Why Suffer for Social Justice?

 

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Outside a Catholic confessional in Lourdes. Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, a town near me saw its first May Day rally in decades. Because “working class” means more than “blue-collar white men,” the organizers invited me to talk about disability and other speakers to address white supremacy, climate justice, and patriarchy.

My speech observed that the paid work of formally-employed workers and the unpaid work of unemployed workers (housework, childcare, social and emotional support, etc) depend on each other. Society can’t run with just one of them. They’re like a nail and a hammer: without both, you can’t build a thing. Disabled and abled workers are both part of that reciprocal process, including disabled people who will never have access to paid work. But under capitalism, the ruling business-ownership class controls the economy, government, and culture. So, no one but them has meaningful social power, even though society only exists because of our collective labor (paid and unpaid). Therefore, we share an interest in doing away with the current system. Sticking up for each of us is in the enlightened self-interest of all of us. We don’t need moralistic notions of allyship – we need to fight for each other, together, because otherwise only the ruling class wins.

Before May 1, the organizers needed a speaker bio. I didn’t hesitate to talk about my political work, but I agonized about whether to mention that I’m autistic. I didn’t believe that simply being disabled qualified me to speak. I thought that my knowledge of the issues and on-the-ground political practice did. However, I intended to say that disabled and abled workers ultimately have exactly the same interests and that neither has meaningful social power. So, I finally did disclose my disability. After all, I was criticizing the basic assumption of most social justice disability politics: that all abled people benefit from the oppression of disabled people and, therefore, are complicit in it. If I hadn’t announced my autism, I could have exposed the event to accusations of booking an abled Marxist to “ablesplain.”

As it happened, my speech was well-received. The crowd wasn’t the typical activist scene; nearly everyone there was from either the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Workers of the World, or a local, independent farmworkers union. However, based on past experience, a less unusual “anti-oppression” crowd (say, college student activists) would likely not have been so receptive. In situations like that, I’ve noticed three typical responses:

  1. The audience ignores the content and responds as though it had been the standard social justice position.
  2. The audience attacks the speaker as not actually part of the oppressed groups they’re part of and chalks up their disagreement to privilege.
  3. The audience reflexively defers to the critique on the basis of the speaker’s identity – and instead of actually engaging with the substance, confesses their own privilege while changing neither their ideas nor their practice.

You may notice a pattern there. While those committed to allyship-model politics may talk about taking marginalized voices seriously, in practice there’s not much room for anyone, regardless of identity, to dispute their basic political assumptions.

The credibility they grant ostensibly on the basis of identity actually depends on political agreement. They might say “disabled people are telling us to check our privilege and understand our complicity in ableism,” but disabled people who don’t say that tend to get brushed over or called out.

Now, that in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Defending opinions one agrees with and attacking other views is just part of what it means to take ideas seriously – it’s legitimate and necessary for any sort of politics. But why, then, frame it in terms of who is talking rather than what they’re saying? It’s empirically untrue that all members of a given identity group have basically the same politics. Why does social justice talk as though they do?


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Old History, Alexander Jakesch. A woman expresses her pain for a small audience. Wikimedia Commons.

Disclosing my autism gave some cover to the rally’s organizers. But, I could have gone further.

Broadly speaking, social justice says that being disabled should be the main qualification to talk about disability. Even so, I could have boosted my credibility further by claiming additional marginalized identities. For instance, “autistic person” carries less intersectional weight than “autistic nonbinary trans woman.” For the subculture, more marginality means more right to speak – at least on the surface.

But for social justice, there’s more to identity than just the identities people have. “Autistic nonbinary trans woman” might give my words more intersectional force than “autistic,” but “autistic nonbinary trans woman who has survived rape and abuse” carries me substantially further. That ought to sound pretty strange – after all, having been raped isn’t an identity. Every identity group has some members who have been raped. It’s an experience, not an attribute.

Identity and privilege, though, tend to get framed almost exclusively in terms of “lived experience.” For instance, non-men are often assumed to understand patriarchy in ways men simply can’t because of their fundamentally different lived experiences. The line between what you are and what you’ve been through starts to melt away. But why should that be? What puts “being a woman,” or “being disabled,” in the same category as “having been abused by a partner?” What’s the common thread between a specific act of violence and an identity that’s there throughout your entire social existence?

Perhaps the social justice subculture doesn’t actually care about identity. It cares about suffering.

After all, it’s not the neutral features of my autism that would qualify me to speak about disability (such as flapping my hands when I’m happy or rocking back and forth when I sit). It’s my experience of ableism, of alienation and discrimination – in other words, not my identity, but my pain. And if I don’t put on a good enough show, I might lose the right to talk in the first place.


“Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair?  Did you lose a child?  A lover? Were you not raped?  Beaten?  Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess?  How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess?  No tragic dramas?  Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”

Yasmin Nair

In the US, like the rest of the world, most people are in the (paid and unpaid) working class. The social justice subculture, though, is different.

It’s rooted in cultural studies classrooms, student clubs, Facebook cliques, Democrat-in-practice “non-partisan” nonprofits, and the recent graduates that fill out the scene. While working-class people can be found as individual participants, it’s the professional-managerial class that holds (sub)cultural hegemony: its ideas, interests, and preferences dictate the entire community’s priorities and beliefs. And like the rest of the professional-managerial class, the “anti-oppression community” is richer, whiter, and more privileged in general than the working class.

When marginalized people suffer in public for a social justice audience, not everyone watching is very privileged. However, as a rule the allies far outnumber the self-advocates (hence the preoccupation with allyship and privilege over liberation and strategy in the first place). So, when the subculture proclaims the pain of the oppressed, the point isn’t to “amplify and normalize marginalized voices.” It’s a performance with a very particular purpose. The social justice subculture exploits oppressed people’s pain to prove to its members that their politics are moral.

On May Day, why did I resent having to foreground my disability? I wasn’t ashamed of being autistic. I just hated the thought of being a prop. I don’t want the subculture to use my suffering as Exhibit A to prove how right their beliefs are (especially since I think many of their beliefs aren’t right at all).


“We do not advocate exhorting white workers on an individual basis to give up their privileged status. What we do advocate is promoting vigorous struggle with the ruling class with equality at the forefront and to articulate the lessons of these struggles.”

David Ranney

Don’t take social justice at its word.

It has no desire to radically transform anything. When it slanders class-based politics as intrinsically white, straight, cis, abled, and male, it isn’t telling the truth.

There’s another agenda in play. The professional-managerial class doesn’t want to lose control of progressive politics. We will have to force it to, because otherwise the working class will keep losing. Working-class power is the soul of any Left worth the name. But the social justice subculture doesn’t want revolution – it wants self-congratulation. Paradoxically, that goal is served by its fixation on suffering, privilege, and personal complicity in larger social systems. When “anti-oppression” activists self-flagellate, they create a nearly Protestant sense of collective morality. You want grace? Admit your sin. You want validation? Admit your complicity, your privilege.

Thankfully, their underlying beliefs aren’t true. The ability to change society comes from the latent power of the people who create society (and everything in it): the working class, paid and unpaid. We can only free ourselves by getting rid of the ruling class. Now, for anyone who wants working-class unity, privilege isn’t a useless idea. In fact, it’s vital. Male, white, abled, and otherwise-privileged members of our class are materially less exploited than other workers. They receive tangible and intangible benefits that set them apart from the rest of the class. Working-class unity doesn’t just drop out of nowhere. It has to be knit together, thread by thread, struggle by struggle. Unless fighting privilege and class-based organizing happen through and alongside each other, we will defeat neither capitalism nor privilege. Privilege is part of the class system. It doesn’t float around somewhere in the ether; nothing under capitalism is outside capitalism. Revolutionaries who ignore it can only fail. In a white supremacist and deeply patriarchal society like the US, cultural and material privilege does more to destroy working-class unity than anything else, and avoiding the issue doesn’t make class-based organizing easier. It makes it impossible.

However, the social justice subculture has no useful role in that work. It doesn’t actually break down privilege within the working class. That would mean helping privileged workers understand that opposing their privilege is not self-sacrifice but enlightened self-interest, and proving it through the experience of class struggle. But the subculture prefers to dismiss (or even attack) the working class, while acting as though privilege is a law of nature instead of something we can abolish. The trope that “working class” is a euphemism for “white men who think they’re not privileged” is not honest analysis. It’s psychological projection – the social justice milieu is irredeemably by and for the professional-managerial class, which is disproportionately white and male. We should reject it as such.

You don’t get justice with the politics of guilt. You get it with the politics of solidarity. Freedom doesn’t come from shame. It comes from treating an injury to one as an injury to all (because for the working class, it objectively is).

Do you want social change? Don’t look to the social justice subculture. If, like most of us, you’re a worker (paid or unpaid), help build your class’s power instead.

How else do you think you’ll get free?


Sophia Burns is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her at Patreon.

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.

The Glint of the Sword: Sikhism’s Spiritual Justice

Ours in an age where the triumph of the material over the spiritual now faces a crisis. The inheritance and legacy of Western Enlightenment – specifically the forces of science, technology and capitalist economics – has rendered human life hollow. We find ourselves reduced to parts plugged into a merciless machine that generates wealth for the few, while destroying the Earth that has sustained our life for eons.

The pain of post-modern life spills into our streets, into our computer screens and into our souls. In this matrix of disillusion, many turn to “traditional” narratives for hope. Contemporary consumer capitalism doesn’t have much of a story to tell. Sure, we have made important and indispensable social and cultural progress on some fronts. Yet for the alleged progressive political parties, progress means that anyone, regardless of race, gender or religion can become CEO, or give orders to bomb foreign peoples.

We need new stories. The liberal worldview could only offer a softer, user-freindly capitalism. Meanwhile, the right entrenches its vision in memes of God and Country, patriarchal obedience and a return to an imagined white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Golden Age. The Salafism of Islamic State, too, offers its young, lost recruits a twisted, cruel reading of Islam that is currently ravaging the Middle East.

Sikhism, a religion born from conflict in the Punjab region of India nearly five centuries ago, does not prosyletize. I am not writing to convert you, just to offer a perspective. That perspective rests on the idea that justice, equality and solidarity can have a spiritual and disciplined foundation.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, had an important realization. “Nahi Hindu, nahi musalman.” There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim. For Nanak, religious identity was merely a form., a specific kind of performance. Spirituality emerges from one’s relationship to oneself, and their connection to others. Nanak and his followers, as well as the subsequent Sikh Gurus (ten in all) rejected the Indian caste system. All beings have equal access to spirituality and its fruits.

This radical notion of equality and acceptance took on concrete practices. The langar, or free kitchen, is a place where anyone can get fed, regardless of background. When the Sikh community was visited by Emperor Akbar, the third Guru, Amar Das, insisted that the Emperor sit among the rest of the commoners during the lunch. Guru Nanak also proclaimed the equal status of women, and later Gurus decried cultural and religious practices that forced veiling or seclusion of women. Mai Bhago, a woman warrior, is revered by Sikhs to this day.

The word Sikhism comes from the a Sanskrit word which means to learn. A Sikh is a disciple. While the living Gurus represented spiritual masters, it is Ik Onkar, the spiritual unity of all creation that is the true guru, the thing from whence we should learn. Learning and spiritual practice lay at the heart of Sikhism.

Sikhism was, and is, a minority faith in India. Sikh’s have historically suffered under various rulers, and during the time of the Tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, this persecuted minority decided it needed to defend itself. The martial dimensions of Sikhism had evolved over time. Gobind Singh’s father, the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur had led a contingent of Sikhs to free some Hindu Brahmins that had been captured by the Muslim Mughals. These Hindu priests faced death if they did not convert to Islam. Sikhism stands against compulsion of religion, and Sikhs are no pacifists. The idea had developed in Sikhism that armed defense of the defenseless can be justified. The sword or dagger that Sikhs carry is known as the kirpan, which translates to “the blessed hand.”

Gobind Singh faced the persecution of his own Sikh flock. In order to prepare Sikhs for their own defense, he created the Khalsa. The Khalsa is the set of symbols and ideals that give Sikhs their unique identity and their martial inclination. The turban, the sword, the spirit of justice all lend to the character of the Sikh as Sant-Sipahi, the saint-soldier. But this is not a holy warrior bent on conquest and conversion. Rather, a Sikh strives to be a humble, disciplined seeker of justice and solidarity.

Unlike ascetic traditions found in other Dharmic religions, Sikhism does not advocate a retreat from the world in order to gain spiritual mastery. For Sikhs, engaging in the world as a father, mother, worker, artist, is the best field of spiritual study. Honest work and charitable works form central elements in a Sikh’s relationship to the world. In this way, a Sikh strives to diminish their ego. Solidarity and harmony with creation is not an abstract principle, but a concrete way of life.

So, besides just learning about a fairly modern, progressive faith tradition, why does this matter? As I said before, I don’t’ aim to convert you, or to advocate to make Sikhism the official faith of the revolution. In this time of crisis, as we see the cracks widen in the edifice of global capitalism, the purveyors of Abrahamic faiths bend towards rigid patriarchal and dominionist formations, while many Dharmic practitioners retreat into spiritually inclined fatalism. Sikhism lends us a glimpse at a potential model of spiritual resistance, a potential means of attaining deeper peace and unity with creation through the active pursuit of justice and defense. Much of what animates leftist narratives fall short of a fulfilling vision of the future meaning of new, revolutionary societies. Authoritarian communists rehash a stale myth of historical progress, replete with hammer and sickle banners and Soviet agitprop. And while various anarchist formations offer a much more radical – and spiritually seductive – vision of far-reaching human freedom, it isn’t always clear what would give life meaning beyond the emancipatory political project. Paganism can fill that void by offering a vision of community based on our natural inclination to Earth. Similarly, Sikhism provides an example of how spiritual meaning can fuse with, and become part and parcel of the emancipation of human freedom and dignity. We lose our ego in the other, not simply by recognizing their common humanity, but by our willingness to engage in struggle on their behalf.

The great Indian anti-colonial revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, was raised a Sikh. He notably pointed to the slaughter of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar as a pivotal moment in his political coming of age. Singh would develop a radical focus that drew from communist and anarchist principles, and remained largely secular in its scope. For Singh and his radical cohort, universal values took precedent over sectarian ones, as they believed that overcoming religious difference in Indian society would better serve the struggle against the British. Yet, Singh never shed his Sikh identity, and while it may be best kept as the subject of a separate essay, there is little doubt that universal principles found in Sikhism informed and shaped the foundation of Singh’s radical thought.

In this time when we face the rising tide of proto-fascist tendencies, environmental degradation and worsening global labor conditions, we need new stories. As Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh Guru’s is believed to have said before organizing the Sikhs to defend against the Emperor, “Ajo samne je koi haga soorme.” Come forward, you who has courage.


Bobby S. Gulshan

Bobby S. Gulshan is a programmer and writer in DC, focused on left politics, digital freedom and security, and the mystical dimension of human experience.

Front Groups Kill the Revolution: Activism, Honesty, and Radical Tactics

I’M SITTING IN a gay bar in Austin. We’ve just ended a planning session for an LGBT rights action by a group that claims to be independent, non-partisan, and strictly focused on queer and trans equality. Someone there is from the soft-Trotskyist International Socialist Organization. They commit the ISO as an co-endorser on the spot. Someone else talks about how they just paid their first month’s ISO dues. The website for the LGBT organization has bios for many of the leaders; most of them just happen to contain the phrase “…is a member of the International Socialist Organization.”

Not everyone in the set of organizational networks and social scenes we call “the US activist community” calls themselves revolutionary. However, those that do have a rainbow of radical organizations to join, with more shades of anarchism, socialism, and communism than most people will ever hear of. Given the radical population’s limited size, competition is fierce, both for already-converted leftists and the as-yet-uninitiated.

However, these organizations are faced with a problem. Few people get involved with activism because they want to be recruited by an ideological formation; issue-based work is what draws the crowds. So what is an ambitious, forward-looking sect to do?

I’m sitting in a meeting with the leaders of a left-wing transgender group I’ve been working with for months. In theory, it welcomes adherents of any philosophy, so long as they’re for socialism. However, I’ve noticed that the group seems to be focusing an enormous amount of time on projects initiated by a tiny Maoist sect. A few weeks earlier, the trans organization had denounced an anarchist bookstore (and anarchism in general) when the bookstore told the Maoists they couldn’t recruit there. The Maoist group and the trans group seem to be co-sponsoring all of each other’s events, too. I ask what’s up with that – aren’t we supposed to be non-sectarian? I’m told that any trans radical, Maoist or not, can join and “struggle their line” (Maoist jargon for “advocate for a political position”). However, they claim, anarchists who join “tend to stop being anarchists,” and they admit they’d sanction any member who publicly disagreed with their official positions for being “unprincipled.”

sophia-pullThe nature of a sect is to treat its own existence as self-justifying. The opinions of its members are uniquely true, and that qualifies them to lead the people. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is vanguardist or anarchist, communist or liberal. A sect is a sociological phenomenon, regardless of the particular jargon it uses. Instead of emerging from the real-life struggles of working-class communities against business and government oppression, sects work out in advance how things are “supposed” to go. When real life doesn’t cooperate, they become marginal. Sometimes that’s self-imposed: they might ignore causes they deem impure. More often, though, it’s because most people can smell bullshit. They don’t appreciate the self-appointed “leadership” of a groupuscule with a messiah complex. By themselves, few sects would be able to attract enough support to sustain themselves for any length of time. At the same time, they’re often astute enough to notice the radical potential of movements not of their own making (not to mention those movements’ often-substantial popular support).

So, a solution begins to present itself.

It’s 2005 and I’m talking with someone who wants to organize a high school walkout. The call is from what’s ostensibly a big-tent movement to “drive out the Bush regime.” Of course, the anti-Bush flyers and walkout information aren’t all this person has – they’re also passing out materials that explain that to really beat the Bush agenda, the only solution is revolution. And serious revolutionaries know, of course, that we need serious revolutionary leadership. Luckily, the organizer has found that leader: a dorky-looking white guy from Berkeley who likes it when you call him “the Chairman.”

Most activists get involved in the scene because they want to do work on one or another specific cause. The bulk of that work happens under the auspices of narrowly-focused, single-issue nonprofits. Logically enough, it’s therefore to those that activists generally look. Tight-knit ideological sects can rarely fill a room. So, they imitate the NGOs that can. A front group is independent in form and subordinate in practice. Because of that subordination, it necessarily has little internal democracy. Luckily for their parent groups, though, neither do other nonprofits – a well-organized front looks at first glance like any other activist campaign. From a rank-and-file activist’s perspective, there are only a few meaningful differences.

One of those differences is that, with a liberal campaign group, the liberalism that’s practiced is also preached. The Sierra Club does not want to replace the fundamental institutions of the economy and the government. It doesn’t claim to want to, and indeed it never could. However, the ANSWER Coalition does appear to endorse a form of revolutionary politics. The difference, of course, is that ANSWER belongs to a self-styled vanguard called the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Every nonprofit is, in practice, a profit-generating capitalist company. Sectarian fronts are no exception. However, their parent organizations’ ostensible commitment to revolution (not reform) creates a unique internal contradiction: where most NGOs pay lip service to “deep and systemic change” and try to sell you the notion that their work is directly contributing to that, for the front group “radical change” comes from joining the parent organization. They simultaneously hawk reform and the belief that reform is, at best, inadequate. Of course, if they said that too openly, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. Imagine if Refuse Fascism were to say outright: “to really oppose Trump, you need to join the Revolutionary Communist Party”—how long do you think the flow of recruits and foot soldiers would last?

And so, these groups end up in a position where their purpose (recruiting for the parent organization) and their methods (agitating, liberal-style, for specific reforms) are ultimately at odds. If one should join the Party (or anarchist anti-party) and reject reformism, then why get involved with a single-issue reform project? If reform campaigns are correct political practice, why sign up with the would-be revolutionary leaders?

Clearly, something has to give. Usually, it’s honesty.

“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told.”

Amílcar Cabral

IF MOST revolutionary groups could successfully appeal to the general public under their own banner, they would not bother creating front groups. While front groups do attract many more people than their sponsors, simple membership in a front is not generally enough to get most people comfortable with the “leadership” of (say) Maoists or Trotskyists. Were the front’s leaders to entirely conceal their affiliation with the sponsor, however, they wouldn’t be able to use the front for recruiting. So, what do they do?

When one asks, it’s always an innocent coincidence that the front’s officers all just happen to be members of whichever party—there’s nothing dishonest or undemocratic if members of that party, by chance, are the same ones who are doing the front’s wonderful work, because they’re just so selflessly committed to the cause. Without that ambient mendacity, the entire sect/front scheme would collapse. Deniability only works if it seems plausible.

And that has a broader effect on the organized Left. Why should revolutionary politics mean zero transparency, no public dissent from within a group, and general evasiveness when asked for too many details (like what the actual membership numbers are for any of the self-described “largest revolutionary organizations in the US”)? The use of front groups helps normalize the sects’ loose attitude towards the truth.

Through their fronts, supposedly anti-capitalist organizations enter the fundamentally capitalist NGO world. They compete in a literal marketplace, selling their political work to consumers in exchange for donations and volunteer hours. Why does everyone pay lip service to “left unity,” then split and squabble in practice? Well, how much unity would you expect between Pepsi and Coke? They’re fighting for each other’s customers. Sure, this disrupts the movement the sects all claim to want. But as any socialist should know, material interests have a way of edging out subjective beliefs. For instance, working-class people have a material interest in collective empowerment through solidarity. Because that inherently puts them into conflict with capitalist businesses, business and the state must spend astronomical sums each year on propaganda, miseducation, union-busting, and advertising to convince them otherwise. Since Left sects operate as businesses in spite of their intentions, reality pits them against their own stated goals.

Actually-existing revolutionary activism is profoundly counter-revolutionary.

“For them the sect is not an unfortunate necessity due to the absence of a real movement: it is their movement…they are not inhibited by the prejudice that a ‘party’ needs much of a rank and file.”

– Hal Draper, Anatomy of the Micro-Sect

It won’t be controversial to admit that the activist subculture is not very appealing for most people outside of it. Even those of us in it know how deeply off-putting it is when the newspaper-hawkers or urban guerrilla wannabes show up. Now, there’s plenty going on there – the “movement’s” subculturalism and middle-class, anti-worker orientation have many sources. Most of those were not caused by the behavior of revolutionaries. After all, it’s not socialists who invented the politics of insularity and performance, or who put academia at the activist world’s center (although they’ve certainly come to embrace those phenomena).

But that’s not good enough. Revolutionaries need a higher standard than being only second-tier offenders. If conduct across the activist community turns people away from progressive politics in general, then bad revolutionary behavior not only contributes to the overall problem, but also undermines socialism in particular. The self-serving dishonesty of front groups provides one particular example. Others follow from the culture of dissimulation and sectarianism that the front group model helps create and reproduce.

sophia-pullThe consequences of sectism extend beyond the sects themselves, too. Currently, the sects maintain a functional monopoly on the ideas of socialism, communism, and anarchism. When they drive away people who should be natural comrades (and everyone who’s ever been screwed over by the boss should be a natural comrade), they don’t just discredit themselves. They discredit revolution. They make it even harder than it needs to be to create a mass socialist movement. And while plenty of them will agree that the organized Left is rife with bad behavior, few of them see the problem as sectism and frontism per se. Rather, they blame it on all those other sects, whose particular shibboleths about Russia, China, and the best forms of socialist heraldry are just so wrong. As David Rovics sings:

“I am not sectarian. It’s all the rest who are. I work fine in coalitions – as long as I’m the shining star.”

So what’s the way out? Should revolutionaries just sit mass movements out? Should we quit organizing?

Hell no.

THERE ARE healthy, helpful, and honest ways to do revolutionary organizing. You don’t have to be an inward-looking, deceptive sect to do radical work. Instead, we can do things to build institutions that empower the people without hurting our cause more than we hurt capitalism:

  1. Tell the truth. If a supposedly independent organization is actually a front, say so! Don’t humor its leaders (and sponsor). If a group is acting badly, acknowledge it, even if you’re a member. Don’t go along to get along. Organizational secrecy isn’t always a matter of security culture. Don’t pretend it is. Lying and tolerating lying are never radical. Sure, most groups that fetishize their own lack of transparency likely don’t have skeletons quite as horrific as the rape scandals that have torn through the Socialist Workers Party (UK), the International Socialist Organization, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back). Even so, the underlying logic of deception is the same, and there are many shades of destructive misconduct.
  2. Don’t confuse ideology, identity, morality, and class. What’s the point of being a revolutionary? It’s to build up power and freedom for the exploited through participatory democracy, in the economy and everywhere else. The point isn’t to get your ideas perfectly right and denigrate anyone who disagrees. If someone’s ideas are the same as yours, it doesn’t automatically mean their conduct isn’t harmful. If someone has a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily correct. If someone disagrees with you, they may still be a good and ethical person. And class—one’s position within the economy, in which only those who own businesses have real power and exploit everyone else—is something else entirely. We can’t afford to try for a movement of the insightful and correct. Instead, we need to organize the working class (broadly defined) because that’s what has the structural ability to change the system. Now, if that is to happen, then all types of bigotry and oppression within the class must be challenged and uprooted, or else the revolution will never succeed. Working to break down racism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are central forms of class struggle. However, you don’t have to understand that to be part of the working class. You just have to be someone who does waged (and/or unwaged) labor and lacks the structural power of business ownership. The basic question is always: “Do you have power over business, or does business have power over you?”
  3. Class beats subculture. The ability to challenge the ruling class does not come from suffering or being marginalized. It comes from collectively doing the work that creates everything. (That includes not just goods and services sold on the market, but also the everyday work of reproducing the social fabric. Even unemployed and unemployable people do that. You don’t have to have a job to be a worker.) Conversely, the ruling class – the business owners – has power over that work and the people who do it. Therefore, the working class has a material stake in changing the system (it currently does everything and controls nothing). Further, it has the ability to actually do so if it acts collectively: by starting to do that work in a democratically self-determined way, ignoring the ruling class’s orders, and defending itself when the ruling class tries to force it to obey. We should be in this to win, not to perform righteousness. That means we must be ethically upright, but without confusing morality with anything but itself. That also means that while organized revolutionary groups may or may not serve a useful purpose in a given situation, they’re never the point. They aren’t inherently valuable (and what matters is whether you treat them as ends in themselves in practice, not whether you affirm it in words). Frontism, naturally, implies the latter. That helps kill movements before they can be properly born (or worse, twists them into something actively dangerous). After all, the activist subculture fixates on correctness of ideas rather than working-class power for a reason. It’s dominated by professors, students, and nonprofits. Academia is capitalism’s idea factory, and obsessing over rightness makes perfect sense for professional academics. After all, their job is literally to prove themselves right and their competitors wrong! Their market share, their career success, depends on it. So, it’s only natural that they act as if staking out your one and only truth and trying to exile everyone else is a sensible strategy. But in real life, it’s not. Don’t buy it when someone claims it is.
  4. Participatory democracy beats being right. Don’t mistake radical words for authentic radicalism. A shibboleth is never helpful. A sect is just a shibboleth with an organization as its body. A project is useful only to the extent that it’s controlled by the people who benefit from it and by the rank-and-file people who do the ground-level work. Sure, express your revolutionary beliefs while you build institutions like that. You can even (if the circumstances warrant) establish a formal group with others. But you’re one participant among many, not a vanguard. Your ideas don’t give you the right to take over.
  5. Don’t tolerate entryism. What is entryism? A working definition is the way some ideological sects infiltrate larger organizations with an eye towards taking them over. Entryism means turning a pre-existing campaign into a front group, instead of starting one from scratch. It’s rampant – the entire socialist, communist, and anarchist spectrum is rife with it. It’s also inherently dishonest and antidemocratic. Those who engage in it are revolutionary in words and reactionary in deeds. And seeing it happen without publicly naming it and working to stop makes you complicit.
  6. Pluralism is revolutionary. When everyone working on something agrees with each other, or shares a limited personal background, the project is weaker for lack of dissent and experimentation. Front groups and sectarianism inherently incline towards that weakness, as does the toleration of racism, sexism, and chauvinism in general. Don’t engage in those. Don’t accept them. And conversely, don’t turn your particular ways of opposing them into shibboleths that lead to exclusionary moralism, either. As Pagans, we know how sterile narrow orthodoxy is. The Left needs to learn it too.
knowledgebreakchainssoviet
“Knowledge will break the chains of slavery.” Bolshevik poster by Alexei Radakov.

Do you want a revolution?

Be honest. Be ethical. Be pluralist and democratic. Don’t put up with front groups or sectarian nonsense – unless you’re fine with an insular, hostile, and elitist subculture. As we can see, that state of affairs is only good for perpetuating itself. Of course, that suits the ruling class just fine. They want an opposition that undermines itself.

We can do better. After all, we have a duty to win. So let’s get our act together – the coming years under President Trump will give us much less leeway to screw around than we’re used to.

We can’t afford to wait.


Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a polytheist, Kybele devotee, and communist organizer in the US Pacific Northwest.


Sopia Burns was published in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. That issue is available here.

Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

Reflections of Resistance

The following are reflections from radical Pagans in the protests on 20 and 21 January, 2017.


District of Columbia, 20 January

ROUGHLY 20 MEMBERS of the Pagan Cluster gathered on Friday to take part in the #DisruptJ20 “Festival of Resistance” march from outside Union Station to McPherson square. Our contribution to this march was a collaborative, three-part moving ritual that unfolded over the course of the day.

As we gathered outside Union Station, our group cast a circle, invoking both the Ancestors and Descendents to witness and bring their blessings to our work. We sang “We are sweet water, we are the seed/We are the storm winds that blow away greed/We are the new world we bring to birth/ A river rising to reclaim the earth!” as we danced a Spiral Dance, raising energy to wrap our group in a protective energy for the rest of the day.

When the march got underway, we shifted into the next part of our ritual; a dis-spelling. We understood the inauguration itself as a major spell working, an attempt by the Trump Administration to ensnare the world in a net of oppression and glamour through pageantry and power. Our intention was to weaken the integrity of that spell. As we marched through the streets, we sliced, cut, hacked, sawed, and slashed at the cords of this net of oppression. As we walked we sang

“We are the knife that cuts the spell / By sacred flame and holy well / As we will so mote it be / All Earth’s creatures shall be free”.

Reaching McPherson square, our group joined together for a final Spiral Dance. This time we danced to weave in energies of justice, liberation, and protection into the space we had created, transforming the net of oppression into a living web of connection. As we moved, we sang

“Let it begin with each step we take / And let it begin with each change we make / And let it begin with each chain we break / And let it begin every time we wake”

Learn more about the Pagan Cluster (https://pagancluster.wordpress.com/)

–Jessica Dreamer


San Francisco, 21 January

PATRIARCHY was smashed a bit today. For everyone who says that women could not rule with the same stregnth and determination that men can please consider the unique peaceful marches of today. Not one arrest. That’s because Matriarchy and the Goddess decended upon the crowds in intergenerational peace. It was palpable. But did it linger?

Will we capture a movement or was it an expression of a funeral for what once was? They didn’t know they were planting seeds. The youth were there. They will remember, many thier first communal expression of solidarity. We capture that and we’ll be just fine.

We still gotta water the seeds to make them grow. Sometimes it will even take some painful fire. But we’ll nature them, and they will grow. We don’t have to tear it all down if we can get them to grow! Some of it gotta go tho. Keep repeating: “the life expectancy of a trans woman of color is 36 years young”. Then get mad and do something about it. Organize the Youth. Set Fire to thier brain. Give someone shelter from the rain.

–Anakh Sul Rama


Photo by J. Kearney
Photo by J. Kearney

District of Columbia, 21 January

WHY DID I MARCH? Because I watch us fragment ourselves and waste our power in meaningless squabbles that boil down to “you are not pure enough to stand with me so go away or I will withdraw”. Meanwhile, the opposition stays on target and takes more and more power away for themselves only. I see it in government, in paganism and Heathenry, in various ethnic and gender-identifying groups. I say, “find the common purpose and stand together for this issue. We don’t have to like each other to work for a common good.” I went to the march in DC yesterday to stand with women of all ethnicities, genders, ages, backgrounds, religions, and levels of experience in political action. I went with hopes to witness the birth of an energizing movement and also with plans for responding to volatile and violent situations.

I went as prepared as I could be for law enforcement with shields and batons, rubber bullets and tear gas, because they had been deployed the day before. I went with emergency numbers written on my body that will still be there in 4 days because Sharpie doesn’t wash off easily. I went with a plan for 4 separate meeting places in case it went badly. I was afraid because it is true – I have never been hit, been gassed, been screamed at by cops, been trampled. I went because my white skin and middle-class background can be a shield to people whose skin in not white and whose background is not WASP-American-middle-class. I went *because* most law enforcement will hesitate to strike me and that can give someone else a chance to get farther away. And I went because the oaths I made to a couple of my gods means I cannot stand by in strength and safety and watch others pay my debts.

I am posting my joy that it was peaceful. A peaceful march of novices, for those who have never been pushed to march before, this means many will march again. Every time they come out, they meet real people with stories of experience more violent, more frightening than they have imagined, whose stories are filled with pain and fear and loss. By standing beside others, we draw strength and we learn and we grow braver and stronger. Most important for the novices, positive and uplifting early experiences build courage to face the more volatile situations. If yesterday had gone badly, how many of those millions would have gone home, retracted back into their safe worlds, and given up? How many of those novice allies are only now finding the threats that their own doorsteps and are without the examples of elders to show them how to respond?

–Becky Sheehan


 Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), 21 January

“Debout, debout!” comes the static-filled call from the raging granny on her microphone, somewhere far into the crowd. Another microphone, this time pushed into the face of my partner, the only visible man in our small group. The reporter introduces the radio station she works for, asking for a soundbite explaining his reasons for showing up to a ‘women’s event.’ My mother, her face like a stone statue, interrupts the reporter and speaks: “I am angry. I am afraid.”

We’re not marching, but I wish we would. Place-des-Arts is beautiful in that cold modern way—steel, cement, and glass which fits the gray light of January—but with the five thousand people assembled here it is hard to hear the speakers on their stage, especially while nearby construction workers use their jackhammers to break up the cold cement of the terrace right outside the Hyatt Regency.

I think of hotel magnates and tourism which are just one facet of the inexorable cogs of gentrification. I think of the unrest in Saint Henri. I think of the lack of overt police presence here this Saturday morning—very different from the earlier Friday night protest where forty riot police officers attacked a few dozen student protesters on the street. But here there are baby-boomers and paragons of respectability present: labour union representatives, party members of Quebec Solidaire and the NDP, respectable and famous journalists such as Sue Montgomery speaking to the crowd. There are parents with their babies here, standing in the cold for four hours. The police won’t attack this crowd, and besides, the police and Montréal’s municipal leaders don’t feel threatened by this gathering. Here in Québec, the fantasm of fascism and Trump seem like far-away concerns, nebulous, outside ourselves.

We are protected by the 45th parallel and by that esprit insoumis québecois that absolves us of all settler supremacist culpability.

My friends and I hold a small eulogy for the anarchist venues and other gathering places that have vanished from Montréal thanks to gentrification.

We talk about the community spaces that have been shut down, the places that were burned down or condemned, targeted by the city and its police. I share my experiences of watching how over the past ten years lesbian, queer, sex-worker, transgender, radical, revolutionary spaces one after the other have died out like canaries—but this coal mine is just this late-stage zombie capitalism, and the toxic vapours are just liberal progress.

But there’s hope here too. The communist party came out to pass flyers. Trans-inclusive signs can be spotted. I see a sign calling for the abolishment of borders which states that nobody is illegal. A little boy holds a sign saying: “Water Is Life.” I see Black Lives Matter pins and poster-boards. My personal favourites: “Hey Justin, stop kissing Trump’s ass” and “Vivement le socialisme!” One of the speakers mentions that we are not protected by American-style imperialism, racism, sexism, and colonialism here in Canada. We have many of the exact same problems here, too. We listen to Mohawk and Cree speakers, drummers and artists who speak of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and remind us that we are on stolen, un-ceded indigenous land—Tiohtià:ke. And when several of my friends notice a lone Trump supporter on the margins of the crowd who has attracted the attention of several media outlets, we casually move closer to him and quietly obstruct his fascist poster with our own signs.

This is not the first day of our resistance. The work began long ago, a legacy started by those who knew they might not live to see its results. I hope you’ll join us.

–Gersande La Flèche, Tiohtià:ke (Montréal)


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Photo by Rhyd Wildermuth

 


District of Columbia, 20 January

I went to DC on Friday to participate in the J20 Festival of Resistance with a group of Reclaiming witches from Baltimore and the DC/VA area. We chanted, drummed, and worked magic as we marched with several thousand others. The Festival of Resistance was a mostly peaceful, permitted march so it hasn’t received the media attention the other protests have, but it offered an outlet for those who wanted to bring their families, or who aren’t willing or able to participate in riskier activities. It was the perfect energy for magical political action.

I was struck by the emptiness of the MARC train to DC, by how many more protesters there were than Trump supporters, and by how many protesters and Trump supporters seemed to be experiencing the day through the lens of a camera or screen of a smartphone.

–Mandrake


St. Louis, 21 January

I ATTENDED the Women’s March in St. Louis on Saturday. We were expecting about 2000 people. The crowds were estimated to be about 13,000. It was peaceful, it was joyful.

The thing that struck me was that so many different factions had come together in common cause. By the end of the march, we had solidified into a cohesive resistance to hate and divisiveness. His vision is not ours.

–Elizabeth Bates


District of Columbia, 20 January

I’VE BEEN PROTESTING for two decades now. Having cut my teeth on the anti-globalisation protests in the early part of the last decade, then the massive anti-war protests soon after, I came to expect a certain energy, a certain direction, a certain intersectionality, a certain group spirit. But when Obama was elected, that revolutionary drive seemed to disappear.

Obama seemed to convince many people, especially (but not exclusively) whites, that things were ‘okay,’ even as Blacks were increasingly murdered in the streets and Arab children blown to bits overseas, capitalism ground lives to dust, the environment got more polluted and the state accumulated more and more power under a smiling, kind president. Radicalism got replaced by electoral politics, action replaced with deliberation. Many left-groups turned to in-fighting, the revolution suddenly mere theory instead of being-together outside Capital. Intersectionality was replaced with identity politics, solidarity replaced by segmented academic constructs, and it seemed nothing would change this.

We have Trump to thank for reminding us what we’re really about.

I saw the first signs of the return to solidarity at Gay Pride in Orlando on 12 November, just after the election of Trump. I stood with my Black lover next to a Black man and his white lover, beside a white woman and her Black lover, in front of a white man and his Black lover all celebrating not just our gayness but standing together against a new regime of terror against all. The intersectionality that Liberalism destroyed (and replaced with shallow identity politics) returned with a vengeance as we marched with large Latino and Black families, young girls with cornrows giving candy to old queens in heels, Black trans women and old white women walking side-by-side against hate and a new regime of racialized violence.

DC was like that, too. Though I saw much to give me hope, more than anything it was this fact, the great admixture of miscegenating culture donning black hoods and face-masks, wielding puppets and hammers to smash the state in a solidarity we’d all forgotten.

This solidarity became most poignant when I walked with friends to catch up to a march. Trump supporters wearing three-piece suits and “Make America Great Again” caps shouted obsenities at us as we passed them, or yelled TRUMP in our faces like an exorcist might scream JESUS. But their anger was that of fans leaving a football game where their team lost: their rage could not touch us.

A Black woman joined us for a little while as we walked. She said she’d come towards us after seeing our friend’s sign and our stickers. She told us she was relieved to find us after being yelled at so much by Trump supporters. “A ten-year old boy shouted shit at me” she said. He pushed her. She told him to say “excuse me” and the boy’s mother intervened. “You don’t owe her anything,” said the white matriarch. We ourselves had witnessed white boys and girls as young as 8 shouting obscenities at us and others, encouraged by their parents.

That’s the world they’d build, if we gave them the chance. But with bodies and signs and hammers and bricks, those who came out made clear we’re not going to give them that chance.

What are we for, if not to show this can all be different? That solidarity means giving protection to those targeted, rather than endless debates over who is more oppressed? The hatred is real and virulent: it’s time to stop talking and do something, and that’s what we all did in DC that day.

I hope it continues.

–Rhyd Wildermuth


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Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Sarasota, 21 January

I WAS PRESENTLY surprised to find a robust crowd of over 10,000 (according to organizers) in Sarasota, FL for a rally and march across the Ringling Brother’s Bridge. The mood was jubilant. Many I spoke with had never attended a march before. The crowd was overwhelmingly white, although there were some Black Lives Matter signs in view.

The police were present, smiling and acted as chaperones.

–Karina BlackHeart


District of Columbia, 20 January

MY EXPERIENCE at J20 reflects the way everything around me seems to actually work: bad things are happening, but you can’t see them. You don’t see what’s really going on, which makes it easy to ignore it if you are willing to ignore it. I can hear people yelling for everyone to run, but I don’t know why. I’m walking down the street with some friends, and everything seems fine – so why do I keep hearing the explosions of concussion grenades from one block away? We can see the smoke, but we can’t see what’s burning and we don’t know who set the fire. This sense that there is no way to understand what is really going on – that no one is ultimately responsible for any of it – is at the heart of capitalism. Trump isn’t actually the cause of the smoke. He is only the trash that got set on fire.

–Christopher Scott Thompson


Portland, 20 January

It was a shit-show.

–Alley Valkyrie


Minneapolis, 19 January

WE WERE GOING to take to the streets Thursday night, hoping to catch the cops off guard the night before the inauguration. We were going to fill the spaces of a wealthy, gentrified neighborhood with sound, with dancing bodies wearing binders and wigs and pink balaclavas, setting off smoke bombs and roman candles. We were going to loudly declare that we could find joy in our bodies and in art and each other no matter what was to come. We got off work early. Organized rides. Ate dinner with gently quaking hands. Made game plans to manage any flares of social anxiety, cops, violence, PTSD, or chronic pain. We got ready.

But the cops got there first. Some pulled up on the curbs, flashing their lights, stealing our scene. Some snuck into parking lots, down residential streets, silent, patient, watching. The crowd never gathered. Many never stepped out of their cars. Everyone felt robbed of a highly anticipated sneeze, left with nothing but dashed expectations and bodies flooded with hormones.

So we drove away. Pulled off somewhere, debating what to do next. Words clipped, jaws clenched, breath audible in the quiet. A few of us dared to slink along sidewalks, scoping out cruisers, before retreating to the bar to get royally wrecked. One asked a muscle-bound stranger to punch him, please, punch him, just punch him in the gut. Two of us went home, escaped into shared body heat and generous gulps of red wine. I disclosed truths I hadn’t before and laughed at wounds still bleeding, ignored how raw my voice sounded, even to me, even through wine.

The weekend came and we sobered and rallied. We’re still organizing, networking, drawing up plans. But I won’t forget that night. By denying us movement and space and sound and joyful retaliation, our own momentum was used against us. The cops poisoned us with stress hormones and broken hearts, a physiological landmine we planted ourselves.

The denial of public space and public voice is psychological warfare. It is not to be underestimated.

–Eliot Joy


Portland, 21 January

I’M A WHITE GAY MAN who got married last October. This past Friday afternoon as one of my coworkers was complaining about the possibility that their commute home might be disrupted due to the possible anti-Trump protests I responded that the reason I’m wearing a wedding ring is that a black trans person picked up a brick and threw it at the police. Stonewall was a riot, and was, arguably, the spark for the gay rights movement. I feel a debt to speak out for those more vulnerable than myself and to fight against policies that will harm many in minority communities.

That is why I marched as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in the Women’s March on Saturday. I have several identities, however, and it made me aware of the different ways we need to be fighting against fascism. My role as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence is very public. How could it not be when I am covered in clown makeup and glitter? And it was wonderful to see 100,000 voices raised in Portland against Trumps policies of hatred and to see so many messages of inclusion. But I was also aware that this was a more mainstream and “liberal” march. I know that there are others out there in the shadows who are taking more… messy actions. And in my less known and less flashy role as a witch that I may be called on to make some tough and uncomfortable decisions. Revolutions aren’t decided over a cup of tea. May I have the strength to stand when called upon whether the situation requires glitter and sass or stealth in the shadows.

–Sister Krissy Fiction


photo by J. Kearney
photo by J. Kearney

Hawai’i, 21 January

I MARCHED in a small town in US-occupied Hawai’i—for women, for all genders, and against the Trump regime. It really was all combined here. There was a surprising turn out, over 3,500 people, which would be something like 10% of total population in a place that can seem disengaged and is very dependent on tourist economy and pretty much lacks public spaces. We marched down a highway under a hot sun. Many people driving by showed their approval. A fair amount of diversity with lots of signs for trans rights, Black Lives Matters, and many other issues. I talked to a lot of people, and many were aware that deep changes and long-term resistance is needed. My partner and I felt energized and met an inspiring homeless advocate/artist. I feel like a lot of people were caught by surprise but that new connections and links are being made. I would have liked to have seen a lot more linkage with decolonization and anti-capitalism. We brought a bit of Pagan magic into the march via a Libertas/Liberty sign.

–Finnchuill


Manchester (New Hampshire), 20 January

THE EVENT I attended on January 20th was attended by a group that was small but unified in our radical politics. Only a few dozen of us were there, but all those who spoke or held signs showed they knew that all our struggles (workers, queers, people of color, religious minorities, and others) are inter-connected. It was powerful to be in that group, and even more powerful to return home to my new community and talk about our place in things to come. While I’ve been called to many protests by Morrigan and Lugh, this season and this protest I am called by Brighid as I carry the spiritual hearth of my new home with me out into the increasingly uncertain world outside.

–Sofia Lemons


We hope these inspired you. Please feel free to tell us your stories in the comments, and resist beautifully!

Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

The Spectre of The Whore

“One must be able to name the katechon for every epoch of the last 1,948 years. The place has never been empty, or else we would no longer exist.”
–Carl Schmitt, Nazi Jurist

In ancient Western myths, a certain story persists. It seems to cross cultural and language boundaries, retold by Celts on the far northwestern shores of France and the Greeks bordering the edge of what we now call Europe. Its persistence suggests it to be a core myth of European society; in each version the motifs are the same, the circumstances not much varied, and the consequences deadly.

The story is this: a great, peaceful island, a walled city full of splendor, a paradise. Outside is chaos, poverty, war. Within, perfection, or the the height of learning, streets full of wealth and happiness. And then, a flood, a storm, a catastrophe.

This place is called by many names: Atlantis, Ys, Cantre’r Gwaelod, Lyonesse. Historians and archeologists have tried to find evidence of its existence; new agers have constructed elaborate theories naming it the origin of all occult and magical knowledge. Because its story haunts the lore of so many peoples, perhaps the better question is not ‘did it exist?’ but rather ‘why do we still tell this story?’


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In many of of the tales, the great civilization disappears under the sea, and in an unsurprising number of them, this catastrophe is triggered by a woman. I say unsurprising not because women have a tendency to drown cities, but because women tend to get blamed for the downfall of civilization very often. Pandora had her box, Eve her forbidden fruit, and of course, there’s the Whore of Babylon.

In the Celtic stories of the drowned island, a woman causes the end by leaving a floodgate open. The Bretons tell it with the daughter of a sea-witch, Dahut; in the Welsh tales, a ‘well-maiden’ named Mererid is the cause. While the misogyny of such tales seems quite obvious, we’d make a mistake if we dismiss these myths as mere propaganda against women and their ‘weakness.’ In all these stories, women held in their hands the key to ending what men had built, and in most of them, it was their refusal to obey the order of men which ended an era and began another one.

How dare a woman destroy everything? Those….whores.

We tend to dismiss such stories immediately as being part of the tapestry of patriarchal terror sustaining our current era. They certainly help uphold this order, but we should not ignore them completely: they tell us something not just about patriarchy,  but something deeper about how very fragile political orders actually are. They rely on our obedience.

While we often think of obedience and disobedience as passive stances, the roots and primary usage of the words both refer to action:

Obey: late 13c., from Old French obeir “obey, be obedient, do one’s duty” (12c.), from Latin obedireoboedire “obey, be subject, serve; pay attention to, give ear.”

That is, an obedient person does what they are told, does their duty, pays attention, serves, becomes subservient to the will of others. There is no passivity implied: obedience and disobedience are both actions.

While women are blamed in every one of these tales for the downfall of civilization, it isn’t just their woman-ness which causes these catastrophes: it’s their act of disobedience, their conscious withdrawal, their refusal to sustain the current order.

harlot-pullPatriarchal myths do not just blame women for the end of the world, they feminize disobedience. Men are good, obedient servants; women are lawless, unruly, disobedient rebels. Doing ones duty, in this conception, is a male trait; rebellion is the nature of women. But in none of these cases is that act of rebellion ‘passive.’ It is an active choice which destroys the Garden, opens the box, floods the world.

As most Marxist-feminists (and a few non-Marxist ones) often point out, the patriarchal oppression of women harms both women and men. If obedience and doing ones duty are seen as masculine traits, it’s not hard to see why so much government propaganda towards soldiers emphasizes masculinity. A man dies a bloody, painful death on the battlefield because it’s his duty to do so.  By being obedient to the powers above him, he is being a man: only a woman (or an ‘effeminate’ man) would disobey the will of the leaders.

Thus, to liberate women from this dichotomy is also to liberate men; both are equally bound into the same order of exploitation, just as, according to both Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin, whites are also imprisoned by the creation of Blackness.

To reach this liberation, we must summon the spectre of the whore.


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red-goddess-scarlet-imprintIn the final chapters of the Bible, a figure appears, striding upon a horned beast, sitting upon the seas, reigning “over the kings of the earth.”  Upon her forehead is written,

MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

Peter Grey’s book The Red Goddess convincingly shows her to be Inanna-Ishtar, the great goddess of Babylon, literally a mother of ‘harlots’ (the temple prostitutes). The continuation of female-led religious groups (particularly embracing a ‘rebellious’ sexuality) was a consistent threat to the early Christian order: no doubt the writer of Revelations intended to invoke such a goddess when depicting the enemy of Christ during the Apocalypse.

While many non-Christian myths similarly named a woman as the cause of civilization’s end, Christianity pinning the world’s end on a Whore is particularly interesting. A Whore isn’t just a woman, it’s a sort of woman, not just disobedient, but sexually empowered and liberated. Unlike the other cataclysms catalysed by a disobedient woman, the Christian apocalypse is reigned over by the mother of whores, of women who are the very embodiment of lawlessness.

harlot-pullThe whore stands outside the patriarchy: she has no husband, so has no one to obey. She also disobeys the natural-political order: sex with her is pleasure and trade, but not for production (of children: i.e., new workers, new political subjects). She demands payment for her services, rather than giving without getting back. And most of all, unlike the dutiful wife, she can refuse.

If the Christians were so certain that their reign could be ended by a whore, and if our goal were merely the end of codified Christian doctrine, then any heretic should take her quite serious. However, we’re not just about the end of overt Christianity, but rather the end of the entire capitalist order. Is the Whore still relevant?

Yes. But to understand why, we need to look at how what we think of as ‘secular’ Liberal Democracy is also a continuation and expansion of Christian empire, and why the Whore still haunts us to this day.


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Stilke_Hermann_Anton_-_Joan_of_Arc's_Death_at_the_StakeWhen religious conservatives in Europe and North America describe their countries as ‘Christian nations,’ they usually mean something quite superficial. However, they are not actually wrong, they merely don’t go far back enough in history to understand the truth of this.

Christianity started as a religion antagonistic to the Roman Empire, but it did not stay that way. The conversion of Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the new state religion made certain of this, but we miss something crucial if we leave the story there.

Christianity was initially described not as a religion, but as a disciplina, a mode of living, control, and governance. Christianity was not just a set of personal beliefs: it functioned also as a political order, with priests and bishops handing down proclamations about right action, warnings against heresy, and specific directions to the faithful below them. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, this hierarchy increased, especially as bishops became the new oracles of the empire.

While Pagan Rome was certainly brutal and authoritarian, Pagan state religion only worked well in areas of the empire where the gods were similar enough to be merged. Much more difficult were the far-flung provinces where ancient beliefs were not so easily assimilated.

harlot-pullBy the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, Rome had been facing crises of governance, revolts, and an economic panic as its expansion stopped. Christianity’s monotheism was an ideal solution to these crises. Not only did it displace a myriad of gods with one totalized God, it also had a coherent moral code, an easily-transferred hierarchy, and an intense missionary zeal.

While it’s common to blame Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire, this is hardly a majority opinion amongst historians. More so, it misses the continuation of Roman imperialism past the official fall of the empire in 476 through the Catholic Church.

Understand: when a state fails, it doesn’t just disappear. Consider what might happen to New York City or Paris if there were suddenly no United States or France; they’d continue, albeit more chaotically. Also, the political and economic influence of those cities wouldn’t just go away.

When the Roman Empire fell, Rome didn’t fall with it, nor did Christianity. They just both lost access to vast legions of soldiers to enforce their will throughout the rest of Europe.  This meant they had to find other ways of influencing those around them.

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To understand these other means of influence, you’ll need to know what Hegemony is and how it works.

harlot-pullHegemony is a political arrangement in which a very strong power exerts influence over weaker powers. This influence can be direct or subtle, but it is only sometimes openly violent. Hegemony functions indirectly: other powers do the will of the hegemonic power often without being asked. In essence, they internalize the will of the stronger power and obey it.

The United States is a good example of a hegemonic power. Though it directly rules over only the land it occupies in North America, it exerts political control over the entire western hemisphere because of its military, economic, and cultural strength. South American countries generally do what the USA wants them to do because they implicitly understand the consequences of disobedience. The US has helped overthrow several South and Central American governments through the CIA, attempted repeated assassinations of leaders like Castro, and has funded anti-government rebels (the Contras, for instance). Likewise, US-funded propaganda programs (Voice of America, etc.) also ensure complicity, while the vast American media companies help make other peoples more sympathetic to the United States.

Thus, to act against the United States is to court death, but no one needs to be told this. America’s will becomes theirs.

While this hegemonic influence might appear to be a new aspect of the modern state, Catholic control over Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire functioned exactly the same way.

harlot-pullConsider the propagandistic nature of church doctrine. Each town and village with a church had a branch-office of this propaganda machine; priests functioned as agents of the Church, ensuring doctrinal uniformity throughout the lands. Through such a network, the Church could exert social and cultural control over the opinions of the people without ever lifting a blade.

Control over the cultural and social forms of societies is control over the people, and it’s easy to see why Christianity was so ideal. A religious order which teaches obedience as godly and disobedience as sinful, and one which especially limits and subjugates rebellion in the form of women (whores, witches) perfectly complements political order.

With this control over Christian society, the Church also exerted hegemonic control over monarchies. A king who chose to go against the Pope faced excommunication, revolt from his subjects, and even a crusade from other kings. Without a standing army, the Pope’s will shaped the fates of every kingdom around him.

The European political order was a Christian political order.

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In 800 CE, Charlemagne declared the birth of a new Holy Roman Empire, and was crowned Emperor by the pope. This fully wed the church and the political powers together, a marriage that didn’t seem to end until the Reformation. The Reformation and the Enlightenment supposedly meant the end of hegemonic Christian empire and the beginning of a secular era in European politics. It also meant the birth of Liberal Democracy.

Did Liberal Democracy really escape its Christian predecessors?

We can ignore the façile claims of fundamentalists in the United States that America is a ‘Christian nation.’ Likewise too easy is the persistence of nominal Christianity within political parties in Europe (for instance, Angela Merkel is a “Christian Social Democrat”). A much stronger case can be made.

The continued Christian nature of Liberal Democracy is seen best by looking at its most staunchly non-Christian advocates: atheist intellectuals. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens (dead), Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have all made extensive defenses of Liberal Democracy and outlined its crucial secular nature. Likewise, all four greatly criticize(d) ‘intrusions’ of Christian morality into secular society.  And all four wrote extensively about the danger of one particular religion to Western (secular) Civilisation.

That religion? Islam, not Christianity.

Why Islam? Obviously, it’s monotheist, patriarchal, and like all religions has a dangerous strain of fundamentalism. But their obsession with Islam rather than Christianity reveals the persistence of Christian hegemony even in their atheism. Islam is so dangerous precisely because it is not European–that is, it is not Christian.

In the Middle Ages, the Church could (and often did) prevent wars between European states on the basis that they were both Christian. The cultural power the Pope wielded over the people was formidable: few soldiers would want to risk eternal damnation or excommunication for very little pay. Tacit support by the Church (sometimes by taking sides, mostly by remaining silent) was crucial for wars.

The people who were always fair game, however, were Muslims and Pagans. For instance, the wars which eventually forced the last Pagan king of Europe to convert (14th century) were crusades. Likewise, the reconquista in Spain and all the many crusades into Jerusalem were not just sanctioned but rewarded by the Church. Killing a Muslim was not just okay, it was a holy act, while killing another Christian was murder or worse.

Western Liberal Democracies didn’t change this. One need only recall that one of the primary justifications for the European Union was that it would keep European countries from warring with each other. Replace the word “Liberal Democratic” with “Christian,” and it’s not hard to understand why the United States doesn’t attack Canada or France. Not only are they not enemies, but they are part of the same community of believers, the new Catholic (‘universal’) communion.

harlot-pullThis communion extends not just to the lack of military conflict between each other, but their united front against Muslim nations. Just as Catholic hegemony acted as a strong barrier against European wars and legitimized wars against Muslims and Pagans, Liberal Democracy legitimizes wars in the Middle East. Not only legitimizes, but mythologizes and glorifies: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were done to defend Western Civilization (Democracy, Freedom, “our way of life”) just as the crusades were declared to protect Christendom.

giphyThat such violence against non-Christians occurs in the name of secularism rather than in Christianity hardly changes anything: in fact, it gives us a clue to what is actually meant by ‘secular.’

Consider the bans on Muslim practices in Europe in the name of secularism. Banning hijabs and burkas in the name of protecting women certainly sounds enlightened. However, controlling what women wear, regardless of what it is they are wearing, is still control of women. Likewise, in the name of the secularist idea of ‘animal welfare,’ halal and kosher butchery have been banned in at least one European country and several more have tried to follow suit. Yet European methods of butchery (factory farming, industrialized slaughterhouses) can hardly be called humane and are not up for discussion.

Consider, too, Switzlerland’s ban of minarets, France’s ban on religious symbols (but not crosses) in public schools, and the ‘war on terror’ (including Trump’s plans to deport Muslims): these are even more examples of how Liberal Democracy continues to function as a Christian political order.

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While the word “Christian” can be used interchangeably with “Liberal Democracy,” we cannot end this history of Empire here. Other words equally suffice and are just as important.

One of those words? White. When Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand all committed troops together to fight the civilizational threat of Islamic Terrorism, only white people could have missed the fact that it was an alliance of powerful white nations against Arabs. Within those countries, fear and hatred of immigrants is likewise racialized.

There’s a tendency to chalk all of these wars without and within Liberal Democratic nations up to “White Supremacy.”  This is an accurate, but incredibly incomplete, understanding. Whiteness is powerful, and whites are absolutely dominant in white Liberal Democracies. However, whiteness is merely a mechanic, a formula which helps determine whether or not someone belongs.

That is, the hegemonic political order called Liberal Democracy is white, but whiteness is the effect of that order, not the cause. Whiteness developed only recently, and only as a way of determining privilege within Liberal Democracies (whites on top) and undermining allegiances amongst the lower-classes which threatened the entire political order.

harlot-pullLikewise, Liberal Democracy is patriarchal, but this is again a function and governing method of the order. Women absolutely receive fewer rights, fewer protections, less wealth, less political power, and endure more violence than men. This is unquestionable. However, fighting the patriarchy is not enough to destroy Liberal Democracy. It is accurate but inadequate to describe our current order as patriarchal, just as fighting white supremacy only attacks the method of governance, not governance itself.

We can string together litanies for days on what Liberal Democracy is (bell hooks, for instance, uses the term “Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy,” which is much too short) and doing so can certainly help understand how thorough its hegemonic control over us is. By calling it Liberal Democracy, we must mean all the strands of the kyriarchal web while remembering that the entire web must be destroyed, not just one strand.

So here we are now, governed by a hegemonic political-theology simultaneously Christian, European, imperialist, patriarchal, white, capitalist, etc..  It is all-powerful, soaking through every one of our social, cultural, economic, and political interactions. We are flies in its web, trapped, breaking one strand yet caught by even more in our struggle.

How can you fight such a thing?

By becoming what it is most afraid of.


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Though Liberal Democracy officially denies its Christian nature, a very minor text within the New Testament managed to form the basis for its entire political strategy:

And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. 2 thessalonians 2:6-7

The author (Paul) is writing members of the new order he is building, warning them not to act like the end-times are at hand. Before the anti-christ (the ‘he/him’ to which he refers) can arrive, ‘what is now restraining’ and the one who now restrains’ (τὸ κατέχον, “katechon,”) must be removed. Meanwhile, the ‘mystery of lawlessness’ ( ἀνομία, “anomia”–being outside the law, wicked, or unruled) is already at work.

Regardless of what Paul actually meant by this section (there are countless theories), the concept of something holding back the chaos and lawlessness of the end-times persists to this day.

In fact, you know the Katechon intimately.

Consider the most recent election in the United States. The Democratic Party offered a pro-capitalist centrist candidate with deep ties to corporate oil, finance, and banking industries. Despite her obvious allegiance with the very things which are currently destroying the earth, many on “the left” supported her anyway, seeing her as the only chance to restrain the pure violence of a Trump presidency.  That is, Hillary Clinton was presented as the Katechon, the only way to hold back a terrifying flood of wickedness and chaos.

In the United Kingdom, the same arguments were used to justify remaining as part of the European Union. Center-left activists particularly were terrified of what might come were the UK to leave. Loss of protections, the end of mobility, increasing domestic violence, erosions of wealth all would come if Brexit occurred. In this case, the EU was the Katechon, the only thing holding back the flood of misery and poverty.

The Katechon is seen also in questions of terrorism, security, and international war. The terrorist is ἀνομία/anomia, the lawless/wicked ones, currently at work undermining civilization. The sense of ‘unruled’ and ‘lawless’ is particularly relevant: the terrorist obeys no government and operates outside the moral order of Liberal Democratic societies. The terrorist doesn’t work within Liberal Democratic ‘law,’ seeking justice through the courts or change through electoral politics. Rather, the terrorist blows things up.

Here, shutting down borders, removing rights and protections, increasing surveillance, arresting dissidents, and waging foreign wars is what holds back the flood. None of this really works, though, since any person has the potential to spontaneously generate into a terrorist.  Still, these actions are increasingly implemented in the name of holding back the chaos, keeping the enemies outside the gates, holding back a surging tide. That is, the Katechon.

harlot-pullThis is the very same logic which prevents revolution in Liberal Democratic societies. Talk of ending capitalism, disarming the police, or even all-out revolt is dismissed by evoking the fear of what might happen without those things. Without the police, there would be only ἀνομία/anomia, lawlessness. Who would protect us from foreign enemies if we had no governments and military? How would we get our medicines, food, and electricity without capitalism?

This is not just a contemporary trick of Liberal Democracy. The same logic operated in Hobbes conception that life outside the strong state would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ in the checks on popular democracy (including the electoral college) written into the US constitution, in the Terror which followed the French Revolution, and in all the formations of other states throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Both right-wing and left-wing ideologies fell victim to the cult of the Katechon: Marxism’s shift to a statist ideology through Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin was a response to the fear of ἀνομία, while it was Fascist theorists who most openly spoke directly about the Katechon.  Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola both sought to stave off a coming apocalypse through an embrace of ancient imperial forms, and the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt  (quoted at the beginning of this essay) saw Hitler as the Katechon, the last hope of civilization against lawlessness and disorder. From his diary:

“I believe in the katechon: it is for me the only possible way to understand Christian history and to find it meaningful”

This begs a question.

If the leading jurist for the Nazi regime was so intent on having a Katechon who could hold back the tides of chaos, what great evil could possibly have been worse than the gassing of 10 million people?

Is the lawlessness, the ‘anti-christ’ that the Katechon restrains really all that worse than the brutality of our current political orders?


harlot-head

mystery-babylon-the-greatThe Katechon exists to hold back a coming catastrophe. In the earliest iteration of it from Paul, the Katechon restrains the revelation of the anti-christ; it holds back the apocalypse.

Fear of the apocalypse is a significant part of most Evangelical Christian sects. On the extreme end are the relentless predictions, the certainty that Jesus is about to return and will judge all the nations of the world leading to some fascinating and frightful behaviors. The apocalypse, though, isn’t confined to devout Christians waiting for the rapture or a literal horn-blowing angel. Nor do I just mean the liberatarian Mad-Max or Walking Dead fantasists. Governments, too, are terrified of their own end and what might come after.

What is an apocalypse really, except the end of one order and the beginning of the next? And here’s where we should remember what the word apokálypsis actually means. The last book of the Bible in most English editions is called “Revelations,” but it’s older name is Apocalypse. Both words mean the same thing, hidden knowledge unveiled.  The Katechon holds back the Apocalypse, restrains a revelation against the ‘mystery of lawlessness,’ holding back the tides of chaos by keeping something hidden.

What’s the Katechon hiding? What doesn’t it want us to see? What knowledge must it hide from us lest the Whore and the Anti-christ walk the earth?

Liberal Democracy is destroying the planet, warming the oceans, melting the ice caps, extinquishing species, poisoning the water. Industrialisation increases this damage, alienating us from one another, turns us into machines. Liberal Democracies wage war on defenseless peoples in foreign countries, kill minorities, trample the poor and exalt the rich. They keep women oppressed, rape the earth, and sell nature back to us as packaged trinkets to be thrown away back into the open wounds of that great whore Earth.

Yet all the while, we cling tightly to it.  We cannot end Liberal Democracy, because worse will come.

What could be worse?

The Katechon whispers: you need me. I am holding back the anti-christ. I restrain the whore. I am preventing the apocalypse.

You will die without me.

Which reminds us of another whore.


harlot-head

Delacroix, Eugene; The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-expulsion-of-adam-and-eve-from-paradise-83737

Though the Bible ends with the Whore of Babalon, it begins with the very first whore, the very first lawless one. Everyone living under Liberal Democracy knows her name, knows that whore’s crime. You can’t escape it, you cannot avoid knowing how she destroyed everything.

She, too, heard the warnings of the Katechon. She heard what would happen if she did not obey, heard the consequences of disobedience.

She also heard something else:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-4

At the beginning of this essay I asked why these stories of women destroying the world are told. By now, you must already know the answer.

And by now, you already know who the Katechon is.

It’s you.

You are the Katechon which holds back the apocalypse, you in your obedience to what they demand.

You are the Katechon that restrains you from acting, what sways you away from your will.

You are the Katechon who tells you that you shall die if you act. You will die without capitalism, without Liberal Democracy, without supermarkets and smartphones, surveillance cameras and taxes, without your strong daddy-leaders, without cops and priests and credit cards, without banks and congress and flags, without your job, without your mortgage, without nuclear weapons and satellites. Without men with guns telling people what to do, you’ll die.

You have internalized the will of the powerful, and you think it is your own.

You are the Katechon who tells you what you’ll become without them: a whore, nothing else, male or female or in-between, just a sniveling nothing without Them. Without this political order, with these leaders, without the rich, you’ll have no way to survive except your body. You’ll be an outcast, banished with the all other whores and your mother, Mystery.

You are the Katechon, but you can also hear the serpent saying you will not die.

Of course, if you listen to that voice, you might become the whore who opens those gates, drowns the city, and floods the world.

I say go with that voice. But that’s not my choice to make for you.

It’s yours.


6tag_011216-190055Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarchor you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.  He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too,


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PAGAN ANARCHISM

“Strange dreams are stirring, drifting into the sleeping consciousness of mystics, visionaries and revolutionaries. Dreams of the fallen and most often the forgotten—those who fought in all of the uprisings and revolutions since the beginning of history. They stir on the edges of sleep like revenants besieging a presidential palace. They want us to hear them and to heed their call.”

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What is Pagan Anarchism?

Witches who poison bosses and landlords. Slave revolts instigated by a god of ecstasy. Eviction notices issued in the name of land spirits and Faerie queens. A ghostly general leading loom breakers. Elves who destroy factories.

Were these all merely myths, they’d still be more true than the superstitions upholding Empire and Capital. Yet they’re not myths, but our own history: the history of uprisings, of a fierce magic and a revolutionary current woven throughout the threads of Paganism and anarchism. As historian Peter Linebaugh named them, they are the ‘Red and Green,’ the revolutionary and the Pagan threads which comprise the yearly celebration of May Day.

Poet, writer, anarchist, and Pagan Christopher Scott Thompson pulls and spins these threads that run from Rome to the Occupy Movement, from the Levelers and Luddites to the witchpunx and Wobblies–and from them weaves a tapestry of revolution.

Book Information: Nonfiction, 6×9 inches, perfect-bound paperback, matte cover, b&w with images.

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Awakening Against What’s Awakened

Berlin is a city of the dead. You hear them behind the raucous laughter in the clubs, in the space between stones on crowded streets. They’re  loudest especially in the time just after sunset, the gloaming, when Berlin seems suddenly to waken into life hidden from view of the day.

You know what happened to Berlin, probably. You know of the great conflagration in the souls of millions which suddenly turned all the minds of many towards the slaughter of a few. The parades through streets celebrating a new thing awakened, the shattered windows and bloodied faces. The seized printing-presses, the new flags adorning old stone. And then the deportations, and then the murders.

Some great Authority awakened into the world, and millions complied with its will.

The Cries of the Dead

InstagramCapture_fae53fa9-fb6b-4b3a-8004-5db890359eae

Often, it’s easier to hear the dead than it is to hear the gods. Gods don’t leave corpses to rot in alleyways, or journals to account their worlds. We may speak of the gods, and to them, but they exist in the realm of the pre-literate, the Abyss before human meaning. Any words we ascribe to them is mere translation, any relics bearing their name were made or invoked by us, not by them.

The dead, though—they leave books and buildings, papers and clothing, hair and bone and graffiti. Their bodies rot into the soil, feeding the harvests of our present. They leave words and warnings, their echoed screams shape the sense of a place. They plant trees under which we sit decades later, along a canal they built a century ago. Their impassioned groans and throes birthed those whose later orgasmic exhalations called into being the living who jog past me as I write.

The not-human dead are easier to see, though apparently mute. The cows whose skin binds my pants to my waist and shods my feet have not yet decomposed into the Abyss, but they did not in life speak a language I understand. The dead tree whose wood forms this bench upon which I sit may have once towered over villages from which Jews were hauled into camps, but its voice is silent in response to my questions.

It’s from the dead that we even know of the gods, and the dead still speak. But I do not like what they have to say.

The dead keep telling me about that great thing awakened, warning of another.

Something’s happening.

One dead haunting me a bit particularly has been Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was born in Berlin. Feared more than anything returning there, hid in Paris, then Marseilles, as a nation inhabited by some strange new spirit swept through Europe, building camps into which their enemies were concentrated, then sacrificed. Even climbing a mountain gave him no quarter, as respect for the new religion had spread even to Spain.

The Wotanic Spirit

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Bricks memorializing homes from which Jews were deported. The woman in the center was 73 year old when deported. She died a month later.

I use the words spirit and religion without flippancy here, without metaphor. In a speech before the second world war broke out, Jung spoke of a Wotanic spirit awakening in Germany. The God of the German Christians seemed no longer the same God of the French Christians, no longer the same God which held together the imagined community of (Christian) Europe. An older god, an ancestral god, a god of dirt and blood, a god of rage and fear had arisen, dethroning the God of Civilization.

We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors. But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find Wotan quite suitable as a casual hypothesis….

 

Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but, also, an Ergreifer (one who seizes). Wotan is an Ergreifer of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler– which has indeed actually happened — he is really the only explanation.

Jung’s speech has some significant problems, not least of which is his linkage of the German people’s physical ancestry–as well as culture–as a site for the awakening of a god. But the matter of the Ergriffenheit, the possession, mirrors plenty of other writers’ descriptions of the strange spirit which seemed to inhabit those who fell under the sway of the Nazis.

But was it Wotan? Can a god do that? And anyway, what is is a god?

There’s a theory that many of the gods we now know were all once humans. Odin, for instance, is thought to have been a powerful shaman-type figure, Brân was once a chieftain of the Belgii, Ceridwen and the Morrígan and Hecate once renowned and feared witches. After their deaths, their significant deeds were remembered through story, and over generations (centuries) the veneration people from who only knew them through these great tales made them divine.

Such an idea makes a lot of sense, judging from the last few millennia. Plenty of emperors, kings, and spiritual leaders have all been made into gods—often while they still lived. Even into the late 1700’s in Europe, the touch of a royal was though to heal sickness.

In most of these instances, it was the persons themselves who made the revelation, declaring to their followers their true nature. Others, though, were made sacred after their deaths by religious leaders—though saints are subordinate to the God of the Catholics, sainthood elevates them over the realm of mere mortals. Their existence persists long after their deaths, reminded to us by venerations and sacred stories.

Were the Pagan gods maybe the same?

We cannot know when Odin was first known to those who claimed him as a god, nor whether the first to speak his name knew him as a god, a shaman, a chief, or something else entirely. And though this theory itself is neutral as to whether or not the gods-once-human are now gods, it has some uncomfortable implications for anyone who might now claim themselves a priest or mystic of such divine beings, because it’s linked to authority.

Jung may have been aware of this idea, even as he crafted his archetypal theory of the gods. But being no political theorist, Jung does not look directly at the way a State seems to inhabit the people the same way a god might have.

Gods Are Things

berlin viewI should first explain what I even mean by gods. And for this I must first speak of trees.

Trees are a thing. They exist, as much as anything exists. And they are a thing almost every one of us will experience at least once.

Forget you have eyes for a moment and consider the experience of a tree. If you do not see them, you can still know there is a thing there by listening to the sound the wind makes through their branches, feeling the cool of their shade on a hot day, smelling the earthy decay of their leaves in late autumn or the fragrance of their blossoms in spring, tasting their fruit or their sap. You may even know them even though they are dead, sitting upon a wooden bench or hearing the crinkle of newspaper, tasting alder or hickory on grilled meat or smelling the smoke from winter chimneys.

Trees are a thing you can experience, and probably have already. But how is a tree even a thing at all? Without witnessing the suspension of orange from branch, without seeing chopped wood set alight, how do you connect the ripe flesh of fruit or the warmth of a fireplace to the Tree as thing? A pear is a thing, a pine coffin is a thing, toilet paper is a thing, but how are they then also part of a Tree as thing?

Humans are also a thing. I feel a human when he touches my shoulder, my chest. I smell a human when she is near me, the mix of her sweat and perfume warmed by the heat of her body. I taste a human when he kisses me, when I lick his skin. And I hear humans when I walk through cities, when they shout at me or call my name.

Like a tree, I also feel what humans do even when they are not there. I walk across the cobbles they’ve lain, I sleep on the beds, I eat the food they’ve grown. I choke on the fumes of their cars, I smell the dinners they cook as I pass windows thrown open to the summer air.

My knowledge of humans (like that of trees) comes from my senses. When I hear a human, my ears are resonating with the waves of sound their actions make. When I see them, my eyes discern the patterns of light which reflect off them. My nose and tongue translate the particulates kicked up from their existence, the nerves in my skin explode electric currents to my brain when their bodies press against mine. All this, too, is true for trees.

We walk through a world swirling with the chaos of other things sharing it with us. We’re all said to exist, to be, but we don’t really have a good reason for being certain of that. We mostly just accept it on faith—and then forget there was anything to accept in the first place. We can’t go around questioning our senses all the time. We’d never get around to living.

That acceptance is the gate to the world of meaning, the gate out of The Abyss of the rawest of life. Walking through that gate, we enter a great world enclosed by the earth itself, drenched and soaked in the meaning we weave from all the threads of the material. But we must be clear: it’s we who do that weaving. We are the meaning-makers.awakening meaning pull

I experience the gods with the same senses through which I experience everything else, and call them things. Sometimes I feel a hand on the back of my neck, breath in my ear. That’s Brân. Sometimes I see a pattern of light on water or the taste of something electric on the wind; that’s Arianrhod. Flames dancing in a certain way, the scent of a home I haven’t known yet, the lightest of rain on bare skin— Brighid. A sudden chill that awakens the body, the heightened alertness when the moon’s a sharp crescent is when I smell Ceridwen, though the pattern of black branches in that same moonlight is Gwyn Ap Nudd.

One sharp taste on a tongue is called Salt, a sweeter one is called Sugar; these are just names, but names we’re all quite insistent upon as being connected to things. Though a Frenchwoman would call the latter Sucre and the former Sel, a German insist Salz for the first and Sukar for the second, we’re pretty attached to those names.

I’m pretty attached to the names I have for the experiences-called-gods, too. Though sometimes I use others. Brighid is the Lady of the Hearth, though sometimes of the Flame, or of Tears, or the Rain. Brân’s the Raven King, and also the Guardian at the Gate of the Dead. Ceridwen’s sometimes the Huntress, and sometimes Gwyn Ap Nudd Hunts too.

Arianrhod’s the Silver Wheel, and a lot of other names I don’t really understand yet. She avoids comprehension more than the others. When a lover bit my nipples until they started to bleed, I understood something about her I still don’t get but feel again sometimes. When I see that pattern of light-on-water, I know a part of my mind awakens and understands. It just refuses to explain to the rest of me.

Gods On Thrones

Hunt graffiti, Berlin
Graffiti, Berlin

Gods occupy a space of human meaning. When something strange happens, fortuitous or synchronistic, and when that happens to co-incide with what I generally ascribe to the activity of the gods, I am connecting something to the gods by a thread called Meaning. Light dances on water a certain way and I think of Arianrhod. My consciousness seems to both to expand and yet become more porous into the land around me and I think Brân.

But the gods occupy a different space from other things to which we connect meaning. We usually call that place ‘Sacred,’ rather than mundane or normal. When I pour out offerings to Arianrhod, it’s a sacred thread of meaning, a sort of special category of meaning set apart from all the others. And though we tend to think of that sacred as out of reach of the political, it’s never been the case.

awakening political pullKings, emperors, chiefs, and other human authorities have always ruled by the blessing of the divine, be that gods, God, or another sacred realm outside the reach of material influence. In the present, governments gain consent to rule by the will of the people; 500 years ago, kings ruled by the will of God and the blessing of the Church; in non-Christian areas, kings claimed to rule through the blessing of the land or the gods.

That authorial space the sacred occupies in political realms is also a realm of meaning. A king derives his power from God not because God grants him that authority, but because those he rules over see God as a meaningful thing. Within a society where God is thought to exist, and where God is a pervasive, inescapable thing of meaning, the King who claims such blessing is now backed up by an entire Order of Meaning birthed by that God. How a king is able to convince the rest of us that God has given him Divine Right is of course complicated, helped along by already-existing institutions who maintain the Order of Meaning at which that God is at the head. Also, violence helps, too.

While a traditional anarchist or Marxist (or even just an atheist) might protest that the God at the head of such an Order of Meaning is merely fictional or constructed, this doesn’t actually change the power of the God. As long as enough people within a society believe that there is such a God, and that such a God also grants sovereignty to leaders, and that others (priests, diviners, etc.) can accurately determine that God’s will, whether or not the God actually exists is utterly irrelevant.

This same mechanism wherein the Sacred sustains an Order of Meaning applies just as much to the Celtic and Germanic ideas of Sacred Kingship as it does to Liberal Democracy’s concept of the consent-of-the-governed. Though it may have been Druids or Shamans or Priestesses declaring what the gods willed before, and though it may be elections and the media and politicians declaring what the people will now, God (or the Sacred) never disappeared as the originator of Authority.

Though many modern Polytheists, Christian Fundamentalists, or Islamic Radicals might use such a knowledge to claim that the Sacred therefore is the true source of Authority (and a source we must return to if we first acknowledge that such a Sacred exists), such a fascistic rush misses another important aspect of the space the Sacred occupies.

While I name certain experiences gods, I do not choose to therefore bow down to them, nor do they demand such a thing. I am aware of Brighid’s presence and say hello, or immerse myself into the world of meaning which opens when she’s around, but I don’t ask her what she therefore demands of me. When something happens which I ascribe to the influence of Arianrhod, I do not kneel or vow to serve her, nor does she ask me to.

It is only certain others, those who teach things about gods–who claim to experience them and draw power from them–who demand that I do such a thing. No god has ever said, “follow me,” no deity has ever asked that I give myself over to them in return for riches or power, no sacred being has ever threatened to punish me if I do not do as they say. But plenty of priests have.

awakening obedience pullGods don’t demand obedience, but humans certainly do.  An employer may certainly use threats to co-erce me to do more work, a politician might certainly promise fortune if I grant him consent through ballot, a religious leader has absolutely promised great power and magic if I follow them. And in each of these cases, the demand or threat is backed up by an Order of Meaning in which such obedience is derived from a ‘greater’ source. Consider:

  • The employer has more money than I, and the hierarchy which sustains Capitalism is clear.
  • The politician, once elected, may indeed wield the sort of power that might make me rich, but only because a political system already exists which grants the elected power over the rest of us.
  • If I believe in the same god(s) of the religious leader and accept their claims to speak on at god(s)’s behalf, I may decide that my personal autonomy is a fair sacrifice.

That is, gods don’t demand I bow to them. It is others who demand that things be bowed to or accept an Order of Meaning where bowing to things is what you do.

Those who demand gods be served and worshiped often tell us that it is “because they are gods.” This is, of course, no different from a parent saying to a child, “because I said so,” or a police officer stating, “it’s against the law.” In all cases, the reason for the obedience comes from the supposed source of the command itself (parent, god, police). Or, put another way:

Authority must be obeyed because it’s Authority, and an Authority is an Authority because an Authority said so.

The Empty Thrones

 

Graffiti on Refugee Center, Berlin

Returning to Jung’s theory that a thing like a god had possessed the people of Germany, we can start to wonder why there’s even a space within us to be possessed in the first place. And remembering that the Sacred has always been used by political powers to create an Order of Meaning in which their authority is secured, we need need ask why such a trick works.

The gods may exist outside ourselves, but the thrones upon which some of us put them don’t.  Instead, those thrones exist within. Gods inhabit the spaces we make for them in our world, just as a lover inhabits our consciousness. They become not just an outside thing, but an inside thing, taking root in our heart, our dreams, our thoughts.

Put a lover on a throne and their existence is no longer just a beautiful thing to us, but a thing of Order. Put their desires and concerns first above any other, and they no longer just co-create your meaning, they become it. You become subsumed into their existence, a servant, building your life around them rather than with them. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone say of their lover, “they are the reason I exist.”

It does not matter whether the lover desires such a thing at all. Most wouldn’t ascend that throne, if it is to be called love. But it is not really up to them.

A lover might decide I am his ‘all’ regardless of whether I’d want to be such a thing (I don’t), and I would then experience him as a will-less person, too eager to please, too readily disappointed when I do not fully occupy the ascended place he’s made for me.

It seems it is the same with the gods. Perhaps there are some gods happy to have eager servants willing to absolve their own personality (and responsibility) into them. I do not imagine this does those gods well in the end. For instance, the racists and fascists who invoke Odin and the ‘northern gods’ to justify their hatred seem to do Odin no good; he becomes, like the Christian devil, a shadow-pit into which all the blame for evil is dumped. Worse, such followers do precisely the same thing as the followers of the Christian god did, demanding conformity of belief and killing those who won’t submit to their new order of meaning.

The thrones upon which we’d put a lover or a god seem to exist regardless of their desires. And that makes me wonder where such things come from—why, really, would we elevate any other being to a place of Authority besides ourselves?

The answer is probably that we’ve been taught to.

We’re taught from our youngest years to obey, to acquiesce, to comply. Our parents teach this, our elders and teachers. Police teach this, and tax collectors and jailers. Employers teach this, and journalists and bullies.

awakening taught pullElevate and heed the will of your parents, and you will not get punished. Hearken and obey the words of your teachers and elders, and you will not get shunned or go to detention. Fear and listen to the demands of police, and you will not get shot. Work hard, give up hours of your life and discipline yourself, and you will not get fired and go hungry.

It is our societies which carve the thrones of Authority into our souls, and there are too many others willing to sit upon them.

Putting gods upon those thrones instead of human leaders may actually seem an attempt at freedom. If Brighid occupies the highest Authority of my life, one might think I’d be less likely to obey others. But she doesn’t actually fit in that seat, nor does she seem to want to sit in it. The only way for me to keep her there would be to force her into it, bind her to the armrests, chain her feet to the floor. ‘Stay there and be my master,‘ I’d have to say, ‘tell me what to do so I am no longer responsible for my actions.’

I don’t think she’d take that well.

Others might claim she already sits there, that she sits on their own thrones, that she demands this. One sees this often with certain ‘war’ gods like Odin or The Morrígan, but those gods aren’t really much for sitting.

No Masters

Mexican Embassy Art, Berlin
Rhyd at Mexican Embassy, Berlin

It is probably not possible to destroy the thrones. Perhaps once carved from the etheric stone of our wills, the thrones never go away. Taught from birth that someone must always have more say than others, disciplined while still crawling across the floor that some must always be lower and some must always be higher, maybe we can never unlearn this.

So perhaps it’s best if we sit on those thrones ourselves. I think we usually do anyway, and merely displace our blame and guilt when we do something awful, or something does not turn out well. Afterall, we choose to obey, we choose to submit, we choose to debase our nature before the will of others.

If we sit on our own thrones, we might better resist those who’d coerce us. When others demand we obey their Authority, they’d have to topple us from our own power. When hatred points to the weak and oppressed as the cause of our own weakness, we’d be strong against such designs.

Those thrones are, after all, the very seat of our own power.

The ‘Wotanic spirit’ that awakened into the world during the rise of Hitler is not much different from the great Authorities that have arisen in any other time. The lockstep obedience, the subservience to a greater power, the sublimation of individuality and the hatred of difference has inhabited humans many times before, and seems to arise now again.

Against such a thing, only those who know no other authority but their own might stand. But there would need to be many of us, many more than there are now. All the self-actualization in the world won’t protect us from bullets or bombs, gas-chambers or prison-cells. No matter how liberated we are, without many others likewise liberated we stand alone.

Our liberation is always contingent on the liberation of others.

What would the world be like if more of us occupied our own thrones? Where freedom from coercion and the divine right of self-mastery became the primary values of our societies? As long as those with whom I interact are enchained by the will of others, I could only ever be an actualised self alone, if such a thing were even possible. To become more my self, I need others to teach me how they become their selves. To be free from the coercion of others, others around me must know what coercion even is,

And here’s where the gods, temporarily unseen, resurge back like an immense tide. Beings existing outside our enchainment, needing neither to coerce nor force but merely be–are they not the very ideal of our own freedom?

That we would put them on thrones, enchain their meaning and extract it for own desire to rule everyone but ourselves–the only result of such a thing is rivers of blood running down streets or ziggurats, slaughter and manacles and camps. But if instead they are guides of our liberation, themselves unchained, themselves unmastered and unmastering, they are exactly what we might need to oppose whatever new thing is awakening in our world.

We already have guides for this sort of thing. The women and men who snuck into factories under the cover of night, smashing the machinery of the rich Capitalists, claimed to follow a spectral king. “No general but Ludd,” went their slogan, “did the worker any good.” The Whiteboys of Ireland did the same, following a spectral land-goddess, issuing evictions in her name. Not obedience, not submission, but liberation.

Perhaps our gods, like Ludd, will agree to guide us.

But we must be clear whose hands are unshackling others, whose hammers are smashing the machines, and who’s actually supposed to be sitting on those thrones.


This essay first appeared as a subscriber-only piece at Paganarch


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch.

 

 


The Call for Submissions for the Next Issue of A Beautiful Resistance is out!

Raising the Power of the People: Protest as Magickal Ritual

“When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Standing in a circle, we start to chant. Full-throated, rhythmic, and loud, we invoke the honored dead and name our intent. As our bodies move, I feel the energy rise and flow. Hundreds of people are here, focusing all our wills on a single point, sensing the nature of the physical space change around us and hearing an egregore form itself out of us. We process through downtown and find the laws of the ordinary world negated, transcended, pushed aside by our raised fists and the beat of our legs as we shout, “Whose Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter!” Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the hundreds of other Black women and men and nonbinary people that the police have murdered this year – we know the dead are with us, demanding justice. We know that white supremacy will fall because it will be made to fall; we will see this working through.

 


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A well-known magickal hand gesture

Mass protest is magick. That’s literal. It’s not just the accouterments of ritual – although, of course, chanting and processing and invoking the dead often feature prominently. When hundreds or thousands of people gather and focus their collective intent to effect a change in the world, that’s magick. And, indeed, anyone who’s been to a truly powerful demonstration can testify that energy gets raised there, and it’s strong. The surrounding space becomes something different. It’s no longer a shopping mall or an intersection, any more than a consecrated altar is just a few knickknacks on a coffee table. It’s where the protest egregore – “The People,” let’s call it – redefines the marketplace or the thoroughfare as the agora or the Nordic Thing, the self-aware Commons, where the powerful become weak and everything becomes possible.

And, indeed, the ordinary rules do collapse. The People can occupy busy intersections, shut down the infrastructure of commerce and government, and block interstate highways. Under normal circumstances, no one could do anything like that, and very few would want to try. We have to raise the egregore and sanctify the urban space first. Protests happen between the worlds as surely as any devotional ritual or coven working.

 


“My initiations and elevations changed my perception of reality, and they eventually brought me closer to the things that matter.”

Jason Mankey

If an initiation’s done right, you come away transformed. The world doesn’t look the same afterwards, and eventually, you start forgetting how you ever could’ve seen things like you used to. Once you receive the Mysteries, you don’t simply lose them again; once you realize how racist-patriarchal-imperial capitalism dictates the social world, you no longer can’t notice it all around you. Sure, that awareness can come through study or conversation or – rarely – individual perception sharp enough to push past the hegemony of the ruling class. In real life, that’s rarely enough. It usually takes initiatory ritual to break through a lifetime of ideological conditioning. Most of us get there through the direct, firsthand experience of the power of the People. March in protests and participate in that egregore, and you won’t be the same. It’s no coincidence that both ritual theory and Marxist philosophy use the language of inducing a shift in consciousness. Once you’ve encountered the Mystery, your old worldview is no longer sufficient. There’s a change in you, and you find the world changed in turn.

Sometimes, Pagans bemoan our relative lack of developed theology. Our self-definitions are less likely to dwell on systematized belief than on experiences 0f ecstasy. By and large, “Paganism” is a heterogeneous mix of initiatory esoteric currents and orthopraxic public polytheisms. What links us is partly just a shared subculture, but also a broadly held sense that religion needs to be rooted in relationship and practice, rather than textual authority or assent to particular articles of faith. Pagan theology certainly exists (and, considering how young our traditions are, it’s probably better developed than the odds would have suggested). However, it mainly tends to explicate ritual practice and ecstatic subjectivity. Our exegesis isn’t of holy books or infallible prophets’ words; rather, we create theory to account for what we do.

Of course, revolutionary political theory does the same thing with regard to the practice of participatory social change. This website, in large part, involves individuals who find themselves in both streams, identifying and expanding the points of resonance between them. Most of us here have gone through the initiation of protest. We’ve helped raise the egregore of the People, and that necessarily informs our worldviews. We can (and do) theorize at great length about those experiences – but, at the same time, reading isn’t enough. No one should confuse a Book of Shadows with a practical tool like an athame; no one should confuse political theory with practical tools like the People’s Mic, the banner, and the megaphone.

You can encounter it yourself. Don’t take this on faith. Confirm it. Go protest. Raise power. Evoke the People. Shift your consciousness. Transform the world.

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the Pacific Northwest. They’re a writer and editor for The North Star and an officer in RATPAC and the Communist Labor Party.

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