Staring Down the Precipice: An Interview with Richard Oxman

By William Hawes

Richard Oxman is an educator living in Santa Cruz County, California. After talking both on the phone and by email with him the past few months, he has already become a dear friend to me. As someone interested in revolutionary politics, peace, and in providing a livable world for our children, I grew more and more interested as he began to share his plan for social change in his home state, which he calls Transforming our State of California (TOSCA). The following are excerpts from our ongoing (never-ending!) conversations.

William Hawes: Hey Richard, can you start by telling us a little bit about your past in academia and activism, what you are up to now, etc.?

Richard Oxman: First of all, I’d like everyone to know that I’m dedicating my part in this exchange to Arundhati Roy, who — I know — loved Howard Zinn and his work. In the name of possibly getting the word to her that I want to delineate the nuts and bolts of the “proposal for action” which I’m about to reference, a new paradigm for moving ahead in solidarity which Howard approved of; her “involvement” could create a watershed in history. If nothing else, hearing about the proposed “game plan” would, I’m sure, gladden her heart (and the hearts of many others we both respect).

I’ve been a professor and worldwide educator on all levels for half a century. I’ve taught Dramatic Art, Speech Arts, Comparative Literature, English as a Second Language, all sorts of subjects under the auspices of English departments, Cinema History, U.S. History, Creative Writing, Poetry, and Journalism at many different institutions, including Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey, Long Island University, Seton Hall University, New York Institute of Technology, St. Giles College, and Bronx Community College. In addition, I’ve volunteered the last nineteen years as a tutor and mentor for youngsters in middle schools and high schools all along the demographic spectrum. Here and abroad.

Working in communities of so-called “people of color” has been a special focus of mine, ever since I became an activist at the age of seven in 1949. Following WWI pilot Eugene Bullard almost getting beaten to death a few feet in front of me by a racist, “patriotic” crowd at the Peekskill Riots got me started. It was at a Paul Robeson concert where Pete Seeger was also on the bill, and where his children were almost killed too. So-called “law enforcement” enabled the horror to occur, and — in fact — I saw members of the local police and state police actually enthusiastically participate in the abominations taking place. That experience embedded itself in my blood and bones, and I buried it for decades, not talking about it even with people who I was most close to. That said, it’s always been a current running underneath all I’ve done.

I can’t go through my entire “career” as a proactive concerned citizen, but I should underscore something truly significant about the activist realm today, something I’ve experienced over the last dozen years or so. That is, that the most well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced souls have given up on the so-called Big Picture. Just about everyone is resigned to not being able to do anything on the macroscopic plane in meaningful solidarity. Look at how few writers on our alternative media outlets even give their contact information out… to get a taste of what I’m talking about here. They write their piece, they have their piece posted… and, the value of their work notwithstanding, they return to their treadmills. The same is true for the many who meet occasionally to march in circles with placards in Washington, D.C., the minions who mix it up now and then with obsolete forms of protest which come and go with no sense of hope regarding the Big Picture. No authentic interaction about their personal sense of impotency. Or, from another angle, no sense of the feebleness of the form of protest they’ve embraced.

There’s a lot of fighting the good fight going on, of course, but it’s taking place in tiny little corners, with no one and no organization effectively addressing what Derrick Jensen called the “source of the bleeding” not too long ago. He offered up that image in a Counterpunch article “Confronting Industrialism”, which had medical professionals rushing a stabbed patient into an operating room on a gurney, while the guy who stabbed the patient ran alongside the wheeled stretcher continuing to stab his victim. His point was that no one was really dealing with that source of the bleeding, the so-called madman. Which, in the final analysis, is us, and our lifestyle.

WH: Our political and civic climate here in the US seems to be disintegrating in front of our eyes. How has our social landscape become so fractured over the past 50-plus years? Also, can you explain why today’s activists, social justice groups, and protest movements are not getting through to those in power?

RO: Permit me to work backwards in responding. With regard to “not getting through to those in power,” one must acknowledge — as a very first tiny baby step in the name of participating in meaningful activism — that career politicians (by definition, too self-serving for the Collective Good) are never going to do what “protest movements” are — on bent knee, essentially — asking them to do. They are no longer built of the stuff that’s required to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean that activists shouldn’t ask. But the begging must be supplemented. Everyone is familiar, I believe, with Frederick Douglass’ mantra about power never conceding anything without a demand being made. Well, yes, demands and requests should be made. The “kicker”, though, is that these days that cannot be our primary or exclusive means for bringing about change, the radical institutional changes which are now necessary. In short, we must secure reins of vital decision-making capacity vis-a-vis our collective crises. People with heart, head and soul in a healthy place must be in the driver’s seat. Power knows “the truth”… and, though there’s value in repeating it for them, that must — now — not be one’s only contribution. Speaking truth to power is no more effective in terms of the Big Picture than having one’s head bashed in at the barricades, or participating in a candlelight vigil.

I was at Riverside Church in 1967 when Martin Luther King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. He called for a “radical restructuring of society” at that juncture, a year to the day before they killed him for crying out against what he called the three evils of poverty, racism and militarization, the latter being the main reason that they got rid of him. Well, it’s half a century later, and — on virtually all scores — things have gotten infinitely worse. The two students who stood by me at Riverside, poor kids from the South Bronx who I had gotten off the streets and got into Bronx Community College and Long Island University dropped out of school shortly after the speech for economic reasons, and were both killed in Southeast Asia in 1970. That dynamic, youngsters joining the military and parents giving their offspring over to our war abominations, not only continues fifty years down the road, it has increased immeasurably. Anything written by David Swanson, by the way, you can count on being spot on on this score.

And so… why are we still looking to the career politicians and compassionate corporate heads (that pull the power strings and scams) to be open to our getting through to them? Prestigious UCSC is in my backyard in Santa Cruz County, California, and I can tell you definitively that they and their counterparts nationwide — having been taken over by corporations — have a helluva lot to do with our continuing to compound such ignorance with ignorance. Henry Giroux is worthwhile on this count.

Cabrillo College is very close to where I presently live. If you go onto campus there you’ll find a bust near the Quad of MLK. The caption under his head says something about him being a fighter for civil rights, but says nothing about his stance against our military abominations or their relationship to poverty and racism. Well, our “social landscape” — to a great extent — has been shaped by our institutions of so-called higher education, and when our mainstream media outlets confirm all the misconceptions that are taught in those hallowed halls… well, our political and civic disintegration could be said to be, in part, a function of such dynamics. I mean, is there anyone out there who doesn’t get that corporations are calling the shots with our mainstream media outlets?

In middle schools and high schools — public ones and the charter variety — all still think that a student reading daily, say, The New York Times represents quite an advance. Well, it’s great to encourage reading, but there’s no critical thinking going on among the educators who are compounding ignorance with ignorance among their students by shilling for such tripe. What one gets from the Washington Post and its first cousins with the way such publications are handled does more damage than good. Way more.  And, please, I’m not foul-mouthing a particular publication here. Rather, I’m saying that ALL our common sources of news — the ones most prized in Santa Cruz High School and Stanford University (and their East Coast and Midwest counterparts) are contributing to what you’re calling our fracturing.

WH: Let’s talk about your proposal for your home state, which you call Transforming our State of California (TOSCA). How would it work?

RO:  First of all I want to underscore that — by design — whatever I spell out here in public is not the whole kit and caboodle. One of the huge problems these days in the activist realm is that groups which have something they’re keen on immediately pick up megaphones and make use of social media to tell the powers that be exactly what they intend to do (in full)… and where and when. The “element of surprise” is dispensed with completely with 98% of our activism. Aside from that, though, another reason for intentionally holding back on select nuts and bolts is that providing a telegraphic sound bite inevitably makes red flags spring up for everyone. This or that mentioned on the fly — condensed — begs for in-depth Q&A. And that’s what I’m seeking in agreeing to do this interview.

In short, however, I want to help ordinary citizens (not people interested in a career in politics) secure significant reins of vital decision-making power in California (or any state or country). ASAP. In  the so-called Golden State that means, securing the Sacred Seat of Sacramento, the gubernatorial office. I want the person who is elected to campaign — essentially — on a zero budget. And I want that person — at the very beginning of her/his political campaign — to make it clear to the voting public that — if elected — he/she will serve on an equal basis with eleven other “ordinary” citizens. Meaning, the governor would have one vote out of twelve as the gubernatorial coalition made decisions respecting our collective crises. And all interaction related to our collective crises, among members of the gubernatorial coalition, and between them and lobbyists et alia, would be totally TRANSPARENT. In addition, I want to have the gubernatorial coalition (with top alternative/advocacy journalists) provide “the news” for the Golden State (and beyond) — early on, via their own media outlet — with the idea, in part, of replacing our mainstream media outlets for the general public. This latter point is crucially important for the governor to be able to walk concerned citizens through the necessary direct action steps required to bring about personal transformations and the radical restructuring of society… which petitions to the powers that be will never achieve, as things stand. Please note that I’m not talking about an executive leader with a cabinet at work. I’m talking about what people no longer believe in: Something new under the Sun. I ride on Rocinante all day long.

WH: In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed absolute horrors, from Baghdad, to Orlando, Istanbul, Dallas, and now, Baton Rouge. Also, police killings and brutality against minorities is continuing unabated. How can we fight the terror and counter-terror of the corporate state, which is turning the world into a killing field? And how can a movement like TOSCA lead us to the Promised Land?

RO: It’s necessary to deal — first — with the apathy, cynicism, resignation, ignorance, complicity, bad habits and the inclination to (increasingly) live atomized lives. Among both the general public, and within the ranks of proactive concerned citizens (with their high tech gadgets in hand) To do that, it will be necessary to provide unprecedented inspiration with a singular stirring up of the creative juices of one and all. And that can’t be done with a book or posting or through any presentation taking place on the lecture circuit.

There needs to be an undermining of the myth that money is necessary to secure influential power, so that people can embrace the notion that they can pull off the miracles now necessary without the fruits of Moloch. Without money. Miracles don’t require money, they demand something else. And so… by achieving the miracle I’m proposing vis-a-vis the Sacred Seat of Sacramento without money (HOW having to be another discussion at another time in confidence), the gubernatorial coalition (represented by the governor who has heart, head and soul in an authentically healthy place) can inspire common folks, help them to rise above the psychological and spiritual hole they’ve dug for themselves. Such a sweet soul could help one and all to self-educate and walk them through the steps necessary to “influence” the gangster politicians to pass the appropriate legislation down the line… by encouraging unprecedented direct action. Nothing now will be accomplished which is worth the heartbeats without blending unique direct action with the electoral effort I’m advocating… in a way that the world has not witnessed to date. And this, again, is part of the reason why I’m not delineating all the nooks and crannies of TOSCA here. By the way, TOSCA is just a working title of sorts. I’ve been tweaking it with lots of grassroots input over the last decade plus, and — not too long ago — some local Hip Hop activists recommended that I use 12 Citizens instead. I know that that resonates with you, Will, and it’s fine and dandy with me; the number twelve has all sorts of wonderful references.

The members of the gubernatorial coalition could literally get on their knees and beg out loud in public for forgiveness for what they’ve been complicit in, what we’ve all contributed to. Which is something Hollande should be doing at this very moment with the victims in France, and, arguably, more importantly, with a message to the victims of France these days. The TOSCA/12 Citizens governor could make it very, very clear on her or his own media outlet that such apologies are absolutely necessary for starters. That owning the past that one is complicit in — something career politicians can never do — is essential to taking Step Number Two, which has to do with stopping the killing, as per the pleas of the late Daniel Berrigan. Which translates in my Golden State into the gubernatorial coalition making sure that animal torture on UC campuses is terminated. That the University of California’s relationship to Lawrence Livermore Labs is seriously undermined. That, perhaps, the BDS Movement be given a shot of adrenaline. And on that latter note, why do students continue to beg the Head of the Regents to do the right thing when they could be the Head of the UC Regents? The Regents appoint the President of UC, you know.

I should insert here that I’m citing UC-related matters because the governor of the state — as Head of the Regents of the UC system — can unilaterally and virtually overnight transform life throughout California. Athough he/she has to vote along with other members of the Regents by law, in terms of de facto influence as Head of the Regents, the Governor could actually create a watershed in history on UC’s 26 campuses. I could give you a list of what could be done unilaterally (and post haste) if you want (which would include being able to serve the homeless in historic fashion), but perhaps I should underscore instead what could be done in an off-of-the-campus context. I’ll give one monumentally important example. The Guv can — without as much as even having a conversation with the gangster legislators who are only into self-serving action — pardon thousands of the incarcerated. Virtually overnight. Using any one of a number of approaches to pull that off without a hitch. And in doing so he/she would be reinvigorating the lives of the presently incarcerated souls, and — simultaneously — doing so for their loved ones while inspiring the members of all their communities throughout the state to embrace a Don Quixote attitude about what is possible. Getting everyone onto Rocinante.

The Executive of the State of California could — for the first time in history — call a shovel a shovel. It’s particularly important to do so when that shovel is being used to bury one with. And that would mean being very clear about how rotten U.S. politics and culture is at its very core. The terror sponsored and inspired by the corporate state can only be countered by radically restructuring society as per the pleas of MLK. And that really means revolution. The business of taking over the Sacred Seat of Sacramento to do so is motivated by my desire to have that “revolution” be as nonviolent as possible. The leader of California would have a shot — having secured the gubernatorial office on a zero budget — of grabbing and maintaining public attention long enough to help citizens to self-educate about what role their personal transformations must play in bringing about institutional changes. Would have enough unprecedented respect from the public to get people to (maybe) really get down with, and (maybe) get rid of the bad habits they’ve personally embraced. The ones that prop up the status quo. Runaway consumerism and waste cannot be dealt with without someone pushing the envelope on that score. To say nothing about… much more.

All of the inevitable questions which arise from my saying what I’ve just said beg to be addressed leisurely, not on the run. The red flags and points which people will tend to be dismissive with out of hand must be talked about in great depth, and that’s absolutely essential. None of this can be accepted or rejected wisely or legitimately unless a discussion of what’s here gets into gear leisurely. And everyone’s on the run these days with the fighting the good fight that they’re doing in tiny, tight little corners… having given up on politics, or embracing the electoral arena in obsolete fashion. California’s going to have to be led to do something that’s tantamount to secession of a sort. For no one’s dealing with what I call our frayed cables.

Imagine our getting on to an elevator. I usually use a metaphoric eleveator to make my point, but to save time I’ll invoke a literal elevator here. We get on and we notice that someone’s on their knees in the corner on our left. And they’re wearing a t-shirt which reads Do Not Disturb. They’re feverishly fighting the good fight with their back to us, circulating a petition, calling their elected rep, maybe preparing to get arrested in some nonviolent confrontation with the police. Engaged in some obsolete form of protest which begs for a supplement.  We look to our right and we see a counterpart of that person on the left. Also on their knees with their back to us, wearing the same t-shirt. I turn to you and whisper something. I whisper because soon in this country it’ll be illegal to say what I’m going to say, and do what I’m going to do. I quietly say, “Look up.” And I point to a hole in the ceiling of the elevator. Through the ceiling you can see the cables, and — clearly — they’re frayed. Well, I can tell you definitively — and I have the documentation at home to back this next statement up — that no one in the country — no individual, no organization — is presently up on that ceiling effectively engaged in repairing those cables. No one is addressing that Big Picture. The “documentation” I speak of comes from my having interacted with well over 15,000 concerned citizens during the last dozen years nationwide. And I don’t believe anyone else in the country has come across what I’ve learned about how citizens are thinking and/or working on those cables. Regardless, I’d like the chance to share what’s been so instructive for me. See, what I’m trying to do — bottom line — is to get a handful of proactive citizens to come to the center of the elevator so that we can climb on one another’s shoulders to simply have a chance at dealing with those frayed cables. I haven’t been approaching people as if I have THE answer. Rather, I’ve been all about merely wanting us to have a shot at repairing the cables before it’s too late. And the first step in doing so has to be an acknowledgement about the fact that no one’s up there. There’s no need for everyone to take time out from their tiny little corners. Just a select few who can do it; some people are locked into very necessary work in those corners. I’m already actually on a few shoulders (of people from my past, like Lorraine Hansberry, Jimmy Baldwin, Iris Chang, Adrienne Rich and Howard Zinn) already, and it wouldn’t take many more to make it possible for someone to get up there.

WH: Can you comment more on most of today’s activists, who can be categorized as “reformers” and “progressives”? Most of whom quite simply want to advance social well-being, but do not see the connection to the industrial-corporate state, which must be dismantled for revolutionary change to occur. Which is to say, even if you get that $15 an hour wage, or end homelessness, or kick Halliburton out of one country, those actions will not cut it in today’s interconnected world. You speak wisely about the need to stop working in tiny corners, while no one is seeing the Big Picture. The train has no conductor, and our civilization is headed for a precipice. Can you expand on that?

RO: See, the challenge is this. Someone can lead by having the public change from one brand of toothpaste to another, but what’s needed is tantamount to getting folks to stop brushing their teeth. No one’s slated to do something that’s not in vogue, as things stand.

To bounce off of a chess analogy, the task is not to replace a white rook with a red one, or to substitute a black bishop with a — forgive the pun! — a green piece. Our collective challenge would be to upend the uneven, toxic game board on which we’re being played (on which we’ve been splayed forever), and to do so legally and nonviolently. The pieces, then, would be picked up — ideally — by “ordinary” folks, and placed back onto a brand new board as they see fit. That’s what’s called revolution. Radical change.

It seems the height of insanity for, say, a local organic farmer being content with being exclusively engaged in carving out inroads to grow healthy produce, distribute food nearby regularly, offer some products gratis and/or fighting for proper organic standards with legislators (and helping the public to self-educate about their diets). To not be engaged whatsoever in proactively/directly dealing also with matters like nuclear waste storage, nuclear weapons proliferation, incompetency with regard to nuclear-related control, and the increase in money spent for nuclear reactors, or the ongoing operation of dated nuclear facilities. Any citizen who’s not involved to some degree with addressing such matters — and there are many such matters to deal with, of course — is either not being clear-headed about what’s happening, or having no clarity on what’s headed our way. Kind of like my lovely first born who’s living in New York near Indian Point.

Or — perhaps — not having compassion for the future of children and all of Mother Earth’s lovely creatures. That organic farmer I invoked is not just subject to the horrors being perpetrated by neighbors embracing Monsanto’s products. He/she is also an increasingly likely victim of nuclear holocaust courtesy of NATO. Tiny little corners won’t cut it anymore. Feeling personally good about oneself, and fighting the good fight as per one’s personal passions is no longer enough. The Great American Mantra of Do Your Own Thing has absolutely infected the entire realm of activism. Joseph Campbell would turn over in his grave, I believe, if he knew how his Follow Your Passion had played out down the line.

One wouldn’t want to support someone in WWII Germany who was, say, fighting for having a moratorium on the use of gas chambers for gypsies in 1943 exclusively. Or which was only focused on giving a year’s reprieve to the jews or homosexuals. And yet in Santa Barbara there are lots of well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced concerned citizens spending their activist heartbeats on the agenda of the A Year Without War. It’s a well-meaning organization, just like the organic farmer is likely a sweet, hard-working soul. But none of that expenditure of time and energy is enough now. Anyone who doesn’t see the need for new collective action on the macroscopic plane vis-a-vis the potential of pandemics, nuclear dynamics, climate change and medical access/cost/quality — to name only four of four hundred crises plus — simply isn’t paying attention. The only problem with saving the world is expecting someone else to do it. Well, right now no one’s doing it. And a fresh paradigm for doing so is being begged for.

WH: You often bring up Derrick Jensen with me, an amazing author and ecological thinker. As he and others have pointed out, the domination of man over man is intimately connected with the idea of man’s superiority over nature. For an egalitarian culture to flourish, respect for the non-human world must increase immensely and unconditionally. Can you address the suffering, the loss, the sense of grief many of us bury and repress, that comes with the environmental and social devastation our culture produces? How can we stop, as you say, “compounding ignorance with ignorance”?

RO: Derrick Jensen’s new book (The Myth of Human Supremacy) should be read, by the way. All of what he puts on the table for our kind consideration should, whether or not we agree with every nut and bolt he uses to put together his passionate pleas in his many articles, books and speeches. And I say the same respecting Noam Chomsky. His new Who Rules the World? provides enough for anyone to get busy with moving in solidarity along effective lines. In addressing environmental issues in that work, he underscores that the only folks who are really getting down with what must be done to deal with the powers that be and the horrid momentum they’ve created by having citizens embrace abominable habits and maintaining exclusive control on decision-making are indigenous people.

Once one tunes into exactly what indigenous folks are doing these days to fight, say, extraction of fossil fuels, it’s clear that Noam is tactfully touching upon the need for revolution. Indigenous people, typically, are infinitely more in touch with Mother Nature than the vast majority of U.S. citizens. The reasons for that are multiple, and we need not beat that horse to death right now, I think. Rather, our focus should be on the fact that each of us must start on a very personal note here. How can we do this? How can we do that in solidarity? How about starting with the injunction of Rilke’s (from “Archaic Torso of Apollo”) which goes, “You must change your life.”

A non-politician governor could help citizens immeasurably respecting that monumental challenge potentially. The right person pushing the individual and collective envelope would give people a chance at least of being motivated to go out of their firmly ensconced personal comfort zones… which no politician ever gets into. And — at the same time — send positive ripples nationwide and worldwide concerning exactly what’s needed to blend with Mother Nature and to not go over the precipice. It’s not even being talked about presently in any way that is slated to translate into action. People say, Be the Change You Want. And they say this and that.  But they’re missing the Big Picture of what’s happening and not happening with the frayed cables. There’s talk talk, not walk talk, for the most part. And the walking the walk that is taking place is moving at the pace of an arthritic snail with no real sense of deadlines and/or with no potential for delivering the knockout we need. We have to floor the powers that be. We are in a toxic ring with them, and they won’t let us out. The fight as it’s being waged must end. But most of our activist pugilists have given up on securing a new venue.

WH: Why is TOSCA better poised to make an impact at the state level, than say, a new iteration of the Occupy movement, or a grand coalition of Independents, Socialists, Black Lives Matter, Greens, Libertarians, etc.?

RO: First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that no “new iteration” of Occupy is gathering steam; any form of the Occupy movement — in terms of what’s needed in the Big Picture — is presently marginalized, not moving toward securing the kind of decision-making power on any level that is slated to make a big enough difference soon enough. And there is absolutely no acknowledgement of the “deadlines” I’ve been referring to among any of the groups you’ve cited. Lots of talk is going on, but — at best — the whole kit and caboodle is involved with the application of necessary tourniquets. Much of the work that many individuals within those organizations are doing is praiseworthy and essential in this or that tiny corner. But all the folks you’ve cited are permanently marginalized respecting their being able to secure significant reins of decision-making power.

Let’s take any third party. None of them tell their members that even if their candidate for a major office (like a governor’s office in a given state) were to legitimately win sufficient votes to take office, the powers that be would undermine the victory so that that person (if they were radical along the lines I’m saying is necessary, intending to radically restructure society) would never take office. They have a Plan A, which is focused on securing a sufficient number of votes, but they don’t have the necessary Plan B in gear. Meaning, they don’t really see that the powers that be would either assassinate their candidate, or make sure that electoral fraud kicked in. They’re kind of like the non-profits that are spotlighted in Cowspiracy (fighting climate change). Those organizations — the top ten which are addressing Climate Change are intentionally not mentioning (animal-related) methane matters as a major factor in their battle. Over 50% of the problem. Why? Because they do not want to jeopardize fund raising by raising attention to the need for people to personally transform. Easier to rally folks for contributions if one is not asking them to change their diets. Calling a shovel a shovel in the electoral arena and the realm of activism may lose you members, numbers, money, but that envelope has to be pushed (along with the one that asks for financial support).

TOSCA is all about trying to secure significant reins of power on the gubernatorial level on a zero budget, so finances are not a concern whatsoever. And it has a Plan B to supplement its Plan A. Its approach is not — as is the case with the others — to secure numbers, members by bonding on a superficial/passing basis, as the vast majority of Bernie supporters did recently. As Jill Stein’s followers are doing, their wonderful intentions notwithstanding. As all participants in traditional third parties do as a rule. The “bonding” is not ever very deep, and so any movement in solidarity that’s generated comes and goes. I’m not saying that lovely seeds aren’t planted, but I am saying that what they’re planting — these groups you’ve cited — is not slated to bloom in time. Again, I’m talking about collective deadlines, which the groups you’ve cited are not acknowledging in meaningful action whatsoever. Greens will be quick to say that they are meaningfully engaged in doing something. But not a single Green nationwide has been willing to discuss that with me one-on-one without watching the clock. That dynamic — which is not just limited to the Greens — enables them to hold onto their delusion. And I invite any reps from any of the groups you’ve cited, Will, to engage with me on the score I’m spotlighting leisurely. To test the waters. To allow themselves to be truly challenged. I’m not talking about debate. I’m talking about getting down to relaxed/detailed interaction which does not include anyone judging the exchange.

The TOSCA approach is all about bonding — first — one on one. And instead of using social media to quickly secure great numbers of like-minded souls, it embraces the notion that the only way to proceed initially (in spite of the fact that we do have serious deadlines looming) is to urge someone who you bond with (over what needs to be done) to go to their loved ones, people who trust them… with the prayer that additional bonding will take place. Neither flyers nor appearances with appeals on shows, nor use of films or social networking are important means for getting the ball rolling. None of what’s usually relied upon. Mitch Hedbert, the late great comedian, once told me, “When people come up to me with a flyer, it’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, you throw this away for me!'” That’s got it’s counterpart within the realm of social media.

The apathy, resignation, cynicism, ignorance, complicity and atomized living cited earlier all preclude any “grand coalition” from coming together at present. Look at the depth of the ignorance for a moment of the Sanders campaign. Again, I’m not saying that valuable seeds weren’t planted. I’m saying that everyone should take a good hard look at how many heartbeats were spent on the four-year extravaganza which regularly distracts citizens from doing something together that must be done. The word “revolution” was bandied about cavalierly for the entire campaign, but no one still seems to get the fact that the federal level is lost to us. The offices and the agencies, everything at this juncture related to it is not worth devoting so many heartbeats to. The activist realm cannot afford to have so much time and energy focused on any presidential race. Vote, as you please, but get down (with the vast majority of your heartbeats) with others who are truly involved in bringing about a radical change.

TOSCA asks citizens to use their imaginations respecting what kind of impact securing a gubernatorial office on a zero budget would actually have. I’m riding on Rocinante with that one, I know. But what’s the alternative? To shoot for what people refer to as realistic? In every quarter — including the engaged realms of people you cited — concerned citizens are embracing dated approaches. We need to transform our “state” as we engage in citizen action in solidarity. Meaning, both our psychological and spiritual states must be dealt with as we address the political state. In California, the acronym TOSCA could translate as Transforming Our State of California. Or, from another perspective, Taking Over Our State of California. To secede from the so-called Union. Not to “take over” a public place as per activism that’s in vogue. Take over The Commons permanently. The groups you cited all believe that it’s still possible to be part of the U.S. and be morally and spiritually okay. It is not. We are embedded in something which is rotten to the core. And the celebrities in all quarters who serve as models for our youth are whores. I’m rhyming here to drive home the note that we have to call a shovel a shovel on many levels. Which we are not doing, except with marginalized activist talk talk in tiny corners. It amounts to mental masturbation in groups.

WH: What a novel idea, using our imaginations! It’s all we have, after all! Here’s the thing. Political imagination, converted into action, seems to require a collective scene of artists, workers, and intellectuals, who are informed about history, radical theory, charity for the poor, and world solidarity. This is missing in the frontier, barbaric ethos of US political thought. In Germany Bassam Tibi uses the term “Leitkultur”, which can translate into “leading culture”, or “core culture”. This entails a high European sociological worldview, with respect to human rights, democracy, secularism, universal values, etc. In France, to cite one example, it was the political imagination of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and later the Situationists who opened the world up to new possibilities of social organization. Is it realistic that a movement like what you propose can take hold here in the US, with such flimsy cultural roots?

RO: Yes, even though the culture and the politics here are abominable, imaginations can be stirred up, tapped into. Your wondering how that might be possible, I believe, has to do with being on automatic about numbers. Everyone jumps (prematurely) to a concern about securing the participation of a critical mass when they discuss making a difference in either the electoral arena or the realm of direct action. That’s a huge, common death knell of a mistake. A mental deal breaker, if you will. Meaning, again, the way to proceed has to be one-on-one initially. Contrast that contact with how activists go about stirring up movement in solidarity right now. Let’s get a crowd together that feels abused and scream bootless cries! [Only, exclusively.]

Use your imagination respecting viable options for embracing the more intimate approach. Yes, all is not lost. But how one secures the intimate interaction is daunting; it will require knocking on doors incessantly; standing outside with infinite patience. Meaning, what a given activist will have to go through to come across a single soul who’s open to such exploration will demand many heartbeats. The hopeful note to hang on to, I believe, is that once a core group comes together miracles can be performed. Think of what a handful of women accomplished on that hot summer day in 19th-century upstate New York. With numbers and delusions of all kinds aligned against them.

Regarding imagination, when I ask people to imagine what the impact would be of securing a gubernatorial office on a zero budget, they go blank on me, as a rule. Or they take what I’m throwing out as a red flag, and they prematurely dismiss TOSCA/12 Citizens out of hand. They can’t handle, it seems, being asked to imagine how things could be different with such a new ingredient injected into the activist mix. And tackling that challenge is the kind of thing activists have to get down with, the reality presented by each and every concerned citizen they encounter. Working with that… paying close attention — like a curious child (without answers) — to what emerges from the intimacy. Not being concerned, at first, with numbers. Not embracing cookie cutter ways of proceeding. Preparing for the next meeting in a hurry, harried with flyers in hand.

The documentary Inshallah, Kashmir has a shot of a broken down schoolhouse which has a beautiful set of words scrawled on its crumbling outside walls: Children are God’s way of telling us He hasn’t given up on us. Something like that. That’s what we have to lock into as we engage with one another now, next. The child in one another who has — embedded in his soul — the new paradigm which begs to be implemented. THE answer. I conclude by quoting from E.E. Cummings’ “Children guessed, but only a few, and down they forgot as up they grew.” Something like that. Something far from what adults are practicing. Something that might look lyrical to the likes of little ones. Standing at the opposite end of the spectrum from the end-of-the-world thinking and actions of prosaic adults.

WH: How can interested souls reading this learn more about TOSCA, take action, and get involved?

RO: They can write to aptosnews@gmail.com. And I do hope that someone does. And soon. For we are documenting, debating, demonstrating, diverting and delaying ourselves to death in lieu of doing something new in solidarity that stands to make a big enough difference in time, as one of my home schooled youngsters  has said. I almost didn’t agree to do this interview because of that dynamic, but I’m glad I took advantage of this opportunity. Those who are sensitive to our being the United States of Abominations understand that they are surrounded by bullies in the playground. Bullies, partially blind people and — for the most part — folks fussing about themselves in the mirrors they hold (most dear to their hearts). This interview should be taken as an invitation to rendezvous to create the watershed in history which will enable us to have fun in the playground once again.

William Hawes

is a writer specializing in politics and the environment. You can find his e-book of collected essays here. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, and Dissident Voice. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com

Social Justice…or Revolution?

This is the third essay in a series on the Death of Liberal Democracy

In the previous essay in this series, we looked at Liberal Democracy’s inherent violence through the State and our intimate identification with that violence. The execution of two Black men in the United States this last week unfortunately provide poignant examples of that violence.

Such things aren’t supposed to happen within Liberal Democracies, and yet they do. Worse, as Liberal Democracies begin to fail, violence against the oppressed only increases, as well as the deep divisions over its justifications.

Because our understanding of violence is always subjective, whether or not the State killing of Black men is ‘justified’ depends on whether or not we identify more with the victims of that violence, or with the State (and its values, and its agents). A Capitalist is more likely to defend the State’s actions than will those whom they exploit, because police don’t exist to keep Capitalists (most of them white) in line.

In such events, the veneer of Liberal Democracy cracks and fall off, showing something much darker—and much more violent—underneath. And like any other disillusionment, we experience the apparent short-circuit of the mythic and the real of Liberal Democracy as a kind of trauma, one our minds scramble furiously to repair.

Religion is a good parallel. When we experience a crisis of faith, particularly related to the Divine, we have two options. The first is to stare deeply into the sudden Abyss which has opened up, the chasm between what we believed was true—what we shaped our lives around—and what we now see as true.

But that’s really hard, so many opt for the second option: dig in our heels, insist that what we thought was true still is and cling harder to the external rituals of that belief until the doubts and questions go away.

They don’t, of course. And that trauma re-asserts itself in bizarre behaviour, and can produce both fanaticism and fundamentalism.

Relationships are another place where this happens. When you discover that the love you shared with another is no longer there–that you or the person(s) you loved no longer feel love for each other–you again have two options. You can begin the really difficult and painful process of unraveling your relationship, staring deeply into the Abyss of sorrow, loneliness, and separation.

Or, you can pretend nothing is wrong, try harder, and hope love comes back.

In each case, both choices are very, very human. No forsaken lover can really be blamed for their denial. No true believer can be faulted for their desire to return to a more innocent belief. And none of us should feel shame that we’ve clung so long to the myths of Liberal Democracy, even as we learn how violent and destructive it is.

Unfortunately, denial causes more harm than acceptance. The lover who ‘won’t let go’ sinks deeper into misery and unhappyness, worsening the tensions in the relationship. They can become controlling and abusive, blaming the other for their refusal to love. The believer who refuses to embrace the new truth misses the beauty of a deeper relationship to the Divine and may attack others for their ‘impiety,’ sometimes resorting to violence

But what about those who cling to the myth of Liberal Democracy? Who, though they’ve seen the very violence at its core, refuse to admit it and instead try to ‘fix it?’

We need to have a talk.

Utopian Socialism & Social Justice

Cave gate

When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they were not the first to criticize Capitalism and the State. They also were not just attacking Capitalism, but a rival ideology which promised more than it could ever deliver: Utopian Socialism.

Utopian Socialists criticized many of the same problems as Communists and Anarchists in the 18th and 19th century. But rather than advocate an overthrow of the State and a seizure of the factories from their owners (‘the means of production’), they thought that Liberal Democratic governments could be reformed through education and enlightenment. With enough time and effort, they reasoned, Capital would become less violent, wealth would become more equitably shared, and class and race divisions would eventually just fade away.

To get to such a point, Utopian Socialists tried to educate the masses on right behaviour. They reasoned that most of the problems of society came from ignorance, and if people only understood how their actions hurt others (including the actions of rulers and Capitalists), humanity would eventually become free and peaceful. In essence, once enough people changed their morals—replacing hate with tolerance, altruism for greed, solidarity for individualism—we would finally become equal.

Marx and Engels disagreed.

The primary argument against Utopian Socialism, from both Anarchists and Communists, was that the State would never relinquish power willingly. More so, the State existed to do the bidding of the Capitalists; without revolt, no amount of incremental change would ever suffice, because Capitalists always exert more power through their wealth.

If Utopian Socialism sounds a little familiar, it should. It never actually went away, but has taken many new names for itself. In the United States, for example, it’s been known as Progressivism. In many European countries, it’s called Democratic Socialism. And in most English-speaking countries in the world now, it’s called Social Justice.

And it’s failed.

The Limits of Social Justice

Like Utopian Socialism, Social Justice attempts to educate the masses on the causes and results of inequality in order to eradicate it. They believe that, once people understand that they are being racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-phobic, trans-phobic, misogynist, privileged, ableist, colonialist, white, classist, xenophobic, nationalist, and elitist, they will eventually stop.

By educating the masses about these things, Social Justice then aims to transform society into something more fair and just. If enough people understand these problems and seek to fix them, they can then transform the institutions (including the State) that benefit from these ills into something that will uphold equality.

There is a problem, of course: for as many people who embrace Social Justice and attempt to adjust their actions, there are more people who answer such complaints with, “no. I’m not.”

More so, those who wish to continue their behavior have all sorts of arguments in their defense. A person who does not want to be around trans people, for instance, may invoke religion (be it Christian Fundamentalism or Dianic Witchcraft), or safety, or the right to choose whom they associate with. An institution that believes same-sex relationships are immoral might likewise invoke ‘religious freedom’ as a defense.

In fact, Social Justice is a double-edged blade. New Right Heathen and polytheist theorists invoke the same arguments used to defend indigenous, First Nations, and other oppressed peoples to defend their own oppressive ideologies. Stephen McNallen and his fellow racists, for instance, insist that their ‘indigenous European culture’ deserves the same protections as others, and thus they should be able to exclude people of non-European descent from their groups.

While this may seem like a mere cynical attempt to hijack Social Justice language, it isn’t. The morality inherent to Social Justice is subjective and not actually part of its framework; people with opposing moral views can easily use the same framework.

There’s a long explanation for this, but here’s the short version: since Social Justice does not directly attack the foundations of inequality (Capitalism and the State), the original goal no longer matters. Once untethered from that goal, it becomes like a religion empty of its gods, or a relationship where love has died.

To understand more how this happened, we need to look more at Social Justice and its relationship to the State and Capital.

Social Justice and the Capitalist State

Pyramid-of-Capitalist-System

Neither Utopian Socialism nor Social Justice rely on education as the sole means of affecting social change. Instead, both attempt to increase the rights recognised and granted by the State in order to increase equality and enshrine a more just morality. Protections for disabled people, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime legislation and social welfare programs are all strategies used to correct inequalities within Liberal Democracy and move towards a more just and equal society.

The problem? This strategy requires a violent and powerful State.

As described in the ‘social contract’ which Hobbes outlines in Leviathan, Liberal Democracies offer rights and protections to their citizens in return for the consent to rule. Those rights are then guaranteed and enforced through State violence, whether through the judicial system or military and police actions.

Unfortunately, using the apparatus of the State (and its violence) to create the sort of equality that the Social Justice framework demands gives more legitimacy to the State. The State then becomes empowered to use its violence (be that direct or indirect) to enact the will of the people in cases of discrimination, punishing individuals and businesses who, for instance, refuse to cater gay weddings, provide accommodations for wheelchair users, or hire Black people.

I use those three examples for a reason, as each involves Capitalism. First, though, let’s be clear:

Each of those scenarios are sites of inequality—no Marxist, Anarchist, or Social Justice advocate would disagree here.

We should also dismantle the Free Market/libertarian argument against such interventions, which asserts government should not interfere with the demands of Capitalism. This argument insists that the Market should decide whether the actions of those businesses are just, rather than the State. For them, The Market serves as a proxy for the divine mandate of the people. They reason that businesses which discriminate against others would fail because of loss of profit, and thus Capitalists would thus be more ‘moral’ out of self-interest.

Besides relying on religious faith in the Market, this argument also ignores the power (including State power) that Capitalists have over those without Capital. Most laws within Liberal Democracy exist to protect property and business, and the police exist to enforce these. That is, the Capitalist already wields State power, and isn’t eager to see this challenged.

Social Justice doesn’t question State power. Instead, when moral arguments regarding tolerance and acceptance fail to correct oppression, Social Justice demands that the State intervene. This State intervention does work, as least for a little while (as in desegregation in the American South, hate-crime laws in most Liberal Democracies, etc.). Unfortunately, by demanding these guarantees of rights (and the punishment of those who violate them), Social Justice empowers the State to enact more violence.

Thus, the police who arrest perpetrators of hate crimes are also police who kill Black men during traffic stops, the same courts which try cases of discrimination also prosecute homeless people for vagrancy. The State becomes more powerful through our reliance on it, and we find ourselves in a tug-of-war over control of State violence. We can’t win, because the State cannot exist without the Capitalists who fund it. As Audre Lorde pointed out:

…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

Capital has its own logic, one that transcends and transforms the values of the individual Capitalist. Capital’s primary demand is profit, and in order to profit, the Capitalist must exploit others. Capitalists must employ others to work for them at wages lower than the amount they sell the results of that labor for. In order to maintain this relationship of economic exploitation, there must also be hierarchy, with the owner(s) at the top and the workers at the bottom.

Hierarchy and exploitation spread throughout all other relations within Capitalist societies. Your boss is never ‘your equal,’ because your boss will always have more Authority (and money!) than you. Further, the boss must be able to maintain inequality in order to profit. As a result, even the most anti-racist and pro-Social Justice Capitalist can find themselves employing State violence to protect their Capital, calling the police when a homeless, Black, or other poor person steals from them.

Expand this use of State violence from the individual small Capitalist to an entire society, and you can see how the interests of Capital oppose the goals of equality espoused by Social Justice.

But without attacking Capital, Social Justice can only rely on the same State as the Capitalist in order to repair the damage Capitalism causes. Welfare, affirmative action, housing assistance, education grants—all these exist to lessen the damage of Capitalism, but none of them ever succeed in create equality precisely because Capitalism always requires inequality to function.

Also, everything the State does (including welfare, etc.) is paid for by taxation. The only way for the State to derive enough taxes to fund these programs is to have a thriving economy, with Capitalists reaping enough profits to bear the burden of taxation. Thus, the State is used both to fix the problems caused by Capitalism while also encouraging more Capitalism, with one hand repairing only some of the damage that it causes with the other hand.

Unfortunately, Social Justice enables this process.

Social Justice has also relied on the support of Capitalists in order to fight inequality. While recognition of gay partnerships and increased access for disabled people by large corporations is certainly a good thing, the ‘victories’ of such support then replace the criticism of the corporations themselves and enable those Capitalists to exploit others without question. Worst of all, it then creates a new dynamic of identity politics which both State and Capital are very good at exploiting.

Identity Politics and the Exploitation of the World

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Father carrying dead daughter after bombing by Liberal Democracies, Iraq 2004
The United States Military recently joined the rest of the ‘civilized world’ (that is, Liberal Democracies) by allowing homosexuals to ‘serve’ openly and women to ‘serve’ in combat. It was hailed as a victory for Social Justice and equality by many gays and Feminists, seen as progress and the victory of tolerance over inequality.

An Arab woman who loses her children and husband to the bullets of an American lesbian soldier probably won’t see this as a victory of equality.

If this sounds harsh, good. We must be harsh in order to cut through the manipulation of our identities by the State.

During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many gay men and feminists called for support of these military actions on behalf of the gays and women in those countries, employing a narrative of Liberal Democracy versus the uncivilized (i.e.; Muslim) world. That same narrative repeats today—calls for stricter policies against immigrants to protect gays and women (especially after the Orlando massacre), relentlessly recycled news stories on the slaughter of gays by Daesh, calls by polytheists for the US military to send more troops to the Iraq to support Yezidis and stop the destruction of ancient sacred sites.

In all those cases, identity becomes a weapon of the Liberal Democratic State to gain consent for more violence, more conquest, more slaughter.

By refusing to attack the State and Capital directly and instead focusing on incremental change, Social Justice fails to challenge the global inequality of Liberal Democracy. As a result, we find ourselves as women fighting for equal pay from corporations which employ near-slave labor of other women, gays celebrating the ‘right’ to become soldiers in imperialist wars and killing other gays, and many other contradictory positions which Liberal Democracy is happy to exploit.

This isn’t to say that multiple inequalities cannot be fought at once. But because Social Justice doesn’t challenge Capital and relies on the State to achieve its goals, it helps the State turn our identity against us and make us complicit in the very exploitation it enacts.

Was this the intention of Social Justice? No. But it is its fatal flaw, and why it cannot liberate any of us.

And for each new right and protection gained by a minority in a Liberal Democracy, we become hostages to the State.

Moralism versus Revolution

CC Gerry Lauzon
CC Gerry Lauzon

The goals of Social Justice are good goals, but they cannot be accomplished without dismantling Liberal Democracy. And therein’s the problem, because if Liberal Democracy falls, the rights, protections, guarantees, and equality gained through Social Justice are directly threatened.

Thus, we cannot challenge its violent core because we rely on that State for our protection, and we fear what may come after.

It’s for this reason so many people in the U.K are terrified of what will come after Brexit, and they should be. It’s for this reason so many people in the United States are terrified of how much more violence there will be against Blacks and other minorities if the State is led by the next likely president.

And in the United States as I write, more Black men have been killed by agents of the State. Protests are arising everywhere, but some of the narrative has finally begun to shift away from the Social Justice framework.

This is a very good sign.

For decades, the primary tactic to address police slaughter of Black people has been to demand better training and education of police, as well as arrest and conviction of the police officers. The hope has been that police needed only more morality and more checks on their power in order not to be so violent.

Such a strategy ignores the role of police as agents of State violence, aiming instead to correct an apparent malfunction of an otherwise necessary machine This strategy has failed, and not because the millions of people who have protested against these deaths and demanded accountability didn’t try.

The system isn’t malfunctioning at all—it’s working precisely as it is supposed to.

Black people are criminalized in the United States not because Americans haven’t adopted the right morality, but because police exist to enforce the will of the State and the Capitalists who support it. The system oppresses Black people because it needs to.

If Black people were ever truly granted full equality under Liberal Democracy, if Racism were ever to fade away, Capitalism would go into crisis. Racial difference keeps the poor fighting each other rather than fighting the wealthy; as long as Blacks are considered dangerous and less worthy of life than whites, the white poor and working class will stay on the side of the white Capitalists and white State.

The same is true for immigrants, particularly in Europe. If European-born workers and immigrant workers were ever to unite, no amount of State violence could ever protect the Capitalist.

Because Social Justice fights only the symptoms of Capitalism, because it attempts to change society through morality and State power, it plays perfectly into the hands of Liberal Democracy. White heterosexual cis-males are definitely privileged by most Liberal Democracies; unfortunately, by attacking their privilege we cannot actually eradicate the source. Privilege doesn’t derive from those, it derives from the State, and the State is more than eager to grant out piecemeal rights and privileges in return for our embrace of the Liberal Democratic State.

As in South Africa under Apartheid, Liberal Democracies are founded upon unequal relations. Whites there enjoyed immense benefits and wealth at the expense of the majority Black population, and even those who believed Apartheid was immoral still feared what might come after. Would the oppressed Blacks rise up and slaughter all the whites? Would the Blacks in turn do the exact same things to whites as was done to them?

Because of the Truth&Reconciliation movement, the feared massacre didn’t happen. But South Africa was not a massive imperial power, exploiting millions outside of its borders, extracting their wealth and bombing their villages to pieces. The same cannot be said of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, or any of the other large Liberal Democracies. If the oppressed people within those countries don’t rise up, there are many more outside waiting to demand justice, too.

In each of these countries, the promise of an eventual equal society has proven false. Equality is impossible under Capitalism, and even as we in those countries try to gain more rights, we help Liberal Democracy destroy the lives of others.

Besides, decades and centuries of struggle to gain equality for minorities are now becoming reversed, and the State is increasing its violence: both abroad with its endless wars in oil-rich nations and within its borders against Blacks and immigrants, dissidents and the poor.

Liberal Democracy is dying, and Social Justice can’t fix it.

Moving On From Social Justice

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For most who cling to the Social Justice framework, I’m not really telling you anything new.

We already knew this. We’ve known this for awhile, but have been in denial. Like noticing that love no longer leaps between ourselves and a partner, we’ve not quite wanted to admit it. Like when we have a crisis of faith, we haven’t been quite certain what to do next.

It’s okay. We’re human.

But it’s time to move on. We need to look into that Abyss waiting for us. Just like clinging too long to a lover who no longer loves us, just like holding too tightly to the forms of a religion long after it becomes false, insisting that Liberal Democracy can be reformed will only cause more damage, more hurt, more sorrow.

Not moving on from the promise of Social Justice is already making us awful. Just like the religious person who tries to rekindle their lost faith by blaming infidels, we can find ourselves crippled by blaming other people’s privilege for our inability to act. And just as the lover in denial may begin to hate the person they once loved, we can find ourselves hating the very people who want to build an equal society with us.

And in both cases, the greatest loss is our own magic, our own power. The faith we once had can be had again, but this time not built on illusion and priests who knew no more about the divine than we do. The love which drove us to want to change the world will not die, but we will find a new way of loving that can last.

We can do this, and we must do it soon. We’re not the only ones noticing Liberal Democracy is dying.

And they’re more prepared than we are.

Next: The Resurgence of the Fascist Right


Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_c8489ee1-3139-487c-92b9-271ba38254daRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 

Rhyd Wildermuth’s essay, “We Are The Rude,” is featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

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Nature Religions and Revolutionary Social Change: Advancing a Practical Theology for Spiritual Activism

Introduction

By far the greatest challenges that humanity has ever confronted are global climate change and the other environmental problems created by modern industrial civilization. Monthly the news seems to get worse as we learn that the ecological crisis is far bigger than we first thought and the time left before we face a potential environmental collapse is far shorter. Some well-informed researchers say that it is already too late to avoid catastrophic destruction of civilization or to “save the planet.”

Joanna Macy, a prominent Buddhist eco-activist, labels our current era “The Great Turning” because it can be a period of transition from the old industrial system, which must be brought to an end, and the new sustainable system, which must emerge very soon.1 As she notes, the Earth is both the storehouse and the sewer for our industrial economy, which depends on an ever-increasing consumption of resources. The Great Turning is an ecological revolution which must happen within a few years and which must involve not just our political economic system, but also the values and habits which enable it.

Albert Einstein is often attributed as stating that: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”2 To reach a sustainable society will require a vastly different worldview, a different psychological comportment and a higher level of consciousness than that which we currently have, and therefore we also require a cognitive, perceptual and spiritual revolution. Specifically, we must awaken to our spiritual connections to other living beings and to our planet, re-think the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization and eliminate the materialist mindset and radical individualism which so often guide our lives.

Some readers might query: “Spiritual revolution? Really? Must we bring matters of ‘spirit’ into our struggles to deal with climate change?” While it is not impossible for those who are secular to achieve an ecological consciousness, humans seem to naturally distinguish between that which is sacred and that which is profane. And the heart of spirituality is the development of this sense of the sacred. To say that Nature is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with reverence and respect and never violated. It is of utmost importance. It is holy and ultimate. Employing a conception of Nature as sacred can radically alter our relationship to the planet, and even if this sacralization process is built upon a leap of the imagination, this conceptualization can be a purposeful act which promotes the ecological consciousness so central to the new worldview we must cultivate.

Several years ago I began to build my personal theology and religious practice, and this essay is a part of that ongoing effort3. Given my passionate concerns for the health and integrity of our planet and my spiritual interests in developing a sense of Nature as sacred, I long ago initiated a deep examination of “Nature Religions”.4 These approaches to spirituality, which regard our natural world as inherently sacred, include some of the most ancient religions on our planet, such as those of most indigenous peoples (such as Native Americans), the classical Pagan traditions of pre-Christian Europe and their “re-birth” in the form of Wicca, Neo-Paganism and Druidry. Nature Religions include approaches that embrace belief in the supernatural (such as versions of Paganism, Wicca and Druidry, which maintain belief in transcendent deities) and naturalistic forms (such as the various forms of Religious Naturalism) which typically reject belief in the supernatural.

Many followers of Nature Religions bring an ecological consciousness to their religious sensibilities. They are reclaiming the primal story of our sacred evolving universe, of our home on planet Earth which abounds with diverse and magnificent life-forms, and of our spiritual connections to all that exists. Awareness of the boundless creativity of the cosmos has triggered a renewal of an ancient sacred vision of our natural world. Their sense of kinship with all that exists and powerful feelings of belonging nurture an ethic of caring in which humans must tread gently as they walk upon these hallowed grounds. As “Earth-centered” traditions, Nature Religions celebrate the rhythms and cycles of our world and place great importance upon protecting wilderness areas and biological diversity. For adherents to these religious approaches, the entire Universe is a “sacred living system” and its destruction is desecration.

Lately, Nature Religions have moved beyond their initial grassroots, do-it-yourself phase and are quickly becoming institutionalized. For example, the US armed services now offer Pagan Chaplains and the Cherry Hill Seminary offers M. Div. degrees in both Pagan and Naturalistic approaches. Academic conferences, textbook materials, and well-developed liturgies and theological reflections all provide evidence of formalization and professionalization process.

Institutional religions tend to come in four varieties—reactionary, conservative, progressive and revolutionary. Reactionaries claim to have The One Right Way, tolerate no questioning of their take on scriptural truth and often advocate the return to a theocracy in which their one true religion will rule. Conservatives are comfortable with the faith of their fathers, draw strength within the protective walls of their synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples and steadfastly defend the status quo. Progressives are open to the world and to new interpretations of ancient myths and are reformist in their political orientations. Revolutionaries want to jettison the narratives of their cultures and radically question the claims of all clerical authorities. They insist on a total re-thinking of our religious sensibilities and demand new organizing myths. A sense of urgency with the mounting problems of the world forces these people to call for rapid and immediate transformations in our vision of the sacred and our worldly social system.

Insurgent Nature Religions

Throughout history and across the globe religions are central carriers of tradition and thus typically prevent revolutionary social change. Sociologists often highlight these “functional” roles, including the socialization of successive generations in the moral and ethical values of current generations, the elaboration and justification of worldviews, the legitimization of political elites and the establishment of moral boundaries between good and evil, clean and dirty, and sacred and profane.

The magnitude of the environmental crisis compounded by the time limitations that exist before we face a total environmental collapse, lead me to the conclusion that revolution is required. The realization that the corporate elite will not respond appropriately to avert catastrophe reinforces this commitment to revolutionary social change. As revolutionaries we must steer the populace towards a better world and lead the transition from a period of life-denying human practices to a period of life-affirming practices.

To purposefully create a revolutionary religion one must have a clear sense of the traditions of the existing social order that must be eliminated. Revolutionary religion must socialize the young with different values, promote new worldviews and challenge existing elites. Revolutionary religion does not function to support the status quo but instead to create new societal forms. It should aid and support change agents as they struggle to make a better world and mobilize the masses to participate in social movement activities.

These are times demanding revolutionary religion. As we increasingly come to realize that our planet is dying, a massive spiritual awakening is sweeping across the globe. Today many are not just insisting on the holiness of this world but are adopting or creating “Earth-centered” spiritual traditions which are revolutionary in their political orientations. In the social worlds I inhabit along the central coast of California, which includes many people who typically were involved in the progressive variety of religion, there has been a marked shift to the revolutionary end of the spectrum. Insurgent Nature Religions are on the rise!

As previously noted, Nature Religions can be divided into two broad categories, supernaturalistic and naturalistic. Due to a pervasive skepticism which I believe keeps me grounded in a verifiable and empirical reality, I am developing a version of naturalistic Nature Religion, which I call Dionysian Naturalism. It is a “liberation theology” which explicitly embraces the revolutionary social change required to reach a sustainable society.

“Naturalism” is term which in this context brings two aspects to its meaning: (1) the natural world is all that exists (there being no supernatural realm) and (2) science is a good way (although not the only way) to understand that natural world. With their worldviews framed by the logic and methods of scientific discovery, naturalistic Nature Religions celebrate the great story of the evolutionary unfolding of our cosmos. They find the sacred in this world. Participants remain highly skeptical about supernatural metaphysics. Yet in venerating this world, many are reviving the ancient Pagan notion of animus mundi —the soul of the world– and this form of enchantment softens the materialism, reductionism and determinism which are sometimes espoused by scientifically-minded people.

Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy whose followers were well known for sacred rituals which were wildly festive and transgressive to such an extent that they approached drunken orgies. We now know that the Mystery Religions of ancient Greece often consumed powerful hallucinogenic plants, such as ergot and Belladonna, with sacred intent–perhaps a legacy of earlier shamanic traditions. Dionysus was the “Giver of Ecstasy” who transported his followers through an altered state of consciousness to a mystical rapture, which included wild dancing and other trance-induced activities. Dionysian Naturalists reclaim “ecstatic religion” and the potential of sacramental entheogen use, as well as the use of other shamanic and mystical practices. For me “Dionysian” essentially involves being transported in a non-ordinary and ecstatic state of consciousness to a sacred realm.

I place Dionysian Naturalism in what Caitlin and John Matthews call the “Western Mystery Tradition”, a spiritual current that runs through Western culture, beginning from the native, shamanic lore of many northern and western European people, through classical Paganism, and the esoteric Hermetic traditions, such as medieval Alchemy and high magic5. The Matthews argue that this tradition preserves an ancient and perennial Earth wisdom that is still a part of the West’s spiritual inheritance. Dionysian Naturalism fuses this Pagan and “Earth-centered” tradition to a modern scientific worldview.

I attend a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in Santa Barbara, and 20 years ago progressive humanism was still the dominant theology. Nowadays, especially among the younger congregants, “Religious Naturalism” is more common and increasingly humanism is regarded as anthropocentric. In 1985 UUs adopted their last principle, generally known as the Seventh Principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are part” and a sixth source was adopted in 1995: “Spiritual teaching of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”. While Unitarian Universalists are pioneers in “liberal religion” (thus embodying the “progressive” version of religion mentioned above) and the first mainline religion to truly embrace Nature Religions, increasingly many are embracing revolutionary stances!

As noted, this essay highlights several contributions religion can bring to social movement struggles for justice and transformational politics. These are times which demand “engaged spirituality”, in which religious people actively engage with the world in order to transform it in positive ways while finding inspiration, moral support and guidance in their spiritual beliefs and practices. To those ends I advance a “practical theology of social change” focused on our intentional interventions to change the world (“praxis”), and outline some of its operating principles and spiritual practices. In later sections I further explore some of these spiritual practices, including prophecy, contemplative reflection, and direct action. This model of transformational politics and sacred activism reveals a few of the best offerings that religion brings to revolutionary social change.

A Practical Theology of Social Change

I draw upon a practical theology of social change in which faith communities and other groups engage in grassroots community organizing to empower displaced, marginalized and silenced groups to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice. This model is grounded in congregations and neighborhoods and transforms global issues into local issues. “Practical” in this religious context does not mean “useful” or efficient”, but instead means “based upon the notion of praxis”–a somewhat intellectual concept emerging from philosophical discourses emphasizing theoretically-informed and change-oriented interventions6.

Practical theology as an academic discipline used to focus on the religious actions of clergy and other pastoral concerns. Today there is an increased focus on “lived religion” – that is how people do religion. Praxis happens when we “walk the talk” and “live our values”. It also implies taking insights derived in classrooms and bringing them to the real world. Typically praxis is conceived as a cycle of action – reflection in which we closely monitor the outcomes of our behavior. Often praxis can refer to novel actions (as opposed to routine habits) in which we evaluate the ethical consequences of our conduct.

The praxis cycle of action – reflection forms the foundation of my theology of social change. We act and then reflect, and then, based upon our insights and evaluations, we act again. If our values are based upon an ecological consciousness we will understand that our well-being is linked to the well-being of the whole and that we all face the same fate. Interconnection and interdependence are defining attributes of our complex web of existence.

This approach is greatly needed at this historical moment if we are to successfully address our environmental problems and create a sustainable society. Something so seemingly small as momentarily pausing to contemplate our values and intentions, and the unintended consequences of our actions, can have significant impact when performed by millions of people. Our personal choices bear unanticipated transformational power. By fully embracing the sacred practice of praxis we become powerful change agents having a positive influence on the world.

Guiding Principles

We are all intimately connected and we need each other for our health, happiness and survival. Our bonds with each other bind us into what Martin Luther King, Jr;. called a “inescapable network of mutuality”.7 The well-being of each of us is linked to the well-being of the whole and we all face the same fate. Relationships define our lives. Yet each of us is able to make a difference to the whole. We are kin with all other life forms, sharing similar compositions and made from the same stardust. We celebrate the circle of life and know that we must live in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. The following principles are based on how Nature works.

This is a holistic framework for understanding complex systems, focusing on relationships and interdependence, with the cyclical nature of existence mirrored in the action – reflection cycles. The reflective processes serve as forms of feedback loops, which are standard in ecosystems. Rootedness in the elements of place helps to keep our bearings as we re-acquaint ourselves with the soils beneath our feet, the waters which flow in our creeks and rivers, the air which feeds our lungs and the fires which ignite the passions of our hearts. We must connect with the soul of our local landscapes and draw inspiration from our surroundings.

The guiding principles of this practical theology of social change are outlined here in a roughly sequential manner, but this should not be seen as a simple cookbook recipe for changing the world:

  1. As people of faith we take responsibility for the state of the world and know that our actions make a difference;
  2. We bear witness to the injustices of the world and listen to the songs of sorrow of those who suffer (including our non-human friends).
  3. We thoroughly gather information on the problems we are concerned with, including carefully listening to the voices of our “enemies”, knowing that nothing reveals our moral character as much as our encounters with our adversaries. Listening to our adversaries requires that we “step outside ourselves” (Greek “Ekstasis”). Fighting ignorance and raising consciousness is the best way to confront tyranny.
  4. Grounded in congregations, neighborhoods and communities, and inspired by our own witnessing of injustice, we undertake grassroots community organizing to empower silenced, displaced and marginalized people to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice.
  5. As diverse communities we come together to affirm our shared values, which we strive to always put into action. The revolution is how we live our lives. If we want a Beloved Earth Community that is just, compassionate and sustainable we must “prefigure” that world today in our behavior. We also come together as communities to decide which issues to tackle and by what means, and then to evaluate their success.
  6. Prophetic critique of our existing society allows us to name “what’s not working” and prophetic envisioning allows us to imagine “how it should be” (The Beloved Earth Community). As a spiritual practice, prophecy enables communities to access the sacred in order to critically evaluate their existing society in terms of social justice, ecological sustainability and compassion, and points to the systems of domination and oppression and “calls out” the powerful elites who benefit from them. Prophesy also energizes communities with hopes that their visions of a better world can yet be achieved.
  7. This is a model of social change in which we aim to transform the very structures of our social world and get to the root causes of our social ills through strategic direct actions. While charitable acts are often needed, they are not enough! These strategic direct actions are spiritual practices embodying our life-affirming values, including non-violence, compassion, social justice and respect for the dignity and worth of all life forms. Being “Dionysian”, we hope to insert celebratory, carnivalesque and transgressive pleasures into our transformative actions.
  8. Through contemplative practices, such as prayer, meditation and reflective discernment, we make contact with the sacred to clarify our intentions, affirm our values, evaluate the ethical outcomes of our behavior and potentially decide to change directions. Sacred reflections on our actions allow us to persistently return to our goals with fresh insights until those goals become reality.
  9. Awareness of our interconnections with the web of all existences keeps us committed to the common good and to the life of our planet and working to eliminate the poisonous effects of ego.

Most social movement activists do not yet fully incorporate spiritual practices into their organizing. There is often a “hush-hush” around issues of faith in progressive communities for fear of hearing about fundamentalism. This practical theology of social change brings to community organizers and social activists a set of well-developed spiritual practices which infuse political dissent with spiritual passion. They elevate the playing field with thoughtful and compassionate actions. They link our actions to a history of value-rich ideals and noble intentions. Most importantly by demanding that we thoroughly live our values they shift our behavior with our adversaries.

On Spiritual Practices

Spiritual practices are tools that allow us to experience the sacred – that which is most important for our lives. They transform us in numerous ways – opening our hearts, reducing our anxiety, expanding our compassion and developing our wisdom. With clearer minds and calmer bodies, we become aware of those gentle voices in our heads. In the following sections, I highlight four spiritual practices found within this practical theology: praxis itself, prophecy (critique and envisioning), contemplative practices, and direct action. These practices are, I believe, some of the best resources that religion has to offer revolutionary activists.

These spiritual practices are specific techniques which must be cultivated with discipline, but eventually become natural ways of being. They are powerful, yet simple, exercises directly applicable to our lives. If life is a spiritual journey in which we awaken from our slumber and potentially reach higher levels of awareness, spiritual practices such as these propel our progression.

For those who regard Nature as sacred, how we experience the sacred is often through direct experiences in wilderness in which we become aware of the interdependence of the web of existence. This “cosmic consciousness” is crucial to Nature Religions. It fills us with awe and wonder as we feel the mystery and majesty of the natural world, realize our absolute dependence on this world for everything we need and have, and recognize our humble fragility compared to its vast powers.

Because much social movement engagement will happen on our city streets, we must remain creative in finding ways to bring our particular sense of the sacred to these struggles. Pagan-inspired and “Earth-centered” rituals that acknowledge and strengthen our relationships to the natural world can be useful. In celebrating the Wheel of the Year, for example, we honor the cycles of Nature. Or through Wiccan practice of “casting a circle” by invoking the four directions and the four elements, we become more deeply emplaced in our local settings.

More On Praxis

To do the right thing I sometimes stop what I’m doing out of habit, contemplate the (often unintended) consequences of my potential course of action and consider the ethics involved. When I change my behavior and put my values into action, I’m engaging in a process philosophers sometimes refer to as praxis.

With each action that we take, we make the world. With each action we take, we potentially make the world better or worse. Our ordinary activities count. For it is through these everyday behaviors that the social world is constituted as an orderly event. The idea of the world as open to transformation by human intervention is crucial to our conception of modernity. We are now more aware than ever before that we can—make that must—construct a different way of social life for the survival of our species and our planet. That we are conscious of other imaginal worlds, and conscious that our actions will create these different worlds are particularly “modern” phenomenon.

We know that the social world will change and that these changes will be the result of changes in our actions. In earlier times in human history, people thought of the social world as just being “the way it is” and did not regard it as connected in any significant way to their personal behavior in everyday life. The social world was seen to exist “out here,” constraining personal action, but not really created by it.

While people can “reproduce” the structure of society by doing what they previously have done, there is no guarantee that they will. People are always able to act differently than they do. The possibility for change is inherent in every act of social reproduction. These are the spaces in which praxis enters. Praxis is for me a spiritual practice imbued with holiness because we let go of ego-driven thinking and consider the common good, thus allowing us to open our hearts and minds to spiritual possibilities. Praxis is autonomous and creative intervention which does not reproduce a society structured in dominance.

By performing acts of praxis, we move away from what Erica Sherover-Marcuse calls a “mystified consciousness” – our routine and habitual modes of being in the world which feel good because we have done them so many times before8. These ways of being in the world appear so normal to us that we are blinded to the fact that our actions reproduce systems of domination. The road to collective liberation is found when humans move from a mystified consciousness to an emancipatory consciousness. This is no easy task as the habits of oppression and injustice are deeply embedded in our subjectivity.

A rigorous process of “unlearning” is necessary in which one scrutinizes the very suppositions of one’s language and one’s emotional demeanor in the social world. We thus begin to cease our participation in reproducing hierarchy and hatred. To become aware of one’s participation in systems of oppression and to consciously choose to cease that involvement because one identifies with the downtrodden and disinherited, one stakes a moral claim that all humans are equal and warrant dignity, respect and love. This is a spiritual act.

Social activists, as people committed to changing the world, can greatly benefit from developing praxis as a spiritual practice. For some it may mean a shift in focus from the realm of public politics to the more private realm of everyday life. Rather than the focus on transforming institutional settings and the more obviously “structural” features of our society, as change agents typically do, developing praxis as a routine part of one’s daily life enables the close scrutiny of supposedly mundane tasks, such as family life, work routines, consumption patterns, leisure activities and interpersonal relationships.

Of course, each of these arenas is essential to the composition of modern society and will be sites rich in potential change. Washing the dishes, one might consider how to more frugally use the water. Talking to one’s children one might consider how patriarchy has shaped one’s childrearing practices. Driving to work one might again consider how carpooling on some days and using public transportation on others might benefit air quality. All of us need to examine our habitual patterns of everyday life with an eye to how they might contribute to the ills of our world, for it is through these ordinary activities that “societies” are constituted.

Some questions and suggestions to help you turn your actions into praxis: Take time to quietly contemplate what you are doing, for nothing reveals the inadequacies of our behavior as much as contemplative practices such as prayer and discernment. Consider some of these questions in your meditation. What are your intentions with this action and what goal(s) do you hope to achieve? Does it serve the common good? How does this action align with your values? Is it an expression of compassion? What is your vision of a better world? How do current actions contribute to social problems, social injustice and ecological devastation? What are potential unintended consequences of your action? Does this action support ecological integrity? What are alternative courses of action that you could take?

Prophesy

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg argues that a prophet is one who speaks by divine inspiration, often critically evaluating an existing society and putting forward a vision of a future society. Prophets are critics who are passionate about social justice and who have the courage to challenge existing domination systems and ruling elites9.

Prophesy can be a fundamental and valued spiritual practice in service of radical social change. The moral vision of “what isn’t working” and “the way it should be” aid a people to understand their world and change it in accord with spiritual principles and visions of social justice. Rather than “predicting the future”, as is often misunderstood, the energizing messages of prophets generate hope and create a new vision of the future.

Social injustice can be defined as the state in which people are treated without dignity and respect and are not provided access to basic human needs. Social injustice thus incorporates a “redistributive claim” which seeks more just distribution of resources and goods, and a claim in the “politics of recognition”, in which so-called minority groups are accorded equal respect. As we learn how to see injustices, we become aware that they plague our planet. Manifestations of social injustice include severe poverty, world hunger, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, oppression and exploitation based on ethnicity, gender or social class, and violation of human rights.

Systems of oppression, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism (etc.) operate on individual, institutional and societal levels through conscious and unconscious actions and beliefs to exploit some people and benefit others based on membership or perceived membership in social groups, including those based upon race, gender, class, age, ability, sexual orientation and religion (to name some, but not all groups). These systems are interconnected and mutual reinforcing. Through these processes members of dominant groups receive unearned privileges. These unearned privileges come, not as a result of merit or effort, but as a result of systems of oppression.

Allow me to offer some prophetic observations about modernity by very briefly critiquing “what isn’t working” and briefly formulating a vision of “how it should be”. Specifically, three major problems are articulated: (1) our ecological crisis, especially global climate change; (2) systems of oppression that perpetuate inequality, oppression and exploitation; and (3) a mass psychology of misery, in which nihilism, alienation and cynicism abound.

Our current environmental situation is bleak—global climate change is wreaking havoc across our planet—fires engulf Australia, Arctic glaciers dissipate rapidly, crop failures everywhere. And two decades into this hot-house world and industrialized nations still use fossil fuels as if nothing changed. We’ve entered the “sixth extinction” and thousands of species are disappearing. Industrial civilization rapidly extracts everything it can from our fragile ecosystems and leaves behind toxic wastes and all forms of pollution.

As if that weren’t enough, modernity has unleashed levels of greed almost unimaginable. Several months ago Oxfam announced that the world’s top 62 billionaires have more wealth that the bottom half of the world’s population.10 Our current forms of social organization are predicated on oppression, exploitation and social exclusion. Capitalism, while continually providing us with lots of shiny new toys, hurts lots of people badly, leaving millions barely holding onto the social ladder.

Accompanying modernity’s ecological devastation and oppressive structures is a mass psychology of misery, in which nihilism, cynicism and alienation abound. A lot of people are not very happy and have numerous mental health symptoms. These unhealthy mindsets are obstacles for the great transformational work which lies before us, in which we must feel our connections to all that exists, optimistically move forward saying “Yes to life!”, knowing that we are blessed to be here sharing the bounty of this glorious world.

Prophetic envisioning allows us to create an imaginary of a better world, in which all people are treated with dignity and respect, a sense of fairness pervades all institutional operations, human suffering is minimized and we live in harmony with all life on the planet. These are sacred visions that best emerge in collective dialogue and with spiritual practices that involve deep contemplation. These visions are ever evolving. Through history a story emerges of an evolving communal quest for greater justice. Generation after generation the body politic has gradually become more just. People and populations who were previously silenced, marginalized and treated as non-persons have been given a voice, have moved to the center and have become enfranchised.

Another way to invoke a vision of a just, compassionate and sustainable society would be in terms of strengthening three sets of institutions vital to social democracy:

  1. A democratic political system in which power is shared and balanced and opposition is encouraged and celebrated;
  2. the economy is sufficiently regulated to ensure the protection of consumers;
  3. a system to redistribute overall wealth to generously support the health and well-being of all citizens.

The fairness of these institutions is paramount to a just society, insuring that all citizens are treated with dignity and respect.

I don’t think that we should create detailed blueprints of our future society and its accompanying institutions. As the core of our crisis is found in our modes of thinking, particularly our sense that economic growth is essential to a vibrant economy, I think that our focus should be on addressing our cultural worldviews. As Johannes Krause observes massive systems change cannot be managed nor controlled and it is impossible for us now living in modernity to know what will be at the end of the transformative process.11

On Contemplative Practices

Contemplation is any practice designed to quiet the mind and cultivate a capacity for deep concentration and insight. While usually practiced in silence, some types of contemplative practice involve voice or other use of sound. Types of contemplative practice include prayer, meditation, mindful walking, yoga, vision quests and council circles.

Through contemplation the individual brings aspects of themselves into focus and becomes more fully aware of the interconnectedness of life. Contemplation can be a solitary experience or one that is communal. The intention with which a practice is done is a very important factor. Contemplation connects us with an inner source of wisdom – a deep spiritual dimension. While contemplative practices are today employed as practical tools for stress reduction and relaxation, their transformational potential is vast.

The spiritual potential of contemplation includes:

  • Deep, focused attention that dissolves our preconceptions so that we can observe situations as they more truly are;
  • Putting ourselves in another’s shoes as a way to bear witness to the suffering and pain of others;
  • Paying attention to what is in your heart;
  • Remaining open to outcomes and remaining unattached;
  • Conceiving of loving action toward others and ourselves;
  • Recommit ourselves to nonviolence, reverence for life, solidarity, justice, democratic practice and sustainability.

Silence, mindfulness, contemplation and discernment allow them mind to calm down and focus clearly on what is at hand. At times we direct our thoughts to certain topics or concerns and metaphorically send them out to the world. When we clear our minds of thoughts and attempt to just be with the breath, we focus on the embodied sensations of the moment. At other times we attempt to open our minds and hearts and be receptive to the wisdom of the universe (discernment).

Prayer is a particularly powerful spiritual practice which creates a sacred space, provides hope for what we are doing and connects us to the spirit of love. When praying I attempt to:

  1. Rejoice in the glorious wonder of the universe;
  2. Focus on what is in my heart;
  3. Remain humble;
  4. Speak the truth;
  5. Acknowledge the suffering of the world;
  6. Express gratitude for all I have;
  7. Recognize the changes I have to make;
  8. Imagine a better world made through good works;
  9. Recommit myself to others, and above all;
  10. Express love for my neighbors (and adversaries).

Contemplative spiritual practices can benefit political activists by allowing them to slow down and reflect on their circumstances. The numerous benefits of mindfulness have been documented by science.

On Direct Action as a Spiritual Practice

Practical theology shifts the concern in religion from sets of beliefs to real-world actions. The focus on praxis means that we must live our ideals. We affirm our worldviews through our actions. By strategic direct actions I am referring to long-term, large-scale plans to reach our goals of changing our social world. Revolutionary social change requires a wide range of strategies, including civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, lobbying, direct confrontation, obstruction and occupation.

By analyzing the root causes of our problems we hope to change the structural features of our social world, and not merely apply band-aids. Because of our commitments to collective liberation, we must build alliances with other groups, especially those who have been marginalized in our society. We remain committed to empowering disenfranchised people to change the social structures that deny them justice.

As a Dionysian Naturalist, I insist upon bringing carnivalesque pleasures and joyful celebration to my transformational politics. Since the 1999 Battle of Seattle, street protests in North America have become more theatrical and fun, with costumed clowns on stilts poking fun at militarized police squads. Song and dance and spiritual rituals do much to temper the tone of protest marches.

What religion brings to these social change actions is a focus on living our values. If we want to create a world that is just and compassionate, we must use strategies that are also just and compassionate. The “means” matter. As stated above, the revolution is how we live our lives. Through social movement participation we reveal our values and embody the ends we seek. I draw inspiration from Jesus’s words: “Love your enemies.”

Contemporary anarchist activism is very strong on these forms of “prefigurative politics” in which we put our values into action through praxis, and have means that resonate with the ends. Anarchists are committed to address all forms of domination, and attempt to deal with these, even among activists themselves. And these internal concerns are truly exciting because who wants to listen to radical activists who talk a good revolution but do not have their own house in order. Sexism, racism and homophobia (and other forms of oppression) pervade all institutional forms on the North American continent, including progressive social movements.

Nonviolence is a cardinal principle for the forms of social change I advance. Collective liberation must not harm others. We must learn from the great nonviolent revolutionaries who have changed the world for us, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez. Change agents must remain noble, dignified and above rebuke as they critique existing institutions. They must never attack personalities, but must focus on principles.

All forms of direct action must be thought fully considered. Is the destruction of private property justified? Obviously the “disruption” of the normal routines of public lives must be interrupted. But how much? Even “protests” must be spiritually motivated and never mean or hateful.

Self-Bound Thinking in Modernity is a Spiritual Disease

Modernity is a “civilizational epoch” noted for industrial capitalism and increases in the rationalization of social practices. It has been an epoch of many scientific discoveries and technological inventions that continue to alter our lifestyles. For the first time in history humans have a sense of the age and size of the Universe, and are beginning to understand the processes by which it operates. We are beginning to grasp our place in the cosmos and know that we are the Universe reflecting back on itself. As noted above, modernity has caused massive ecological damage, created levels of inequality unrivaled by any other time in human history, and produced a mass psychology of misery, in which alienation, nihilism and cynicism abound. Quite frankly, modernity isn’t working and must be crushed.

Modernity must be brought to a close and a new society made in its place. We need a new social system based on sustainability, justice, and love. There seems to be broad agreement among progressive change agents that if we are going to undertake a massive transformation of our social structures to deal with our ecological crisis, we should seize this opportunity to address other major social problems. Within the last few years there has emerged a growing literature exploring this potential transformation in social systems, often called The Great Turning or The Great Transition.

The root cause of many of our current social ills is a particularly modern form of egotism –a self-bound and self-centered type of thinking which dominates the populations of western industrial civilization, as well as the ruling classes of most of the world. This mindset allows people to focus so exclusively on their own needs and situations that they fail to take into account the perspectives of others—both human and other living beings.

Regarding our ecological problems we fail to grasp the perspectives of other life forms. With our prevailing anthropocentric thinking we totally ignore the perspectives of other species. Within the modern era, certainly in “western” societies, we tend to regard Nature as merely a resource that is there to serve human needs and desires. We fail to value the inherent worth of every life form. We are so wrapped up in our almighty human perspectives that seeing the world from the point of view of polar bears, jack rabbits and starlings goes far beyond our current imagination.

Regarding our problems of inequality and oppression we fail to grasp the perspectives of other human beings who are less fortunate than us. Our self-bound thinking and egotistical mindsets prevent those in power or who have unearned privileges from grasping the perspectives of those without power or privilege,

Genetics, modern childrearing practices and a culture of radical individualism cultivate a myopic self-consciousness which blocks the empathy required to grasp the suffering of other beings, both human and other life forms. The result has been an egotism and anthropocentrism which, as stated above, are the root causes of our ecological crisis and many other social problems.

The biological evolution of human beings over hundreds of thousands of years has created a mental system in which our “default position” includes a “tendency to analyze everything as an immediate, personal phenomenon: what does this mean to me” (Ornstein and Ehrlich 1989, p. 93).11 While our biological nature is relatively fixed and difficult to mold, another aspect of our psychology is adaptive and molds to fit the needs of society. This “social character” (Erich Fromm) exacerbates the self-referencing of our biological nature. Capitalism has a ruling ethos stating: “if only everyone strives for himself on the market, the common good will come of it.”12 Our private dealings are governed by egotism, with people typically out for themselves.

And this egotism begets anthropocentrism, which is a form of that same self-bound thinking brought to the species level. We have become alienated from the natural world and have become disconnected from other living beings and therefore discount their inherent value, while inflating our own value.

In order to empathize with another we must step outside of our heads and take their perspective. Without the ability to empathize we lack compassion, and treat the world harshly and coldly. This lack of empathy and absence of compassion amounts to a “spiritual disease” because it eliminates reverence from our lives. At the heart of many religious traditions is the Golden Rule which instructs us to treat others the way we wish to be treated. Exploring the emergence of the Golden Rule across the globe during the “Axial Age,” religious historian Karen Armstrong argues that sages such as Confucius, the Buddha and Jesus each created “spiritual technologies” that utilized natural human energies to counter aggression (Karen Armstrong p. 390).14 Their programs were designed to eliminate the egotism which causes violence.

I want to build on this insight, yet to expand its scope to include all living beings. We need to treat all living beings with respect and reverence, not just other humans. We must eliminate the anthropocentrism which pervades our thinking and develop an ecological consciousness.

“Thinking Like a Mountain” as Spiritual Practice

To re-kindle their awareness of their spiritual connections to other humans and to other living beings, many modern humans may require a program designed to eradicate their egotism and anthropocentrism. Here I propose as a spiritual practice an exercise I call “thinking like a mountain”, which is designed just for those purposes.

In his classic Sand County Almanac (originally published in 1949), Aldo Leopold urges us to “think like a mountain.” At one point in that book we are following Leopold as he follows the tracks of a skunk in the January snow. We learn to think of different animals as subjects rather than objects, as beings that have their own goals and their own perspectives on the world. As a youth, Leopold kills a wolf and watches the “fierce green fire” die in her eyes. This event leads to an epiphany in which he comes to realize how, while killing the wolf might seem beneficial to the hunter as it allows the deer population to swell, for the mountain and for the wolf, it might not be such a good thing. The deer population’s boom could lead to a drastic reduction in vegetation available for other species.

Like the young Leopold who shot the wolf, we often are so focused on our roles and our needs that we unintentionally ignore the roles of others. To “think like a mountain” is to see the “big picture”, to take a holistic perspective, to grasp the delicate interconnectedness of the web of existence. It entails being able to simultaneously take the perspective of a whole ecosystem. When we grasp our deep connections to the world this amounts to a “moment of grace” in that we realize that our well-being is linked to the well-being of our planet.

To cultivate a habit of reverence for others, whether those others are human or non-human, animate or inanimate, we must transcend the egotism and anthropocentrism so prevalent in modernity. To have empathy for another entity or to understand another’s perspective requires that we get out of our own heads. It is only by stepping outside the confines of our routine patterns of self-bound thinking and consciousness that we can transcend the self-absorption which blocks our sensitivity to our environment and the other living beings found therein. As we become aware of the plurality of perspectives, our sense of having a privileged perspective melts away.

By letting go of our self-obsession and putting ourselves in the role of other beings and grasping their vital role in the interconnected web of existence, we take a step towards the humility demanded for an ecological consciousness. By nurturing this new “other-directed” mind-set and more humble state of being, we can even acquire a constant sacred consciousness, fully feeling the presence of all life around us

The heart of this spiritual practice is a guided meditation, in which we take a journey back through deep time to explore the evolutionary pathways of the atoms in our bodies and the previous life forms from which we have descended. Perhaps some of our atoms emerged almost fourteen billion years ago briefly after the Big Bang, while others emerged from generations of supernova. Moving forward we imagine each of our predecessors as ancestors, whether these ancestors are algae, fir trees, jelly fish, or dinosaurs.

Our bodies are merely the latest incarnation of our being. When we realize that we are kin with all other life forms and even closely related to all other elements in the universe, we escape our self-bound thinking and the egotism and anthropocentrism so prevalent in our thinking. When we truly grasp the interconnected web of existence and the inherent value of all it contains, we begin to “think like a mountain.”

While most humans exclusively identify with their humanness, the point of this inner journey is to recognize our intimate relationship with other species, all other life forms and even the soils beneath our feet and the stars above our heads. The ancient savannah still dwells within our veins. As our memories return a change in consciousness will occur as we replace the anthropocentric structures of our minds with awareness of how evolution and ecology combined to bring our species to this point.

Conclusion

The mounting scientific evidence on global climate change reveals that we face a “terminal crisis” in which most life on the planet is threatened, and that already catastrophic destruction of civilization is inevitable. The magnitude of the environmental crisis compounded by the time limitations that exist before we face a total environmental collapse, lead me to the conclusion that revolution is required. Modernity must be crushed and a new civilizational epoch based on sustainability must emerge.

As revolutionaries we must steer the populace towards a better world and lead the transition from a period of life-denying human practices to a period of life-affirming practices. This gap between the way things are and the way they should be leads us to revolt. We accept responsibility for the state of the world and stress how our everyday habits and attitudes contribute to the situation.

My concern in this paper has been to consider what religion brings to the table for revolutionaries in this age of climate crisis. While religions typically function as the carriers of tradition, and thus constrain social change, they can also inspire movements for social justice, help us to clarify our values, and serve to mobilize the masses. Importantly, religion connects people to community and for the processes of social change that means collective efforts can go into affirming our values, deciding which issues to tackle and by what means. People of faith are vital participants in social movements and very often its leaders.

Religion also brings to revolution a drastic shift in both style and content. Spiritual activism elevates the playing field and turns radicals into “holy warriors”. It brings nobility, dignity and grace to social change struggles. Religion infuses transformational politics with compassion, mindfulness and sacred intent. The strategic direct actions of people of faith are principled and informed by deeply cherished values.

While the greening of religion instills ecological concerns within mainstream religion, that is not enough. I have cast my own personal theology, Dionysian Naturalism, as an insurgent Nature Religion. Insurgent Nature Religions insist upon the sacredness of this world and therefore regard the destruction of Nature as desecration. This sense of the sacred derives from: (1) the mystery and majesty of our natural world, which elicits strong feelings of wonder and awe; (2) our absolute dependence upon Nature as a source of sustenance, inspiration, recreation and revelation; and (3) our awareness of our humble fragility compared with Nature’s vast powers. This sense of the sacred also motivates our goals of radical social change. As a most holy object, Nature must be protected and preserved and never violated.

Nature is the source of our lives and all that we find valuable, important and meaningful, and this connection and dependence lead us to know that we belong here. We recognize that all living beings are our kin and that we share ancestral roots. This combined sense of belonging and kinship necessitate a global ethic of caring which demands that we treat all life with respect and reverence, and recognize the valued place of each life form in the complex and interconnected web of existence. This ethic of caring informs our goals of revolutionary praxis, as well as mandating a major re-thinking of the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization (whose dominant values have justified and supported our ecocidal way of life).

I briefly outlined a “practical theology” of social change founded on the notion of praxis. Praxis is situated activity in which we act with purposeful intention, live our values and consider the potential ethical consequences of our planned actions. This practical theology consists of a sequence of nine principles to guide faith communities and other groups to engage in grassroots community organizing to empower displaced, marginalized and silenced groups to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice.

I elaborated on four spiritual practices which were included in these principles which I claimed were particularly relevant to the work of social activists. Those cycles of action – reflection referred to as praxis can inspire social movement participants to “get their own house in order”. Praxis motivates progressive activists to align their behavior with their beliefs, values, and theories, and therefore motivates anti-oppressive efforts, such as feminist and anti-racist education and application. Contemplative practices allow often too busy change agents an opportunity to pause so that they might deeply reflect on their lived experiences in the world. Reflecting on past actions provides time and space to learn about ourselves and our environment.

Prophetic critique and envisioning provide political activists with sacred techniques to formulate the problems of our existing society which must be addressed by contrasting them with a vision of a future utopian society. Prophesy can also name the spiritual practices that should be used to bring about the changes, which brings us to the fourth set of practices I reviewed. Religion brings to revolution nobility, grace, reverence and “class”. It replaces angry resentment with committed compassion, and replaces unruly mobs the disciplined people of faith seeking to transform the structures which create the injustices. Spiritual activism incarnates praxis through strategic direct actions filled with intention, compassion and mindful presence.

As people of faith who affirm life we advocate nonviolent methods to achieve major structural changes in the organization of society. Such actions in defense of the Earth are spiritual practices, and we are nothing less than Holy Warriors. As participants in an “engaged spirituality”, adherents to Insurgent Nature Religions affirm their beliefs through their actions (praxis) and align themselves with other social movements concerned with justice and ecological integrity. Revolution for us is the way we live our lives.

Embracing a theology of power, we value democratic process, speak truth to Power and assist those who have been traditionally marginalized, displaced and silenced to find their voices. Celebrating the rhythms of Nature’s cycles we perform embodied rituals celebrating the sacredness of life and the importance of local places. We know that everything is constituted in relationships and systems of relationships. Each strand in the web has value and importance for the strength, well-being and integrity of the entire whole. We know that we make a difference and reject cynical apathy and indifference.

The effects of climate change create a massive existential crisis in which we fear facing the inevitable future which lies before us. It is very challenging to accept the potential level of ecological devastation before us and equally challenging to accept that we are not responding as needed.

This is a time for revolution. The climate crisis threatens to destroy much of our planet and we face an environmental catastrophe unprecedented in human history. We have known for over 20 years how pumping carbon into our atmosphere affects our climates. And, for 50 years we have known about how industrial civilization poisons the ecosystems in which it exists. We are coming to realize that the extraction of valued resources.

Acknowledgements

Relationship and interdependence are not just ecological concepts relevant to understanding the natural world, but mark the contours of our wild and previous lives. So many spiritual activists in Santa Barbara have taught me what I know about the practicalities of transformational politics and social justice work. UCSB Professor Dick Flacks, campus radical and social movement intellectual, was one of the reasons I moved to Santa Barbara to do graduate work over 30 years ago and I still draw inspiration from his example. The theology of change I advance emerges from my direct experiences as an activist and community organizer focusing on ending homelessness in my community. I suffer from some mental health challenges which have left me homeless multiple times in the past 15 years. While my time on the streets or living in shelters is relatively brief compared to many, those experiences allowed me to bear witness to social injustice through coming to know many beautiful people whose lives were very difficult and often very short. Even in a community as small as Santa Barbara (100,000 people) there were years in which a death of a person experiencing homelessness happened almost once a week. As a formerly homeless person, working as a social worker doing street outreach, I often knew these people. In 2007 I began to attend the Homeless Activist Luncheon, hosted by Chuck Blitz and Cath Webb, which introduced me to a group of concerned community change agents, including Ken Williams, Roger Heroux, Gary Linker, Lynne Jahnke, Rev. Jon Lemmond, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges and Lynnelle Williams, who each have done so much to improve the lives on those on the streets. The board members of the Santa Barbara chapter of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-SB) live their values through their commitment to structural change, and I am especially indebted to Rev. Mark Asman, Rev. Julia Hamilton, Anne Anderson, Maureen Earls, John Michals and Becca Claussen. Two women who have done much to improve mental health services in SB County are Suzanne Riordan and Catherine Birtalan. Other local luminaries who have taught me much include Professor John Foran, Cheryl Schnell, Chuck Flacks, Sayre MacNeil, Catherine Albanese, and Jeffrey Albaugh. The idea for this project emerged from dialogue with Rhyd Wildermuth , founding editor of Gods&Radicals. The editors of Humanistic Paganism, John Halstead and Jon Cleland Host, have nurtured and supported my writing.

Notes

  1. See for example, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2012) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library.
  2. Albert Einstein. Controversy concerning this quote and it’s source are found at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Albert_Einstein#Unsourced_and_dubious.2Foverly_modern_sources retrieved on June 14, 2016.
  3. As a proud Unitarian Universalist (UU), having been a member of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara for over a decade, I embrace the seven core principles of our faith. Initially I was drawn to its “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” which allowed me intellectual space to figure out what I believed. Unitarian Universalism is a “non-creedal” religion and a home to freethinkers of all types, for whom matters of faith are determined by personal conscience. UU congregations often contain liberal Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Humanists, and Pagans. A common message is often that there is beauty and truth in all religions. We often say “deeds not creeds” and emphasize living our shared values through active social justice engagement. Throughout the 20th century, Humanists formed the intellectual core of our faith with their insistence that reason and science have a crucial role to play in theological formation. Yet, the current UU “multi-faith” approach to theology seems to abandon these defining concerns for reason and science. Can someone believe in supernatural deities, unsubstantiated miracles and woo-woo hocus pocus and be a UU? Apparently so.My personal theology is grounded in the rapidly growing approach known as Religious Naturalism, which is firmly grounded in a scientific worldview. Its roots are found in Spinoza, Thoreau, Whitman, Dewey and Santayana, among others. Many of the leading contemporary UU theologians are engaged in developing this religious approach, including Jerome Stone, Robert Corrington, and Michael Hogue. Other prominent Religious Naturalist theologians include Loyal Rue, Donald Crosby, Karl Peters, and Ursula Goodenough.My version of Religious Naturalism is called Dionysian Naturalism, and it tempers the Apollonian emphasis on reason and science with concerns for passions, bodily sensations and the emotions. Incorporating shamanistic elements and drawing upon the ecstatic religions of our ancestors, it affirms the sacred role of personal mystical experiences and other non-ordinary states of consciousness, including by entheogenic consumption. Our celebratory rituals are often filled with transgressive pleasure. Nietzsche greatly inspired my initial forays into Dionysian spirituality and while I have not located a textual reference, it could be that he called his religion of the future “Dionysian Naturalism.”My previous essays developing this theological approach include “Steps Toward a Dionysian Naturalism (2015),”Our Universe is a Sacred Living System” (2015, “Enchanting Naturalism” (2015), “Dancing with Dionysus: Ecstasy and Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene” (2016), .all of which appear on the website Humanistic Paganism. A briefer version of “Dancing With Dionysus” also appears in John Halstead (Ed.) Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagan.
  4. The now classic book on Nature Religions, by my fellow Santa Barbara Unitarian Universalist, Catherine Albanese, is Nature Religions in America: From the Algonkian Indian to the New Age. (1990) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For an excellent guide to Nature Religions, see Bron Taylor (2010) Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Caitlin and John Matthews (1994). Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
  6. Some of these thoughts come from other essays I’ve written on praxis, including for the blog Everyday Sociology and the local Santa Barbara news outlet Noozhawk.
  7. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967). “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” Retrieved from http://www.ecoflourish.com/Primers/education/Christmas_Sermon.html on June 14, 2016.
  8. Erica Sherover-Marcuse. (1986). Emancipation and Consciousness: Dogmatic and Dialectical Perspectives in the Early Marx. New York: Basil Blackwell.
  9. Marcus Borg (2001). Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. San Francisco: Harper.
  10. Oxfam Report. (2016). An Economy for the 1%. Retrieved from http://www.oxfam.org on June 14, 2016.
  11. Johannes Krause. (2014). “Transformation: Reflections on Theory and Practice of System Change.” Retrieved from http://deeep.org on June 14, 2016.
  12. Ornstein and Ehrlich (1989). New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution. London: Doubleday.
  13. Erich Fromm (1955) The Sane Society. NY: Holt.
  14. Karen Armstrong. (2006). The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Anchor Books.
  15. Aldo Leopold. (1966). A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

WayneMellingerWayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a social justice educator, activist and writer, living in Santa Barbara, CA. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UC-Santa Barbara in 1990. He has taught sociology, social psychology and anti-oppression classes at Antioch University Santa Barbara, Ventura College, the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campuses of the University of California and the Fielding Graduate University, He is also a certified substance abuse counselor and has done social work helping those with severe mental health challenges get off the streets and transition into housing. He sits on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), serves as a Mental Health Commissioner for Santa Barbara County, and helps develop policies for the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H). He has been a member of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara since 2006 and is active in interfaith efforts concerned with ecological sustainability.

Grève générale: Work, Resistance, and Violence in France

“I have so many places I want to take you,” she said to me, pointing to her gas meter. “But I’ve only got 200km worth of gas left in my tank, and all the gas stations are closed today.”

We were traveling through southern France with an old friend of mine who lives in Perpignan, who once spent a summer living with me in Brooklyn while she interned at a production company in Manhattan. During that summer, I helped to introduce her to the best of what New York had to offer, and ten years later she was returning the favor, driving us around to show us the beauty of the land where she was born and raised.

Luckily there was enough gas to get to Collioure…

“As you know, the trains are down,” she continued. “The power plants were also shut down yesterday. I don’t know how long the strikes will continue, but I just hope the gas stations open up soon.”

It wasn’t just her words, but the casual and accepting nature in which she said them, which really drove it home for me how accustomed and accepting the French tend to be towards general strikes, or as the French say, la grève générale. Her words came out in a combination of frustration, amusement, and resignation, and while she spoke I couldn’t help but imagine how the average person in the United States would react if they couldn’t access any gas stations for a day or more.

Over the past four months, France has exploded in a series of strikes and violent protests over the proposed labor reform law, or Loi travail, that President François Hollande‘s Socialist government is trying to pass.

And while the strikes have been covered somewhat by the French media, overall the international coverage of these events–especially in the United States–has been sorely lacking to the point where many are referring to it as a ‘media blackout’. Alternative international media outlets such as teleSUR, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and RT have been reporting on the violence, but even those outlets have almost solely focused on the protests themselves, rather than on an accurate understanding of the issues and history behind these strikes.

For the past month, Rhyd Wildermuth and I have traveled throughout both southern and northern France, spending several days at a time in four separate French cities. Throughout our travels, I have been witnessing and educating myself as to both what is occurring in France and why it is occurring. What I have learned and observed about these complex events is as follows:

The History:

France is no stranger to general strikes, in stark contrast to the United States which saw its last significant general strike in 1946. And unlike American workers, who often work multiple jobs for long hours for low pay and few protections, French workers enjoy a long list of labor rights:

  •  a 35-hour work week before 25% overtime kicks in,
  • a mandated 10-hour maximum workday with breaks ever 4.5 hours,
  • 2.5 days of paid leave per month worked (which adds up to five weeks of paid leave per year),
  • eleven paid public holidays per year,
  • sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave per child,
  • strict protections from being fired without just cause,
  • and generous severance payments if one is laid off due to their job becoming obsolete.

These rights are a direct result of both the historic and current willingness of the French to fight, often violently and in defiance of the law, for protections that they consider to be an integral part of their way of life.

The modern-day workers’ rights moment in France initiated with a series of general strikes in 1936.  These involved more than a million workers, and led to an agreement known as the ‘Matignon Agreements’. These agreements guaranteed French workers the legal right to strike, a 40-hour mandated work week before overtime, two weeks’ paid vacation and the right to collectively bargain.

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The second round of workers’ rights that the French enjoy today were won in the midst of the May 1968 crisis. Known as the ‘Grenelle agreements’, out of the civil unrest came a 34-hour work week (down from 40), the establishment of trade unions within every industry in France, and protections that prevented workers from being fired without just cause.

Since the ’68 unrest, the workweek had been briefly raised to 39 hours and then dropped again to 35, where it remains today. In 1995, proposed work reforms initiated by newly-elected right wing President Jacques Chirac, which included restricting the right to retire at age 55, were met with general strikes  involving more than 6 million strike days (calculated by the number of days that each worker struck).

As a result, the proposed reforms were retracted. In 2006, President Chirac’s government attempted to pass an ’employment contract’ law which would have allowed employers to easily fire workers without reason within the first two years of their employment, but the proposed law was again rescinded in the face of massive protests.

A year later, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to reduce retirement benefits for public employees engaged in hazardous professions, and was again met with massive protests. And once again, the proposal was rescinded. Since then, France’s code du travail has remained strong and secure until early this year.

The Current Controversy:

The new labor reform law, introduced in February and dubbed the “El Khomri law” after French labor minister Myriam El Khomri, aims to do away with many worker rights including reducing overtime for those who work more than 35 hours a week, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire workers without just cause. These changes were proposed with the intention of reducing public spending, reducing unemployment, and making France’s labor market more flexible.

The law was met with strong public opposition, starting with the “Nuit debout” movement. Nuit debout, which has been compared to both Occupy and the Indignados movement of Spain, began in March and has quickly spread to over thirty cities in France. Not only is the anger over the law itself, but unlike the attempted reforms of the Chirac and Sarkozy governments, which were right-wing, the fact that the left-wing Socialist party has proposed these reforms is seen as a harsh betrayal.

“Our dreams do not fit in their ballot boxes” – Nuit debout poster in Rennes.

Paris’ ‘Place de la Republique’ was occupied by thousands of Nuit debout supporters for twelve days straight, and the movement received a high level of public support.

A month later, after facing opposition from several MPs French Prime Minister Manuel Valls decided to push the labor reform law through the lower house of the Parliament without a vote, using a rare provision in the French Constitution to bypass the normal democratic route.

In response, France has exploded in protest, with a coordinated shutdown of public industries that has continued for several months now.

The Players:

The majority of the strikes in France are being coordinated by the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which is one of five major trade union confederations in France and arguably the most powerful. The country’s largest trade union confederacy in terms of voting power and the second-largest in terms of membership, the CGT has been integral in securing workers’ rights in France for nearly a century, having brokered both the reforms of  ’36 and ’68 and playing a significant role in every general strike since then. The CGT openly supported Hollande during the last election and encouraged members to vote for Hollande, so the feelings of betrayal are particularly strong amongst the CGT membership.

img_2023Other trade union confederations involved in and/or supporting the strikes include SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques), CFTC ( Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), and FO (Force Ouvrière), while the more moderate CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) is mostly in support of the proposed labor reforms.

Over the past few months, these strikes have shut down several major industries throughout France, some for several days at a time. In the time that Rhyd and I have been traveling through France, there have been rolling strikes involving the national railway system (SNCF), the local metro in Paris, several bus systems, air traffic controllers in several cities including Paris and Marseilles, gas stations, and nuclear electric plants.

The largest concentration of strikes had been announced for June 14th, in part with the intention of disrupting the Euro 2016 football tournament that is taking place throughout several cities in France, set to attract upwards of three million tourists. img_2049

June 14th was also the date that the upper house of Parliament was set to start deliberations on the proposed reforms.

Among those who announced they will strike were the following industries:

  • Transport, including buses, taxis, national railways, air traffic controllers, and maritime workers;
  • Public service workers, including those working in libraries, post offices, sanitation, and non-emergency fire department and healthcare workers;
  • Private sector workers, including those working in banks, hotels, private transportation, media, fashion, and the mail-order industry;
  • Educational workers, including those working in preschool through high school.

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On the Ground: Arles, May 23-26:

Upon our arrival in Arles, signs of resistance and organizing around the general strikes were immediately evident. Nearly everywhere we looked, posters hung on billboards, street poles, and mail boxes, both expressing anger at the Loi travail as a whole as well as specific calls for demonstrations on set dates. Both gatherings organized by the Nuit debout movement as well as protests organized by smaller, local groups were occurring in Arles on a near-daily basis. img_2026

Even more prevalent than the posters were countless stickers, plastered everywhere one could imagine, ranging from those from trade unions to much more explicitly leftist and anarchist propaganda.

Walking around Arles, which is a rather quiet, sleepy, Medieval-era town best known as the later residence of Vincent van Gogh and the subject of many of his later paintings, one could constantly hear both residents and tourists discussing the shutdowns and the protests that were occurring both in Arles and throughout France.

Every word I heard from the locals was in opposition to the Loi travail and in support of the uprisings, with one woman ironically remarking that although she supported the strikes, she hoped the transit issues would be resolved in time for her upcoming month-long vacation.

The buses and trains both went on strike on two consecutive days while we were there, but altogether the effects they had on travel were minor.

Perpignan, May 27- May 30:

Unlike Arles, Perpignan is much more of an urban center, a city of just over 100,000 residents which serves as the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales region of southern France. Perpignan has a reputation for being a right-wing town with a significant National Front presence, but when we arrived the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout was much more prevalent and obvious than any right-wing elements.

On our second day in Perpignan, I stepped off the bus in the centre-ville and literally walked right into a CGT rally taking place in one of the major town squares. The square was filled with various tents which were distributing industry-specific information about the Loi travail and the various forms of resistance against it. In one corner was a stage with a band playing, catty-corner to the stage was a tent serving beer and sandwiches for only 2€ each, and the atmosphere was unusually light-hearted and festive considering that there were several transit-related strikes taking place that very day.

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Further down the main boulevard in Perpignan that same afternoon, several Nuit debout folks were flyering in support of the latest round of strikes while also handing out information about their weekly meetings. A few blocks away, several punk-looking activists were rather covertly using what appeared to be wheat or rice paste to affix Nuit debout posters to any and all available surfaces. Nearly everyone who walked by them voiced their support for their presence on the street and/or the strike in general, with several folks erupting in chants as they walked by.img_2070

Toulouse, May 31 – June 2:

While physical organizing and leftist presence was more evident in Perpignan, the expressive side of the recent uprisings was much more evident in Toulouse, which lies approximately two hours northwest of Perpignan and is a major city with a population of over a million residents. Instead of the resistance being dominated by the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout, the resistance in Toulouse was much more a product of the people themselves.

Block after block throughout the city was covered in posters, graffiti, and stickers. One could not look in any direction without coming across an uncountable number of messages, both printed and scrawled by hand, not only protesting the labor reforms but announcing daily meetings as well as the nationwide strikes planned for June 14th.

At the same time, the city was gearing up for its role as one of the hosts of the Euro2016 tournament, which the strikes were set to interrupt, and the tension between police and activists was evident.

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Rennes, June 3 – June 13:

Despite the wide variety of people, protest, and propaganda that we had observed and witnessed in the previous three cities, nothing had quite prepared us for Rennes.

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A play on words, celebrating the ongoing property destruction

Unlike the previous cities we had visited, Rennes is in the north, in the heart of Bretagne, where hostility towards French authority has both simmered and exploded for hundreds of years. Rennes is a distinctly Leftist and anarchist city, with a deeply-rooted Breton independence movement, and  many of the residents here are quick to tell outsiders that “Bretagne is not France”.

The Breton language, though endangered, is still spoken in Rennes, and over the past few decades a concerted effort has been made to revive the Breton language, much to the chagrin of the French government.img_1488 Dual-language schools are common in Rennes, and many of the street signs and informational placards are in both French and Breton.

And those dual-language signs were pretty much the only surfaces in town that were spared, and the messages went far beyond protesting the Loi travail. Nearly every square inch of space was covered in protest signs, anti-police and anti-capitalist stickers and graffiti, posters and flyers and every type of leftist propaganda imaginable. It was obvious that in Rennes, the anger is not just aimed at Loi travail, but at capitalism itself.

There was also an pervasive element in Rennes that we had not seen in force in any of the other cities we had traveled to – the presence of the federal police, or gendarmerie. We had seen a few in Toulouse due to the upcoming Euro2016 games, but the gendarmerie presence in Rennes was much more prevalent, despite the fact that Toulouse is a much larger city in Rennes.

But their presence was not without reason. For in Rennes, nearly every single bank in town has been smashed.

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Later on, we learned from our host that violence has been breaking out in the city on a near-daily basis, with leftists and anarchists clashing with police throughout the centre-ville. Protests and demonstrations have been banned on account of the violence, but that does not deter the leftists. They are out daily, in force, facing police violence, withstanding clubs and pepper-spray, and many end up in the emergency room. And yet the next day, they are out again.

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“For the end of the military occupation of Saint Anne Square and the re-enchantment of place”

In Rennes, the anarchists not only have taken over several public squares, but when the federal police drive them out, they protest such actions with a call for a ‘re-enchantment of place’. Messages of love and inspiration jump out from every wall, every signpost, every street corner, every bathroom door. It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who pays attention that the folks here fight not just out of anger, not just against the Loi travail, but because they truly believe that another world is possible.

And while the gendarmerie may be out in full force, it’s obvious that they do not hold the true power in this city, especially in the hearts and minds of the citizens here, whether leftist or not. Based on the comments, gestures, and facial expressions of the citizens, utter disdain for the presence of the gendarmerie is nearly unanimous, regardless of age or social class. They may be feared by some, but they are not respected by most.

Unable to contain the resistance and violence in Rennes, protests and demonstrations have been banned until further notice, a ban which included the annual Gay Pride festivities on the first weekend in June. But even such a drastic step had next to no effect. Despite the prohibition, folks came out for Gay Pride, and amongst the most visible presences at the festival were the trade union confederations, even the one that is not participating in the general strikes. Hundreds of people, gay and straight alike, attended the festivities despite the ban and without fear or hesitation.

They danced and celebrated in joy and merriment, and the gendarmerie simply stood back and allow it to occur, knowing full well that to try to break it up would only result in violence and further demonstrations. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the gendarmerie, it was obvious that while they had the arms and the weapons, they knew full well who actually held the power.

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CGT representatives at Gay Pride in Rennes

 Grève générale: Rennes, June 14:

Despite the numerous pleas and attempted actions on the part of the French government to avoid a nationwide strike on June 14th, the trade union confederations held their ground and made it clear that they would not back down. And as promised, on the morning of the 14th, as the Senate started to deliberate the provisions of the Loi travail, striking workers held demonstrations throughout every major city in France.

When I woke up the morning of the 14th in Rennes, and the first thing I found in my email box was an email from the US Embassy, advising me to stay away from all protests and demonstrations related to the general strikes. I laughed and headed downtown to the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which had been renamed the ‘Place du Peuple‘ bu the Nuit debout movement, where the strikers were set to gather at 11am.

When I arrived at the plaza, I saw that police had fenced off the entire exterior of the plaza. I laughed again, knowing from what I witnessed at Gay Pride the week before that such an action would have absolutely no effect.

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Pointing inside the fenced-off ‘Place du Peuple’

And the fences sure didn’t stop them; they simply took the streets instead. For over four hours, strikers and their supporters marched throughout the city by the thousands, back and forth, over and over, occasionally stopping for breaks and then starting right up again. For a town with a population of just over 200,000 people, and despite everything I had seen up to that point, the sheer size of the manifestation left me in utter shock. img_2283

As I marched and took photos and at times simply stood there staring in amazement, I constantly checked my phone for updates from the rest of the country. And what I was witnessing in Rennes was being echoed all throughout France. Flights were cancelled nationwide as both pilots and air traffic controllers went on strike. Buses and trains throughout the country were stopped in their tracks. In Paris, taxi drivers blocked the streets and the Eiffel Tower was even closed for the day. Violence between police and protesters also erupted in Paris, although in Rennes the police merely stood by and blocked off roads leading to the old city as strikers marched down the main drags.

And as opposed to America, where even temporary blockages of highways often result in anger and threats from commuters, those who were inconvenienced in Rennes that day were overall extremely supportive despite the fact that they were sitting in cars or buses for long periods of time while protestors took to the streets. Commuters on buses waved, folks in cars honked their support, and only a very few expressed any sort of anger or grievance at the strikers. It was widely understood that the temporary inconvenience that commuters were experiencing was an acceptable sacrifice in the name of what the strikers were fighting for.

Work and the Way of Life:

“Now, when we check out, look at the cashier, and tell me what you notice, what’s different,” Rhyd said to me as we shopped for groceries at a Carrefour market in Arles. “When you figure it out, its going to blow your mind.”

It was only my second full day in France, but already I was blown away by the various differences between the French way of life and what I was accustomed to in America. Checking out our groceries, I closely studied the cashier, a young woman with what I perceived as an unusually pleasant demeanor for someone working in a grocery store. And perhaps it was my tendency to concentrate on the small details instead of the obvious, and perhaps it was still being distracted and overwhelmed by the food I was surrounded by, but when we exited the store I still had not caught on to whatever it was that Rhyd was trying to get me to notice.

“I think I missed it,” I said as we walked out. “Unless it was the super-cheap flasks of nice liquor hanging behind the cashier’s head.”

And then as I turned back to glance again, I noticed it at the exact moment that the words came out of his mouth.

“They’re sitting,” he said with a wicked grin on his face. “Retail cashiers in France are all allowed to sit.”

I stared back into the store in shock, overwhelmed with disbelief and anger all the same as I noticed the comfy, padded chair that the woman who checked us out was sitting in. Immediately I thought of the long hours on their feet that Americans in the retail industry are forced to endure, hours that often lead to chronic pain, sciatica, and irreversible foot and ankle damage. And then I thought of my own circumstances, as someone who is unable to work retail jobs due to chronic pain and sciatica, and who lives in poverty partly as a result. I looked back at the cashier, realizing that I could actually work that kind of job in the United States if I was allowed to sit, and immediately felt a rush of anger rise up inside me.

And over the next few weeks, I went into countless grocery stores and other retail outlets, and found the same – nearly everyone I saw behind a cash register was sitting down. Not only are they sitting down, but ringing up your groceries is all they do. They do not even attempt to empty your basket onto the conveyor belt for you. That’s your job. They also do not even attempt to bag your groceries for you. That’s also your job. They sit, they ring up what you buy, and they make at least €9,67 an hour doing it, or around $10.92 in American dollars, in addition to all of the benefits that I elaborated on earlier in this article.

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At one point, while checking out at a Carrefour in Rennes, I got into a short conversation with the cashier, who spoke a decent amount of English. When she asked me what I thought of French grocery stores, I mentioned to her that in the United States, all retail cashiers must stand, and she looked at me like I had two heads.

“That’s inhumane,” she said to me in disbelief. “That’s torture.”

“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.

The fact that she referred to the fact that American retail workers must stand as “torture” carried an additionally weighted meaning to me, as I mulled on the starkly different cultural attitudes that the French and Americans hold about work.

In America, work is fetishized to the point where Presidential hopefuls stress the need to work longer hours as a benchmark of their campaigns. In contrast with France, where ever single bank in Rennes has had its windows smashed in protest of the labor reforms, American citizens and politicians alike often express little support for even the slightest of work reform such as an increase in the minimum wage. The United States is only one of two nations in the entire world that does not federally mandate paid maternity leave, and although polls show that a majority of citizens support paid maternity leave, far too many also support politicians  who oppose such reforms.

One could ponder various arguments as to why these differences are so prominent. For example, the United States, as a nation that was stolen and settled by Pilgrims and other Protestant-derived factions, has embraced the Calvinist ideology around the virtue of work since its earliest days. France, on the other hand, had a long history of intolerance towards and forced expulsions of Calvinist Protestants. And while the Huguenots were eventually granted equal rights as citizens after the French Revolution, France has been much more significantly shaped by culturally Catholic attitudes than Calvinist ideology throughout its history.

These differing histories are reflected in the cultural attitudes that define the two nations. America’s most famous (and most insidious) ideology, known as the ‘American Dream’, not only stresses the importance of work but falsely promises success to anyone who works hard enough. France, on the other hand, is a culture that has always put great value in ‘la belle vie‘, the good life, and has a long history of valuing health and happiness over the supposed merits of working oneself to the bone. French culture emphasizes the need for rest, relaxation and self-care, to the point that running one’s lawn mower on a Sunday is a violation of municipal codes in many cities, as the loud noise is considered to be disruptive to those who wish to rest and take it easy.

But while those points are significant and valid, perhaps an aspect of how such differences are shaped is as simple as the power of words themselves, specifically the power which is held and reflected in the etymological meaning of the word ‘work’ as it is expressed in the French language as opposed to English.

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The English word ‘work’ comes from the Old English weorc, meaning ‘something done’, which itself comes from the Germanic word werkan, which derives from the Indo-European root werg, meaning ‘to do’.

In French, however, the word travail derives from the Medieval Latin word trepalium, meaning ‘instrument of torture’, which itself derives from the Old Latin words tres and palus, meaning ‘three stakes’.

Let me repeat that again for effect: the term ‘work’ in French literally means an instrument of torture. And in a civilized society, nobody would dare consider torture to be a virtue.

The cashier at Carrefour was absolutely correct when she characterized standing for hours at a time for no reason as ‘torture’, but its a form of torture that most American workers accept without much thought or question.

One thing that is quite apparent after spending nearly a month in France is that French workers are not nearly as miserable as American workers are, and most don’t seem miserable at all. They do not hate their jobs as Americans do, regardless of profession. The smiles that one sees on their faces are not forced. Their kindness and courtesy is not an act. They are truly happy to help you and to serve you. They do their job with pride and they do their jobs well. Even the employees at McDonalds carry themselves with a level of pride and satisfaction that I have never seen amongst fast-food workers in the United States.

The attitudes of workers in France is a strong testament to the belief that if you treat workers well, if they make enough to not only survive but thrive, and if they are given ample time off and have the opportunity for regular leisure time with friends and family, they are simply better workers. And when the workers are happy, the customers are happy too. Everyone wins.

Closing Observations: La belle lutte

“So we call these things demonstrations, right?…Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down industry. They used to be like, this is a bunch of people on the street. It’s only a demonstration, it’s not the actual thing that we’re gonna do. It’s just the threat. But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, it was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that’s what you had to do. …All you have to do is get in the streets, and we’ll shame the people in power.”Boots Riley

The ‘spectacle’ that Riley refers to in the quote originated with the tactics of the New Left in the United States, born out of a fusion between the politics of the Frankfurt School and the various American hippie movements of the ’60s and ’70s. One can fairly argue (and many have) that despite their good intentions, the New Left abandoned and/or destroyed any remaining shred of effective and militant radicalism in the United States, at least in terms of the strategies and actions of college-educated white folks whose ideologies and actions have historically drowned out those of marginalized peoples.

This shift arguably set the stage for the loss of power on the part of the Left and the severe shift to the Right that the American political spectrum has undergone in the last four decades. The idea that citizens can simply shame the people in power is still a dominant ideology in both liberal and radical circles, and despite the complete and utter ineffectiveness of such a strategy, such strategies are still undertaken and lauded as though they actually produce results.

The New Left in Europe, on the other hand, birthed the May ’68 uprisings in France in addition to many other uprisings across Europe and set the tone for the philosophies and tactics that are still being successfully staged here in the present day. The rallying cries of the Situationist Internation set the stage for a movement that nearly toppled the French government, and its reverberations were not only never forgotten, but consistently built upon while never losing their militant edge. The Situationists utilized spectacle as well, but did so in addition, not as a replacement for general strikes and violent confrontations. In short, they never forgot the true intent of the demonstration.

In observing what is present and effective here in France, one also notices what is absent, especially in contrast to how citizens attempt to both institute and fight proposed reforms in the United States. Amidst all the waves of general strikes throughout France, the marches, the protests, the graffiti, the rallies, the acts of property destruction against banks, there are two things that are notable absent: lobbying and petitionsimg_2071 The idea that one can enact change within the system, which is still the dominant strategy of the American ‘left’, is not only all but absent in France but truly laughable as far as the workers and strikers here are concerned.

While Americans sign petitions protesting the Wall Street bailouts, the French simply smash the banks. While Americans bemoan the ever-increasing decimation of unions in their country, the French trade union confederations are arguably the most powerful political force in the country. And while a good percentage of the American public is still convinced that they can vote their way out of the effects of late-stage capitalism, the French know that the only way to enact true change is to take it into their own hands.

For the French, it’s a fight to the end, and a violent fight at that. But their own history clearly demonstrates that only by fighting will they succeed, only by fighting will they retain what they have successful fought for in the past, and those rights are so deeply cherished that they will most likely keep shutting down industry until the government once again cedes to their demands.

Its a fight, but as many are quick to point out here, its ‘the good fight’, that will hopefully result in protecting and retaining a way of life that Americans could only dream of.

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An extensive collection of photos from the June 14th strikes can be found here.

Alley Valkyrie

alley-valkyrieAlley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living on occupied Chinook territory in a city popularly known as Portland, Oregon. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals, and has been interacting with a various collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years. When she’s not fighting Capitalism, Alley works with homeless folks, creates an assortment of art and pottery, and writes for The Wild Hunt.


Alley Valkyrie is one of the many writers featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. The digital edition is also on sale now.

 

 

 

 

 

Free Against Hope

Lately, I’ve recalled a conversation a friend of mine had with me several years ago, back in Texas. He wondered why I even bothered studying Marxism – “do you really think,” he inquired, “that there will ever actually be a revolution in America? I’d call that a pipe dream.

Looking over a few of my personal political heroes, I’ve weighed his question. After all, their experiences seem to share one particular theme. See if you can spot it:

Each movement created ideas and techniques full of potency and beauty. Each one generated plenty of experiments and concepts from which today’s radicals could learn much. And each one failed, liquidated by hostile forces, their goals still unrealized decades later. Historically speaking, even the cleverest and most effective revolutionary movements stand an overwhelming chance of destruction, not success. Sure, it’s prudent and useful to keep hold of some revolutionary optimism. And unlike my friend, I do believe that there can, eventually, be a successful fundamental restructuring of politics, economy, and society. However, it stays true radicals in the West, by and large, end their lives frustrated or worse. Further, those who do make it to power often find (as did Prime Minister Tsipras and President Mitterand) that winning the political game doesn’t always mean you get to change the rules.

So, one might ask, what’s the point? Is Leftism merely quixotic, just defiance for its own sake? Why should we do what we do?


 

 

 

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Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle, tapestry, Jacob Jordaens and Jon Raes, ca. 1625. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 68.23.

Why did Achilles fight at Troy?

After all, he didn’t expect to capture the city. He knew, thanks to the Pythia’s prophecy, that signing up for that war meant that he’d die in the field before Troy fell. Obviously, that meant he didn’t fight for personal material gain either; what good does a casualty get from plunder? And, of course, he wasn’t trying to contribute to the maintenance of his family or kingdom. If he wanted that, he would have chosen the long and unremarkable life the oracle offered. Few families celebrate a member’s death in combat overseas, or their committing to join a campaign that (according to a respected diviner) was guaranteed to last nearly a decade.

Did he fight for honor, glory, and fame? Sure – but that only bumps the question back one degree, like the monotheistic child who asks “if God made the world, who made God?” Why did Achilles find honor, glory, and fame worth more than his life? What made them so profound that Achilles not only relinquished his chance at survival, but also let go hope of participating in an Achaian victory?

Let’s begin from the problem of Achilles’ motivations and find out what, if any, ethical framework we can extrapolate. Ethics, after all, only means figuring out what to do and why. And, we’ll see, the implicit ethics that Achilles exemplifies also turns out to be quite relevant when revolutionary work faces likely failure.

Traditionally, formal ethics contains three main camps: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Roughly, each category proposes a different primary criterion for rightness and wrongness. For consequentialists, the likely results of an act – the consequences – determine its morality. Deontological ethicists, however, say that what counts is the act itself: regardless of consequences, some actions are inherently right and others are intrinsically wrong. Finally, virtue ethicists prioritize the character of the person involved. According to them, ethics means making yourself into someone who exemplifies goodness.

In general, the Left embraces consequentialism. Marxists, anarchists, and reformist socialists all tend to agree that the currently-existing government and economy cause quite a bit of harm. Marxists and reformists also usually believe that they need to respond by engaging with government. Reformists say running for office works best, while Marxists disagree and typically support outright replacing the existing state instead. Anarchists mostly reject working with any state at all, but generally do concede that some degree of social disruption (either violent insurrection or mass nonviolent resistance) will be necessary for any future solution. Few anarchists consider either inflicting or risking violence to be intrinsically morally good, any more than Marxists and reformists consider the existence of governments in general to be. But, in the end, all understand that bringing about needed change to reduce harm doesn’t mean causing literally zero harm in the process. It means selecting the option that offers the least extra harm and the most potential benefit. Even though these different segments of the Left frequently dispute which path, exactly, fits that description, they still typically share a basic moral landscape.

Admittedly, one can also find deontological and virtue ethical undercurrents. In particular, proponents of nonviolence often argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and should not be accepted as a revolutionary tactic. (Typically, they express more comfort with property damage, maintaining the distinction between things and people). Additionally, certain branches of Marxism-Leninism place great weight on the habits of character their adherents cultivate. Nevertheless, in the end, even revolutionary pacifists generally end up framing their position in consequentialist terms: “nonviolence works better,”not “killing is always wrong.” Similarly, even the more character-focused communists ultimately concur that their ethics are only virtue-based inasmuch as they provide helpful rules of thumb in the pursuit of larger, consequentialist goals.

Achilles does, of course, accept the defined goal of the Achaian campaign. He and his comrades fight the Trojans because without conquering Troy, they can’t punish Paris and make Helen come back to Menelaus. But is Achilles expressing a consequentialist’s reasoning that he ought to do whatever will most likely accomplish his stated aim with the least trouble?


 

 

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Dispute Between Achilles and Agamemnon, etching from the workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710.

The philosopher who established Marxist Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, affirmed that the relationship each of us has with the world and everyone else rests, in the end, on choice. Whatever external circumstances exist, the way a person responds to them is the way they choose to respond to them. (As Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, observes, even when there’s no external freedom, no one can remove your control over your internal reactions and values.) In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre reveals that everyone’s orientation towards the world results from their choice to adopt a particular set of values. To deny this absolute existential freedom, he points out, is just self-deception. Whether we admit it or not, we are all already making those decisions. (Indeed, the idea that you don’t choose your own worldview is, in fact, an example of a worldview that you only believe if you choose it!)

Achilles fights on the field of Ilion, but when Agamemnon insults him and refuses to make amends, Achilles goes on strike. He knows that without him, the Achaians will flounder – in fact, he asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to persuade Zeus to make sure of it! Now, in each case – deciding to fight, and deciding to withdraw – does Achilles live out the same values?

As Sartre observes, we don’t get to pick either the circumstances of our births or the psychological tendencies in our brains. However, we do decide how to react to our circumstances, and whether or not we go along with our mental predisposition. In the end, everyone carries absolute responsibility for the kind of person they elect to become. “Existence,” he writes, “precedes essence.” You aren’t born with an essence, a basic nature. You’re born simply existing, carrying the existential reality of your freedom. Your only “essence,” you create through each choice you make.

(Sartre was an atheist, and characterized his intention as “to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.” However, even those of us who aren’t atheopagans – for instance, I’m a devotional polytheist – needn’t find any inconsistency there. Accepting many gods of limited scope no more resembles the monotheist theology of omnipotence that Sartre rejects than does Sartre’s own worldview.)

Achilles has chosen to be a person who cultivates personal honor and heroism in combat. To be sure, he wants recognition, but that stays secondary. This is no Sir Robin, who cares so much about his reputation that he won’t go anywhere without poets to compliment him! For Achilles, in the deed, the glory. He doesn’t fight to win (because he knows he’ll die before the war ends). He doesn’t fight for the admiration of his peers (withdrawing from combat would win few popularity contests!). While he certainly cherishes other things too (for instance, his boyfriend Patroklos), honor and heroism always top his list of priorities. He makes his first two major choices – going to war and withdrawing to his ships – because they express the kind of person he chooses to be.

He disdains deontological concerns. If not for the personal slight from Agamemnon, withdrawal would have been cowardly. After the insult, it became honorable; neither fighting nor not fighting is intrinsically right. Further, he eschews consequentialism, except as a subordinate approach. He never renounces the stated Achaian goal of conquering Troy, and overall his actions during the near-decade of siege reflect his military commitment. But when he does withdraw, he goes out of his way to make sure it hurts his comrades: he enlists Zeus himself to ensure it!

In short, Achilles embraces his existential freedom by selecting his values. Then, he implements them in a kind of virtue ethics.


 

 

“[It] is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hour by hour resolve firmly to do what comes to hand with dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.”

-Marcus Aurelius

I find hints of Existentialism perhaps the ancient Mediterranean’s most popular formulation of virtue ethics: Stoicism.

According to the Stoics, the trick to eudaimonia (“good spirits,” a state of contentment, well-being, and general flourishing and thriving) lies in human nature. They taught that the basic nature of humans involved the application of logos. This uniquely and universally human capacity lets us examine our lives and choices, understand them, and – most importantly – choose to live virtuously, free and content, “unmoved by blame or by praise.” To the person living in eudaimonia, only virtue matters, no matter what anyone else says or does. In the words of the former slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus:

“This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!”

The greatest possible good consists of living in a way that properly expresses one’s nature as a human. But, contrary to modern understandings, “human nature” doesn’t automatically express itself, and it certainly isn’t shorthand for people’s inevitable shortcomings! Rather, as Epictetus proclaims, unvirtuous behavior makes one less authentically human. Human nature is available to everyone, but realized only by those who acknowledge that they are free to become whatever they choose to be (and then choose to be ethical). As Heathens say, whatever happens, we are our deeds.

Achilles tacitly accepts this assessment of his condition, although his understanding of “right values” differs quite a bit from the Stoics’ (or, for that matter, the communist Sartre’s). The oracle of Apollon presents him with foreknowledge of the outcomes of his two options. He selects the more painful one. The privations of war, absence from his home, and loss of longevity matter less to him than embodying the values he has decided to make his own. And, for someone who accepts their freedom and creates an “essence” out of their values, even bodily death can’t negate their virtue.

Like Achilles, we have moral and existential freedom. Like Achilles, we have to decide how to engage with a brutal war, the end of which we can’t expect to witness. How will we choose? What values will we embody?


 

 

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The Fight of Achilles Against Scamander and Simoeis, painting by Auguste Couder, 1825. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 15307.

I believe we should answer the Existentialist challenge by creating a revolutionary virtue ethics.

Gods or not, we are free. Whether or not we admit it, we all choose the values that we enact. As revolutionaries, we certainly ought not select the specific values of Achilles – his honor has too much toxic masculinity and too much of the absolute subordination of women to emulate, especially given the patriarchal dynamics of the activist scene. However, his existential courage should inspire us to live our own values of cooperation, community, and compassion alongside liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Of course, the current Leftist preoccupation with consequentialism does offer benefits we should retain. In particular, we ought to imagine our preferred endgame around “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and our activities require all the strategic and tactical thinking we can muster. Individually, none of us can expect to experience victory, but collectively, we must take risks and make decisions with that goal in mind.

However, that needs to remain secondary. Winning isn’t certain, and statistically, whatever movement does eventually make revolution in the West probably doesn’t exist yet. Nevertheless, we participate in the work because it reflects the values we’ve chosen – and to understand those values properly, we shouldn’t cling to the hope of emerging triumphant. Act rightly because our most authentic human nature demands that we choose to do so. Organize because the horrors that oppression and exploitation create mean that anything short of opposition makes us complicit.

Like Achilles, we find ourselves facing a nearly-indestructible enemy. Like Achilles, we can expect our lives to end before the siege does. Our Troys are white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire. Our war has lasted quite a bit longer than nine years, and will continue for many years yet. But, our existential reality is the same as his, and the same as the Stoics’, and the same as Jean-Paul Sartre’s.

Our only essence is the values we choose to express. Each of us is the kind of person that our choices create. Outcomes aside, that’s inescapably real.


 

 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other.”

-Assata Shakur

Our duty is to make ourselves into the sort of people who fight for universal freedom, and the sort of people who pick their goals, consequentialistically, in order to win. But ensuring the highest possible chance of victory doesn’t mean expecting to experience it firsthand – let alone fighting because we want to individually see the future we envision.

Rather, let’s be revolutionaries because it is right. Let’s let our revolutionary virtue ethics proclaim that it is human nature manifested to “tremble with indignation at every injustice.” In the end, rightness doesn’t come from success (although anything short of wholehearted striving for success would surely compromise our rightness). Whether it ends in victory, tragedy, or anticlimax, virtue justifies itself.

Achilles knew this deeply enough to accept his death for the sake of it. Let’s make our choice, and embrace it too.

 

 


Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

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

Revolutionary Spirits and Occult Strategies of Resistance

By Brian Johnson

The sit-in. The march. The occupation of public space. The power of many forms of protest lies not in the immediate effects of its tactics; the purpose of the act is not the disruption of business or traffic at a particular facility or city street – these are merely means to an end. The purpose to which these material disruptions are performed is rather to effect a disruption of social discourse, and in so doing make an agenda impossible to ignore. Grievances and their redress, oppression and redemption, the nature of the status quo and the possibility that it might be otherwise – all of these are made salient in the consciousness of protesters, agents of the institutions they address, and the entire psycho-social context in which they act. A détournement, a discontinuity in the dominant narrative, in the hegemonic discourse, is physically forced into being, and in that newly opened space, alternative story-lines can begin to be written.

I wish to examine here the class of phenomena broadly defined as ‘possession’ – the manifestation of the activity of a god, spirit, ancestor, or other non-human force in the body of a human person – in terms of its power to rhetorically disrupt dominant narratives. Possession, and the interventions into social life of occult entities and forces more generally, bear an inherent anti-hegemonic potential. In both form and content, they demand that the cycles of quotidian life be brought to a halt. Indeed it is rare that their manifestation does not portend a reordering, a rectification – if not a revolution – in human relations. I do not mean to suggest that the appearance of possession or sorcerous phenomena necessarily correlate with conditions of marginalization or oppression. That is demonstrably false; they do not express any one paradigm of power relations in every instance[i]. However, it seems apparent that when the powers of the invisible world are appropriated by the disenfranchised, the exploitative powers of the visible world should take heed.

Suspicion of possession as a weapon of the oppressed has a long and geographically broad history in the consciousness of repressive regimes. Judicial authorities and slaveholders in nineteenth-century Brazil feared both Candomblé devotion and sorcery more as loci of subversive organization than as spiritual threats[ii].Lesley A. Sharp observes that “Europeans had long recognized possession activities in Madagascar as politically-charged and thus potentially revolutionary events…”, ultimately outlawing their practice following a failed insurrection in 1947[iii]. Agents of the white administration of then-Rhodesia attempted, with little success, to counter the revolutionary influence of mhondoro spirit-mediums, going so far as to make recordings of co-opted mediums, allegedly in trance-states, repudiating rebel guerrillas, and broadcast them from airplanes[iv].

Yvonne Maggie describes how a belief system incorporating spiritualism and efficacious witchcraft “…was shared by the police, magistrates and lawyers, and those they accused or defended” in early twentieth-century Brazil[v]. Antagonistic actors who share a cultural context – even if they are otherwise asymmetric in power and status – can come to share certain assumptions about the means of engagement. Ultimately these mutual assumptions maintain the status quo by channeling aggression in ways that never challenge the premises of the social structure itself. Hence, an oppressor’s hegemony may be facilitated through sharing with the subaltern a set of cosmological beliefs and their ritual-forensic implications[vi]. Conversely, however, a shared frame of reference makes the dominant party susceptible to the subordinate’s strategies for negotiating agency. As I.M. Lewis suggests of the gods invoked by cults of the marginalized, “…it is obviously essential that both superior and subordinate should share a common faith in the existence and efficacy of these mutinous powers…. since otherwise clearly the voice of protest loses its authority.”[vii]

Spirit-possession, as an idiom of occult forces, is not only a medium for discourse about social relations; rather, it comprises the content of a discourse with real social implications. As Maggie suggests, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé “…does not engender resistance. It is in its very existence the antithesis to the rational bureaucratic order that the Brazilian state outwardly proclaims.”[viii] Scholars have long theorized spirit-possession in just such terms as a means of resistance to culturally-entrenched power disparities, or the deprivations, oppressions, and dislocations of modernity[ix]. Maya Deren points to the Petro loa cult as a driving force and organizing principle behind the Haitian revolution[x].Indeed, the Petro seem to express fundamentally anti-social values consistent with the exigencies of systemic discontinuity, rupture, and escape imposed by the condition of slavery. While this explanatory frame may rationalize the place of occult beliefs and practices within a context of political action, precisely what those beliefs and practices accomplish in that domain remains to be fully understood. Likewise, as Frederick M. Smith notes, the psychologizing turn of modern scholarship has tended to understand possession as a culturally-mediated, unconscious reaction to social and political oppression[xi]. Yet this point of view overlooks the possibility of its intentional appropriation as a means of indirect action.

When Somali women give voice to the demands of their possessing sar spirits, they speak with an authority denied to them in everyday life[xii]. Speaking through the authority of supernatural agents can be an oblique strategy of negotiating autonomy by appropriating a privileged discursive space, outside of which one’s demands are literally unspeakable – a metanegotiation. Thus, as Mary E. Hancock argues, bhakti devotion and possession among Brahman women “…may be an agency for change in domestic life, whether the bhakta is perceived as succeeding or failing in her efforts.”[xiii] In this context, as with the other forms of embodied protest, it is not the direct result of one’s actions which effects change in one’s status or circumstances, but rather the implications of the means by which one has acted.

As Lewis observes, the powers involved in the shaman’s vocation “…are often, either directly or indirectly, both the cause of misfortune and the means of its cure.”[xiv] The possessing spirits of the materially dispossessed frequently assume qualities of the class by whom the possessed is victimized – women are possessed by masculine spirits, Nigerien Hauka cultists by gods who appear in a ludicrous parody of European colonials[xv]. The whips brandished by former slaves in the possession rites of the Somali numbi cult “…enable them to present themselves not as slaves, but as masters of slaves”[xvi]. “Possession… is a state of tension, of lived irony, in which dilemmas are resolved (for better or worse) because the volition of the dominant, socially hegemonic voice is reduced to the point of disappearance and another authority is expressed through the body”[xvii]. If mimesis is one means of comprehending the power of an Other[xviii], so much more so is a mimesis realized in the very agentive body of the subject. Indeed, the French commandant who most brutally suppressed the early Hauka movement was among the first colonial personae to manifest within the ranks of its pantheon[xix]. Satirical performance, properly understood, is a controlled environment in which group identity distinctions can be rehearsed on the subaltern’s own terms. In their warped dramatization of the European, Paul Stoller suggests that the dancers of the Hauka possession rite “…have resisted culturally the way of the European and have expressed metaphorically their preference for the traditions of their ancestors.”[xx] Originally arising in a context of anticolonial agitation in the early twentieth century[xxi], the cultural distancing effected by the Hauka remains relevant amidst the homogenizing pressures of the globally-connected post-colony[xxii].

Deren argues that psychosomatic illness is in early twentieth-century Haiti sometimes interpreted as the result of witchcraft or the intervention of loa. It serves as a form of psychological defense against hopeless circumstances, maintaining the status quo for better or worse. Nonetheless, she notes that, “…Voudoun is most often opposed and suppressed by the government as a threat to the status quo.”[xxiii] This is because the occult interpretation of misfortune is not simply a superstitious expression of acquiescence to impotence. Deren elaborates: “Instead of the hopeless finality of absolute, abstract despair, the man is immediately involved in the idea of promising action…. Thus psychosomatic projection serves not as an evasion but as a means of making the moral problem accessible on a level of real action”[xxiv]. As Catherine Bell explains, this kind of ‘misrecognition’, intrinsic to ritual practice, shifts the entire context of means, ends, and meanings to one defined by the ritual actor.[xxv] In other words, faced with a destructive system from which one cannot escape, the psychotherapeutically strategic response may be to constructively misrecognize the nature of the problem one is facing. Thus one’s options for effective retaliation are transposed into a space where one can take practical action. A new context is created, in which the constraints and rules of the oppressing system do not apply, and where once-unspeakable ideas of liberation may be spoken. Subjects demonstrate to themselves the vulnerability of the socially-inscribed hierarchy[xxvi], a demonstration which may be sufficient impetus for material change. Whether the sar of Somalia or the tarantism of southern Italy, the manifestation of invisible forces in the bodies of oppressed classes implicitly protests and draws public attention to their intolerable circumstances[xxvii].

Spirit-possession, and the popular hermeneutics of the phenomenon, can assert indigenous historical power against histories of colonial power, critically responding to the concerted dislocation of indigenous identity through colonial desecration and depopulation of territory[xxviii]. The expressive modalities of spirits during possession rituals can recapitulate history by embodying historical identities, categories, or peoples. Thus, participants claim for themselves a sense of historical agency which the dominant culture may deny that they possess., It also provides them with a medium through which to experience that history[xxix].

This intervention into consensual space of a discourse utterly orthogonal to hegemonic norms is characteristic of possession as the ingress of the otherworldly. Smith observes that possession is effectively “…a structure of resistance, a rift in the psychological, social, and political fabric of society.”[xxx] His argument, however, that its counter-hegemonic potential is constrained by its very embodiment and segregation from consensual consciousness and communication[xxxi], must be contrasted with Stoller’s framing of the Hauka movement/ritual-complex as a ‘comedy of paradox’[xxxii], a form of social protest whose message can only be conveyed inexplicitly because there is no extant social space in which its complaint can be communicated in its own terms. Likewise, the ritual prohibitions of the mhondoro spirit-mediums of revolutionary Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) acted to clearly segregate “…the world of the ancestors… and the world of industrial production and exchange…” in which their followers were being exploited[xxxiii].

The position of invisible powers in relation to processes of claiming agency is not always a positive one. If, as Basile Ndjio observes, the popular discourse on occult forces which arises in response to inexplicable social disruption is frequently one of enslavement to those forces[xxxiv], perhaps this represents an inversion of the empowering self-alienation of spirit-possession. The invisible here becomes object of, rather than medium for, retaliatory action. Indeed, it is precisely the restoration of communal self-determination for which the Cameroonian anti-witchcraft gru ordeal is conducted[xxxv].

Whether occult practices are employed toward defusing the tension of systemic contradictions or exacerbating them to a crisis point may depend upon the foreseeable prospects of remaining within the system itself. Often, the sheer spatial extent and ideological monopoly of oppressing institutions are such that extricating oneself from their grasp is simply untenable. Hence, one may practice insubordination, “…but usually not to the point where it is desired to immediately rupture the relationship concerned or to subvert it completely”[xxxvi]. When female Malay factory workers are attacked on the shop floor by spirits of violation and pollution, a protest against the capitalist alienation of human beings is made manifest, albeit tacitly[xxxvii]. Until one is prepared to openly repudiate the structural bases of one’s mistreatment, and denounce the agents of that structure, the person who “…exerts pressure on his superior without radically questioning his superiority”[xxxviii] is certainly safer; the rebellion, such as it is, is allowed to continue. But this kind of complicity, subversive as it may be, can only accomplish so much. Frantz Fanon insists upon a ‘radical overthrow’ of the colonial system[xxxix], and possession, with its embodiment of an implicit political agenda, realizes that coup as a fait accompli, if a highly circumscribed one. As João José Reis describes the situation in nineteenth-century Brazil, “[u]nder paternalist cultural and ideological pressure, slaves often worked hard to create bonds of affection with masters through witchcraft or other means… but having failed this… they struggled to untie their lives from those of their masters…”[xl].

“The colonial world is a compartmentalized world”[xli], Fanon says. Not a truly hegemonic one, then, in the strictly Gramscian sense, it remains unreconciled, the colonized living in a different epistemic world from the colonizer. As David M. Gordon points out, “…not all agents of the invisible world are compatible.”[xlii] The break effected in decolonization is with a structure that was always still ‘other’. As Lewis suggests, the acute pressures which may prompt a shamanic response at the communal level “…may result from external encapsulating forces when a whole society is marginal or marginalized, and becomes itself peripheral in relation to a wider, over-arching political system.”[xliii] The Zimbabwean liberation war saw the spirits of ancestral rulers, speaking through their mediums, authorize armed resistance to the colonial regime[xliv]. The space for negotiating autonomy is a breach forced inside the discursive field of the colonial ‘other’, inside the capitalist world-system. That breach is made using the language of the colonized, whether that be the words of gods and spirits, or the rhetoric of arms and insurgency. If spirit-possession is one source of authoritative voice with which to negotiate discursive space for autonomy, so too is violence the counterpart act which unmistakably voices the same provisional demand.

As Homi K. Bhabha argues in his foreword to The Wretched of the Earth, “Fanonian violence… is part of a struggle for psycho-affective survival and a search for human agency in the midst of the agony of oppression”[xlv]. Possession and violence each effect the search for agency; they are processes of creating space for its eventual realization. Smith has argued that South-Asian forms of possession often correspond to a somaticization of intense emotional and psychological states[xlvi]. These grahas, ‘graspers’, lay hold of persons who indulge in the very transgressive behaviors they themselves incite[xlvii]. Perhaps sometimes, in seeking out a space to negotiate self-determination, the oppressed in fact become possessed by the visceral experience, as much as the ideological imperative, of violence.

His undisputed insights notwithstanding, Fanon betrays a myopic psychologism in asserting that things like myth, possession, and supernatural beliefs only distract from the reality of colonial conflict[xlviii]. He fails to recognize that such concepts can operate in support of, and parallel to, “…the practical tasks the people are asked to undertake in the liberation struggle”. David Lan, for instance, relates how many veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation war “…tell similar stories of how long-dead members of their families had assisted them and led them to sources of food or other supplies”, as well as furnishing practical advice[xlix]. Nor did their adherence to ritual proscriptions imposed by cooperative spirit-mediums preclude their participation “…in the programme of peasant mobilisation or of political education that their political party put into action”[l], revolutionary methods of which Fanon explicitly approved. Indeed, the mediums of royal ancestor-spirits helped to legitimize and socially assimilate the guerrillas and their revolutionary agenda in the eyes of the rural populations among whom they operated, in part through the guerrillas’ participation in local ritual cycles[li]. The ancestors’ uncontested, atemporal legitimacy, grounded in their provision of the land’s fertility and cutting across communal divisions by means of ascribed genealogies, provided a common point of reference for revolutionary consciousness[lii].

Why should gods, spirits, or ancestors be approached, adapted, and recognized as authoritative, legitimate arbiters of the very this-worldly political maneuvers among husbands and wives, laborers and managers, the colonized and the colonialist? Why should they particularly care? Perhaps because, as Lewis observes, “…the moral code over which these spirits so resolutely stand guard concerns the relations between man and man.”[liii] Thus they respond, obliquely or aggressively, to disparities and abuses in human society, to “…changes which are felt to impose limitations on traditional freedoms and rights, or to benefit one social group or category (e.g. men) at the expense of another (e.g. women)”[liv]. Whether held to be motivated by personalized moral concern or impelled by abstract nature, these entities will come to intervene in matters of what can be called social justice.


Brian JohnsonAn archaeologist by profession, Brian Johnson also pursues his interests in the cultural construction and practical mechanics of human interaction with the supernatural through independent scholarship. With the cultural-relativist lessons of his anthropological background always in mind, his practice is self-consciously omnivorous and syncretic.


Bibliography

Bell, C. 2009 (1992). Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press.

Bhabha, H.K. 2004. Foreword: Framing Fanon. In Philcox, R. (trans), Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth. Grove. pp. vii-xli.

Colleyn, J.-P. 1999. Horse, Hunter & Messenger. In Behrend, H. and Luid, U. (eds), Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 68-78.

Deren, M. 2004 (1953). Divine Horsemen. Documentext.

Fanon, F. 2004 (1961). Philcox, R. (trans), The Wretched of the Earth. Grove.

Gordon, D.M. 2012. Invisible Agents. Ohio University Press.

Hancock, M. 1995. Dilemmas of Domesticity. In Courtright, P. and Harlan, L. (eds) From the Margins of Hindu Marriage. Oxford University Press. pp. 60-91.

Lan, D. 1985. Guns and Rain. University of California Press.

Lewis, H.S. 2005. The Globalization of Spirit Possession. In Al-Haj, M. et al. (eds) Social Critique and Commitment. University Press of America. pp. 169-191.

Lewis, I.M. 2003 (1971). Ecstatic Religion. Routledge.

Maggie, Y. 2011. The Logic of Sorcery and Democracy in Contemporary Brazil. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 145-163.

Makris, G.P. 1996. Slavery, Possession and History: The Construction of the Self Among Slave Descendants in the Sudan. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 66: 159-182.

Ndjio, B. 2011. Naming the Evil: Democracy and Sorcery in Contemporary Cameroon and South Africa. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 165-186.

Ong, A. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline. S.U.N.Y. Press.

Reis, J.J. 2011. Candomble and Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Bahia. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 55-74.

Sharp, L.A. 1999. The Power of Possession in Northwest Madagascar. In Behrend, H. and Luid, U. (eds), Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 3-19.

Smith, F.M. 2006. The Self Possessed. Columbia University Press.

Stoller, P. 1995. Embodying Colonial Memories. Routledge.

Endnotes

[i]               Sharp 1999: 5-6; Colleyn 1999: 73
[ii]              Reis 2011: 60, 68
[iii]             Sharp 1999: 8
[iv]             Lan 1985: 7
[v]              Maggie 2011: 149-50
[vi]             Reis 2011: 57-8
[vii]            Lewis 2003: 101
[viii]           Maggie 2011: 147
[ix]             Lewis 2005: 186-7
[x]              Deren 2004: 62
[xi]             Smith 2006: 46
[xii]            Lewis 2003: 67
[xiii]           Hancock 1995: 63
[xiv]           Lewis 2003: 62
[xv]            Lewis 2003: 78; Stoller 2002
[xvi]           Lewis 2003: 92
[xvii]          Smith 2006: 587
[xviii]         Stoller 1995: 37-40
[xix]           Stoller 2002: 266
[xx]            Stoller 2002: 259
[xxi]           Stoller 1995: 117-8
[xxii]          Stoller 2002: 272
[xxiii]         Deren 2004: 170
[xxiv]          Deren 2004: 17
[xxv]           Bell 2009: 82 ff.
[xxvi]          Smith 2006: 71-2
[xxvii]         Lewis 2003: 83
[xxviii]        Sharp 1999: 7-8
[xxix]          Makris 1996: 170-1
[xxx]           Smith 2006: 58
[xxxi]          Smith 2006: 59
[xxxii]         Stoller 2002: 260
[xxxiii]        Lan 1985: 143
[xxxiv]        Ndjio 2011: 172
[xxxv]         Ndjio 2011: 173
[xxxvi]        Lewis 2003: 108
[xxxvii]       Ong 1987: 207 ff.
[xxxviii]      Lewis 2003: 28
[xxxix]        Fanon 2004: 22
[xl]             Reis 2011: 71
[xli]            Fanon 2004: 3
[xlii]           Gordon 2012: 1
[xliii]          Lewis 2003: 182
[xliv]          Lan 1985: 145-
[xlv]           Bhabha 2004: xxxvi
[xlvi]          Smith 2006: 506-7
[xlvii]         Smith 2006: 512 ff.
[xlviii]        Fanon 2004: 19
[xlix]          Lan 1985: xv
[l]               Lan 1985: xvii
[li]              Lan 1985: 113-5
[lii]             Lan 1985: 218-9
[liii]            Lewis 2003: 146
[liv]            Lewis 2003: 157

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

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The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

Faith & Politics in Paganism

Public domain image.

Public domain image.

Should we link our politics and our faith?  This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community.  Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicals has created, especially the recent controversy.

I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip.  Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful.  But even I was drawn partway into this one.  I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me.  It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.  It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck.  For me it did both.

One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith.  That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.

Religion Informs Culture

There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one.  That’s true.  But we do have a distinct Pagan culture.  Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)

The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right.  Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world.  Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far.  Culture is something we talk about as being an important force.  Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.

We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state.  Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion.  We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).

But religion is also a part of culture.  The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule.  Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution, which happened in the mid-seventies.  The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized.  But there are remnants.  For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.

This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec.  There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.

However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique.  It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places.  And we’re learning how to do it better.  For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes.  They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues.  Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies.  I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.

This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.

Ethics

Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity.  Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing.  The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will.  Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.

Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual.  In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions.  (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions.  Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason.  At least, that’s what I think.)

Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us.   This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on.  We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go.  Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community.  Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all.  We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars.  It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what dogma actually is.  Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.

Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down.  But as Brendan Myers once tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic!  Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.

Where am I going with all of this?  I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics.  Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms.  A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility.  I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so.  And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.

Deities Inform Your Politics

Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics.  A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg.  A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order.  Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.

alley-fist

A Personal Perspective

Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe.  I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.

One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery.  “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.

There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect.  Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty.  My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.

As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed.  Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically.  It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.

Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies.  Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression.  This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board.  It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone.  I get more done that way.  And I get encouragement when I need it.  I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals.  But dammit, they’re doing something.  And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”

Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work.  I have written before about how Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant.  At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given.  I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.

But over time that relationship changed.  I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women.  And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions.  I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.

And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer.  She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia.  She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed.  Hence, the choice of my Craft name.

I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics.  It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it.  And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners.  In other words, the 1% of their time.

I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance.  In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.”  I can’t keep my mouth shut.  It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out.  Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.

Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues.  I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either.  I hate fighting.  But sometimes I have to.  If I don’t, who will?

There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day.  I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating).  I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.

But the blogosphere is not one of those places.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics.  The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora.  If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to.  But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.

*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada.  Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph.  Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


 

Gods&Radicals is not just a site of beautiful resistance, but also a publisher of A Beautiful Resistance! Our second issue is out soon, and there’s still time to pre-order or subscribe. You may also like  A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer (featured above).