In front of Planned Parenthood across the street, they’re displaying neon yellow posters with Photoshopped fetuses. Standing in a semicircle, they read from their Bible, and they pray. Sometimes, they walk across the intersection to our side — glaring at our signs saying “Tacoma is a Pro-Choice Town” and “Pro-Health Pro-Choice,” blaring YouTube sermons from portable speakers, or asking us to talk. It’s like talking to cops, my Clinic Defense friends tell me; they want to get under your skin, get you upset, rile you up. Give them your story and you give them power.
I nod. I know the type: “prayer warriors,” living for the struggle. In their hands, the biblical “sword of the spirit” gets as close to literal violence as the law permits (and sometimes goes even further, as a string of assassinated doctors testifies). But today, they stick to their corner and we stick to ours. Eventually, they get bored, say one final prayer together, and pack up their signs and leave. As we start to do the same, I recite the Orphic Hymn to the Meter Theon (Mother of the Gods, Kybele), and the bearded man on my right says “blessed be.”
Every time the anti-choicers protest, they pray. Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means” — and in their spiritual war, Jesus serves as both casus belli and favorite weapon. The sense of purpose driving their mix of legislative lobbying and personal intimidation may strike a secular progressive as nothing but patriarchy in motion, but for them? It’s transcendental. They don’t do politics (or, for that matter, patriarchy) for the sake of reforms or social classes, or for the game itself. The intoxication of divine mission overwhelms everything — including the specific imperatives that such a mission contains.
I spend a lot of time at protests and at each one, I pray to the Meter Theon. I feel deep, exhilarating joy at seeing polytheist anticapitalism become a proper movement, not just a rare and private preoccupation. But the fact that we’re here at all begs the question:
Do our gods agree with our politics? Are we, like the militants in front of the clinic, applying a feeling of divine energy to a social cause?
Now, I could observe that just as gods are diverse and individual, so too are their social demands. I could speculate that housing Syrian refugees enacts piety toward Zeus, defender of guests, or that Artemis Eileithyia, helper in childbirth, surely demands that prenatal healthcare be accessible. However, that strikes me as somehow disingenuous — shouldn’t politics and ethics fundamentally attend to the people whose needs they address, rather than to gods whom we couldn’t endanger even if we tried?
So, while my worship of the Theoi may not cleanly untangle from left-wing organizing, at the root, I don’t look to them to provide me with a social agenda. Movements aren’t made of gods. The sidewalk by Planned Parenthood isn’t the Trojan plain; we aren’t armed with Olympian gifts. Our causes matter because they matter to mortals. But across the street, they don’t agree. Ask them why they’re out there shouting at strangers; they’ll tell you it’s because they believe that the imperative to do so comes as a package deal with the sense of meaning that, they claim, only Jesus can provide.
But why should finding meaning for mortals be a god’s job?
“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”
– Rev. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church
Whether we polytheists like it or not, the societies in which most of us live remain ideologically Christian. This hegemonic worldview seeps out of religious participation and trickles down into every part of our sense of the world. Christian theology dictates common sense, “normal” emotional response, and the pre-conscious attitudes and assumptions that structure every Western culture and nearly every psyche living within them.
However, dominant Christianity is itself dominated. The capitalist system — economic and political control by the business class — exercises even more power over Christianity than Christianity does over everything else. If Jesus serves a political agenda, an economist will find it faster than a theologian. So, what does a religious basis for meaning in life mean in practice?
According to the seminal sociologist Max Weber, the “Protestant work ethic” means valorizing exertion, discipline, and frugality as inherently good things themselves, rather than just as the means to an end; it’s the theology of putting in extra overtime and thinking, “I should be saving more money.” Further, he claims that this attitude could never have become widespread without the emergence of capitalism from the collapse of the medieval system.
As Weber writes,
“Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”
Getting religion meant getting a job. From this angle, it’s no coincidence that a career path became a “vocation” — from the Latin “vocatio,” a calling. Just as a clergyperson is called to receive ordination, so is a truck driver divinely called to deliver on time, or a factory worker to stand at the assembly line, or a grocery clerk to take inventory (even to the point of using the same word!). Existential meaning, Christ, and work all melt into one.
Who, I wonder, might want to promote such an attitude?
“There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ.”
– John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil Company
As in all social matters, we should first ask: who benefits? When a worker believes that all meaning comes from Christ, and Christ says “go to work,” the boss isn’t complaining. Since the business class is currently the most powerful class, their philosophy is the most powerful philosophy, and their religion the most powerful religion. Collapsing deity, work, and purpose all together provides them with one of the weapons they use to keep things that way. And, like every ruling class, they gladly affirm Alexander Pope’s dictum (from an explicitly theological poem, no less), hoping you’ll believe it, too:
“Whatever is, is right.”
So, what makes a god a weapon? The political strength of a social class.
“On the other hand, that man is a weakling and a degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself.”
– Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher
The gods with whom I relate are just as real as any human I’ve met. However, the shared characteristic of existing does not render deities and mortals interchangeable! As Seneca reminds us, while the gods may run the universe at large, human affairs stay a human concern. And what’s more human than to need to make meaning out of a finite life? In politics, as in our everyday lives, we mortals bear the first responsibility for how we conduct ourselves — the ways in which we look for purpose included. Could anything be more hubristic than demanding that the gods handle that for us? When I protest, I pray, but I don’t expect Kybele to dial in for a conference call, goals and strategy in hand. (I don’t have that sort of “godphone.”) Healthy polytheism synthesizes piety to the deities with an ethical embrace of human responsibility and freedom.
As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declares, “I am condemned to be free.” To weaponize a god, to invoke a divine political mandate, is to deny that. So when we do politics, let’s organize for, as well as with, each other — honoring the gods is no excuse to act as if our lives, and all the meaningfulness therein, aren’t still ours.
[Image: “The Industrious ‘Prentice Alderman of London, the Idle one brought before him & Impeach’d by his Accomplice,” plate 10 of “Industry and Idleness,” engraving by William Hogarth]
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than polytheism, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, writing for Gods&Radicals, nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.
I haven’t always hated dogs. When I was a kid we had this dog that I really loved, really sweet and gentle. We played all the time. She was really special to me. One day, out of nowhere, she snaps on me and bites my hand deep enough that I had to go get stitches. It was so bad that my parents went and put him down. Since then I’ve been terrified of dogs. I don’t get them. They look really sweet but you never know when they’re going to turn on you. I’d rather not have any dogs in my life, if at all possible.
I loved my humans but one day their baby grew up to be old enough to play with me. The child would grab my ears really painfully, pat me too hard, and pull on my lips. I would try to let the humans know I was hurting—I looked at them with my big open eyes, asking for help. They thought it was funny and laughed at me. When I growled or tried to get away, the humans yelled and told me to be still like a good dog. Finally one day I couldn’t handle it and I let the child know it had to stop. I bit him too hard. The humans were scared and angry, and they took me to someone who killed me. I hate humans.
Reflect on the stories above and how each version of the story feels to read. What judgments do you make about the characters in each version? Is there a clear victim in this story? A clear perpetrator? Do you feel that what happened to the child was just? Do you feel what happened to the dog was just? What does it mean if both versions of the story have equal validity, as well as equal bias? Who has more power in these stories?
The Dog lives in a world created by and for humans, cared for by humans who do not understand her language or appreciate her suffering. Her attempts to set boundaries read to the humans as disobedience; her attempts to communicate pain read as comedy. She can’t escape her conditions; she lacks the human hands and know-how that would let her unlock the doors. From the Dog’s vantage, it looks like the humans revel in their cruelty. Eventually, the only recourse the Dog has is to commit violence against the Child who loves her, but hurts her.
The Child in this story, on the other hand, experiences deep pain and betrayal when his beloved pet suddenly, bewilderingly turns vicious and cruel. This pain and betrayal, left unhealed, poisons the child’s psyche and becomes a barrier to him ever rediscovering the possibility of a joyful relationship with a dog. Though the Dog experienced the Child as a torturer, the Child lacked the insight to understand the Dog’s distress. The Parents, too, fail to apprehend the gravity of the situation and act to avert tragedy. They believe they are innocent and the Dog was not. The Child internalizes this lesson as well.
Moral Pluralism, Tragedy, and Innocence
Let’s acknowledge and then set aside the maligned notion of “moral relativism,” which should point us to looking at the cultural context in which an act was done, but has come to stand for (rightly or wrongly) an unwillingness to make moral judgments. Instead I want to consider the possibility of moral pluralism. Googling the definition of “pluralism” gets this: “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.” This seems simple enough to help us look at the fable with the view that two different sources of moral authority may coexist and be in dialogue, that we can make judgments and also hold the possibility that a different judgment may have validity as well.
A practice of moral pluralism opens the possibility that what the humans did to the Dog was harmful, and what the Dog did to the Child was harmful, and any meaningful growth requires the inclusion of both these truths. We might go so far as to hold that both the Child and the Dog are innocent. Poet and mystic Victor Anderson, cited in The Heart of the Initiate, says, “How beautiful is the black lascivious purity in the hearts of children and wild animals.” He speaks to this purity in celebration of the feral state, of animal instinct as innocence itself. The Child and the Dog simply are what they are, acting in accord with their basic needs and desires for comfort and pleasure. The Child delights in playing with the Dog, but the Child also delights in the cruelty of his play. Amoral delight is a normal aspect of child development, part of the child’s process in learning morality. This Child is no different than the cat who tortures his prey. The Child and the Dog need the Parents to understand these desires at play and set appropriate boundaries so that all can coexist in harmony.
In this fable, the Parents also delight in cruelty, laughing at the Dog’s distress, but punish and inhibit the Dog from her instinctive efforts to find relief or communicate her displeasure. Harm was not intended, but harm happened, and if the humans do not take time to reflect upon the situation and accept responsibility for their part of it, then future harm could happen. We might imagine the upset and outrage the humans would feel if I were to come forward and say they had a role in the tragedy. Who the hell is this person to say it’s their fault? But when we move into shaming, blaming, and finding fault, we’ve begun to lose the expansive potential of moral pluralism. Moral pluralism offers us the capacity to acknowledge that everyone played a role in the tragedy. The feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal of both the Humans and the Dog are valid and merit compassion and healing.
In my work as a therapist, my experience is that when people feel that the legitimacy of their pain is in question, we tend to become more rigidly hostile or defensive. When we feel that we are being met with compassion and understanding, that allows us to have space to consider having compassion and understanding for the other view. When we can see the merit of conflicting positions, then we truly have a hope of preventing future tragedy.
The Myth of the Innocent Victim and Evil Perpetrator
Moral pluralism is an uncomfortable discipline in a world with so much confusion and insecurity. I think many of us long for a simple moral framework upon which we can base a sense of confidence in who we are and how we live. One such moral premise is the notion that there are innocent victims and evil perpetrators in the world, and these are entirely separate people that we can identify and treat accordingly. If we looked at the fable through this lens, we might feel pressured to believe one story and dismiss the other—we’d fear that seeing the merit of the Dog’s story would be to say the Child “deserved” to be bit, or by having sympathy for the Child we are saying the dog “deserved” her treatment.
In a simple moral framework, “innocence” is a state of purity that is celebrated but fragile. Innocence is weighted with feeling, weighted with the pain of innocence lost. That feeling is used to manipulate us through the political use of “innocence.” A white 17 year-old wealthy male who borrows father’s car and causes a tragic accident has made “an innocent mistake,” whereas a Black 17 year-old male who is shot while walking home from buying candy at a local store is a “thug.” A 21 year-old white male who commits a deliberate mass shooting is referred to as a “boy” in the media, and his family gets interviewed to talk about his more sympathetic qualities. An 18 year-old Black male who is shot after jaywalking and stealing cheap cigars is referred to as a “man” in the media, and the articles about him highlight how he was “no angel.”
We see that “innocence,” is politically granted according to social position, not by life experience. According to the myth of the innocent victim, a person who is not wholly without sin or crime cannot be a victim. A criminal is marked as a separate kind of human being, if in truth they are granted any humanity at all. Thus anything done to stop or contain the criminal is considered justifiable. Only when the “wrong” person turns out to be a criminal does the discourse of innocence and criminality become confounded. Women who accuse respected men of rape and children who accuse beloved community members of molestation experience the dizzying reversal of the victim being put on trial. If their histories are not spotless, according to social judgment, then their victimhood is questioned. If the accused appears to be upright, then their criminality is questioned. The cognitive dissonance is intense. In the United States we aspire to a blind justice system that simply weighs the merits of the case and determines guilt or innocence, but in practice it is clear that media and bias shapes our expectations of what guilt and innocence look like.
When we divide the Innocent Victim from the Monstrous Criminal, we have lost the capacity for expansive moral pluralism, which could help us to address the real needs of actual victims and criminals who are all too human and complex. As a case manager, I have worked with a number of people convicted of criminal charges. The work taught me a number of things:
The primary difference between a “criminal” and everyone else is that the “criminal” was caught while breaking a law, and prosecuted;
Most “criminals” do not think of themselves as evil or desiring to harm others; and
Even the most unlikable, unsympathetic person can be victimized.
The dilemma of the humans in the fable is the dilemma of people with privilege in the United States. Those in power support a society which is set up for us and people like us, such that we don’t even need to think about it—the people on TV look mostly like us, everything is written in our native language, buildings are designed for our bodies. We grow up with our own desires, struggles, and pain, and then someone tells us that our lives are causing harm to oppressed and marginalized people. We are confronted with voices and desires wholly different from our own, voices that challenge and question our deeply held sense of who we are in the world. The question is, will we buckle down and cling to one rigid pole of morality, or will we acknowledge what is legitimate about our perspective and open ourselves to the legitimacy of these other perspectives?
The fable draws upon the archetypal figures of Child and the Dog in part because these are emotionally charged. We project a lot of love, fear, joy, and protectiveness around dogs and children. Often it seems like harm to either is treated as a greater, more painful tragedy than the daily catastrophes that befall humans across the world. (Evidenced by the website doesthedogdie.com, which tracks movies with dogs in them and warns viewers about the dog’s fate, so that the viewers can be emotionally prepared.)
I want to acknowledge that comparing oppressed people with animals is part of a long tradition of dehumanization, but I think many of us at one point or another plays each of the roles during our lives: Child, Dog, and Parents.
For example, I grew up as a male in a fairly privileged White, middle-class family in the Midwest, and I have been the Child for much of my life. I graduated in a somewhat challenging job market but still managed to score livable wages until 2008, when my move to Seattle coincided with the Great Recession. I’d been working as a web content editor and networked before moving, but by the time I got to Seattle I was unable to find work in that field.
My income sunk from $20 per hour to $8.85 minimum wage as I could only find employment in the service sector, first as a gas station attendant and later as a Barista at a high-end fashion retail store. When I did my first holiday season, laboring physically harder for less money than I ever had for my corporate jobs, I overheard one of the customers telling her friend, “There is no recession in Seattle.” Later, when the Occupy protests were marching past our front doors, another customer (a similarly middle-aged, White, middle-to-upper class woman) stood by the counter while I made her drink, rolled her eyes, and said, “Aren’t you guys sick of this?” In that situation, I was the Dog.
She expected me to validate her perspective while I worked a job that paid me to be polite and professional to her. Occupy drew attention to the economic structures that put me in this situation, and I had a moral truth that I could not share without potentially compromising my job. And, again, this woman could not know, because she lived in a context set up to confirm her expectations and sense of self. If I’d spoken my honest perspective, I risked punishment and loss of the low wages I was getting.
Against the Rise of the Fascist
The weeks following the Daesh attacks in Paris in 2015 felt like the weeks following the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Anti-Muslim rage and xenophobia was treated as a legitimate political viewpoint by certain sectors of the media and political establishment, and even though the United States had executed near-constant military actions and warfare in the Middle East for the past fourteen years (and more!), certain politicians announced that the problems in the Middle East were due to our lack of military effort. On the other side were the people pointing out the sheer insanity of re-enacting the same patterns—causing the chaos and trauma that radicalizes people against the West, funding and training insurgents who become our next enemies.
In other parts of the United States, a Black Lives Matter activist was physically assaulted and called racial slurs at a political rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested that “maybe he deserved to get roughed up.” In Minnesota, Black Lives Matter activists gathered to oppose yet another extrajudicial killing of a Black man by the police, and white supremacists opened fire, injuring five. According to several activists, when they told the police about this attack, the police responded with: “This is what you wanted.” The state-sanctioned murder of Black people, however, was exactly what Black Lives Matter opposes.
The common thread is that those in the positions of dominance and power—the United States, the police, a billionaire capitalist running for President—endorsed or permitted violence in response to assaults on their power. They justify this violence in part by portraying themselves as the victims who deserve protection from harm, that anything they need to do to preserve their power and reputation is necessary and all who oppose them need to be controlled. They dismiss the possibility that those who critique and oppose them may have moral truth that needs acknowledgment, as well as pain and anger that needs healing.
Like the humans in the fable, they respond to these assaults by suppressing the source of pain and confusion with violence. The popularity of Trump’s violent, chest-thumping rhetoric in Trump is part of this backlash. What attracts attention is not simply that he’s “un-PC,” which has always had a place in our culture (see the continued existence of the TV shows Family Guy and South Park), it’s that he is proud in his disrespect of women, the disabled, and people of color. He speaks to the resentment of privileged people who feel hemmed in by social change, those who feel their own anger and hurt are not being honored.
All of this, with the increase in visibility of white supremacists, suggests the re-energizing of the Fascist. The Fascist justifies any form of violence, tyranny, and oppression in the service of promoting the interests and well-being of the in-group, who are celebrated as somehow superior, moral, innocent people in comparison to anyone else. The Fascist will argue that certain skin colors and religious affiliations are intrinsically violent, evil, needing to be controlled—and even if we are the ones committing violence, selling weapons to the people who become our enemies, and blowing up hospitals, it’s all moral and ethical because we are protecting the “innocent” heart of our culture.
That simplistic morality ultimately harms us all. We need a concept of justice that acknowledges both victim and perpetrator have agency and personhood, but still does not excuse the crime. We need a wider lens that allows us to see how the West has participated in creating the toxic cultures that poison us with terrorism from without and xenophobia from within. We can condemn people for committing violence against citizens with the intent to foment chaos and terror, and we can recognize that our strategies of intervention gave those terrorist the training, means, and excuse to commit their acts. We can look with concern upon violent crime within communities and recognize how our systems of economic inequality and oppressive policing foster patterns of violence.
What is the world in which you want to live? Do you want a world of harmony, of fairness, in which everyone is treated with respect and shares love and joy? Isn’t that worth putting down the tools of violent control and shame and taking up the healing we so desperately need? Isn’t that worth considering a new perspective, considering new structures of governance and diplomacy that serves those goals instead of creating more trauma and misery? I’m not asking you to believe my view of things. I want us to listen to many voices, to consider many viewpoints, to acknowledge without silencing the discomfort of this, to acknowledge and honor the anger, confusion, and disorientation this brings. Let us rediscover the heart of innocence.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.
We women know a hard truth of our culture; our bodies are not our own.
We are told how our bodies are supposed to behave. How they are supposed to look (age/weight/height/hair/skin colour/breast size/genitals; the last of particular interest to women not visibly born “female”). What we should feed them. How we should decorate them. Whether or not we should use them as incubators and what we are allowed to do with them once a zygote starts growing. We are told to hide, and suppress, our body’s needs and natural functions. We are told that the functions that formulate the incubator are supposed to be hidden from polite company, from menstruation to breast feeding. We are told how we should wrap them, under what conditions it’s okay to unwrap them, and whom we should (or should not) unwrap them for.
After I overcame my childhood conditioning to suppress my sexuality, I wondered why. This is something that has puzzled me for many years. Why in the world does anyone else care about what I do with my body, whom I choose to have sex with, or how? I mean, think about it. How does it affect anyone else that I’m not sleeping with (or someone who’s sleeping with someone I’m sleeping with?) I don’t give two figs what kind of car my neighbour drives because its effect on my life is exactly zero.
I read all the Dianic literature and found it empowering: The Wise Wound, Goddesses in Everywoman, The Chalice and the Blade. Their theory was that because, until recently, your mother was a certainty but your father was an opinion, controlling women’s sexuality assured paternity and therefore, men would not find themselves in a situation in which they were struggling to feed someone else’s offspring. I believed it because it was the only thing that sounded plausible to me.
The men in my life were angered by this theory. They are feminists, and they are stepfathers. They chose to raise someone else’s offspring, knowing full well it was someone else’s offspring, and give their love even when that love has not always been returned. I didn’t give their anger much heed. I figured it was a case in which they did not recognize their privilege. I figured they would come around.
But there’s another theory, one that I’ve recently stumbled upon that makes much more sense. Like anything else it’s not new; I was excited when I discovered, as I was reading it for the first time, that Starhawk had touched on it in the Appendices of her classic book on magick and activism, Dreaming the Dark.
Patriarchy exists to preserve inheritance.
Patriarchy is all about class.
Expropriation and Estrangement
Starhawk believes that we can find the evidence in enclosure. In the sixteenth century a movement spread through England to enclose what was previously common land. All of a sudden, which family controlled the land and its use became of paramount importance. All of a sudden the people who lived on that common land became threats, because if land was held by common “squatters,” it could not be enclosed. Often, lone widows lived in such places and so they were favourite targets of the would-be landowners, since they couldn’t do much to fight back. Persecution increased against marginalized groups; that and widespread famines and possibly ergot poisoning led to revolutions and pogroms. Enclosure forced most of us out of the woods and fields and into places in which our livelihoods depended on wages, and since one could only farm what was now on one’s land, trade became vital, and not an enhancement to existing living conditions. We have seen the culmination of this trend in our current world economy, which depends on trading in raw resources and the forced labour of the developing world.
Knowledge became a marketable commodity in the new mercantile culture that was developing. Universities developed. Knowledge became something you could only have if you had the money to pay, and thus, graduates of those universities worked to preserve their monopoly on knowledge. This particularly affected medicine. Graduating university doctors spread the idea that anyone who did not have their certification was dangerous and stupid and might possibly cause real harm, even when the folk healing tradition was well ahead of the medicine of universities. Often this was also a women’s profession, so once again women became an incidental target. And “women’s medicine,” as a natural and unavoidable consequence of all of the medical practitioners being male, lagged behind and became a method of social control, culminating with the myth of the “hysterical woman” in Victorian times; an excuse to institutionalize women who did not behave according to the desired social mien. We are currently seeing the culmination of the ownership of knowledge, with every task requiring (expensive) papers to certify your capability, bizarre trademark and copyright laws that allow corporations to claim intellectual property over ideas created 700 years ago, and tuitions so high that only the moneyed class can generally afford to pay them.
In order to justify this culture of ownership and expropriation, the world had to be disenchanted. If the world has no life and no spirit other than what can be used as resources, there is no reason not to use it up. Once again, the bodies of (cisgender) women, who are bound visibly by biological needs and changes, and who hold the power of the womb, became incidental targets, as the needs of the body and the needs of the earth and its creatures were denigrated, and “spiritual perfection” came to mean transcending anything as filthy and low as biology and nature. We are seeing the culmination of this disenchantment now, in which faith is painted as a choice between the binary of absolute obedience to a patriarchal, distant god; or utter denial of the possibility of anything spiritual.
All of this is part of a culture of expropriation that derives from estrangement; estrangement from our nature, from our bodies, from the sense of the spiritual in the material, from people who are different from ourselves, even from one another. We are almost seeing the culmination of it now. We no longer know our neighbours. We no longer live in families any larger than the nuclear. Most of us these days are raised by single mothers. We don’t even talk to each other any more, except through phones and computers. As a result we are siloed in echo chambers of the ideas we support and our children sit across the table from each other and use their phones to converse. Almost by definition, Paganism and Polytheism, which see gods and spirits here within the earth, are natural enemies of this culture.
I was excited! Starhawk articulated it so much more effectively than I was able to.
Of course, it started long before that. While the theory of the ancient matriarchy has been essentially disproven at this point, it is likely that inheritance did not matter in the prehistoric world until there was something to inherit that did not belong to the clan as a whole. Chieftainships created a class of haves, and have-nots, which made tracking inheritance “necessary.”
How I Stumbled on This
I was writing a science fiction novel. In the process I created a society in which all the men were warriors, so of course, the women were required to do everything else. This society also had a noble caste who ruled over the other classes. And I found that the society quickly developed, through a natural process of cause and effect, into a patriarchy. Fascist societies, the ultimate in Corporatism, usually develop into patriarchies for this reason.
So I changed one condition; I made inheritance dependent on the female bloodline. Now clans were organized around the females of a particular family, and to become nobles of the clan, males had to marry into it. Technically the males inherited, but only through the females. Suddenly, it looked to outsiders like the males were in charge, but in reality, the females were controlling marriages and fertility, and through that, the process of inheritance. Over time, males began to develop traits that the females found desirable, and eventually it led to the breakdown of the class system and changing roles for males and females.
Why is it always the right wing who seems to support ideas that restrict the freedom of women? You would think that powerful women of the moneyed class would be in an ideal position to challenge the supremacy of the patriarch. But consider it. Keeping the classes divided is the only way in which to assure that there are haves and have-nots. In order to separate the classes, it is necessary to assure that the poor and the rich never mingle, and that requires controlling a woman’s fertility; and subsequently, her sexuality. This is why it’s so important to the moneyed Conservatives to prevent cisgender women (and trans-men) from controlling their own fertility and claiming their own sexuality outside of the imposed rules of the patriarchy. If women could do that, we wage-slaves wouldn’t continue to breed fodder for factories, would we? Especially not in the developing world. And what if a low-class male has sex with a high-class female and she has a child? That elevates him out of the have-nots, doesn’t it?
We women impose these unconscious limits on ourselves. Did you know that women do not call each other “sluts” based on their level of sexuality activity? According to a study conducted at university campuses by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, the key trigger to being called a slut by another woman is being from a different economic class. Why on earth would women perceive each other as being “trashy” for being more, or less, affluent than themselves? It seems to me that this is a subconscious method of social control, to prevent the classes from breeding together.
Also, we choose mates based on perceived status. It’s such a cliche that we make jokes about it; trophy-wives and sugar daddies. Men with money are considered sexy. Men buy expensive gifts and seek good jobs to impress women, and it’s considered the height of romanticism from him to buy us jewelry or that coveted diamond ring that proclaims our status as desired property.
We feminists think we’re above that. After all, we believe in making our own way in the world and not relying on other people for financial support. But consider this; assuming you are heterosexual, would you marry a man who made less money than you do? Most of us won’t. We think that “we can do better” and men who make less than we do are often perceived as freeloaders and “bums,” no matter how hard they work. Fortunately this is changing.
There’s one last point of note that supports this theory, and that is the Mosuo people of China. Often called “the last matrilineal society,” they have evolved a society in which all property rights pass through the female line. There is no permanent marriage and partners do not live together, even if they have a long-term relationship. Men live with their female relatives. And all the behaviours of control and sexual dominance are displayed by the women; all the behaviours of social manipulation and preoccupation with appearance is displayed by the men. In other words, property equals power.
It is in the interests of the Capitalists to maintain divisions of haves and have-nots. Kyriarchy is how they go about this in a (nominally) free, democratic society. They teach the rest of us to see one group as being superior to another, which leads to an interconnected system of privilege and disadvantage. Notice that the poor are the only identifiable group that it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against? Institutionalized discrimination limits the ability of the poor to get education, houses and jobs, and forces them to pay more for simple things due to interest payments, bank fees and “planned obsolescence.”
This is why it is necessary to consider all disadvantaged groups. The truth is that Kyriarchy cannot exist if we all stand together and refuse to see these artificial divisions.
In other words; sisters, men are not the enemy. Those who teach us that one group is better than another, are. And those who benefit from the status quo the most are usually the ones most invested in preserving it. The ones who benefit the most from this current status quo are white, white-collar, straight, wealthy, older men; in other words, the Corporatist 1%.
By extension, this means that anyone who challenges this status quo and demands change is our ally. It would help us all to march in Ferguson. It would help us all to defend women’s reproductive rights. It would help us all to support labour unions, advocate for anti-poverty groups, and march in the Pride Parade. Any one of these activities is a blow to Kyriarchy; which, in its death throes, will take the Patriarchy with it.
Why the Patriarchy is Doomed
Don’t worry; it can’t last forever. It was doomed from the invention of the Pill. When you can’t control a woman’s fertility, you can’t control her sexuality.
But social sanctions will try. And as long as we allow groups which are invested in the idea of patriarchy — such as religions or corporations — to dictate morality to us, then it will continue. We must stop calling each other sluts. We must stop trying to dictate to each other when it’s okay to sleep with someone and when it isn’t. We should feel free to make our own sexual choices and respect the right of others to do likewise. We should support the rights of all genders, especially because challenging the binary breaks up the division that is based in haves (men) and have-nots (women). The Kyriarchs know this and that’s why they find it so threatening and fight it so hard.
A great victory was recently won when the United States finally caught up to the idea that marriage should be a right for everyone. I am pleased to see another nail being hammered into the coffin as the worldwide movement for the rights of sex workers grows and we stop looking down on women who get more action than others.
When our social customs catch up to our physical and scientific realities, patriarchy’s inevitable end will crumble the support pillar that sustains the Kyriarchy; and it will collapse like a house of cards. We will see the dawn of a new age which is not dependent on human beings dividing themselves into superior and inferior classes. That day is coming. I believe it’s not far away.
Sept. 2 Update: edits made in response to suggestions from Keen on how to be more gender-inclusive (see commentary below).
It is no great surprise to me that Silvia Federici‘s book Caliban & The Witch has gained so much traction in the Pagan community in recent years. When I first read the book more than a decade ago, I knew it would be important for Pagans, simply because it told our story, our history, from the most complete and insightful historical and theoretical perspective I had ever seen. I am on record as saying it is the most important political book yet written in the 21st century, since it deals with the story of the transition to capitalism, with all the violence, blood, fire, and greed that accompanied and forced the transition. But since I have been a Pagan for nearly 30 years, I tended to see the subject matter less in terms of the transition to capitalism, but rather more in terms of the final transition away from Paganism, in the multitude and myriad of ways various paganisms were expressed before they were crushed and assimilated into the new mechanistic worldview of capitalism.
But Silvia Federici is not a ‘Pagan,’ despite the great service her work has been to our community. The context of her work, however, can be just as valuable to us as Caliban itself has been. Three or four decades before that book was published, a few groups of thinkers, writers, students, and teachers began working together. Two of them were the feminist Wages For Housework movement, as well as the Zerowork Collective. Both are worthy of investigation and further study. But by the end of the 1970s, a new group had emerged, which will be the focus of this piece.
A Brief History
History tells us that the Midnight Notes Collective began in the late 1970s with discussions between Monty Neill, Hans Widmer (aka p.m.), and George Caffentzis, with John WiIlshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh getting involved early on. Indeed, the membership of the Collective has been quite fluid over the years, both because people naturally tend to come and go over the years, and also because there were years when they intentionally remained anonymous to avoid overt harassment and repression form the establishment, an important strategy of self-preservation for a group demonstrating a “commitment to revolutionary possibilities.” They also wanted to avoid the “rock star” cult of personality, which was common in academia at the time. In addition to the people directly involved with Midnight Notes (including the above as well as Silvia Federici, Dan Coughlin, David Riker, Vasilis Passas, Johnny Machete, and Michaela Brennan, among others ), there were also various friends & associates over the years, including Steven Colatrella, John Roosa, Harry Cleaver, and Massimo de Angelis.
Despite the fluidity of the group, there was an important coherence to their ideas, expressed in a variety of publications over the years, starting in 1979 and running through the Reagan Years into the Bush era, all of which are now available online:
These earliest publications from Midnight Notes are worth checking out, as a great glimpse into the political climate of the Reagan/Bush years, as the transition of capitalism from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism was cemented.
After these original issues, there were several more publications, some of them book-length, from the group:
Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992(1992, Autonomedia)
This anthology is an analysis of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which they framed as a “work/energy crisis,” as well as a look at the evolution of capitalism in the 1980s. It contains several of their previous writings from earlier publications, namely The New Enclosures and The Work/Energy Crisis And The Apocalypse, with other articles written to fill in some of the theoretical gaps, additional analysis, and history. This book might be the best overall introduction to the thought of Midnight Notes in general. While in some ways it is dated from the 2015 point of view, it is my personal favorite analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, and broadened my understanding of today’s capitalism.
Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local & Global Struggles of the Fourth World War(2001, Autonomedia)
This book is an anthology of writing, using the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as the focal point for anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-globalization theory and history. Midnight Notes saw that this uprising was “a luminous crack in a clouded sky,” the first “movement that consciously pitted itself against global capital and at the same time was rooted in a territorial reality.”
Promissory Notes: From Crisis To Commons (2009)
This much shorter piece, published in 2009, is an analysis of the 2007-2008 “Great Recession” or global financial crisis. It also showed that the crisis was largely yet another “apocalypse” or evolution of capital from the neoliberalism from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and represented neoliberal “capital’s flight into financialization,” or the “attempt to ‘make money from money’ at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed.”
After barraging you with so many links to their writings over the years, I will now attempt to distill their writing into a few of what I perceive to be their key ideas over nearly 40 years of writing.
3 Key Ideas
I remember when my own political outlook begin to evolve away from mainstream partisan politics in the US and toward a more radical outlook, I felt a dearth of information. Most of this was getting used to where information comes from: learning how to disengage from the received dialogues and worldview propagated by the capitalist media and the prevailing cultural outlook I grew up with in suburbia, and toward more obscure, alternative sources was a challenge. To this day, I think that truth discernment is arguably the biggest challenge facing alternative thinkers in the information age. In some ways it’s even more challenging these days, since you can encounter just about every possible viewpoint articulated somewhere on the Internet.
In the late 90s, I was lucky enough to begin studying philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, where George Caffentzis was a teacher. It was a small department, so if you hung out at the philosophy house it was easy to get to know some of the folks who taught there. I was intrigued by George’s ideas and thoughts right from the beginning. There are a lot of great teachers there, but I knew right away that I had a lot to learn from George. I remember early in my freshman year, he did a senior seminar on the philosophy of money, and being really bummed that I was nowhere near far enough along in my philosophy study to be able to take it. So I began to poke around for some of George’s writings, and before long I discovered Midnight Notes. This was in the early days of the Internet, before the writings were available online. I began to read them, and they were definitely challenging. I hadn’t yet read Marx or really any other radical political writings, and in retrospect Midnight Notes served as not only a fabulous introduction, but also an enduring foundation for my radical political thinking. I am grateful for this bit of serendipity that brought me to Maine at this point in spacetime.
Having studied Midnight Notes over the past 15 years, I think these are the most important ideas to glean from their writings:
1. Capitalist Crisis/Apocalypse Is Always About Class Struggle
This idea was first articulated in their 3rd issue: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse, written in 1980 after the so-called “energy crisis” of the 1970s had been underway for the better part of a decade, peaking in both 1973 and 1979. I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember seeing the long lines for gasoline, complaints about OPEC and Jimmy Carter, but very little about class struggle. Interestingly, this was also the last decade where labor strikes were common, since strikes were more or less wiped out by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 when he fired the air traffic controllers who had unionized under PATCO and voted to strike. Their argument is quite detailed, but the essence of it is that
Capitalist crises stem from a refusal of work…. The term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the “work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis.” For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it…. Through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle (Midnight Notes, The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse).
2. The New Enclosures
Arguably the most important insight that came from Midnight Notes’ writings is the notion of the New Enclosures. Before this insight, enclosure, or “primitive accumulation” in Marxist terminology, was largely seen as a historical artifact from the beginning of capitalist society. Midnight Notes showed that enclosures
“are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of class struggle. Any leap in proletarian power demands a dynamic capitalist response: both the expanded appropriation of new resources and new labor power and the extension of capitalist relations, or else capitalism is threatened with extinction.” (Midnight Oil, 318)
Midnight Notes then argued that the New Enclosures took five forms:
Ending communal control of the means of subsistence
Seizing land for debt
Make mobile & migrant labor the dominant form of labor
The collapse of socialism
Attack on our reproduction
They — both the collective itself, and several of the writers working outside the collective — have continued to develop these ideas of enclosure since then.
3. Commons & Commoning
The last idea I think is the most important to come from Midnight Notes is reclaiming the notion of the Commons and Commoning. This idea is the logical extension of their insights about Enclosure, since the Commons is the very thing that is being enclosed. These insights came later in the Midnight Notes, particularly through their admiration and analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico beginning on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Midnight Notes argues that these struggles represent
on one side, capital’s attempt to form a new level of global superstate and economy and, on the other, an anti-capitalist struggle moving from a multiplicity of localities to large-scale confrontations like the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999. The Zapatistas have aptly named this struggle “the Fourth World War.”
Commoning is at the center of this struggle, since the commons provides subsistence for resistance, and “this power to subsist/resist is exactly what capital wants to eliminate throughout the world.” In general, and to some degree, capital is always enclosing, whereas the working class is always commoning, and commoning is central to resistance against capital.
After this all-too-brief look at the Midnight Notes Collective itself, I now want to turn to 3 new books, published by PM Press, from three of the most important voices within Midnight Notes. While George Caffentzis and Peter Linebaugh have been involved with Midnight Notes from its earliest days, it is important to note that Silvia Federici has remained a bit more aloof from the collective over the years. While she was part of the collective for a few of the later original Midnight Notes publications (namely The New Enclosures), and her writings appear in Midnight Oil and Auroras of the Zapatistas, she is not listed as a member of the collective in either of those books. While I do not pretend to be privy to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics and ideological differences within the group, I suspect that Silvia’s unwavering commitment to feminism is at the root of the aloofness. And I should also point out that George Caffentzis conveyed to me in a conversation that for the most part it was Midnight Notes responding to Federici’s work rather than vice versa. All three of these books are anthologies of writing from the careers of each writer, to which I now turn.
In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis Of Capitalism
Of the three, George Caffentzis is the most traditional, albeit radical, “philosopher of the anticapitalist movement.” In Letters Of Blood & Fire is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Work/Refusal, Part 2 is Machines, and Part 3 is Money, War, & Crisis. Part 1 begins with the aforementioned “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” which remains foundational to much of Caffentzis’ subsequent work. These analyses contain wonderful insights, such as this analysis of the relationship between capital’s production, value, and prices:
The hand of capital is different than its mouth and its asshole. The transformation of value into prices is real, but it also causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around “mineness,” the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system: capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected to us — its little agents of complaint, excuse, and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. “Mineness” is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and it is also as pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, whose blindness capital needs to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.
Part 2, on Machines, is a more technical analysis of the place of machines within capitalism, and particularly within the Marxist analysis of capital. Central to his arguments is the piece from 1997, “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines,” whose argument is self-contained in the title.
Part 3 contains a very short and succinct piece, which I recommend as the briefest and most coherent introduction to Caffentzis’ work overall. “The Power of Money: Debt & Enclosure” is a very brief look at money in the human experience:
For most of human history, money either did not exist (before roughly the seventh century BC) or it was of marginal importance for most people on the planet (until roughly the nineteenth century AD). Why is it so important now?
He then articulates the “economist’s fairy tale,” which is the received story about the function of money simplifying exchange as compared to barter, as well as “lowering costs” of trade. He points out that money, too, has its transaction costs that mostly go overlooked by capitalist economists.
All in all, these writings convey Marx’s image that the story of the origins of capitalism, and its reproduction, are written “in the letters of blood and fire used to drive workers form the common lands, forests, and waters in the sixteenth century.” I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the most technical analysis of capitalism, from a detailed philosophical perspective.
Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, & Feminist Struggle
As previously stated, Silvia Federici is the feminist of these three thinkers. Revolution at Point Zero, an anthology of her work over the past 40 years, all of which explore the “zero point of revolution” which is where “new social relations first burst forth, from which countless waves ripple outward into other domains.” It, too, is divided into three parts. Part 1 is Theorizing and Politicizing Housework, containing her earlier, foundational work such as “Wages Against Housework” from 1975, as well as “Why Sexuality Is Work” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet.” Part 2 is Globalization and Social Reproduction, and contains 4 essays including “Women, Globalization, and the International Women’s Movement.”
Part 3, Reproducing Commons, has her most recent work including “Feminism and the Politics of the Common in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” from 2010, which contains the powerful argument that there is an “oblivion” in “our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, the computers with which we communicate.” For Federici,
Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan “no commons without community…. community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.
Federici’s writings here concentrate on “social reproduction,” which is the ways in which society and the people in it reproduce themselves. It is the food we eat, the social relations we share outside the work environment, our basic needs down to clean water & air, shelter and clothing. All of these things are “the most labor-intensive work on earth, and to a large extent it is work that is irreducible to mechanization.” It is also work that is largely unwaged, and exists in the context of capitalist enclosure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in not only a feminist perspective, but also in very practical, day-to-day ideas about how we can be commoning and resist capital.
Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance
Finally, Peter Linebaugh is the historian and storyteller of the three. He is an engaging writer, and the stories he tells need to be heard and retold. Stop, Thief! is divided into five sections. Section 1, The Commons, is the best primer I know of to exploring what Commons & Commoning is. Start with “Some Principles of the Commons,” which is a very short introduction, showing us that the commons “is best understood as a verb,” and then “Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning” fills in one’s understanding that the commons “is not a thing but a relationship” as it applies to various modes of living & knowing.
Part 2, “Charles Marks,” are some of Linebaugh’s contributions to Marxism in history. Part 3, The “UK”, are looks at English History including “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” which shows us that the Luddites were not technophobes but rather were cross-dressing warriors, “anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” Part 4, The “USA,” contains “Introduction to Thomas Paine” and “Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons,” which take a look at the vast commons that existed in pre-colonialist North America. This analysis is continued in Part 5, “First Nations,” with its three essays, “The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck”, “The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx,” and “The Invisibility of the Commons.”
Of the three, Linebaugh’s writing might be the most readable. I agree with Robin Kelley, who wrote about an earlier book from Linebaugh that there is “not a more important historian living today. Period.” I highly recommend this book for people who want to broaden their understanding of the Commons and Commoning, through the voice of a master storyteller, an engaging and agile writer.
The Witching Hour Legacy
These three thinkers, as well as The Midnight Notes Collective and all who have participated in it over the years, represent a vast treasure trove for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of capitalism, crisis, resistance & class struggle, enclosure, commons/commoning, and revolutionary possibilities in the 21st century. These writers and ideas were foundational to my own development as a radical thinker and writer, and I remain grateful for their work.
George Caffentzis on The Commons, Russian Workers, and Capitalists
Marx wrote of the non-coincidence of desires between Russian capitalists and workers:
“…even when [the capitalists] have money, the labor power is not available in sufficient quantity and at the right time. This is because the Russian agricultural worker, owing to the common ownership of the soil by the village community, is not yet fully separated from his means of production and is then still not a ‘free wage-laborer’ in the full sense of the term. But the presence of such ‘free wage-laborers’ throughout society is the indispensible condition without which M-C, the transformation of money into commodities, cannot take the form of the transformation of money capital into productive capital.” (Capital vol 2, p. 117 of the Penguin edition).
Something similar could be said of Greek workers. The capitalist task of the crisis is to end whatever remains of the commons in their lives and make workers fully “free wage laborers” coincident with capital’s “lust for labor.”
The First anti-Syriza Demonstrations
An Athenian anarchist friend suggested that we should go to a demonstration in Syntagma Square called to protest Syriza’s willingness to sign a new memorandum with the “troika,” although we have as yet no concrete knowledge as to the contents of the new Memorandum. Since the whole affair is being presented in the form of a soccer match, why shouldn’t another team enter the field? Perhaps they will score a surprise goal! But at the moment all eyes are on LeGuard, Draghi and the faceless IMF “technocrats” versus the heroic Tsipras, who delays by putting ever higher bids, and rolling the debt one time more until it is time itself that becomes the issue.
Well, in Syntagma Square the initial rally was small—with predictable statements. But soon it was joined by another demonstration that marched to Syntagma from another part of the city and so the whole rally numbered about a thousand (respectable by NYC standards, but very small by Greek). The groups sponsoring the march and rally included, anarchists, autonomists, and even some Trotskyites. Sure enough I saw an old friend who happened to be a well-known Greek Trotskyite. We would see each other often in the 1990s in NYC, but he stopped coming to the US after 9/11, while my political affiliations in Greece became more defined in the post 9/11 period as well. To the point that we hadn’t seen each other in a decade. During that time he had a bout with liver cancer involving many surgeries and chemo-therapy sessions. The cancer would have killed him if it hadn’t been for his decision to go to France and get medical help there. The decision was motivated by another decision of the Greek medical authorities who ordered an anti-cancer drug for him that was needed immediately but with a 3 month expected time of delivery! The French doctors declared him cancer-free a few years ago, but he must return to France every 4 months to check his status.
My Trotskyite friend prided himself on the books he wrote and the political campaigns he was involved in while in the midst of his treatment, as he should. And now he wants to live to be part of the international working class revolution! The march was beginning again, going down Panapistemiou St. My Trotskyite friend took his place at the end and was off!
Trying to Raise the Spectre of Syntagma Square 2011
At first there was a small circle on the square, but it grew over time. At first it was mostly an older crowd, but slowly younger people joined. The intention is to call for a new decision-making body based on popular assemblies to replace the Vouli (the Parliament) that was de-legitimated by the actions of both left and right parties. One speaker after another noted a discrepancy between the extreme situation being faced and the lack of any force from the bottom to intervene! However, only one woman spoke and she addressed a logistic question: how long should each speaker be allotted, 3 or 5 minutes?
There ought to be a movement of the Syntagma Square 2015, but it remained just that, an ought.
A Run on the Banks in Sparta After the Call for a Referendum
On Saturday morning I woke up in Sparta and looked out from the hotel balcony down Paleologou Street and saw that there were lines in front of the ATMs. I wondered what this was about. On going downstairs for breakfast I learned that the night before Tsipras and his advisors walked out of a meeting with the “troika” and called for a referendum on the question, should the final memorandum the troika offered be accepted or not? The immediate response by the Greek populace was this minor “run on the banks,” minor since there are limits as how much can be withdrawn from ATMs per day. We shall see what will happen on Monday when the banks will be open for business. Will this minor run become a massive charge on the banks’ reserves? There was definitely a feeling of panic spreading on the lines in front of the street. I also felt it. I was prompted to take out extra euro cash (in a classic bow to Keynesian “liquidity preference”) because, though I would simply be contributing to the banks’ reserve of dollars, I too would be impacted by the lack of euro currency that would inevitably be experienced by some of the weaker banks (if not the whole banking system, if a “holiday” is called by the government).
This “preference,” however, has a primal feel about it: contagious, violent, irrational. A condition typified by an audience fleeing a minor fire, crushing each other to death trying to get to an exit!
The Taxi Driver’s Lament
He is a large man, both in height and breadth, and a small business man as well. I wondered whether he would try to short change me by insisting on the meter (which stated 63 euros) instead of the 55 euros I understood from George’s agreement last night with him. The taxi driver stuck to the original deal. This is definitely a time of distrust mingled with solidarity! Here are some quotes from his conversation with me on the road to Gythion:
“In Greece there is a saying, ‘The rich man is one with nothing; those with much, lose it to the tax man.’ ” A Buddhist adage?
“Greece has the worst politicians and the worst drivers on the planet.” A Platonic truth?
“I have worked since I was 13 and now I’m on the verge of losing it all. Take this taxi. I spent 130,000 euros for it, 30,000 for the car and 100,000 euros for the taxi driver’s medallion. Now the medallion costs 20,000 euros and falling…soon it will be worth 2,000 euros, but still my brother and I need to work as taxi-drivers to make something. I have one kid and my brother has three. We need to leave them something.” A small businessman’s Abrahamic statement?
A Taxi Passenger’s Lament
Heard from a taxi passenger: When I flew in from Frankfurt to Athens I was very tired (it was night) so I decided to take a cab home. As I got into the cab I noticed a sign saying, “Flat Rate to Athens 35 euros.” So I settled back to enjoy the ride, but I was getting a little worried (as we were getting close to home) that he might short-change me. Sure enough, when we got to the door of my house I handed him 35 euros, he said, “It is 50 euros.” I began to protest and pointed to the sign. He said, “Thirty five euro is for the day, it is 50 euros for the night.” I said, “The sign said nothing about night or day.” The driver said, “Well, let’s go to the police station to straighten this out.” I didn’t want to go to the police station, but nor did he. So I said, to break the stalemate, “Let’s settle this with fists!” He laughed and said, “The 35 is o.k.,” and off he went.
Bank “Holiday” in Paradise
I am in Agios Dimitrios in the Mani with comrades from Switzerland, writing this on a terrace overlooking the Messenian Bay, it would seem I am in the midst of Paradise, without a care in the world! But I write this also on the first “bank Holiday” in Greece in many years, i.e., the government has ordered the banks to be closed and to distribute cash to depositors at a rate of 60 euros a day through ATMs.
What a strange name for this day…a holiday. What god is being honored, if not the God of Banks: the money form? This god presents itself as the universal mediator between non-coincident desires, but these days it is becoming an angry God that is denying all desires (coincident as well as non-coincident). So that capitalists are looking for cash to make more cash and the rest are looking for cash to keep body and soul together.
This is the first day that the debt crisis has hit the immediate lives of Greeks (and even visitors). The long queues in front of the ATMs tell the tale of anxiety and panic…but even worse is the lack of queues, indicating a machine that is out of cash!
I too am caught in this anxiety and panic, though to a lesser degree, because I can get as many euros I want from the ATMs, but I need to find one that is functioning and has cash. This is increasingly difficult since, most crucially, this availability depends on the euros lodged in the banks as cash!
A system of exchange of commodities is becoming a non-system of non-exchange of non-commodities, leaving in its wake gift exchanges and gratis offerings. What was considered a solid way to solve the problem of non-coincident desires has vanished into air, but it also has an escape hatch. Like the staircase from the inferno to purgatory, it takes time to get to and climb. The Syriza people seem to have the intention to do this without a Virgil. Such a trick is unlikely to succeed unless they are expert secret keepers or master game theoreticians! That we shall see, when this holiday in Paradise ends.
The OXI vote: Syriza’s Machiavellianism and the Anti-austerity Movement
“Vox populi, vox Dei,”[“The voice of the people, [is] the voice of God”] is a phrase from a letter written by Alcuin, an advisor of Chalemagne’s who was an early “founder” of the Holy Roman Emire and often taken as the founder of Europe. In the letter Alcuin warns the Emperor not to pay heed to those (like myself) who use the phrase affirmatively. But if the adage is true, what is God saying through the July 5th, 2015 referendum in Greece? That has much to do with what the question being voted on.
This question was not a general one like “Should pensions be further cut?” or “Should the right to strike be preserve in the new labor laws?” or “Should any new austerity policies be prohibited?” It was quite specific, i.e., “Should the memorandum proposed by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, European Commission [aka “the troika”] on Thursday, June 27, 2015 be accepted (“NAI”) or rejected (“OXI”).”
As some critics pointed out, the referendum question had no proper answer, since the “troika” had already taken the memorandum “off the table.” So the vote came down to what the voter wanted it to mean: e.g., “No more pension cuts” or “End austerity policies” or “Greece out of the Eurozone” or a thousand other critiques of the present or nothing precise at all or anything Tsipras and Syriza want it to mean. The referendum’s wording made God speak ambiguously that Sunday through the Greek people’s voice.
In trying to make sense of the peculiar wording of the referendum I saw not so much game-theory in action but a Machiavellian aspect of Syriza, a failed Machiavellianism, however, since Machiavellian reasoning in politics is defeated when it is identified as Machiavellianism! First, the call for a referendum appeared to be a spontaneous response to the troika’s stony refusal to accept some milder structural adjustment measures and a reduction of the debt payments schedule at least. But I learned that the call for the referendum was discussed for months before, within the inner circle of Syriza. So the wording of the referendum was not a hurried decision made in a fit of anger and frustration.
The second Machiavellian point was Tsipras’s claim that an “OXI” vote would give him more power to negotiate with the troika. In other words, the heat of the voter’s insurrection, their gigantic “OXI,” would be useful in frightening his negotiating partners. The attempt to use the anger of Greek workers–who have been degraded on many levels since 2010 and given an avenue for its expression by the referendum—was problematic, since once it is expressed, it cannot be withdrawn. Many said that they voted “OXI” simply because of their refusal to be terrorized by the fears unleashed by the propaganda of the media. This is not a sentiment that can be turned on and off for the benefit of IMF bureaucrats and hedge-fund capitalists.
The third Machiavellian point is Syriza’s refusal to make preparations for taking Greek monetary transactions out of the Eurozone. This was not a technical matter but would have involved the education of the proletariat, capitalists and state employees in the consequences of changing currencies. Even a simple thing like having a few trucks filled with the currency of a possible future money system would have done a lot to “concentrate the mind” of wageworkers (after all, most capitalist-to-capitalist money transactions, outside of the drug trade, are not done in cash). The decision confused both the troika and the Greek working class.
The denouement of this failed Machiavellianism could be seen in Syriza’s proposal sent to the troika five days after the referendum. In that period the voters’ “OXI” was supposed to have shaken up European capitalism, but that did not happen. Neither the exchange rate for the Euro nor the major stock markets of Europe crashed. This lack of response spoke volumes in a language that neoliberals understand. So Tsipras presented the Syriza government’s proposal to the troika on Thursday, July 9. It turns out that this proposal is similar to the memorandum Syriza asked Greeks to reject in the referendum. Liz Alderman, in a nice piece of journalism, compared Tsipras’s and the “troika’s” proposals and she found little difference, e.g., the two proposals with respect to taxation are identical as were the proposed changes in the pension system. Ironically, the major difference was in mililtary spending. The troika’s proposal asks for 400 million euro cut while the Syriza proposal asks for a 100 million euro cut this year.
Silvia Federici, on the broader context of what is happening in Greece
The situation in Greece manifests a double crisis: the crisis of capitalism in Europe, as reflected in the politics of the German Government, and the crisis of the European working-class and the European left.
The politics of Syriza should be de-personalized. They have mismanaged the negotiations but their options were limited given that neither they nor the Greek people ever seriously considered leaving the Eurozone and, for example, turning to Russia for loans. The European Union has become a fetish for the Left, the ideological campaign of ‘Europeism’ has been successful, generating among most a great fear at the idea of leaving the Eurozone.
The Marxist autonomist Left is guilty of the same disease. The formation of a Eurozone has been hailed (to this day, see the recent conference on the crisis in Athens) as a terrain of working class re-composition, but actually we have seen that this has not been the case. Greece has confronted the battle with the European central bank and Bruxelles by itself. No mobilization, no significant expression of solidarity has cone from other countries. This lack of solidarity is especially worrisome, since the working classes of Europe have faced a decade and a half of austerity and structural adjustment and should know the implications of the disciplining of Greece.
By 1998 the EU had imposed on all its members a “Stability Pact” that prevented them from having deficits larger than 3%, forcing them to practically stop all payments, so they could not pay the companies that had been working for them and who eventually went bankrupt. In Italy even victims of an earthquake in Emilia could not be helped explicitly because of the budgetary limits even though the municipalities where the earthquake occurred did have the money necessary. Yet, there were no large demonstrations in London, Paris, Madrid, Rome or Berlin supporting the insurrectional “OXI” vote as a harbinger of their own rejection of austerity.
Even in front of a massive media attack stressing among other things that other workers in Europe would have to pay for the Greek debt.
Syriza never conceived of leaving the Eurozone, never prepared for it, in this, however, reflecting the ambivalence of the Greek/ European population. Clearly people expected more “understanding.” Syriza kept talking of a “humanitarian crisis” rather than a class conflict. The problem however was that the situation the EU is facing does not allow any margin of compromise. The possibility for Greece to default but continue to stay in the Eurozone is ruled by the crisis in which European capital finds itself. The European Union project is in crisis, it has not produced the profitability for which it was created, on the contrary, it is an area of non-accumulation. In this context, Germany is attempting to create a different Europe, “liberated” from countries like Greece that are seen as unproductive, so that can better compete and negotiate with the US and China. In the meantime, Germany too is facing a crisis, because it will have to pay the Greek debt, which cannot be paid by Greece, and will have to abide by the decisions of the US with regard to its relation to Russia (being forced, for instance, to participate in the attack on Ukraine, thereby being prevented from forming any alliance with Russia.)
From a class perspective the crisis, however, is (a) the lack of coordination and solidarity among European working classes; (b) the inability of European working class to delink from capital and the political class, despite the obvious attack to which it is being subjected which will be generalized and intensified in years to come if the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is realized; (c) the inability of the European left to distinguish between the Europe of the bosses and the Europe of the proletariat and its commitment to a Europeanism that is suicidal, preventing a ‘rupture.’ If Greece had left the Eurozone, it could have triggered a real process of re-composition, instead of being used to discipline all the workers in the other countries, who every night have been reminded of what can happen to them if they step out of line, and reject the reforms imposed on them.
The only bright spot is the referendum, which was the first loud NO to globalization in Europe and, as some have noted, a Latin American moment in European class politics. The No! of Greece could have also begun a confrontation with EU politics that is now redirected against immigrants, as the case of Italy demonstrates. Unfortunately only the right wing in Europe now speaks against ‘Europe’.
The situation with immigrants. In the spring of 2015, 950 immigrants died – Now, everyday, boats with hundreds of people arrive. The government sends them to
different localities, forcing municipalities to accept a certain number, but now citizens are revolting, and the right-wing is fomenting the revolt. More immigrants continue to die. The rightwing calls for a naval blockade, to push them back and tells the government that to save them is wrong, because more will come. They say the government should give no assistance. In reality this is what is actually happening. France has closed the frontiers.
On Social Solidarity Health Clinics
Syriza’s refusal to prepare the working class in Greece of what an alternative to continuing with “humiliating” negotiations with the troika has been widely noted. This observation was even more problematic to those trying to understand Syriza’s strategy, since only if there was a credible threat to carry out a successful exodus from the Eurozone could have the Tsipras-Varoufakis team have won any substantial debt-relief in the first place. One way to explain this anomaly is by assuming that the Syriza leadership simply thought that taking any path out of the Eurozone would be too onerous for Greek workers and capitalists. Greece in this period was definitely inundated with terrifying images of a post-euro world without petrol, without doctors and medicines, without food, in short, a wasteland of repression, illness and violence…a Mad Max world, Greek-style.
But there was already a model of an escape from such a scenario in the more than 40 Social Solidarity Health Clinics (SSHC) that could be found in most of the cities of Greece. Most of these SSHCs were founded in the crisis, especially after the Syntagma Square occupation in 2011. They now involve thousands of doctors, nurses and pharmacists and they see tens of thousands of patients a year. They provide first level health care from doctors and nurses who are working for no pay. They began with the crisis to work with immigrants who were often turned away from public and private hospitals. Greek patients in the SSHCs were few because they (even if poor and uninsured) tended to avoid them since they assumed that anything that served the immigrants must be of low quality. But as the crisis deepened and more and more Greeks were laid-off, increasingly the patients in these clinics became more integrated at the bottom of the wage scale. Throughout Greece the SSHCs have become a remarkable pole of attraction in recent years, and they have played an important role in providing health care services to tens of thousands at a moment when the hospital system was deteriorating due to strictures on public investment on social reproduction.
I was invited to attend a discussion among volunteers at SSHCs from Athens, Thessaloniki, and Crete. The encounter was prefaced by the following self-description:
At the current situation of intensified deregulation of our lives, as in recent years, the Solidarity Clinics have been a Social Safety Net. The only one in such a broad scale. And this is a fact which cannot be appropriated by any government, party or official institutional body. The fact that we continue to operate has nothing to do with an expectation to get things done as it was before. We have nowhere to return to. And this is a conscious choice. In any situation of political and social instability we know that today we have the social relationships and the necessary experience to maintain an active role in social developments.
Here are some notes I took of the frank and open discussion:
We do “community medicine,” but it needs to be enlivened by new thinking and this new thinking must come from the patients. But it takes time to get new thoughts. Moreover, it is difficult to bring patients in for a general meeting. For example, we recently telephoned 400 patients to come to a meeting to discuss the project and only 30 came. But still, we are not a philanthropy!
We were originally driven to do our medicine out of need, but soon we started to deal with medicine in a political way.
We are formulating a third way of delivering health services (i.e., neither in the state mode nor as a private enterprise). We are thinking we are doing medicine as a common and we are using other terms—like “autonomy” and “real democracy”—as well to describe the kind of medicine we are trying to do.
We have a problem with the left-wing government of Syriza, even though many thought it would save the situation, But that has not happened. In actual fact, the uninsured are the majority in the country. No solution. And even when there is government support, it requires too much paperwork!
People become tired. At times we feel that some of our colleagues are doing the work out of duty. They don’t feel the same way we do.
We don’t want to deal with the state. We don’t want to comply with the state’s directives.
Athens after “OXI!”
The city seems to be on vacation after the “OXI!” The traffic is lighter, the tourists are fewer, the smog lighter, the shops (that are still surviving) often closed, except for the cafes, restaurants, and tavernas. I’m feeling the pulse of the city’s circulatory system slowing down, and even at odd moments stopping, as if the summer heat had turned to capital and just said, “Stamata!” (“Basta!”)
A CALL FOR AN INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
MUTUAL AID NETWORK
SUPPORT SOCIAL STRUGGLE IN GREECE
The below statement is from the Social Solidarity Clinic in Iraklio who are collaborating with other clinics, social centers and movements to create a network from below to receive concrete forms of solidarity.
A surprise for some. Not a surprise for others. In either case, there is a lasting question. How is a response from below possible to counteract and negate the totalizing financialization of our lives?
There is not one political answer to this. However, a political point needs to be stressed. Support is not needed for an inter-class, ethnocentric peoples—the Greeks.
Support is needed for the struggle from below taking place in Greece. It is the State, first, that homogenizes the differentiated impact of austerity—due to class, age, gender, location, and way of life—under a national identity. To accept austerity, for each MoU, a respective national responsibility. And for five years—nationalization or austerity—the two remedies to choose from.
We choose differently. What is urgent, for us, is to collectivize (not homogenize) individual risk—due to personal debt, job precarity, lessened or no access to health services and good nutrition and the internalization of guilt and shame.
This is the 2nd call for the International Solidarity-Mutual Aid Network. To meet acute and longterm needs in Greece. From/to self-organized initiatives. The aim is to make visible, to demonstrate the efficacy of and put into practice an alternative form of Social Solidarity vis a vis the form of Institutional Solidarity—the EU-ECB-IMF institutions and the new austerity program by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) of the Eurozone.
To clarify. The call is not a contingent choice. It follows our broader effort to develop a different approach to healthcare. On a social, rather than individual, level. Solidarity, reciprocity, equity, without any distinction as to race, color, origin, sexual orientation or religion. Essential elements. For multifactorial healthcare. Not medicalized assessment. For treating human as a bio-psycho-social whole. Not reduction of human to any individual symptom. For deinstitutionalisation. Not charity, medicine for profit, or neoliberal de-hospitalization via closures, privatization and criminalization. For social emancipation.
The plan is to start from, and have at the core of this network, autonomous solidarity health clinics—the sites experimenting on the basis of non-capitalist forms of labor, non-medicalized healthcare, non-institutional dependency. Each clinic will act as a hub, and will coordinate with other self-organized groups in its city/broader area. Each such coalition will determine and share with the network—the initiatives responding to the call—a list of needs (money, in kind, human), ways to be reached (online, mail, in person), long term communication framework/programming. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Needs may range from medicine and electronics to doctors. Within the coming weeks each clinic/coalition will send out their first round of communication.
Silvia Federici is a feminist activist, writer, and a teacher. In 1972 she was one of the co-founders of the International Feminist Collective, the organization that launched the international campaign for Wages For Housework (WFH). In the 1990s, after a period of teaching and research in Nigeria, she was active in the anti-globalization movement and the U.S. anti-death penalty movement. She is one of the co-founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, an organization dedicated to generating support for the struggles of students and teachers in Africa against the structural adjustment of African economies and educational systems. From 1987 to 2005 she taught international studies, women studies, and political philosophy courses at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. All through these years she has written books and essays on philosophy and feminist theory, women’s history, education and culture, and more recently the worldwide struggle against capitalist globalization and for a feminist reconstruction of the commons. Her books include: Caliban & The Witch & Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle.
In the summer of 2015 I spent a month in Greece, from June 10 to July 10. I travelled from Thessaloniki to Volos to Athens to Sparta to the Mani to Crete then back to Athens. I stayed mostly with comrades, some new, some old and I was joined for ten days by Silvia Federici. What follows are some observations and comments on this tumultuous period that included the “OXI” (“NO!”) referendum, innumerable meetings of the “Troika” [ed note: the triumvirate representing the European Union in its foreign relations] with and without the officials of Syriza, the coalition of leftist parties that took over the government in January 2015 after being a tiny party for decades [ed. note: or, the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left, name taken from the Greek adverb “from the roots”]. Though the sections are undated, they are roughly placed in a chronological order. This is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the situation in Greece, so there are many facets of the class struggle there that are not noted. But I should point out that the immigrant workers are part of the Greek working class.
Greece 2015: Setting the Stage
The following is what I can make of collective understanding of the crisis put together with the help of comrades from Greece and the U.S. (in my own words, of course):
There are two levels to the crisis. First is the visible financial balance sheet level. Here is the world of debt payments due, say X, and the largely tax-based income of the state, say Y, and X-Y is what is due and it is huge amount. The drama of money, part tragedy, part comedy, is played out, with the protagonists in the front of the stage (incarnated by the financial wizards of the troika, the “young” P.M. Tsipras and the now ex-finance minister Varoufakis) while in the background is a shadowy chorus of bond-holders and out-front vulture hedge-fund managers who intervene periodically with sibylline utterances full of threat and fury.
The second level is the unstated but persistently followed plan to use the first crisis of state finances (the debt crisis) to put the European proletariat into crisis by making the elimination of labor legislation favorable to workers, the cuts in pensions, increased unemployment and a dramatic decrease in wages as structural adjustment conditionalities for any new “bailout” loans. The Greek working class is simply the supposed “weak link” useful for carrying out the plan aimed at Europe as a whole.
This is why the “fictive capital” theorists are so unconvincing. If the structural adjustment program elements of the plan were missing, then there would be a “financial solution to a financial problem.” But the clear purpose of the financial crisis is to deal with the fall of profitability in the entire European region. Capitalist strategists believe that the levels of wages, alternative forms of work refusal (pensions and welfare benefits) and of reproductive “services” (health and education) are so high that they make it impossible for European-based capital to compete (especially with Asian and North American capital). The crisis managers’ aim is to normalize the cuts in these levels and to make such a working class existence (precarious wages and even a return to testing physiological limits) a feature of the standard of living in Europe for the foreseeable future. If this is not done, European capital will suffer what at first may look like euthanasia, but then will later precipitate into a violent dissolution. This is the crisis of European capital! So not only are the European proletarians in trouble, but so are the capitalists. There are many crises in the field, there is no THE crisis.
All Quiet on the Extra-Parliamentary Front
There is something remarkable happening in Greece with the victory of Syriza in the elections of January 2015. A left-wing party gets into state power, but it seemed to have definitely kept the rest of the Left (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) from using this time to put forward their own programs and demands in the streets. This seems to confirm Raul Zibechi’s insight, coming from Latin America, that the only force that could now defeat the anti-capitalist social movements is a left-wing government in power (or on its way to power).
I sensed a definite loss of direction, of energy, of confidence in the last few years within the extra-parliamentary left. Between December 2008 and April 2012 there was a period of intense confrontation with the forces of the state run by right-wing parties proposing austerity as a way out of the crisis. Along with this was the direct confrontation with Golden Dawn, the Greek version of the German Nazi Party [ed note: this is not the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, familiar to many pagans & occultists]. Both were very popular antagonists.
But the rise of Golden Dawn was halted by its members’ assassination of a popular leftist rap singer that brought out a tremendous response. The right-wing government at the time then recognized that the Golden Dawn was too dangerous to let it expand without some checks. Without the antagonistic presence of Golden Dawn, however, the raison d’etre of much alarm and sense of emergency was vanishing in the fall of 2014.
Syriza’s sudden rise to state power (with its pledge to end the austerity regime imposed by the “the troika” and its minions in Greece) was also disconcerting for the extra-parliamentary left, since Syriza’s success implied that there might be an electoral way out of the regime of poverty and tatters.
Together these two developments disarmed the critics of electoral solutions to the crisis. So now in the face of an unprecedented attack on living standards, we see very little response in the streets. Syriza is therefore receiving negative support from the extra-parliamentary left.
Moreover, on the extra-parliamentary front, there is much division and backbiting typical of a period of defeat. I cannot help but be skeptical of the appeal of the extra-parliamentary left’s political program when I compare the number of youths involved in the simple commodification and consumption of sociality, sexuality and general pleasure in the cafes and tavernas —as if they are thumbing their collective noses at the troika! What a display of the willfulness of enjoyment that inserts a new pole of attraction in the equation…a pure anarchism.
As I walk through downtown Thessaloniki in the soft evening air I wonder, am I on the deck of the Titanic or am I walking through Paradise?
A clear-headed Anarchist from Thessaloniki speaks:
The solidarity economy is not strong enough yet to take on the task of social reproduction.
The collapse of the Syriza government would lead to an extremely repressive right-wing replacement.
Doing cooperative labor is not easy. Multiplying our experience with a cooperative bookstore would definitely be a lesson.
ERT3 confronts Syriza
Silvia Federici and I were invited to a meeting of workers at the national radio and television (ERT3) station in Thessaloniki. It was shut down exactly two years ago by the troika-friendly Nea Democratia-PASOK government that was looking to do something dramatic to show the bondholders that it was serious in sticking to the structural adjustment agenda. The shut-down decision was made abruptly and disrespectfully, with accusations of laziness and corruption tossed around to justify it. But the workers refused to exit silently. They faced down the police with the help of a crowd that blocked the entrances to the station and they continued to work in their studios and offices with live news, opinion and entertainment programing. In the evening and early morning there were documentary programs and re-runs. So that the station provided a 24/7 presence via the internet with programing especially keyed to the interests of the Northern Greek and Balkan audience. They did all this without pay and with donations from their listeners.
When Syriza came to power in January 2015 its spokespeople promised to revive the public broadcasting system and rehire all the journalists, technicians and office personnel that were laid off in 2013. This was the day when everything would be regularized with the arrival of the newly appointed station manager from government headquarters in Athens. However, not all was well as far as the workers were concerned.
First, the ERT3 workers have been used to self-management after two years of making decisions on the basis of assemblies of workers. In fact, that is exactly what they did on the arrival of station manager. They invited him to their assembly to debate with him as to his instructions from Syriza headquarters in Athens.
Second, they had learned one of the first acts of the new station director would be to lay-off or not-hire anyone that had joined the effort to keep the station alive in the previous two years.
Third, they were not happy that the new station manager was a former official of PASOK. Why wasn’t someone more in line with the politics of Syriza sent to become station manager? Or, what is Syriza’s politics now in the first place?
At the workers’ assembly there was talk about going on strike to protest the threatened lay-offs. In response, at the very moment when the rest of the workers would be getting a pay-check for the first time in two years, there was much dramatic rhetoric on the theme of the importance of ERT3’s programming, in support of the argument that the station should not go on strike (since ERT3 is often the only news channel that covers the strikes of others)!
Talk in Volos
After a number of talks in Thessaloniki by George and/or Silvia, here are notes for a joint talk in the Architecture school in the University at Volos:
From Debt To Crisis To Enclosure of the Commons
What is happening in Greece is the implementation of a structural adjustment program (a technical term that became so hated around the planet that the World Bank and IMF stopped using the term to be replaced by the term “Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper”!) as it was applied to former colonized states that have taken their mandate from the anti-colonial movement seriously. They were posing a threat in claiming the New International Economic Order (NIEO). This was a serious challenge (of which the nationalization of the oil industry across the planet was an example). The NIEO was in effect claiming reparations for colonialism’s massive theft of land, mineral wealth and labor-power. This was getting too close to the old masters’ bone and had to stop! To do this a trap was prepared, a debt trap. The governments of the former colonial world were tempted to take out loans with variable interest rates which at the time were relatively low, to fulfill the very mandate of ending the poverty and degradation of the last century. The trap was sprung in 1979 (under the rubric of “stopping inflation.”). The interest on the loans rose to nearly 20% over night. The former colonized countries’ governments were trapped indeed facing a debt crisis!The IMF and WB acted quickly. They did not want to lose the opportunity the crisis provided by dealing with a financial problem by financial means (e.g., rolling over the debt for another year). On the contrary, they imposed structural adjustment conditionalities that were directly aimed at the elimination of the commons (since most of these SAPs had requirements involving the land ownership and the transformation of commons into private ownership and other goals that were meant to privatize what were considered common goods (from pensions to “royalties” on extracted wealth. So here we have a direct line from Debt to Crisis to the Enclosure of the Commons.
Like a Frenzied Dog on a Trapped Fox
A similar path can be traced in the application of this scenario to Europe, starting with Greece. This is a period of low interest rates and there is much lending, but it is also a period of low profits as well. Greece became part of the Eurozone under the assumption that the inevitable restriction in monetary policy required by the single currency would be compensated during a crisis (e.g., roll overs of the debt would be allowed). This was a mistaken assumption, since it was not assumed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. So a trap was closed on European countries like Greece and a package of structural adjustment policies was unleashed like a frenzied dog on a trapped fox. These policies were directed at commons and commons-like institutions (from pension funds to revenues from the extraction of mineral wealth) in preparation for the TTIP (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). These specifics are driving the clear investing in silver 2016 that we are expecting.
An Autonomy Crisis
The reactions from the working class of Europe was tumultuous, and a new version of “IMF riots” were chronicled throughout Europe from 2010 on. But there hasn’t been any break through. The working class of Europe is experiencing a crisis of its power to say “No!”…i.e., an autonomy crisis that the OXI vote of July 5 might signal an anti-capitalist resolution.
Family and Poverty Reduction
The most effective poverty reduction institution in Greece is still the family. Though the family capital is being depleted at a rapid rate, it has been the cushion for the hard landing many have individually experienced these last five years. I’ll always remember my cousin’s table for Sunday lunch, everyone, four generations, eating elbow to elbow, frustrated each in their own ways, but all with a full belly! In fact, there is a race between state capital with family capital to determine which will be depleted first. If families’ savings get exhausted first, there will be genuine food riots that hadn’t been seen since the 19th century. If state capital exhausts first, there would be an anarchist turn in the creation of social reproduction institutions (from health clinics to Community Supported Agriculture agreements).
Cash in the Mattress and the Increase in Burglaries
There is much suspicion of banks and other financial institutions in Greece. There haven’t been any serious runs on the banks YET, but there is a walk from them. This explains the dramatic increase in the hoarding of cash under the famous mattresses. This has led to an increase in the number of burglaries, since burglars read the financial news as well! There is even a burglar’s demand for machines that locate gold coins!
A Fashion Statement
There is a strong taste for the tattered jeans, shorts and t-shirts this summer in Greece. Is this a fashion commentary on the crisis? Is this a way of merging the inside with the out? While sitting in the central square of Sparta, I see a little two-year old dressed with torn jeans. This fashion statement is a reminder of a change in the frankness of expression, because when I was a child on the Sparta square, the parents and children were dressed to a “t,” even though the poverty of the 1950s was much deeper than today’s.
Plato’s Republic and Debt Refusal
In the midst of the debt crisis in Greece, Joulia Strauss, a German artist, decided that it was time to bring artists, scholars, political activists to Greece to show their solidarity with the Greek people in crisis. She thought a free school would be the best way to express this solidarity and the best venue for the school would be the site of Plato’s Academy (a few stones remain of it, rescued by archeologists). A. contacted me, recommended Joulia’s project and so I joined. I thought a presentation of Plato’s views on debt payment refusal would be a suitable topic. Then on the 23 of June a small band (reaching twenty at its peak) made its way to the site of the Academy and I made my presentation. The following is the text I based my remarks on:
June 23, 2015 at Plato’s Academy
Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn’t return them, and wouldn’t be acting justly if he did.
Plato, Republic 331c.
In the fall of 2011, just after the termination of Occupy Wall Street, I began speaking in support of those who had pledged to refuse to repay their student loan debt once a million others have also pledged to do so (under the rubric of Occupy Student Debt Campaign). In the course of giving a number of presentations concerning this campaign I received many queries and criticisms. The queries were most often practical, e.g., “what about co-signers, what will happen to them if I refuse to pay when I become the millionth and first student loan debt refuser?” The criticisms were also practical, ranging from “why not organize people to refuse all debt?” to “if you refuse to pay student loans debt, wouldn’t the Federal Government stop supporting the student loan program at all and hence you would harm future students?” I was prepared to deal with these practical questions and criticisms on their own terms, with empirical evidence and political argument.
But there was a more problematic criticism that was not so easily answered, since those who voiced it were not just in disagreement with the premise of the campaign–it was justified to refuse to pay a student loan debt– but they were morally offended by it. Their retorts to my arguments for the Campaign took on an almost metaphysical aura of sanctity when they spoke about the importance of paying debts from loans that were freely entered into, whatever the consequences. Their criticism quickly left the plane of facts and even values and entered into a world of meta-values with the primary one being: one cannot be morally serious unless one pays back one’s debts.
The political problem posed by this moral attitude to debt repayment is that it touched a raw nerve in many student loan debtors who have been ashamed by their inability to pay off their loans. This shame has led many to try to cover up and not talk to others (even family members) about their plight. According to my research concerning previous student loan debt abolition efforts, one of the key reasons they have not been successful has been their inability to overcome debtors’ characteristic shamed silence that is profoundly anti-political because it turns the collective problem of debt repayment into an individual issue to be dealt with one person at a time. Consequently, this moral criticism had to be dealt with directly and decisively if the anti-student debt effort was not to meet a similar fate, since this criticism not only makes it difficult to move the critics, but it has a problematic effect on many debtors who are already vulnerable to the mental blackmail implicit in the “debt moralists’” assertions.
In thinking through the conundrum posed by these debt moralists, I realized that, as a philosopher, I was equipped to deal with the philosophical arguments for or against student loan debt repayment. The more I explored the literature the more I realized that the defense of debt refusal has a long philosophical history. It was important to get this literature into the contemporary discourse on debt in response to the rigidity of debt moralism.
If Plato’s Republic marks the beginning of political philosophy, then debt payment refusal appears at the beginning of the beginning of political philosophy. Plato, the aristocratic darling of conservative thinkers, actually defends debt payment refusal in the Republic. Plato’s concern with debt should not be surprising, since indebtedness leading to debt slavery was the source of civil wars and revolutions throughout ancient Greek history from 600BC on. Solon, the famous Athenian law-giver, aimed to stop the endless turmoil caused by the cycle of debt-enslavement-revolution-debt and the ever reigniting class war between the poor debtors and the creditor plutocrats that was leading Athens to catastrophe. He did so by legislating the end of debt slavery, a move that led to the democratization of the Athenian state, and increasingly the remuneration of citizens for their public work (especially for their participation in the administration of justice and legislation, which required attending general assemblies and being part of juries, like the jury of 800+ that decided Socrates’ trial).
Solon was a politician and even a sage, but he was not a philosopher. Plato was. What did he have to say about debt repayment refusal? Significantly, the discussion of debt at the very beginning of the Republic. The first person Socrates interrogates, posing the book’s germinating question “What is justice?” is Kephalos, a wealthy arms manufacturer — although an immigrant, a member of the Athenian 1% — and owner of the house where the dialogue staged in the Republic is supposed to take place. The name “Kephalos” itself is important, for in ancient Greek it meant “head,” and as such it is a cognate of the word for “capital.”
Kephalos’ answer to Socrates’ question, appropriately enough for a merchant, is: “Speak the truth and pay your debts!” But Socrates easily dismisses this definition, pointing out that if a person borrows some weapons from a friend, but in the interim the friend “goes berserk” and becomes (murderously and/or suicidally) insane, it would not be just for the debtor to return the weapons to the friend…in fact, repaying the debt in this circumstance would be positively unjust, since it would lead to either murder or suicide or both! Thus the conditions of just repayment of a debt do not necessitate an absolute commitment to repayment under any conditions. Universalizing the kernel of Socrates’ rejoiner to Kephalos’ definition, we come to the following maxim: one should refuse to repay a loan when the payment will lead to evil or unjust consequences that far outweigh what fairness would result from its payment.
Plato’s suspicion of Kephalos’ wisdom was the outcome of the Athenians’ long political experience with a class of merchants and landlords who, like Kephalos, insisted that their loans should be repaid even if this should result in debt-slavery and class-based civil war. This may explain why, in Socrates’ response, Plato referred to the loan of a weapon! For creditors in this case appear to be a maddened crowd, with debt repayment being a cause of murder and suicide, especially when ending with the enslavement of fellow citizens.
These issues did not die with the end of the ancient world. Indeed, today’s “debt moralists” offer a response to those who refuser student loan repayment similar to the one that Kephalos made to Socrates’ query. In turn, we too must respond to the categorical imperative of debt moralists in the same way that Socrates responded to Kephalos’ definition of justice, with an emphatic “it depends.”
First, it depends on whether student loans are unjust in and of themselves qua loans. On this count, the actual mechanisms of student loan debt speak decisively. For a start, student loan debts in the US cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, unlike almost all other loan debts can be. In addition a large percentage of these loans have been contracted under fraudulent conditions, as it was revealed in the course of frequent scandals, court cases and Congressional committees’ investigations. As Robert Meister pointed out in the case of the University of California, UC administrators pledge future student fees largely to be paid for by student loans and grants to support UC’s bond ratings, its capital projects and a variety of equity deals that turn public money to private gain. This territory has been thoroughly explored by previous student loan debt abolition movements and there is still a lot more to learn.
Second, it depends on whether the collective good is served by repayment. Here it is important to understand the function of student debt in the context of the changes that have taken place in university financing since the 1970s. The ever increasing student debt burden (now beyond one trillion dollars) has been the material condition that made the imposition of ever increasing tuition fees in both public and private non-profit universities possible and financed the expansion of for-profit universities. These developments have led to the corporatization and privatization of universities, on the one side, and plunged a whole generation into debt-bondage. There is no doubt, therefore, that restoring a tuition-free university system and avoiding a further polarization of society requires that we end the present student debt system.
Third, it depends on whether the education and knowledge student loans are intended to pay for ought be commodities in the first place. This is where Plato enters again. Plato held a life-long antipathy to “sophists.” This word had a sociological reference–those who sell their knowledge to students—as well an epistemological one—those who claim to be wise. The sophists believed that knowledge was a commodity that could be exchanged for money. This was their answer to the question that has been at the center of the debate concerning the development of “for-profit” universities and the intensification of corporate efforts to impose intellectual property legal regimes on academic labor. Plato would not approve. His was a notion of knowledge that was neither commodified nor commodifiable. In Plato’s Republic those who know are to live a perfectly communistic life, neither paying for their education nor getting paid for its use. For two thousand years this conception of an academic institution remained the dominant one, and even in these neoliberal times it still has value.
The very status of most universities (that are either public or private but non-profit) and the traditional temporal limitations placed on “intellectual property rights” (e.g., patents give monopoly rights for the sale of an invention for 20 year) indicate that, despite highly organized and well-financed efforts, the commodification of education and knowledge is still not perceived as legitimate. If most universities are not supposed to profit from the education they provide and the knowledge they disseminate, why should ancillary financial institutions profit from them instead?
Student debt refusal, then, is in principle as just as one’s refusal to return a borrowed loaded gun to a maddened friend who intends to murder and then commit suicide with it. It should not be deterred by objections like the following, “Wouldn’t canceling all student loan debt be unfair to all those people who struggled to pay back their student loans?” For as David Graeber retorted in his important book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, this argument is as foolish as saying that it is unfair to a mugging victim that his/her neighbors were not mugged as well! (p. 389) Plato would agree.
Look for Part 2 of Report From Greece by George Caffentzis — with Silvia Federici — here.
“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. Without these moments of force, money would have remained a marginal aspect of human history. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. This flight ended with “producers becoming more dependent on exchange” since they had no other way to survive but by either selling their products or selling themselves or being sold. Thus did “exchange become more independent of them,” its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove “everyone” into the monetary system.”
George Caffentzis, “The Power Of Money: Debt and Enclosure,”In Letters Of Blood & Fire
It is spring, 1870. My great-grandfather, Mons Olsen Fuglie, then an 8 1/2 year old boy, left his ancestral home in Valdres, Norway, traveling south to Kristiana (what had been, and is now, called Oslo). He boarded the Argonault under the command of Captain S.W. Flood, bound from Kristiana to land in Quebec, before continuing the journey to their new life in Minnesota. The journey across the Atlantic took two months, with 237 passengers aboard a ship whose length was 147.5 feet and beam 29 feet, depth of 11 feet. With Mons were his 3 siblings, his mother Ambjor Monsdatter and his father Ole Arneson. Pre-industrial transatlantic travel was grueling, so much so that Ole was weakened from the journey and collapsed, 25 days after landing in Minnesota, dying of what they called heat stroke. My great-grandfather thus grew up on a new continent, in a new ecosystem, in a place with new languages, without his father.
When I was growing up in a midwestern middle class suburbia of the 70s and 80s, I don’t remember hearing much about displacement. When we did, it was usually in the context of studying the standardized, whitewashed account of slavery in the Americas, where African people were kidnapped from their homelands, taken against their will in slave ships across the Atlantic, and inserted into the capitalist system as slaves. In one sense, I was lucky that my high school had a good racial mixture of people. European-Americans like myself were the majority, but there were a lot of African-Americans and Asian-Americans as well. Despite an interest in my genealogy as a child, I never thought much about displacement as it applies to my own life and ancestry until the past decade or two. It is no accident that I have also spent this time cultivating my connection with place, as part of my spiritual practice.
It is also no accident that this spiritual connection with place was developed around the same time I moved to Maine. Maine is an extraordinary place, with some astounding ecosystems and nature spirits. I have an ocean, beaches (both sandy and rocky), marshlands, mountains, rivers, forests, springs, small cities, lakes, ponds, parks, trails, and farms all well within an hour’s drive of my home. I have spent more time in nature in the 1/3 of my life in Maine than all the other places I have lived or visited combined. I have slowly picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the ecosystem, learning to identify plants, trees, animal tracks, scat, game trails, and geological formations. I find it fascinating, but despite all I’ve learned I know that my knowledge is dwarfed by the knowledge any child who has seen 8 summers in an indigenous culture with an ancestral connection to place would have. Despite my increasing comfort level with the ecosystem here in Maine, I know and recognize that I am “from away” (in the local parlance). As beautiful as Maine is, and as much as I love “my” 2 acres of it, I know that on some level — the most primal, ancestral level — that I don’t really belong here. I have no doubt that the Arossagunticook people who lived here for hundreds of generations prior to the arrival of the Europeans would concur.
Maine is also as close as I can get to my ancestral homelands without leaving the US. I’m sure the fact that I ended up here is a coincidence. Of course.
Valdres Roots & Husfolk
“The visitor to Valdres … by traversing its whole length between Spirilen and the wilds where Sogn meets Gudbrandsdalen, with excursions into the many spots of beauty or grandeur on either side, … has the opportunity of seeing some of the best that is to be found of a practically all elements of scenic attractions that Norway offers the sightseer anywhere, and he will understand why the native of Valdres thinks his Valley the most beautiful region of all the old Fatherland.”
Andrew A. Veblen, Book of Valdris, p 19
For dozens of generations, my Norwegian ancestors were Husfolk — “land tenants” who subsisted in mostly feudal arrangements with the landed lords — in Valdres, a fogderi (county) in southern, central Norway, just south of the Jotunheimen mountains. From 1750-1850, the population of Norway doubled, from about 700,000 to 1.4 million. This was the period of Enclosure in Norway, which drove my ancestors from their subsistence on the land, and destroyed the ancestral link they had with it. Much of the potential farmland, that had lain uncultivated and intact since the Black Plague in the 1300s, was enclosed as private property. For the Husfolk, this gave them fewer options; since they didn’t own land and had no way to buy it, they could only be subsumed within the labor exploitation of capitalism. Yet, industry hadn’t really come to Norway, certainly not to the Valdres valley away from the cities. As a result of the lack of “opportunity” in Norway, 900,000 Norwegians emigrated to America between 1825-1914, such that by 1920, there were more people in America descendent from Valdres than there were people left in Valdres.
One can therefore see the appeal for the landless Norwegians to emigrate to America, particularly in post-slavery America, the land of “manifest destiny,” provided that the Europeans were courageous (or desperate) enough to risk the frontier, in its wildness and with the last remaining packets of resistance from the Indigenous peoples of the continent protecting their ancestral claims to the land. My ancestors, therefore, left Norway for both sides of the capitalist enclosure coin. Norway had been completely enclosed, and there were too many people there without land rights struggling to eke out a living. On the other hand, in the so-called New World (or if you prefer, Turtle Island), enclosure hadn’t yet begun if you went far enough west, where there remained millions of acres of fertile land and far fewer Europeans to claim them. So while my ancestors were being pushed out of Norway, they were also being pulled toward Minnesota.
Blood Roots & Mud Roots
“The ancestors are such an important part of our spiritual tradition. When we call to our ancestors in ritual and prayers, we may be asking for specific guidance from those who are conscious of our existence and coherent in their form, but perhaps more poignantly we are waking our own perception to their unceasing presence. We speak of their stories humming in our blood and bones, and this is true in terms of our genetic inheritance, yet felt too in the sense of their presence being everywhere. We speak of the breath we breathe having been breathed by our ancestors, and in this too we accept the practical logic of our globe’s one body of air, yet also in the poetry and omnipresence of their consciousness.”
Emma Restall-Orr, Living Druidry, p 204-5.
I never knew my grandfather, Milton. Cancer claimed him long before I was born, when my mother was 12. Mons, Milton’s father, also died when Milton was a child, having been kicked by a horse. So along with Ole, who died shortly after arriving in Minnesota, the three consecutive generations preceding me all grew up without their paternal connection to their homeland. This is, through my mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather, my connection to Valdres. I find it interesting that despite these generations of disconnect, I feel the strongest connection to this quarter of my family tree, over and above my Irish (Mom’s Mom’s side) and German (Dad’s side) ancestry.
In Druidry, we talk about Mud Roots and Blood Roots. Mud Roots are a connection to a particular place. Blood Roots are those who came before, the ancestors. For more than a thousand years, as far back past history and into mythology as we can see, up to the late 19th century, these Blood and Mud Roots were intertwined in Valdres, until the connection was broken by the capitalist enclosure movement. Think about that for a moment. This ancestral connection to place was strong enough to withstand centuries of hardship, famine, plague, warfare, the imposition of Christianity by force (spearheaded by Olaf the Saint, another one of my ancestors, but that’s another story), not to mention a thousand harsh Norwegian winters, only to finally be destroyed by something so powerful, yet so insidious, that people today have to be taught what “enclosure” means. The notion of “private property” remains so abstracted, such a given, that many believe it has always existed, assuming that feudal Lords “owned” property in the same way as today’s landlords, and that serfs were much closer to slave status than we ever could be in these enlightened times. On the contrary, as Silvia Federici reminds us:
The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lords’ land (the demesne), the serfs received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves, and pass down to their children…. Having the effective use and possession of a plot of land meant that the serfs could always support themselves and, even at the peak of their confrontations with the lords, they could not easily be forced to bend because of the fear of starvation. True, the lord could throw recalcitrant serfs off the land, but this was rarely done, given the difficulty of recruiting new laborers in a fairly closed economy and the collective nature of peasant struggles.”
The Husfolk of Valdres, therefore, were not slaves, or mere servants of the lordly class in Norway. There was a powerful bond between them and their place, a bond that, by the mid-1800s, after more than a century of capitalism and enclosure, had grown weak enough that more than half the population of Norway had been displaced.
It is only in the past 300 years — far less than 1% of homo sapiens time on this planet — that we must distinguish between mud roots and blood roots. Prior to that, as rates of migration were much slower, they were much more intimately intertwined.
Domestication & The Capitalist Accumulation of Labor
“In the aftermath of the Black Death, every European country began to condemn idleness, and to persecute vagabondage, begging, and refusal of work. England took the initiative with the Statute of 1349 that condemned high wages and idleness (author’s note: with higher wages, workers could work fewer hours and therefore had more leisure time), establishing that those who did not work, and did not have any means of survival, had to accept work. Similar ordinances were issued in France in 1351, when it was recommended that people should not give food or hostel to healthy beggars and vagabonds. A further ordinance in 1354 established that those who remained idle, passing their time in taverns, playing dice or begging, had to accept work or face the consequences; first offenders would be put in prison on bread and water, while second offenders would be put in the stocks, and third offenders would be branded on the forehead.”
After my great-grandfather Mons settled in Minnesota, where he lived until he died in 1925, he raised a large family there. But displacement caused by capitalism would strike again, this time in the form of the Great Depression. It would cause my grandfather to leave most of his family in Minnesota and settle in Ohio with his sister and her husband. In due course, he met my grandmother, married, and started a family before his premature death in 1958.
So of course, the winners of this game of severing ancestral connections to place are, and continue to be, the capitalists. A people united with the land they occupy will give much more formidable resistance to enclosure, accumulation of land and labor, and exploitation of all the resources it can than a divided, domesticated people severed from their ancestral place. Capitalism requires workers to exploit, and most people, given the choice, will not enter into such an exploitative relationship. Therefore, the choice had to go, and capitalism had to make people more dependent on what they were offering. Human domestication, via displacement and other strategies, had to be stepped up to a new level.
By most estimates, human domestication has been underway for 10,000 years, but it has accelerated dramatically in the capitalist era. Ostensibly, it doesn’t matter where we live now. Just in my generation of my family, a few stayed in Ohio (where they’d been for only 2 generations), but I have siblings or cousins in Indiana, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Missouri. As strangers in strange lands, our domestication and dependence on the infrastructures of industrialized production grows more complete and absolute, such that not only are we uprooted from our ancestral homelands, but our connection with any place at all is broken. How many of us have a sense of place, where we humans are part of an ecosystem, when the majority of us go not to the land for subsistence, but to the grocery store, buying factory-farmed food that has traveled thousands of miles before landing on the shelves?
Domestication is what happens when a connection to land is severed, and subsistence, provided by an industrial infrastructure, becomes abstracted from place. At one time, exile was a fate as bad as, or worse than, death, because it meant one had little or no access to subsistence via the tribe, a collection of people working together for the common good. In this new, domesticated world, access to the tribe is mediated by money. Those without money — the poor among us — are on some level exiles who must fend for themselves. And the quickest way to end one’s exile is to allow oneself to be (re-)assimilated into the capitalist system of labor exploitation.
My daughter, unlike I who am still “from away,” is a Mainer. She was born in Portland and has never lived more than 20 miles from the city of her birth. She still most strongly resonates with the streets of Portland, rather than the far more rural area where we live now (check out her music, by the way, it’s really good, said the proud immediate ancestor). I wonder, having grown up in this place, how her children and subsequent generations will be connected to their places, and whether their place will be in Maine.
The world is undone. In the age of neoliberal capitalism, otherwise known as “globalization,” our people and our cultures are scattered to the four winds. Most ancestries in the 21st century are intertwined and complex; the stories I have told of my ancestors above are but one branch of my genealogy. Virtually everyone is, in some way, a victim of ancestral displacement. My point is not to level out the differences between the different cultural victims of displacement, colonialism, and capitalist enclosure. While nearly all people of nearly all cultures, races, ethnicities, and groups have now experienced displacement, the fact is that my white ancestors who arrived in Minnesota found themselves inserted into a different place in the power hierarchy than earlier peoples from Africa, kidnapped from their ancestral homeland, to be slaves in the Americas.
Re-enchanting the world will not occur in an office, in the checkout queue at Whole Foods, or in the blogosphere. It will require humans to get out into nature, and work ceaselessly to re-establish relationship with what they find there. There are some positives we can take from this situation we find ourselves in — for instance, most geneticists agree that diversity in our gene pools is a good thing — but until we exist in better relationship with our place, rewild ourselves, resist our domestication by rejecting the infrastructures of capitalism where we can, and begin re-weaving an ancestral connection to place for future generations, the world will remain little more than something to be owned and exploited.
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A couple of years ago, I was cutting up a yew tree in my parents’ back garden. As often happens when I labour physically, my mind started working too – as if to create a state of harmony between the two.
And while I hacked away at the yew-tree that my dad had just felled, a chainsaw he found in the electric chainsaw reviews I showed him. I started musing about how justified we were in killing the tree. It wasn’t producing many berries due to being overshadowed by other trees, it was starving out the plants that were growing below it, and the shelter it offered small birds could easily be provided by other, more broadly beneficial plants. These broader, ecological reasons were what lay behind our work that day. But while my mum and dad started expressing their enthusiasm for what we were doing, commenting on how much nicer the garden looked with the yew gone, I considered how – for most other people – this would be enough of a justification to get rid of the yew in the first place. The yew’s own life, how catastrophic it would be for the yew to be killed, wouldn’t even be a factor for consideration. As far as most people are concerned, if humans benefit from the death of a tree, it’s justified. The materialist logic behind this is simple – human beings are able to experience neurologically sophisticated forms of pleasure, while yew trees, as entities lacking brains, are not. Therefore, humans like my family would gain far more from chopping a yew tree down and admiring the view, than the yew tree would from continuing to live. Our big brains allow us to set the agenda of what is useful, and what isn’t – and therefore, what is morally justified.
Of course, even if you believe that human benefit is the only significant kind, that still gives you plenty of reasons to conserve our natural heritage. The human reliance on the natural world is considerable, even if only reckoned in rather narrow economic terms. Of course, this doesn’t even touch upon the level of spiritual, aesthetic and emotional satisfaction human beings derive from their environment. Nonetheless, anthropocentric forms of conservation and environmentalism have been frequently criticised by certain thinkers (such as the deep ecologist Arne Naess, Val Plumwood, and others) for being “shallow” and not addressing the underlying attitudes that lead to ecological abuse.
Such critiques reveal a basic difference of opinion in the Western world. Some people – romantics, nature writers, and Pagans – assume that ecological abuse is just simply a bad thing, something that the other camp – including most of society– simply doesn’t accept. This disagreement is utterly fundamental; the former have no reason to doubt the rightness of respecting all life, the latter need no reason to believe it. Even when you do come across conservationists of the latter view – and there are many – they see nature primarily as something that helps or supports mankind; the protection of the Earth is reasonable, because it benefits us. If the situation came down to saving the Earth or saving humanity, then the average shallow ecologist would, like Bruce Wayne from Batman & Robin in this scene, do the latter. Although Poison Ivy is clearly a villain, in smoothly remarking that “People come first, Dr Isley” – instead of treating both as a single community in need of protection – Bruce Wayne is a monster. A utility monster, to be exact.
Simply put, a utility monster is a being who derives greater pleasure from consuming a given resource than any human – they can even, for example, obtain ever increasing levels of pleasure. This pleasure-generation machine of a creature would, in theory, be perfectly justified in consuming the world, the universe, anything and everything, because the amount of pleasure it would gain from doing so would outweigh any suffering that such consumption would produce.
Capitalist society transforms humans into utility monsters – beings whose capacity to benefit from resources is perceived to be much greater than that of another other class of being, and indeed our capacity for pleasure is assumed to be inexhaustible and ever-increasing. This is codified in the so-called “fundamental economics problem” – that humans are beings of infinite wants in a world of finite resources. This is made possible by how utility itself is defined: as the sense of pleasure created by the human brain, and solely by the human brain. Narrow utility of this kind gives humans the right to consume indefinitely, even when such indefinite consumption harms non-human beings. Indeed, it renders narrow utility part of the furniture of modern day thinking.
This ultimately creates a rather bleak moral universe. In this particular vision of the world, we have a tyranny of the best-evolved to be happy. Species exist with a significantly more acute sense of pleasure than other species, and that in cases where conflicts of interest arise, the “maximally pleasurable” are able to ignore the interests of those who feel comparatively less pleasure. The outcomes would be grim. Look at the Hollywood film Independence Day. It’s very clear from watching this film that humanity are meant to be the good guys – defending their homeworld and fighting for their very survival against a fleet of uncompromising alien invaders, who want nothing less than to destroy the entire planet, consume its resources, and move on. But what if these aliens have a far stronger sense of pleasure and pain than humans do? What if they would gain much greater benefit from consuming our planet than we would from living on it? The fiery annihilation of the mother ship would be the source of massively greater suffering than the wholesale elimination of the Earth’s human population, as the beings being killed in the former have a far greater capacity for feeling than the beings in the latter case.
Looking at it this way, the scene where the US President confronts an alien pilot gains a sharper moral point. The alien is no more or less uncompromising than humans are when faced with a shoal of cod or a stretch of Amazonian rainforest. Imagine what the alien is thinking – Mine is a people that has travelled the stars for millennia. We have mastered the fundamentals of the universe. We see, feel and understand the world in ways your species could not imagine. What could you possibly offer us alive? You might consider this to be a hugely speculative example, but it has a distinct precedent – European colonisers exacted similarly parsimonious standards of value when interacting with indigenous communities. Though such interactions occurred across a much smaller gulf of experience, a moral principle is a moral principle. So long as one person experiences greater pleasure or pain than another, there is a moral hierarchy, that can be used to justify cruelty and exploitation.
The manifestly repugnant nature of such acts – from the real (colonialism) to the imagined (alien invasion) is proof against the kind of utilitarianism that underpins both the aliens’ attitude in Independence Day and shallow ecology. One merely has to ask; what sort of universe would a universe of utility monsters be like? The answer, it seems to me, would be an unpleasant one. There would always be a bigger fish – a nastier, more powerful entity out there who could destroy you utterly, and be perfectly moral in doing so, because it could derive more pleasure from the act than you would suffer from it. The aliens of Independence Day might be able to justifiably destroy us for their own gain, but they could just as well be justly devoured by a gigantic voidworm orbiting around some dark, forbidden sun. So although on a basic economistic level this stance might make sense, the sort of world it would create means that it doesn’t make logical sense for any moral agent to pursue such an approach. Of course, a world where everyone gets a chance at happiness would have less overall utility than a world of utility monsters. So why is it better?
The critical factor here is the relative nature of value. All value is relative to the person experiencing it. Therefore, just as the annihilation of mankind is catastrophic for us, but barely of consequence to the aliens, so the felling of a yew tree might be barely of consequence for the lumberjack, but be of terminal significance for the tree. Whether it “feels” pain, fear or despair as we do is irrelevant – on its own terms, dying is hideously bad news. There can never be, therefore, a universal standard of utility.
So how do we prevent ourselves from becoming utility monsters? Simple – we take the motivations of all other beings, such as they are, into account. This doesn’t amount to a crude anthropomorphism, in which trees are assumed to be humans, but instead requires a basic sense of empathy, even for those who fundamentally Other. The assumption of universal utility is replaced with a respectful acknowledgment of all existences that must always be sensitively responded to. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can no longer cut down trees, harvest crops or take antibiotics because of the lethal consequences of such acts, but we simply can’t afford to ever forget, or be cavalier about those consequences. Lest we become monsters.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
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