Critiques of the modern nation-state have been growing in recent decades, due to the abysmal failures of the capitalist, neoliberal order. In particular, conservative-libertarian arguments are tinged with isolationist and protectionist trade rhetoric, low taxes and regulations, and supply-side economics. On the other side, the mild leftism of social-democratic reforms promote endless government spending, increases in social programs and minimum wages, increases in taxes for the rich and the corporate world, and supra-national governmental organizations with endless bureaucracy and profligate waste. Neither of these models offers anything new, nor do they address the many crises that our world will inherit: they are simply band-aids for the festering wounds that our oligarchic system has created.
Green political theory offers a way out of this dialectical impasse. By viewing the world through a transpersonal and holistic lens, the truth of our industrial system can be seen for what it is: a morally bankrupt system which exploits the less fortunate in the name of private property and profit, a machine which grinds down and destroys cultural and biological diversity. The Western states are presented as shining beacons of freedom and democracy, while in reality they scheme by trade liberalization (globalization) to lord over the developing world. They bend and corrupt the ideals of universal human rights to suit their agendas, invading other nations directly or using proxy fighters/terrorists to achieve strategic objectives. Proponents of green politics transcend these baser instincts, and advocate for nonviolence, eliminating poverty, and conserving the natural world for the greater good.
Contemporary green theorists are influenced by indigenous wisdom and the sustainable practices of diverse tribal societies, as well as modern science. The roots of Green theory can be found in the scientific disciplines of conservation biology and ecology, as well as their precursors, the environmental advocates of the 19thand 20th centuries. The list is vast and includes such notables as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Rudolph Steiner, Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, James Lovelock, and Fritjof Capra.
Green politics is based on a few bedrock principles: one is that the moral and political community should be extended to provide for the rights of non-humans and future human generations. 1,2. Another principle is that horizontal governance and forms of direct democracy must have a say in governing: some issues should be decided by plebiscite, even if technical details of the legislation are left to our representatives and specialists in science and engineering. Also, sustainable development practices must be enforced in any green society, even if it goes against a democratic mandate. If a hypothetical majoritarian government in power decided to exploit and destroy ecosystems under a Green constitution, that ruling party/coalition could be stripped of power.
Green political theory, or ecologism in Andrew Dobson’s parlance, is a relatively new political ideology, and stands apart from liberalism, conservatism, and socialism, as Dobson explains in his book Green Political Thought.3 Green politics does not contain the hubris of liberalism, and does not promote private property and market fundamentalism as unassailable principles. Dobson invokes Mark Sagoff, who correctly states that “the liberal state does not dictate the moral goals its citizens are to achieve; it simply referees the means they use to satisfy their own preferences”.4 Of course, this adherence to moral neutrality is a cop-out: by pretending to be pluralistic and democratic, the liberal state uses the law to uphold massive inequality, structural racism, absurd consumer trends, addiction to fossil fuels, and environmental destruction.
Green theory is also distinct from conservatism, as it rejects the pessimistic and deterministic view of human weakness and original sin. Ecologically minded theorists chastises conservatives who focus on “preserving… the past; ecologism is interested in conserving and preserving for the future”.5
Also, Green political theory has many precise criticisms of mainstream socialism: its anthropomorphic-centered approach towards protecting the environment, the forms of pervasive narrow-minded utilitarianism, and the apologetics on display when socialists are confronted with the environmental record of the former Soviet bloc. Further, it rejects the bias of socialists who express that eradicating poverty and redistributing money and land to the poor will be in itself enough to end environmental destruction and harmful industrial practices.6
Unlike liberals, conservatives, and socialists, Greens do not view nature instrumentally. Rather, many Greens respond to nature in an intrinsic, spiritual way: it is part of their “ground of being”, to borrow a Paul Tillich term. Many tribal societies, of course, do not even have a word to express the concept of nature, as it is completely embedded in their consciousness and way of life. Moral value towards nature is given unconditionally by those who understand ecology: this idea is central to what Arne Naess called ecosophy. Greens and political ecologists speak of the “ethical relationship which should hold between human and non-human nature”.7
If there are to be nation-states that persist long into the 21st century and beyond, they will be green states, ecologically minded states. There is no complex argument needed, as it is a matter of survival: we can collectively form nations based on sustainable development, zero-growth, run with renewable energy, with abundant food, health care, housing, and basic incomes for all, or our societies will perish, and international relations will devolve into a Hobbesian nightmare.
Civil society will have to be included in green governance to some degree: whether through referendums, public positions drawn at random, community based leadership councils, etc. Regarding environmental questions about land development, industry, and agriculture, the precautionary principle will rule: the burden of proof will fall on those who intervene in the environment to prove that there is minimal risk to ecosystems, rather than on scientists, activists, green NGOs, and the public to prove that serious and definite environmental damage will occur. Publicly funded elections must become mandatory, and also, no corporate-backed candidates should be allowed again, ever. Deliberative democracy should be encouraged, and elements of James Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling8 should be included to encourage thoughtful and rational debate in the civic sphere.
Following this basic framework, along with deep and rigorous ecological education for our youth, is essential. Also, the re-education of adults who have forgotten their connection to the Earth is critically important. Unlearning the dirty tricks and propaganda that we’ve unconsciously internalized, and disowning the immoral and callous liberal ideology are among our most important tasks as well. Being a true progressive means making hard decisions, and seeing beyond the veil of what our industrial based consumer society has to offer. The only option our nations have going forward is to begin forming a state system based on ecology, which has the potential to radically transform our views and reorient societies towards lasting peace, egalitarian democracy, social justice, and sustainable living.
1.) Robyn Eckersley. The Green State. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2004. 120-122.
2.) Mike Mills. “Green Democracy: The Search for an ethical solution.” Democracy and Green Political Thought: Sustainability, Rights, and Citizenship. Eds. Brian Doherty and Marius de Geus. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 97-114.
3.) Andrew Dobson. Green Political Thought. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2007. 149-176.
4.) Ibid., 151.
5.) Ibid., 163.
6.) Ibid., 168.
7.) Ibid., 171.
In the first essayof this series, I discussed the relationship of several recent events (Brexit, the strikes in France against the Loi Travail, and the massacred of Oaxaca) to Liberal Democracy and what appears to be its impending collapse. This essay will discuss the core of Liberal Democracy: violence.
As a reminder, Liberal Democracy is a specific relationship between Capital and The State, and is currently the dominant form of government in the world. With it comes apparent great benefits, like peace, stability, protections of individual rights, and a general trend towards freedom.
But does it really? If so, why are the largest Liberal Democracies always at war with weaker—and usually non-white—nations? Why are so many unarmed Black people killed on the streets in the United States, why do so many armed police show up to anti-war and anti-capitalist protests? Why do so many Liberal Democracies have standing armies with large military budgets? Why so many prisons? Why so many police?
The answer is both deeply complex and also very simple. But to get there, we need to look at the matter of violence and our own relationship to it.
“Nasty, Brutish, and Short”
Thomas Hobbes famously wrote those lines in his manifesto on State power, “The Leviathan.” According to him, life in a ‘state of nature,’ –that is, outside a strong State– was violent, full of retributive justice and vengeance killings, civil disorder, greed, and chaos. Without strong leaders, people remained in a state of violence, unable to live peaceful lives and strive towards more than just subsistence living.
It was a grand work of propaganda, one which most of us have an awful time unraveling. Because we did not live in the past—and because there’s no one around from those times to interview—we can only ever build an understanding of what life was like back then by imagination, informed by ‘history.’
That ‘history’ is actually the story of civilization, and one that is constantly open to interpretation. The well-known adage that ‘history is written by the victors’ is actually a bit misleading. Most historians were involved in no wars of conquest and subjugation. Rather, they’re individual academics trained to narrate the past. And they disagree, often vehemently, crafting sometimes warring narrations about events and historical processes.
Historians themselves aren’t the victors; they’re just academically-trained storytellers. It’s the State and Capital (particularly through the media) who chooses which narratives to privilege and which narratives to silence.
Certain histories benefit the continuation of a civilisation, other histories threaten its survival. Histories which tell useful stories to the powerful get favored; histories which tell darker tales and remind of the violence perpetrated by the powerful are at best ignored but, more often, actively marginalised and silenced.
An example from the country I know best will help show this. The dominant history of the founding of the United States, taught to every child in every school, is that a group of religious Pilgrims settled on the eastern shores of North America in search of religious freedom. They were fleeing religious persecution, and came to America in home of a better life.
Every American knows this story. Few Americans think much about the pilgrims in question, the Puritan sect of Protestants who smashed statues in European churches, heavily persecuted and attacked Catholics and heretics, and for a little while possessed great power in England. When they were no longer in power, they in turn became the ‘persecuted.’ Many fled first to extremely tolerant Holland before being ejected for being too violent, and took a charter from England to colonize the ‘new world.’
This other part of the story doesn’t get told much. It greatly complicates the founding myth of the United States, and most children might be turned off from such details. And though such details are well known and considered historical consensus, none of the powerful people in the United States have any interest in correcting the public perception.
This same selection occurs for the history of violence and the State, as well. While violence certainly existed before Liberal Democracy, it has not gone away now. States have always been violent, and Liberal Democracy is not different. But Liberal Democracy has perfected a trick that previous forms of government never quite could.
That trick? Violence in your name.
Hobbe’s Leviathan deserves a little more examination. Examine the frontispiece from the original edition for a moment–The image shows a sovereign giant made up of millions of people, the model for the ‘commonwealth’ and later Liberal Democracy:
Liberal Democracies are generally ‘republics’ or constitutional monarchies. In both cases, the government is given the power to rule on behalf of the people. In such an arrangement, the leaders are elected to act as representatives of the entire public, either directly as in France or the United States, or elected as part of a parliamentary party as in the United Kingdom or Germany.
Whatever the government does, then, is considered to be the ‘will of the people,’ done for them and done on their behalf as if the people themselves have done it. Because the government leaders are elected by the people, the decisions of the government then act with what can only be described as a divine mandate.
Previous governmental forms sought sanction from religious leaders in order to gain this divine mandate. This is why European kings, queens, and emperors were crowned by Popes and Archbishops, and why the state priesthood in the Roman Empire had so much power. Though that mandate now comes from people rather than gods in Liberal Democracy, it still functions the same way.
Likewise, kings and emperors once sought the blessing of religious leaders to justify large military actions. Why? Whether or not the Christian god actually approved of those wars is not something we can know, and actually, it was probably never the point. Instead, leaders needed the approval of ‘god’ in order to win the support of their own people.
It’s hard to convince someone to go die for you, even if you’re offering money. And judging from the tales of my friends in the US military, soldiers are never paid well. To pay soldiers enough to justify the likelihood of death would drain the coffers of any king or government.
Religion can often succeed where direct threat or bribe fails. It’s a lot easier if you’ve got something to tempt them with, be it innumerable virgins in paradise, a full drinking horn in Valhalla, or reduced time in purgatory. And in each of those offers there is also a threat, because once the god/gods have given their blessing on a war through their priests, to not join, to not support or—much worse, to act against the war—is to go against your community and the divine itself.
Liberal Democracy (mostly) dispensed with the need to gain support for violence from what we normally think of as the divine. But it still relies on all the same sort of divine blessing that previous governments required. The ‘divine’ is now the people, the Leviathan itself, with the leaders at the head.
That is, we are the ones who grant legitimacy to State violence, even if we never say yes.
State Monopoly on Violence
I’ve used the word ‘violence’ quite a few times so far without defining it. In fact, we face a problem whenever we try to define violence if we live in Liberal Democracies—we can rarely agree on what actually counts as violence because of the State’s monopoly on it.
By ‘monopoly on violence,’ I mean simply this: the government is the sole legitimate agent of violence within Liberal Democracy. That is, agents of the state (police, military, etc.) are legally empowered to perform violence on behalf of the people, and all acts of violence not by the State are illegitimate (that is, illegal).
If you kill someone, or assault them, or take their property, or raze their house and burn their fields, you have used violence illegally, regardless of your reasons. The victim in this case may have been someone who slaughtered your family and poisoned your water and raped you: regardless of that, you have used violence illegitimately, and if caught will be subject to state violence. Only the State is allowed to do such things within Liberal Democracy.
What sorts of violence the State can use is supposed to be restricted by laws. Those laws, of course, are passed by the government (through representatives elected by people, or in rare cases by referendum), and though States often make appearances to obey these limits on its power, the State—being the only one empowered to enact violence–is always able to make exceptions.
The State, being the only legitimate agent of violence, is empowered within Liberal Democracy to enforce laws and punish those who break them. When the State enacts violence against individuals or groups within the Leviathan, it’s called Justice. Violence outside the Leviathan—that is, against other states and foreign individuals—often also falls into the category of Justice, especially in the last hundred years, despite the fact that laws can only apply within the State which makes them.
Justification for foreign wars doesn’t come from their legality, though—it derives solely from the assumed consent of the people, the ‘divine mandate.’ The State has all sorts of tricks to maintain that consent, including propaganda, religious rhetoric, identity politics and other ways to manufacture consent (including, unfortunately, the social justice framework, which will be addressed in my next essay).
Justice for Most
While all Liberal Democracies enshrine some concept of equality in their founding documents, none actually deliver that equality. In the United States, for example, though everyone (except felons and those who cannot afford identification documents, usually poor and people of color) have the right to vote (assuming their ballots are counted, assuming they can take time off work), it hasn’t always been the case. Originally, only white men were allowed to vote, and it took more than a century for women to be given that right.
The United States, like European Democracies and other former British Colonies, is mostly ruled by white men with money. In all these countries, white men without money are given more privileges by the powerful (note the language here: privilege is something given, not something inherent to the person) than others, in return for their support of the governing class.
Not all Liberal Democracies are white (but most are!); however, they all follow the same pattern of favoritism given to a lower class of people who resemble the people in control.
Those who are given fewer privileges tend to dislike having fewer. In fact, they tend to resent this greatly, and either demand more rights (as in the Civil Rights movement in the United States) or stop seeing themselves as part of society—unconsciously withdrawing from the Leviathan. Those in that latter case have less respect for the laws (many of which are designed to keep them in line anyway) and for the unspoken sacredness of certain institutions and modes of being. That is, they become criminal.
That’s not to say that criminals are all making conscious choices to reject the ruling class, or that criminal behaviour doesn’t have other causes too, like abject poverty. In fact, Liberal Democracies actually create the conditions which lead to criminal behaviour, including defining criminal behaviour in the first place.
And what does the State do to criminals? It uses violence against them, violence derived from its supposed ‘divine mandate’ from the people.
That violence takes many forms, and here’s where we can finally start to define violence. Police employed by the State are empowered to physically detain, assault, subdue, imprison, and even kill ‘criminals’ on behalf of the State. Of course, this is all before a trial has occurred to determine if the victim of state violence was actually ‘deserving’ of these actions (that is, was ‘guilty’ of a ‘crime’).
Of course, if the victim is dead, there is no way to determine their guilt or innocence, so in many places (especially the United States), killing a ‘suspect’ is actually a wiser choice than arrest for many police officers worried about civil rights lawsuits for wrongful arrest.
Since police officers are employed as agents of State violence, and since the State acts on our behalf, than the police, also, are acting as our agents of violence. When we call the police because of a robbery or assault, we are notifying the police that we would like them to find and enact violence against those who wronged us, rather than us doing so ourselves. And though there are many cases where someone else perpetrating violence on your behalf makes sense, it is the victimization of one person (or group) which then demands the victimization of those who perpetrated the violence.
In essence, the police act as agents of violence for others, no different from hired mercenaries or assassins except in one specific way: they are actually paid for and under the employ of the State, not by the victims.
Within Liberal Democracies, the people (who give the divine mandate to the State) are both separated from the violence the state enacts and also intimately connected to it at the same time. When police kill a murderer, we feel a sense of relief and of justice being ‘served,’ though we did nothing at all and may not even be able to know if the person actually murdered anyone. We become accustomed to believing that the police, because they act on our behalf, are doing good things, and except in rare cases we tend never to question their actions.
If anything, our relationship to them is similar to that of a fan of a sports team, overly identifying with players they’ve never met. “Our team won” means nothing at all, unless you are on the team or one of the owners of the sports franchise, yet that identification is unshakeable. That same identification occurs between us and the police and the military, particularly if we are within the class of people who are given more privileges than others by the government–and thus less likely to be on the wrong end of a police officer’s nightstick or assault rifle.
Violence is always subjective—that is, subject to our perceptions. A fist to the face is violent, certainly, but it’s less violent if we feel that the person deserved it, or if that fist was meant to stop more violence. A rape is violent, absolutely, yet those who are more likely to identify with the perpetrator than the victim are quick to re-conceptualize that violence through that same logic (how was she dressed, how drunk was he). Basically, we skew our judgments about justice according to our identification with those involved.
Liberal Democracy benefits greatly from this process. In fact, it encourages and abuses it, wielding our identifications and subjectivity as a bludgeon against enemies both foreign and domestic. As much as we all mitigate violence through identification with either the victim or the perpetrator on an individual level, we do the very same thing to a greater (and more destructive) degree with State violence.
Did any of the recent unarmed Black men in the United States ‘deserve’ to be killed by police? The answer, unfortunately, depends on whether or not any of us have done the work to see beyond our identifications with State violence. It also depends on whether or not we identify more with the interests the State is trying to protect by such murders, or with the victims. A white Capitalist who relies on the police to prevent theft from his business in a Black neighborhood is likely to identify with the police, rather than victim.
Do anti-capitalist protesters deserve to be beaten, pepper-sprayed, and arrested? That depends on how much we identify with the State and its protection of Capital and Property, or with the concerns and actions of the protesters.
And what about in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria—do the people there deserve to be killed by ‘our’ soldiers? Again, it depends on whether or not you identify more with the military or the people being killed by them, and for the majority of people in the countries whose governments are engaged there, the soldiers are more culturally, racially, and linguistically familiar than the victims are.
There’s one vital thing that none of these examples addresses, though. In each case, the question is whether or not the use of violence is justified, and this is always a subjective question. But what is almost never questioned is the role of the State (the police, the military) as agents of violence.
This is how Liberal Democracy is able to obscure its true violence from us, whether we identify with the unarmed Black men or the police officers who shoot them. Liberal or Conservative, ‘Social Justice Warrior’ or Right-wing racist, none actually threaten the State’s monopoly on violence, only question its uses and demand it be used to implement their vision of Justice.
And so Liberal Democracy has been able to carry on, unchallenged in its core violence, a lumbering Leviathan with tanks and guns, until the zero-sum game of Terrorism began.
The Upturned Table
Acts of non-state violence in the cultural and financial centers of Liberal Democracies have occurred for centuries, both from the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ Regardless of their causes and justifications, so-called acts of ‘terrorism’ challenge the Liberal Democratic state more than any progressive or reactionary ever could.
The reason is simple: while Left-wing or Right-wing political movements can at any time take over the government, they never actually threaten the existence of the government. Communists on the Left and Fascists on the Right only want to claim the State for their own to enact their political goals. “Terrorists,”on the other hand, destabilize the State, forcing it either to abdicate its monopolistic claim on violence (which they’ll never do) or to further solidify its monopoly on violence.
That, unfortunately, is where we are now. Every Liberal Democracy has enacted anti-terrorist legislation and claimed new powers in order to combat the threat of non-state violence. To do so, they have necessarily had to curtail the freedoms granted to the people they rule over, and no longer bother much even with the appearance of law and constitutional guarantees.
One can argue, as Georgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt all have, that this process started much earlier than the recent ‘wars on terror.’ Liberal Democracies began to pass ‘State of Emergencies’ all throughout the 20th century, particularly during times of war, but not until World War II did these exceptions start to become the rule.
It was a Nazi jurist, Carl Schmidt, who first defined for all later governments the justification for the suspension of law. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception,” he wrote, asserting that it is the very fact that a State can suspend all rules in order to survive that grants the State power, not the supposed ‘divine mandate.’
From the actions of recent governments, it’s clear Liberal Democracy took his words to heart. “Free speech zones” in the United States, individual interdictions (including house arrest) from attending protests in France, suspension of freedom of movement and just-cause in the name of anti-terrorism in the UK and elsewhere—Liberal Democracies have responded to terrorism precisely as Fascist theorists would have urged them to.
And just as we tend not to question State violence against those we do not favor, we are now caught in an even greater trap. As terrorist actions continue, we are faced with the apparent choice of either supporting the restrictions of our freedoms ‘for our own good,’ or risking our lives when the next bomb or mass shooting happens. And since acts of terrorism only increase whenever the State goes to war, the cycle is likely to accelerate, pushing all of the Liberal Democracies into crisis for which, unfortunately, Fascism has always offered an answer.
It’s one we must not accept.
Next–“Assuming the State” (on Social Justice, Human Rights, and the Crisis of ‘The Left.’)
(for more on Leviathan and recent events, see Heathen Chinese’s essay at The Wild Hunt)
Rhyd 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. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
A common refrain I hear in many Pagan spaces, both online and off, is “this is a non-political space”. In light of the recent toingandfroing around this issue in the Pagan blogosphere, this has been on my mind again.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Paganism is religion, and politics is politics. Paganism should be about bringing people together in honour of our gods and spirits, while politics just divides people and distracts from the reason why we get together as Pagans in the first place.
But, and this is a big “but”, there is a problem with declaring any space, including Pagan ones, as being “non-political”, and that problem is that there are some issues in our society on which it is impossible to be non-political. I’m not talking about the party politics of Labour vs Tory, Democrat vs Republican etc, but if you think that this is all that “politics” is then that is a very privileged position, which does not reflect the day-to- day lives of many people, including many Pagans.
Let me explain. There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are not only oppressed through the very structures which make up our society, but there are also people who actively try to keep us oppressed, bigots who actively try to keep us down at best and wipe us out of existence at worst.
For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.
You might have heard the phrase “the personal is political”, well, for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.
Our daily fight for existence carries on inside the circle just as much as it does outside of it. And for those of you lucky enough who don’t have to fight daily for your right to exist, I’m sorry to tell you that there is no “non-political” neutral position on these issues. There is a saying which goes “all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Now aside from the noticeable sexism in this quote (see how politics gets in everywhere?), this makes a very good point. Claiming a neutral position in the face of injustice only ends up reinforcing the status-quo and therefore reinforcing these oppressions. When you are in charge of a space, whether this is a circle, a Pagan Pride parade, or a blog, this can express itself in many ways, some of which might not be obvious at first glance: Who are you inviting to your event? Remember those bigots I mentioned earlier who want to keep people oppressed or worse? Well if you have them at your event then their very presence makes it unsafe to attend for the groups they oppress. If there is an active transphobe in your circle, then their presence makes that circle unsafe for trans people to attend, regardless of the opinions or wishes of the organiser, and so trans people won’t attend. Not out of protest, but out of a need to survive.
Who attends your event goes beyond the safety of oppressed people, it can also greatly affect how the wider public view Pagans and Paganism. When anti-fascists point out the risks of the far-right to Paganism, we are criticised for making associations between Nazi’s and Paganism, but if you have Neo-Nazis accepted at your “non-political” Pagan Pride parade, that will definitely create the association in the general public’s mind between Paganism and Neo-Nazis. This is dangerous for all Pagans. And if you scoff and think “well of course we wouldn’t want Neo-Nazis on our Pagan Pride parade” then you are already bringing politics into Paganism, the very thing anti-fascist Pagans are criticised for doing. Beyond issues around attendance, does your ritual recognise and include same-gender couples? Then that’s political. Does your ritual not include recognition of same-gender couples, maybe only using a God-and- Goddess structure? Then this is just as political. Western society has spent years if not centuries saying that same-gender relationships are lesser than man-woman relationships, it has erased those relationships while oppressing the people in them. Unfortunately your ritual cannot be separated out from this cultural context, and by not including same-gender relationships alongside man-woman relationships, you are excluding by omission, contributing to and continuing this history of erasure. This is true regardless of the opinions or even the sexualities of the organisers.
Have you gone to extra lengths to make sure trans women are safe using the toilets at your event? In light of the current campaign against us being able to, this is a political act. Do you not know or you haven’t tried to ensure that trans women are safe using your toilets? This is just as political. Regardless of your opinion on Laverne Cox, if we cannot do something as simple as peeing, then how are we going to be able to engage in the rest of your event? Trans women have far higher rates of UTIs and bladder cancer than equivalent cis women due to us retaining urine too long due to not being able to use toilets. It’s hard to think of a more personal issue which has been politicised by oppression than trying to use the bathroom. Similarly, do you have gender-neutral toilets? Political. Do you not have gender-neutral toilets? Just as political. If non-binary people also cannot pee at your event without risking personal upset at best and violence at worst for using the wrong toilet, then they also won’t be able to engage in your event, making this decision just as political.
If you have icons of your deities on the altar at your public ritual then what do they look like? Have you chosen a diverse range of ethnicities and body types to represent? Political. Are they all white, thin and appear to be able bodied? Just as political. If the appearance of the very deities you have gathered to worship end up reflecting the exact same body types and appearances which are placed at the top of the pyramid by our society, then what message does that send to people whose bodies don’t and never will look like that? If you are told every day, in every advert you see, that your body is wrong and these bodies are right, then you turn up to a ritual in the evening and you only see those exact same bodies being held up as being the gods, how might that make you feel about your body and your relationship to the gods?
This sort of politics goes even beyond the events themselves to the behind the scenes. Who is doing the work of organising the circle? Who has the time and energy to put into doing this? Can everyone who wants to get involved in the organisation? If not, why not? Who is doing the small but essential bits around the edge which makes sure everything runs smoothly? Who gets the credit for the event? Who is doing the emotional labour, soothing arguments and comforting people when they get stressed out?
Unfortunately the answers to these questions have a tendency to follow existing social structures, and these structures are oppressive. One of the (many) really nasty aspects of oppression is how insidious it is, and how much we all reinforce oppressions on a day-to- day basis without realising it or meaning to, and this even includes oppressions against ourselves. So if women end up organising the food and childcare aspects of your event, while the men plan the main activities of the ritual and receive all the credit, then this doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. But it does show you just how politics and these political issues permeate every aspect of our lives and everything we do.
Finally, I find this whole argument about a “non-political” Paganism to miss a very important point: being Pagan is ALREADY being political. In the UK we have an official state religion, which is Christianity; in the rest of the Anglophone West, Christianity is the dominant religion if not the official one. By stepping outside of this dominant social paradigm, all Pagans are being political. Even if we do so under calls for secularism being accepted, that is still a political stance. As Yvonne Aburrow points out in this excellent piece, all religions are in fact fundamentally political in nature, because they want to cause change, both in society and in people. As I write this, there is currently an online funding campaign for an anthology of radical feminist essays called “Female Erasure”. This is being led by Ruth Barrett, an American Dianic priestess, and is purely an ideological attack on the transgender community, our right to exist, and those who support us. As Susan Harper so wonderfully said over on Witches & Pagans:
“This is not a matter of disagreement over personal spiritual practice. This is not a difference of opinion. This is not a question of different views of how the world works and is. This is violence. It is hate speech.”
Criticisms of this, including criticisms coming from other Pagans, have been met with threats of doxxing (where people’s person information including home addresses are released publicly onto the internet). This as a practice is highly dangerous to those targeted, and is being done, at least in part, in the name of the Goddess Movement and Goddess Spirituality. If you don’t stand up and publicly say “not in my name” then you are tacitly endorsing it, as this hate speech is being done in your name. Standing up for other Pagans, especially some of the most marginalised of our community, is a vital act for people to do. It is also a deeply political one. You might not have asked to be a part of this fight, but other people are making you a part of it by attacking incredibly vulnerable people, at least partly, in your name. This is what I mean when I said that there is no neutral position on these issue, even just trying to opt out of attacks made in your name is a political act. If you don’t want to confront some of the oppressions and privileges which I have discussed here, then that’s up to you; but don’t claim refusing to confront them isn’t just as political as trying to challenge them. And if you do want to challenge them, then you can do so all the stronger by embracing the political nature of that struggle.
Ginger Drekisdottir is a Heathen and follower of Frey and Freya. She is a trans lesbian living in London and active in feminist and queer liberation politics. She is interested in the overlap between liberation and environmental justice, and spends her free time climbing and taking photos.
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.
“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.
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).
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 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.
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 dollarsbecause 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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:
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.
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.
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 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.
Other 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 moderateCFDT (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 petitions. 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.
An extensive collection of photos from the June 14th strikes can be found here.
Alley 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.
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.