The Great Ventriloquism Act of 2016

There’s a reason why identity politics no longer sounds anything like Civil Rights-era social justice (and why we’ll have to fight to win it back)

Political and social analysis, from Peter Gaffney

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Original Photo Daniel Hanton

 


As a culture accustomed to thinking of history as a series of unexpected crises, it is not surprising that the recent Pepsi ad featuring market-friendly images of protest culture already looks so small in the rear-view mirror. It was a scandal, it was an embarrassment, it was a trifle, and now it’s over. But things in hindsight are always closer than they seem, and the underlying logic of what was otherwise a rather obvious and predictable advertising gamble is bound to creep up on us again and again out of some half-lived half-forgotten past that we usually strive (sometimes quite willfully) to ignore. It isn’t hard, of course, to see the similarity between the Pepsi ad and Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” ad, or even Lucky Strikes’ 1928 “torches of freedom,” a PR stunt that consisted in a women’s suffrage march designed to win people over to the idea of women smoking (not voting).

The very structure of market-driven liberal democracy immediately implies a situation in which the production of capital as an end in itself must repeatedly impersonate the public sphere, to walk our walk, use our language, and – more and more often – speak truth to power as a pretext for speaking power to the truth.

During the primaries, for example, when Hillary Clinton invoked the concept of intersectionality, it compelled Kimberlé Crenshaw to tweet : “But what does she mean by it?” One follower tweeted back a straightforward gloss (“understanding the intersections, and not only about identity”), another criticized Sanders (“ask why Bernie doesn’t talk about systemic racism in addition to economic inequality”), and several others understood Crenshaw’s question as throwing subtle shade on Clinton’s motivations (“It’s where the interests of Wall Street and ethnic & minority groups intersect with her political ambitions”; “Probably some variation of the horrible Clintonian triangulation policy”). The original tweet also shows a photo of Clinton and a caption linked to an article by Clare Foran for The Atlantic that comments on the way politicians are helping to bring popular recognition to Crenshaw’s work. Mixed blessings, Foran observes, since this kind of attention “brings the concept further into the political mainstream” but with “risk of it becoming a meaningless buzzword.” (Crenshaw’s own working through of the concept can be found here).

It is telling that one year later this densely meaningful social media exchange so accurately conveys all the difficulties and confusions that make up the struggle on the American left, between those who would like to see identity politics as the core strategic and moral prerogative of the Democratic Party moving forward and those who believe the DNC can only mount a credible resistance to the all-too-pervasive logic of neoliberalism by divesting from the finance market and their corporate allies. In this way, Crenshaw’s tweet and the comments that follow condense not only the terms of the struggle but the fantastically poststructuralist formula according to which each side is trying to engage the other: that is, in the murky interstitial territory between identity politics and electoral reform where, logically speaking, no ideological battlefield can exist.

What might help to sort out these difficulties – to establish at least a coherent battlefield – is a new line of inquiry that brackets the express meaning and aims of identity politics in order to shed light on its history as a discursive system subject to a vicissitude of contingencies, appropriations, power plays and reversals. This is the kind of work that Michel Foucault (and Nietzsche before him) called genealogy, an approach to the study of history based on the notion that “truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents” (1). Working through the “exteriority of accidents” in the case of identity politics would offer an important key for breaking through the frustrating impasse of a discussion that has so often misconstrued our differences on the left in terms of a conflict of values. My aim is not to work through these differences here but to suggest a framework in which to understand them; to justify, if nothing else, the principle of a new line of inquiry, while pointing out some of the dangers we face by failing to shed light on the forces that circulate in the shadowy exterior of all our efforts to make sense of the current political climate (not just Pepsi ads).

Looking at discourse from the outside

It did not escape Foucault that the very concept of genealogy he writes about in his article “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” which is based on Nietzsche’s use of the term in The Genealogy of Morals, is manifestly subject to appropriation. By interpreting it himself, Foucault is rendering transparent the very mechanisms of appropriation he wishes to explain in the article. The purpose of this gesture becomes evident when we consider the problematic context in which Foucault began his project on the history of ideas: a time when Nietzsche was still closely associated with the rise of German nationalism, in part because the most widely read and respected interpreter of his ideas was Martin Heidegger (a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to the end of the war).

It is tempting to see Foucault here in the role of the good historian who means to save Nietzsche from his “bad interpreters,” and who means for that reason to draw our attention to some redeeming congenital truth buried deep in the original text. But doesn’t this show us instead how a discourse can be circulated without any guarantees on who will use it, how it will be used, or what concrete political reality it will be instrumental in bringing about?

This is how Foucault understands Nietzsche’s concept of Entstehung, which he translates as l’émergence – or alternately as les points de surgissement (the moments, stages or positions of arising) –, by which a discourse always appears anew in the hands of historically contingent forces:

Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing the rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules. (p. 151)

It is in this way, for example, that the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, a French Marxist existentialist, were taken up once more by Frantz Fanon, an Afro-Caribbean theorist of colonial race politics, and finally redeployed to concrete political ends by Ali Shariati, ideologue of Red Shi’ism and the Iranian Revolution. Ironically, one of Shariati’s ends was to defeat a competing form of leftism in Iran that had previously played a large part in the revolution and that styled itself after Western Marxism. But these designs against Iran’s revolutionary left, in yet another twist of fate, were all but overlooked by Western intellectuals who came to embrace the overthrow of the Shah and formation of the new Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini as a model for the struggle against imperialism (including Foucault himself).

No doubt, examples like these will give us reason to point out how important it is to distinguish between the good and bad interpretation; to recuperate the original purpose and meaning of Sartre’s ideas in order to show how they were distorted with each new iteration; to unmask the false prophet that lurks behind every radical ideologue. Or else, with growing suspicion for all big ideas, we will turn to the hard currency of fact, to the identity of the speaker if necessary, as a strategy for securing the authenticity of every instance of speech. But if we learned anything in the last election cycle, it’s the futility of any strategy which causes the forces that circulate on the outside of discourse to disappear only by virtue of an attitude that draws our perspective drastically inward, meanwhile pushing the horizons ever farther away. Rather than shoring up the privileges of a sovereign subject enunciating from the illusory center of the field of signification, I would recommend that we actively seek what lies just outside that field, at the perimeters of discourse – “not the anticipatory power of meaning,” as Foucault suggests, “but the hazardous play of dominations” (p. 148).

Bending the rules to a new purpose

It might help then to clarify some of the distinct ways the discourse of identity politics has appeared during the recent election cycle and post-election discussion in America, referring variously to a moral prerogative on the part of DNC leadership to represent the underrepresented, a strategy for winning elections, and a set of ideological tools for making sense of the way poverty, violence, and disenfranchisement are connected to matters of identity, in a way that transcends the mere condition of economic hardship or disadvantage. I would further emphasize the need to distinguish between the two common ways in which identity matters: as a deliberate and often courageous act of self-identification, and conversely as the creation and maintenance of a social class or subculture as function of a dominant discourse on race, gender, etc. that aims in this way to render it vulnerable to exploitation.

This gives us a pretty good array of intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics. One could point out, for example, that the prerogative to represent the underrepresented – to elect America’s first woman to the office of president – is intrinsic to the discourse of identity politics, because it emerges simultaneously with the meaning and purpose of that discourse. This is not the case with the notion that identity politics can be used as a strategy for winning elections, since it opens the way to purposes – contingent historical forces – that need not coincide with any moral prerogative whatsoever. Obviously, the prerogative of running a woman candidate in the general election immediately implies the one of winning. I am speaking here of a different scenario, in which identity politics has emerged on the national stage in the manner of a kind of Entstehung: which is to say, not by virtue of its own internal necessity (though such a necessity surely persists in the emergence) but instead as a set of impersonal rules bent to a wholly new and unrelated purpose.

Similarly, if identity is brought into play by virtue of a prerogative that is reclaimed through the act of self-identification, it is only because it has already been invoked as the function of a dominant discourse that generates identity-based categories with the purpose of satisfying various systemic demands for a subaltern. In its passage from dominant discourse to the act of self-identification, identity becomes the object of reappropriation, or what Judith Butler – quoting Foucault – calls “reverse discourse,” a gesture that consists in freely appropriating the signifying mechanism that was designed to disempower you (2). In the 2016 election, with both major party candidates organizing their campaigns explicitly around the politics of identity, this gesture played a particularly visible role, seeming to make up the book ends of nearly every news cycle.

Candidates could hardly land a jab on their opponents before the move was parried by the equally newsworthy reverse discourse of their opposing constituents. Not surprisingly, it was women who found themselves at the center of this struggle to dominate the discursive field, self-identifying variously as “Bernie bros,” “deplorables,” or “nasty women” – at which point the gesture began to acquire a kind of surplus meaning, signifying if not détente exactly then perhaps a battle in which every side can reasonably claim total victory.

If the structure of reverse discourse even at its most authentic already suggested the imminent ideological bind of “All Lives Matter,” if we were bound to reach this impasse the moment identity politics emerged as an effective strategy on the national stage, perhaps it is because every instance of discourse, as it comes free from one set of historically contingent forces and passes into the hands of another, inevitably shows its obverse side. At these moments, we catch a glimpse of the impersonal, even mechanical aspect of the prohibitions and privileges from which the discourse derives its power to circulate as an autonomous form, actively structuring our social and political life. Isn’t it precisely this stark apprehension of discourse stripped of its moral veil – a tool like any other – that lies at the root of all our latest crises: the dangerous permissiveness of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the unchecked circulation of leaked emails and fake news, a return of the repressed outside of discourse that now threatens to engulf our embattled will to truth? Except that the driving force behind this new “post-truth” political climate is not some precipitous disconnect between the thing and its referent, but our own stubborn determination to seek out the truth where there is nothing more at stake than the will to power.

Foucault warned us of this situation: “discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized” (3). To address these new dangers, we should be prepared to entertain questions not only about the way identity politics translates the struggle for social justice, but also about the struggle that is taking place at the perimeter of this relatively new locus of discursive power: the rise of Third Way politics, for example, and the project of neoliberalism that produced it. Of course, it is understandable that any new line of inquiry that looks at identity politics from its contested “outside” will be met with arguments about the danger of undermining the efforts of scholars, advocates, and institutions that make up its “inside,” diverting precious intellectual energy and support from a job that was thankless enough to begin with, and never more at risk. Even more broadly, this kind of critique may be met with objections that if Third Way politics – or the market as such – has taken an interest in the strategic utility of identity, this does not preclude conventional notions of coalition-building. In other words, we should not rush to consider all contingent interests with suspicion at a time when they might offer the left some strategic advantage in a culture war against an increasingly radicalized right.

But perhaps the problem is more complicated than this. Kimberlé Crenshaw and others on the frontlines of the struggle against the continuing rollback of civil rights are often at pains to improve the framework through which the discourse represents the problem, so as to better address acute issues of police brutality and other forms of violence against those who find themselves unable to speak for themselves (even by means of identity-based discourse in its present state). These scholars and advocates are doing the vital work of evolving and strengthening the discourse, actively bringing it to bear on the complexity of real life problems as they arise, and thereby giving it immediacy and traction. We can imagine how politicians willing to bring the work of Crenshaw and others to the national stage play a strategic role in supporting their efforts by expanding the visibility and currency of their ideas in the public sphere.

But this is where it gets complicated. By the same token that intellectual and social labor increases the legitimacy of the discourse from the inside, by the same token that it renews the power of the discourse to transform the public imagination, it also raises the value of the discourse as “the thing for which and by which there is struggle,” which is to say, “the power which is to be seized.”

Social justice in the image of the market

We can easily imagine, for example, how the exigencies of electoral politics – the perennial demand for strategies that will help Third Way Democrats win elections – puts undue burden on these ideological resources, even when the relationship is synergistic. As Foran suggests in the case of Crenshaw’s work, recognition in the political mainstream comes at the risk of losing original purpose and meaning: the expansion of the concept of intersectionality, for instance, to the point where it means nothing at all.

This is hardly a worst case scenario. We can imagine other relationships in which there is no synergy, relationships that are purely opportunistic because they arise from a situation in which the ideological resources of a discourse have become too valuable, too strategically important to be left in the hands of those who create them. Nor is it difficult to imagine (like Rhon Manigault-Bryant in her open letter to white liberal feminists) how the misuse of identity politics for political gain has significantly compromised the intellectual labor of thinkers and activists like Crenshaw, or directly aggravated the acute social issues their work was originally created to address.

This kind of relationship best exemplifies the crisis we are in now – and not only on the left. The rise of both liberal and conservative social politics in their present state coincides historically with the end of the Cold War and realignment of both major parties behind the project of recreating American social and political life in the image of the market. There are several compelling accounts of this project, notably Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, and Maurizio Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt. Both of these are based in large part on the definition of neoliberalism offered by Foucault in The Birth of Biopolitics, a project that “does not ask the state what freedom it will leave to the economy, but asks the economy how its freedom can have a state-creating function and role” (4). As mechanisms of representation (both electoral and discursive) are systematically replaced by those of the market, the project of neoliberalism directly precipitates a new kind of crisis. “What is at issue is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state which, because of its defects, is mistrusted by everyone on both the right and the left, for one reason or another” (5).

This new kind of crisis, the crisis of market-driven liberal democracy, has nothing to do with the old political rivalries. If anything, it coincides with a gradual loss of autonomous government to the means and ends of the market, arriving finally at a point where it is not capable of giving authentic expression to political rivalries of any kind. As stewards of the neoliberal project, politicians at the “radical center” have been compelled to make up for this loss– to re-establish trust on both the right and the left by offering various new forms of opposition, among which the politics of identity stands out (at least for now) as the most effective. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, not to mention longstanding historical factors simultaneously at work in systemic sexism, racism, etc. But in the current context, and as pure discursive strategy, the sole purpose of the new politics of identity is to provide disenfranchised constituents in each party with a reason to continue aligning their political will along party lines, even as their elected representatives align more and more decisively with each other on the principle of economics as an end in itself.

In this way, with no opportunity to address the crisis directly, the electorate ends up radicalizing along an ideological axis on which all positions left, right, and center are amenable to the interests of the market. Third Way social liberalism squares off with its conservative counterpart- the Southern Strategy, the Moral Majority, the Evangelical right, etc. in an escalating feedback loop, all the more dangerous because the forces that keep it in motion are able to reap ever greater profits from every social and economic crisis it precipitates.

The first step in escaping this vicious cycle, especially in light of last year’s shake-up of conventional left/right orthodoxy, is to reject the discourse of both parties equally: to step out of the superficial and mutually antagonistic stance in which Democratic and Republican Party leadership hope to exhaust our collective political will, in order to directly engage one another across party lines in a more substantive discussion about the way we’d like our elected representatives to address the long list of crises created by global capitalism. To be sure, there are bound to be many proposals on which we fundamentally disagree. But putting an end to America’s culture wars – a PR spectacle that increasingly relies on real violence to achieve verisimilitude –, is not likely to be one of them.

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  1.  Foucault M. Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. In: Bouchard DF, editor. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press; 1977. p. 146. All in-text page references refer to this article.
  2.  Butler J. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 1997. p. 83-105.
  3.  Foucault M. The Order of Discourse. In: Young R, editor. Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1981. p. 52-53.
  4.  Foucault M. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France. Burchell G, translator; Senellart M, editor. New York: Palgrave MacMillan; 2008. p. 95.
  5.  Ibid. p. 117.

Peter Gaffney

My editorials on American politics have appeared in Salon and Counterpunch, and I am editor and co-author of The Force of the Virtual: Deleuze, Science and Philosophy (2010, University of Minnesota Press); Assistant Professor (philosophy, visual culture and the public sphere) in the Liberal Arts Faculty at The Curtis Institute of Music; adjunct professor (by appointment) in the Cinema Studies Program at University of Pennsylvania; former Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College and Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities at University of Pennsylvania, 2009-2010. I am currently working as a freelance writer while on sabbatical in Czech Republic.

Politics and Witchcraft, Practical Intersections: Protest

Magic has been variously described over the years. For our purposes, let’s say it is the raising of energy and directing it toward a goal, to create change in accordance with will. And if that’s not an accurate description of political demonstrations, I’m not sure what is.

Ritual-Political Theory, from Vera Northe

Image: May Day 2017, Paris (see original and many more at Taranis News.)

May 1st, 2017. A may-pole and drums and people from many different local groups dressed for the occasion. Under a hot sun, framed by trees with new leaves, we were reminded why we had gathered, although we all already knew. We raised power, and after a time (and, as will often happen with large groups, a little disorder), we released it. As happens with any such public gathering of people overtly proclaiming their beliefs, there had been a few people trying to start trouble with us, but they didn’t really succeed. Then there was food, and we came back into the everyday, but we remained talking together for several hours.

I’m not describing a Beltane ritual; the may-pole was hung with red and black streamers and the local groups all carried political signs. I’m describing a May Day rally and march in New York City. May 1st is a day doubly sacred to many leftist pagans, a day of political and religious significance. The meaning gets all intertwined like the ribbons around the may-pole: liberation, creativity, work, and magic, the energy of everything coming alive after a long dark winter.

The question of whether witchcraft should be political is a tired one. People frequently bring up the perhaps legendary account of New Forest covens repelling Hitler, or the works Starhawk has written on political organizing and magic, or the actions of the W.I.T.C.H. organization, or even the recent much-publicized Trump hex. But to me, one of the strongest arguments that witchcraft and politics go together is structural and practical. Because the very act of public political demonstration follows a form familiar to all of us.

With the growing visibility of large-scale movements thanks to social media, we’ve all heard someone say, “What good is protest?” This is said not in a good-faith disagreement about tactics, but by people who think, I’ve got mine so what’s everyone else whining about? “What good is protest?” said by a commuter whose route to work was blocked. “What good is protest?” followed by, “they already have their rights.” Or, as one man (an ivy league graduate) once growled to me, “They should all be shot.”

“What good is protest?” they ask, and if we are tired of explaining history, we might simply reply, “It’s magic.”

Lady Liberty/Lady Death (May Day NYC 2017)

Protest As Ritual

Magic has been variously described over the years. For our purposes, let’s say it is the raising of energy and directing it toward a goal, to create change in accordance with will. And if that’s not an accurate description of political demonstrations, I’m not sure what is.

Sometimes, the pieces of a political demonstration are discrete and orderly, a clearly planned ritual. Scheduled speakers from various organizations remind the crowd why they have gathered, sometimes bringing visibility to a little-known cause, sometimes reading demands, sometimes speaking generally but keeping the energy rising, leading chants, or singing songs. Then, there may be a march to another location (or in some cases, when the march itself is the main event, there may only be speeches at the destination). The march itself is usually peppered with chants, keeping the energy high. The destination is usually a point of significance, often a capitol building, a city hall, a bank, a police station, or similar seat of power. It is there that the energy usually is released, often with more chanting and drumming, and perhaps a reading of demands.

This was the sort of thing which I attended on May Day. Shortly after I arrived at Union Square, the official program began, with speakers from immigrant groups, unions, and Palestine solidarity groups. Most of the speeches were pro immigrant, pro worker, and against capitalism and US imperialism (and against Trump’s policies specifically).

As a side note on the flow of energy within a political context: Susan Sarandon made an appearance and I found her speech quite weird, along the lines of many liberal speakers I’ve seen at other rallies (most notably the Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina). Liberalism doesn’t work along the same magical lines as radicalism: Sarandon looked at the energy of the crowd and urged us to take that energy and…vote in the next local elections. To be clear, when I say “liberal,” I’m not commenting on her own personal politics, which I’m not acquainted with, but rather the category her call to action falls into. Radicals and magic-workers alike know that raised energy cannot be saved up for over a year and then released. It must be given somewhere to go right away.

While everyone was queuing up to leave Union Square for the larger rally occurring at Foley Square (which is located just a block from city hall), I asked my friends who had been participating in other marches and demonstration all day across the city how this May Day compared to others they had seen in New York. Their immediate response was, “the energy is definitely different.” They aren’t occultists, but people who are well experienced in radical political movements, labor strikes, and other actions on the left often talk of energy just as proficiently as occultists do. They went on to speculate that much of the difference in energy came from the fact that anti-Trump sentiment has drawn new people to what would usually have been a largely labor-focused rally. Additionally, they noted a much larger presence of the masked Black Bloc, probably partly in response to the threats which neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups had been posting on social media to disrupt May Day actions in New York.

Union Square emptied very slowly, each group of people with their cluster of banners and signs filing out toward 14th street. We’d barely gone a block before everyone stopped and the police began broadcasting their sterile declaration that walking in the street and blocking the sidewalk is illegal. The energy of the march was fractured; we had no voice telling us what to do, only the police blocking us. We turned around and made our way back to the square, and after regrouping, started off down the sidewalk on Broadway which is where we were initially supposed to go anyway. While everyone was regrouping, my friends checked twitter and realized Mayor deBlasio was set to speak at Foley Square. They began to discuss how the tactics of policing had changed around protest for a few months after deBlasio entered office, taking a hands-off approach, only to crack down again once deBlasio walked back his rhetoric around policing.

This is another point to remember when discussing the magic of political demonstration. The power difference between institutions (such as the police) and the people in the streets is astronomical. A show of disapproval from the NYPD had more weight with the mayor than years of demonstrations by the residents of the city. The energy of having police present at every protest is something that must be taken into consideration as well. It’s as if inquisitors were required to be present at and control the flow of every witches’ sabbat. If you’ve experienced brutality even once when demonstrating (and many of my friends went through a lot of police harassment during Occupy Wall Street), you know that even if the police aren’t messing with you this time, they could do so with impunity if they decided to. And the audio disruption they frequently employ in the form of giving directions over the PA has an instant dampening effect on the general energy of any demonstration.

After the false start, the march marshals worked hard to get everyone going in the right direction, hanging together so we wouldn’t be separated and stopped by the cops, trying to restart chants which had died down. The march continued to Foley Square, where the news reported about 5,000 people total gathered. The Mayor and other elected officials addressed the crowd, but the crowd also addressed them by being there, directing the raised energy toward them and toward city hall. And my friends and I went for food and drinks, following through with the entire form of ritual although we didn’t mean to, we simply felt a need for food, water, and conversation.

Protest As Magic

Anyone who is practiced in demonstration or in magic knows that you don’t always have to do the full ritual. Sometimes it’s best to arrive directly at the heart of the matter. One cold January Saturday on break at work, I checked Twitter and saw that Trump had signed a Muslim travel ban, and that several refugees were being detained at JFK airport. I checked my phone again after my shift to find a text from my partner: “Do you want to go down to JFK?” I hadn’t seen yet the extent of what was going on but I immediately said yes. When we arrived, we followed the sound of drumming to an enormous mass of people, shouting and chanting and drumming non-stop. Although this action had been planned, a “pull in case of emergency” demonstration organized by immigrant and refugee activists, it was no orderly ritual. The demonstrators released the energy as they raised it, in desperation and yet in confidence that by sheer force of will, we would win. The volume of energy by the demonstrators was met by a stiff show of force from the police. An hour or so after I arrived, the entrance to the terminal was surrounded by cops in riot gear, and they had been announcing nearly the entire time that we were all subject to arrest if we stayed. But the mass of energy-raising people remained undeterred, meeting the threat of physical violence with drumming and chanting, and by the time my friends and I left, we heard that the first detainee had been released.

That wasn’t the only magical act that night. Word got back to the main protest that other protestors were attempting to join us, only to be barred by police from entering the train to the airport. My friends and I left while this was still going on, and arrived at the train terminal to find it packed with people being blocked from accessing the turnstiles by NYPD officers. So we stayed put and began demanding that they be let through. The governor had already ordered that protestors should be allowed to access the train to the airport, but the cops on the ground didn’t know that until we’d been sitting in for some time. We found out on twitter and made it known to the entire crowd, forcing the police officers to call their superiors for orders, and, once they did, they had to let everyone through (as we left we passed a cop pacing through the now-empty lobby yelling into his phone, “All of them?? You mean to tell me we’re just letting all of them through??”).

Demonstrations, like magic, rarely work that quickly, and, like magic, require mundane action. While the protestors outside the airport made known their will for change, putting their collective thumbs on the scales of probability (to borrow another explanation of how magic works), lawyers inside worked on behalf of the refugees while television cameras broadcast the events of that evening nationwide. While we sat in at the train station, we showed the police officers the reports on twitter that the governor had ordered them to stand down, and then told them over and over that they were disobeying orders, a combination of mundane action (giving support for our demand) and magical action (speaking into existence what we wanted to happen).

Protests, rallies, and marches raise power which releases to upset business as usual among politicians and the media. But its greatest effect may be on the practitioners, the demonstrators themselves. It spurs the participants into further action, the kind of sustained action in the mundane world which will create lasting change. It may inspire people already involved in organizations; mass show of support for a cause revitalizes weary activists. People often join movements and organizations because of awareness brought by a mass demonstration. And, like the inception of Occupy Wall Street, what was meant to be just a demonstration may turn into more; people may be inspired to simply not leave.

Like flashy public rituals, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into large political demonstrations. And that work, too, is work which witches and pagans are well prepared to enter into. This is where demonstrations come from, and this is where much of the energy raised goes. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Until then, see you in the streets!


Vera Northe

Vera Northe was raised as a Puritan and grew up to be a witch. She currently lives in New York.


 

Far From Paris…But A Climate Summit, All The Same

IT WAS ONE DAY after the worst snowstorm the Finger Lakes had seen all winter. Four feet of the white stuff, already beginning to melt on the sidewalks and roadsides as I made my way into the lobby of a local high school. Honestly, I did not know what to expect from the climate summit, especially one being held in such a rural area. But as soon as I made my way into the lobby, I knew I had made the right choice in coming.

Several booths had been set up, one from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, another from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, these offering troves of information on climatological science and how climate change in impacting the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. This particular summit had been sponsored by the Mynderse Academy (the high school it was being held at) Science Department, and included speakers from Cornell University, and the Museum of Earth, out of Ithaca, New York.

I signed in at a student-run booth (the young lady appearing just a bit surprised that I was a concerned community member and not associated with any university or organization) and made my way into the auditorium. I took a moment to get seated and marvel at how nice the school was, having a sizeable and dedicated auditorium. After all, the high school I went to didn’t have doors on the stalls in the restrooms, let alone an actual auditorium. High school was a while ago for me, but I seem to remember any sort of student assembly being held in the gym. Maybe I’m getting crotchety in my old age, but I couldn’t help but muse at how spoiled these kids today must be, with their high schools with actual auditoriums. What’s next? Doors on the stalls in the restrooms?

The auditorium filled up quick, with guests from all over the region. I noticed other members of the community in attendance, as well as local town and city politicians (not nearly enough of these). It being a school day, the students of the high school were required to attend the summit, and I could not help but wonder if they realized just how fortunate they were to be receiving this information at such a young age.

Things started off with Dr. Duggan-Haas, from the Paleontological Research Institution at the Museum of Earth, in Ithaca. Dr. Duggan-Haas immediately informed the crowd that climate change is indeed real, and it is indeed caused by us, humans. I would be lying if I did not say that the information was damning.

The take-away from Dr. Duggan-Hass’ speech came down to the fact that humanity is simply consuming too much energy, and that, if we are to have any sort of sustainable future on our planet Earth, we need desperately to curtail our hunger for it. Less usage is key.

One crucial point that was made was the fact that, for example, hydraulic-fracturing (the process of injecting chemical-laden water at extremely high pressure into the ground to breakup shale deposits and thus release the natural gas) is indeed highly destructive to our planet, but so are all methods of mass energy consumption. It became apparent there is a conundrum here, far more complex than simply trying to live green, or find some quick-fix we can all do to set things right. Fossil fuels are the energy source we strive to move away from, while at the same time allowing more sustainable sources to exist.

Basically, green energy requires fossil fuel in some form to be practical, whether that be the creations of materials in solar panels or wind turbines, or the power needed for them to begin collecting sunlight or wind in the first place.

Now that doesn’t mean I’m anti-renewable energy. Quite the contrary. I believe we, as a human race, need desperately to invest in these sustainable alternatives to coal and oil and gas. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is simply reducing our overall consumption of energy, which leads me to my next point.

We can, all of us, make small changes in our daily lives to use less. Take shorter showers, turn off lights when not in use, recycle as much as we possibly can. Problem is, these minor changes in the day-to-day lives of the average human being are small potatoes in comparison to the megalithic hyper-consumption by corporate entities. So long as these private companies are allowed to, quite plainly, rape our Mother Earth for profit, little will change. This system of abject capitalism for the sheer sack of it is blowing through our planet’s natural resources at an utterly unsustainable rate.

International policy is needed to change this. Strict guidelines set forth to ensure Mother Earth’s precious resources exist for generations to come. But therein lies yet another conundrum; seeing to it that various world governments obey said guidelines. Good faith is not enough. It is imperative that any such climate guidelines put forth are followed to the letter. But then we run into the question of just who is tasked with enforcement of such a global climate treaty. The United States? Have we not acted as world police for long enough? And that’s assuming we would bother to try enforcement of such rules in the first place. The corporate culture and wanton capitalism that is inherently American would beg to disagree.

After several speakers, all with poignant information to share, the students were allowed to go home for the day, as it was after 2 o’clock by this point, or stay to learn more if they wished. I was not surprised to see nearly all of them decided to leave, and I don’t blame them. I’m sure I would have done the same when I was fifteen or sixteen. The remaining audience was then allowed to explore several different workshops located in various classrooms throughout the school. Composting, recycling, vermiculture, as well as the social cost of energy mass-consumption were all topics covered.

One very important issue that was touched upon was the difference between climate and weather, and it is a distinction I’m afraid most people are unaware of. Weather is what’s happening in your neck of the woods over a brief period; hours, days, weeks. Climate is what that weather tends to do over a more extended period; at least thirty years. This is a distinction people need to realize.

What is important is the global temperature average, not the wind chill in Pisswater, Okiedokie. Just because it’s cold outside where you are, does not mean the global temperature is not rising. 2016 was the warmest year on record, beating out 2015, which in turn beat out 2014. The Earth’s average temperature has been rising steadily since the early twentieth century, and exponentially since around 1980. And that is information from the Earth Observatory at NASA, which can be found here.

Like I said, the information is there, and it’s damning.

Walking out into the parking lot after the summit had ended, I could not help but be impressed. The information is desperately needed the world over, but especially in small towns and counties, where people may be more resistant to the facts. The professional data presented was university-level, not to mention free and open to the public. Far more people should have attended than did, but it’s a start. Like I said, it was refreshing to see such information presented in this small community. Hopefully we will see many more such summits and forums in cities and towns across the country, and the world. One can only hope

Yet how do we, as people who truly want to make a change, manage to get an actual dialogue with fellow community members, some of whom may be unwilling to listen?

This was yet another issue brought up at the summit, and I believe it is one of the most crucial of all:

We need to make it personal.

We need to connect the information to observable facts people can relate to. The trees blossoming earlier each year. The summers getting hotter and more humid. Certain crops not fairing as well as they used to. These are all things people can see, things they can understand. When you begin spewing numbers and trite data, most people are going to shut down. If they can’t understand it, or believe it has importance in their life, chances are they won’t listen. There is a decent possibility they may even become angry, feeling intimidated. But if we can give them something they can relate to, they may begin to see. Maybe all at once, maybe piece by piece. But they will begin to see.

It’s a small start, but it is a start. Talk to people around you, give them examples. Doing our part to use less is great, and it is crucial. But education is just as important. If we can spread the information, each of us doing our part, then that person will eventually spread the information on to someone else.

We have already passed a tipping-point, where what’s done is done. We are now living on an Earth with a certain amount of damage that cannot be reversed, not for many, many years. But what we can do is stop the damage from spreading further.


Joe DiCicco

Joe DiCicco is a writer from New York. He writes mostly fiction, but has recently begun delving into issues of environmental and social importance. He holds a degree in Natural Resources Conservation.


Joe DiCicco has a piece in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. All issues, along with Pagan Anarchism and A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer, are now available together as a digital download for $20 US. Or order them in print here.

Trump: The Living Corporation Part II: Mysterium Feces

“Remember that there exists a certain malevolence about the formation of any social order. It is the struggle for existence by an artificial entity.”

~ Leto II, “God Emperor of Dune” by Frank Herbert

I don’t like Trump. Yes, for all the reasons everyone else that hates him does. But also because he spews so much bullshit that writing anything topical about him becomes obsolete in less than a day, let alone a two part article with over a month of time in between the parts. He is also an attention whoring bullshit faucet, and I hate giving him anything, let alone attention. Fortunately there is plenty of deeper material to get at once you’ve abandoned the shadow play of static that is the day to day of the Trump presidency. Yes! I hereby appropriate this article in the name of the people and the revolution. Fuck Trump, we’re talking about the nuts n’ bolts of Fascism.

First let me start by saying that I do not believe that Trump is a Fascist, a Nazi, or any other type of quasi-mystical totalitarian racist. Fascists are willing to kill, bleed, and die for Fascism. I do not believe Trump would do anything intentionally that caused itself a moment of discomfort on behalf of Fascism. Of course, the real Fascists don’t die for the cause. They leave their dumber compatriots to do that for them. Real Fascists escape the noose to continue on spreading their ideas and wait for the stars to be right once again. So no, Trump isn’t a Fascist, but I hear this idea repeated by liberals on a daily basis, and if you repeat something enough even people that ought to know better start repeating it too. So this is my attempt, probably a failed one, at putting a stop to that nonsense, but also to get people familiar with what Fascism is and what it looks like when it isn’t wearing it’s goose-stepping, swastika brandishing, cosmetics.

Fascist Theory 101: Carl Schmitt

Do you know who Carl Schmitt is? If not, then you’ve probably never familiarized yourself with the philosophy behind Fascism. This is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that it had no interest for you. Bad in that you now face an enemy you don’t understand. Also bad in that that enemy could be infiltrating whatever group you call home, or family, friends, with the purpose of subverting it. But I don’t offer you a boogey man to be impotently afraid of, so that you will do what I say. I offer you information with which you can take action, and overcome oppression as well as fear.

Carl Schmitt is the philosopher of Fascism. I know that Julius Evola and his Traditionalism is the hot pocket for liberals that have their sights on Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, and the Nazi youth that insist on trying to re-brand their new Fascism as “Alt-right”. Forget that shit. That’s pablum for the aforementioned kids. Herein, I will not explicate in detail on Carl Schmitt’s philosophy of the political, because you don’t need to hear the details to leave behind obsessing over the cosmetic trappings of Fascism and get to the meat and potatoes of what Fascism is. Once you see if for what it is, you will be better able to address the ideas, call people out that are trying to spread those ideas in your group, and maybe, you’ll be able to look into the mirror and ask yourself some hard questions about your own beliefs and maybe question just how you came about believing those beliefs.

Central to Schmitt’s philosophy is three ideas, the Dictator, the State, and the Enemy. Axiomatic to these ideas are two interrelated assumptions, that human beings are pieces of shit that will eat each other if not prevented from doing so, and that the basis of human interaction is conflict. These two axiomatic world views are throwbacks of the Victorian era. Social Darwinism was the half-assed combination of biblical ideas on race and the theories of Charles Darwin that weren’t understood if they were even read. Sigmund Freud thought that if human beings were left to their own devices, they would eventually tear society apart in a fury of Id unleashed that would destroy civilization. These two worldviews, which were staple reality tunnels in the Victorian age, are the foundation stones that Fascism builds on.

The Dictator

The Dictator in the philosophy of the political is the person who has the authority to act in contingency without restriction. In other words, the dictator is the person who steps in to provide order in a state of emergency. For reasons you will understand soon enough, the Fascist state is always in a state of emergency, recognized or not. On the 28th of February, 1933, Hitler’s government declared a state of emergency and that was pretty much the end of the Weimar Republic. Italy saw the slow removal of any power for the people, and the slow accumulation of power in the person of Mussolini. Japan was itself an interesting case, and it can be said that Tojo’s Japan was the low point of a slide downward that started with the Meiji Restoration. Fascist take-overs can be slow or fast, but the results are the same.

Fascists love dictators. An ideal dictator should be the very image of what these fuckheads consider manliness, power, wealth, all the substitute dicks that tiny-dicked men grasp at, all wrapped up into one idiot. Yes, the fascist dictator is usually either dumb, incompetent, dangerously insane, or a mixture of the three. This is also the weakness in all Fascist power schemes. The leader is always an incompetent insane idiot. Usually he finds out too late, like Mussolini, that he has mounted an animal that wants to kill him if he doesn’t just take the ride he gets. What little control or authority that does get exercised by the dictator is usually stupid and gets him in the position to be assassinated. The assassins, who are not heroes but other fascists trying to “save” fascism from the current idiot, well, they’re fascists, so they are usually stupid too. So the assassinations fail. It is external forces that depose the dictator and end the fascism, after blowing up a lot of infrastructure; more on that last bit latter.

The State

The State is the state, you all know it well. This ancient infomorph, similar in kind to the corporation, but much older, slower moving, and much more stupid, hearkens back to the first human cities. The old Babylonian con, as some Discordians say. Usury and Rent, the two magic words that get the State’s blood pumping. But can we call any state with a sovereign, or any kind of individual invested with all the power (theoretically at least), a Fascist state? No, we can’t. Fascism is a specific crisis. It is one of many reactions to the ravages of Capitalism, and it comes at the end of the Capitalist creation and destruction cycles that Austrian school economists and Marxists love to gawk at. Yes, Fascism is a reaction against Capitalism. And like certain other things that are the product of Capitalism, it cannot defeat Capitalism; Capitalism does not fight itself, it only appears to. A non-exhaustive list of features of a Fascist state include: a once powerful nation or people debased by what the people think of as unseen forces, in reality it is capital shifting from a bad credit region to a good credit region (incidentally this is why America’s credit rating being downgraded was a better indication of possible Fascist forces ascending than a list of who’s bought “Mien Kampf” lately); a conflation of a people, the state apparatus and ethnic mysticism; state control of business and industry in an attempt at reigning in capitalist forces; the rallying of the people around hatred of an “enemy” that has the power to destroy the state and its people (as well as the power to distract the people).

The end of the Fascist state is simple. It attempts to strong arm enough people to feed its industrial needs, based in warfare, until said Fascist state angers enough of its neighbors that they all gang together and dismantle it with explosives, bullets, war-crime trials and executions. The end of the Fascist dictator is usually a noose or a self administered bullet. The Capitalists then “clean up” the mess and rebuild the infrastructure, for money.

The Enemy

The enemy is the third pillar of The Political. It’s the easy part to understand. The enemy is real or fictional, sometimes both, and wants to destroy the “civilization” of the Fascist state. It is the joy of joys for a Fascist when the enemy is another Fascist. They can both posit each other as “the enemy” and prop each other up with real violence. No more fear mongering, the populace has something very real to be afraid of. I bruise my head when I hear of anarchists giving other anarchists shit for speaking out against ISIS or similar groups, on the rational that it is fear mongering against Muslims. This is stupid for two reasons. Firstly, ISIS and all those other groups called “radical Islam” are Fascists. Anarchists should rally and fight such assholes. Secondly, to conflate Islam with Fascists groups using Islam to slot into the quasi-mystical mystical element a Fascist state needs both helps those Fascists do that, but also slanders Islam. Good job gang, way to shoot yourself in the foot. Anyway, the enemy also serves the function of distracting the people from the shortcomings of the state, which usually start mounting very quickly, because remember, Fascists are dumb. They’re a bunch of dumb thugs with tiny dicks that got lucky for whatever reason, and are now stuck trying to manage something that is way over their head. The “enemy” provides the two pronged support of distraction and fealty from the people.

Against Fascism, Try Utopianism.

I wrote all this because I read a lot, and some of what I read is the output of other anarchists. It sometimes makes me wonder if I’m in the right movement. The reason for that is that a growing trend I see is the spread of the two basic assumptions of Carl Schmitt’s “The Political” underpinning the thought behind their writing. Other anarchists wonder why it is the movement is spinning its wheels, why it seems the movement seemingly has nothing to offer anyone. That’s the reason, because as long as we offer nothing but more of the same, the view that human beings are shitty and will eat each other given the chance, that they will. When I found anarchism as a young adult, that isn’t what I found. What I found was trust, solidarity, Utopianism, and the science (Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid) underpinning it, almost as old as the quasi-science of Social Darwinism.

What I see now is the desperation of people who, in straight materialist fashion, have forgone the raison d’être of the anarchist movement in the name of “getting real”. What a mistake, a mistake to assume the Utopianist isn’t a realist, and a mistake to confuse getting serious with accepting the status quo uncritically and declaring nothing else possible, to put one’s imagination down in the name of a false adulthood. It is woefully stupid to trade your principles in the name of the ever tiresome “more x than thou” machismo. If you’re wondering why anarchism isn’t catching on these days, these are the reasons why. It is because we have nothing but more of the same to offer. There was a critical failure of imagination, heralded by demagogues tastelessly appropriating the left and selling their persona for a profit.

Yes, Noam Chomsky, I’m talking about you, and people like you. I hate call outs but this one is long overdue motherfucker. You’re going to tell all the anarchists that aren’t interested in voting for the next crook to get real as they solve their lack of housing with squatting? You going to tell the black people getting gunned down in the street they should get real and vote for whatever liberal Capitalist you approve of? All the families getting broken up by mass deportations of the last 10 years that they should get real and give up fighting state power and start standing in line at the voting booth?

Utopianists are realists. You can’t be a Utopianist if you can look around at all this shit and say to yourself, “derp! Guess this is as good as it gets!”, and then like a dipshit try to fight the system from within itself. The Utopian sees the same world you see! And says, “No! We can, and should, do better! The current system will not bring better, it has had its chance!” You can’t move the system while you’re standing in it dummy! You can’t fight it while you’re tacitly approving of it with a vote you dum-dum! You can’t appropriate the actual left indefinitely and not get called on your bullshit you fucker!

Ok, sorry about that interlude, back to the point. So the point here is that there is more to Fascism than tiny dicks and idiocy. Fascists have a view of the world, a philosophy, and a specific political structure. Dismiss these facts at your own risk. And not just the risks you’re thinking of. Fascists need everyone to see the world their way. They don’t do this with persuasion, or argument, and only in the late stages do they cart people off as political prisoners/examples. They start by getting you to see the world their way, a world that is cruel, full of humans that are shitty to each other on a good day. But this isn’t the world, just the world according to Freud, the Social Darwinists, and thinking Fascists like Carl Schmitt.

Kropotkin had an answer to Social Darwinism more than 100 years ago. And it is Social Darwinism that is at the core of the Fascist worldview, underneath all of the philosophy and half-baked mysticism. I would suggest to everyone that while you prepare physically and logistically for the fights ahead, that you also prepare philosophically. You can not win a battle, much less a war, if you can’t convince anyone to join you in the fight; in this war the opposition has had quite a head start. Also, if I may recommend it, take a second look at how you see the world.

Acculturation is the process by which an individual takes up the views and the thought processes of the group they live in. We’ve all grown up with some measure of contact with the Fascist worldview, we’ve all let it seep in. No, we don’t need thought police or commissars. We need thinking anarchists who understand why they are in this fight, what they are and aren’t willing to do, and why, as well has what they are willing to give up for this fight. Some of us are going to disagree, that is actually a good thing.

Here’s a secret tip, you are still an anarchist if you aren’t willing to die, or give up everything, and have some scruples and morals. Refuse the petty self-consumptive struggle of being “more x than though”. This is a movement, not a scene.

Some anarchists are actually closet Fascists. Beware of people that scream “by any means necessary”, they will often have you supply the means, take the risks, and do the work. They aren’t intentionally trying to mislead anyone, but their desires and needs lead them to actions that make their anarchism cosmetic only. It is 100% your right to walk on a person or group that have left the principles of anarchism behind.

The Fascists are going to lose. Not only can Fascism not fight Capitalism successfully, it also depends on, from top to bottom, people that do not think. It doesn’t merely have people that are dumb, like any group (including anarchists) does. It needs them to function, and therefore, this Fascism informorph, wherever it pops up, is doomed to fail. It is you, the thinking, struggling, dedicated anarchists that hold that tide at bay. Don’t forget that. The only way we lose this fight if we give up, or spend more time fighting each other.


Patacelsus

mal1A Discordian for 20 years, Patacelsus finally got comfortable when the 21st century “started getting weird.” When not casting sigils, taking part in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, or studying the unfortunate but sometimes amusing stories of the dead, he’s been known to wander the hidden ways of the city, communing with all of the hidden spirits one can find in a city. As Patacelsus sees it, we’re all already free; after completing the arduous task of waking up to that we can then proceed, like a doctor treating a patient, to try to rouse others from the bitter and frightening nightmares of Archism. He laughs at Samsara’s shadow-play in lovely California, in the company of his wife, two cats, and two birds.


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British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

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.

Rebellion and the Gods

 

The Problem of Evil has been a central problem for monotheism for millennia. If God is Good how can it allow the innocent to suffer? If God is All-Powerful why can’t it stop this suffering? Therefore: either God isn’t Good, isn’t All-Powerful, or doesn’t exist at all. This challenge has never been presented as well as in Dostoevsky. There, the intellectual and highly educated Ivan presses his younger brother Alyosha, who is training to become a monk, on the point.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”
“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.
“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly, “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever?”
“No, I can’t admit it,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes…
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov,  Constance Garnett trans.)

Ivan’s approach to the problem is slightly unique, since he isn’t interested in arguing about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather, he uses the argument to reject the world and conclude that the only proper response to the problem of evil is to reject the unjust world God has made and “return the ticket” that is his life. Alyosha is quick to strike upon the answer appropriate to ‘true believers,’ to ask such questions is to challenge God. It is to engage in rebellion. Yet still, as a sensitive boy who cares about the world, Alyosha cannot help but be drawn into Ivan’s rebellion. 

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project
“Fyodor Dostoevsky” by Vasily Perov

There is always something of rebellion about taking seriously the Problem of Evil. To ask such questions seriously is to question God’s plan, to say nothing of the divine goodness, power, and existence. When we are provoked by such concerns, the ‘true believer’ points out, it is a test of faith. We must acquiesce to the power, goodness, and wisdom of God despite all evidence to the contrary. It is a test of faith, a test of obedience. The question of evil, of the suffering of innocents, is indivisible from the possibility of rebellion against that entity from which such suffering ultimately comes–either because it is designed or because it is allowed.

The question of the Problem of Evil is mostly unknown to Pagan cultures. There are several fairly obvious reasons why this is so, and several more interesting less obvious reasons. On the surface there is no problem of evil in most Pagan cultures because the Gods are not understood to be perfectly good or all-powerful. What consists of blasphemy for most monotheists, i.e. admitting that God isn’t perfect, is fairly standard within Pagan cultures.

On a deeper level, however, the metaphysics and theology embedded in a Pagan worldview does not allow for an absolutist’s singular understanding of Goodness. There are goods, multiple and varied, and from the top to the bottom the cosmos is plural and irreducible to one standard of judgment. This means that many Gods can all be good and yet these forms of goodness can conflict or fail to overlap. This is one reason why Socrates’ questions as to the nature of virtue in general are so often met with confusion. The people with whom he spoke weren’t idiots, their metaphysics was just one in which distinct individual realities weren’t reducible to abstract entities such as “Goodness in-itself by-itself.” 

Socrates: Come then, let us examine what we mean. An action or a man dear to the gods is pious, but an action or a man hated by the gods is impious. They are not the same, but quite opposite, the pious and the impious. Is that not so?
Euthyphro: It is indeed.
Socrates: And that seems to be a good statement?
Euthyphro: I think so, Socrates.
Socrates: We have also stated that the gods are in a state of discord, that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other. Has that, too, been said?
(Plato, “Euthyphro” Grube trans.)

Although not addressing the Problem of Evil, the Platonic dialogue the “Euthyphro” does explore the nature of goodness under the heading of “piety” and its relation to the Gods. Indirectly it raises the problematic question of whether or not the Gods are really good, or rather just powerful, which underlies one of the challenges embodied in the later Problem of Evil. If we are going to arrive at a unified understanding of the Good, or that version of it found in piety, we are going to have to reject the multiplicity of the Gods, Socrates insists. With multiple Gods there can be no singular definition of piety, or ultimately virtue and goodness. 

Plato is pushing his own agenda in the dialogues, one that consists of a rejection of the Gods of archaic poetry and myth in favor of eternal, perfect, inhuman, and unchanging divine principles. For this reason we should not be surprised to find Socrates’ debate partners so willing to give ground on the abstract unity of goodness. I must confess to wishing Euthyphro himself were just a bit smarter and, to put it bluntly, a bit more Greek. Then he might have asked “Why precisely should I be concerned to come up with a unifying general definition of piety or goodness? What makes this necessary? May not ‘good’ or ‘pious’ be meant in many senses — senses derived from many and different Gods?” Alas we do not get this dialogue.

What we do get in the Euthyphro dialogue is the clear connection of any discussion of goodness and the Gods to the topic of rebellion. From the beginning Euthyphro, an Athenian priest, is informed in his view of the Gods by their conflict, and highest in this list of conflicts is that between Zeus and his father Chronos, along with Chronos’ own overthrowing of his father Ouranus. Each of these conflicts is, by definition, a rebellion against previously legitimate authority. For Euthyphro and the Pagans of Ancient Greece, rebellion is a central characteristic of the cosmos. Socrates, in seeking a unified Good, rejects both rebellion amongst the Gods and any legitimacy for rebellion against the Gods.

This is far from the norm, however, as stories such as Heracles’ rescue of Prometheus from the official punishment of Zeus attest. In fact, Pagan cultures in general are full of stories of humans tricking Gods, bargaining with them, stealing from them, and defeating them. Of course, more often, the human fails in its rebellion. But it nonetheless remains a legitimate potential relationship between Gods and humanity. Beyond open rebellion there is the more nuanced conflict between human adherents of conflicting Gods identifying themselves as taking part in the larger divine conflict.

The political implications of these points should be clear. How we relate to what we might call the cosmic chain of command can’t help but have implications for our relationship to worldly political structures. This is why, despite obvious preferences for forms of monarchy in divine hierarchies, I have frequently argued that the heart of the Pagan understanding of cosmic and divine hierarchy is temporary, unstable authority open to challenge and built out of tentative compromises. Likewise, a similar point can be made for a Pagan attitude towards worldly authority. All authority is fleeting and open to contestation. 

We find brief echoes of this Pagan world of contested authority in elements of the Judaic worldview of the so-called Old Testament. We see it most strikingly in Abraham’s willingness to bargain and argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet this vision is all too brief. It is replaced in the memory of history by the more striking obedience of Abraham, an obedience willing to do what Alyosha could not and build a future world on the innocent blood of a child — Issac, Abraham’s own son. Whether or not the murder is required of him at the end, Abraham makes clear that he is willing to kill the child at God’s behest. He obediently endorses the suffering of the innocent.

Elie_Wiesel_(1987)_by_Erling_Mandelmann_-_2
Elie Wiesel

It is the vision of Abraham arguing with God, however, that the Nobel Laureate, writer, Holocaust survivor, and Judaic theologian Elie Wiesel turned to in making sense of the state of faith following the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel used to give three public lectures in Boston every year, and for many years the first lecture was always about the “Book of Job.” I was fortunate enough to see Wiesel lecture on the “Book of Job” four times and his view largely informs my own engagement with the Problem of Evil. Wiesel found the “Book of Job” to be the most important book of the Bible for the post-Holocaust world. It is also, read a certain way, the darkest moment of the entire Bible. It is a book that raises the question of the Problem of Evil, of why innocents suffer, and it strikingly fails to provide any answer to the question.

Job, his family killed and everything but his own life taken from him because of a wager God made with Satan, asks for an explanation from his God. God answers, in an overpowering whirlwind, with a show of power but offers no answers. In the book itself, Job obediently humbles himself and asks for forgiveness for having questioned his God and is rewarded with a “new family” (how inadequate this is, Wiesel notes, in the face of the loss of the first).

Wiesel, however, frequently suggested that the real end of the book might have been removed, lost, or changed. What he wanted of Job was more in the spirit of Abraham when faced with God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Job should refuse to accept God’s power as an adequate answer to the question of God’s righteousness. In short, in the face of the Holocaust, the appropriate answer of the believer should be to demand an explanation, to accuse God while remaining stalwart in belief. Whether intentionally or not, there is a strong echo of Ivan in this stance and it is indeed a type of rebellion. 

What allows for rebellion, whether potential or actual, in Heracles, Euthyphro, Abraham, and Wiesel is clearly not just a pluralistic understanding of divinity as could be found in Heracles and Euthyphro but not easily found in Abraham or Wiesel. Instead, something else is shared by each of these examples. You could call it a sense of divine personality.

Looking to Classical Greece (a penchant of mine that I fear may vex my readers from time to time) is useful because it allows us to see a culture in which the understanding of almost every major concept is in dramatic flux. In Greece we can witness the transition from an oral to a literate society, and in this transition we see a cognitive revolution the likes of which we can rarely capture with such clarity. In Greece around the time of Plato, for example, we can witness three wildly distinct ideas of divinity at full war with one another.

First, we see the oldest sense of divinity, in which the gods have bodies and fully individualized and distinct personalities in a theology free of abstract reductionism to impersonal universal principles. In such a cosmos personality is primary.

Next we see the revolution being staged by several Pr-Socratic philosophers in service of what we would today call naturalism. These thinkers propose, to risk putting it in our contemporary terms, that we understand the Gods in terms of basic laws and structures of natural material reality. Anaximenes, for example, suggests that everything is constituted out of air and that even the Gods can be understood as formed from air. The rules governing the condensation and dispersion of air will be the basic level to which we can reduce all other realities, even divine ones.

[Anaximenes] attributed all the causes of things to infinite air, and did not deny that there were gods, or pass them over in silence; yet he believed not that air was made by them, but that they arose from air.
(Augustinus on Anaximenes; Kirk, Raven, Schofield trans.)

Finally we have the complete abstraction of divinity carried out by Plato and the later Neo-Platonists in which the highest level of reality are divine principles as abstract as entities such as “The Good Itself” and “The Beautiful Itself.” Plato and later thinkers are consistent in insisting that these abstract perfections can’t accurately be considered in terms of any natural parallels, whether animal or human. These are divinities without personality.

It is from this revolution-through-abstraction that theology will draw its picture, filtered through Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in different ways, of what we could call the “God of the Philosophers.” This is a Perfect, Good, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Seeing something that cannot possibly take on personality without engaging in a contradiction. How can the All-Powerful need anything from humanity, even love or obedience? How can it desire anything if it is Perfect and thus complete? How can it be influenced by our actions without being thus limited in its power? How can it change, since any change from Perfection can only constitute a fall? It is this God that births the Problem of Evil as we know it today.

The “Good” of this infinite, eternal, perfect something is undefined and undefinable, and so questions that would connect it to the worldly suffering we face can only be answered by gesturing towards mystery. In the same way, this perfection cannot be questioned or argued with. It does not and cannot speak and it cannot be opposed. 

It is in the persons of Plato and Aristotle that we get this view most honestly presented, where we have clear arguments that the Gods of personality must be false because they cannot be Perfect and Good in a unified and reductive sense. Most later religion, outside the boundaries of a strict practice of theology, will settle for an impossible marriage of personality and abstract perfection and goodness, one which more and more has to resort to “mystery” or symbolism anytime one attempts to make it consistent. 

In denying obedience and engaging in rebellion and contestation (whether intentionally or not), Wiesel and his imagined Job — along with Abraham when arguably at his best — side with the defenders of the Pagan Gods of personality against the naturalizing tendency on one hand and the abstracting tendency on the other. It is, similarly, the impossibility of Ivan imagining a non-abstract God that forces him away from a full-fledge rebellion against God and instead towards the self-defeating gesture of suicide. 

What can we learn from this exploration of key moments in the history of rebellion and the Gods? At the very least, I think, we can get a clearer image of what I would like to suggest is one of the noblest heritages of pagan cultures throughout the world — the tradition of rebelling against the Gods, of siding with some Gods over others, of demanding that the Gods give us an account and justify themselves to us. This same point is inevitably to be made in reference to all other claimants to positions of power and authority. We Pagans share this with what Elie Wiesel, at least, suggested was the most noble part of Judaism and also its most weighty responsibility. To contend with authority, divine and human alike, is a calling and responsibility. For this reason, I would claim that the only appropriate answer to a test of faith is to fail. 

 

024.Jacob_Wrestles_with_the_Angel
“Jacob Wrestles with the Angel” by Gustave Dore

Kadmus

kadmusKadmus 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 Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.


A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred has much more writing like this. Get it here.

Sucking up to the boss: Trump as an Archetype

Ever since Trump was elected, like many progressives, I have been struggling to understand why. In the course of reading around what Trump himself says, and what his supporters say about him, I started to think about him as much as a spiritual phenomenon, as a political one. These two domains are, after all, more or less impossible to distinguish in any absolute sense.

As is often the case when a line of thinking is worthwhile, another author recently published something along the same lines. Reading Patacelsus’s meditation on the egregore of The Trump Corporation has encouraged me to put down my own thoughts on this subject. But rather than apply the theories of chaos magic and witchcraft to Trump’s ascent, below I’ll use another important conceptual tool from the Pagan toolbox – the Jungian archetype. What archetype might Trump be harnessing to cultivate his success? Why is it so influential amongst certain sections of American society? How does this archetype become a trope, to be repeated in creative work? And how can we combat it, politically, creatively and magically?

When we think about hierarchy, our first instinct might perhaps be to reach for classic Pagan archetypes – in Tarot, we find the temporal power of the Emperor, for example, and the spiritual authority of the High Priest. Such images can be compared constructively to the Jungian archetype of The Father – a character that, for Jung, represented our collective experience of authority; an experience that often induces fear. But in the modern world, we experience authority rather differently than we might have done when these archetypes were defined. High priests and emperors lack much of the legal and political authority they once commanded, where they continue to exist at all. And though fathers remain authority figures for many people today, this dynamic is much reduced in its prevalence and power compared to when Jung was writing – it’s much more usual now for men to be caregivers, and friends to their children, or to be unable to act as an authority figure for other reasons. The nature of fatherhood, and parenting itself, has changed, so that the role of it in expressing formal authority (and instilling fear) is much reduced on the collective level.

Therefore, if we wish to identify the social roles that carry formal authority, and invoke fear in us, and therefore play the psychical role of “The Father”, we must look beyond recorded archetypes, and think a little more creatively. When you do this, new archetypical forms begin to emerge. For many contemporary Americans, I suggest, the primary experience of authority today comes not from male parents, but rather in the workplace. Imagine back to your first job: you were eager for pay and the independence that came with it, but you probably didn’t enjoy the job itself. Nonetheless, you may well have been nervous, and worried that you might be fired – conscious of the fact that you were at the mercy of the company. The will of the company would be distilled in a particular person: namely, The Boss.

Naturally, there is a wide degree of diversity amongst individual line managers – some are good with people, kind, reasonable, and even helpful, while others will be irrational, ruthless, and cruel, and everything in between. Though important for the experience of individual employees, these differences are incidental, relative to the structural role any line manager plays in the business. A line manager is invested with authority over the staff who report to them; a hierarchical relationship that does not go away, no matter how good a boss the line manager might be. The employee’s ability to make rent, buy food, pay medical costs, go on holiday, is entirely dependent upon that relationship. The boss’s ability, by contrast, is not dependent on his employee to same degree. As such, that relationship is bound to become invested with emotional energy over time, particularly fear and anxiety; energy that over time crystallises into the Boss as a collective idea – an archetype.

Given the negativity of the emotions involved, the Boss normally manifests as a Worst Case Scenario. An avalanche of stories, films, and op-ed pieces about awful, tyrannical, cruel, incompetent, stupid, mean-spirited, greedy bosses descends from the collective unconscious of America every year; movies like the Horrible Bosses franchise are a case in point. This is perhaps best crystallised by The Lonely Island song Like a Boss, in which the eponymous boss careens from his professional responsibilities through a sequence of events that ranges from the aggressively antisocial to the pathetic, becoming progressively less and less realistic over the course of the song. This mixture of deceit, desperation, and braggadocio is a distinctive feature of many bad boss caricatures, not least David Brent from The Office.

But this negative view of the Boss is matched by a complimentary, positive view of this archetype. I was stuck by the power of this when I read a recent piece by Rick Perlstein regarding an essay written by “Peter” – one of Perlstein’s students – to explain why he had voted for Trump. “Peter” describes his home town in Oklahoma, where the local economy was suffering. “Peter” mentions that Oklahomans felt deeply disenfranchised from local politics, and found it easier to reach an accommodation with their managers, than lobby their representatives for legislative changes. Attempts by the federal government to improve workers’ rights would often result in local employers – such as Walmart – laying off employees or cutting pay, creating greater welfare dependency amongst the general population. He goes on to say,

“The majority of the people in the area do not blame the business or the company for their loss because they realize that businesses are in the business of making money, and that if they had a business of their own, they would do the same things.”

Clearly, here, the inhabitants of “Peter”s hometown sympathise with their Bosses, even when they make choices that negatively effect them. This is because, clearly, they see themselves as potential bosses too.

Much of the power of the Boss in the American imagination arises from the importance of a particular institutional form in American society – bureaucracy. As sociologist Max Weber points out, one of the key features of bureaucracy is a set hierarchy, with clear lines of authority and areas of responsibility. Bureaucracies require bosses. As David Graeber argues, Americans actually rather good at building and running bureaucracies, despite their antipathy towards them. As in France, official processes in Britain are often inefficient, slow, and incompletely realised, and end up being used to reinforce the established class system – with only those who attend certain schools and universities being equipped with the necessary skills to penetrate the byzantine levels of administrative complexity, or even avoid them completely.

American society, by contrast, has been thoroughly integrated into inclusive bureaucratic systems for over a century, making bureaucracy seem to Americans like a truly universal system*; despite the fact that Americans still adhere to a self-image of rugged individualism. Graeber reveals the reason for this apparent contradiction; the majority of American bureaucracies emerged from within the private sector, where they largely aren’t thought of as “bureaucracies” at all.

A corporation is also a bureau; it’s just a bureau devoted to the enrichment of shareholders, rather than the execution of state power. For Tea-Party Republicans, the government department and the private corporation exist as hypostases for the bad and good faces of Janus-faced Officialdom. The junior staff of the state are demotivated, surly, obsessed with paperwork (as well as being black**), while the junior staff of the corporation are efficient, professional, and obsessed with the customer (as well as being white**). Those in charge of state bureaucracies – that is, politicians – are corrupt, smarmy, and mercenary. Those in charge of private bureaucracies are strong, driven, and successful. The bad side of bureaucracy is symbolised by “the Swamp” – a brown-grey turgid morass populated by pond life and predators. The good side of bureaucracy is the Boss.

Now, to suggest that Trump actively embodies “The Boss” should seem like a logical conclusion to draw. He is, after all, the CEO of a multinational corporation. His reality TV persona is literally all about his status as an employer of other people. The Apprentice was just an extremely protracted job interview, in which Trump was doing the interviewing; giving candidates tasks, assessing their performance, firing them and hiring them – in short, bossing them about. All his rhetoric during his campaign and subsequently – concerned with winning, adversarial posturing against competitors, and promising to run America like a business – actively harnesses this image. Trump has approached the entire election as a hostile takeover; of the American state by corporate America.

The fact is that even though archetypes are universal, they take culturally very specific shapes. Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by famously saying that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said of politics. Every country has its own nationalistic obsessions and anxieties; that manifest publicly in quite a specific guises – guises simply wouldn’t fly anywhere else. Every far right leader is necessarily playing to the home crowd; so the fact that someone else’s extremist seems so ridiculous, should never be taken as an indication that your own national discourse would be immune. The fact that there has been an international chorus of disgust at Trump’s election should not make anyone complacent.

Regardless of the particular, local shapes Father-surrogates might take, what unites them is the response these shapes elicit from others: they demand sycophancy, absolute obedience, and unquestioning loyalty. They surround themselves with those who are willing to give these things, and shun or attack those who do not. In short, what the Boss demands from all of us is sucking up.

This, I think, represents a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Trump moment, that is ripe for exploitation by those of us opposed to it. Just as capitalism is bedevilled by internal contradictions, so it is with the far right politics that defends it. For while Trump’s supporters may like to imagine themselves as muscular, pioneering individuals – who do not rely on the State or anyone else for their livelihood – what Trump himself demands of them is nothing short of vassalage. He will make America great again, create jobs, and bring back the 1950s, and in return, his voters will magnify his own greatness. In dramatic contrast to the kaleidoscopic heterogeneity of the anti-globalisation movement or Occupy***, the Trump movement, with their mass-produced baseball caps, mostly white faces, the choreography of their rallies, the vision that many Trump supporters have of America, is remarkably uniformist.

Such uniform public displays, so typical of totalitarian regimes, do not exist to highlight the strength and distinctiveness of individual participants – but to accentuate and reinforce the power and will of the guy in charge. Of course, the way the Boss copes with this is by creating opportunities for his followers to get a taste of his power, in small, confined ways. By restricting the reproductive rights of women, the Boss makes men the boss of women’s bodies. By expanding and militarising the police, the Boss creates opportunities for small-town sheriffs to feel like the boss of blackfolk’s lives. By forbidding transfolk from entering the right bathroom, the Boss allows ciswomen to feel like the boss of their trans sisters. By rolling back the rights of workers, the Boss allows managers to become more like him. The Boss transforms the contagion of schoolyard bullying into tool of government

And yet, American culture demonises sucking up. Having to tug your forelock at someone richer and more powerful than you to get ahead is precisely what the ancestors of most present-day white Americans were striving to escape when they colonised Turtle Island. This experience has left many scars in American national consciousness – in film and on TV, suck ups are, at best, a pathetic comic relief, and at worst the guy who holds the bad guy’s hat, and runs off squealing in fear when the hero wins

Nobody wants to see themselves as that guy; least of all the sort of middle-class, white folk who voted for Trump in their droves. But that is precisely what they have become. Seduced by the facade of egalitarianism and meritocracy that corporate America has spun around itself, they have become everything their ancestors would have despised – the cringing assistant to the local liege-lord; responsible for keeping the rest of the manor in line, and keeping him in power. Their fate is not their own, but tied to his. This will remain the case, until they choose to abandon him.

Now that Trump is in power, he and his cronies in the Republican party are starting to take steps that will hurt many of those who voted for him – from dismantling the Affordable Care Act, to removing important environmental protections. As a result, some Trump voters are starting to regret their choice. Although I have little sympathy for people who fail to apologise for support an overt racist, sexist, and xenophobe; this bitter experience will hopefully make one thing abundantly clear; The Boss is using you. This is the most important lesson for any Trump voter to take away from the connection between Trump and the Boss archetype; a lesson evident in the anxiety of that first day’s employment; a lesson “Peter” and his fellow Oklahomans failed to grasp. To the Boss, you do not exist as a person to him, but as an employee, as labour that he needs. As soon as he no longer needs that service, or you can no longer provide it, he will discard you. And, unfortunately, you’ve done your bit – he’s in office now.

There may still be time to turn from the dark road the Anglophone world is now on. To turn away from bosses and Father-surrogates, to embrace equality and compassion for all. Because nobody should have to live their life sucking up to the Boss.


Notes:

*You’d never see a British filmmaker depicting an aristocrat queuing up to get their title recognised by the state. To us, that’s too weird, even for science fiction.

**There is a clear, racial dimension to this distinction. The State is viewed as both an employer and a patron of people of colour, whereas the private sector is imagined as a white domain.

*** Occupy was so diverse, that mainstream journalists frequently used this as a stick to beat the movement with – presenting it as fundamentally disorganised, with no clear objective, despite much evidence to the contrary.


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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Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

In the Vale of the White Horse, within sight of Uffington Castle, there is a large rectangular field, where until recently members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids gathered to celebrate Lughnasadh. Every year in late August, under the light of the waxing moon, 200 people, of all ages, would materialise out of the summer heat and the ripening corn. After setting up a wide circle of bender tents and yurts around a central fire, they’d make sure to beat the bounds; processing clockwise around the field, playing instruments and clapping loudly, greeting the directions and the spirits of place. The same thing happened every morning throughout the festival.

This practice highlights an important truth; although any visitor to the camp would easily recognise the importance of the central hearth, those hedges around of the field were every bit as sacred. As if to highlight this fact, at the southern edge of the field, within the hedge itself, stood a hidden grove, with a holy oak at its heart – this venerable being oversaw all the naming ceremonies, initiations, and other secret rites in the community. When I first ventured into that grove, some seven years ago, I felt like I was on a threshold; beyond which, through which, the whole world began.

Hedgerows are perhaps one of the most quintessential features of these islands*. They wend their way between gardens, grass and crops, catching the bounty of the Earth like a net catches the wealth of the sea. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences, like that mentioned above, have taken place along and within hedges. They are – to borrow a term from Celtic Christianity – “thin places”, locations where the veil between this world and the other is light, and the divine is close at hand.

The state of “in-betweenness”, or liminality as anthropologists call it, carries a great deal of significance in cultures all around the world; boundaries, be they intellectual or physical (and they’re often both), fascinate us and ensnare our imaginations; so we sanctify them, or joke about them, or wrap them up in taboos. Hedges – neither in one field, nor the next – are no exception.

It’s unsurprising then, that we find the hedge playing a major part in the sacred geography of Anglo-Celtic Pagan traditions. The hedge, we are told, is the domain of the hedgewitch – a folk healer-cum-shaman; a cunning man or wise woman, who works in service of their community from its edges. For these workers of craft, the hedge is a medicine cabinet, an altar, and an axis mundi. It gives us herbs for healing, a place to meet the gods, and a means of journeying into the Otherworld. It is from this latter use that we get the name “Hedge-rider”.

In ancient times, we are told, every village would have been surrounded by a hedge that protected it from the wilds beyond – the village witch would have negotiated this barrier; mediating between the spirits of the forest and the human folk of the village.

The trifecta of wilderness, hedge and village never sat quite right with me. For one thing, you simply didn’t see this feature anywhere in the British landscape in which I grew up. No village I know is surrounded on every side by hedges, nor are woodlands pushed to the rim of each parish like the scum on a bath. Lots of villages – including the one in which I grew up – have a dispersed, not nucleated, pattern. The houses are spread out, not clustered together.

For most of its history, my village was a string of homesteads, scattered around a large area of common land – land that was only built on in the 20th century. Commons – often in the form of pasture, woods, reed beds, and heathland areas, frequently imagined as “wild” places – are usually carefully managed in Britain and Ireland, and were created in spots that, either due to steep topography or infertile soils, were not suited to agriculture. Instead of a landscape in which humans live apart from nature in little enclosures, what you see in reality is something quite different – a patchwork of different types of land use, according to a mixture of geography and human choice. Hedges, in this landscape, are the needlework; the green thread binding everything together. The hedge, in other words, is not the interchange between the village and the wild; but rather the connective tissue between places of all kinds.

We find this pattern reaching far back into the history of the landscape here. While the Celts or Anglo-Saxons would have surrounded their villages with fences made from wooden palisades if they chose, they would head out into the woods to clear patches for agriculture, wherever the soil, aspect, and water supply was preferable. Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most renowned naturalists, tells us that rather than surround villages, the first hedges delimited these clearings. The edges of these clearings, enclosed by bushes and trees, were called haga – the root word for “hedge” today.

It is not hard to imagine how, perhaps while working on until dusk, these first farmers would have spotted haegtessa at the edge of the forest – ephemeral figures of women, skulking between the trees. Sometimes, it might have turned out that what they’d seen was one of their own wives or grandmothers, gathering herbs or praying to the gods. At others, no human visitor to the haga could be identified – and the apparitions would have been attributed to ghosts, fairies, or other beings.

The association between mortal wise women, the haga, and ephemeral spirits stuck. As these early farmers hollowed out more of the wildwood, they left threads of trees and bushes standing, to mark out one field from another. Over time, they trained these plants into a barrier against livestock – the first true hedges of the kind we know today. The shadowy haetessa would live on, as the word “hag”. In a very real sense, then, the hedge represents the essence of the wildwood, living on in the cracks of the British landscape.

But the ancient origins of the hedge are not the whole story; the recent past of these green walls is an altogether more chequered affair. Throughout the Medieval period, the ancient hedges retreated – being cut away to make more space for farming. Across much of England in particular, it ceased to be as important to set apart different fields. In many parishes, agrarable fields and pasture was held in common, as part of the open field system – managed centrally by the entire community through manorial courts. Under such economic conditions, hedges served little purpose.

But this situation did not last. Enclosure – the process by which common land was sold off to private individuals – was carried out steadily throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, before dramatically accelerating, with the assistance of several acts of Parliament, over the course of the 18th century. As environmental historians such as Nick Blomley and John Wright have documented, one of the first acts taken by new owners was often to plant hedges; hedges being a means of excluding commoners from the land that had been taken from them. Prior to enclosure, the rural poor relied on common land – especially pasture – to supplement their diet and obtain fuel. Once deprived of these resources, they had little alternative but to move to the industrialising cities or emigrate.

The rage felt by former commoners was considerable, and riots resisting enclosure were common – with hedges often being crossed through acts of mass trespass and grubbed up as criminal damage in the process. The old saying – Horne and Thorne Shall Make England Forlorne – encapsulates the feeling of the time; with both profit-oriented sheep farming (horne) and enclosure through hedge-laying (thorne) being identified as key instruments through which the poor were immiserated. Under such circumstances, we encounter another incarnation of the “hedge-rider” – the impoverished commoner who leaps across a newly planted line of thorns, to reclaim his birthright.

The hedge, then, emerges from the history of the British landscape in particular as a deeply ambiguous, yet highly potent force from my point of view. The hedge’s origins as the mysterious barrier between cultivated and uncultivated space, as the ubiquitous remnants of primordial woodland, retains much of the power of the original image of the hedge as the border between village and wild, while correcting that image’s flaws. If we imagine the hedge as a barrier between the human and the non-human, this can reinforce the problematic divide between nature and culture; a divide that so bedevils our attempts to live and think sustainably. The hedge’s more recent history as an instrument of enclosure; that kept people off the land, and eventually forced them off it for good; shows precisely the damage this sort of rhetoric can do. We cannot allow hedges to shut us out of nature.

If, on the other hand, we think of hedges as stitching that connects up landscapes of which humans are already a fundamental, and numinous part, then they become a constant reminder of the presence of the other natures in all our lives. Hedge-riding becomes as much a matter of crossing boundaries in defence of the commons, as it is a case of journeying along green roads into the Woods From Which We Come.


Notes

*The islands of Britain and Ireland. The term “British Isles” can imply continued overlordship of the Republic of Ireland by the British crown, and so it is not used here.

Image by Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


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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Something Is Happening

SOMETHING IS HAPPENING HERE, but you don’t know what it is: Do you? No one knows, really, as this something is still evolving. As we look back to 2016, though, it is abundantly clear that history has awoken from its slumber. We’ve had a couple events in the West last year: Brexit and Trump.

Politically-charged, dynamic events (as Alain Badiou might define them) have been rare in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR. Capitalism made it seem as if neoliberalism was winning in the 1990s, even as the US wantonly murdered in Iraq and took perverse pleasure in helping to dismember Yugoslavia, among other things.

In fact, one could argue there have only been four notable Western political events in the post-Cold War era: the 9/11 attacks, the 2003 protests against the Iraq War, the 2008 banking crisis and following protest movements of 2011 (Occupy and 15-M Movement), and the populist, anger-driven aforementioned events of 2016.

You see, authentic, spontaneous political events (in the form of uprisings or popular revolts against the elite) are a no-no in the West. History is supposed to have ended, remember? Max Weber called this the Iron Cage, and for good reason.

Now, though, the meaninglessness and rootlessness of our lives trapped inside the cage have become too obvious to ignore, for most of us. As each day passes, our political discourse glosses over how lazy, ignorant, mean-spirited, and numb our society has become. We import luxuries from all over the globe, but can’t be bothered to cook or grow our own food, assemble our own electronics, expand renewable energy projects, provide clean water to inner cities, organize high-speed transport, or educate our youth without drowning them in debt, etc.

So, many have lashed out against the system, and our more vulnerable members of society, in anger, defiance, out of sheer ignorance. Could it be because, deep down, we know how helpless, sheltered, and out-of-touch our society is, compared to the rest of the world? What are the root causes of this disintegration of public discourse?

One cause is our utter dependency on the capitalist system to clothe, feed, and shelter us. What we used to inherit from our mothers and fathers, important agricultural knowledge, artisanal and cultural wisdom, a sense of place and belonging, have all been traded in for money, the privilege to be exploited by capitalism, toiling in jobs that alienate us from ourselves, families, the Earth. Paper bills and electronic bank accounts are a pitiful substitute for self-reliance. This loss, this grief, isn’t allowed to be expressed in public. Logical positivism tells us that progress will prevail, the future will be better than the past, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be some sort of Luddite.

Since real income has fallen and social services have been slashed in the last 40-plus years, many have seen their loved ones’ lives cut short (lack of access to health care and quality food and produce, air and water pollution), their dreams defiled (steady jobs gone, factories shuttered), their entertainment homogenized and dangerous (sports mania has become normalized, “Go Team!”, alcohol, painkiller, and opiate addiction is rampant), their hopes for the future shattered (community and public space swallowed by corporations).

There are those, as well, still too plugged into the system (both Trump and Clinton voters), too attached to their gadgets, to the hum of their slave-labor appliances, to the glow emanating from their screens. They will cry incessantly about the turning away of Muslims from flights, but there is only silence for the millions killed abroad by the US war machine. Mainstream liberals are just as likely as the meanest, most selfish conservatives to fall prey to emotional pleas, demagoguery, and pathetic attempts to see themselves as victims in this Age of Anger.

The urge to resort to the myth of a righteous, homogenous, “pure” social group, to denigrate the other, is strong in such dire, despondent situations. In America, though, material poverty cannot be said to be the only, or even the main causal factor, behind this return of nativism and tribalism. Rather, it is undoubtedly a spiritual malaise that has swept over the West. Ever since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, it has been technology which has provided the underlying weltanschauung for our culture. Sprouting from this, an inhuman and Earth-destroying morality has formed. Jacques Ellul explains:

“A principal characteristic of technique … is its refusal to tolerate moral judgments. It is absolutely independent of them and eliminates them from its domain. Technique never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality.” (1)

Thus, Western society, through the use of mass-produced electronics and disseminated in what some call our “Information Age”, has now seemingly accelerated the pace of change and ecological destruction beyond the scope of any group or nation which could possibly control it. We are then confronted with the thought that only an economic collapse or series of natural disasters could possibly provide the impetus for revolutionary change to occur. This only leaves us feeling helpless, depressed, and passive in the face of government oppression and capitalist exploitation.

Not only that, but capitalism has quite literally dulled our senses and disconnected us from our source of being, planet Earth. Don’t believe me? Read this amazing paper on how Polynesian wayfinders discovered islands thousands of miles apart without any modern technology. This is part of what Morris Berman means by Coming to our Senses. To re-establish our unity with nature, the Western notion of an ego-driven, domineering and reductionist search for truth, meaning, and creativity must be thrown out. Here, Berman invokes Simone Weil:

“‘decreate’ yourself in order to create the work, as God (Weil says) diminished Himself in order to create the world. It would be more accurate to say that you don’t create the work, but rather you step out of the way and let it happen.” (2)

This isn’t really discussed among wide swaths of leftists, the social-justice crowd, or with mainstream liberals. It’s anathema to a materialistic, dead world where freedom has been traded for comforting lies, money has been substituted for the ability to provide for ourselves and our communities, and the abundance and resiliency (truly a miracle!) of the Earth is taken for granted as we chase our next fix for consumer goods, our next chance for drugs or gadgets to dim our perception.

What you’re not supposed to say in public, of course, is that our world is falling apart, and we are doing nothing to stop it. The reactions are too raw, the reality too grim, even as we know, for example, that 10% or more of the total species on Earth will be gone by 2050.

Yet we can do something: there is an opening now in political discourse which has been previously denied to us. The Republican and Democratic parties have thoroughly delegitimized themselves by offering up Trump and Clinton as their figureheads: these were widely considered the most widely disliked candidates in recent memory, if not the history of our republic. There is room for Libertarians, Greens, and Socialists to gain power: yet only if they avoid their own regrettable sectarianism, organize, and promote an inclusive, broad-based platform.

To do so, citizens will have to gain some perspective on their lives. A slow pace of life needs to be seen as a virtue, not a sin: many on the right and left are quick to denounce the hedonism of the jet-setting, parasitic globalists, the Davos men; yet refuse to see their own lifestyles and actions as smaller examples of such outlandish consumption.

If we are open to life and our environment as part of a greater whole, an unfathomable mystery, we can refuse our culture’s siren songs of death, misery, and destruction. While modern technology can be useful if reined in by an Earth-conscious, responsible morality, some things are better left unknown, undiscovered, if it risks destroying the Earth in order to find the answer. Rather than running a cost/benefit analysis to determine the land’s worth, some aspects of the planet and the universe are better Left Sacred.

Also, acknowledging our mortality, and accepting the basic fact that death could come for you at any moment, can liberate our souls and propel them to unimaginable heights. Joe Crookston explains this quite well:

“And then when I turn dry and brown
I’ll lay me down to rest
I’ll turn myself around again
As part of an eagle’s nest
And when that eagle learns to fly
I’ll flutter from that tree
I’ll turn myself around again
As part of the mystery”

 

Notes:
1.) Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage Books, 1964. p. 97.
2.) Berman, Morris. Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. Simon & Schuster, 1989. p. 337


William Hawes

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, The World Financial Review, Gods & Radicals, and Counterpunch. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. You can reach him at wilhawes@gmail.com