I’ve waded through some of the back-and-forth – are Pagans inexcusably blasé towards the extreme right? Does anti-fascist zeal suppress free speech? Is truly apolitical religion impossible, or does putting the Gods first imply leaving social concerns second? Reading these arguments, I started recalling a situation from several years ago, back in college in conservative small-town Texas.
Unsurprisingly, my school hosted a profoundly Christian social milieu, including a large evangelical Protestant contingent. I was the only open trans woman there, and one of only three or so Pagans. My friend, an aspiring goði, audaciously started holding semi-public blótar on Ásatrú holidays, and a community accrued around the celebrations.
Most of us weren’t even Pagan, let alone Ásatrú. However, we all shared a feeling of alienation from the college at large: most of us were disabled people, people of color, and/or queer, not to mention unsympathetic to the hegemonic religious culture. Passing the drinking horn, we built a sense of home.
We shared campus with a sect affiliated to theNew Apostolic Reformation, a theocratic Pentecostal Christian movement with a penchant for military imagery (famously documented in the film Jesus Camp). They taught that being disabled showed that God was punishing you for wrongdoing by not healing you, that LGBT identity indicated demonic possession, and that non-Christian religions represented a Satanic conspiracy. So, they chose to target us. Along with several of my friends, I found myself declared an unholy force, in public and by name, in a proclamation of “spiritual warfare.”
“Spiritual warfare,” it turned out, meant several months of organized harassment and stalking, eventually escalating to the point of death threats and (for some of my friends) physical assault. Our opposition to their divine political-religious order rendered us fair game.
I remember them whenever people downplay religious articulations of fascism.
“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”
Much of the outrage at the New Right essay has referred to McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, and notions of censorship and “enforced ideological conformity” in general. If the Pagan left is really against fascism, the critics claim, then why do they want witch hunts and political purges?
The article in question actually calls for none of those things. However, that line of thought still falls back on a central moral claim of classical liberalism, the Enlightenment political current associated with the West’s electoral-capitalist governing structures. As expressed by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, classical liberals asserted:
“[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.“
Mill and his 19th-century fellows mainly concerned themselves with state restrictions on religious meetings and political publications. Nonetheless, the broad acceptance of that ethic has led to its application well beyond public policy. Pagan anti-fascists say that racism has no place in our religions, but we all know that no one is about to get arrestedfor saying “Thor dislikes immigrants.”Censorship, properly defined, isn’t at stake. Rather, the classical liberal “live and let live” attitude has been expanded to suggest that Pagan organizations, events, and communities have no more right to treat certain ideas as unacceptable than the government itself does.
Holding this classical liberal attitude implies little about anyone’s actual political program. Generally speaking, it represents the “common sense” consensus across most belief systems in electoral-capitalist countries. Left, right, or center, virtually everybody in these societies shares the classical liberal sensibility that people should be able to form and express their own particular opinions about things, and no one has any business stopping them. But what does this outlook have to do with the fascist presence in Paganism?
“To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.”
The goals of fascists and reactionaries of any sort (whether New Rightists or old-fashioned blackshirts) aren’t liberal in any sense. However, the Pagan far right knows that the classical liberal ethic can be manipulated for their benefit. When reactionaries invoke coexistence, the toleration of disagreement, and setting aside political differences in religious settings, don’t accept it on face value. The far right’s raison d’être is the disempowerment of social minorities. They might pursue this through racist theology in one place and street violence (or electoral politics) in another, but they never genuinely accept inclusivity or tolerance.
However, some currents – for instance, New Right-aligned Pagans – have wised up to the fact that few people who aren’t already reactionaries will accept those goals if they’re plainly stated. So, they get clever. Pagan far rightists know that most other Pagans would never agree with a policy of “whites only, no queers.” They also know that the Pagan left will never stop calling their ideas what they are: racist and misogynistic.
So, clever reactionaries triangulate. They suggest that they only want to coexist with non-fascist Pagans, but that those nasty left-wingers are trying to kick people out just for disagreeing. They invoke the classical liberal conscience of the majority and frame their practices as basically harmless, only a threat to people who can’t handle freedom of speech.
Of course, their practices are not harmless. Reactionaries aim to suppress social minoritieshowever they can. While, through calculated appeals to “free expression,” they use liberal largesse as cover and try to discredit their critics, they keep quietly carrying out their goals all the while. Let’s glance at a few examples:
Folkish Heathens don’t simply advocate for the exclusion of people of color – they practice it. There is nothing abstract about the way that Folkish Heathen groups turn away non-white seekers and tell Heathens of color that they should not practice their chosen religion. While they materially enact a program of racist exclusion, though,their mainline coreligionists shield them by behaving as if the issue at hand is merely one of belief and disagreement. So, for the sake of “tolerance,” racist discrimination continues – and meanwhile, Folkish Heathenry spills over into secular political racism.
Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) don’t limit themselves to rhetorical attacks on trans women. For decades, TERF factions of Dianic Witchcraft have actively turned away trans seekers and told trans women that we have no place in feminism, women’s spaces, or feminist-oriented Paganism. When theyhide behindclassical liberal notions of “reasonable people disagreeing reasonably,” they obscure the reality of discrimination behind their words. And, of course, this alsocontributes to larger public policy; Goddess Movement TERFs align with secular TERFs and even, sometimes, with right-wing Christiansto oppose trans rights. “Civility” is a red herring meant to obscure their actions’ destructive consequences.
As previously discussed on this site, the leadership of the Left Hand Path Consortium, in the name of “opposing censorship” and permitting “controversial” ideas to be expressed, invited a neo-fascist politician to speak at its conference. His graphic threats of violence eventually led them to withdraw the invitation for legal reasons, but they have already publicly equated “free expression” with their collaborating with someone who himself works with the swastika-sporting, sieg-heiling National Socialist Movement.
Each time, we see reactionaries invoking classical liberal ideas to deflect criticism, and successfully winning over large groups of non-fascist Pagans. While lauding tolerance and freedom as a defensive strategy, the reactionaries arealready implementing an agenda of exclusion, discrimination, and targeted disempowerment. Further, in each case, these far rightists are translating their bases of social support within parts of Paganism into larger, secular political projects aimed at imposing their beliefs on everybody.
Most of the people objecting to the New Right essay, like most Pagans generally, believe in free speech as a matter of principle. Intuitively comparing strident anti-fascism to censorship would seem to follow from that value. Fascists, however, don’t believe in free speech. They don’t believe in free and open participation, and their invocation of classical liberal values is purely opportunistic.
Whenever fascists are tolerated, they enact discrimination. When the rest of us put up with them, we become complicit. Who actually threatens free speech and diversity of opinion: the people who actively drive minority groups away, or the people who point out how wrong that is?
The far right is counting on you to pick the latter.
“I, like you, will defend the right of any American to openly practise & preach any political philosophy from monarchy to anarchy. But this is not the case with regard to the communist.”
Pagan reactionaries may reject classical liberal values, but they’re canny enough to manipulate them. However, they know they can’t do the same with radicals who commit themselves to explicit anti-fascism. They know that for reactionary Paganism to flourish, the Pagan left needs to be pushed out.
So, they get shrewd: invoking freedom and pluralism, they mischaracterize the left as anti-liberty and (with no sense of irony) McCarthyite, then sit back. The well-intentioned liberal majority attacks the left for them. Suddenly, there’s no need to spend much time dealing with critics. Instead, they can get back to doing what they wanted all along – implementing their policies of exclusion and building support for racist and chauvinist politics. They outsource their fights to the liberal majority.
The notion that the far left is a uniquely dangerous threat retains enormous cultural resonance. After all, it’s not as if the capitalist-owned media has much inclination to portray socialists and communists as anything but spies and traitors, or anarchists as much besides domestic terrorists. The ownership class’s use of the schools, the government, and the mass media primes everyone to distrust the left. Capitalism would rather you not take its dissidents seriously. So, when far rightists evoke these images, they do so on purpose – they know it works. They don’t themselves enjoy a dominant position within Paganism (much as they’d like to), but they get by without one. They just count on high-minded liberals to punish anti-fascists for them.
Fascists don’t need you to be a fascist. They just need you to pick the same enemies.
“Opponents [of a bill dismantling anti-discrimination protections] would have condemned it, but in doing so confirmed that the modern secular left condemns all religious freedoms that impede their agenda, and that the RFRAtruly has nothing to do with hate or discrimination.”
Back in Texas, my friends and I didn’t take the New Apostolic Reformation harassment without protest. We implored our moderate and liberal Christian friends to speak out against their fellow Christians’ behavior, and even took the situation to the college administration. Every time, we got the same response: the sect espoused “offensive ideas,” but we should “respect their religious freedom” and not “punish them for their beliefs.”
But it was never a matter of belief.No one had to take it on faith that they were threatening us. After a while, the mix of stalking, occasional physical violence, and indifferent peers and administrators wore us down. Some of us dropped out of school entirely. At least one had a full-fledged psychiatric breakdown. I had to take a leave of absence halfway through one semester. And a couple of years later, I found out that most of the sects’ members had moved out of state together, where their group had finally collapsed, revealing rampant sexual abuse and even sparking a murder investigation. “Offensive ideas” indeed.
Most of us can quite happily “agree to disagree.” Reactionaries want you to take that attitude towards them, but they won’t extend it to the demographics they hate. Just as my school’s ignoring religiously-motivated violence allowed it to escalate, so does our tolerating ideologies of violence and discrimination enable their ongoing implementation. Sure, there will always be people with destructive worldviews, and we can’t expect to win them all over. But they can’t enact their agendas alone. Without a social climate that lets them flourish, they would find themselves entirely marginal and effectively too isolated to function.
If each one of us, far left or not, said, whenever we encountered reactionary ideas, “As your coreligionist and a fellow practitioner of our tradition, these notions don’t belong here,” then crypto-fascist groups would be unable to discriminate, unable to recruit, and eventually unable to survive. They need the tacit complicity of the non-fascist majority in order to keep existing (and recruiting). Among Pagans, they’ve been getting it. Of course, the majority retains the power to reject them.
We only need the will.
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.
“Their primary focus is to now enter social movements, community spaces, spiritual communities, and the like, and influence them in a certain direction, usually towards the “preservation of the European traditions and people.”
The folk-song collector Alan Lomax once described the Gaelic song tradition of the Hebrides as “the flower of Western Europe,” and I for one agree with him. I love Gaelic songs so much I’ve taught myself how to sing several of them – including a few about old pagan heroes like Fraoch and Caoilte. I sing them to my kids as lullabies. I taught myself how to speak Gaelic to a beginner-intermediate level. I even wrote some bad poetry in the language. I worship Gaelic deities such as Brighid and Macha, and I practice a martial art involving a Gaelic weapon (the Highland broadsword).
Still, I never call myself a Gael nor do I consider myself a Gael. I love and appreciate Gaelic culture, but it’s not my identity. I was born and raised in New England, surrounded by English-speakers. My mother’s ancestors were Karelian Finns, my father’s a mix including Scots, Irish, German and even Transylvanian. I once answered the question “what is your ethnic identity” on a Gaelic learner’s survey with the phrase “Tha mi ‘nam Geangach!” (I am a Yankee!)
Few issues are as emotionally important to me as the survival of the Gaelic language and culture, which have been under threat for centuries. So why am I uncomfortable with forms of polytheism based on ethnic identity – even when that identity is described as Gaelic?
2- “What’s broken can always be fixed. What’s fixed will always be broken.”
“Fascism, as a radical current, critiques the current social order for various reasons, often times taking to task the same things that revolutionaries do on the left. Boredom. Environmental destruction. Alienation. Poor living standards. All of these things are presented often times within the fascist program of critique, but it does so with a fundamentally different set of values.”
In modern capitalist society, alienation and disenchantment are the normal state of being. People feel cut off from each other, cut off from their own selves, soul-less.
It’s only natural that some people would seek to recover what they feel they have lost, creating or recreating an identity from the broken pieces they’ve been given. That’s how it was for me. When I was a kid, my parents told me that my distant Thompson ancestors had come from Scotland, and for some reason that gave me a sense of who I was and led to my lifelong interest in Scottish history and culture.
That doesn’t make me Scottish, though. I’m still a Geangach. If I was to think of myself as being Scottish, I’d have to disregard and erase not only all my other ancestors, but my actual life experience as a New Englander. I can’t just pick one element of who I am and blow it up into a new identity. Not even if it was a much larger part of my actual background – I don’t think of myself as a Finn either, although my mother’s first language was Finnish.
I worship Gaelic deities because I love and honor those deities and Celtic mythology in general. I don’t worship them because they’re “the gods of my ancestors,” even though a few of my ancestors probably did worship them in the distant past.
Some religions are firmly based in a specific ethnic identity, but those ethnic identities are unbroken and continuous. If I had been born in the Hebrides, I might think of my worship of Brighid as being part of my ancestral heritage. Here in Maine, the context for my religion is totally different. Any attempt to base my worship of Gaelic deities in some notion of Gaelic identity would feel like an artificial construct to me.
So, I sometimes describe myself as a Gaelic Polytheist or a Celtic Polytheist because the deities I worship are Gaelic and Celtic and because I pray to them in the Gaelic language. But when I interact with other Gaelic Polytheists, I soon find that many of them mean something very different by the phrase. Many of them refer to the Gaelic gods as being the gods of “our people,” by which they specifically mean people of Gaelic descent. Not people in the Gaelic communities of Ireland or Scotland, but people in the United States and elsewhere with Gaelic ancestors – even if they haven’t spoken any Gaelic in many generations. They’re talking about “Gaelic blood” – and that makes me squirm.
3- “Serpents and sons of blood…”
(H)ierarchy, authority, tradition, and strength over the weak are the values, and the political apparatus that is chosen is just the method…
Maybe it’s because I have no more than a drop or two of “Gaelic blood” myself – except that languages don’t have “blood.” A recent DNA study on the MacNeills of Barra concluded that the clan was almost entirely of Scandinavian descent, yet the MacNeills were unquestionably a Gaelic-speaking Highland clan. Any claim of “Gaelic identity” based on genealogy alone is questionable at best, because Gaelic identity is not racial and cannot be reduced to DNA. Donald Trump’s mother was born on Stornoway in the Outher Hebrides, yet Trump shows not the barest hint of a traditional Gaelic worldview or mentality.
Gaelic Polytheists don’t seem to be like this. Every Gaelic Polytheist group I’ve come across seems to be aware in one way or another of traditional Gaelic values, and interested in reviving or renewing them. Yet I’m still uncomfortable.
The strong emphasis on ethnic identity bothers me, as does the strong emphasis on tribalism as the ideal form of social organization. The meticulous Gaelic-ness of a modern polytheist organization, based self-consciously on Iron Age social structures – none of this bears much resemblance to Gaelic culture as it currently exists. If we’re not just reviving the worship of ancient deities but the entire structure of ancient Gaelic society, that can only be because we believe that society to have been a superior way of life for us to emulate. Why exactly should we make that assumption?
Like many other Brigidine devotees, I tend to interpret St. Brigid of Kildare as having a strong connection to the pre-Christian goddess. I can’t prove the connection and you don’t have to agree with me, but Brigid’s comments about the social order of her own era still seem highly relevant to me. According to the Vita Prima or “First Life” of St. Brigid, the saint once said:
“the sons of kings are serpents and sons of blood and sons of death…”
People who admire Iron Age Irish society uncritically won’t be thrilled with this description, but is it not an accurate description of the sons of power and privilege in any era?
Leaving aside the fact that “sons of death” is probably a reference to berserker-like pagan warbands, this is still a striking condemnation of the injustice and inequality St. Brigid saw and fought in her own society.
She was, after all, born a slave in that society.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to admire about ancient pagan Ireland – personally I admire many things about ancient Ireland. However, I do think we should be cautious about taking it as a model. We should be cautious about taking any form of past society as a model, not because the past was worse than our own time but because we need to think carefully about what kind of society we want to replace capitalism with.
If we approach this project with sloppy thinking, we leave ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by the most cowardly and intellectually dishonest people in the pagan community.
I’m talking about fascists.
4- Fith-Fath Fascism
The reality is that the obvious images of traditional war fascism are so repugnant to everyone in modern society that people who share those ideas are never going to cloak themselves in them if they want any chance of success…
I don’t believe in progress. I don’t believe societies move from a “tribal” model to some more “progressive” model in any linear way. I don’t believe in regress either, so I don’t think of tribal society as some lost golden age we have to fight to recover.
Rather, I think societies develop based on specific and localized circumstances. People always have problems to solve, and societies develop in different directions to address the specific problems they face. Some of those solutions are ad hoc and some are well thought-out. Some are optimal and some are very much less than optimal. Some are cynical maneuvers to benefit a few.
When I question the concept of tribalism in pagan religion or leftist politics, I’m not criticizing tribal societies. I’m not even dismissing the possibility that our religion and our politics could give birth to healthy, happy and flourishing neopagan tribes. These things could happen, and I have friends and family who describe themselves as tribalists. Some of them are also influential and very knowledgeable Gaelic Polytheists, and some are committed anti-racists.
Still, in the big picture of history, tribal forms of organization are neither better nor worse than other forms of organization. They just are what they are.
However, they do offer one thing that a lot of us crave, and that’s a strong sense of connection and identity. This is exactly what many of us are looking for, and this where our vulnerability to fascist infiltration creeps in.
When Gaelic warriors would raid into enemy territory, they would sometimes use a magic spell called a fith-fath to ensure that anyone who spotted them would mistake them for deer or other animals. Like shapeshifting infiltrators from an enemy tribe, fascists and white supremacists cloak themselves in whichever shape will best disguise them, always hoping not to be noticed so they can introduce their toxic ideas.
We would all reject someone talking openly about totalitarian rule and white supremacy, but when those same values are cloaked in words like “European heritage,” “tribal identity” and “warrior values” we may not see them for what they really are.
People who have been fooled so completely will sometimes go to absurd lengths to argue that they have not actually been hoodwinked – as in the recent controversy about Stephen McNallen, head of the Asatru Folk Assembly. McNallen called for the revival of the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi vigilante militia, to “protect” white Europeans from Muslim refugees. Yet he continues to claim he isn’t a white supremacist, and some people in the heathen community seem to want to believe him. Why would anyone accept such a ridiculous claim? This is the nature of shapeshifting, the nature of glamour. Until we are willing to see the truth and say the truth, the spell keeps working.
5- “Weak toward the feeble, strong toward the powerful”
At their core is a disbelief in the capability of all people to rule, the inequality and stratification amongst people, the essential nature of value in biology, and the need to lead through violence, heroism, and strength…
Some people in the Gaelic Polytheist community seem to have a serious misconception about the role of strength – one that doesn’t align with traditional Gaelic values, but does align with fascist values.
“Our ancestors valued strength above all else.”
“Considering that strength was so important to our warrior ancestors…”
“Our ancestors venerated strength…”
“How do I deal with negative feelings, when I know that our Celtic ancestors valued strength and despised weakness?”
These are paraphrases of comments I’ve seen in the community. Let’s compare them to some actual quotes from Gaelic wisdom-literature, which is generally presented as being spoken by kings or warrior heroes:
Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness. (Maxims of the Fianna)
I was weak toward the feeble, I was strong toward the powerful. (Cormac MacArt)
Do not deride the aged when you have youth. Do not deride the poor when you have wealth. Do not deride the lame when you are swift. Do not deride the blind though you have sight. Do not deride the ill when you have strength. Do not deride the dull when you are clever. Do not deride the foolish though you are with wisdom. (Cormac MacArt)
These are brief quotes without full context, but as you can see they do not glorify strength for its own sake and they specifically forbid the warrior from despising weakness. The ideal presented in these texts is to be strong when strength is appropriate and gentle when gentleness is appropriate. It’s an ethic of balance, not of domineering aggression.
So where are Gaelic Polytheists getting the idea that “our ancestors” valued strength above all else? How could this misconception have crept into the community, among people who have read a lot of old Gaelic lore and should know better than to fall for it?
I would suggest that this is no accident,and that the presence of this idea in the community indicates that fascist values are creeping in without being recognized. That doesn’t mean the people repeating the idea are fascists- only that they’ve been fooled by the fascists.
Remember, modern fascists are cowards and liars, and most of them will never admit to being what they really are. They will always pretend to be something else, cloaking the same old ideas in new rhetoric and new symbols. Tribalism is sometimes used as one of those symbols, but that’s only fitting – considering that the whole concept was invented by colonialist anthropologists in the 19th century.
6- What Comes After
Fascism promises to restore the true order, the heroic history that never was. Fascism outlines a mythology about a particular grouping by suggesting that in the past it was racially homogenous, filled with heroes, perfectly run, and where by people are spiritually fulfilled.
The whole notion of pagan tribalism (and anarcho-tribalism, for that matter) depends on the concept of “tribe.” Yet the validity of this concept is far from established, and the word is now rejected by many anthropologists.
According to the Encylopedia Brittanica:
Tribe, in anthropology, a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups (known as bands), having temporary or permanent political integration, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology… The term originated in ancient Rome, where the word tribus denoted a division within the state. It later came into use as a way to describe the cultures encountered through European exploration. By the mid-19th century, many anthropologists and other scholars were using the term, as well as band, chiefdom, and state, to denote particular stages in unilineal cultural evolution. Although unilineal cultural evolution is no longer a credible theory, these terms continue to be used as a sort of technical shorthand in college courses, documentaries, and popular reference works.
Actual “tribes” are highly diverse in terms of social and political organization. Some are hereditary monarchies, some have ruling councils, some use a feudal structure, some are almost totally decentralized. So there isn’t really any clear definition of the word “tribe,” except that it refers to a stage in a completely fictional model of social evolution designed to justify imperialism. One aspect of “tribe” in the anthropological sense is homogeneity of ancestry, language, culture and ideology – so if we describe ourselves as neo-tribalists, we’re implying that we want a similar homogeneity.
After capitalism destroys itself, it is certainly possible that people will form new “tribal” societies in order to survive. If we think carefully about what we want to do ahead of time, we may choose to do something completely different – like the Kurds of Syria. After the central government withdrew from their area, they chose not to base their new society on Kurdish ethnic identity even though they could easily have done so. Instead they set out to create a radically egalitarian, multi-ethnic society.
As capitalism continues its forced march toward self-destruction, one of the most useful things we can do is to think about how we would make use of the precious opportunity a similar power vacuum would give us. The fascists are doing exactly that, and we know very well what their world would look like. For those of us who embrace pagan tribalism or anarcho-tribalism, the challenge is to enact whatever we value in the concept of “tribe” without being infiltrated and corrupted by fascist values.
That isn’t our only option, though. Instead of trying to form pagan tribes, we can take our pagan values and make them part of a truly free, truly equal new form of social order. The Kurds of Rojava were up to the challenge. Are we?
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.
In my day to day life (setting aside the world of the internet) I travel more in academic than pagan or occult circles and as such I am more likely to interact with, say, a Marxist professor than a druid. This has made me acutely aware of a challenge to the unification of Paganism and radical anti-capitalist politics that might be less pressing to those more fully engaged in the unification from the side of convincing and motivating other pagans. I more frequently face, and can anticipate resistance from, those fully identified with various brands of radical anti-capitalist politics from Marxism through to anarchism than from anyone associated with Paganism or occultism.
In such a crowd the challenge is not to convince anyone of the problem of capitalism, that work is well over, but rather to answer their confusion when attempting to establish solidarity between a pagan perspective and their own. Of course many of my more strictly activist friends don’t much care either way, their attitude is largely that you can believe what you want just so long as you fight for the right things, but the rather high theoretical level of debate that often occurs with those who are both professional academic and political companions raises some serious challenges. These challenges have often hovered in the back of my mind as I have written my previous posts, and many answers to them have been embedded in those posts though they have not always been overtly discussed as such.
I think the time has come, however, for me to attempt to directly address at least one type of criticism of Paganism and magical practices from the standpoint of radical theory and practice. This challenge takes the form of a criticism of pagans and occultists as stuck in a counterproductive idealogical illusion. At the simplest level it shows up as a criticism of us as trapped in “magical thinking” which distracts, limits, or misdirects our potential for real political action.
For now I will not be concerned with the question of what actual type or mode of thought we could accurately call magical. Rather I will simply be relying upon various standard formulations of the idea of “magical thinking” as found in political theory, anthropology, and psychology in order to assess whether the application of this term to pagan anti-capitalism is fair. For this purpose we should note that “magical thinking” as I intend to use it is almost universally considered a bad thing, sometimes it is even considered the fatal illness that keeps people from coming to meaningful political consciousness. In a nonpolitical context I was recently talking with a pagan priest who was seeking psychological counseling for concerns unrelated to Paganism or the occult but who found it impossible to get his therapist to discuss anything other than a diagnosis and treatment of “magical thinking” based on nothing more than the fact that my friend was a pagan priest! Clearly this was a bad therapist, but the general attitude is not an anomaly especially in much of the radical anti-capitalist community.
So, what is “magical thinking”? The most direct formulation of it is not very useful, as it is too question-begging to withstand the slightest criticism. This would understand “magical thinking” as you might expect, the belief in “false causes” such as spells and so on. I say that this formulation is not useful because it simply shifts the conversation to the question of whether or not magic is actually real and effective. Theoretically this is an interminable question and anyone with a grounding in philosophy of science should see it can’t at all be the start of a criticism but rather an endlessly postponed potential conclusion. Arguing with a Marxist over the reality of magic when they accuse you of “magical thinking” is not a productive endeavor. It is a criticism just as naive as it assumes the fault it claims to diagnose is. Plus, ultimately, it is purely a practical question of strategy no different in kind from “does peaceful protest or participation in mainstream politics work or is revolution necessary”. So I will put aside any question as to the reality or efficacy of magic and feel justified in doing so because I think this isn’t really the meaningful content of a criticism of “magical thinking”.
Rather than focus on the practical and empirical questions associated with magic we can instead consider “magical thinking” as an epistemic criticism. In fact, engaging in “magical thinking” can be understood as being victim to a type of ideology in the Marxist sense in which the concrete relation between people and social classes is mystified. This would also associate it closely with the idea of religion as the “opium of the masses”. I would like to focus, then, on a few different approaches to understanding the ideological illusion known as “magical thinking” and then ask whether Paganism 1. necessarily falls prey to this ideological illusion or 2. tends towards this ideological illusion.
Rather than engage with the frequently racist and culturally imperialist origins of the concept of “magical thinking” in anthropology, I shall instead focus on its appearance in radical political theory. My two main theoretical resources will be the work of Paulo Friere (and the influence of Erich Fromm upon it) as found in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the discussion by Marx of ideology and religion as the opium of the masses.
Loving Death and Loving Life
Friere was a Brazilian philosopher and educator with a particular concern for the ways in which education disempowers or politically empowers disenfranchised members of a community. Through extensive work with the illiterate poor in Brazil he developed a distinction between two different types of eduction. The first, and most traditional method, he terms the “banking method of education” which sees the student as a passive and obedient receptacle into which the active and authoritarian teacher deposits information and skills. The second method, which he implemented with great success, was termed the problem-posing method. It is unnecessary to go into too many details about the philosophy of education here, though I encourage any of you to check out Friere’s excellent work, but the key point for us is the unification of the banking method of education with a certain perspective it engenders in its students that Friere frequently refers to as a “magical” view of the world.
Whereas the banking method directly or indirectly reinforces men’s fatalistic perception of their situation, the problem-posing method presents this very situation to them as a problem. As the situation becomes the object of their cognition, the naive or magical perception which produced their fatalism gives way to perception which is able to perceive itself even as it perceives reality, and can thus be critically objective about that reality.
(Paulo Friere Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapter 2)
Using a distinction derived from Erich Fromm, Friere describes the banking method as necrophily, or the love of death, versus the biophily, or love of life, found in the problem posing method. A necrophily perspective is death loving to the extent that it embraces those things that characterize death and rejects those things that characterize life. Specifically, life is always growing and changing while those things that are dead are unchanging. Necrophily is primarily characterized, then, by a view of the world as stable and unchanging. Whether this applies to “laws of nature” or mathematical truths or economics or the laws of grammar the key effect of this “death loving” rejection of change is that it presents social and historical relations as fixed and only unrealistically resisted. Necrophilic education inspires one, then, to “wisely” and “practically” adjust oneself to the powers-that-be and learn how to get along while sticking to your place and accommodating your superiors. Biophily, on the other hand, recognizes that whatever is currently the case has come to be and both can and will inevitably change. What is more, it recognizes that each person has an active role to play in those changes. If one adjusts oneself to the current social formulation one is actively contributing to its maintenance and if one works to change it one is actively contributing to the continual growth and change of society. There is no passive option since inaction is an active choice contributing to the structure of the whole.
We are rather familiar with a naive necrophilic perspective in the guise of those who not only cannot imagine a world without capitalism but actually think the idea of such a world is unrealistic and utopian. Such a perspective is naive because capitalism is far from the standard social formation throughout history and came about through various rather unexpected events, actions, and changes in history. Capitalism’s specific contemporary formations are a rather young thing and the dogmatic adherence to it as the only possible way of life is just as naive as assuming that any other current aspect of our situation is somehow historically prioritized or ordain and can’t or won’t change. Of one thing we can be certain, all will change eventually and frequently rather sooner than we suspect. This unquestionability of the present is connected to a key aspect of ideology in general, specifically ideology consists of a process of naturalization in which it is assumed that something is right and unchanging because it is presented as natural and universal (check out Judith Butler on the ideological naturalization of gender to see some excellent discussions of how this works).
The necrophilic perspective is the one termed “magical” and is clearly conjoined with fatalism. The necrophilic mistake is to assume that the current formulation of reality is ordained and maintained by some ultimate force – for many it has been God though more recently it is just as likely to be Nature. Capitalism, one hears, derives from “human nature” which we don’t choose or form and which we cannot change. Communism, socialism, anarchism, etc. are all lovely ideas but they are fantasies because they do not accommodate themselves to the unchanging dictates of Nature (or God and so on). We see clearly here the fatalism to which Friere refers.
The “magical” aspect of this worldview is related to the fatalism. It is magical to the extent that it takes social and economic facts to be symbols of deeper metaphysical truths or forces. One of the easiest examples of this shows up in the influence of Protestantism on the early formation of capitalism (and its remaining influence in contemporary American Prosperity Theology). As Max Weber made clear in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, early capitalism was fundamentally influenced by the reliance of some Protestant religious views on worldly success as a sign of having been chosen and saved by God. Success in business was a symbol of having been blessed by God and granted both grace and salvation. Worldly power and success are symbols of spiritual blessedness in the same way that being a member of the aristocracy was seen as a sign of having been chosen by God for power during the medieval period or membership in a given caste was representative of the Karmic state of the soul in Hinduism. This ideological equation of worldly status with otherworldly merit is clearly fatalistic and overlaps with one of the earliest understandings of “magical thinking” in terms of an associative thinking that sees symbolic meaning behind everyday objects and events.
It is important to note that the symbolic view of the universe is not, in and of itself, the problem but rather the specific claims of what symbolizes what and the related assumption that this symbolic connection (for example of wealth with holiness) underwrites the justice of the economic situation and its stability. The view is “magical” in a negative sense because it assumes a magical force endorses the current social configuration and it would be wrong, or impossible, to change it. It should be clear that there are much more common and equally “superstitious” or “magical” views of wealth and “success” floating around which we might be more familiar with, for example the simple equation of wealth with merit so common in capitalistic thinking. The idea that hard work, intelligence, virtue, talent etc. has primarily resulted in the status of the wealthy “mystifies” a very real collection of concrete relations of historical dominance, violence, theft, and privilege all grounded in luck (including accidents of birth such as race, sex, family, social class, global location, community membership, inborn mental and bodily characteristics and so on). Such views, whether of the “god given” or “self-made” variety, both inspire a type of paralysis because they make clear that things are as they should, and must, be.
Keeping in view the concrete matrix of forces and accidents that have given rise to the contemporary moment does not, however, foreclose at the same time reading this matrix in terms of symbols or as expressions of other levels of reality. A Marxist may remain at the level of the determining force of material economic factors but others, some pagans for instance, can accept the reality of this level while at the same time seeing it as an expression of a complex of forces at another level; for example a conflict amongst different gods or metaphysical principles. This doesn’t dismiss or foreclose the necessity of acting on the worldly level, rather the reverse. It hallows the profane with a sacred purpose in a way that is exceptionally foreign to religions focused on transcendental salvation in overt rejection of natural daily life. Within the domain of some universal all-powerful perfect monotheist creator God worldly welfare for others or for oneself tends to collapse into one of two categories; it is either a gift from God or to be dismissed in preference to God.
Our discussion has brought us into contact with a general criticism of religion for its penchant for “magical thinking” with hints that paganism may be able to avoid some key aspects of this criticism. Before we attempt to expand upon these hints, let us look at one of the most famous criticisms of religion from the stance of radical politics.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
The idea of religion as an opium of the masses has two senses here and the most overt one is not the one most commonly discussed. The most common understanding of the opium of the masses is that it is used to pacify the masses and make them tractable. This is what Christianity did when it justified monarchy via the authority of the Divine Tyrant just as much as when it counseled the poor to tolerate their lot and patiently wait for heavenly reward or counseled the slave to obey the master. All world-hating religions, intentionally or not, serve to prop up the status quo by directing people away from worldly action and concerns.
The above sense of “opium” does not, however, seem to be Marx’s main target here. Indeed, his discussion of religion is more ambiguous than that. Instead, religion is a sigh of the suffering and a heart in a heartless world. As the image of the chain covered in flowers makes clear, religion is also a beautification of a rather ugly situation. Insofar as it brings some grace to a graceless world and some comfort to those in pain it is not to be despised, but to the extent that this grace and comfort keep people from changing the world in which they suffer it is indeed a malevolent force of seduction.
Many forms of paganism are decidedly this-worldly, as I have often enough stressed in my previous posts, and as such do not inspire transcendental dreams of escaping the world of nature and political/economic struggle. Indeed, this world of nature is frequently enough understood either as identical with the object of worship or a particularly important manifestation or expression of the gods. We see this as well in some pagan visions of the afterlife (though it is worth noting that nowhere is the history of pagan religions so diverse as in views of what happens after death – every position from the achievement of a paradise to entirely ceasing to exist can be found). In some traditions death represents an increased identification with nature, in others we find the idea that the dead join together to continue to fight for their community, family, values and concerns in this world – the revolution continues after death, only the strategies have changed. Sometimes life is to be preferred to death, as in the shade of Achilles’ haunting words to Odysseus: “…don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.” Whatever the fate of the dead, the focus is most often on this world, this life, and what we can and must do with it.
When religion is opium it provides comfort, but it is comfort by way of reassurance, by way of promises. Most Paganism makes no promises, indeed we can even find highly nihilistic forms of paganism. Opiate religion counsels the slave to be a good slave and, later, the master shall suffer and the slave shall be king. Opiate religion counsels the servant that real riches are found Beyond, or that the ruler is ruler by divine right and so deserves the service of those who are inferior. Paganism, often enough, counsels not to trust the promises of the gods. Nothing is assured, each and every god faces challenges, opposition, potential downfall and even death. Yes, in most forms of Paganism even the gods might die. What is has come about through struggle, through the conflicts amongst gods and conflicts amongst people. What is can change and will change, whether the grand cosmic order or the specific contours of our life. The pagan world is one of conflicting forces, a conflict we might hope and strive to make more a dance than a brawl, but a shifting and growing one nonetheless. When I speak with my gods, though of course I cannot speak for any of you, they do not tell me “Have faith, all will be well,” they tell me “Struggle, and we will struggle with you.”
There are, then, several aspects of Paganism as generally conceived that resist any accusations of “magical thinking”. First, Paganisms tend to see reality as too complex and pluralistic a collection to suggest that things are the way they aught or must be. Second, Paganisms tend to rely upon a view of history as the story (whether the story of gods, nature, or humanity) of how the current world has been crafted piece by piece through work and struggle, cooperation and accident. Nature and humanity, together with the many divinities, have all played off of each other as a restless changing community that continues to craft itself. Third, Paganisms tend to imply that gods and people alike are subject to a fate or chance that is, at least in part and sometimes very largely, a mystery. Zeus is as confused by the inevitable fall of Troy as anyone, and Odin cannot avoid Ragnarok. But this fate, as mysterious, is not a divine dictate or ordained order. There is the necessary, but humanity and the gods rarely know what is necessary or why. Fourth, more often than not the Otherworld of Paganism is an aspect of this world and the struggles that take place there are often focused on this world. There is very rarely any implication that the Otherworld, however it is conceived, is the real focus of this life when the gods themselves are bent upon this world from their own abodes. Most often the Otherworld is a neighborhood just adjacent to our own and not another reality in any robust sense. Worldly concerns and struggles pour back and forth across these vague boundaries almost constantly.
None of this is to say that pagans or Paganism can’t fall into “magical thinking” in any of the ways it has been discussed here. It certainly can, and it has at various points in history. Indeed, Hinduism is arguably a pagan religion and its view of social caste and reincarnation has clearly at times acted as a primary example of “magical” opium. But, I would suggest, Paganism is clearly not equatable to “magical thinking” and its inherent tendency as manifest repeatedly throughout different pagan cultures and religions is in opposition to “magical thinking”. This is not the case, I would argue, with any transcendental religion insofar as true value in these is always to be located somewhere and somewhen else than here and now. It is also not the case with monotheistic religions insofar as omnipotence precludes the possibility of any real conflict, productive activity, or accident at the ultimate level of reality. The battles within a monotheistic myth cycle are always staged affairs aimed more at enforcing obedience than co-creating reality.
Finally, many types of Paganism offer something that a stark political materialism such as that commonly found in Marxist and anarchist thought can not. It offers a view of the struggle that goes beyond the purely humanist. Marx’ criticism of religion clearly has a humanist ring as he calls for man to become his own sun. For most Paganisms this can’t but ring false. We fight not only for ourselves, but also for and along side of the forces of nature. The world is neither a creation of human consciousness alone nor raw material for our productive capabilities, these views are the failed remnants of a Modernism much radical politics has failed to get beyond. In the maintenance of a thoroughly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric view of nature, it is largely the adherents of radical political theory who have fallen into a mystifying ideological illusion that ignores the real community in which we find ourselves engaged as companions to all the other aspects of nature. Far from diverting our political action, this instead strengthens and motivates it in a way that other forms of radical politics can often fail to do. There is, all things considered, plenty of “magical thinking” involved in the very technological triumphalism and scientism that many radical anticapitalist agendas believe can save us.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to Paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem
I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories – a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.
When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.
With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see below, my post didn’t pick up any replies:
Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).
It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.
Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.
But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.
Before I took the train home, I joined a massive illegal march through the streets of Paris. A kaleidoscope of people from every corner of the world, bedecked in red cut a path through the city, flooding from the Arch de Triomph to the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, one of Europe’s Mother Rivers. One of the last things I saw that day was a group of young Muslims, gathered together, posing for a photograph with a banner proclaiming the sacred duty – enshrined in the Qur’an – to steward the Earth on behalf of Allah. They stood upon the Champ de Mars, an open field named after Campus Martius in Rome, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the heart of Paris. Sacred to Mars, the God of War, the original Field of Mars was the gathering place of Roman soldiers, before they marched off to fight hostile tribes. Mars is the God of War, but also of wild, growing things – of field and forest. His wars are – unlike those his Greek brother Ares – not mindless aggression, but rather conflict that seeks, in the end, a stable peace. Mars does not fight for the love of it, but because necessity drives him to do so. What unites this broad set of quality is the core masculine virtue of the Roman people – namely, virilitas – a life-essence that gives us the strength to secure peace, and make the Earth fruitful.
The fact that the illegal action on Saturday culminated in a place dedicated to such a god was, to my mind, a powerful ritual act. The patriarchal notion that only men possess the essential vital quality needed to promote peace and restore life is wrong; but the idea that these two objectives share a common foundation is more relevant than ever. To refer back to Laudato ’si, the plight of the Earth and the plight of the poor are one common cause. People from all over the Earth; men, women and everyone else; standing together hand-in-hand, before heading out to fight for the safety and fertility of the world upon which we all rely. Though I had to leave before the ceremonies were over, I was careful to say a prayer to Mars before I did.
Even though Paganism had no formal representation at the Conference, the influence of the kinds of thinking of which we are custodians was present in subtle ways. In the Green Zone itself, one of the official art installations involved brightly-painted trees, upon which visitors could tie ribbons upon which they had written their wishes for a better future. To tie a clootie in the heart of the Green Zone; to sing, and teach and pray in public; to represent our traditions as part of a great multitude – all these acts are sacred, and carry great potency. We neglect these rites only at great cost.
I say we should stand up for the planet and its people; we should be recognisable and recognised.
I’ll meet you on the Fields of Mars.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
In front of Planned Parenthood across the street, they’re displaying neon yellow posters with Photoshopped fetuses. Standing in a semicircle, they read from their Bible, and they pray. Sometimes, they walk across the intersection to our side — glaring at our signs saying “Tacoma is a Pro-Choice Town” and “Pro-Health Pro-Choice,” blaring YouTube sermons from portable speakers, or asking us to talk. It’s like talking to cops, my Clinic Defense friends tell me; they want to get under your skin, get you upset, rile you up. Give them your story and you give them power.
I nod. I know the type: “prayer warriors,” living for the struggle. In their hands, the biblical “sword of the spirit” gets as close to literal violence as the law permits (and sometimes goes even further, as a string of assassinated doctors testifies). But today, they stick to their corner and we stick to ours. Eventually, they get bored, say one final prayer together, and pack up their signs and leave. As we start to do the same, I recite the Orphic Hymn to the Meter Theon (Mother of the Gods, Kybele), and the bearded man on my right says “blessed be.”
Every time the anti-choicers protest, they pray. Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means” — and in their spiritual war, Jesus serves as both casus belli and favorite weapon. The sense of purpose driving their mix of legislative lobbying and personal intimidation may strike a secular progressive as nothing but patriarchy in motion, but for them? It’s transcendental. They don’t do politics (or, for that matter, patriarchy) for the sake of reforms or social classes, or for the game itself. The intoxication of divine mission overwhelms everything — including the specific imperatives that such a mission contains.
I spend a lot of time at protests and at each one, I pray to the Meter Theon. I feel deep, exhilarating joy at seeing polytheist anticapitalism become a proper movement, not just a rare and private preoccupation. But the fact that we’re here at all begs the question:
Do our gods agree with our politics? Are we, like the militants in front of the clinic, applying a feeling of divine energy to a social cause?
Now, I could observe that just as gods are diverse and individual, so too are their social demands. I could speculate that housing Syrian refugees enacts piety toward Zeus, defender of guests, or that Artemis Eileithyia, helper in childbirth, surely demands that prenatal healthcare be accessible. However, that strikes me as somehow disingenuous — shouldn’t politics and ethics fundamentally attend to the people whose needs they address, rather than to gods whom we couldn’t endanger even if we tried?
So, while my worship of the Theoi may not cleanly untangle from left-wing organizing, at the root, I don’t look to them to provide me with a social agenda. Movements aren’t made of gods. The sidewalk by Planned Parenthood isn’t the Trojan plain; we aren’t armed with Olympian gifts. Our causes matter because they matter to mortals. But across the street, they don’t agree. Ask them why they’re out there shouting at strangers; they’ll tell you it’s because they believe that the imperative to do so comes as a package deal with the sense of meaning that, they claim, only Jesus can provide.
But why should finding meaning for mortals be a god’s job?
“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”
– Rev. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church
Whether we polytheists like it or not, the societies in which most of us live remain ideologically Christian. This hegemonic worldview seeps out of religious participation and trickles down into every part of our sense of the world. Christian theology dictates common sense, “normal” emotional response, and the pre-conscious attitudes and assumptions that structure every Western culture and nearly every psyche living within them.
However, dominant Christianity is itself dominated. The capitalist system — economic and political control by the business class — exercises even more power over Christianity than Christianity does over everything else. If Jesus serves a political agenda, an economist will find it faster than a theologian. So, what does a religious basis for meaning in life mean in practice?
According to the seminal sociologist Max Weber, the “Protestant work ethic” means valorizing exertion, discipline, and frugality as inherently good things themselves, rather than just as the means to an end; it’s the theology of putting in extra overtime and thinking, “I should be saving more money.” Further, he claims that this attitude could never have become widespread without the emergence of capitalism from the collapse of the medieval system.
As Weber writes,
“Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”
Getting religion meant getting a job. From this angle, it’s no coincidence that a career path became a “vocation” — from the Latin “vocatio,” a calling. Just as a clergyperson is called to receive ordination, so is a truck driver divinely called to deliver on time, or a factory worker to stand at the assembly line, or a grocery clerk to take inventory (even to the point of using the same word!). Existential meaning, Christ, and work all melt into one.
Who, I wonder, might want to promote such an attitude?
“There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ.”
– John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil Company
As in all social matters, we should first ask: who benefits? When a worker believes that all meaning comes from Christ, and Christ says “go to work,” the boss isn’t complaining. Since the business class is currently the most powerful class, their philosophy is the most powerful philosophy, and their religion the most powerful religion. Collapsing deity, work, and purpose all together provides them with one of the weapons they use to keep things that way. And, like every ruling class, they gladly affirm Alexander Pope’s dictum (from an explicitly theological poem, no less), hoping you’ll believe it, too:
“Whatever is, is right.”
So, what makes a god a weapon? The political strength of a social class.
“On the other hand, that man is a weakling and a degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself.”
– Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher
The gods with whom I relate are just as real as any human I’ve met. However, the shared characteristic of existing does not render deities and mortals interchangeable! As Seneca reminds us, while the gods may run the universe at large, human affairs stay a human concern. And what’s more human than to need to make meaning out of a finite life? In politics, as in our everyday lives, we mortals bear the first responsibility for how we conduct ourselves — the ways in which we look for purpose included. Could anything be more hubristic than demanding that the gods handle that for us? When I protest, I pray, but I don’t expect Kybele to dial in for a conference call, goals and strategy in hand. (I don’t have that sort of “godphone.”) Healthy polytheism synthesizes piety to the deities with an ethical embrace of human responsibility and freedom.
As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declares, “I am condemned to be free.” To weaponize a god, to invoke a divine political mandate, is to deny that. So when we do politics, let’s organize for, as well as with, each other — honoring the gods is no excuse to act as if our lives, and all the meaningfulness therein, aren’t still ours.
[Image: “The Industrious ‘Prentice Alderman of London, the Idle one brought before him & Impeach’d by his Accomplice,” plate 10 of “Industry and Idleness,” engraving by William Hogarth]
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than polytheism, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, writing for Gods&Radicals, nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.
We women know a hard truth of our culture; our bodies are not our own.
We are told how our bodies are supposed to behave. How they are supposed to look (age/weight/height/hair/skin colour/breast size/genitals; the last of particular interest to women not visibly born “female”). What we should feed them. How we should decorate them. Whether or not we should use them as incubators and what we are allowed to do with them once a zygote starts growing. We are told to hide, and suppress, our body’s needs and natural functions. We are told that the functions that formulate the incubator are supposed to be hidden from polite company, from menstruation to breast feeding. We are told how we should wrap them, under what conditions it’s okay to unwrap them, and whom we should (or should not) unwrap them for.
After I overcame my childhood conditioning to suppress my sexuality, I wondered why. This is something that has puzzled me for many years. Why in the world does anyone else care about what I do with my body, whom I choose to have sex with, or how? I mean, think about it. How does it affect anyone else that I’m not sleeping with (or someone who’s sleeping with someone I’m sleeping with?) I don’t give two figs what kind of car my neighbour drives because its effect on my life is exactly zero.
I read all the Dianic literature and found it empowering: The Wise Wound, Goddesses in Everywoman, The Chalice and the Blade. Their theory was that because, until recently, your mother was a certainty but your father was an opinion, controlling women’s sexuality assured paternity and therefore, men would not find themselves in a situation in which they were struggling to feed someone else’s offspring. I believed it because it was the only thing that sounded plausible to me.
The men in my life were angered by this theory. They are feminists, and they are stepfathers. They chose to raise someone else’s offspring, knowing full well it was someone else’s offspring, and give their love even when that love has not always been returned. I didn’t give their anger much heed. I figured it was a case in which they did not recognize their privilege. I figured they would come around.
But there’s another theory, one that I’ve recently stumbled upon that makes much more sense. Like anything else it’s not new; I was excited when I discovered, as I was reading it for the first time, that Starhawk had touched on it in the Appendices of her classic book on magick and activism, Dreaming the Dark.
Patriarchy exists to preserve inheritance.
Patriarchy is all about class.
Expropriation and Estrangement
Starhawk believes that we can find the evidence in enclosure. In the sixteenth century a movement spread through England to enclose what was previously common land. All of a sudden, which family controlled the land and its use became of paramount importance. All of a sudden the people who lived on that common land became threats, because if land was held by common “squatters,” it could not be enclosed. Often, lone widows lived in such places and so they were favourite targets of the would-be landowners, since they couldn’t do much to fight back. Persecution increased against marginalized groups; that and widespread famines and possibly ergot poisoning led to revolutions and pogroms. Enclosure forced most of us out of the woods and fields and into places in which our livelihoods depended on wages, and since one could only farm what was now on one’s land, trade became vital, and not an enhancement to existing living conditions. We have seen the culmination of this trend in our current world economy, which depends on trading in raw resources and the forced labour of the developing world.
Knowledge became a marketable commodity in the new mercantile culture that was developing. Universities developed. Knowledge became something you could only have if you had the money to pay, and thus, graduates of those universities worked to preserve their monopoly on knowledge. This particularly affected medicine. Graduating university doctors spread the idea that anyone who did not have their certification was dangerous and stupid and might possibly cause real harm, even when the folk healing tradition was well ahead of the medicine of universities. Often this was also a women’s profession, so once again women became an incidental target. And “women’s medicine,” as a natural and unavoidable consequence of all of the medical practitioners being male, lagged behind and became a method of social control, culminating with the myth of the “hysterical woman” in Victorian times; an excuse to institutionalize women who did not behave according to the desired social mien. We are currently seeing the culmination of the ownership of knowledge, with every task requiring (expensive) papers to certify your capability, bizarre trademark and copyright laws that allow corporations to claim intellectual property over ideas created 700 years ago, and tuitions so high that only the moneyed class can generally afford to pay them.
In order to justify this culture of ownership and expropriation, the world had to be disenchanted. If the world has no life and no spirit other than what can be used as resources, there is no reason not to use it up. Once again, the bodies of (cisgender) women, who are bound visibly by biological needs and changes, and who hold the power of the womb, became incidental targets, as the needs of the body and the needs of the earth and its creatures were denigrated, and “spiritual perfection” came to mean transcending anything as filthy and low as biology and nature. We are seeing the culmination of this disenchantment now, in which faith is painted as a choice between the binary of absolute obedience to a patriarchal, distant god; or utter denial of the possibility of anything spiritual.
All of this is part of a culture of expropriation that derives from estrangement; estrangement from our nature, from our bodies, from the sense of the spiritual in the material, from people who are different from ourselves, even from one another. We are almost seeing the culmination of it now. We no longer know our neighbours. We no longer live in families any larger than the nuclear. Most of us these days are raised by single mothers. We don’t even talk to each other any more, except through phones and computers. As a result we are siloed in echo chambers of the ideas we support and our children sit across the table from each other and use their phones to converse. Almost by definition, Paganism and Polytheism, which see gods and spirits here within the earth, are natural enemies of this culture.
I was excited! Starhawk articulated it so much more effectively than I was able to.
Of course, it started long before that. While the theory of the ancient matriarchy has been essentially disproven at this point, it is likely that inheritance did not matter in the prehistoric world until there was something to inherit that did not belong to the clan as a whole. Chieftainships created a class of haves, and have-nots, which made tracking inheritance “necessary.”
How I Stumbled on This
I was writing a science fiction novel. In the process I created a society in which all the men were warriors, so of course, the women were required to do everything else. This society also had a noble caste who ruled over the other classes. And I found that the society quickly developed, through a natural process of cause and effect, into a patriarchy. Fascist societies, the ultimate in Corporatism, usually develop into patriarchies for this reason.
So I changed one condition; I made inheritance dependent on the female bloodline. Now clans were organized around the females of a particular family, and to become nobles of the clan, males had to marry into it. Technically the males inherited, but only through the females. Suddenly, it looked to outsiders like the males were in charge, but in reality, the females were controlling marriages and fertility, and through that, the process of inheritance. Over time, males began to develop traits that the females found desirable, and eventually it led to the breakdown of the class system and changing roles for males and females.
Why is it always the right wing who seems to support ideas that restrict the freedom of women? You would think that powerful women of the moneyed class would be in an ideal position to challenge the supremacy of the patriarch. But consider it. Keeping the classes divided is the only way in which to assure that there are haves and have-nots. In order to separate the classes, it is necessary to assure that the poor and the rich never mingle, and that requires controlling a woman’s fertility; and subsequently, her sexuality. This is why it’s so important to the moneyed Conservatives to prevent cisgender women (and trans-men) from controlling their own fertility and claiming their own sexuality outside of the imposed rules of the patriarchy. If women could do that, we wage-slaves wouldn’t continue to breed fodder for factories, would we? Especially not in the developing world. And what if a low-class male has sex with a high-class female and she has a child? That elevates him out of the have-nots, doesn’t it?
We women impose these unconscious limits on ourselves. Did you know that women do not call each other “sluts” based on their level of sexuality activity? According to a study conducted at university campuses by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, the key trigger to being called a slut by another woman is being from a different economic class. Why on earth would women perceive each other as being “trashy” for being more, or less, affluent than themselves? It seems to me that this is a subconscious method of social control, to prevent the classes from breeding together.
Also, we choose mates based on perceived status. It’s such a cliche that we make jokes about it; trophy-wives and sugar daddies. Men with money are considered sexy. Men buy expensive gifts and seek good jobs to impress women, and it’s considered the height of romanticism from him to buy us jewelry or that coveted diamond ring that proclaims our status as desired property.
We feminists think we’re above that. After all, we believe in making our own way in the world and not relying on other people for financial support. But consider this; assuming you are heterosexual, would you marry a man who made less money than you do? Most of us won’t. We think that “we can do better” and men who make less than we do are often perceived as freeloaders and “bums,” no matter how hard they work. Fortunately this is changing.
There’s one last point of note that supports this theory, and that is the Mosuo people of China. Often called “the last matrilineal society,” they have evolved a society in which all property rights pass through the female line. There is no permanent marriage and partners do not live together, even if they have a long-term relationship. Men live with their female relatives. And all the behaviours of control and sexual dominance are displayed by the women; all the behaviours of social manipulation and preoccupation with appearance is displayed by the men. In other words, property equals power.
It is in the interests of the Capitalists to maintain divisions of haves and have-nots. Kyriarchy is how they go about this in a (nominally) free, democratic society. They teach the rest of us to see one group as being superior to another, which leads to an interconnected system of privilege and disadvantage. Notice that the poor are the only identifiable group that it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against? Institutionalized discrimination limits the ability of the poor to get education, houses and jobs, and forces them to pay more for simple things due to interest payments, bank fees and “planned obsolescence.”
This is why it is necessary to consider all disadvantaged groups. The truth is that Kyriarchy cannot exist if we all stand together and refuse to see these artificial divisions.
In other words; sisters, men are not the enemy. Those who teach us that one group is better than another, are. And those who benefit from the status quo the most are usually the ones most invested in preserving it. The ones who benefit the most from this current status quo are white, white-collar, straight, wealthy, older men; in other words, the Corporatist 1%.
By extension, this means that anyone who challenges this status quo and demands change is our ally. It would help us all to march in Ferguson. It would help us all to defend women’s reproductive rights. It would help us all to support labour unions, advocate for anti-poverty groups, and march in the Pride Parade. Any one of these activities is a blow to Kyriarchy; which, in its death throes, will take the Patriarchy with it.
Why the Patriarchy is Doomed
Don’t worry; it can’t last forever. It was doomed from the invention of the Pill. When you can’t control a woman’s fertility, you can’t control her sexuality.
But social sanctions will try. And as long as we allow groups which are invested in the idea of patriarchy — such as religions or corporations — to dictate morality to us, then it will continue. We must stop calling each other sluts. We must stop trying to dictate to each other when it’s okay to sleep with someone and when it isn’t. We should feel free to make our own sexual choices and respect the right of others to do likewise. We should support the rights of all genders, especially because challenging the binary breaks up the division that is based in haves (men) and have-nots (women). The Kyriarchs know this and that’s why they find it so threatening and fight it so hard.
A great victory was recently won when the United States finally caught up to the idea that marriage should be a right for everyone. I am pleased to see another nail being hammered into the coffin as the worldwide movement for the rights of sex workers grows and we stop looking down on women who get more action than others.
When our social customs catch up to our physical and scientific realities, patriarchy’s inevitable end will crumble the support pillar that sustains the Kyriarchy; and it will collapse like a house of cards. We will see the dawn of a new age which is not dependent on human beings dividing themselves into superior and inferior classes. That day is coming. I believe it’s not far away.
Sept. 2 Update: edits made in response to suggestions from Keen on how to be more gender-inclusive (see commentary below).
It is no great surprise to me that Silvia Federici‘s book Caliban & The Witch has gained so much traction in the Pagan community in recent years. When I first read the book more than a decade ago, I knew it would be important for Pagans, simply because it told our story, our history, from the most complete and insightful historical and theoretical perspective I had ever seen. I am on record as saying it is the most important political book yet written in the 21st century, since it deals with the story of the transition to capitalism, with all the violence, blood, fire, and greed that accompanied and forced the transition. But since I have been a Pagan for nearly 30 years, I tended to see the subject matter less in terms of the transition to capitalism, but rather more in terms of the final transition away from Paganism, in the multitude and myriad of ways various paganisms were expressed before they were crushed and assimilated into the new mechanistic worldview of capitalism.
But Silvia Federici is not a ‘Pagan,’ despite the great service her work has been to our community. The context of her work, however, can be just as valuable to us as Caliban itself has been. Three or four decades before that book was published, a few groups of thinkers, writers, students, and teachers began working together. Two of them were the feminist Wages For Housework movement, as well as the Zerowork Collective. Both are worthy of investigation and further study. But by the end of the 1970s, a new group had emerged, which will be the focus of this piece.
A Brief History
History tells us that the Midnight Notes Collective began in the late 1970s with discussions between Monty Neill, Hans Widmer (aka p.m.), and George Caffentzis, with John WiIlshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh getting involved early on. Indeed, the membership of the Collective has been quite fluid over the years, both because people naturally tend to come and go over the years, and also because there were years when they intentionally remained anonymous to avoid overt harassment and repression form the establishment, an important strategy of self-preservation for a group demonstrating a “commitment to revolutionary possibilities.” They also wanted to avoid the “rock star” cult of personality, which was common in academia at the time. In addition to the people directly involved with Midnight Notes (including the above as well as Silvia Federici, Dan Coughlin, David Riker, Vasilis Passas, Johnny Machete, and Michaela Brennan, among others ), there were also various friends & associates over the years, including Steven Colatrella, John Roosa, Harry Cleaver, and Massimo de Angelis.
Despite the fluidity of the group, there was an important coherence to their ideas, expressed in a variety of publications over the years, starting in 1979 and running through the Reagan Years into the Bush era, all of which are now available online:
These earliest publications from Midnight Notes are worth checking out, as a great glimpse into the political climate of the Reagan/Bush years, as the transition of capitalism from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism was cemented.
After these original issues, there were several more publications, some of them book-length, from the group:
Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992(1992, Autonomedia)
This anthology is an analysis of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which they framed as a “work/energy crisis,” as well as a look at the evolution of capitalism in the 1980s. It contains several of their previous writings from earlier publications, namely The New Enclosures and The Work/Energy Crisis And The Apocalypse, with other articles written to fill in some of the theoretical gaps, additional analysis, and history. This book might be the best overall introduction to the thought of Midnight Notes in general. While in some ways it is dated from the 2015 point of view, it is my personal favorite analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, and broadened my understanding of today’s capitalism.
Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local & Global Struggles of the Fourth World War(2001, Autonomedia)
This book is an anthology of writing, using the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as the focal point for anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-globalization theory and history. Midnight Notes saw that this uprising was “a luminous crack in a clouded sky,” the first “movement that consciously pitted itself against global capital and at the same time was rooted in a territorial reality.”
Promissory Notes: From Crisis To Commons (2009)
This much shorter piece, published in 2009, is an analysis of the 2007-2008 “Great Recession” or global financial crisis. It also showed that the crisis was largely yet another “apocalypse” or evolution of capital from the neoliberalism from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and represented neoliberal “capital’s flight into financialization,” or the “attempt to ‘make money from money’ at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed.”
After barraging you with so many links to their writings over the years, I will now attempt to distill their writing into a few of what I perceive to be their key ideas over nearly 40 years of writing.
3 Key Ideas
I remember when my own political outlook begin to evolve away from mainstream partisan politics in the US and toward a more radical outlook, I felt a dearth of information. Most of this was getting used to where information comes from: learning how to disengage from the received dialogues and worldview propagated by the capitalist media and the prevailing cultural outlook I grew up with in suburbia, and toward more obscure, alternative sources was a challenge. To this day, I think that truth discernment is arguably the biggest challenge facing alternative thinkers in the information age. In some ways it’s even more challenging these days, since you can encounter just about every possible viewpoint articulated somewhere on the Internet.
In the late 90s, I was lucky enough to begin studying philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, where George Caffentzis was a teacher. It was a small department, so if you hung out at the philosophy house it was easy to get to know some of the folks who taught there. I was intrigued by George’s ideas and thoughts right from the beginning. There are a lot of great teachers there, but I knew right away that I had a lot to learn from George. I remember early in my freshman year, he did a senior seminar on the philosophy of money, and being really bummed that I was nowhere near far enough along in my philosophy study to be able to take it. So I began to poke around for some of George’s writings, and before long I discovered Midnight Notes. This was in the early days of the Internet, before the writings were available online. I began to read them, and they were definitely challenging. I hadn’t yet read Marx or really any other radical political writings, and in retrospect Midnight Notes served as not only a fabulous introduction, but also an enduring foundation for my radical political thinking. I am grateful for this bit of serendipity that brought me to Maine at this point in spacetime.
Having studied Midnight Notes over the past 15 years, I think these are the most important ideas to glean from their writings:
1. Capitalist Crisis/Apocalypse Is Always About Class Struggle
This idea was first articulated in their 3rd issue: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse, written in 1980 after the so-called “energy crisis” of the 1970s had been underway for the better part of a decade, peaking in both 1973 and 1979. I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember seeing the long lines for gasoline, complaints about OPEC and Jimmy Carter, but very little about class struggle. Interestingly, this was also the last decade where labor strikes were common, since strikes were more or less wiped out by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 when he fired the air traffic controllers who had unionized under PATCO and voted to strike. Their argument is quite detailed, but the essence of it is that
Capitalist crises stem from a refusal of work…. The term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the “work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis.” For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it…. Through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle (Midnight Notes, The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse).
2. The New Enclosures
Arguably the most important insight that came from Midnight Notes’ writings is the notion of the New Enclosures. Before this insight, enclosure, or “primitive accumulation” in Marxist terminology, was largely seen as a historical artifact from the beginning of capitalist society. Midnight Notes showed that enclosures
“are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of class struggle. Any leap in proletarian power demands a dynamic capitalist response: both the expanded appropriation of new resources and new labor power and the extension of capitalist relations, or else capitalism is threatened with extinction.” (Midnight Oil, 318)
Midnight Notes then argued that the New Enclosures took five forms:
Ending communal control of the means of subsistence
Seizing land for debt
Make mobile & migrant labor the dominant form of labor
The collapse of socialism
Attack on our reproduction
They — both the collective itself, and several of the writers working outside the collective — have continued to develop these ideas of enclosure since then.
3. Commons & Commoning
The last idea I think is the most important to come from Midnight Notes is reclaiming the notion of the Commons and Commoning. This idea is the logical extension of their insights about Enclosure, since the Commons is the very thing that is being enclosed. These insights came later in the Midnight Notes, particularly through their admiration and analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico beginning on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Midnight Notes argues that these struggles represent
on one side, capital’s attempt to form a new level of global superstate and economy and, on the other, an anti-capitalist struggle moving from a multiplicity of localities to large-scale confrontations like the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999. The Zapatistas have aptly named this struggle “the Fourth World War.”
Commoning is at the center of this struggle, since the commons provides subsistence for resistance, and “this power to subsist/resist is exactly what capital wants to eliminate throughout the world.” In general, and to some degree, capital is always enclosing, whereas the working class is always commoning, and commoning is central to resistance against capital.
After this all-too-brief look at the Midnight Notes Collective itself, I now want to turn to 3 new books, published by PM Press, from three of the most important voices within Midnight Notes. While George Caffentzis and Peter Linebaugh have been involved with Midnight Notes from its earliest days, it is important to note that Silvia Federici has remained a bit more aloof from the collective over the years. While she was part of the collective for a few of the later original Midnight Notes publications (namely The New Enclosures), and her writings appear in Midnight Oil and Auroras of the Zapatistas, she is not listed as a member of the collective in either of those books. While I do not pretend to be privy to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics and ideological differences within the group, I suspect that Silvia’s unwavering commitment to feminism is at the root of the aloofness. And I should also point out that George Caffentzis conveyed to me in a conversation that for the most part it was Midnight Notes responding to Federici’s work rather than vice versa. All three of these books are anthologies of writing from the careers of each writer, to which I now turn.
In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis Of Capitalism
Of the three, George Caffentzis is the most traditional, albeit radical, “philosopher of the anticapitalist movement.” In Letters Of Blood & Fire is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Work/Refusal, Part 2 is Machines, and Part 3 is Money, War, & Crisis. Part 1 begins with the aforementioned “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” which remains foundational to much of Caffentzis’ subsequent work. These analyses contain wonderful insights, such as this analysis of the relationship between capital’s production, value, and prices:
The hand of capital is different than its mouth and its asshole. The transformation of value into prices is real, but it also causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around “mineness,” the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system: capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected to us — its little agents of complaint, excuse, and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. “Mineness” is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and it is also as pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, whose blindness capital needs to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.
Part 2, on Machines, is a more technical analysis of the place of machines within capitalism, and particularly within the Marxist analysis of capital. Central to his arguments is the piece from 1997, “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines,” whose argument is self-contained in the title.
Part 3 contains a very short and succinct piece, which I recommend as the briefest and most coherent introduction to Caffentzis’ work overall. “The Power of Money: Debt & Enclosure” is a very brief look at money in the human experience:
For most of human history, money either did not exist (before roughly the seventh century BC) or it was of marginal importance for most people on the planet (until roughly the nineteenth century AD). Why is it so important now?
He then articulates the “economist’s fairy tale,” which is the received story about the function of money simplifying exchange as compared to barter, as well as “lowering costs” of trade. He points out that money, too, has its transaction costs that mostly go overlooked by capitalist economists.
All in all, these writings convey Marx’s image that the story of the origins of capitalism, and its reproduction, are written “in the letters of blood and fire used to drive workers form the common lands, forests, and waters in the sixteenth century.” I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the most technical analysis of capitalism, from a detailed philosophical perspective.
Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, & Feminist Struggle
As previously stated, Silvia Federici is the feminist of these three thinkers. Revolution at Point Zero, an anthology of her work over the past 40 years, all of which explore the “zero point of revolution” which is where “new social relations first burst forth, from which countless waves ripple outward into other domains.” It, too, is divided into three parts. Part 1 is Theorizing and Politicizing Housework, containing her earlier, foundational work such as “Wages Against Housework” from 1975, as well as “Why Sexuality Is Work” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet.” Part 2 is Globalization and Social Reproduction, and contains 4 essays including “Women, Globalization, and the International Women’s Movement.”
Part 3, Reproducing Commons, has her most recent work including “Feminism and the Politics of the Common in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” from 2010, which contains the powerful argument that there is an “oblivion” in “our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, the computers with which we communicate.” For Federici,
Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan “no commons without community…. community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.
Federici’s writings here concentrate on “social reproduction,” which is the ways in which society and the people in it reproduce themselves. It is the food we eat, the social relations we share outside the work environment, our basic needs down to clean water & air, shelter and clothing. All of these things are “the most labor-intensive work on earth, and to a large extent it is work that is irreducible to mechanization.” It is also work that is largely unwaged, and exists in the context of capitalist enclosure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in not only a feminist perspective, but also in very practical, day-to-day ideas about how we can be commoning and resist capital.
Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance
Finally, Peter Linebaugh is the historian and storyteller of the three. He is an engaging writer, and the stories he tells need to be heard and retold. Stop, Thief! is divided into five sections. Section 1, The Commons, is the best primer I know of to exploring what Commons & Commoning is. Start with “Some Principles of the Commons,” which is a very short introduction, showing us that the commons “is best understood as a verb,” and then “Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning” fills in one’s understanding that the commons “is not a thing but a relationship” as it applies to various modes of living & knowing.
Part 2, “Charles Marks,” are some of Linebaugh’s contributions to Marxism in history. Part 3, The “UK”, are looks at English History including “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” which shows us that the Luddites were not technophobes but rather were cross-dressing warriors, “anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” Part 4, The “USA,” contains “Introduction to Thomas Paine” and “Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons,” which take a look at the vast commons that existed in pre-colonialist North America. This analysis is continued in Part 5, “First Nations,” with its three essays, “The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck”, “The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx,” and “The Invisibility of the Commons.”
Of the three, Linebaugh’s writing might be the most readable. I agree with Robin Kelley, who wrote about an earlier book from Linebaugh that there is “not a more important historian living today. Period.” I highly recommend this book for people who want to broaden their understanding of the Commons and Commoning, through the voice of a master storyteller, an engaging and agile writer.
The Witching Hour Legacy
These three thinkers, as well as The Midnight Notes Collective and all who have participated in it over the years, represent a vast treasure trove for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of capitalism, crisis, resistance & class struggle, enclosure, commons/commoning, and revolutionary possibilities in the 21st century. These writers and ideas were foundational to my own development as a radical thinker and writer, and I remain grateful for their work.
George Caffentzis on The Commons, Russian Workers, and Capitalists
Marx wrote of the non-coincidence of desires between Russian capitalists and workers:
“…even when [the capitalists] have money, the labor power is not available in sufficient quantity and at the right time. This is because the Russian agricultural worker, owing to the common ownership of the soil by the village community, is not yet fully separated from his means of production and is then still not a ‘free wage-laborer’ in the full sense of the term. But the presence of such ‘free wage-laborers’ throughout society is the indispensible condition without which M-C, the transformation of money into commodities, cannot take the form of the transformation of money capital into productive capital.” (Capital vol 2, p. 117 of the Penguin edition).
Something similar could be said of Greek workers. The capitalist task of the crisis is to end whatever remains of the commons in their lives and make workers fully “free wage laborers” coincident with capital’s “lust for labor.”
The First anti-Syriza Demonstrations
An Athenian anarchist friend suggested that we should go to a demonstration in Syntagma Square called to protest Syriza’s willingness to sign a new memorandum with the “troika,” although we have as yet no concrete knowledge as to the contents of the new Memorandum. Since the whole affair is being presented in the form of a soccer match, why shouldn’t another team enter the field? Perhaps they will score a surprise goal! But at the moment all eyes are on LeGuard, Draghi and the faceless IMF “technocrats” versus the heroic Tsipras, who delays by putting ever higher bids, and rolling the debt one time more until it is time itself that becomes the issue.
Well, in Syntagma Square the initial rally was small—with predictable statements. But soon it was joined by another demonstration that marched to Syntagma from another part of the city and so the whole rally numbered about a thousand (respectable by NYC standards, but very small by Greek). The groups sponsoring the march and rally included, anarchists, autonomists, and even some Trotskyites. Sure enough I saw an old friend who happened to be a well-known Greek Trotskyite. We would see each other often in the 1990s in NYC, but he stopped coming to the US after 9/11, while my political affiliations in Greece became more defined in the post 9/11 period as well. To the point that we hadn’t seen each other in a decade. During that time he had a bout with liver cancer involving many surgeries and chemo-therapy sessions. The cancer would have killed him if it hadn’t been for his decision to go to France and get medical help there. The decision was motivated by another decision of the Greek medical authorities who ordered an anti-cancer drug for him that was needed immediately but with a 3 month expected time of delivery! The French doctors declared him cancer-free a few years ago, but he must return to France every 4 months to check his status.
My Trotskyite friend prided himself on the books he wrote and the political campaigns he was involved in while in the midst of his treatment, as he should. And now he wants to live to be part of the international working class revolution! The march was beginning again, going down Panapistemiou St. My Trotskyite friend took his place at the end and was off!
Trying to Raise the Spectre of Syntagma Square 2011
At first there was a small circle on the square, but it grew over time. At first it was mostly an older crowd, but slowly younger people joined. The intention is to call for a new decision-making body based on popular assemblies to replace the Vouli (the Parliament) that was de-legitimated by the actions of both left and right parties. One speaker after another noted a discrepancy between the extreme situation being faced and the lack of any force from the bottom to intervene! However, only one woman spoke and she addressed a logistic question: how long should each speaker be allotted, 3 or 5 minutes?
There ought to be a movement of the Syntagma Square 2015, but it remained just that, an ought.
A Run on the Banks in Sparta After the Call for a Referendum
On Saturday morning I woke up in Sparta and looked out from the hotel balcony down Paleologou Street and saw that there were lines in front of the ATMs. I wondered what this was about. On going downstairs for breakfast I learned that the night before Tsipras and his advisors walked out of a meeting with the “troika” and called for a referendum on the question, should the final memorandum the troika offered be accepted or not? The immediate response by the Greek populace was this minor “run on the banks,” minor since there are limits as how much can be withdrawn from ATMs per day. We shall see what will happen on Monday when the banks will be open for business. Will this minor run become a massive charge on the banks’ reserves? There was definitely a feeling of panic spreading on the lines in front of the street. I also felt it. I was prompted to take out extra euro cash (in a classic bow to Keynesian “liquidity preference”) because, though I would simply be contributing to the banks’ reserve of dollars, I too would be impacted by the lack of euro currency that would inevitably be experienced by some of the weaker banks (if not the whole banking system, if a “holiday” is called by the government).
This “preference,” however, has a primal feel about it: contagious, violent, irrational. A condition typified by an audience fleeing a minor fire, crushing each other to death trying to get to an exit!
The Taxi Driver’s Lament
He is a large man, both in height and breadth, and a small business man as well. I wondered whether he would try to short change me by insisting on the meter (which stated 63 euros) instead of the 55 euros I understood from George’s agreement last night with him. The taxi driver stuck to the original deal. This is definitely a time of distrust mingled with solidarity! Here are some quotes from his conversation with me on the road to Gythion:
“In Greece there is a saying, ‘The rich man is one with nothing; those with much, lose it to the tax man.’ ” A Buddhist adage?
“Greece has the worst politicians and the worst drivers on the planet.” A Platonic truth?
“I have worked since I was 13 and now I’m on the verge of losing it all. Take this taxi. I spent 130,000 euros for it, 30,000 for the car and 100,000 euros for the taxi driver’s medallion. Now the medallion costs 20,000 euros and falling…soon it will be worth 2,000 euros, but still my brother and I need to work as taxi-drivers to make something. I have one kid and my brother has three. We need to leave them something.” A small businessman’s Abrahamic statement?
A Taxi Passenger’s Lament
Heard from a taxi passenger: When I flew in from Frankfurt to Athens I was very tired (it was night) so I decided to take a cab home. As I got into the cab I noticed a sign saying, “Flat Rate to Athens 35 euros.” So I settled back to enjoy the ride, but I was getting a little worried (as we were getting close to home) that he might short-change me. Sure enough, when we got to the door of my house I handed him 35 euros, he said, “It is 50 euros.” I began to protest and pointed to the sign. He said, “Thirty five euro is for the day, it is 50 euros for the night.” I said, “The sign said nothing about night or day.” The driver said, “Well, let’s go to the police station to straighten this out.” I didn’t want to go to the police station, but nor did he. So I said, to break the stalemate, “Let’s settle this with fists!” He laughed and said, “The 35 is o.k.,” and off he went.
Bank “Holiday” in Paradise
I am in Agios Dimitrios in the Mani with comrades from Switzerland, writing this on a terrace overlooking the Messenian Bay, it would seem I am in the midst of Paradise, without a care in the world! But I write this also on the first “bank Holiday” in Greece in many years, i.e., the government has ordered the banks to be closed and to distribute cash to depositors at a rate of 60 euros a day through ATMs.
What a strange name for this day…a holiday. What god is being honored, if not the God of Banks: the money form? This god presents itself as the universal mediator between non-coincident desires, but these days it is becoming an angry God that is denying all desires (coincident as well as non-coincident). So that capitalists are looking for cash to make more cash and the rest are looking for cash to keep body and soul together.
This is the first day that the debt crisis has hit the immediate lives of Greeks (and even visitors). The long queues in front of the ATMs tell the tale of anxiety and panic…but even worse is the lack of queues, indicating a machine that is out of cash!
I too am caught in this anxiety and panic, though to a lesser degree, because I can get as many euros I want from the ATMs, but I need to find one that is functioning and has cash. This is increasingly difficult since, most crucially, this availability depends on the euros lodged in the banks as cash!
A system of exchange of commodities is becoming a non-system of non-exchange of non-commodities, leaving in its wake gift exchanges and gratis offerings. What was considered a solid way to solve the problem of non-coincident desires has vanished into air, but it also has an escape hatch. Like the staircase from the inferno to purgatory, it takes time to get to and climb. The Syriza people seem to have the intention to do this without a Virgil. Such a trick is unlikely to succeed unless they are expert secret keepers or master game theoreticians! That we shall see, when this holiday in Paradise ends.
The OXI vote: Syriza’s Machiavellianism and the Anti-austerity Movement
“Vox populi, vox Dei,”[“The voice of the people, [is] the voice of God”] is a phrase from a letter written by Alcuin, an advisor of Chalemagne’s who was an early “founder” of the Holy Roman Emire and often taken as the founder of Europe. In the letter Alcuin warns the Emperor not to pay heed to those (like myself) who use the phrase affirmatively. But if the adage is true, what is God saying through the July 5th, 2015 referendum in Greece? That has much to do with what the question being voted on.
This question was not a general one like “Should pensions be further cut?” or “Should the right to strike be preserve in the new labor laws?” or “Should any new austerity policies be prohibited?” It was quite specific, i.e., “Should the memorandum proposed by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, European Commission [aka “the troika”] on Thursday, June 27, 2015 be accepted (“NAI”) or rejected (“OXI”).”
As some critics pointed out, the referendum question had no proper answer, since the “troika” had already taken the memorandum “off the table.” So the vote came down to what the voter wanted it to mean: e.g., “No more pension cuts” or “End austerity policies” or “Greece out of the Eurozone” or a thousand other critiques of the present or nothing precise at all or anything Tsipras and Syriza want it to mean. The referendum’s wording made God speak ambiguously that Sunday through the Greek people’s voice.
In trying to make sense of the peculiar wording of the referendum I saw not so much game-theory in action but a Machiavellian aspect of Syriza, a failed Machiavellianism, however, since Machiavellian reasoning in politics is defeated when it is identified as Machiavellianism! First, the call for a referendum appeared to be a spontaneous response to the troika’s stony refusal to accept some milder structural adjustment measures and a reduction of the debt payments schedule at least. But I learned that the call for the referendum was discussed for months before, within the inner circle of Syriza. So the wording of the referendum was not a hurried decision made in a fit of anger and frustration.
The second Machiavellian point was Tsipras’s claim that an “OXI” vote would give him more power to negotiate with the troika. In other words, the heat of the voter’s insurrection, their gigantic “OXI,” would be useful in frightening his negotiating partners. The attempt to use the anger of Greek workers–who have been degraded on many levels since 2010 and given an avenue for its expression by the referendum—was problematic, since once it is expressed, it cannot be withdrawn. Many said that they voted “OXI” simply because of their refusal to be terrorized by the fears unleashed by the propaganda of the media. This is not a sentiment that can be turned on and off for the benefit of IMF bureaucrats and hedge-fund capitalists.
The third Machiavellian point is Syriza’s refusal to make preparations for taking Greek monetary transactions out of the Eurozone. This was not a technical matter but would have involved the education of the proletariat, capitalists and state employees in the consequences of changing currencies. Even a simple thing like having a few trucks filled with the currency of a possible future money system would have done a lot to “concentrate the mind” of wageworkers (after all, most capitalist-to-capitalist money transactions, outside of the drug trade, are not done in cash). The decision confused both the troika and the Greek working class.
The denouement of this failed Machiavellianism could be seen in Syriza’s proposal sent to the troika five days after the referendum. In that period the voters’ “OXI” was supposed to have shaken up European capitalism, but that did not happen. Neither the exchange rate for the Euro nor the major stock markets of Europe crashed. This lack of response spoke volumes in a language that neoliberals understand. So Tsipras presented the Syriza government’s proposal to the troika on Thursday, July 9. It turns out that this proposal is similar to the memorandum Syriza asked Greeks to reject in the referendum. Liz Alderman, in a nice piece of journalism, compared Tsipras’s and the “troika’s” proposals and she found little difference, e.g., the two proposals with respect to taxation are identical as were the proposed changes in the pension system. Ironically, the major difference was in mililtary spending. The troika’s proposal asks for 400 million euro cut while the Syriza proposal asks for a 100 million euro cut this year.
Silvia Federici, on the broader context of what is happening in Greece
The situation in Greece manifests a double crisis: the crisis of capitalism in Europe, as reflected in the politics of the German Government, and the crisis of the European working-class and the European left.
The politics of Syriza should be de-personalized. They have mismanaged the negotiations but their options were limited given that neither they nor the Greek people ever seriously considered leaving the Eurozone and, for example, turning to Russia for loans. The European Union has become a fetish for the Left, the ideological campaign of ‘Europeism’ has been successful, generating among most a great fear at the idea of leaving the Eurozone.
The Marxist autonomist Left is guilty of the same disease. The formation of a Eurozone has been hailed (to this day, see the recent conference on the crisis in Athens) as a terrain of working class re-composition, but actually we have seen that this has not been the case. Greece has confronted the battle with the European central bank and Bruxelles by itself. No mobilization, no significant expression of solidarity has cone from other countries. This lack of solidarity is especially worrisome, since the working classes of Europe have faced a decade and a half of austerity and structural adjustment and should know the implications of the disciplining of Greece.
By 1998 the EU had imposed on all its members a “Stability Pact” that prevented them from having deficits larger than 3%, forcing them to practically stop all payments, so they could not pay the companies that had been working for them and who eventually went bankrupt. In Italy even victims of an earthquake in Emilia could not be helped explicitly because of the budgetary limits even though the municipalities where the earthquake occurred did have the money necessary. Yet, there were no large demonstrations in London, Paris, Madrid, Rome or Berlin supporting the insurrectional “OXI” vote as a harbinger of their own rejection of austerity.
Even in front of a massive media attack stressing among other things that other workers in Europe would have to pay for the Greek debt.
Syriza never conceived of leaving the Eurozone, never prepared for it, in this, however, reflecting the ambivalence of the Greek/ European population. Clearly people expected more “understanding.” Syriza kept talking of a “humanitarian crisis” rather than a class conflict. The problem however was that the situation the EU is facing does not allow any margin of compromise. The possibility for Greece to default but continue to stay in the Eurozone is ruled by the crisis in which European capital finds itself. The European Union project is in crisis, it has not produced the profitability for which it was created, on the contrary, it is an area of non-accumulation. In this context, Germany is attempting to create a different Europe, “liberated” from countries like Greece that are seen as unproductive, so that can better compete and negotiate with the US and China. In the meantime, Germany too is facing a crisis, because it will have to pay the Greek debt, which cannot be paid by Greece, and will have to abide by the decisions of the US with regard to its relation to Russia (being forced, for instance, to participate in the attack on Ukraine, thereby being prevented from forming any alliance with Russia.)
From a class perspective the crisis, however, is (a) the lack of coordination and solidarity among European working classes; (b) the inability of European working class to delink from capital and the political class, despite the obvious attack to which it is being subjected which will be generalized and intensified in years to come if the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is realized; (c) the inability of the European left to distinguish between the Europe of the bosses and the Europe of the proletariat and its commitment to a Europeanism that is suicidal, preventing a ‘rupture.’ If Greece had left the Eurozone, it could have triggered a real process of re-composition, instead of being used to discipline all the workers in the other countries, who every night have been reminded of what can happen to them if they step out of line, and reject the reforms imposed on them.
The only bright spot is the referendum, which was the first loud NO to globalization in Europe and, as some have noted, a Latin American moment in European class politics. The No! of Greece could have also begun a confrontation with EU politics that is now redirected against immigrants, as the case of Italy demonstrates. Unfortunately only the right wing in Europe now speaks against ‘Europe’.
The situation with immigrants. In the spring of 2015, 950 immigrants died – Now, everyday, boats with hundreds of people arrive. The government sends them to
different localities, forcing municipalities to accept a certain number, but now citizens are revolting, and the right-wing is fomenting the revolt. More immigrants continue to die. The rightwing calls for a naval blockade, to push them back and tells the government that to save them is wrong, because more will come. They say the government should give no assistance. In reality this is what is actually happening. France has closed the frontiers.
On Social Solidarity Health Clinics
Syriza’s refusal to prepare the working class in Greece of what an alternative to continuing with “humiliating” negotiations with the troika has been widely noted. This observation was even more problematic to those trying to understand Syriza’s strategy, since only if there was a credible threat to carry out a successful exodus from the Eurozone could have the Tsipras-Varoufakis team have won any substantial debt-relief in the first place. One way to explain this anomaly is by assuming that the Syriza leadership simply thought that taking any path out of the Eurozone would be too onerous for Greek workers and capitalists. Greece in this period was definitely inundated with terrifying images of a post-euro world without petrol, without doctors and medicines, without food, in short, a wasteland of repression, illness and violence…a Mad Max world, Greek-style.
But there was already a model of an escape from such a scenario in the more than 40 Social Solidarity Health Clinics (SSHC) that could be found in most of the cities of Greece. Most of these SSHCs were founded in the crisis, especially after the Syntagma Square occupation in 2011. They now involve thousands of doctors, nurses and pharmacists and they see tens of thousands of patients a year. They provide first level health care from doctors and nurses who are working for no pay. They began with the crisis to work with immigrants who were often turned away from public and private hospitals. Greek patients in the SSHCs were few because they (even if poor and uninsured) tended to avoid them since they assumed that anything that served the immigrants must be of low quality. But as the crisis deepened and more and more Greeks were laid-off, increasingly the patients in these clinics became more integrated at the bottom of the wage scale. Throughout Greece the SSHCs have become a remarkable pole of attraction in recent years, and they have played an important role in providing health care services to tens of thousands at a moment when the hospital system was deteriorating due to strictures on public investment on social reproduction.
I was invited to attend a discussion among volunteers at SSHCs from Athens, Thessaloniki, and Crete. The encounter was prefaced by the following self-description:
At the current situation of intensified deregulation of our lives, as in recent years, the Solidarity Clinics have been a Social Safety Net. The only one in such a broad scale. And this is a fact which cannot be appropriated by any government, party or official institutional body. The fact that we continue to operate has nothing to do with an expectation to get things done as it was before. We have nowhere to return to. And this is a conscious choice. In any situation of political and social instability we know that today we have the social relationships and the necessary experience to maintain an active role in social developments.
Here are some notes I took of the frank and open discussion:
We do “community medicine,” but it needs to be enlivened by new thinking and this new thinking must come from the patients. But it takes time to get new thoughts. Moreover, it is difficult to bring patients in for a general meeting. For example, we recently telephoned 400 patients to come to a meeting to discuss the project and only 30 came. But still, we are not a philanthropy!
We were originally driven to do our medicine out of need, but soon we started to deal with medicine in a political way.
We are formulating a third way of delivering health services (i.e., neither in the state mode nor as a private enterprise). We are thinking we are doing medicine as a common and we are using other terms—like “autonomy” and “real democracy”—as well to describe the kind of medicine we are trying to do.
We have a problem with the left-wing government of Syriza, even though many thought it would save the situation, But that has not happened. In actual fact, the uninsured are the majority in the country. No solution. And even when there is government support, it requires too much paperwork!
People become tired. At times we feel that some of our colleagues are doing the work out of duty. They don’t feel the same way we do.
We don’t want to deal with the state. We don’t want to comply with the state’s directives.
Athens after “OXI!”
The city seems to be on vacation after the “OXI!” The traffic is lighter, the tourists are fewer, the smog lighter, the shops (that are still surviving) often closed, except for the cafes, restaurants, and tavernas. I’m feeling the pulse of the city’s circulatory system slowing down, and even at odd moments stopping, as if the summer heat had turned to capital and just said, “Stamata!” (“Basta!”)
A CALL FOR AN INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
MUTUAL AID NETWORK
SUPPORT SOCIAL STRUGGLE IN GREECE
The below statement is from the Social Solidarity Clinic in Iraklio who are collaborating with other clinics, social centers and movements to create a network from below to receive concrete forms of solidarity.
A surprise for some. Not a surprise for others. In either case, there is a lasting question. How is a response from below possible to counteract and negate the totalizing financialization of our lives?
There is not one political answer to this. However, a political point needs to be stressed. Support is not needed for an inter-class, ethnocentric peoples—the Greeks.
Support is needed for the struggle from below taking place in Greece. It is the State, first, that homogenizes the differentiated impact of austerity—due to class, age, gender, location, and way of life—under a national identity. To accept austerity, for each MoU, a respective national responsibility. And for five years—nationalization or austerity—the two remedies to choose from.
We choose differently. What is urgent, for us, is to collectivize (not homogenize) individual risk—due to personal debt, job precarity, lessened or no access to health services and good nutrition and the internalization of guilt and shame.
This is the 2nd call for the International Solidarity-Mutual Aid Network. To meet acute and longterm needs in Greece. From/to self-organized initiatives. The aim is to make visible, to demonstrate the efficacy of and put into practice an alternative form of Social Solidarity vis a vis the form of Institutional Solidarity—the EU-ECB-IMF institutions and the new austerity program by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) of the Eurozone.
To clarify. The call is not a contingent choice. It follows our broader effort to develop a different approach to healthcare. On a social, rather than individual, level. Solidarity, reciprocity, equity, without any distinction as to race, color, origin, sexual orientation or religion. Essential elements. For multifactorial healthcare. Not medicalized assessment. For treating human as a bio-psycho-social whole. Not reduction of human to any individual symptom. For deinstitutionalisation. Not charity, medicine for profit, or neoliberal de-hospitalization via closures, privatization and criminalization. For social emancipation.
The plan is to start from, and have at the core of this network, autonomous solidarity health clinics—the sites experimenting on the basis of non-capitalist forms of labor, non-medicalized healthcare, non-institutional dependency. Each clinic will act as a hub, and will coordinate with other self-organized groups in its city/broader area. Each such coalition will determine and share with the network—the initiatives responding to the call—a list of needs (money, in kind, human), ways to be reached (online, mail, in person), long term communication framework/programming. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Needs may range from medicine and electronics to doctors. Within the coming weeks each clinic/coalition will send out their first round of communication.
Silvia Federici is a feminist activist, writer, and a teacher. In 1972 she was one of the co-founders of the International Feminist Collective, the organization that launched the international campaign for Wages For Housework (WFH). In the 1990s, after a period of teaching and research in Nigeria, she was active in the anti-globalization movement and the U.S. anti-death penalty movement. She is one of the co-founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, an organization dedicated to generating support for the struggles of students and teachers in Africa against the structural adjustment of African economies and educational systems. From 1987 to 2005 she taught international studies, women studies, and political philosophy courses at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. All through these years she has written books and essays on philosophy and feminist theory, women’s history, education and culture, and more recently the worldwide struggle against capitalist globalization and for a feminist reconstruction of the commons. Her books include: Caliban & The Witch & Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle.
In the summer of 2015 I spent a month in Greece, from June 10 to July 10. I travelled from Thessaloniki to Volos to Athens to Sparta to the Mani to Crete then back to Athens. I stayed mostly with comrades, some new, some old and I was joined for ten days by Silvia Federici. What follows are some observations and comments on this tumultuous period that included the “OXI” (“NO!”) referendum, innumerable meetings of the “Troika” [ed note: the triumvirate representing the European Union in its foreign relations] with and without the officials of Syriza, the coalition of leftist parties that took over the government in January 2015 after being a tiny party for decades [ed. note: or, the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left, name taken from the Greek adverb “from the roots”]. Though the sections are undated, they are roughly placed in a chronological order. This is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the situation in Greece, so there are many facets of the class struggle there that are not noted. But I should point out that the immigrant workers are part of the Greek working class.
Greece 2015: Setting the Stage
The following is what I can make of collective understanding of the crisis put together with the help of comrades from Greece and the U.S. (in my own words, of course):
There are two levels to the crisis. First is the visible financial balance sheet level. Here is the world of debt payments due, say X, and the largely tax-based income of the state, say Y, and X-Y is what is due and it is huge amount. The drama of money, part tragedy, part comedy, is played out, with the protagonists in the front of the stage (incarnated by the financial wizards of the troika, the “young” P.M. Tsipras and the now ex-finance minister Varoufakis) while in the background is a shadowy chorus of bond-holders and out-front vulture hedge-fund managers who intervene periodically with sibylline utterances full of threat and fury.
The second level is the unstated but persistently followed plan to use the first crisis of state finances (the debt crisis) to put the European proletariat into crisis by making the elimination of labor legislation favorable to workers, the cuts in pensions, increased unemployment and a dramatic decrease in wages as structural adjustment conditionalities for any new “bailout” loans. The Greek working class is simply the supposed “weak link” useful for carrying out the plan aimed at Europe as a whole.
This is why the “fictive capital” theorists are so unconvincing. If the structural adjustment program elements of the plan were missing, then there would be a “financial solution to a financial problem.” But the clear purpose of the financial crisis is to deal with the fall of profitability in the entire European region. Capitalist strategists believe that the levels of wages, alternative forms of work refusal (pensions and welfare benefits) and of reproductive “services” (health and education) are so high that they make it impossible for European-based capital to compete (especially with Asian and North American capital). The crisis managers’ aim is to normalize the cuts in these levels and to make such a working class existence (precarious wages and even a return to testing physiological limits) a feature of the standard of living in Europe for the foreseeable future. If this is not done, European capital will suffer what at first may look like euthanasia, but then will later precipitate into a violent dissolution. This is the crisis of European capital! So not only are the European proletarians in trouble, but so are the capitalists. There are many crises in the field, there is no THE crisis.
All Quiet on the Extra-Parliamentary Front
There is something remarkable happening in Greece with the victory of Syriza in the elections of January 2015. A left-wing party gets into state power, but it seemed to have definitely kept the rest of the Left (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) from using this time to put forward their own programs and demands in the streets. This seems to confirm Raul Zibechi’s insight, coming from Latin America, that the only force that could now defeat the anti-capitalist social movements is a left-wing government in power (or on its way to power).
I sensed a definite loss of direction, of energy, of confidence in the last few years within the extra-parliamentary left. Between December 2008 and April 2012 there was a period of intense confrontation with the forces of the state run by right-wing parties proposing austerity as a way out of the crisis. Along with this was the direct confrontation with Golden Dawn, the Greek version of the German Nazi Party [ed note: this is not the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, familiar to many pagans & occultists]. Both were very popular antagonists.
But the rise of Golden Dawn was halted by its members’ assassination of a popular leftist rap singer that brought out a tremendous response. The right-wing government at the time then recognized that the Golden Dawn was too dangerous to let it expand without some checks. Without the antagonistic presence of Golden Dawn, however, the raison d’etre of much alarm and sense of emergency was vanishing in the fall of 2014.
Syriza’s sudden rise to state power (with its pledge to end the austerity regime imposed by the “the troika” and its minions in Greece) was also disconcerting for the extra-parliamentary left, since Syriza’s success implied that there might be an electoral way out of the regime of poverty and tatters.
Together these two developments disarmed the critics of electoral solutions to the crisis. So now in the face of an unprecedented attack on living standards, we see very little response in the streets. Syriza is therefore receiving negative support from the extra-parliamentary left.
Moreover, on the extra-parliamentary front, there is much division and backbiting typical of a period of defeat. I cannot help but be skeptical of the appeal of the extra-parliamentary left’s political program when I compare the number of youths involved in the simple commodification and consumption of sociality, sexuality and general pleasure in the cafes and tavernas —as if they are thumbing their collective noses at the troika! What a display of the willfulness of enjoyment that inserts a new pole of attraction in the equation…a pure anarchism.
As I walk through downtown Thessaloniki in the soft evening air I wonder, am I on the deck of the Titanic or am I walking through Paradise?
A clear-headed Anarchist from Thessaloniki speaks:
The solidarity economy is not strong enough yet to take on the task of social reproduction.
The collapse of the Syriza government would lead to an extremely repressive right-wing replacement.
Doing cooperative labor is not easy. Multiplying our experience with a cooperative bookstore would definitely be a lesson.
ERT3 confronts Syriza
Silvia Federici and I were invited to a meeting of workers at the national radio and television (ERT3) station in Thessaloniki. It was shut down exactly two years ago by the troika-friendly Nea Democratia-PASOK government that was looking to do something dramatic to show the bondholders that it was serious in sticking to the structural adjustment agenda. The shut-down decision was made abruptly and disrespectfully, with accusations of laziness and corruption tossed around to justify it. But the workers refused to exit silently. They faced down the police with the help of a crowd that blocked the entrances to the station and they continued to work in their studios and offices with live news, opinion and entertainment programing. In the evening and early morning there were documentary programs and re-runs. So that the station provided a 24/7 presence via the internet with programing especially keyed to the interests of the Northern Greek and Balkan audience. They did all this without pay and with donations from their listeners.
When Syriza came to power in January 2015 its spokespeople promised to revive the public broadcasting system and rehire all the journalists, technicians and office personnel that were laid off in 2013. This was the day when everything would be regularized with the arrival of the newly appointed station manager from government headquarters in Athens. However, not all was well as far as the workers were concerned.
First, the ERT3 workers have been used to self-management after two years of making decisions on the basis of assemblies of workers. In fact, that is exactly what they did on the arrival of station manager. They invited him to their assembly to debate with him as to his instructions from Syriza headquarters in Athens.
Second, they had learned one of the first acts of the new station director would be to lay-off or not-hire anyone that had joined the effort to keep the station alive in the previous two years.
Third, they were not happy that the new station manager was a former official of PASOK. Why wasn’t someone more in line with the politics of Syriza sent to become station manager? Or, what is Syriza’s politics now in the first place?
At the workers’ assembly there was talk about going on strike to protest the threatened lay-offs. In response, at the very moment when the rest of the workers would be getting a pay-check for the first time in two years, there was much dramatic rhetoric on the theme of the importance of ERT3’s programming, in support of the argument that the station should not go on strike (since ERT3 is often the only news channel that covers the strikes of others)!
Talk in Volos
After a number of talks in Thessaloniki by George and/or Silvia, here are notes for a joint talk in the Architecture school in the University at Volos:
From Debt To Crisis To Enclosure of the Commons
What is happening in Greece is the implementation of a structural adjustment program (a technical term that became so hated around the planet that the World Bank and IMF stopped using the term to be replaced by the term “Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper”!) as it was applied to former colonized states that have taken their mandate from the anti-colonial movement seriously. They were posing a threat in claiming the New International Economic Order (NIEO). This was a serious challenge (of which the nationalization of the oil industry across the planet was an example). The NIEO was in effect claiming reparations for colonialism’s massive theft of land, mineral wealth and labor-power. This was getting too close to the old masters’ bone and had to stop! To do this a trap was prepared, a debt trap. The governments of the former colonial world were tempted to take out loans with variable interest rates which at the time were relatively low, to fulfill the very mandate of ending the poverty and degradation of the last century. The trap was sprung in 1979 (under the rubric of “stopping inflation.”). The interest on the loans rose to nearly 20% over night. The former colonized countries’ governments were trapped indeed facing a debt crisis!The IMF and WB acted quickly. They did not want to lose the opportunity the crisis provided by dealing with a financial problem by financial means (e.g., rolling over the debt for another year). On the contrary, they imposed structural adjustment conditionalities that were directly aimed at the elimination of the commons (since most of these SAPs had requirements involving the land ownership and the transformation of commons into private ownership and other goals that were meant to privatize what were considered common goods (from pensions to “royalties” on extracted wealth. So here we have a direct line from Debt to Crisis to the Enclosure of the Commons.
Like a Frenzied Dog on a Trapped Fox
A similar path can be traced in the application of this scenario to Europe, starting with Greece. This is a period of low interest rates and there is much lending, but it is also a period of low profits as well. Greece became part of the Eurozone under the assumption that the inevitable restriction in monetary policy required by the single currency would be compensated during a crisis (e.g., roll overs of the debt would be allowed). This was a mistaken assumption, since it was not assumed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. So a trap was closed on European countries like Greece and a package of structural adjustment policies was unleashed like a frenzied dog on a trapped fox. These policies were directed at commons and commons-like institutions (from pension funds to revenues from the extraction of mineral wealth) in preparation for the TTIP (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). These specifics are driving the clear investing in silver 2016 that we are expecting.
An Autonomy Crisis
The reactions from the working class of Europe was tumultuous, and a new version of “IMF riots” were chronicled throughout Europe from 2010 on. But there hasn’t been any break through. The working class of Europe is experiencing a crisis of its power to say “No!”…i.e., an autonomy crisis that the OXI vote of July 5 might signal an anti-capitalist resolution.
Family and Poverty Reduction
The most effective poverty reduction institution in Greece is still the family. Though the family capital is being depleted at a rapid rate, it has been the cushion for the hard landing many have individually experienced these last five years. I’ll always remember my cousin’s table for Sunday lunch, everyone, four generations, eating elbow to elbow, frustrated each in their own ways, but all with a full belly! In fact, there is a race between state capital with family capital to determine which will be depleted first. If families’ savings get exhausted first, there will be genuine food riots that hadn’t been seen since the 19th century. If state capital exhausts first, there would be an anarchist turn in the creation of social reproduction institutions (from health clinics to Community Supported Agriculture agreements).
Cash in the Mattress and the Increase in Burglaries
There is much suspicion of banks and other financial institutions in Greece. There haven’t been any serious runs on the banks YET, but there is a walk from them. This explains the dramatic increase in the hoarding of cash under the famous mattresses. This has led to an increase in the number of burglaries, since burglars read the financial news as well! There is even a burglar’s demand for machines that locate gold coins!
A Fashion Statement
There is a strong taste for the tattered jeans, shorts and t-shirts this summer in Greece. Is this a fashion commentary on the crisis? Is this a way of merging the inside with the out? While sitting in the central square of Sparta, I see a little two-year old dressed with torn jeans. This fashion statement is a reminder of a change in the frankness of expression, because when I was a child on the Sparta square, the parents and children were dressed to a “t,” even though the poverty of the 1950s was much deeper than today’s.
Plato’s Republic and Debt Refusal
In the midst of the debt crisis in Greece, Joulia Strauss, a German artist, decided that it was time to bring artists, scholars, political activists to Greece to show their solidarity with the Greek people in crisis. She thought a free school would be the best way to express this solidarity and the best venue for the school would be the site of Plato’s Academy (a few stones remain of it, rescued by archeologists). A. contacted me, recommended Joulia’s project and so I joined. I thought a presentation of Plato’s views on debt payment refusal would be a suitable topic. Then on the 23 of June a small band (reaching twenty at its peak) made its way to the site of the Academy and I made my presentation. The following is the text I based my remarks on:
June 23, 2015 at Plato’s Academy
Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn’t return them, and wouldn’t be acting justly if he did.
Plato, Republic 331c.
In the fall of 2011, just after the termination of Occupy Wall Street, I began speaking in support of those who had pledged to refuse to repay their student loan debt once a million others have also pledged to do so (under the rubric of Occupy Student Debt Campaign). In the course of giving a number of presentations concerning this campaign I received many queries and criticisms. The queries were most often practical, e.g., “what about co-signers, what will happen to them if I refuse to pay when I become the millionth and first student loan debt refuser?” The criticisms were also practical, ranging from “why not organize people to refuse all debt?” to “if you refuse to pay student loans debt, wouldn’t the Federal Government stop supporting the student loan program at all and hence you would harm future students?” I was prepared to deal with these practical questions and criticisms on their own terms, with empirical evidence and political argument.
But there was a more problematic criticism that was not so easily answered, since those who voiced it were not just in disagreement with the premise of the campaign–it was justified to refuse to pay a student loan debt– but they were morally offended by it. Their retorts to my arguments for the Campaign took on an almost metaphysical aura of sanctity when they spoke about the importance of paying debts from loans that were freely entered into, whatever the consequences. Their criticism quickly left the plane of facts and even values and entered into a world of meta-values with the primary one being: one cannot be morally serious unless one pays back one’s debts.
The political problem posed by this moral attitude to debt repayment is that it touched a raw nerve in many student loan debtors who have been ashamed by their inability to pay off their loans. This shame has led many to try to cover up and not talk to others (even family members) about their plight. According to my research concerning previous student loan debt abolition efforts, one of the key reasons they have not been successful has been their inability to overcome debtors’ characteristic shamed silence that is profoundly anti-political because it turns the collective problem of debt repayment into an individual issue to be dealt with one person at a time. Consequently, this moral criticism had to be dealt with directly and decisively if the anti-student debt effort was not to meet a similar fate, since this criticism not only makes it difficult to move the critics, but it has a problematic effect on many debtors who are already vulnerable to the mental blackmail implicit in the “debt moralists’” assertions.
In thinking through the conundrum posed by these debt moralists, I realized that, as a philosopher, I was equipped to deal with the philosophical arguments for or against student loan debt repayment. The more I explored the literature the more I realized that the defense of debt refusal has a long philosophical history. It was important to get this literature into the contemporary discourse on debt in response to the rigidity of debt moralism.
If Plato’s Republic marks the beginning of political philosophy, then debt payment refusal appears at the beginning of the beginning of political philosophy. Plato, the aristocratic darling of conservative thinkers, actually defends debt payment refusal in the Republic. Plato’s concern with debt should not be surprising, since indebtedness leading to debt slavery was the source of civil wars and revolutions throughout ancient Greek history from 600BC on. Solon, the famous Athenian law-giver, aimed to stop the endless turmoil caused by the cycle of debt-enslavement-revolution-debt and the ever reigniting class war between the poor debtors and the creditor plutocrats that was leading Athens to catastrophe. He did so by legislating the end of debt slavery, a move that led to the democratization of the Athenian state, and increasingly the remuneration of citizens for their public work (especially for their participation in the administration of justice and legislation, which required attending general assemblies and being part of juries, like the jury of 800+ that decided Socrates’ trial).
Solon was a politician and even a sage, but he was not a philosopher. Plato was. What did he have to say about debt repayment refusal? Significantly, the discussion of debt at the very beginning of the Republic. The first person Socrates interrogates, posing the book’s germinating question “What is justice?” is Kephalos, a wealthy arms manufacturer — although an immigrant, a member of the Athenian 1% — and owner of the house where the dialogue staged in the Republic is supposed to take place. The name “Kephalos” itself is important, for in ancient Greek it meant “head,” and as such it is a cognate of the word for “capital.”
Kephalos’ answer to Socrates’ question, appropriately enough for a merchant, is: “Speak the truth and pay your debts!” But Socrates easily dismisses this definition, pointing out that if a person borrows some weapons from a friend, but in the interim the friend “goes berserk” and becomes (murderously and/or suicidally) insane, it would not be just for the debtor to return the weapons to the friend…in fact, repaying the debt in this circumstance would be positively unjust, since it would lead to either murder or suicide or both! Thus the conditions of just repayment of a debt do not necessitate an absolute commitment to repayment under any conditions. Universalizing the kernel of Socrates’ rejoiner to Kephalos’ definition, we come to the following maxim: one should refuse to repay a loan when the payment will lead to evil or unjust consequences that far outweigh what fairness would result from its payment.
Plato’s suspicion of Kephalos’ wisdom was the outcome of the Athenians’ long political experience with a class of merchants and landlords who, like Kephalos, insisted that their loans should be repaid even if this should result in debt-slavery and class-based civil war. This may explain why, in Socrates’ response, Plato referred to the loan of a weapon! For creditors in this case appear to be a maddened crowd, with debt repayment being a cause of murder and suicide, especially when ending with the enslavement of fellow citizens.
These issues did not die with the end of the ancient world. Indeed, today’s “debt moralists” offer a response to those who refuser student loan repayment similar to the one that Kephalos made to Socrates’ query. In turn, we too must respond to the categorical imperative of debt moralists in the same way that Socrates responded to Kephalos’ definition of justice, with an emphatic “it depends.”
First, it depends on whether student loans are unjust in and of themselves qua loans. On this count, the actual mechanisms of student loan debt speak decisively. For a start, student loan debts in the US cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, unlike almost all other loan debts can be. In addition a large percentage of these loans have been contracted under fraudulent conditions, as it was revealed in the course of frequent scandals, court cases and Congressional committees’ investigations. As Robert Meister pointed out in the case of the University of California, UC administrators pledge future student fees largely to be paid for by student loans and grants to support UC’s bond ratings, its capital projects and a variety of equity deals that turn public money to private gain. This territory has been thoroughly explored by previous student loan debt abolition movements and there is still a lot more to learn.
Second, it depends on whether the collective good is served by repayment. Here it is important to understand the function of student debt in the context of the changes that have taken place in university financing since the 1970s. The ever increasing student debt burden (now beyond one trillion dollars) has been the material condition that made the imposition of ever increasing tuition fees in both public and private non-profit universities possible and financed the expansion of for-profit universities. These developments have led to the corporatization and privatization of universities, on the one side, and plunged a whole generation into debt-bondage. There is no doubt, therefore, that restoring a tuition-free university system and avoiding a further polarization of society requires that we end the present student debt system.
Third, it depends on whether the education and knowledge student loans are intended to pay for ought be commodities in the first place. This is where Plato enters again. Plato held a life-long antipathy to “sophists.” This word had a sociological reference–those who sell their knowledge to students—as well an epistemological one—those who claim to be wise. The sophists believed that knowledge was a commodity that could be exchanged for money. This was their answer to the question that has been at the center of the debate concerning the development of “for-profit” universities and the intensification of corporate efforts to impose intellectual property legal regimes on academic labor. Plato would not approve. His was a notion of knowledge that was neither commodified nor commodifiable. In Plato’s Republic those who know are to live a perfectly communistic life, neither paying for their education nor getting paid for its use. For two thousand years this conception of an academic institution remained the dominant one, and even in these neoliberal times it still has value.
The very status of most universities (that are either public or private but non-profit) and the traditional temporal limitations placed on “intellectual property rights” (e.g., patents give monopoly rights for the sale of an invention for 20 year) indicate that, despite highly organized and well-financed efforts, the commodification of education and knowledge is still not perceived as legitimate. If most universities are not supposed to profit from the education they provide and the knowledge they disseminate, why should ancillary financial institutions profit from them instead?
Student debt refusal, then, is in principle as just as one’s refusal to return a borrowed loaded gun to a maddened friend who intends to murder and then commit suicide with it. It should not be deterred by objections like the following, “Wouldn’t canceling all student loan debt be unfair to all those people who struggled to pay back their student loans?” For as David Graeber retorted in his important book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, this argument is as foolish as saying that it is unfair to a mugging victim that his/her neighbors were not mugged as well! (p. 389) Plato would agree.
Look for Part 2 of Report From Greece by George Caffentzis — with Silvia Federici — here.