Report From Greece, Part 1

From Thessaloniki to Iraklion
Summer 2015

by George Caffentzis

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):

3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).
3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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).

Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece and President of Parlamentary group of SY.RIZ.A.-E.K.M. Photo by FrangiscoDer (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece and President of Parlamentary group of SY.RIZ.A.-E.K.M. Photo by FrangiscoDer (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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

Plato's Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece. Photo by Tomisti (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Plato’s Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece. Photo by Tomisti (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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.

Sketch of George Caffentzis, discussing Plato on Debt at Plato's Academy. Drawing by Joulia Strauss.
Sketch of George Caffentzis, discussing Plato on Debt at Plato’s Academy. Drawing by Joulia Strauss.

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.

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992.

Valdres Roots: Enclosure, Ancestral Displacement, & Domestication

by James Lindenschmidt

“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.

Ancestral Homelands?

Does this look like an ancestral homeland to you? It's where I grew up, seen from above with technology.
Does this look like an ancestral homeland to you? It’s where I grew up, seen from above with the aid of technology. I moved here with my family when I was 8. Image created by the author.

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
Picture of Lake Helin in Vang, Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. Taken on top of Åkslefjellet showing Mountain Grindane in the North and Gilafjellet to the right (east). Photo by Trarir. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Picture of Lake Helin in Vang, Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. Taken on top of Åkslefjellet showing Mountain Grindane in the North and Gilafjellet to the right (east). Photo by Trarir. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

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.

"Albrecht Dürer, The Fall Of Man, 1510. This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work." -- commentary by Silvia Federici
Albrecht Dürer, The Fall Of Man, 1510. “This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work.” — commentary by Silvia Federici

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.”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, 23-4).

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.”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, 57-8.

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.

Looking Ahead

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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“Shallow” environmentalism and utility monsters…

Max Zimmerman under a Creative Commons License
Max Zimmerman under a Creative Commons License

 

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 Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan 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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Nature’s Rights

“…all, and only, humans have rights.”
(Carl Cohen’s view as presented by Tom Regan, Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy p. 112)

“To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
(Peter Singer Practical Ethics)

“Mother Earth and all its components, including human communities, are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Law. The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth will take into account the specificities and particularities of its various components. The rights under this Act shall not limit the existence of other rights of Mother Earth.”
(Law of Mother Nature Article 5, Bolivian Law)

Animal Council, Sketch by G Rotman, 1922
Animal Council, Sketch by G Rotman, 1922

What Rights?

It may come as some surprise when I say this, but our understand of what we mean by “rights” is a mess. There are few topics as important for political discourse and, I would claim, no topic as murky and confused in our thinking. In fact, I don’t ultimately think that we have much grasp at all about what a right is or where it comes from. It is my suspicion, however, that a pagan perspective brings surprising illumination to this problem. I hope, in this discussion, to offer some suggestions of how this might be the case.

I think I can demonstrate to you the murky nature of rights talk fairly easily. Take a moment and attempt to explain to yourself directly what rights exist, where they come from, who has them and why only those (neither more nor less) exist. Or, consider for a moment the seemingly interminable arguments that immediately occur whenever the question of a right’s exist or non-existence comes up. Can you offer a clear and applicable principle that allows you to determine real from false rights?

Before I risk promoting too much confusion, allow me to limit the scope of our discussion. Rights can be divided into various categories, some easier to address than others. I will rely upon two fairly simple categories, though others can be offered and the seeming simplicity covers over some deep problems. Rights, for our purposes, can be Natural (or Universal, or Implicit, or Inalienable) or Legal. Natural rights are understood to exist in any context, free of any political framework or foundation, and are thus found everywhere despite temporal, cultural, or political differences. In turn, these natural rights are understood to legitimize political systems.

Legal rights, on the other hand, depend upon various political and legal structures for their existence. To offer a fairly simple example, life (or human life) is a fairly noncontroversial natural right while the right to trial by jury is a legal right. Trial by jury cannot exist without a functioning political framework and we could perhaps imagine other social forms to fulfill the legitimate demands of justice other than trial by jury. However, trial by jury is a social and legal framework justified by its fulfillment of the demand offered by certain natural rights (i.e. life and liberty are supposedly insured by it, and so the natural rights provide the argument for the legal rights). So, legal rights are socially and historically contingent but legitimated by natural rights which are not contingent.

You can see how this reliance of legal rights on natural rights functions by looking, for example, at key rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The ruling legalizing abortion (“Roe vs. Wade”) justifies the legal right to abortion by appeal to the “right to privacy” which, in turn, is understood as a subset of the natural right of liberty. The recent ruling legalizing marriage equality in all fifty states (“Obergefell vs. Hodges”) bases a right to marriage on various rights such as self-expression which, again, it ties back to the basic natural right of liberty.

Now, we can sometimes feel like we have a pretty good grasp on what is and is not a right because many of our legal rights are clearly delineated in political documents and processes. But this is hardly sufficient, especially since rights talk comes up most frequently when we are trying to address cases of systematic injustice in which the existing political framework, it is claimed, has failed in some way. The most powerful and important point, then, is where natural rights connect to and justify legal rights. This is also the ground most fought over. So, for example, people have argued for years following “Roe vs. Wade” that there is no right to privacy and so no right to abortion. Justice Scalia, in response to the recent marriage equality ruling, has argued that there is no right to self-expression and so no right to marriage.

Allow me to offer one further example of the contested connection between legal and natural rights. You can find arguments that there is a right to education and a right to healthcare. These rights are, in turn, vehemently rejected by others. The argument in favor of these rights relies, most often, on natural rights. The rights to life and liberty are meaningless when one is dying of a curable disease or when one lacks the necessary education to make meaningful and effective choices in one’s own life or in the political processes of one’s community.

So, of the flood of rights mentioned above (privacy, abortion, self-expression, marriage, healthcare, education) which do or do not exist and why? This is a hard enough question for legal rights or those seemingly existing between nature and the law (privacy and self-expression for example), but things get worse when we go to the heart of the issue and ask which specific natural rights exist, why, and where they come from.

Gustave Dore's
Gustave Dore’s “The Council of Rats” 1870

Whence Rights?

In light of the standard practice of justifying legal rights by means of natural ones, our real topic here will be natural rights. My ultimately question is drawn from the quotation with which I opened this discussion. I wish to ask, “Do only humans have rights?” Or, as Ecuador and Bolivia for example have enshrined in their legal systems, does the earth itself have natural inalienable rights? This would include, in turn, the more narrow question of whether animals have rights though I am just as interested in the question of the rights of plants, environments, mountains, seas and so on.

Considering my audience, I don’t actually suspect I need to convincing you that entities other than humans have rights (except, perhaps, for those of you who don’t accept rights talk at all – a position for which there are some very strong justifications). However, despite an assumed general agreement, I do suspect that we aren’t nearly as clear about justifying our claims as we could be. So, I am not really preaching to the choir (or, better, coven) because I think the justification of our claims is what we need to focus on.

To figure out what natural rights do, or do not, exist and who or what can be a rights-bearer it is necessary to come to some understanding of where these natural rights come from. The history of the concept of natural rights, at least in Western European thought from which most rights talk draws its foundation, stretches from the Ancient Stoics, through medieval religious thought, to the modern social contract theorists such as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hutchinson, and Thomas Hobbes. Within this tradition we can find, roughly, four answers to the question of the origin of natural rights which go along with various ways of testing whether something is a right, though frequently these answers overlap in complex ways. I would like to briefly look at each of these in order to get a sense of their inadequacy.

1. Reason as Natural Law

The Stoics never actually argued for the existence of natural “rights” but they did argue for the natural equality of all humans. Their argument rested on several key elements. First, all nature was understood to be ordered according to an overarching order or law. Second, this law was divine and was identified as reason. Third, human reason was a privileged part of this divine natural order, in fact reason made us partially divine.

This line of thought leads to two related conclusions. First, to the extent that we have reason we are equal. This is, in fact, the origin of the idea that natural rights are inalienable (in other words, we can very literally never lose them). If you reflect on the idea of inalienability you can see it is a rather odd idea. Can’t I be chained up? Or killed? Don’t I lose my rights in these cases? The answer is “no”. For the Stoics, and the “inalienable” traditional that follows from them, as long as we can reason we are ultimately free. Even if my body is in chains, the most important part of me – my divine reason – is free. This, incidentally, provides the basis for some Stoics to actually support slavery and social inequalities of all sorts! Because what matters is reason, nothing social inequality does to us can touch our real freedom and equality. Many of the Stoics, as you might suspect, were surprisingly conservative in the outcome of their thought.

The second conclusion to be drawn from the Stoic view is that the source of our knowledge of rights is reason as well. This hooks up with inalienability to provide us with a test that can be applied to rights. If you think something is a natural right, ask whether it is inalienable. If it isn’t, you have no right to it. In other words, nothing worth having can be lost and nothing we have a right to can be taken away. This view is also, obviously, anthropocentric and even falls short of providing rights to all humans since some lack reason. So, for the Stoics, only, but not all, humans have rights (with the addition of gods and any other entities with reason).

The development of these ideas leads to what we find in Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Natural rights are inalienable and uncovered by reason. Both reject the Stoic test as too limited, and instead rely upon the self-evidence of rights. We don’t, in other words, need a test for what counts as a right because our natural rights are immediately apparent and obvious to the view of reason. Jefferson doesn’t try to prove we have natural rights, he claims he doesn’t need to. This has largely landed us in the mess we are today, with generally no system for determining what is or is not a right. Jefferson and Locke also change the sense of inalienability used by the Stoics. For them, a natural right is inalienable because even if the practice of that right is taken away our claim to that right always remains. We always deserve and can demand life and liberty even when we are deprived of the use of them.

2. God

The Stoics, Locke, and Jefferson -as well as the long medieval tradition of natural law theory- all base the origin of rights on a certain conception of the divine. This conception is ultimately monotheistic (the Stoics believed in one ultimate divinity despite the existence of sub-deities) and anthropocentric (in each case we occupy a special position at the head of most or all of nature due to our possession of reason and/or special selection by god).

It is important to stress that contemporary rights theory goes beyond the basis of God in very specific ways. First, and most obviously, natural rights do not rely upon a shared religious background for justification. Second, neither the Stoic nor Biblical god provides a basis for rejecting the social inequality of men and women or the practice of slavery. The Bible clearly supports slavery. In fact the New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Stoic thought, offers arguments in favor of slavery very similar to those found in Stoicism. Most go something like this: social distinctions are natural and divinely willed so it is our duty to rationally fulfill the social roles and positions we find ourselves in, including the role of a slave. This allows both Stoics and the Biblical Paul to assert that a good slave must obey its master and so on. Locke followed the monotheistic reasoning underlying natural rights rather carefully and ended up arguing, at least partially based upon it, in favor of both American slavery and the wholesale theft of land from the Native Americans (see, for example, this excellent recent analysis of Locke’s failures).

Finally, it should be noted that by far the longest use of divinely ensured natural rights was to support the divine right of kings and firm social hierarchies. This shouldn’t be surprising. I have often challenged my students to explain to me why a monarchical metaphysics with a divine all-powerful dictator should be compatible with anything other than a form of political tyranny. It’s a difficult question and not one that all forms of paganism can easily avoid.

3. Nature

Interestingly, the history of natural rights theory hasn’t been particularly focused on nature. Nature has seemed to required the underwriting of “nature’s god” and/or reason. Despite that, we can detach something of an argument-from-nature from natural rights literature. We can derive from the thought of both Locke and Hobbes a sort of principle for deriving from nature a list of rights. Rights would be, on this reading, those things which a living entity naturally feels are its own. So, in nature we fight for our life, our freedom of movement, our family, and things like food and shelter that we have gathered for ourselves. Our instinctive defense of these things marks a natural knowledge of a right to them. From a traditional view, the failing of this thinking is obvious since it doesn’t set humans off from animals who also defend all these things. For this precise reason it is more promising for us. Locke deprived of his Biblical god and the superiority of reason would be left with an argument like this alone. This can be expanded into a capabilities view, similar to that of Martha Nussbaum, that might assert that a natural entity has a right to develop its natural capabilities. Our sheer having of capabilities is a signal of a right to them and their expression/development.

4. Pain and Pleasure – Utilitarianism

Strictly speaking, Utilitarians don’t accept the existence of natural rights for various reasons, but we can talk of something very similar to a rights conception in Utilitarianism based on a limited type of capabilities view. For the utilitarian theorist only one thing is absolutely good, namely pleasure or happiness, and only one thing is absolutely bad, namely pain. This lays a universal obligation upon us to increase, as far as possible, the amount of pleasure or happiness in existence and to decrease the amount of pain. This is, in fact, the basis of the argument by Peter Singer I quote from at the start of this discussion. Animals, as capable of pain and pleasure, are part of our obligation to lessen pain and increase pleasure and might be said to have a right to this type of consideration. Animals have a right to have their suffering and happiness taken into account. Plants, mountains, seas, and so on are not obviously capable of pain or happiness and so do not enter into consideration beyond their instrumental relationship to animals and humanity.

5. No Natural Rights

I should add a brief consideration of the view that there are no natural rights. We can, briefly, present this in at least three main ways. If we understand a right to mark a limit, a space or possession that cannot legitimately be invaded or taken away, then the following three views might be raised. Rousseau suggests that since the state of nature is one of natural abundance and simplicity no natural limits exist, or need exist, between people in nature. It is society that, giving rise to pride and greed, creates property, scarcity and, domination and so necessitates rights. Hobbes argues something like the reverse. In the state of nature all entities have the power to do whatever they wish and so the right to do so. Because all action is a natural right for him, in this sense, then it makes no difference to say either that there are no natural rights or that everything is a natural right. Both lead to Hobbes’ famous “war of all against all” in the state of nature. Finally, since the utilitarian thinks that we must balance the good of the greatest number of entities capable of happiness against any individual concerns there are no predetermined limits protecting the life, liberty, capabilities or goods of any given individual. The majority, the famous “greatest number”, might be said to have rights but no given individual does.

“The Fall of the Titans” Cornelis Cornelisz van Harrlem, 1596-1598

A Pagan Conception of Rights

How can a pagan perspective assist us in the challenge of making sense of the origin, nature and limits of rights? We must first state that we don’t have many historical precursors to work with. Clearly much of pagan history hasn’t been particularly promising when it comes to individual freedoms or social equality – with, of course, rather important exceptions such as many Native American and traditional African cultures. Our strongest precursor might be taken to be the Stoics but, for many reasons, I do not take them to fit fully into a pagan worldview. So, we can’t really ask what pagans have historically had to say about rights. Instead, we must take key elements of several forms of paganism and attempt to work out their implications for natural rights theory.

The first thing we might note deals with the traditional derivation of natural rights from reason and god. The nature of the god in question leads almost inevitable to the focus on reason. For the Stoic, the ultimate god and reason are all but indiscernible. In fact, the Stoics often called the universal divinity, universal law/reason, and human reason by the same Greek word – they called it the Logos. Logos is originally the Greek term for “word” but it came to mean reason amongst many other things. The Old Testament of the Bible reflects a similar view, whether through syncretism or chance, and the New Testament directly plagiarizes from the Stoic view. Thus, in the Old Testament the god of the Bible speaks creation into existence and the “Gospel of John” starts with an almost entirely Stoic claim that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” In this context the divine essence of reality will be located in the intellectual, rational, linguistic spheres of existence. This is also connected to the transcendent nature of a divinity external to creation, a transcendence that will frequently carry over into the rational part of humanity through a rejection of the body and physical nature in general.

The focus on reason and linguistic communities embodied in the natural rights tradition makes a very clear appearance in contemporary arguments about what can, and cannot, be a bearer of rights. Carl Cohen, a long-standing opponent of animal rights arguments, affirms that to have a right means to be able to assert a claim upon others while recognizing your own obligation to respond to their claims. In other words, only members of rational linguistic “moral communities” can be understood to have rights. It is clear to Cohen, though not to many of his critics, that only humans can make rational moral claims upon others and recognize those claims when they are made upon them. In other words, whether or not something has rights and what those rights are has everything to do with intellectual and linguistic capabilities.

In sharp contrast, consider the pagan worldview of Hesiod’s Theogony. In this origin story the cosmos arises out of the sexual and asexual bodily reproduction of families of gods. These gods, and the evolving universe they form through their reproduction, are largely inseparable from bodily nature. There is importantly a deep identity between much of nature and its divinities. To appreciate the importance of this, ask yourself whether the Biblical god can be understood to have rights. It’s an odd question because the answer is that the god of the Bible probably has all rights, or rather absolute right. What would this imply, then, for the rights of a natural world made up of gods in ever more various proportions and hierarchies? To cultures for which the divine is frequently also embodied and natural, rather than spiritually transcendent over nature, the world around us makes constant demands upon us in a manner very like the way traditional rights bearers do. Rivers and mountains, ancient trees and unplowed fields, all make legitimate demands for various types of respect.

A pagan theory of rights, then, will not be focused upon reason or, necessarily, a divine law-giver’s plans and demands upon a tightly structured cosmic hierarchy. The hierarchy of divinities, cosmic forces, and realities within the pagan worldview tend to be partly natural and partly political in nature. Zeus, for example, plots and fights both to gain his position and to maintain it. Even his power, however, is tentative and maintained by the overall balance of politics amidst divinities and humans.

The overlap of nature and divinity in a pagan view presents a unique opportunity. For once we might fully turn to nature for guidance about the origin and extent of natural rights. What is more, it is clear that though our pagan worldview might direct our attention to nature we need not depend upon divine revelation or dictate for our understanding of rights. Paganism might teach us that nature is divine and lays demands upon us but a pagan faith is not necessary to accept the conclusions we can draw from this.

Let us conceive the cosmos, and all its subsystems from planets to seas to mountains and so on, to be living much as the Bolivian “Law of Mother Earth” does – in other words let us embrace animism or pan-vitalism. We can begin to approach this by means of the capabilities view mentioned previously. We start with animals and plants, recognizing that each has a set of capabilities and impulses it seeks to express and fulfill. All things being equal (which, of course, they never are) each thing has an implicit right to pursue the path of its growth, life, and death. To put it as simply as possible, taken in isolation each thing has a right to exist.

But, despite the tendency towards what we might call biological chauvinism, not only organic entities express a nature and follow a path of development and change. All things individually express a type of nature and, collectively, take part in nestled interdependent systems. There is a Zen art dedicated to finding and appreciating examples of “perfect” stones, in other words stones which best capture the nature of being a stone. These won’t be polished gems or dramatic outcroppings, but rather simple stones that somehow express in an exemplary way the basic nature of being a stone. While any debate about what this nature is might be interminable, just like debates about the ultimate nature of humanity, nonetheless it doesn’t seem absurd to attempt to better grasp what the nature expressed by stones (or any other natural entity) might be. And it also doesn’t seem absurd to suggest that when such a stone is ground into gravel or melted for industrial purposes something has been lost and some wrong may have been done.

When I was a child my neighbors cut down an oak tree that had lived for several centuries. I cried inconsolably, filled with a sadness and anger that told me at a basic level that something terrible had been done – an important obligation had been broken and an important good had been destroyed. Who were they to so casually dismiss an entity that was old before their ancestors had even come to this county? I recently went hiking in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park and there, amidst trees that were massive before the supposed birth of Christ, one can’t help but feel an overpowering awe and need for respect and even worship. Not only do these entities have a right to exist, they have a dignity that goes along with an imperative that this be respected.

While we often think about rights in terms of purely negative limits on the powers of others, rights go along with responsibilities and obligations. A right to life or liberty demands that I respect these same rights in others. But, more than this, a right to life or liberty also lays an obligation on my shoulders to facilitate the living and freedom of others. It is not, as many libertarians might think, purely a right to be left alone and let everyone else alone in turn. Rights are expressions of communal membership, of being part of a dynamic system seeking to further its own development. Rights are the mark of our position in an environment, in nature. The sheer right, then, that I have to my existence and self-development is mirrored in my obligation to protect and pursue the existence and self-development of the world of which I form a part.

Allow me to restate the previous points in a more schematic form for the sake of clarity. Informed by paganism, but without need to rely upon it for justification, I argue that:

1. To the extent that animals fight for their lives and development they express a right to existence and self-expression.

2. Plants, similarly, strive to grow and survive, expressing the same right.

3. Even non-biological entities are self-sustaining systems which resist certain changes and, when they change, change in a manner uniquely expressing their nature and so they, too, express a right to existence and self-expression.

4. Collectively, these elements form larger complex systems which, in turn, strive to change in various ways and resist other changes and so express the same natural claim to rights.

5. These rights are nestled, one within another, and interconnected such that no purely individual atomistic right to be left alone is feasible. Rather, rights imply collective responsibility and obligations one to another. Some entities fulfill or fail these obligations without rational thought or consciousness, others do not, but the distinction is not particularly important.

6. All existence is a drive to be, and to change, which assumes and must be granted a basic legitimacy.

“Dancing with Mother Nature” by Paul Baliker

 Nature’s Rights: The Model of Art

The philosophy Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that when a work of art is created, Being itself is increased. Similarly, sculptors frequently describe their work not as forcing material into some shape but rather as releasing and realizing the potential form that was already present in the material. The sculptor assists the object in its development and self-expression. Arguing for the rights of nature leads to some exceptionally difficult problems which the enriching nature of art might help us address.

If each thing, due to its sheer existence and path of development, has a right to exist a libertarian understanding of rights might lead us into a rather striking form of nihilism. From this view I can do nothing, can change nothing, without doing wrong. The ant I unknowningly tread upon today has been wronged. There is something right, I would argue, about elements of this view. All existence comes at a price to those things existing around us and many elements of the way most of us live today accentuate this price to unjust proportions. But, ultimately, the message of the rights of nature is not that all existence and action is wrong but rather that all existence and action comes with responsibility. As parts of an interwoven cosmos seeking to joyfully express its nature there is no exit from responsibility – we are, as Dostoyevsky puts it, “responsible for all to all”. How can I eat and end the life of the entity devoured? Only with a firm acceptance of my obligation to express more fully in my life the potential of that entity and a respect for its sacrifice.

It may be that in some art the material is devoured, destroyed in the making, but in the best art – in the truest art – the material comes more fully to life and expression. Art is the act of freeing the potential of what is, of augmenting and nurturing the growth and expression of existence, and it is this that nature demands of us. Neither master and engineer nor illegitimate interloper, we are part of nature’s living and called to take our part with loving devotion to the value of each and every other participant be it tree, stone, bird or star. This means, of course, an end to easy answers. If my interest is in having a nice clear list of forbidden actions and obligatory actions I am going to be much disappointed. We should not be surprised at this, as responsibility comes hand in hand with the obligation to think carefully and risk failure.

There is, at the most basic level, one natural right and it is shared by all things: the right to exist as a process of self-expression. It comes united with an obligation: the obligation to respect and assist the existence and self-expression of each thing around me. Sometimes this obligation will involve killing and destruction but only in service to a greater expression of being. But most often it will involve nurturing and a loving service to the world and cosmos of which we are children.

apple_picking_in_tree
Illustration from “Little Wide-awake, Annual for Children” (1883) by Lucy D Sale Barker

What is Property?

There are several practical and legal implications of this view but what I intended as a brief discussion has already gone on for too long so I will rest content with mentioning what is likely the most dramatic and controversial. What does the right to existence and self-expression imply for other traditional rights? Most importantly, it implies that our concept of property and the right to it is deeply flawed.

Locke, and recent libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick, derive the right to property from the right to life (or existence, as I have been calling it). The idea is this: the right to life is a basic property right. I own my body and this body cannot be taken from me. This then leads to the right to liberty, as my ownership over my body also means that my use of this body (with rather striking exceptions for Locke) cannot be limited. Now, when I work I use my body to transform something else. I invest some of my body – namely bodily energy and work – into the thing transformed. This makes the thing created part of my body in a limited sense. I have invested bodily life and so the thing becomes an extended part of my bodily life. When I work to grow apples my use of my body in the work makes the apples part of me in a very limited sense, so my basic right to ownership over my body extends to the thing produced. (Interestingly, this is also the basis of much Marxist thought mediated through Hegel’s adoption of similar conceptions of work through which the world becomes an expression of the self and, as it were, a second body. It is also worth noting that this is the basis of Locke’s argument in favor of taking land from the Native Americans. They didn’t work the land, he claimed, and so didn’t gain ownership through transformation of it.)

The view I have presented contains a different conception of both work and the natural world, largely because of the rejection of anthropocentrism. When I grow a tree it is as much the case that my body becomes part of the tree, part of its process of self-expression. The tree “owns” me just as much as I own it. But, even the concept of ownership is off here. From a perspective that does not prioritize reason and, connectedly, the mind-soul over the body and natural existence then I can’t be said to own my body. I am my body, it is not property. Similarly, without anthropocentrism, we are not tempted to see the world as a collection of raw materials for use such that I can imagine making the tree, or anything else, part of myself without any thought to its own individual existence. The tree and I might be in partnership, but it does not become me and I do not become it. We are part of something larger, but neither dominates in the manner required for ownership. Furthermore, the tree is also in partnership with things other than myself which belies any claim to an exclusive relationship with it.

My right to self-expression includes my right not to have my partnerships unduly interfered with and broken. You can’t come along and chop down the tree I have worked to grow without weighty reasons, but it is wrong to think that this entity with an existence and nature of its own is “mine” in any robust sense or that my relationship with it overpowers all other relationships it has. I have a right to have my relationships respected and protected, except when those relationships become unjustifiably abusive, dominating, or destructive. So, in an interconnected world viewed through the lens of the right to exist, the right to relationships replaces rights to property.

Kadmus

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


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The Mega Golem: A Review of Carl Abrahamsson’s “Reasonances”

Reasonances by Carl Abrahamsson, Scarlet Imprint 2014

reasonances

If gods can die, leaving us to wander amidst their bones in the miasma of their defuse rot, then gods can be born. Neither ex nihilo nor ad nihilum travel the lives of the gods. Perhaps some gods find their birth in the work of the magician-artist. Amidst the conquest of noise over signal, the dispersion bred of accelerated techno-empirico-capitalist-fragmentation pushing all apart into isolated well-measured sameness, what can bring about a return of some sense of the whole? It is against a background of such considerations that the book Reasonances takes form.

“Meta-programming through fiction and art is the most scientific and poetic way there is of solving our problems, at least according to me. The words affix themselves to the worlds. The worlds filter themselves through the words. The images become parts of the imaginations, the nations of images, all seeking each other out like grounded magnets, polarities or cruising sybarites of the night. If we stop and look, we can see a pattern, or several. And we can use these patterns as tools more than ever before in our own quantum quilts and our own Mega Golem processes.” (Reasonances p. 49)

Carl Abrahamsson’s book is many things: a prismatic net of reflections on Twentieth-Century occultism, art, and their overlaps; a philosophical engagement with the porous border between the magical and artistic processes; a surprisingly hopeful walking along the knife edge of market nihilism, ecological disaster, political corruption, technological acceleration and the dawning of a new way of life; an extended meditation on death and the fragmentary remains of artists and magicians past; a call for the creation of a new divinity, the Mega Golem.

Reproduction of the Prague Golem
Reproduction of the Prague Golem

“However, in the end nothing matters. But until then, some things do. Your own mind, for instance, and your own time.” (Reasonances p. 51)

Reasonances is a book of missed appointments, uncompleted artworks, lost connections. For Abrahamsson there will be no future revels with Anton LaVey in San Francisco, though we are graced with a living sense of LaVey’s life and effect as a master magician. We may never know what the moviemaker, Conrad Rooks, was crafting in his bungalow filled with computers in Thailand. But we learn in these pages about his struggle with drugs and the way this struggle was definitive for his film Chappaqua. Ever wonder what it was like to be friends with William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Man Ray, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac? Conrad Rooks tells you by telling Abrahamsson. But his final work, drawn from the void stretching from his two great films “Chappaqua” (1966) and “Siddhartha” (1972) to his death in 2011, remains a mystery. We get the sense of an expansive vision, incomplete.

We witness Abrahamsson’s love for Lady Jaye, half of the ongoing “Breyer P-Orridge Existential Art Project” aimed at the creation of one hermaphroditic entity from the lives of Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye, and are left to wonder what remains when half of that one entity has died. Genesis P-Orridge speaks as “we” but Abrahamsson speaks of loss and the dream of a new totality become a fragment.

In Reasonances we witness a fascinating excavation of largely forgotten figures at the borders. At the border of art and the occult we learn of Rosaleen Norton, the Australian artist depicting bacchanals and occult rituals, who faced social rejection and police persecution from the 1940s until her death in 1979. At the border of mysticism and science we find the German philosopher Ernst Junger and hear of his experiments with hallucinogenics, including experiences with LSD shared with its discoverer Albert Hofmann, interwoven with his experiences during the World Wars. Destruction and dispersion face off against the divine he approached through drug experimentation.

“The Seance” by Rosaleen Norton

Reasonances’ cast of characters is extensive and it weaves stories of forgotten acts of bravery and enchanting personalities that enrich and enliven the history of art and the occult while remaining challenging throughout. What are we to make of Yukio Mishima’s suicide when it is understood as a work of art and connected to his blending of homoeroticism and nationalism in the milieu of the Samurai code? How are we to navigate the call to freedom in Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law when faced with its seeming glorification of violence and the rule of the strong? How truly critical of the Nazis was Junger whose work, by and large, was admired by them – including by Hitler himself? The book is consistently a work of provocation, seeking to inspire questioning and action without dominating its reader with prefabricated solutions or simple answers.

We could go on to explore the extensive interviews with the Thelemic moviemaker Kenneth Anger, or the exceptionally careful orienting of the life and works of the important novelist Lord Bulwer-Lytton within the occult circles of 19th century England, but ultimately all of these stories and histories are examples of Reasonances’ larger vision – the dream of the Mega Golem.

“As an experiment, try to leave the hermetic and arcane frames of reference alone for a while and use instead those of artistic creation and, if you feel really daring, those of fiction.” (Reasonances p. 41)

To understand the Mega Golem we must first recognize it as the axis of Abrahamsson’s proposal that art needs to learn from the occult and occult practice needs to learn from art. The connection here is not at all unusual, as will be apparent to those with experience in the occult or with knowledge of the history of art. Cave painting, story telling, dance and music all were originally largely the province of priestess and priests, shamans and mystics – occultists par excellence. All served a vital function in bringing about changes to the world of ancient people and maintaining the metaphysical structure and nature of those worlds. Looking at the situation from the contemporary occult angle the connection seems just as obvious. The practice of magic involves visionary states of consciousness much like those used in forms of artistic inspiration, handcrafted tools and sets, dramatic impersonations of gods, poetic invocations and songs.

Beyond the historical overlap, Abrahamsson offers a deeper connection between the processes involved in art and magic. Both involve the control of causal forces through non-causal or non-rational means. In other words, both recognize that there is something about their process of creation that cannot be fully understood or, if it were to be understood, the very act of analysis would destroy the effectiveness of the process. We can see this in the overlap of inspiration and mystical experience in the creation of both works of art and magic. Each starts with the play of unconscious forces rising to consciousness, the moment of inspiration, that must then be distilled into a singular embodiment. Each involves a trust in, and channeling of, intuition. Each manifests a new reality.

This brings us naturally to the Mega Golem. Both the magical act and artistic creation suffer from potential failings or, at least, what can be seen as failings against a certain background. Magical acts can be dominated by a lower worldly will, in other words they can be channeled almost exclusively towards short-term selfish ends. Personal gain in all its various forms, from accentuating natural talents and uncovering insight to gaining money or power, often dominates magical goals even when hidden under the rubric of ongoing initiation. Art, on the other hand, can be devoid of coherent worldly will and instead merely the outcome of immediate inspiration and intuition. We might say, in the case of both magic and art, that inspiration and will need to be conjoined in a final product that goes beyond the immediate ends of the creator.

For magic to escape its solipsism and art to escape its self-indulgent immediacy each must wed themselves to a goal that goes beyond the individual. This is the Mega Golem, a new divinity built from individual artistic-magical acts and works.

“Consider this idea: new, consciously made, magical, talismanic totems as members/parts of a new divinity. Artworks of different kinds become cells and building blocks of a new pagan pantheon of intelligence, of whose essence future generations can rely on and partake. Special importance should be given to indigenous, traditional, tribal and folk culture, woven into the fabric of genuine human creation. The final times of our mercurial technocratic culture could actually help in setting this up before these new gods are properly established enough to live on through the rituals of the post-technocracy-survivals.” (Reasonances p. 30)

We might speculate that the idea of the Mega Golem owes its origin to a distinct aspect of both magic and art. In magic, particularly Chaos Magic, we encounter the idea of the living Thought Form or Egregor. This is an entity that begins as an individual or collective creature of imagination, which, once invested with will or magical energy, becomes an independent spiritual entity with its own lasting existence. Similarly, in art, the work which begins in the artist’s internal processes eventually takes flight into a world where it will give rise to its own interpretations and maintain its own unique existence beyond the intentions of the artist. Both the artwork and Egregor are outcomes of acts of creation that develop, in some sense, a will and life of their own.

The idea of the Mega Golem opens up the possibility that both art and magic might overcome their own limitations. From channeling or communicating with divinities we move to crafting them in a communal form, from creating works of art we move to creating a new world and way of life.

We get a better sense of the central role of self-overcoming in the texture of Reasonances when we consider Abrahamsson’s discussion of Babalon as a magical formula. After tracing the history of the figure of the whore of Babylon from ancient practices of holy prostitution, through the Book of Revelations, to Crowley’s own recreation of the concept he distills what he takes to be the central elements of the magical process that Babalon came to represent. This process is one of self-development through the transgression of taboos. As the author rightly points out, the process requires one to transgress taboos that are still meaningful and powerful within one’s own psyche, not just arbitrary social limitations one has already rejected. Instead, we challenge our own limits and go beyond our own comfort zones through acts of reinvention that release pent up energies within our own being.

William Blake's
William Blake’s “Whore of Babylon”

We can see each of Abrahamsson’s investigations of, and interviews with, artists and thinkers as case studies in the practice of the formula of Babalon and the uniting of art and magic in a way that might serve the birth of the Mega Golem. Similarly, we can see the very idea of the Mega Golem as a self-overcoming on the part of its inventor. Repeatedly within Reasonances Abrahamsson reveals his own occult upbringing within the context of the Thelemic Ordo Templi Orientis, the Church of Satan and the more Chaos Magic focused Temple ov Psychick Youth in his heavily individualistic understanding of the nature of human existence and both artistic and occult work. Abrahamsson claims in the concluding interview of the book that, “…everything is individual. Any collective or communal decision is based on a consensus formed by individuals. Hence, politics may seem to be rooted in ideas and ideals, but in actual fact the driving force is always individual will, that may or may not be joined by others of a similar persuasion.” (Reasonances p. 160-161). Yet this very view, while exceptionally common in today’s world and a major aspect of most understandings of both libertarian Satanism and Thelema, is a central artifact of the technocratic age Abrahamsson wishes to get beyond. T.O.P.Y., in this regard, is something of a mixed heritage. Based on the use of sigil magic aimed at self-overcoming through the achievement of personal private desires, the organization’s basic structure and goals were nonetheless aimed at the creation of productive networks of artistic exchange and support. Much like the Mega Golem itself, we might suggest that the process of T.O.P.Y. began with the individual in order to escape the contemporary prison of isolation that goes along with our almost unthinking acceptance of radical individualism.

Were the Mega Golem to live it would require a specific transformation from being a conglomeration of individual works into a united whole of its own that goes well beyond any totality of pieces. In fact, through an act of retrospective creation we would have to come to see each step in the forming of the new divinity as already implicit and necessitated by its end. We might say that ultimately each piece of the Golem will come to be seen as an expression of its being willed from beyond the individual artist or occultist. This tension between the individual and the whole forms a central paradox of the book from Abrahamsson’s early call for a renewed “…harmony with the macrocosmic, natural life force. Inherent in this harmony is the adaptation to and, importantly, reverential respect for the movements and routines of the whole.” (Reasonances p. 18) to his concluding claims about the priority of the individual. Abrahamsson rightly sees that this paradox is overcome in the moment when the creator is created by her or his creation. The artist becomes the expression of the work, as the magician becomes a vehicle for the magic. Ultimately, then, the call for an active will-driven magico-artistic creation of a Mega Golem aiming beyond the individual towards a communal and natural macrocosmic goal serves to subvert the focus on individual will. At the risk of putting the project in a way that might be a bit disturbing, each contributor to the Mega Golem serves, or retroactively will have served, the new divinity’s will. Ultimately the project cannot be fully understood from the perspective of the individual.

It is not adequate to respond to a proposal as daring and fascinating as that of the Mega Golem through purely analytic means. Instead, it calls out for an active and creative response. It calls out for a contribution. If you could create a divinity, what aspects would you have it contain? If you were to craft a new vision of reality, a new mode of life, a new metaphysical framework of meaning, what would it look like or smell like or sound like? Each of us alone in isolation at our computer screens face in this moment a communal call from the macrocosm – name me. Give me form and, in doing so, find yourself as an expression of the cosmos we all share.

“No matter what, I hereby set the Mega Golem free. This lecture and this text is the right side of its brain, perhaps one of many brains. It may be enough to give it life, or it may not. It is an occult experiment that is also artistic. It is an artistic experiment that is also occult. I have vaguely attempted to state here today that I don’t really believe there is any major difference between these two spheres. What this Mega Golem will or can do is no longer exclusively up to me. I have done my bit and the rest is now up to you.” (Reasonances p. 43)

In response to the call and in thanks for the work Carl Abrahamsson has given us in Reasonances, I would like to offer a humble contribution of my own – a part of the Golem’s heart:

An Elk hart in the shade from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
An Elk hart in the shade from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Something stirs –
Where once rivers flowed,
Where the ghosts of trees rest
Unremembered.
Something wakens –
From concrete
Once mossy banks,
And blinks.
It cherishes –
How the crows used to gossip in the branches
Just so,
And the stones of the river winked
With hidden quartz.
It shelters –
The echoes of days without time
When walks went on forever
And we watched clouds play tag
With our backs bruised with grass stains.
Something smiles –
Where slim stalks will grow
And angry voices will rise in joy
To demand life for the earth
The voiceful wind
The wine dark sea
The shivering wave
The silken sky
Once more.
Something remembers –
The songs we will strike
Like bonfires
In the fields at the end of history.
You can hear its voice calling us together
Hidden in the folds of the breeze
In the corners of the night
When no tread paces.
“Golem?” it asks,
“Call me Hope.”

Author

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

Ragnarök, The Magic Of Capitalism, & The Transformation of Consciousness

“Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök”

I have heard this statement from more than one source in the past few days. This is often the case for me with statements that resonate in my soul as strongly as this one did when a friend of mine uttered it and I heard it. When consciousness hears a resonant idea for the first time, it will often see iterations of that same idea all around, and would otherwise remain hidden without the spark of the initial idea feeding it.

Perhaps, therefore, I am keener to the idea; since it is already in my consciousness, I more easily recognize it. My inner psychologist concurs.

Or perhaps it is the will of the gods, manifesting themselves & their wills in specific patterns discernible to those sensitive to such things. My inner gnostic concurs.

Or perhaps it is delusion, and a sure sign of mental illness. My inner atheist concurs.

Or perhaps it is mere coincidence buttressed by wishful thinking, with the always-yearning consciousness assigning meaning to the coincidence that has no correspondence “in the real world.” My inner skeptic concurs.

In other words, there are a variety of ways to interpret the statement, and through the process of interpretation, creating truth. All of these interpretations have some element of truth to them. Philosophers speak of epistemology as the theory of knowledge creation, but for me, another word is more applicable for this phenomenon.

The Magic Of Capitalism

It’s a controversial word, magic, as in “the art of changing consciousness at will.” For me, magic is the correspondence between what one holds in one’s mind, and what happens outside consciousness, in the world. It is not superstition, delusion, wishful thinking, or illusion.

You can see magic in operation every day, indeed every moment.

For instance. one man this week had an idea in his head, that People of Color are “the biggest problem for Americans,” that they are “stupid and violent” (oh, the irony), and “inferior.” These ideas did not originate with this man, but he accepted them as true, and they certainly manifested from consciousness into the world, in Charleston.

Interestingly, magic has many different connotations for most people these days. Most of them aren’t particularly positive: prestidigitation, illusion considered real by naive observers, conjuration, deception. And it can be these things.

But capitalism has its magic. It has its thought-forms that seep into our consciousness. In some ways, the contents of an accountant’s spreadsheet are more real to many of us than a homeless person starving or freezing to death in an alley. These ideas govern the very fabric of society, of resource allocation, of comfort & suffering for every living thing on the planet. The world is seen through the lens of quantification, reduced to a mere number, and capitalist wizards work their arcane lore to manipulate these numbers to their favour, manifesting their will to profit in the real world.

And the costs are externalized, as always. This is part of capitalist magic and privatization in general. When the numbers come in, they belong to the owner-wizards. But when the numbers need to go back out, it’s everyone’s problem.

Have you ever been to a corporate training seminar? They are really common these days. They cover a lot of areas, like exemplary customer service, or sexual harassment in the workplace, or assertiveness training for women in business, or techniques for results-oriented communication, or effective employee motivation, or really just about anything that a “limited liability” corporation needs to sign off on, so they can create the appearance that their employees know all about the topic the seminar covers.

Whether or not all the employees actually do understand these things is not important; what is important is that the corporation is no longer liable if trouble ensues when an employee acts in a way that clearly shows he does not understand. Usually when these conflicts occur the liability shifts from the corporation to the employee, who is disciplined or simply fired. And then everyone pretends this is normal, and as it should be.

But here’s the thing. There is a key component missing from a lot of the capitalist magic going on out there: will. The most important task for an occultist is to turn inward, into the self, beyond the veils of illusion, and learn to discern what the will is. The will is not whim, it is not passing fancy, it is not going along with what everyone else around you is doing. By suppressing and thwarting the ability of millions of people to discern their will, and choosing to move forward and defend the very system that oppresses them and benefits their oppressors, capitalism works its magic.

So we resist, those of us who reject the received will of capitalism. We struggle to find new social relations within paganism, though it’s difficult to resist assimilation of our spirituality into capitalism.

Capitalist magic is particularly prone to what Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is “merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” The problem is, the abstract & the concrete (or theory & practice, seen from another angle) are not always two separate worlds, forever cleaved in half. One influences the other. The abstractions we carry in our minds usually regulate our behavior. If we focus on changing behavior without addressing the fundamental thought patterns that underlie it, we will forever be chasing small fires that keep arising. Overthrowing capitalism will require a transformation of human consciousness — the very essence of magic.

Ragnarök & The Transformation of Consciousness

So yeah, Ragnarök. For those unacquainted, it is the end of the world in Norse mythology, the twilight of the gods, deaths, disasters on a vast scale. It’s not difficult to imagine in the 21st century, where sensitive souls can see the damage being perpetrated on the planet. We are now in an extinction event, where some scientists think that humans will be extinct within a century. And many of the most ardent radical anti-capitalists feel hopeless to stop it, that there is nothing we can do.

But if we follow the example of my polytheist friends and take the statement — Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök — literally, there is plenty we can do. This perspective not only shows that Gods are aware of the problems we are facing, but that they are fighting against it and recruiting help. This is comforting.

Or, we can take the statement metaphorically, and realize that the machinations of capitalism also have their opponents in those of us who would protect the precious ecosystems of the planet against capitalist exploitation and destruction. We can re-enchant the world, but we must also re-enchant consciousness.

Radical Books for Radical Kids

Over at my personal blog I have a feature I call “What We’re Reading,” where I talk about what books I’m in the middle of and what I’m reading to my kids. I’d like to share a few of the books we’re reading that might relate to readers of Gods & Radicals.

AisforActivistA is for activist is a fantastic board book for babies, children, and grown ups alike! It walks readers through the alphabet, from activist to zapatista, educating people on collectivist and community ideas. Bright colors, plays-on-words (in more than one language!), and find-the-cat on each page make this book a lot of fun. I have found it a great way to slowly start discussing political ideas at an early age in a way that is non-polarizing. Plus, it always impresses the pants off adults when a kid can tell you that vox populi means voice of the people! Thanks, Innosanto Nagara!

You can purchase this book straight from the publisher, in English and Spanish. Plus, there is a publisher in Sweden who translated it into Swedish! I’m looking forward to adding the next book, Counting on Community, to our bookshelf.


 

Another beautiful board book is Kim Krans’ Hello Sacred Life. Krans is the creator ofhellosacredearth the fabulous Wild Unknown tarot deck (one I use regularly). Her simple book for the very young is a favorite in our house. The pictures are simple and exquisite, encouraging a reverence for the entirety of the world around us.

In my opinion, this book is appropriate for any family from any religious or spiritual tradition. Babies will love the colors and soothing repetitive quality of the words. Parents will love how easy it is to read. Personally, I find it quite relaxing to read – and we read it a lot!

For older kids, a fabulous book on gender diversity is Talcott Broadhead’s Meet Polkadot. Using a fictionalized version of Talcott’s sweet kiddo to demonstrate the myriad ways gender can be expressed, kids get a lesson in the basics of gender theory, lived experience, and ways they can be an ally.

This is a book that can be read on multiple levels. It’s very wordy, so when I read it to my 4 year old I might not read every single word, but read the bigger points on a page. For my older kid, I will read all of it. This book has led to some great discussions in our house! I love that my kids know transgender people in real life and in stories – and this book helps explain a lot of what that means. When we meet people of any or no gender they already have a bit of language under their belt, so they don’t have to get caught up on words and theory, and can jump straight into getting to know people as people.

Click on the picture below to purchase this book directly from the publisher.

MeetPolkadot

 


 

Last, but not least, is the wonderful, inspiring Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. This is another alphabet book, with each letter highlighting an amazing American woman. Featuring a diversity of races, backgrounds, and sexualities, from across the centuries, this book highlights the incredible women that mainstream histories often gloss over. So many of these women were involved in abolition, socialist movements, workers’ rights, and the Civil Rights Movement. Angela Davis, Temple Grandin, Kate Bornstien, Sonia Sotomayor, WIlma Mankiller, and many others are featured here. The letter X is particularly moving – no spoilers!

Click on the image below to purchase.

rad

Each of these books revels in the beautiful diversity of our world and the collective efforts it takes to be whole, healthy, and thriving – that’s my take away, at least! These books reflect the values I wish for my kids: freedom of self-expression; love of this embodied and created world; virtues of strength, justice, and solidarity with others; feminism, socialism, and beauty.

Another aspect of these books I want to point out, one that your kids probably won’t appreciate, is that all of them are published by independent presses; three out of the four books were the impetus for their authors’ publishing companies! You can order these books directly from them or you can order them through your local, independent bookstore.

 

*Important note: this review is in no way suggesting that Gods & Radicals as an entity endorses these books, or the purchasing of them. These books were purchased by or borrowed from the library by me. The authors have no idea I’m reviewing their books.

The King’s Injustice: Choices and Consequences

by Naomi Jacobs

Under the Conservative-led government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London.
Under the Conservative-led UK government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London. By Victoria Johnson.

After that, Lugaid mac Con was a year in the kingship of Tara, and no grass came through the earth, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. So the men of Ireland expelled him from his kingship, for he was an unlawful ruler.
– Aislinge Meic Conglinne, trans. Preston-Matto, 2010

A ruler’s truth overpowers armies. It brings milk into the world, it brings corn and mast.
– Early Irish text cited in Ó hÓgáin, 1999

In ancient Ireland, the king’s justice, the King’s Truth – fír flathemon – was the condition of sovereignty on which the prosperity of the land depended. If the king ruled with justice, the land prospered. If he failed in this, the land was barren, and the people suffered. Eventually, he would be deposed and a good king would replace him.

On May 7th, the UK had a general election, and a Conservative government was elected. This post is not about party politics. It is about political activism, and why it is needed – especially when the king’s justice is by no means certain for the future.

The Conservative-led UK government has spent the past five years implementing all manner of economically and socially conservative legislation and programmes. These cuts and measures have disproportionately targeted the poorest and most vulnerable* people in UK society. Here are just a few examples. I could have cited many more.

Injustice limits access to justice

Legal aid is an extremely old concept, found in the Bible and other ancient legal systems. It’s been a pillar of the UK social security system for generations, and it exists in many other countries too. The UK government has made sweeping cuts to legal aid, limiting most people’s access to financial support for legal representation. People in the foster care system, homeless people and parents in custody battles are all having to represent themselves in court. The worst affected area has been family law, which has seen a reduction in the use of mediation, which is likely to have had negative effects on families and children. In an unintended side-effect of the implementation of the cuts, people who experience domestic violence have been asked to show evidence of this before legal aid will pay their legal costs. The evidence is required to be no more than 24 months old. And it must be police evidence, which is a serious problem if the police haven’t believed you, or if you’ve been too afraid to report the abuse. Meanwhile, employment tribunal fees are no longer being paid by the government, as a result of which the rate of tribunals has dropped by 90%. This means less justice for those working in insecure jobs, in poor conditions, not receiving minimum wage, or facing discrimination at work. Injustice entrenches itself in the system.

Injustice compounds injustice

Then we’ve had the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. If people in social housing have more bedrooms than are deemed necessary, they have to pay more for them. Often this occurs in housing where people have lived for many years, where there can be many reasons for extra bedrooms (including the need for space to store disability-related equipment or to have a care worker sleeping nearby), and which they are now being made to leave. This measure is very badly timed, hitting people simultaneously with other serious housing issues, including a rental market that is spiralling out of control, as landlords charge more and more in rent, especially in the cities. As a result, thousands of people are being forced to move away from their home towns, relocated to cheaper housing elsewhere. This is having a knock-on effect on families, with parents even losing their children to the foster care system. Injustice compounds injustice.

No extra rooms allowed, no matter what you need them for. Photo: wheelchair in a room at home. By Wheelz24.
No extra rooms allowed, regardless of need. Photo: wheelchair. By Wheelz24.

Injustice destroys the weakest

Another horrendous move has been the closure of the Independent Living Fund. This fund helps to pay for the care of the most severely disabled people in our society, ensuring that they do not have to live in care homes, allowing them a measure of independence despite severe impairment. The fund is due to close in July. The government claims that the funding will move into the general local council social care budgets – but it is not ringfenced, i.e. the government will move the funding over without forcing local councils to spend it on the care of disabled people. Local council budgets have been cut by up to 30% across the board, and they are already struggling to pay for the care of disabled and elderly people, whose support is being cut as a result. This moving video features disabled people who are currently supported by the ILF, talking about their fears for the future. It’s worth watching. Injustice is brutal.

Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.
Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.

There’s also been ‘reform’ of disability benefits – by which the government really means cuts to benefits. Disabled people have been affected by government cuts 18 times harder than non-disabled people, some statistics suggest. Employment Support Allowance, an out-of-work benefit for those who can’t work due to disability, has been scandalously implemented via a ‘fitness to work’ test that has certified people as ready to go back to work just before they died from their conditions, as part of a system which has negatively impacted many people’s health. ESA has since been time-limited for many thousands of people, while ill people are being penalised and having their benefits removed if they cannot keep appointments (because they are sick).There have also been changes to funds that help to pay for the extra costs of disability, regardless of whether or not a person is in work. Without some of this funding, I will have no money to pay the soaring costs of disability in a society that increasingly doesn’t have room for me. I fear for my future and ability to work when I do. Injustice is expensive.

Injustice tramples the rights of the people

The government is now attempting to scrap the Human Rights Act, which allows us such terrible things as the right to freedom of expression, the right to an education, and the right to a private family life.

According to ajgcanada.com, these are all reforms that entrench poverty and increase inequality. Reforms that leave people in desperate situations. Reforms that destroy local services, including social care for elderly people and the National Health Service that all of us rely on (there is very little in the way of decent health insurance available to anyone in this country, except for those who are very rich and healthy). Reforms that kill. Injustice is relentless.

Fír flathamon – our truth, our justice

In a system that allows free elections, we are complicit in ensuring justice for all, and in denying it to anyone. We are the king’s justice, and the absence of it. We voted in a government that plans to aim further cuts at an already-ravaged population of poor and disabled people. We will only be able to blame ourselves when the land is torn apart by fracking, the foxes begin to die again if the hunt returns, homelessness numbers rise and rise, the people suffer because food banks are not enough to meet the needs created by government austerity programmes, and more poor and disabled people die.

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Photo: protester holds sign that reads ‘Ban fracking and support clean green energy’. By The Weekly Bull.

 

One of the worst kickers has been that, when I’ve told US citizens about this situation, hoping for commiseration and support, their reply has mostly been “Welcome to America.” Thanks for the schadenfreude, friends, but I think we can do better than that. One country’s injustice does not mean we have to support a string of unjust systems across the world. If anything, it should make us more keen to fight for justice, both in our own lands and abroad. The UK has a history of an excellent welfare state that was a true safety net for those in trouble. We should all fight its collapse, not celebrate it.

Religious institutions have been slow to respond to the injustice of the austerity measures and cuts in Britain. So slow, in fact, that our Prime Minister recently felt able to co-opt Christian frameworks in support of his cuts. But members of various religions are starting to step forward and speak out against the situation. Pagans need to do the same. We have access to many myths and metaphors that highlight how social injustice can lead to social and economic collapse for all. Some of those myths have been validated in the modern world – we know that societies that emphasise social justice and reduce inequality tend to do better economically and socially. The good judgments of the king really do lead to a prosperous and peaceful land. The opposite is also true. The land will not prosper while the people are oppressed. No grass comes through the earth in Britain today, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. It’s just that not everyone can see that yet.

Today, the King’s Truth is our responsibility. It is our truth. Today, the majority has failed the minority in society, those who are weakened to sustain the power of the rich, of the more privileged. The bankers who get away with economic collapse. The politicians who get away with murder. We give them their power. We can take it away again.

But on May 7th, we failed to do that. We elected a government that we knew were planning to extend austerity measures and to create even more devastation and destruction. We could have deposed the king and replaced him with wise and just ministers. We chose instead to sustain and support gau flathemon, the injustice of kings.

The question is, what are we going to do about it now?

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Photo: a large sign held up by protestors reads “Thatcher’s gone – now let’s bury Thatcherism”. By Darren Johnson.

*Generally I dislike the word vulnerable, but in this case it’s true. Society is making disabled people, and others, ever more vulnerable in this country. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s another thing that we choose to allow, to stand by while it becomes ever more true.

References

Preston-Matto, 2010, Aislinge Meic Conglinne (the vision of Mac Conglinne). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Ó hÓgáin, 1999, The Sacred Isle. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.

All photographs used under Creative Commons licence.