crisis is averted or resolved, the events are re-written in our histories (not just by historians, government officials, or the media but by ourselves, as well) to return to the status quo we were familiar with before. Life returns to normal and the State is no longer questioned. That is, we return to ‘The End of History’ where Liberal Democracy is the highest form of society, Capital is unquestioned, and the State continues.

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The Core of Liberal Democracy

Before I continue, I should to define some stuff, as terms like the State, Capital, and Liberal Democracy are not always clear-cut, and it will help to make sure we’re on the same page.

First of all, Capital is wealth used to derive more wealth through investment. Capital refers to all the money invested in factories, tech companies, stocks, property, and anything else that might make a profit for the investor. Capital seems to have a logic and an egregoric life of its own. That logic? To reproduce itself—basically, to have more Capital through profit.

By “The State,” I mean governments and all the instruments of government. So, in the United States, “The State” is the president, the congress, the supreme courts, as well as all the other government agencies and agents (including police and the military) which exist to enforce its will. Just as with Capital, The State functions as an egregore, a created entity which seeks its own survival and reproduction, which is its central logic.

Liberal Democracy is the name of a specific sort of relationship between State and Capital, a specific kind of government for which Capitalism is the primary economic relationship (“Liberalism”) and Democracy (that is, the appearance of collective will of the people) is the primary mode of governance. The United States, all the countries in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and also Mexico (as well as many, many other countries in the world) are Liberal Democracies.

Liberal Democracy has several primary attributes that are important to remember (and will be addressed again later in this series).  They are as follows:

    • The State is the agent of the People (the Leviathan): Under Liberal Democracy, the government is seen as the voice of the people it rules over and their empowered representative. Since people can vote for their rulers, it is expected that their rulers are imbued with the power to enact the will of the people, and act not only on their behalf, but as their sole agent.  Similar to the Catholic doctrine of the Pope as the “Vicar of Christ,” governments speak and act not just through the will of the people, but as if the people speak through them.
    • The State Monopoly on Violence: In Liberal Democracies, the government is authorised to enact violence on behalf of the people, and as the sole agent of violence. By ‘violence,’ I mean both the overt and obvious forms (foreign war, police arrests, capital punishment, imprisonment) and the less overt forms (laws which curtail freedoms, determine and enforce boundaries and borders).
    • The State As Sole Agent of Justice: Because the State is the only one who can enact violence, Justice can only be accomplished through government action and the legal system.  So, in a rape case, it is up to the government to find and punish the rapist, or if a corporation pollutes the air of a poor neighborhood, the only ‘just’ way to fix the problem is to go through the courts or environmental agency.  Individual or group action outside of the legal system to right a wrong can–and often is–harshly punished by the State.
    • The State as the Protector/Originator of Rights: What distinguishes Liberal Democracies from earlier forms of government is a contractural agreement between the State and the people it governs regarding the rights of citizens. Often times, these contracts were born of some struggle which threatened the ability of the State to maintain power (for instance, the Magna Carta in Britain, or the US constitution).  Also, rights are constantly negotiated: female–and later Black–suffrage, the protection of disabled people, sexual and other minorities, the 35-hour work week and 5 weeks paid vacation in France are all examples of rights demanded by people and later “recognised” and enshrined into law by governments.  In exchange for recognizing these rights, the government gains the consent to rule the people, and becomes the sole guarantor of those rights.
    • The State as the Protector of Capital: Liberal Democracy is ‘Liberal’ on account of its relationship to Capitalism. Though ‘Liberal’ has a very narrow definition in the United States, more broadly it is understood as a position towards the freedom of Markets.  Even under ‘conservative’ governments, States privilege the economic activity of wealthy individuals and groups over the potential damage that activity may cause to the poor or less wealthy.  Thus, Liberal Democracy guarantees the right to “Private Property” (land and its uses) so that Capitalists can make money and help fund the activities of the State (including wars) through taxes.
    • The State as the Sovereign Exception: Along with the previously mentioned attributes, Liberal Democracies claim the ability to suspend rights, protections, and other guarantees in order to protect the State from crises which may cause the State to be destroyed.  Anything seen as an ‘existential threat’ to the government, then, can be met with a ‘State of Emergency’ where the contract between people and the leaders are temporarily suspended until the crisis is averted.  This, by the way, is not an idea originating with Liberal theorists at all, but rather from Nazi jurist Carl Schmidt and later adopted by Liberal Democratic governments after World War II.

To understand each of these need to look at the relationship of Liberal Democracy to Capitalism, and the best way to see this is through the state guarantee of Private Property.

(Future essays in this series will cover these aspects of Liberal Democracy. What is likely to replace it, if we do not create something better, should terrify anyone who cares for equality, peace, freedom, and the earth. What could replace it, though, is precisely why Gods&Radicals exists in the first place.)

The Dance of State and Capital

Liberal Democracy is ‘classically liberal’ precisely because of its stance on freedom–that is, the State should guarantee the freedom of the people it rules in order to continue governing.  And while freedoms such as the Right to Free Speech or the Freedom of Religion are definitely worth keeping around, other freedoms such as the Right to Private Property are the foundation of Capitalism and directly curtail the freedom of others.

Private Property, of course, doesn’t refer to the socks on your feet or your personal electronics; rather, it refers to the right to own land and be the sole person who may use it as you will.  Unlike other rights like religion or speech, Private Property is founded upon a pre-requisite that is not available to the majority of humans in the world: wealth.

Private Property requires money to purchase. More so, it also requires exclusion.  Unlike Freedom of Speech (which doesn’t require other people stay silent) or Freedom of Religion (which doesn’t require other people be excluded from religion), Private Property is a guarantee that the government will protect your right to keep other people from using your property.  More so, you are free to own as much of it as you like and never sell it, thus taking away the ability of other people to own property, as land is a limited resource.

Though framed as an individual right, Private Property is a guarantee only to a specific class of people within Liberal Democracies: those with property or the money to purchase it.  Though apparently meant to protect people who own small bits of land where they might subsist or live, the right to Private Property instead favors those who use their property to derive more wealth from it and therefore gain more property.

That is, the right to Private Property is a protection of Capital.

What interest might a State have in protecting Capital, though?  The primary argument of Liberal Democracy for the protection of Capital (and therefore Capitalism) is that the rich ‘generate’ wealth for others by paying others to work for them.  The poor who have no property have no other way to survive, and because hungry people are likely to steal or revolt, the poor need access to food. Capitalists pay their workers, who then use the money to buy food from other Capitalists who pay their workers, who then use the money purchase other goods from other Capitalists who pay their workers, etc..

In an ideal version of such a system, everyone is fed and can get access to what they need, and thus the government doesn’t need to use violence to sustain its existence and doesn’t need to use its resources to keep its citizens alive.

Of course, that’s not how any Liberal Democracy has ever functioned, but because we accept the idealised situation as the way it ‘should’ function and see exceptions as aberrations, Liberal Democracy and Capitalism continue mostly unchallenged. But there’s another reason why Liberal Democracies safeguard this system–taxes.

Without money, a government can do nothing. It cannot pay its soldiers or police, its representatives or chancellors or presidents or judges. And because Capitalism is predicated on individuals and groups being free to act without interference by the government, Liberal Democracies cannot generally make money outside of taxes, unlike State-Communist governments or so-called Petro-States.

So, all the governments of Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world rely primarily on tax revenue for their income.  Without active (and inflationary) economic activity, there is less of a resource pool to tax.

Liberal Democracies tend to glean their taxes from exchange (sales, VAT, wages/income) and static wealth (land, houses). If an economy is inflationary (that is, always growing), a government can have a constant and increasing access to taxes without raising tax rates.  And fortunately, taxes on static wealth (land, housing) help insure that economies become inflationary and more Capitalist.

This latter part is particularly interesting, and rarely addressed by urban activists concerned with gentrification. When taxes on housing increase, landlords can either take less profit from the rents they charge their tenants, or increase the rent. Increasing rents then reduces the amount of money the tenants have after their income, so they must either work more, spend less on other things, or find a cheaper living situation.  Pressured in such a way by government taxation, the tenants (who are usually workers and already paying income taxes) ,then either demand higher wages (increasing income-tax revenue), work more (again, increasing income-tax revenue), or reduce their spending (causing the government to raise property taxes to increase revenue, thus causing Capitalist property owners to seek more profits and increasing the cycle).

Photo by Alley Valkyrie
Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Held Hostage by Liberal Democracy

As I mentioned, though Capitalist exchange seems to be an ideal situation for the state to maintain itself, Capitalism never delivers the ideal. More so, people who cannot secure what they want through the economy are liable to do so outside of legal means or even revolt.

Thus, Liberal Democracies have adopted certain Socialist programs in order to lessen the damage that Capitalism causes. Universal health care, funding for the un-employed, food and transportation aid, minimum wage guarantees and other such programs act as bandages on the places where Capitalism causes more damage than good. And while Liberal/Progressive/Social Justice movements in many Liberal Democracies see such programs as signs of increasing fairness and justice, these programs actually function to pacify resistance to Capitalism and the State, particularly since they are funded by revenue derived from Capitalist activity.

In fact, such a contradiction is a great benefit to the continuation of Liberal Democracy.  People who might otherwise be very critical of Capitalism and the existence of the State find themselves in a position where they rely on the continuance of both for their existence. People suffering from illnesses for which medication subsidized by the government (and paid for by Capitalist-derived taxes) is the only way to survive thus need Liberal Democracy to continue.

This is where the Brexit vote becomes primarily interesting. Many leftists in the United Kingdom are quite terrified of the likely reductions in benefits and social programs for vulnerable people after the exit from the European Union. They have great reason to worry, too, as the European Union did significantly help increase funding for social programs and force the UK government to adopt more open policies on immigration, gay rights, and other protections for minorities.  The European Union represented the height of Liberal Democracy, and the U.K.’ exit from it signifies not only an early symptom of the death of Liberal Democracy, but a significant short-term (and possibly long-term) increase in suffering for those who relied on its promises.

But it also means a blow to Capitalists, as well, who now face new barriers to trade and cheap labor through immigration. Also, the Liberal Democratic policies of the European Union significantly stabilized markets, making it so that Capitalists could plan profits long-term. The drop in the Euro and the Pound, as well as respective stock markets, is a symbol of the panic felt by Capitalists who fear loss of profit.

To see the other side of the European Union one only need to look at the situation in France. The Loi Travail in France was crafted as a way to liberalise (that is, open up) the labor markets in France, giving employers more flexibility in hiring by taking away worker guarantees. French workers still have some of the strongest protections and benefits in Europe, and empowered workers mean less profit for Capitalists. Thus, Liberal Democracy, particularly through the open-market policies of the European Union, needed to reduce worker rights in order to ensure Capitalists invest enough money to start the economic cycle which generates taxes.

More so, French workers enjoying more protections than many other workers in Europe destabilizes the labor market, encourages Capital to look for cheaper workers elsewhere, and gives basis to workers in other countries to demand more. The manifestations and strikes in France, then, are not just an attack on employers but on the State and Capital itself, as well as the Liberal Democratic foundation of the European Union.

The situation in Oaxaca has nothing to do with the European Union, but operates on the same logic.  Mexico is a Liberal Democracy that faces financial ruin on account of a Liberal Democratic trade agreement (the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA). In order to generate more tax revenue, as well as stave off the governance problems associated with widespread poverty, the government borrowed money from international financial organisations in return for ‘liberalizing’ their markets and creating new ones, including in education:

The reasons why the Mexican government wants to impose the Educational Reform, even if it means killing people, as with the massacre in Nochixtlán by repressive state forces on June 19, are rooted in economic objectives guided by international financial organizations. The reform, proposed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with the OECD-Mexico Agreement to Improve the Quality of Education in Schools of Mexico, aims to lay the groundwork to shift education from being a State responsibility to instead being resolved in the realm of the financial market.

In order to comply with these objectives, the Mexican government passed educational reforms which took away rights from teachers. In Oaxaca, one of the strongest bastions of Leftist organisation, the teachers went on strike, and the state responded with violence.

While both Capitalists and the poorest will initially suffer from crises of Liberal Democracy, as in Brexit, Capitalists are usually able to recover from such crises.  In fact, it’s precisely in such crises that Capitalists are able to influence their own governments more, convincing them to lessen worker protections (including wages) as in France, or selling off specific resources as in Oaxaca.

And if the people resist, Liberal Democracy has a particular weapon that proves generally irresistible: violence, upon which it holds a monopoly.

Next: Liberal Democracy and Violence

 

Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_c8489ee1-3139-487c-92b9-271ba38254daRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here is now available for immediate download.

 

Solidarity Forever Poster

Solidarity Forever

When I was ten years old, my parents sat me down and with tight lips they explained that Daddy’s union was on strike and so we would be “tightening our belt” for a little while.

“How long?” I wanted to know.  I wasn’t sure exactly what “tightening our belts” meant, but since my parents were usually worried about money I was pretty sure that it couldn’t be good.

He shrugged impatiently.  His anger and frustration were all over him.  My dad didn’t talk much, so when he did, I listened intently.  “Could be a couple of weeks,” he said.  “Could be for months.”

Months seemed like an eternity to my ten year old mind.  “Why is the union on strike?” I scowled. Surely if the situation were understood, it could be fixed!

“Well,” Dad explained (having become accustomed to his strange, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who always had to know the reason why) “the company wants to reduce our pensions because they’re having financial troubles, and the union is having none of it.  I’m not happy about it.”

“Why not?” I demanded.

“I just don’t think that striking was a good idea,” he said honestly.  “I think it’s going to cost us a lot more than we’ll gain.”

“Well, if you don’t want to strike,” I suggested shrewdly, thinking of how much better it would be for my family individually, “why don’t you just go to work then?”

I never forgot my father’s response.  His eyes flashed and he half stood up in his seat.  “Never,” he hissed.  “I am not a scab.”

“Dear,” cautioned my mother as she gave him a stern look.

I was stricken.  I didn’t understand why my father had become so angry so quickly.  “I’m sorry, ” I apologized.  “What is a ‘scab’?  Why do you have to do what the union tells you?”

His shoulders relaxed a bit.  “A scab is someone who breaks a picket line when the workers of a company have decided that all work should stop.  They’re traitors.  The only means that workers have to protect their rights is to stand together, so if we don’t stand together, we have no rights.  And they’re teaching you about how democracy works at school, right?”

“Yes.”  Of course, they don’t seem to teach that to ten-year-olds anymore, but they still were then.

“Well, the union voted to strike,” he said firmly.  “And I’m part of the union, so I have to respect the vote.  You have to support the decision of the majority.  That’s how democracy works.”

When I think about that time, I seem to remember my parents fighting a bit more, and some more frequent Kraft Dinner meals (which made me happy; I loved Kraft Dinner), and that was about the limit of the changes over the next few months that stand out in my mind.  But the importance of unions was a lesson I never forgot.

So when the teachers went on strike at my school a few months later I supported them.  They took the time to explain that a lot of what they were striking about had to do with class sizes; as well as some personal things, like job cuts and wages, since the BC government was in the middle of a period of scarcity politics.  School wasn’t that far and in those days a child was actually allowed to go out in the daytime if they were home before dusk, so I stood in their picket lines with them.  They eventually went back to work, but the fight continued.  In 2002 the current BC Premier, then the Minister of Education, Christy Clark passed a law that denied the union the right to bargain class size and composition.  The fight between the BC Teachers’ Union and the BC Government continues to this day.


The eighties were a time of unbridled right wing capitalism.  Ronald Reagan was President of the United States; Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada; Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain.  They preached the gospel that the corporate owned press and the billionaire-funded economic think tanks now pour into the ears of our leaders like poison; deregulation is the key.  Labour is expensive.  You have to support “trickle down economics” if you want to boost the economy.

All of these policies resulted in the Great Recession of the 1990s, the world I, from my working class background, graduated into.  And one of the most significant propaganda campaigns that the Corporate Choir managed to inject into the public consciousness during that time, which we have yet to outgrow, is the myth of “Big Unions.”

“Big Unions lock up the labour market,” say the corporatists.  “They make unrealistic demands upon industry until it’s not profitable to run the industry anymore.  And look at all their big pensions and their high wages and their lunch breaks and vacation pay!  You guys aren’t getting any of that, are you?  Why should the unions do so much better than you do?”

Except that the Big Unions that they talk about aren’t nearly what we’ve been led to believe.  Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, one is a media performers’ union and another is a merged union that represents auto workers and people who work in communications, energy, and paper.  And it didn’t save them from job loss when Conservative (politically expedient) budget cuts hit the CBC, nor the closing of several Canadian auto manufacturing plants.

Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, five are teachers’ unions, two are postal unions, three are unions for public service employees, one is a nurse’s union, and one is an office workers’ and professionals’ union.  Most of these unions have voted to strike in the past ten years.  All of the teachers, the postal workers, the nurses, and the public service employees were just legislated back to work by the government that oversees their industry, since they were deemed to be “essential services,” without any kind of attempt to even negotiate worker rights or needs.  Even in the rare cases where arbitration decided in favour of the unions, new legislation just arbitrarily changed their bargaining rights, and they had to take their governments to court. And the public let them get away with this, because the public was jealous of the benefits and higher wages that those unions had, and they did not.


What a beautifully executed bait-and-switch!  Instead of hating the company we work for because they pay us slave wages, we hate the union because they don’t work hard enough for us.  Instead of hating corporate owners for lobbying our governments to suppress the labour market by relaxing regulations, we hate the union guys for making more money than we do.  Instead of demanding that shareholders crop the salaries of their Boards of Directors, or accept slightly lesser dividends, we get mad because company unions won’t let them reduce wages and cut pensions.  Instead of getting angry at the corporations for hiring illegal immigrants or Temporary Foreign Workers at slave wages and abusive conditions, we get mad at the immigrants themselves.  The corporatists have effectively turned us on one another.

Rather than asking why the union guys get all of the benefits they do – benefits that, once upon a time, were considered just decent and proper working conditions and compensations – what we should be doing is asking why the rest of us don’t.  And when unions act on behalf of the people they represent, we should support their action, rather than bitching because we find it inconvenient.  If we did that, they would support us in our struggle for the same rights, especially when we chose to form our own unions.  There’s no reason why we couldn’t have the Retail Employees’ Union of North America; or the Gas Station Attendant’s Union.  And those unions would have power to get things done.


This weekend Canada Post is threatening to strike.  They’re striking because Canada Post wants to get rid of door-to-door delivery and not pay their employees overtime for overtime work.  While the company is claiming that they can’t compete in the market because of this, their first quarter profit was $44 million dollars because of their growing parcel service – so I don’t believe them.  Because I believe in the rights of the worker, I will be temporarily shutting down my Etsy shop until the strike is lifted.  I will not be sending packages by Purolator.  I am not a scab.

Orlando, Transphobia, and Culture-Shaping Violence

Attis arrived in Lydia with the Mysteries in hand. She taught the worship of the Mountain Mother, and more and more took initiation as gallai, Kybele’s transgender priestesses. As the Mother’s cultus started to rival his in popularity, Father Zeus became angry and punitive. He sent a giant boar to Lydia, trampling crops and goring farmers. No hunter survived trying to bring the creature down. Attis prayed to her Mother, then knew what Zeus demanded. When Attis sought out the boar alone, it sliced her body with its tusks; Zeus and his monster were satisfied as she lay bleeding out in the field. The other gallai found Attis and took her to Kybele’s temple. Attis lingered for days in front of the altar as her sisters fasted and prayed for her recovery. When she finally died, the Mother heard the gallai lamenting and saw them flagellating themselves in grief. So, Kybele lifted Attis up from the underworld, making Attis her dead-yet-immortal charioteer. Ever since, every year, gallai bleed during the Spring Hilaria, enacting the mysteries of Attis’s killing and apotheosis. Through ritually sharing that violence, we move into the sacredness of trans embodiment, trans devotion, and trans religion.


 

 

Orlando wasn’t unique because a racist homophobe attacked queers during Pride week. What made it different was the degree to which the shooter pulled it off; hate crimes, especially during Pride, are depressingly routine. Double-digit body counts, though, still rattle us. Once the news broke, I started receiving (and sending) texts, calls, and Facebook messages: comrades and partners locally, queer friends online, chosen family back in the South, all checking up on each other. Perhaps someone’s social network would extend to Orlando. Even if not, for many of us, it felt personal because hate violence always does. Shooting up a nightclub exists on a comparatively short spectrum with the ambient violence that informs queer consciousness. We know to reach out and offer emotional support. We’ve had practice.

For trans women and nonbinary transfemmes, we do something similar every few weeks. Someone will have vanished from the internet, or posted a note; a body will be found (and misgendered) in the news. We contact each other with fear and urgency, because it’s even odds that someone we know has died by suicide or murder, been attacked, or landed in a psych ward after an attempt. Our communities have developed the social and cultural infrastructure to acquire and share that type of information very, very quickly. Living under such precarious material conditions, we have to.

And of the women and nonbinary people that I’ve had any degree of closeness with, I can’t think of more than two or three who haven’t dealt with some experience of rape and/or abuse. I certainly have. I can’t think of one who hasn’t been harassed, sexually and/or transphobically – sometimes, both at once. Trans or cis, queer or straight, binary or nonbinary, gender violence pervades our lives and profoundly inflects our psyches, politics, theologies, and relationships.

For women and for gender and sexual minorities, as for people of color and disabled people and impoverished people, violence shapes our communal lives. Subjectively, I’d call it the predominant discursive theme in transfemme subcultures. Beneath the discovery of identity, coming out, and navigating the world as trans, there’s the threat and practice of violent punishment. It’s not by chance that violence from a male authority provides the basis for the apotheosis of Attis in otherwise-quite-different versions of the myth. How could gallai realize holiness through our transness if we didn’t come to terms with this daily ordeal? Sure, painful trials can bring power and gnosis. I’ve spent enough time around other transfemmes, seeing their wisdom and power and tenacity, to realize that. However, there’s only so far that sacralization can carry us. At a certain point, even the most spiritually rooted of us stops getting anything from traumatic conditions besides more trauma.

When I heard about the latest nonsense from Ruth Barrett and the introduction of Cathy Brennan to the picture, I felt as if we still haven’t escaped from the field sprinkled with Attis’s blood.


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#StandWithOrlando Vigil, Hermann Park, Houston, TX. Image from Strength In Numbers Blog, Ashton P. Woods. License.

Barrett and Brennan are both women deeply embedded in lesbian and feminist communities. While I lack direct knowledge, I’d be stunned if either has managed to avoid these pervasive types of gender violence. One would have hoped that a shared position of disempowerment and danger under patriarchy would provide a sufficient basis for feminist solidarity. Sadly, unlike other radical feminists of their generation, neither has approached trans women as sisters in the struggle.

They deny the bare material truth that transfemmes are at least as victimized by gender violence as any other population. Instead of joining with us and resisting sexist violence, they’ve joined in. They’re doing patriarchy’s work, just as much as every misogynist, rapist, or MRA out there. TERF discrimination isn’t just cruel. It’s redundant.

That shapes our subcultures, too. For instance, I’d heard of Cathy Brennan long before finding her websites or meeting anyone she’s doxxed. In transfeminine oral culture, she’s a synecdoche for the worst kinds of TERF violence, harassment, and discrimination. Brennan has served as our folk villain for years now. Now that she’s targeted some well-known cis Pagans, I halfway wonder if this is her ticket out of the folkloric niche market. While her actions certainly produce immediate destructive consequences for individuals, at the same time her power as a cultural figure far exceeds anything she could actually do. Harassment doesn’t only victimize its targets. I think of the panopticon, the prison where there are more inmates than the warden could possibly watch at once – but where every prisoner always feels surveilled, because they can’t know at whom the warden is currently looking. Doxxing functions the same way, as does hate crime. Why be afraid, when most of us will never actually get the worst of it? Well, any one of us could.

Brennan and Barrett have both presented trans women as some powerful, conspiratorial force. They tell stories of terroristic trans women supposedly endangering both them individually and womanhood itself. Of course, we aren’t so powerful. Cis lesbian feminists aren’t particularly high up in the patriarchal pecking order. In transfemmes, though, they’ve found one of the few groups they can target with relative impunity. I’ve talked before about the underlying dynamics there. It comes back to sexual work and the role of transphobia in constituting transfemmes as a sexual underclass. I won’t rehash it here.

Instead, I’ll just extend my solidarity, love, and prayers to all of us whose communal lives get shaped by violence, be it in Orlando or in the bedroom or on the sidewalk or at Cherry Hill Seminary. Queers and women and trans people deal with too much horror already to inflict it on each other. May the Mountain Mother hear our grief. May she bring us all through pain and bloodshed to community, freedom, and love.

Io Attis. Io Kybele.

 

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla of Attis and Kybele, a Greco-Phrygian polytheist, and a communist. After coming out in the small-town South, they moved to Seattle, where they are active in the trans lesbian community. They also write at The North Star, where they’re part of the editorial board, and serve as an officer for the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism. This August, they will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

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

23 Things: There is No Such Thing as a Free Market

"Door Number One" by George Hodan. Public domain image courtesy Publicdomainpictures.net
“Door Number One” by George Hodan. Public domain image courtesy Publicdomainpictures.net

23 Things is a series that examines and explores the theories presented in Oxford-trained economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.  I will examine each of his 23 Things by taking some of the material from his book, and breaking it down through the application of my own lens.  For more information, I recommend his excellent book!

What They Tell You:  Markets need to be free.  When the government interferes to dictate what market participants can or cannot do, resources cannot flow to their most efficient use.  If people cannot do the things that they find most profitable, they lose the incentive to invest and innovate.”

As Chang points out, no market is actually a free market.  There are always regulations and rules that change the market considerably, and we just unconditionally accept a lot of the existing limitations.  Free market economists who claim that people trying to put limitations on the market are politically motivated are equally politically motivated.

Here are a few of the innate regulations to the market that we have accepted as part of our “free market economy”:

Labour Costs

In 1819, the UK’s Cotton Factory Regulation Act, was tabled in the British Parliament.  It forbade the employment of young children under the age of nine.  Older children’s hours were to be limited to 12 hours a day.  The new rules only applied to cotton factories, which were especially dangerous.  It was an incredibly controversial bill.  Opponents believed that it undermined the free market completely.  Some members of the House of Lords even opposed it on the grounds that “labour should be free.”  Children wanted to work; factory owners wanted to employ them; what was the problem?

Now of course no one today would suggest that workers should not be paid; but part of the reason that large employers close their North American factories and go to developing countries is that between the reduced currency values, and the willingness of hungrier people to do more for less, it seriously reduces their labour costs.  It’s the main reason that large corporations support globalization.

Also, this is why large corporations lobby governments to permit such things as Canada’s shameful Temporary Foreign Worker program, which, nominally, was supposed to allow people with hard-to-find skills to come to Canada and work at jobs that are difficult to fill in Canada; but which was actually used by large corporations to create a class of sharecroppers for low-paying service jobs, artificially suppressing wages and working conditions for everyone.  The Liberal government has now re-instituted this program due to pressure from lobbyists, after the Conservative government was forced to shut it down because a restaurant owner in Saskatchewan fired a twenty-plus year employee to hire Temporary Foreign Workers to work at a lesser wage, lesser hours, and higher pressure.  The Temporary Foreign Worker program is a good example of how necessary wage regulations are, and how some employers will continually try to chip away at them anyway.

As Chang points out, restrictions on immigration have more effect on wages than any other factor, including minimum wage legislation.

When you think about it, the fight against slavery was the first attempt to regulate wages and working conditions.  And to this day, human traffickers continue to import workers, often children, to work under abusive and oppressive conditions in order to cheat labour costs.

Working Conditions and Safety

Note how controversial that 12 hour limit of a day’s work was!  Now we generally accept that a human being can only work for so long because exhaustion sets in.  This is one of many regulations that have been enacted to protect workers in the labour market.  The early days of the Industrial Revolution were a horror story of factory owners taking advantage of the poor and allowing human suffering on an unprecedented scale. This sobering video shows a few of the things that child labourers were expected to do before legislation protected them; and a few of those things still go on in places where the laws protecting workers are not so firm.  And Karen Silkwood taught us why the struggle must continue.

Environmental Regulations

This one still sticks in the craw of certain large corporations, but most people now agree that environmental regulations must exist to protect innocent bystanders and the planet.  In places where those environmental regulations are relaxed, such as China, the results are clear.  Contrary to popular belief, this has happened before, resulting in the enactment of a series of restrictions on permitted air pollutants.  But companies still try to get past the restrictions.  Recently Volkswagen has been caught altering their emissions regulators to cheat at emissions tests without actually lowering emissions.

Food and Drug Regulation

Despite a reputation for permitting lowered standards for big money corporations, the Food and Drug Administration, and regulatory boards like it that exist in most countries, was created to limit what could be sold to consumers and make sure, to the best of their ability, that products for sale were safe.  Certain foods are required to be processed in particular ways in order to be considered safe for sale.  Prior to these regulatory boards there was no standard of safety for products that were sold for human consumption, and people could make any kind of claims they wanted.  As frustrating as I sometimes find them as an herbalist, I recognize their work as necessary and important.  Without these boards, disasters like suicides caused by improper application of SSRIs, and like birth defects caused by thalidomide, would be everyday occurrences.  Recently, poisoning in pet foods caused renal failure in thousands of cats and dogs because we do not apply FDA standards to pet food.

Professional Licensing

We require professions that have significant impact on human lives to have licensing systems; such as lawyers, or doctors.  We require police forces to serve a public trust rather than any private individual or company.  We only allow companies with a certain amount of capital to set up chartered banks.  All of these restrictions are, nominally, to protect the public; and to a large degree they do.

Restrictions on Trade

There are rules about what sorts of products may be sold and under what conditions.  Businesses that sell faulty products are required to refund the customer’s money.  Businesses that sell dangerous products are legally responsible for those products.  Countries and even states and provinces restrict what can be imported across their borders and often assign tariffs and taxes to protect their local industries.  We do not permit the open buying of votes or narcotics.  Even the underregulated stock market, whose lax rules led directly to the 2008 financial meltdown, has restrictions on who can trade and how.

Even in normal times, interest rates are set by a central bank, which restricts what people are allowed to charge others for the privilege of borrowing money; and after the 2008 crisis, interest rates plummeted because of a political decision to build up the economy and increase investment by lowering interest rates.  One of the enshrined champions of “free market economies,” George W. Bush, used $700 billion taxpayer dollars to buy up assets that were choking the economy; one of the biggest financial interventions by the State in history.

As Chang says himself:

We see a regulation when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it.  The nineteenth-century high-tariff restriction on free trade by the US federal government outraged slave-owners, who at the same time saw nothing wrong with trading people in a free market.  To those who believed that people can be owned, banning trade in slaves was objectionable in the same way as restricting trade in manufactured goods.”

So, what restrictions should we impose on the market?  Should we favour the wealthy, or the common human being?  Should we do what is in the best interests of a lucky few, or what is in the best interests of everyone else?  It’s up to us, but only if we demand the right to make the choice.

Grève générale: Work, Resistance, and Violence in France

“I have so many places I want to take you,” she said to me, pointing to her gas meter. “But I’ve only got 200km worth of gas left in my tank, and all the gas stations are closed today.”

We were traveling through southern France with an old friend of mine who lives in Perpignan, who once spent a summer living with me in Brooklyn while she interned at a production company in Manhattan. During that summer, I helped to introduce her to the best of what New York had to offer, and ten years later she was returning the favor, driving us around to show us the beauty of the land where she was born and raised.

Luckily there was enough gas to get to Collioure…

“As you know, the trains are down,” she continued. “The power plants were also shut down yesterday. I don’t know how long the strikes will continue, but I just hope the gas stations open up soon.”

It wasn’t just her words, but the casual and accepting nature in which she said them, which really drove it home for me how accustomed and accepting the French tend to be towards general strikes, or as the French say, la grève générale. Her words came out in a combination of frustration, amusement, and resignation, and while she spoke I couldn’t help but imagine how the average person in the United States would react if they couldn’t access any gas stations for a day or more.

Over the past four months, France has exploded in a series of strikes and violent protests over the proposed labor reform law, or Loi travail, that President François Hollande‘s Socialist government is trying to pass.

And while the strikes have been covered somewhat by the French media, overall the international coverage of these events–especially in the United States–has been sorely lacking to the point where many are referring to it as a ‘media blackout’. Alternative international media outlets such as teleSUR, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and RT have been reporting on the violence, but even those outlets have almost solely focused on the protests themselves, rather than on an accurate understanding of the issues and history behind these strikes.

For the past month, Rhyd Wildermuth and I have traveled throughout both southern and northern France, spending several days at a time in four separate French cities. Throughout our travels, I have been witnessing and educating myself as to both what is occurring in France and why it is occurring. What I have learned and observed about these complex events is as follows:

The History:

France is no stranger to general strikes, in stark contrast to the United States which saw its last significant general strike in 1946. And unlike American workers, who often work multiple jobs for long hours for low pay and few protections, French workers enjoy a long list of labor rights:

  •  a 35-hour work week before 25% overtime kicks in,
  • a mandated 10-hour maximum workday with breaks ever 4.5 hours,
  • 2.5 days of paid leave per month worked (which adds up to five weeks of paid leave per year),
  • eleven paid public holidays per year,
  • sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave per child,
  • strict protections from being fired without just cause,
  • and generous severance payments if one is laid off due to their job becoming obsolete.

These rights are a direct result of both the historic and current willingness of the French to fight, often violently and in defiance of the law, for protections that they consider to be an integral part of their way of life.

The modern-day workers’ rights moment in France initiated with a series of general strikes in 1936.  These involved more than a million workers, and led to an agreement known as the ‘Matignon Agreements’. These agreements guaranteed French workers the legal right to strike, a 40-hour mandated work week before overtime, two weeks’ paid vacation and the right to collectively bargain.

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The second round of workers’ rights that the French enjoy today were won in the midst of the May 1968 crisis. Known as the ‘Grenelle agreements’, out of the civil unrest came a 34-hour work week (down from 40), the establishment of trade unions within every industry in France, and protections that prevented workers from being fired without just cause.

Since the ’68 unrest, the workweek had been briefly raised to 39 hours and then dropped again to 35, where it remains today. In 1995, proposed work reforms initiated by newly-elected right wing President Jacques Chirac, which included restricting the right to retire at age 55, were met with general strikes  involving more than 6 million strike days (calculated by the number of days that each worker struck).

As a result, the proposed reforms were retracted. In 2006, President Chirac’s government attempted to pass an ’employment contract’ law which would have allowed employers to easily fire workers without reason within the first two years of their employment, but the proposed law was again rescinded in the face of massive protests.

A year later, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to reduce retirement benefits for public employees engaged in hazardous professions, and was again met with massive protests. And once again, the proposal was rescinded. Since then, France’s code du travail has remained strong and secure until early this year.

The Current Controversy:

The new labor reform law, introduced in February and dubbed the “El Khomri law” after French labor minister Myriam El Khomri, aims to do away with many worker rights including reducing overtime for those who work more than 35 hours a week, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire workers without just cause. These changes were proposed with the intention of reducing public spending, reducing unemployment, and making France’s labor market more flexible.

The law was met with strong public opposition, starting with the “Nuit debout” movement. Nuit debout, which has been compared to both Occupy and the Indignados movement of Spain, began in March and has quickly spread to over thirty cities in France. Not only is the anger over the law itself, but unlike the attempted reforms of the Chirac and Sarkozy governments, which were right-wing, the fact that the left-wing Socialist party has proposed these reforms is seen as a harsh betrayal.

“Our dreams do not fit in their ballot boxes” – Nuit debout poster in Rennes.

Paris’ ‘Place de la Republique’ was occupied by thousands of Nuit debout supporters for twelve days straight, and the movement received a high level of public support.

A month later, after facing opposition from several MPs French Prime Minister Manuel Valls decided to push the labor reform law through the lower house of the Parliament without a vote, using a rare provision in the French Constitution to bypass the normal democratic route.

In response, France has exploded in protest, with a coordinated shutdown of public industries that has continued for several months now.

The Players:

The majority of the strikes in France are being coordinated by the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which is one of five major trade union confederations in France and arguably the most powerful. The country’s largest trade union confederacy in terms of voting power and the second-largest in terms of membership, the CGT has been integral in securing workers’ rights in France for nearly a century, having brokered both the reforms of  ’36 and ’68 and playing a significant role in every general strike since then. The CGT openly supported Hollande during the last election and encouraged members to vote for Hollande, so the feelings of betrayal are particularly strong amongst the CGT membership.

img_2023Other trade union confederations involved in and/or supporting the strikes include SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques), CFTC ( Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), and FO (Force Ouvrière), while the more moderate CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) is mostly in support of the proposed labor reforms.

Over the past few months, these strikes have shut down several major industries throughout France, some for several days at a time. In the time that Rhyd and I have been traveling through France, there have been rolling strikes involving the national railway system (SNCF), the local metro in Paris, several bus systems, air traffic controllers in several cities including Paris and Marseilles, gas stations, and nuclear electric plants.

The largest concentration of strikes had been announced for June 14th, in part with the intention of disrupting the Euro 2016 football tournament that is taking place throughout several cities in France, set to attract upwards of three million tourists. img_2049

June 14th was also the date that the upper house of Parliament was set to start deliberations on the proposed reforms.

Among those who announced they will strike were the following industries:

  • Transport, including buses, taxis, national railways, air traffic controllers, and maritime workers;
  • Public service workers, including those working in libraries, post offices, sanitation, and non-emergency fire department and healthcare workers;
  • Private sector workers, including those working in banks, hotels, private transportation, media, fashion, and the mail-order industry;
  • Educational workers, including those working in preschool through high school.

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On the Ground: Arles, May 23-26:

Upon our arrival in Arles, signs of resistance and organizing around the general strikes were immediately evident. Nearly everywhere we looked, posters hung on billboards, street poles, and mail boxes, both expressing anger at the Loi travail as a whole as well as specific calls for demonstrations on set dates. Both gatherings organized by the Nuit debout movement as well as protests organized by smaller, local groups were occurring in Arles on a near-daily basis. img_2026

Even more prevalent than the posters were countless stickers, plastered everywhere one could imagine, ranging from those from trade unions to much more explicitly leftist and anarchist propaganda.

Walking around Arles, which is a rather quiet, sleepy, Medieval-era town best known as the later residence of Vincent van Gogh and the subject of many of his later paintings, one could constantly hear both residents and tourists discussing the shutdowns and the protests that were occurring both in Arles and throughout France.

Every word I heard from the locals was in opposition to the Loi travail and in support of the uprisings, with one woman ironically remarking that although she supported the strikes, she hoped the transit issues would be resolved in time for her upcoming month-long vacation.

The buses and trains both went on strike on two consecutive days while we were there, but altogether the effects they had on travel were minor.

Perpignan, May 27- May 30:

Unlike Arles, Perpignan is much more of an urban center, a city of just over 100,000 residents which serves as the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales region of southern France. Perpignan has a reputation for being a right-wing town with a significant National Front presence, but when we arrived the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout was much more prevalent and obvious than any right-wing elements.

On our second day in Perpignan, I stepped off the bus in the centre-ville and literally walked right into a CGT rally taking place in one of the major town squares. The square was filled with various tents which were distributing industry-specific information about the Loi travail and the various forms of resistance against it. In one corner was a stage with a band playing, catty-corner to the stage was a tent serving beer and sandwiches for only 2€ each, and the atmosphere was unusually light-hearted and festive considering that there were several transit-related strikes taking place that very day.

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Further down the main boulevard in Perpignan that same afternoon, several Nuit debout folks were flyering in support of the latest round of strikes while also handing out information about their weekly meetings. A few blocks away, several punk-looking activists were rather covertly using what appeared to be wheat or rice paste to affix Nuit debout posters to any and all available surfaces. Nearly everyone who walked by them voiced their support for their presence on the street and/or the strike in general, with several folks erupting in chants as they walked by.img_2070

Toulouse, May 31 – June 2:

While physical organizing and leftist presence was more evident in Perpignan, the expressive side of the recent uprisings was much more evident in Toulouse, which lies approximately two hours northwest of Perpignan and is a major city with a population of over a million residents. Instead of the resistance being dominated by the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout, the resistance in Toulouse was much more a product of the people themselves.

Block after block throughout the city was covered in posters, graffiti, and stickers. One could not look in any direction without coming across an uncountable number of messages, both printed and scrawled by hand, not only protesting the labor reforms but announcing daily meetings as well as the nationwide strikes planned for June 14th.

At the same time, the city was gearing up for its role as one of the hosts of the Euro2016 tournament, which the strikes were set to interrupt, and the tension between police and activists was evident.

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Rennes, June 3 – June 13:

Despite the wide variety of people, protest, and propaganda that we had observed and witnessed in the previous three cities, nothing had quite prepared us for Rennes.

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A play on words, celebrating the ongoing property destruction

Unlike the previous cities we had visited, Rennes is in the north, in the heart of Bretagne, where hostility towards French authority has both simmered and exploded for hundreds of years. Rennes is a distinctly Leftist and anarchist city, with a deeply-rooted Breton independence movement, and  many of the residents here are quick to tell outsiders that “Bretagne is not France”.

The Breton language, though endangered, is still spoken in Rennes, and over the past few decades a concerted effort has been made to revive the Breton language, much to the chagrin of the French government.img_1488 Dual-language schools are common in Rennes, and many of the street signs and informational placards are in both French and Breton.

And those dual-language signs were pretty much the only surfaces in town that were spared, and the messages went far beyond protesting the Loi travail. Nearly every square inch of space was covered in protest signs, anti-police and anti-capitalist stickers and graffiti, posters and flyers and every type of leftist propaganda imaginable. It was obvious that in Rennes, the anger is not just aimed at Loi travail, but at capitalism itself.

There was also an pervasive element in Rennes that we had not seen in force in any of the other cities we had traveled to – the presence of the federal police, or gendarmerie. We had seen a few in Toulouse due to the upcoming Euro2016 games, but the gendarmerie presence in Rennes was much more prevalent, despite the fact that Toulouse is a much larger city in Rennes.

But their presence was not without reason. For in Rennes, nearly every single bank in town has been smashed.

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Later on, we learned from our host that violence has been breaking out in the city on a near-daily basis, with leftists and anarchists clashing with police throughout the centre-ville. Protests and demonstrations have been banned on account of the violence, but that does not deter the leftists. They are out daily, in force, facing police violence, withstanding clubs and pepper-spray, and many end up in the emergency room. And yet the next day, they are out again.

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“For the end of the military occupation of Saint Anne Square and the re-enchantment of place”

In Rennes, the anarchists not only have taken over several public squares, but when the federal police drive them out, they protest such actions with a call for a ‘re-enchantment of place’. Messages of love and inspiration jump out from every wall, every signpost, every street corner, every bathroom door. It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who pays attention that the folks here fight not just out of anger, not just against the Loi travail, but because they truly believe that another world is possible.

And while the gendarmerie may be out in full force, it’s obvious that they do not hold the true power in this city, especially in the hearts and minds of the citizens here, whether leftist or not. Based on the comments, gestures, and facial expressions of the citizens, utter disdain for the presence of the gendarmerie is nearly unanimous, regardless of age or social class. They may be feared by some, but they are not respected by most.

Unable to contain the resistance and violence in Rennes, protests and demonstrations have been banned until further notice, a ban which included the annual Gay Pride festivities on the first weekend in June. But even such a drastic step had next to no effect. Despite the prohibition, folks came out for Gay Pride, and amongst the most visible presences at the festival were the trade union confederations, even the one that is not participating in the general strikes. Hundreds of people, gay and straight alike, attended the festivities despite the ban and without fear or hesitation.

They danced and celebrated in joy and merriment, and the gendarmerie simply stood back and allow it to occur, knowing full well that to try to break it up would only result in violence and further demonstrations. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the gendarmerie, it was obvious that while they had the arms and the weapons, they knew full well who actually held the power.

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CGT representatives at Gay Pride in Rennes

 Grève générale: Rennes, June 14:

Despite the numerous pleas and attempted actions on the part of the French government to avoid a nationwide strike on June 14th, the trade union confederations held their ground and made it clear that they would not back down. And as promised, on the morning of the 14th, as the Senate started to deliberate the provisions of the Loi travail, striking workers held demonstrations throughout every major city in France.

When I woke up the morning of the 14th in Rennes, and the first thing I found in my email box was an email from the US Embassy, advising me to stay away from all protests and demonstrations related to the general strikes. I laughed and headed downtown to the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which had been renamed the ‘Place du Peuple‘ bu the Nuit debout movement, where the strikers were set to gather at 11am.

When I arrived at the plaza, I saw that police had fenced off the entire exterior of the plaza. I laughed again, knowing from what I witnessed at Gay Pride the week before that such an action would have absolutely no effect.

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Pointing inside the fenced-off ‘Place du Peuple’

And the fences sure didn’t stop them; they simply took the streets instead. For over four hours, strikers and their supporters marched throughout the city by the thousands, back and forth, over and over, occasionally stopping for breaks and then starting right up again. For a town with a population of just over 200,000 people, and despite everything I had seen up to that point, the sheer size of the manifestation left me in utter shock. img_2283

As I marched and took photos and at times simply stood there staring in amazement, I constantly checked my phone for updates from the rest of the country. And what I was witnessing in Rennes was being echoed all throughout France. Flights were cancelled nationwide as both pilots and air traffic controllers went on strike. Buses and trains throughout the country were stopped in their tracks. In Paris, taxi drivers blocked the streets and the Eiffel Tower was even closed for the day. Violence between police and protesters also erupted in Paris, although in Rennes the police merely stood by and blocked off roads leading to the old city as strikers marched down the main drags.

And as opposed to America, where even temporary blockages of highways often result in anger and threats from commuters, those who were inconvenienced in Rennes that day were overall extremely supportive despite the fact that they were sitting in cars or buses for long periods of time while protestors took to the streets. Commuters on buses waved, folks in cars honked their support, and only a very few expressed any sort of anger or grievance at the strikers. It was widely understood that the temporary inconvenience that commuters were experiencing was an acceptable sacrifice in the name of what the strikers were fighting for.

Work and the Way of Life:

“Now, when we check out, look at the cashier, and tell me what you notice, what’s different,” Rhyd said to me as we shopped for groceries at a Carrefour market in Arles. “When you figure it out, its going to blow your mind.”

It was only my second full day in France, but already I was blown away by the various differences between the French way of life and what I was accustomed to in America. Checking out our groceries, I closely studied the cashier, a young woman with what I perceived as an unusually pleasant demeanor for someone working in a grocery store. And perhaps it was my tendency to concentrate on the small details instead of the obvious, and perhaps it was still being distracted and overwhelmed by the food I was surrounded by, but when we exited the store I still had not caught on to whatever it was that Rhyd was trying to get me to notice.

“I think I missed it,” I said as we walked out. “Unless it was the super-cheap flasks of nice liquor hanging behind the cashier’s head.”

And then as I turned back to glance again, I noticed it at the exact moment that the words came out of his mouth.

“They’re sitting,” he said with a wicked grin on his face. “Retail cashiers in France are all allowed to sit.”

I stared back into the store in shock, overwhelmed with disbelief and anger all the same as I noticed the comfy, padded chair that the woman who checked us out was sitting in. Immediately I thought of the long hours on their feet that Americans in the retail industry are forced to endure, hours that often lead to chronic pain, sciatica, and irreversible foot and ankle damage. And then I thought of my own circumstances, as someone who is unable to work retail jobs due to chronic pain and sciatica, and who lives in poverty partly as a result. I looked back at the cashier, realizing that I could actually work that kind of job in the United States if I was allowed to sit, and immediately felt a rush of anger rise up inside me.

And over the next few weeks, I went into countless grocery stores and other retail outlets, and found the same – nearly everyone I saw behind a cash register was sitting down. Not only are they sitting down, but ringing up your groceries is all they do. They do not even attempt to empty your basket onto the conveyor belt for you. That’s your job. They also do not even attempt to bag your groceries for you. That’s also your job. They sit, they ring up what you buy, and they make at least €9,67 an hour doing it, or around $10.92 in American dollars, in addition to all of the benefits that I elaborated on earlier in this article.

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At one point, while checking out at a Carrefour in Rennes, I got into a short conversation with the cashier, who spoke a decent amount of English. When she asked me what I thought of French grocery stores, I mentioned to her that in the United States, all retail cashiers must stand, and she looked at me like I had two heads.

“That’s inhumane,” she said to me in disbelief. “That’s torture.”

“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.

The fact that she referred to the fact that American retail workers must stand as “torture” carried an additionally weighted meaning to me, as I mulled on the starkly different cultural attitudes that the French and Americans hold about work.

In America, work is fetishized to the point where Presidential hopefuls stress the need to work longer hours as a benchmark of their campaigns. In contrast with France, where ever single bank in Rennes has had its windows smashed in protest of the labor reforms, American citizens and politicians alike often express little support for even the slightest of work reform such as an increase in the minimum wage. The United States is only one of two nations in the entire world that does not federally mandate paid maternity leave, and although polls show that a majority of citizens support paid maternity leave, far too many also support politicians  who oppose such reforms.

One could ponder various arguments as to why these differences are so prominent. For example, the United States, as a nation that was stolen and settled by Pilgrims and other Protestant-derived factions, has embraced the Calvinist ideology around the virtue of work since its earliest days. France, on the other hand, had a long history of intolerance towards and forced expulsions of Calvinist Protestants. And while the Huguenots were eventually granted equal rights as citizens after the French Revolution, France has been much more significantly shaped by culturally Catholic attitudes than Calvinist ideology throughout its history.

These differing histories are reflected in the cultural attitudes that define the two nations. America’s most famous (and most insidious) ideology, known as the ‘American Dream’, not only stresses the importance of work but falsely promises success to anyone who works hard enough. France, on the other hand, is a culture that has always put great value in ‘la belle vie‘, the good life, and has a long history of valuing health and happiness over the supposed merits of working oneself to the bone. French culture emphasizes the need for rest, relaxation and self-care, to the point that running one’s lawn mower on a Sunday is a violation of municipal codes in many cities, as the loud noise is considered to be disruptive to those who wish to rest and take it easy.

But while those points are significant and valid, perhaps an aspect of how such differences are shaped is as simple as the power of words themselves, specifically the power which is held and reflected in the etymological meaning of the word ‘work’ as it is expressed in the French language as opposed to English.

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The English word ‘work’ comes from the Old English weorc, meaning ‘something done’, which itself comes from the Germanic word werkan, which derives from the Indo-European root werg, meaning ‘to do’.

In French, however, the word travail derives from the Medieval Latin word trepalium, meaning ‘instrument of torture’, which itself derives from the Old Latin words tres and palus, meaning ‘three stakes’.

Let me repeat that again for effect: the term ‘work’ in French literally means an instrument of torture. And in a civilized society, nobody would dare consider torture to be a virtue.

The cashier at Carrefour was absolutely correct when she characterized standing for hours at a time for no reason as ‘torture’, but its a form of torture that most American workers accept without much thought or question.

One thing that is quite apparent after spending nearly a month in France is that French workers are not nearly as miserable as American workers are, and most don’t seem miserable at all. They do not hate their jobs as Americans do, regardless of profession. The smiles that one sees on their faces are not forced. Their kindness and courtesy is not an act. They are truly happy to help you and to serve you. They do their job with pride and they do their jobs well. Even the employees at McDonalds carry themselves with a level of pride and satisfaction that I have never seen amongst fast-food workers in the United States.

The attitudes of workers in France is a strong testament to the belief that if you treat workers well, if they make enough to not only survive but thrive, and if they are given ample time off and have the opportunity for regular leisure time with friends and family, they are simply better workers. And when the workers are happy, the customers are happy too. Everyone wins.

Closing Observations: La belle lutte

“So we call these things demonstrations, right?…Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down industry. They used to be like, this is a bunch of people on the street. It’s only a demonstration, it’s not the actual thing that we’re gonna do. It’s just the threat. But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, it was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that’s what you had to do. …All you have to do is get in the streets, and we’ll shame the people in power.”Boots Riley

The ‘spectacle’ that Riley refers to in the quote originated with the tactics of the New Left in the United States, born out of a fusion between the politics of the Frankfurt School and the various American hippie movements of the ’60s and ’70s. One can fairly argue (and many have) that despite their good intentions, the New Left abandoned and/or destroyed any remaining shred of effective and militant radicalism in the United States, at least in terms of the strategies and actions of college-educated white folks whose ideologies and actions have historically drowned out those of marginalized peoples.

This shift arguably set the stage for the loss of power on the part of the Left and the severe shift to the Right that the American political spectrum has undergone in the last four decades. The idea that citizens can simply shame the people in power is still a dominant ideology in both liberal and radical circles, and despite the complete and utter ineffectiveness of such a strategy, such strategies are still undertaken and lauded as though they actually produce results.

The New Left in Europe, on the other hand, birthed the May ’68 uprisings in France in addition to many other uprisings across Europe and set the tone for the philosophies and tactics that are still being successfully staged here in the present day. The rallying cries of the Situationist Internation set the stage for a movement that nearly toppled the French government, and its reverberations were not only never forgotten, but consistently built upon while never losing their militant edge. The Situationists utilized spectacle as well, but did so in addition, not as a replacement for general strikes and violent confrontations. In short, they never forgot the true intent of the demonstration.

In observing what is present and effective here in France, one also notices what is absent, especially in contrast to how citizens attempt to both institute and fight proposed reforms in the United States. Amidst all the waves of general strikes throughout France, the marches, the protests, the graffiti, the rallies, the acts of property destruction against banks, there are two things that are notable absent: lobbying and petitionsimg_2071 The idea that one can enact change within the system, which is still the dominant strategy of the American ‘left’, is not only all but absent in France but truly laughable as far as the workers and strikers here are concerned.

While Americans sign petitions protesting the Wall Street bailouts, the French simply smash the banks. While Americans bemoan the ever-increasing decimation of unions in their country, the French trade union confederations are arguably the most powerful political force in the country. And while a good percentage of the American public is still convinced that they can vote their way out of the effects of late-stage capitalism, the French know that the only way to enact true change is to take it into their own hands.

For the French, it’s a fight to the end, and a violent fight at that. But their own history clearly demonstrates that only by fighting will they succeed, only by fighting will they retain what they have successful fought for in the past, and those rights are so deeply cherished that they will most likely keep shutting down industry until the government once again cedes to their demands.

Its a fight, but as many are quick to point out here, its ‘the good fight’, that will hopefully result in protecting and retaining a way of life that Americans could only dream of.

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An extensive collection of photos from the June 14th strikes can be found here.

Alley Valkyrie

alley-valkyrieAlley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living on occupied Chinook territory in a city popularly known as Portland, Oregon. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals, and has been interacting with a various collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years. When she’s not fighting Capitalism, Alley works with homeless folks, creates an assortment of art and pottery, and writes for The Wild Hunt.


Alley Valkyrie is one of the many writers featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. The digital edition is also on sale now.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.

We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.

We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!

We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.

We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.

We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.

Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.

I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.

Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.

View all my reviews

Free Against Hope

Lately, I’ve recalled a conversation a friend of mine had with me several years ago, back in Texas. He wondered why I even bothered studying Marxism – “do you really think,” he inquired, “that there will ever actually be a revolution in America? I’d call that a pipe dream.

Looking over a few of my personal political heroes, I’ve weighed his question. After all, their experiences seem to share one particular theme. See if you can spot it:

Each movement created ideas and techniques full of potency and beauty. Each one generated plenty of experiments and concepts from which today’s radicals could learn much. And each one failed, liquidated by hostile forces, their goals still unrealized decades later. Historically speaking, even the cleverest and most effective revolutionary movements stand an overwhelming chance of destruction, not success. Sure, it’s prudent and useful to keep hold of some revolutionary optimism. And unlike my friend, I do believe that there can, eventually, be a successful fundamental restructuring of politics, economy, and society. However, it stays true radicals in the West, by and large, end their lives frustrated or worse. Further, those who do make it to power often find (as did Prime Minister Tsipras and President Mitterand) that winning the political game doesn’t always mean you get to change the rules.

So, one might ask, what’s the point? Is Leftism merely quixotic, just defiance for its own sake? Why should we do what we do?


 

 

 

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Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle, tapestry, Jacob Jordaens and Jon Raes, ca. 1625. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 68.23.

Why did Achilles fight at Troy?

After all, he didn’t expect to capture the city. He knew, thanks to the Pythia’s prophecy, that signing up for that war meant that he’d die in the field before Troy fell. Obviously, that meant he didn’t fight for personal material gain either; what good does a casualty get from plunder? And, of course, he wasn’t trying to contribute to the maintenance of his family or kingdom. If he wanted that, he would have chosen the long and unremarkable life the oracle offered. Few families celebrate a member’s death in combat overseas, or their committing to join a campaign that (according to a respected diviner) was guaranteed to last nearly a decade.

Did he fight for honor, glory, and fame? Sure – but that only bumps the question back one degree, like the monotheistic child who asks “if God made the world, who made God?” Why did Achilles find honor, glory, and fame worth more than his life? What made them so profound that Achilles not only relinquished his chance at survival, but also let go hope of participating in an Achaian victory?

Let’s begin from the problem of Achilles’ motivations and find out what, if any, ethical framework we can extrapolate. Ethics, after all, only means figuring out what to do and why. And, we’ll see, the implicit ethics that Achilles exemplifies also turns out to be quite relevant when revolutionary work faces likely failure.

Traditionally, formal ethics contains three main camps: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Roughly, each category proposes a different primary criterion for rightness and wrongness. For consequentialists, the likely results of an act – the consequences – determine its morality. Deontological ethicists, however, say that what counts is the act itself: regardless of consequences, some actions are inherently right and others are intrinsically wrong. Finally, virtue ethicists prioritize the character of the person involved. According to them, ethics means making yourself into someone who exemplifies goodness.

In general, the Left embraces consequentialism. Marxists, anarchists, and reformist socialists all tend to agree that the currently-existing government and economy cause quite a bit of harm. Marxists and reformists also usually believe that they need to respond by engaging with government. Reformists say running for office works best, while Marxists disagree and typically support outright replacing the existing state instead. Anarchists mostly reject working with any state at all, but generally do concede that some degree of social disruption (either violent insurrection or mass nonviolent resistance) will be necessary for any future solution. Few anarchists consider either inflicting or risking violence to be intrinsically morally good, any more than Marxists and reformists consider the existence of governments in general to be. But, in the end, all understand that bringing about needed change to reduce harm doesn’t mean causing literally zero harm in the process. It means selecting the option that offers the least extra harm and the most potential benefit. Even though these different segments of the Left frequently dispute which path, exactly, fits that description, they still typically share a basic moral landscape.

Admittedly, one can also find deontological and virtue ethical undercurrents. In particular, proponents of nonviolence often argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and should not be accepted as a revolutionary tactic. (Typically, they express more comfort with property damage, maintaining the distinction between things and people). Additionally, certain branches of Marxism-Leninism place great weight on the habits of character their adherents cultivate. Nevertheless, in the end, even revolutionary pacifists generally end up framing their position in consequentialist terms: “nonviolence works better,”not “killing is always wrong.” Similarly, even the more character-focused communists ultimately concur that their ethics are only virtue-based inasmuch as they provide helpful rules of thumb in the pursuit of larger, consequentialist goals.

Achilles does, of course, accept the defined goal of the Achaian campaign. He and his comrades fight the Trojans because without conquering Troy, they can’t punish Paris and make Helen come back to Menelaus. But is Achilles expressing a consequentialist’s reasoning that he ought to do whatever will most likely accomplish his stated aim with the least trouble?


 

 

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Dispute Between Achilles and Agamemnon, etching from the workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710.

The philosopher who established Marxist Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, affirmed that the relationship each of us has with the world and everyone else rests, in the end, on choice. Whatever external circumstances exist, the way a person responds to them is the way they choose to respond to them. (As Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, observes, even when there’s no external freedom, no one can remove your control over your internal reactions and values.) In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre reveals that everyone’s orientation towards the world results from their choice to adopt a particular set of values. To deny this absolute existential freedom, he points out, is just self-deception. Whether we admit it or not, we are all already making those decisions. (Indeed, the idea that you don’t choose your own worldview is, in fact, an example of a worldview that you only believe if you choose it!)

Achilles fights on the field of Ilion, but when Agamemnon insults him and refuses to make amends, Achilles goes on strike. He knows that without him, the Achaians will flounder – in fact, he asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to persuade Zeus to make sure of it! Now, in each case – deciding to fight, and deciding to withdraw – does Achilles live out the same values?

As Sartre observes, we don’t get to pick either the circumstances of our births or the psychological tendencies in our brains. However, we do decide how to react to our circumstances, and whether or not we go along with our mental predisposition. In the end, everyone carries absolute responsibility for the kind of person they elect to become. “Existence,” he writes, “precedes essence.” You aren’t born with an essence, a basic nature. You’re born simply existing, carrying the existential reality of your freedom. Your only “essence,” you create through each choice you make.

(Sartre was an atheist, and characterized his intention as “to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.” However, even those of us who aren’t atheopagans – for instance, I’m a devotional polytheist – needn’t find any inconsistency there. Accepting many gods of limited scope no more resembles the monotheist theology of omnipotence that Sartre rejects than does Sartre’s own worldview.)

Achilles has chosen to be a person who cultivates personal honor and heroism in combat. To be sure, he wants recognition, but that stays secondary. This is no Sir Robin, who cares so much about his reputation that he won’t go anywhere without poets to compliment him! For Achilles, in the deed, the glory. He doesn’t fight to win (because he knows he’ll die before the war ends). He doesn’t fight for the admiration of his peers (withdrawing from combat would win few popularity contests!). While he certainly cherishes other things too (for instance, his boyfriend Patroklos), honor and heroism always top his list of priorities. He makes his first two major choices – going to war and withdrawing to his ships – because they express the kind of person he chooses to be.

He disdains deontological concerns. If not for the personal slight from Agamemnon, withdrawal would have been cowardly. After the insult, it became honorable; neither fighting nor not fighting is intrinsically right. Further, he eschews consequentialism, except as a subordinate approach. He never renounces the stated Achaian goal of conquering Troy, and overall his actions during the near-decade of siege reflect his military commitment. But when he does withdraw, he goes out of his way to make sure it hurts his comrades: he enlists Zeus himself to ensure it!

In short, Achilles embraces his existential freedom by selecting his values. Then, he implements them in a kind of virtue ethics.


 

 

“[It] is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hour by hour resolve firmly to do what comes to hand with dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.”

-Marcus Aurelius

I find hints of Existentialism perhaps the ancient Mediterranean’s most popular formulation of virtue ethics: Stoicism.

According to the Stoics, the trick to eudaimonia (“good spirits,” a state of contentment, well-being, and general flourishing and thriving) lies in human nature. They taught that the basic nature of humans involved the application of logos. This uniquely and universally human capacity lets us examine our lives and choices, understand them, and – most importantly – choose to live virtuously, free and content, “unmoved by blame or by praise.” To the person living in eudaimonia, only virtue matters, no matter what anyone else says or does. In the words of the former slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus:

“This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!”

The greatest possible good consists of living in a way that properly expresses one’s nature as a human. But, contrary to modern understandings, “human nature” doesn’t automatically express itself, and it certainly isn’t shorthand for people’s inevitable shortcomings! Rather, as Epictetus proclaims, unvirtuous behavior makes one less authentically human. Human nature is available to everyone, but realized only by those who acknowledge that they are free to become whatever they choose to be (and then choose to be ethical). As Heathens say, whatever happens, we are our deeds.

Achilles tacitly accepts this assessment of his condition, although his understanding of “right values” differs quite a bit from the Stoics’ (or, for that matter, the communist Sartre’s). The oracle of Apollon presents him with foreknowledge of the outcomes of his two options. He selects the more painful one. The privations of war, absence from his home, and loss of longevity matter less to him than embodying the values he has decided to make his own. And, for someone who accepts their freedom and creates an “essence” out of their values, even bodily death can’t negate their virtue.

Like Achilles, we have moral and existential freedom. Like Achilles, we have to decide how to engage with a brutal war, the end of which we can’t expect to witness. How will we choose? What values will we embody?


 

 

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The Fight of Achilles Against Scamander and Simoeis, painting by Auguste Couder, 1825. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 15307.

I believe we should answer the Existentialist challenge by creating a revolutionary virtue ethics.

Gods or not, we are free. Whether or not we admit it, we all choose the values that we enact. As revolutionaries, we certainly ought not select the specific values of Achilles – his honor has too much toxic masculinity and too much of the absolute subordination of women to emulate, especially given the patriarchal dynamics of the activist scene. However, his existential courage should inspire us to live our own values of cooperation, community, and compassion alongside liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Of course, the current Leftist preoccupation with consequentialism does offer benefits we should retain. In particular, we ought to imagine our preferred endgame around “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and our activities require all the strategic and tactical thinking we can muster. Individually, none of us can expect to experience victory, but collectively, we must take risks and make decisions with that goal in mind.

However, that needs to remain secondary. Winning isn’t certain, and statistically, whatever movement does eventually make revolution in the West probably doesn’t exist yet. Nevertheless, we participate in the work because it reflects the values we’ve chosen – and to understand those values properly, we shouldn’t cling to the hope of emerging triumphant. Act rightly because our most authentic human nature demands that we choose to do so. Organize because the horrors that oppression and exploitation create mean that anything short of opposition makes us complicit.

Like Achilles, we find ourselves facing a nearly-indestructible enemy. Like Achilles, we can expect our lives to end before the siege does. Our Troys are white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire. Our war has lasted quite a bit longer than nine years, and will continue for many years yet. But, our existential reality is the same as his, and the same as the Stoics’, and the same as Jean-Paul Sartre’s.

Our only essence is the values we choose to express. Each of us is the kind of person that our choices create. Outcomes aside, that’s inescapably real.


 

 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other.”

-Assata Shakur

Our duty is to make ourselves into the sort of people who fight for universal freedom, and the sort of people who pick their goals, consequentialistically, in order to win. But ensuring the highest possible chance of victory doesn’t mean expecting to experience it firsthand – let alone fighting because we want to individually see the future we envision.

Rather, let’s be revolutionaries because it is right. Let’s let our revolutionary virtue ethics proclaim that it is human nature manifested to “tremble with indignation at every injustice.” In the end, rightness doesn’t come from success (although anything short of wholehearted striving for success would surely compromise our rightness). Whether it ends in victory, tragedy, or anticlimax, virtue justifies itself.

Achilles knew this deeply enough to accept his death for the sake of it. Let’s make our choice, and embrace it too.

 

 


Sophia Burns

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

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

The Original Sacred

A few days before Beltane I walked the long ridge to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. It snowed that day, winter clashing with spring around me. It was a liminal time in an ancient sacred space. As I walked along stone carved deep by glaciers with the sea roaring below, the land spoke to me of the past and a beginning. It was a lesson about the sacred and the profane that I will do my best to share with you.

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All pictures are from Acadia State Park and are taken by my husband.

When we talk of the “sacred” and “profane” we use them fundamentally as concepts of boundaries and limits. “Profane” means, literally, outside “pro” the “fanum” or temple. The “sacred” is tied into words for agreements and treaties, but also an ambiguous sense of being set aside or outside in the sense of being taboo or even cursed. Focusing on both taboo and treaty, it is clear that the term “sacred” is unavoidably tied to a negotiating of borders. With only these words as our guide we envision a world made of two types of spaces. There is the temple, the sacred precinct, like a small circle of light and there is the vast expanse of the profane that dominates the rest of existence. Surely most things are outside the temple.

The Great Wild

20160425_132408But the mountain, the stone, and the deep churning sea spoke to me of a time before the sacred and profane were measured on a human scale. They showed a story of how this human scale came to be.

The Sacred is not the sane. The Sacred is not the safe. The Sacred is not the tame. Once the wild world was the Sacred, rising around humanity in overpowering movement and blossom. Beautiful and horrifying, deadly and seductive, the Sacred surrounded us and when we were animals amongst animals we too were Sacred. The first pre-cinct, the first circle-girded space, was the first profane in which humanity set itself off in a small space, perhaps of firelight, amidst the Sacred. All was the fanum, the Temple, save our small space of temporary safety. When the world was Sacred and we were of the world we were as “water in water”, to steal an image and phrase from Georges Bataille, but when we set ourselves off we were as nothing before the mighty Other.

There were millennium during which the stars spun and wheeled in the sky and we looked upon them amazed and bewildered – terrified and desperately hopeful. There were years that dwarf all we know of history during which we sat by the fire and faced into the darkness, what lust and anxiety must have filled our eyes. There were those who went into the dark, who crossed the boundaries of sacred living mountains and taboo rivers. Some of those came back but most were lost into the Great Wild. Many of us sat in our circle of the temporarily profane, before beast or cataclysm whipped it aside, while others went Out hunting the divine. There were even those who could bring the Sacred into the circle, establishing the winds of the wild within the home with its hearth.

But we did not come out of that early Great Wild into the light of the profane alone, our first fire was the fire of the gods – stolen, bartered, or given. It survived or died based on the delicate shifting laws of original sacramenta, or sacred oaths. This is largely what magic, and religion, are – negotiating the boundaries of the profane and sacred.

Such delicate pacts and gifts, friendships and hard fought alliances, formed those first flimsy boundaries that protected that space marked by the Sacred within – the Hearth – and the Sacred without – the Wild. From cave to camp to city the formation was the same, and always the boundaries were heavy wrought with shrines and temples, idols and markers, signs of the tentative agreements that allowed the profane to exist along with the sacred heart of the profane that alone kept the space alive.        

But it was clear that not all denizens of the Great Wild, of the Other beyond our boundaries, were open to negotiation, to friendship, or to alliance. Amongst the populace of the Sacred some gods stole fire for us, and others wanted it back. And, of course, a friend to one or some was not necessarily a friend to others.

Negotiating the Profane

20160426_162848Standing at the foot of a mountain can make you feel small, but standing on top of one makes you feel exposed – exposed to the vast Others against whom we build walls and throw up screens. Aristotle claimed that anyone who could live without a polis, without a city or human community, was either an animal or a god. But, of course, the deeper point is that such an entity is neither – it occupies that liminal space that remains from before the wild and the divine were ever separated out. A vital part of the ambiguity of the Sacred is that what is cast-out is just as Sacred as what is worshipped, what is denied is just as holy as what is invoked – the Unseen is alike the exalted and excluded, the inhuman heart of the human community and what is beyond its boundaries. What this makes clear, and what Aristotle missed, is that the complicated, plural, and ambiguous Sacred is always already political. Even the gods debate. 

Not essentially different from the fire-light’s circle, the space of the city and society as a whole was one opened within the midst of the Sacred. The structures of the society, the oaths that bound it and boundaries that sustained and protected it, were the site of compacts with the Sacred. The first politics was born out of negotiation with the divine. Even as there were gods friendly to humanity and antagonistic to it, so too did different gods give rise to different sacramenta and different politics, cities, and societies. And, of course, there were the forces of revolution, the divine allies of the slave, the poor, the rejected, the outcast who were already closer to the Sacred than those comforted within the circle of the profane. But even in the established orders of the imperial gods there was an ambiguity as dangerous as it was protective. Zeus himself was once a rebel, as indeed was the father he overthrew.

 In Ancient Greece, at crossroads and boundaries, stood piles of stones and eventually pillars crowned with a divine head. These were the Herma that marked and guarded the borders and passageways and, in doing so, established them. From these pillars the god Hermes likely drew his name and his nature as a liminal god. The guide of travelers, especially those passing into and out of the underworld, became as well the god of both merchants and thieves – a force that established boundaries and transgressed them, establishing property and taking it away.

The March of the Profane

20160427_132806In Rome the dual headed god Janus played a similar role to that of Hermes as a god of passageways, travel, and trade. But being the keeper of gates meant something more than just this. The gates of the Temple of Janus were kept closed during times of peace and flung open during times of war and “inside, unholy Furor, squatting on cruel weapons, hands enchained behind him by a hundred links of bronze, will grind his teeth and show his bloodied mouth.” (Aeneid I 395-398, Fitzgerald trans.) The protector of boundaries, commerce, and travel was also the guardian of the forces of destruction that he could only temporarily keep at bay or willfully unleash upon the world.

In Virgil’s Aeneid we get a particularly striking sense of the ambiguity here, because the manner in which the gates of Janus when closed contain and limit the force of destructive war and fury is mirrored in similar images of the gods locking away “contending winds and moaning gales” beneath mountains and the natural wildness of humanity being temporarily repressed. The poet compares storms to human riots and allies the aged statesman’s power to calm the crowd to Jove’s power to silence the storm. Virgil dreams of the utter conquest of humanity over the wild and glories in Rome’s breaking the backs of rivers by building bridges over them. Here we see clearly that Empire is always the advance of the profane upon the wild Sacred. But it is also clear that, despite himself, Virgil does not believe that a final conquest is possible – the doorways remain just that, fickle in their tendency to open as well as close, and the last scene of the unfinished epic is that of the hero “blazing up terribly in his anger” and shamefully sinking his blade in fury into the chest of a defeated enemy begging for mercy. The relationship between the Great Wild Sacred, in both its beneficent and dangerous forms, and the profane is always an ongoing and unstable one.

Despite this, Rome did its best to break the backs of as many rivers as possible and push the boundary of the profane as far as it could. This image of the river as a dangerous force to be defeated is one with which Virgil would have been familiar from the much earlier Iliad of Homer where it plays a strikingly ambiguous role. In the Iliad the river Scamander, outside of the city of Troy, rises up several times to take part in battle and defend the city from the Greek invaders. In fact the river alone is able to face the full fury of Achilles and only with the help of other gods can Achilles escape its assault. This wild sacred river, however, is at the same time the original name of the heir to the throne of Troy – the river in this way is also marked as a sacred source of the city and civilization of Troy. In the pursuit of breaking rivers and taming the world Virgil must also have seen Rome’s refusal to accept society’s source in the wild Sacred. Such a project, Virgil suggests, is always doomed to fail.

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The Creator-God and the Artifact Universe

The pagan world is always a negotiation between the sacred at the heart of society, the Wild Sacred outside it, and the small everyday space of the profane with its fragile existence between. The content of these negotiations are themselves political and contain human society and its foundations within themselves. How did things come to seem different?

The rise of monotheism brought with it a dramatic change in the way people saw the universe, for it presented the idea of an absolute Artificer God who crafts reality as a total work. Where pagan cultures have had creator gods these have been, by and large, shapers of already existing realities – for example those who build a world from the bits and pieces of a fallen giant, or snake, and so on. Reality is, and is diverse and resistant to totalizing control and craft. More than this, the forming and shaping of the cosmos is partial and ongoing. We see early shifts away from this idea in the proposal of a demiurge in Plato, but even then the demiurge creates against the background of a greater reality and uses pre-existing material that resists its dominance. But with full monotheism a shift occurs, the Creator-God has absolute and total control and its creation is One. Reality is an artifact, an object or tool in the possession of an absolute tyrant, be that tyrant  more or less benevolent. The totalizing and reductivism is complete. 

The Artifact-Universe, obedient to its Creator, gives rise to a fundamental shift in the view of the Sacred. “Sacred” comes to only mean something like “sanctified”. In other words, all is profane until made otherwise. All is profane until the temple is chosen and blessed by the One. The sacred becomes that which is set off within the general profane, and the Wild itself becomes little more than material-for-use if not a demonic threat where echoes of the old Sacred remain. At the same time, the focus of our relation to the sacred shifts away from this world towards a transcendent with the full denigration of this world that this implies.

These are themes I have certainly dwelt on in much of my work, but I would like to simply stress that the shifting of our relationship to the sacred to a transcendental abstract One served largely to sever society from its foundations. For pagan societies, and indeed all of prehistoric humanity, politics began with negotiating our relationships with the wild and the diverse inconsistent divinities encountered through and within it – and these were as often contentious negotiations as otherwise. These negotiations with the wider wilder world found continuity in our negotiations with each other and with the gods who came to occupy, or at least visit, our societies as well. In the Artifact-Universe politics either became the mad obedience to a transcendental master, as in the case of rabid theocracy, or a distraction from the real heart and meaning of existence. But what comes to seem clear is that politics is “just” about this world, about the sad gears grinding away on the divine artifact. Politics becomes merely and purely profane.

 20160426_160143When the time came to dethrone the One tyrant, this sense of the profanity of politics nonetheless often remained in the odd idea that what I love most, what I commit myself to, what makes for a meaningful life, is somehow divorced from the real work of making a way in a living world that is a community of multiple forces, meanings, purposes, and creatures. Along side this odd idea also arose the rejection, in capitalism in particular, of any re-emergence of the sacred through an insistence that all is profane and everything has its price. In the Artifact-Universe without an Artificer, all things are objects for use and sale.

The question of the Sacred, of its nature and our relationship to it, is the question of how we are to live in the world and live with each other – in other words it is a political question. Such a question cannot be asked without a shuddering, shamed, and honest gaze upon the damage we have wrought to the world and to each other. It requires a new gaze upon the darkness at the edge of our firelight, a new experience of the limits of the profane and the border of the Original Sacred.   

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .

Blood Cries Out From The Soil

(this is for the dead)

Fighter jets are flying overhead; their screeching rage punctuating the rumbling roar of heavy-tread machines behind me. Particles of dust and exhaust cling to sweat-drenched skin in the searing sun. Everything feels dry, desiccated, as if all the shadowed life of this place has been swept over by a sudden desert.

My attention’s drawn to something unexpected–four red strokes against white, crimson vivid as blood, pasted against a steel pole. It’s a glyph, a sigil, with a power steeped in terror.  I need to leave this place to find a friend, but my attention is held. Something hardens in me as I stare, a sorrow awakening in veins constricted by anger.

I cannot believe what I am seeing. I look around myself to see if others note it. Women wearing head-scarfs are gathered nearby, speaking to each other quietly next to buildings which soon, too, will become rubble to be hauled away. It’s unlikely they’ve seen this mark.

I scrape it off the pole. No one seems to note my actions, neither the uniformed man who watches the gathering of Arabs a hundred feet from this pole, nor all the others passing by. It peels off easily, and I slip it into a pocket to show others, just as another aerial machine-of-death makes a second pass over where I stand.

“Indian Country”

I’m standing on a street corner in Seattle, not the Middle-East.

There’s a naval celebration going on–those jets are The Blue Angels a military performance troupe. I’m not in the middle of a declared war-zone, but I am in the middle of an occupation. And the sticker? It was three K’s, placed on a light pole in the middle of a traditionally black neighborhood undergoing massive gentrification. The bulldozers behind me are tearing down old homes and shops to make room for high-priced condominiums.

This was not far from the house I’m staying at. My host has been a First Nations man who was adopted out as a child to a white family who actively worked to keep him disconnected from his indigenous past. Neither of us have ancestral connections to Seattle, though he’s got closer claims to actually being on this land than I.

Also, he’s gay, like I am. Seattle’s a remarkably “tolerant” place for sexual minorities who play the middle-class games.  It’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed here so long, why I returned here after being gone for a year. I was elsewhere, searching for home, but this place called me back.

But by being here, I’m helping to displace the people who lived in this neighborhood before. In fact, this was one of the few places where blacks could live in Seattle due to redlining and other practices. I’ve met folks who still remember when it was called “coon town.”  They’re younger than you’d think.

White, mostly liberal folks, flooded this area after the recent housing-price collapse, buying up foreclosed homes. Many of those evicted were black. Many, from the stories I’d heard, had taken out equity loans on houses that their grandparents were born in and found the sudden inflation of rates meant they couldn’t pay it back. Real estate agents harassed the residents who hadn’t lost their homes; My neighbor and friend complained of still getting unsolicited offers from white realtors several times a week. The poor, mostly minorities were pushed out, and bourgeois entered.

Blacks were hauled over in slave ships to help white people make money in America. Immigrants were brought in to build the railroads and then vehemently oppressed when they were finished.  And all these groups helped displace the indigenous First Nations before them.

Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.
Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.

Did I just say displaced? I’m sorry. I meant slaughtered.

You used to be able to get money for “Indian” scalps. The U.S. government once encouraged people to shoot buffalo to help starve the First Nation resistance to westward expansion. Freed-slaves who joined the army were heavily involved in the Indian Wars and called Buffalo soldiers. And even today, “Indian Country” is U.S. Military slang for enemy territory.

But because of all that violence, the smallpox blankets and massacres and starvation, this open, tolerant, liberal city I live in has space for me. I’m “free” to practice my Pagan religion now, and the same military which killed natives now officially recognizes both my religion and my sexuality. This is all supposed to be “progress,” except I just saw a KKK sticker in a traditionally black, gentrifying neighborhood, and we’re all on stolen, conquered, and occupied land.

We Inhabit The Past

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What we know and believe that the past and our histories greatly determine how we encounter the present. Without knowledge of slavery, for instance, I might be inclined to see the poverty of minorities in America as some sort of problem inherent within their cultures or, worst of all, intrinsic to their very nature.  And if I am ignorant of that past, I might encounter all the anger, rage, and despair of minority communities as unwarranted, unjustified, and dangerous.

Most everyone, though, knows about slavery and has at least a vague understanding of the slaughter of First Nations people on this continent, so the matter is less what is actually known than what is actually believed about those things.

As I’ve mentioned before, belief affects human actions, not just human perceptions. Our accepted histories are not mere narrative. They rise to the category of belief precisely because they determine the way we encounter the present.

One of the most difficult problems in our histories is the notion of “progress;” the Enlightenment notion that we have moved beyond the past into a better present. This Progress Narrative is a way of divorcing and disconnecting our present from all the atrocities of the past while justifying our actions now. Once, Americans held slaves and treated minorities as less-than-human, but now, we are equal. Once, Americans slaughtered indigenous peoples on this land, but now we’ve passed to a more progressive, enlightened state.

It’s a narrative of the past, certainly, but it defines what we think of ourselves now. Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Anarchist scholars have variously noted how Western civilization creates a conception of itself which poses all other present and former societies as primitive, existing in a less (politically, economically, and socially) evolved state. That is, it “others” all societies besides itself, positions itself as the most-evolved form of society humanity has yet attained, and then sees all societies (including itself) through this filter.

A particularly pernicious effect of this, though, is that parts of our own society that do not fit this narrative become ignored, made invisible by the story we tell about ourselves. We see moments of crime against sexual, religious, and racial minorities as aberrations to the liberal, tolerant society in which we live, as if all the past is behind us and all the blood of scalped and starved natives, of tortured slaves, of murdered immigrants do not, even now, fertilize the ground upon which we plant our organic gardens. And when we look at our past, we disconnect those events from the present in which we live. The displacement of peoples, slavery, First Nations genocide–those happened then, but we live in now.

But history is full of processes, not just events and presences, which continue to haunt and continue to not just shape but inhabit our modern interactions with each other.

The post-colonial historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writing about European mode of disenchantment and secularism, noted:

what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact that these worlds are never completely lost. We inhabit their fragments even as we classify ourselves as modern or secular (Provincializing Europe, p112).

This has a terrifying consequence. Our notion of being different and removed from the atrocities of the past is utterly false, even more so when those atrocities are unacknowledged and unrepaired. White Americans do not currently own African slaves, but the conditions of slavery continue to affect the descendants of those slaves and the wealth derived from slavery continues to benefit the descendants of those owners and American society. The land taken from indigenous peoples through violence is where we all now live. We’re not just the inheritors of atrocity–we are also the beneficiaries and the continuation of them.

We can look at our present through this lens and start to understand much of our current political, racial, and economic crises and how we, willingly or more often inadvertently, continue the atrocities of the past into the present. The United States of America was birthed in colonization with the oppression of peoples. Is it any wonder that our government supports other governments doing similar things?  It took a very long time for the U.S. Government to stop supporting Apartheid in South Africa precisely because “European settlers on non-European land” looked awfully familiar.  We can see the same thing in the Middle-East, as well. Regardless of what one thinks of that conflict, it should give us pause that the U.S. Government has given more military aid to the Israeli government since the second World War than to any other country in the world.

“Not in My Name”

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From the frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Speaking of governments, one of the other legacies of The Enlightenment besides Capitalism, Nationalism and Democracy, is the notion of complicity. Like egregores, the modern state demands a shared identification of its people. That is, since sovereignty no longer derives from the land or the gods and now is said to derive from “the people,” it’s become difficult to separate the actions of a government from the people whom they are said to represent.

This is different in other countries though. I first noticed it with a German friend. She and I had been talking about American CIA involvement in the overthrow of socialist governments in the Middle East and South America. I’d said to her something regarding how “we claim to believe in Democracy, but will undermine it when the people vote for someone we don’t like.”

“Why do you keep saying ‘we?’” she asked me.

I didn’t understand the question.

“We?  Why ‘We’?  You weren’t there, and you didn’t do it. The government did. Americans often say ‘we,’ and I don’t understand why. Germans don’t do that.”

I’d noticed this, but had thought it was merely a linguistic difference. “You never say ‘we’ when talking about Germany?”

“That’d be silly,” she replied. “I’m not Germany. I’m German, but I’m not Germany. You’re not America, either.”

I still think on that matter. It was relieving to understand that I was not personally responsible for everything the U.S. government had ever done. It was also terrifying, because I began to understand the meaning of implicit consent; how people in power were bombing children in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they represented my interests, and I was helping to pay for it with taxes from my paltry wages.

Before I’d understood this, my reactions to the founding (and foundational) violence of America were most often ones of disbelief. Sometimes I’d accuse the historian of such horrors of lying, or twisting facts towards an agenda.  But I realized I was mostly just being defensive, because I couldn’t believe “we” had done such a thing.

Thing is, “we” didn’t. Others did, just as others do now. But they did it in “our” name, just as they do now.

I’m a vehemently anti-racist Pagan Anarchist. On what grounds could a government ever have thought I’d want them to kill indigenous people? Or buffalos? Or allow and encourage people to own slaves?  And how could they possibly think that they’d be accurately representing my will by dropping bombs on children in the Middle East?

The answer’s awfully obvious. No government such as that could ever speak on my behalf.

There’s another side to this idea of sovereignty and complicity. If the actions of a government are a reflection of the will of the people, then it makes perfect sense that our government was wrong to attack us directly.  For any government to attack the people for whom that government is a mere proxy. After all, governments just do what they’re elected to do, right?

Many Gods, No Masters

So here I am, a gay Pagan living on stolen land. I didn’t steal it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was stolen. Not having been directly responsible, I cannot personally make amends, nor can I, with all the magic of the gods and spirits, hope to resurrect the dead, to undo those crimes.

More difficult, I have little choice in this matter. I live where I can; where I can afford; where things are open to me; where I feel safe. And I’m bound by the citizenship conferred to me at birth. I cannot merely “go back to Europe,” to my ancestral lands, because I have no legal claim to do so.

I guess I could perhaps do what many people do, which is ignore the whole thing, tuck the horrors away into a neat little envelope called “past” and pretend like these things don’t still happen. The more I work with spirits, though, the more I realize the dead don’t just go away like that. Besides, the horrors continue.  Poor minorities are still shot dead on American soil by city militia. The descendants of slaves continue to live in deep poverty and are thrown in prisons now, instead of slave ships.  And the government which claims to represent me, which derives sovereignty from my “consent,” slaughters people in other countries, too.

Knowing all that, I cannot look away.

This, too, is why it’s impossible for me not to see conflicts elsewhere as part of the same legacy of which we, in America, still re-enact. Watching the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cannot help but think both of the plight of the people in the occupied territories and their poverty as being similar to what the indigenous people around me suffer. Simultaneously, I cannot help but identify with people in Israel who did not themselves choose to steal land from others. Many of them are the descendants of people who moved elsewhere, some are also people who fled from violence and hatred elsewhere.

Besides thinking Capitalism is the worst thing we’ve ever come up with, this is why I’m an Anarchist. The foundational violence which haunts every “freedom” in America was perpetrated by people who were not me. The violence which America still enacts in the world is committed by people who falsely claim to be acting on my behalf. I did not consent to those horrors, nor do I consent to them now, nor will I allow them to do those things on my behalf.

Anarchism doesn’t stop at rejection of a government. Recognizing that the suffering of other people relies on my implicit consent, I cannot allow that violence to occur. Governments who claim to represent my interests and who extract money from me in order to commit atrocities must be toppled, and the conditions which have allowed them to thrive must be changed so that they no longer may do so.

My Anarchism, however, is also my Paganism. The gods and spirits we’ve pushed out of our present continue to exist, as do the dead. Just because I live in the present, I am not absolved from my inheritance, nor of my legacy.  I cannot perform rituals on stolen land without working to have it returned, I cannot worship gods of place and people without fighting those who’d poison those places and sever those people from their gods.

There’s something really liberating about this knowledge, though. The notion that the past is dead is false, and this means we Pagans who are attempting to reconstruct ancient worship of ancient gods are still living among fragments of those religions. We don’t need to prefix what we’re doing with “neo-,” even if what we come up with, guided by our gods, is a different configuration from what our ancestors had.

That is, if the past is not ever truly gone, it can be rewoven, reshaped. It’s around us now. Processes which started centuries ago and continue to this day can be ended and amended. Fragments buried in plain sight under our illusion of being modern can be teased out from their hiding places.

We only need to stop claiming that the past is over, so we can own up to the past that is still with us.


[This piece first appeared on The Wild Hunt on August 9, 2014]


Rhyd Wildermuth

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

 


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