From Mirna Wabi-Sabi, on race, colonialism, and identity
Author’s note: “De Pinkster Land Dagen (Pentecost days in dutch) started in 1927 by young anarchists from the Netherlands. In 1933, they bought a potato field from which they made a camping site, and where they organize a drug/alcohol free Anarchist festival every year.”
At Pinkster Land Dagen 2017, University of Color gave a workshop on white privilege and “post”-colonial identity as an attempt to start a conversation about decolonizing anarchism. The workshop and talk was difficult and many of the responses were problematic to many different degrees. We don’t believe this was due to a few loose cannons in the audience, but more likely illustrated the systemic problems in these circles that we aimed to tackle with the workshop.
This attempt requires a tremendous amount of emotional labour on the part of the UoC members, and here we would like to outline why.
This is not a philosophical discussion about subjects we read in books. It’s about the pain we are still feeling now, and struggle with every day. Books can help white people learn about this, and for people of color to find the vocabulary to express and process this pain. If you are a white man and you don’t listen to women of color on issues of racism and sexism, don’t be surprised when they choose not to listen to you. If you think you understand racism better than people of color then you are exercising white privilege, white supremacy and reproducing colonizer’s attitudes.
If white people are hurt or offended when they are called ‘white’ this is called White Fragility. This means that they experience the issue of ‘race’ so rarely, that when they are confronted with this statement, the situation itself is the worst version of discrimination they have faced. People of color are confronted with this so often that if they reacted extravagantly every time someone pointed out their race, they literally would not be able to do anything else in life. It would also probably lead to arrest or death.. One person calling you white is not the same as a whole world, institutions, governments, policies, armies, physical violence, history and so on constantly labeling you and controlling your life. Color-blindness is an offensive exercise of white privilege and does not help people of color, or lead to the eradication of racism. Denying the problem because you get to does not lead to solving the problem for those who actually suffer from it.
There is no such thing as ‘reverse racism’. Calling someone white is not a racist act, it’s only a statement of a fact, the fact that there is Institutionalized racism, there has been for hundreds of years, and white people just do not experience it. It’s called white privilege and this is not a racist statement. Racism is not discrimination based on skin color, it’s systematic institutionalized oppression of people of color and the ‘global south’ since the genocide of our people and our culture by western European entities.
Equating colonial violence in Latin America to the Dutch struggle between Catholics and Protestants: Don’t. Color blindness/white privilege at play again.
Equating culture to nation states: Culture is something people in colonized countries had to fight to preserve in-spite of European nation states. We are proud of our culture and we fight to preserve it, it does not mean we are proud of our Government. It’s also problematic that the anarchists that present this argument don’t acknowledge the existence of the anarchist culture they so cherish.
What’s wrong with white European men leading indigenous, feminist, and other Latin American movements? Everything. Indeed white men can be aware of the issues, but they also need to be aware of how much space they take, and to allow the space for people to speak for themselves. We don’t want to need the validation of white European men because this is just another exercise of colonial attitudes. Even with the best intentions, white dutch anarchist men acting like they know better around people from the ‘global south’ creates an incredibly unsafe environment for people of color. They can try, but they just don’t understand what it’s like for immigrants of color, and how we often feel like we need to ask permission to be somewhere, or to say or do something.
If you are a white person and you truly feel like you know better than a person of color when it comes to racism, or you know better how to communicate ideas on the subject… stop and think ‘Where is this feeling coming from?’ ‘Where is it rooted?’ ‘Is it valid?’. It’s coming from entitlement, which comes from being a white European. It’s rooted in white supremacy, it’s not valid and it can create an unsafe environment for people of color. For instance, it is very problematic when Dutch people try to educate a Brazilian woman on Brazilian ‘post´-colonial identity.
As a white dutch anarchist it’s important to realize that disagreeing with a person of color doesn’t just mean philosophical differences with any other fellow comrade, but a very real and practical exercise of racial power. Because white dutch anarchists have the access to resources, spaces and history in the Netherlands. These disagreements lead to alienation and series of racial micro-agressions that make it virtually impossible for people of color to stay in a white dutch anarchist space without feeling subjugated.
For instance: Tone policing. ‘We agree (in theory) with what you are saying but we don’t like how you are saying it’. That is to say: you are probably right because I’ve read it in a book, but I don’t like it that you are so emotional about it because it’s not ‘gezellig’ or respectful to us. The thing is that of course we are emotional about it because we are still suffering and our wounds are still open. Many white people are willfully ignorant to this because it’s in their best interest to maintain the [racist] status quo, while also maintaining the “not racist” label.
Decolonization and Identity
Almost every time I tell someone they are white or Dutch, they respond defensively with: “But you are kind of white too”, or “you’re not black,” or the best one “How would you feel if I called you Latina or Brazilian?” It’s laughable and worrying that they take such a statement as an attack. Yes, I am Latin American, and I am Brazilian. No, I am not black. That doesn’t change the fact that they are white and Dutch.
I think they do this because they think that me labeling them what they are and pointing out their privileges implies I don’t have privileges and therefore I’m better. It’s actually the opposite, I point out their privileges because I see them in myself.
This wrong assumption is a serious aggression to people of color because Western Europeans have always felt comfortable labeling others while remaining neutral, and this has been paramount to the persistence of white supremacy. It’s also very telling of how unusual and repulsive it is to them to feel subjugated based on their skin color or nationality, which people of color are way too used to. Having to admit they cannot be the objective voice of reason on a subject for once is incredibly painful to people suffering from white fragility. And when it comes to racism and decoloniality, they are not the voice of reason that should lead the movement. For once they will not be the center of attention, and we do not want a seat at their table.
I’m an incredibly privileged person, and I’m always trying to deal with this privilege carefully, critically and consciously. It’s tricky to recognize when you are being treated differently or being discriminated against, because you can’t switch passports or skin color freely. Sometimes we don’t see the micro-agressions and oppression because we know nothing else. This leads to a lot of gaslighting, paranoia and many even believe black people are collectively suffering from post traumatic slavery syndrome.
Ironically, I learned a lot about what it is like to be Brazilian/Latina, and be treated as such, only after I became European. At borders, at clubs, with partners, with other Brazilians, it completely changed. Traveling was so much easier, at borders I felt confidence and entitlement as opposed to anxiety and fear. Strange white men didn’t flirt with me as aggressively or asked me to dance and shake my ass.
After 10 years outside of Brazil my skin became lighter due to less sun and my hair straighter due to less humidity, which also made clear the difference between being treated as a white girl or a Latina. People were inclined to think I was in Europe to study as opposed to ‘work,’ both implying I was in Europe to ‘better’ myself, and implicitly expecting gratitude from me. Brazilians started talking to me as if I lived like a princess and knew nothing of the turmoil and struggle of Brazilian life. I was always fierce and political as a kid, but the European passport in particular was a radicalizing turn of events.
The alienation from all sides pushed me to take the issue of Identity and belonging very seriously. White Western European people have lived sheltered from these kinds of experiences so they haven’t had the unavoidable motivation to explore their whiteness. So, white people, take this into consideration because a revolution is coming and you need to decide, you are either with us or against us. “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (Fanon)
I’ve never felt safe in this space (PL and the Dutch white-anarchist-activist scene). Even though it’s wonderful that so many people to some degree acknowledge the problem of white supremacy, and want to make this community safer, it’s been an uphill battle for me in the last 7 years and I’m tired of it.
It’s great that people see the need for these kinds of discussions and aim for diversity in the community. However, it’s not great to rely on people of color to do the work for you, and we hope white anarchists find ways to address and solve this problem themselves.
References: Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Gloria Wekker, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Maria Lacerda de Moura.
I am a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), which translates to ‘Our Own Druidry’ and is also glossed as ‘A Druid Fellowship’. In fact I am the Senior Druid of an ADF Grove and so fairly snugly wrapped into the structure. But not as much so as might be thought…. the ADF mandates that one’s religious expression references Pre-Christian Indo-European religions (I am diaspora Irish in ancestry and belief), that a Grove hold 8 public Rituals yearly (I gladly support multiple Holidays), and that the ritual follows a universal, dictated, unchanging format.
However, inside that required step-wise structure the expression of belief is completely open; I write in metered, rhyming poetry and address Jungian Archetypical Seasonal Personifications for half the year.
Early in the progression (and right at the end when the Thanks are taking place) the ritualists address the Earth. In our rituals we sing (to the tune of the Doxology):
O Thou, our blue and lovely Earth, We take from you, you give to us. What can we give of equal worth? Nothing but love, nothing but trust.
*all kiss their hand to the Earth* and speak our thanks at the end with:
Guiding Druid: On every day, wherever we are, in every breath we send thanks and love to the Great Mother!
All: From You all of us were birthed, Thanks from us, Our Mother Earth!
As you can see, we call the Earth ‘Mother Earth.’ In conversation as a biologist, I have also used the name ‘Gaia’ in order to clearly indicate that I am conceptualizing an earth-wide, functioning Eco-system (imo also sentient but opinions vary) and in my private practice I address Her as ‘Hertha’ (re Swinburne). But both She and I are always fully aware of Whom we are speaking—-the inhabiting Deity of the entire Earth.
So recently on the ADF chat in Facebook the question was raised—- what member of our chosen Indo-European Pantheon do we “use” to personify this Being? Leaving aside my problems with ‘using’ a Deity and the problematic ‘picking’ of the Same (not that they’re not enormous problems but not very interesting; once you’ve done the interpretive dance of ‘omgs, how RUDE’ the discussion is pretty much over for me) I had a thankfully quite different thought sparked up by the discussion.
The Singular Deity of the Entire Earth is a modern concept. Although some PreChristian religions do address ‘Mother Earth’ Beings, my opinion is that the Deity being addressed is, in actuality, what my Irish hearth culture would typify as ‘Sovereignty’. That/She is the Being who gives the supplicant human permission to live in the area She (those Beings are generally identified as female) is in charge of.
For example, Ériu, Banba and Fódla give the Milesians permission to move into Ireland when they arrive. The Morrighan, by having sex with The Dagda while They are straddling a river, foretells/allows victory to the Incomers against the Fir Bolg the night before their battle. I feel that the ancient mythos does not assign the Deity of Where-we-live as being the entire Earth. Not, necessarily, that ‘primitive’ peoples thought that the Earth was flat, unpersonified, or limited in scope but that non-technological peoples, whether farmers or gatherers, generally confined their mythos to what they were familiar with in topography, usage, and association. Nut, for example, clearly seems to represent ‘our night sky’ rather than the entirety of the sky.
Interestingly, this Earth is male (Her brother/husband) but still looks like ‘our lands, bounded by our horizon’ rather than all of the Earth. Modern Pagans, having seen the photo of the Blue Earth from space, do not need any stretch of imagination to see Her as whole and finite. Just as ancient people may have postulated ‘there are lands further than I have seen, not my concern,’ I believe that there are finite Deities of the various planets, the Solar System, the Universe, et al but I do not think that the Beings who hang the Stars pay much attention to us.
The Solitary Earth Goddess is inextricably identified with ecological fragility and the dangers threatening humanity. She will inevitably outlive us, but the pressing question is how soon and how completely. There are no new frontiers; the boundary is clear. ‘Our Sovereign Land’ is all of Her and how we affect the part we are standing on effects the All.
Apart from Herself and all of Her ancillary Spirits (if we are able to enter into communication with Them), who are our allies? That other modern concept, all of human-kind. Where ancient people could think of ‘people’ as ‘those people who look somewhat like me,’ ‘those people who speak my language/dialect’, or ‘the 3generational descendants of a common grandparent’, for ourselves this is unworkable. Just as Earth must be considered as All-Earth in order to continue to support us, so people must be considered as All-Humanity in order to facilitate it.
We all have a common ancestor in the Mitochondrial Mother (understanding that this person is a concept in the same way that Schrödinger’s cat does not poop in the box), the trivial genetic differences that colour our eyes, cause us to have curly or straight hair, or contribute an abundance or deficit of melatonin cannot be considered as exclusionary or we will fail to survive.
Now we must adopt an ancient concept. Not that we are out-ranked by the Gods; many modern Pagan and mono-theistic religions champion this idea. But that we are not the apex of being.
We have responsibilities to Earth, to Her wellness, to all of humanity, and to the community we are a part of that easily outweigh our personal preferences. Not that I, Judith, am the leader and saviour of modern humankind (wild-eyed, flag-waving, with one breast hanging out like Marianne, the Liberty of France), but that I must try to do my best over time, to be my best self, and to help as best I can.
I often but not always do what the Gods direct me to do, I plant and grow native species and study their medicinal and magical properties, and I endeavour to decrease my trash-stream and correctly direct it in my neighbourhood. And write about it.
is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).
come harvest these dried stalks
stifling thought and speech:
sterile language of war
beneath which slithers fear
and hope. Till our mind’s soil
until desire sprouts
from dormant seeds of joy.
Help us to grieve visions
desiccated by words
and seek essence of dream.
Lunacy rules us now,
renders us hungry beasts
fighting in barren fields.
Decalcify the mind
and let us learn anew
the speech of stone and tree,
the alphabet of bird.
For this earth will offer
everything we seek
when we can remember
the humble way to ask.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.
I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in Heaven are pav’d with gold.
They wrote that in the Holy Writ
When Caesar’s reign was pav’d with shit,
Mud & blood & bricks & bones.
Now it’s mainly cobblestones.
How hard I wonder, could it be
To conjure up Eternity
Beyond the reach of urban sprawl?
My Heaven hath no streets at all.
* * *
II. True North
(Age of Enlightenment)
How fierce and pestilent it seems,
When captur’d from a satellite-
This rash of incandescent dreams
Upon the fever’d Earth at night!
Old enemies who radiate
With ultraviolet unity
Agree enough to infiltrate
The Heavens with impunity-
For round my light, a little moth
Went straight from his cocoon,
Circulating in a swath
As men once did the Moon,
Mistaking our malignant lamps
For patterns in the sky-
The flighty little tragic tramps
Get lost and wonder why.
At any rate, they see our race
As terribly Titanic-
Lords of Earth & Outer Space,
And when we swat, they panic.
I wish they knew the truth of it,
That we were merely elves,
Kinetic tricksters tightly-knit
In orbit round our selves.
With peace like that, who needs a war?
All nations are imperial,
The city lights a mildew spore,
He’d ask me where Polaris went
(And if I might remark)
I’d say we flood the Firmament
Because we fear the Dark.
* * *
III. In God We Trust
(Age of Pisces)
The little plane let out a groan
And scamper’d like a skipping-stone
Across the grim Alaskan lake
Where businessmen had come to take
A tall, majestic rutting moose-
Until they met a wayward goose
Who blew a kiss into the prop
And brought them to a grinding stop.
The pilot didn’t stand a chance-
His client, though, by happenstance
Surviv’d- and like a seal pup,
He fought the water, reaching up
Towards a vague, familiar light.
He muster’d all his manly might
To push his body on to breach-
And like a slug, he took the beach.
Pathetic, for a millionaire
To grope & flop & gag & swear
While Arctic breezes blew forlorn-
“Good Lord,” he said, “I’ve been reborn!”
Around him ragged ravens croaking,
Flocking, squawking, mocking, joking,
Filter’d through the tops of trees
And watch’d him tremble on his knees,
And snicker’d as he labor’d on;
Twas rather like that fateful dawn
Of Genesis- that sacred quest
Of one great fish who fill’d her chest
With visions of a new frontier
And spawned us all, that pioneer
Of life unshackl’d by the sea-
His brain, he felt, was in a vice-
His blood was blue & cold as ice,
And so he could not find his way
Through lowly clumps of moss & clay;
The bramble-briars cut his face-
He fumbl’d forth in senseless grace,
When in his hunting vest he found
His wallet, wrapp’d in plastic, bound,
With true salvation standing by:
A hundred dollars, tinder-dry!
And so he pull’d his roll apart
In sacrifice to warm his heart-
But just before he struck his flint,
He read the motto of our mint:
In God We Trust, a simple verse
To give him hope & make the curse
Of hypothermia relent-
Despite his lacking of a tent.
Around him, still, the ravens sat
And watch’d him shiver through his fat-
“Ravenous,” he thought, were they
Who chuckl’d at him, human prey.
If only they had known his name,
Known the chair from whence he came,
Known the company he’d ruled,
They’d earn a place among the fool’d.
He hated them, the devil-birds,
And tried to speak the magic words:
He vomited a Christian prayer,
And cross’d his heart, the millionaire.
If God had sav’d him in the lake,
Why not on land, for Heaven’s sake?
The odds were clearly on his side.
He clutch’d his money & he cried.
He couldn’t bear to see it burn’d.
A penny saved, a penny earn’d.
Still, he fear’d of being dead.
He tried to burn a rock instead.
He tried to burn a coffee can.
They say he died a wealthy man.
* * *
IV. Atlantis Revisited
(Age of Aquarius)
I dreamt of something lovely
In a monumental way-
Twas something like a temple
Underneath a brackish bay,
Where alabaster pillars
Loom’d about a batter’d reef,
With strange, exotic figures
In precision-carv’d relief.
You’d think it was Atlantis
By the architecture’s look,
For barnacles encrusted
Ev’ry crevice, crack & crook-
But lo, it was a vision:
Mother Nature would arrange
For bottom-feeding slugs to eat
The New York Stock Exchange!
And what have the Romans done for us?
“They built the roads & gave us bread!”
Indeed they have, while Caesar Gus
Hath lin’d our aqueducts with lead.
Is a gardener, shepherd, hunter-gatherer, scryier, Enochian caller, exorcist, and UFO enthusiast living in Occupied Dakota Territory, Buffalo Ridge, South Dakota
Last month, a town near me saw its first May Day rally in decades. Because “working class” means more than “blue-collar white men,” the organizers invited me to talk about disability and other speakers to address white supremacy, climate justice, and patriarchy.
My speech observed that the paid work of formally-employed workers and the unpaid work of unemployed workers (housework, childcare, social and emotional support, etc) depend on each other. Society can’t run with just one of them. They’re like a nail and a hammer: without both, you can’t build a thing. Disabled and abled workers are both part of that reciprocal process, including disabled people who will never have access to paid work. But under capitalism, the ruling business-ownership class controls the economy, government, and culture. So, no one but them has meaningful social power, even though society only exists because of our collective labor (paid and unpaid). Therefore, we share an interest in doing away with the current system. Sticking up for each of us is in the enlightened self-interest of all of us. We don’t need moralistic notions of allyship – we need to fight for each other, together, because otherwise only the ruling class wins.
Before May 1, the organizers needed a speaker bio. I didn’t hesitate to talk about my political work, but I agonized about whether to mention that I’m autistic. I didn’t believe that simply being disabled qualified me to speak. I thought that my knowledge of the issues and on-the-ground political practice did. However, I intended to say that disabled and abled workers ultimately have exactly the same interests and that neither has meaningful social power. So, I finally did disclose my disability. After all, I was criticizing the basic assumption of most social justice disability politics: that all abled people benefit from the oppression of disabled people and, therefore, are complicit in it. If I hadn’t announced my autism, I could have exposed the event to accusations of booking an abled Marxist to “ablesplain.”
As it happened, my speech was well-received. The crowd wasn’t the typical activist scene; nearly everyone there was from either the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Workers of the World, or a local, independent farmworkers union. However, based on past experience, a less unusual “anti-oppression” crowd (say, college student activists) would likely not have been so receptive. In situations like that, I’ve noticed three typical responses:
The audience ignores the content and responds as though it had been the standard social justice position.
The audience reflexively defers to the critique on the basis of the speaker’s identity – and instead of actually engaging with the substance, confesses their own privilege while changing neither their ideas nor their practice.
You may notice a pattern there. While those committed to allyship-model politics may talk about taking marginalized voices seriously, in practice there’s not much room for anyone, regardless of identity, to dispute their basic political assumptions.
The credibility they grant ostensibly on the basis of identity actually depends on political agreement. They might say “disabled people are telling us to check our privilege and understand our complicity in ableism,” but disabled people who don’t say that tend to get brushed over or called out.
Now, that in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Defending opinions one agrees with and attacking other views is just part of what it means to take ideas seriously – it’s legitimate and necessary for any sort of politics. But why, then, frame it in terms of who is talking rather than what they’re saying? It’s empirically untrue that all members of a given identity group have basically the same politics. Why does social justice talk as though they do?
Disclosing my autism gave some cover to the rally’s organizers. But, I could have gone further.
Broadly speaking, social justice says that being disabled should be the main qualification to talk about disability. Even so, I could have boosted my credibility further by claiming additional marginalized identities. For instance, “autistic person” carries less intersectional weight than “autistic nonbinary trans woman.” For the subculture, more marginality means more right to speak – at least on the surface.
But for social justice, there’s more to identity than just the identities people have. “Autistic nonbinary trans woman” might give my words more intersectional force than “autistic,” but “autistic nonbinary trans woman who has survived rape and abuse” carries me substantially further. That ought to sound pretty strange – after all, having been raped isn’t an identity. Every identity group has some members who have been raped. It’s an experience, not an attribute.
Identity and privilege, though, tend to get framed almost exclusively in terms of “lived experience.” For instance, non-men are often assumed to understand patriarchy in ways men simply can’t because of their fundamentally different lived experiences. The line between what you are and what you’ve been through starts to melt away. But why should that be? What puts “being a woman,” or “being disabled,” in the same category as “having been abused by a partner?” What’s the common thread between a specific act of violence and an identity that’s there throughout your entire social existence?
Perhaps the social justice subculture doesn’t actually care about identity. It cares about suffering.
“Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”
In the US, like the rest of the world, most people are in the (paid and unpaid) working class. The social justice subculture, though, is different.
It’s rooted in cultural studies classrooms, student clubs, Facebook cliques, Democrat-in-practice “non-partisan” nonprofits, and the recent graduates that fill out the scene. While working-class people can be found as individual participants, it’s the professional-managerial class that holds (sub)cultural hegemony: its ideas, interests, and preferences dictate the entire community’s priorities and beliefs. And like the rest of the professional-managerial class, the “anti-oppression community” is richer, whiter, and more privileged in general than the working class.
When marginalized people suffer in public for a social justice audience, not everyone watching is very privileged. However, as a rule the allies far outnumber the self-advocates (hence the preoccupation with allyship and privilege over liberation and strategy in the first place). So, when the subculture proclaims the pain of the oppressed, the point isn’t to “amplify and normalize marginalized voices.” It’s a performance with a very particular purpose. The social justice subculture exploits oppressed people’s pain to prove to its members that their politics are moral.
On May Day, why did I resent having to foreground my disability? I wasn’t ashamed of being autistic. I just hated the thought of being a prop. I don’t want the subculture to use my suffering as Exhibit A to prove how right their beliefs are (especially since I think many of their beliefs aren’t right at all).
“We do not advocate exhorting white workers on an individual basis to give up their privileged status. What we do advocate is promoting vigorous struggle with the ruling class with equality at the forefront and to articulate the lessons of these struggles.”
There’s another agenda in play. The professional-managerial class doesn’t want to lose control of progressive politics. We will have to force it to, because otherwise the working class will keep losing. Working-class power is the soul of any Left worth the name. But the social justice subculture doesn’t want revolution – it wants self-congratulation. Paradoxically, that goal is served by its fixation on suffering, privilege, and personal complicity in larger social systems. When “anti-oppression” activists self-flagellate, they create a nearly Protestant sense of collective morality. You want grace? Admit your sin. You want validation? Admit your complicity, your privilege.
Thankfully, their underlying beliefs aren’t true. The ability to change society comes from the latent power of the people who create society (and everything in it): the working class, paid and unpaid. We can only free ourselves by getting rid of the ruling class. Now, for anyone who wants working-class unity, privilege isn’t a useless idea. In fact, it’s vital. Male, white, abled, and otherwise-privileged members of our class are materially less exploited than other workers. They receive tangible and intangible benefits that set them apart from the rest of the class. Working-class unity doesn’t just drop out of nowhere. It has to be knit together, thread by thread, struggle by struggle. Unless fighting privilege and class-based organizing happen through and alongside each other, we will defeat neither capitalism nor privilege. Privilege is part of the class system. It doesn’t float around somewhere in the ether; nothing under capitalism is outside capitalism. Revolutionaries who ignore it can only fail. In a white supremacist and deeply patriarchal society like the US, cultural and material privilege does more to destroy working-class unity than anything else, and avoiding the issue doesn’t make class-based organizing easier. It makes it impossible.
However, the social justice subculture has no useful role in that work. It doesn’t actually break down privilege within the working class. That would mean helping privileged workers understand that opposing their privilege is not self-sacrifice but enlightened self-interest, and proving it through the experience of class struggle. But the subculture prefers to dismiss (or even attack) the working class, while acting as though privilege is a law of nature instead of something we can abolish. The trope that “working class” is a euphemism for “white men who think they’re not privileged” is not honest analysis. It’s psychological projection – the social justice milieu is irredeemably by and for the professional-managerial class, which is disproportionately white and male. We should reject it as such.
“In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.”
Political and aesthetic theory, from Alley Valkyrie
Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.
– Guy Debord
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in France last summer is that battles were being waged on multiple fronts.
There was the most obvious battle, the one that the media was covering, a nationwide uproar over a set of controversial labor reforms that were widely viewed as a betrayal of the working class on the part of a supposedly left-wing government.
There was a secondary battle playing out alongside that uproar, a guerrilla battle against capitalism and international finance waged by leftists and anarchists in the form of smashed bank windows and repeated violent confrontations with police.
And then there was the battle for the imagination, the battle of dueling narratives that leftists and fascists alike were waging on every blank surface imaginable, from street poles to mailboxes to the walls of boarded-up buildings. As opposed to the aforementioned battles, the battle for the imagination was one that the leftists were obviously and solidly winning.
The words and imagery that adorned pretty much every conceivable surface passionately and effectively reflected the world that could be, the world that they were trying to build. With stickers and graffiti and street art, those who believed that ‘another world is possible’ were successfully appealing to the hearts and minds of the populace.
That success was reflected not only in the physical presence of a leftist culture, but in the widespread public acceptance of many of their ideas and visions and how those ideas manifested in the physical world. Actions that would be almost universally condemned in the United States, such as the repeated destruction of ATMs, were met with an attitude that ranged from indifference to gleeful acceptance.
Even those who disapproved often expressed their sympathies with the sentiments behind such actions, even when criticizing the actions. They understood why the battle was being waged, and their understanding was in part closely connected to the consistent anti-capitalist messaging that they were exposed to on a daily basis.
Politicizing the Aesthetic
“The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.”
– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’
In the above-quoted essay, arguably his most well-known and influential work, Walter Benjamin characterized a primary component of fascism as the politicization of the aesthetic and argued in favor of the revolutionary potential of art. Written in 1936, and grounded in his observations of the role of aesthetics as employed in Hitler’s rise to power, Benjamin detailed the transformation of art as a medium through the technologies of reproduction.
He explained how such modernization had created the potential for the utilization of art as a means to influence the masses, but also pointed out how that potential would be used for repressive and totalitarian purposes when the means of reproduction was concentrated in the hands of the few. When the means of reproduction were democratized, art could hold the same power as a tool of resistance that it held in Germany as a tool of manipulation.
While his point had always resonated with me, the truth of his statements became plainly evident after my interactions with the countless propaganda-covered street poles that I constantly encountered throughout France. But there is American precedent for this too.
“More than anything, Hillary [Clinton] forgot that Obama owed his first victory to an image, to an idea.”
I heard the comment as I walked past an art student, talking on the phone as he was waiting for the bus outside of PNCA in northwest Portland. I knew immediately what he was referring to: Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘HOPE’ poster, which was a near-ubiquitous image during the 2008 presidential campaign.
While his actual campaign promises and proposed policies were undoubtedly a factor in his success, one cannot underestimate the degree to which his victory was on account of his winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a disillusioned populace through the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ The strength of Fairey’s image and the resonance of the message inspired voters to hit the polls in record numbers.
It was many of those same voters, especially those from rural areas, living in poverty and once inspired by the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ who switched parties and voted for Trump eight years later.
They flipped in large part because the changes that they had hoped for and expected did not materialize for them, and their hearts and minds were then subsequently captured by a very different but equally captivating message.
But this time, instead of abstract concepts like ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ this message provided not only concrete promises but definitive scapegoats.
The Intoxication of Narrative
“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”
– Walter Benjamin
Among other factors, fascism gains its traction on account of a compelling narrative.
Fascism takes advantage of crumbling social conditions, evokes a false nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ and frames the current material conditions as a ‘fall’ from that greatness. It then scapegoats specific parties as the cause of the fall, and promises a restoration to greatness if and only if the people place their trust in an authoritarian leader and give that leader free rein to rid us of the scapegoats that are responsible for the ‘problems.’
To its credit, liberal democracy also presents a compelling narrative. The promise of ‘freedom’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘rights,’ especially as it is contextualized within the idea of the ‘American dream,’ has captured hearts and minds for generations now. While it is a narrative that realistically has only ever applied to certain segments of the population (mostly able-bodied white people), over the past few decades the promises of that narrative have repeatedly failed even those who had previously been granted that dream .
The ideology of fascism was birthed out of the ashes of World War I, birthed of the anger of a generation in which working-class people throughout Europe were brutally slaughtered in a war that was mainly fought in the interests of the ruling classes and in the name of democracy. It was the betrayal and failure of the narrative and the promises of liberal democracy in Europe that caused large segments of the population to embrace the narrative of fascism.
Although its been mostly forgotten in the mainstream retelling of history, the present turn of events in the United States is not the first time that the narrative of fascism has captured the interest of the American public. Fascism first rose in America in the years after the Great Depression, the last time that the narrative and promises of liberal democracy were proven to fail en masse throughout the North American continent.
While there were multiple factors that were able to overpower the pull of fascism in America that first time around (such as the effects of the New Deal), it was ironically the economic boost that came from the war against fascism in Europe that acted as the nails in the coffin for the power of the fascist narrative in America.
Out of that war came the resurgence of liberal democracy in even greater forms, from the recognition of the United States as a global superpower to institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.
It is the crumbling and decline of those powers in the present day which has ushered in the current wave of fascist tendencies. History demonstrates very clearly that when the contradictions of liberal democracy start to weigh heavily enough to crack the foundations of that system, those who have profited from that system and its contradictions will inevitably embrace fascism in order to secure their wealth and their safety.
In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.
Il est interdit d’interdire (It is forbidden to forbid)
– Situationist slogan, May 1968
In the summer of 1968, revolutions and revolutionary tendencies echoed throughout the Western world, with varying degrees of success and lasting power. Among the most well-known uprisings of the time was the series of events in May of 1968 in France, which at its peak brought the entire French economy to a standstill and nearly toppled the national government. While history generally characterizes the French uprisings as being fueled by violence and physical resistance, the underlying current which sustained the uprisings was based in artistic expression, most notably the tactics and aesthetics of the Situationist International.
The SI was formed a decade earlier, a fusion of libertarian Marxist ideas and the ideologies and aesthetic expressions of the surrealist and dada art movements. Arguably the strongest idea to come forth from the situationists was the concept of the ‘spectacle,’ which Guy Debord described and defined as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
The concept of the spectacle was in itself a deep critique of capitalism, specifically the ways in which commodity fetishism had shifted society away from social relations based on direct experience and instead created an arena where individual expression was primarily exercised through the consumption of commodities. The aim of the SI was to reverse that trend, to prioritize and emphasize direct experience and to replace the manufactured desires of capitalism with actual and authentic desires.
This philosophy was central to the artistic and symbolic expressions that fueled the uprisings of May ’68. The emotional appeals of the SI, which stressed personal freedom, social authenticity, and political liberation, created a climate in which many believed that a new world was truly possible. Despite the eventual failure of the uprisings to foment an actual social revolution, the ideas and tactics of the SI left its mark on an entire generation of French youths, who continued with and passed on those ideas into the modern day.
The propaganda and messaging that is currently seen throughout every major urban area in France, as well as the understandings and philosophies behind it, is a direct and often obvious descendant of the imagery and emotion that characterized the SI and the events of May ’68.
Fascism: Liberal Democracy’s Shadow
When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany;” it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
– Halford E. Luccock, as quoted in the New York Times, 1938.
Many tend to position liberal democracy and its inherent values as the antidote to fascist tendencies, just as they consider the same system to be inherently opposed to the narrative and the promises of fascism. The values expressed in fascism are framed as the antithesis of democracy, and it is stressed that it is the failure to uphold the values of democracy that inevitably will lead to fascism.
Liberal democracy is the clothing we put on to hide the obscene nature of the body exposed, so to speak. When the actualized brutality and obscenity that is necessary to uphold liberal democracy is revealed, such as the violence recently witnessed at Standing Rock, it is demonstrated for all to see that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
In that moment, liberal democracy is then maintained and upheld by the portion of the populace that continues to praise the emperor on the beauty of his garments.
“The system is broken,” they say, when the actual truth is that the system is being exposed for its true and brutal nature, momentarily stripped of all its trappings and distractions.
It is in those moments that fascism and anti-capitalist leftism are actually in agreement, united in contradiction to the liberal democratic narrative, that in fact the system is working exactly as intended. The fascist praises and encourages the mechanics of empire as a justified means to an end, while the leftist argues that the means do not justify the ends and that the only ethical response is to abolish the system altogether.
When the lies of liberal democracy are exposed for what they are, when the child comes forth and finally points out to the crowd that the emperor is naked, it is the narrative of either the fascist or the leftist that holds the potential power to define what is accepted as reality.
Which side actually gains power in that moment is dependent on many factors, but among the strongest factors is the ability of their respective narratives to capture the imagination.
Logical arguments do not hold much sway in those moments. Instead it is a matter of which side wins the hearts and minds of the masses.
Absurdity and Spectacle
The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified. 6. The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.
— Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’
While most corporations and retailers used Black Friday as a way to convince people to buy tangible items at rock-bottom prices, the folks at Cards Against Humanity had a different idea.
They decided to dig a literal hole in the ground for three days straight, with an appeal to the public to pay for the digging by the minute. They had a live video feed of the hole, and a running tally that looked no different from any other crowdfunding campaign.
Despite its absurdity, the stunt resonated with people on several levels, not only as a commentary on consumerism and the existential bleakness of the modern day, but as a painful and arguably hilarious example of what people were willing to actually spend money on. Excerpted from the website’s FAQ:
What do I get for contributing money to the hole?
A deeper hole. What else are you going to buy, an iPod?
Why aren’t you giving all this money to charity?
Why aren’t YOU giving all this money to charity? It’s your money.
What if you dig so deep you hit hot magma?
At least then we’d feel something.
In the same country where thousands are dying on the streets without aid and thousands more are suffering from lack of medical care, after three days, the ‘holiday hole’ brought in over $100,000. As has been shown countless times before this one, the plight of the suffering has nothing on the draw and the temptation of the spectacle.
Aside from the obvious resonance in terms of the current sociopolitical climate, my first thought was of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies showering Wall Street with dollar bills and then laughing while the hapless traders on the floor abandoned their tasks in order to scramble for every dollar, disrupting the machine of capitalism with the very substance that fuels it.
While such tactics and stunts owe an certain debt to the situationists and the idea of the spectacle, its important to recognize that the theatrical tactics of the American ‘New Left’ were arguably responsible for replacing and displacing the last vestiges of actualized radical struggle in the United States. Once political theater became mainstream in terms of both public acceptance as well as expectation, militant tactics were for the most part abandoned by the mostly white, college-educated left in the United States. This eventually led to a massive loss of political power and social capital, which contributed to the rise of neoliberalism and the post-civil rights era conservative movements that now dominate the political landscape and control much of its discourse.
Moreover, the movements and organizations that did not abandon militant radicalism, such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, were left standing alone and subsequently targeted and destroyed from both within and without by the likes of COINTELPRO.
While the humor of such political theater doesn’t lead to direct and actualized change, the potential effect that such humorous spectacles can have on the masses should not be understated. Cards Against Humanity just proved that to the tune of $100,000, and while part of me winces at that reality, another part of me wonders if and how that tendency can be manipulated in favor of a spectacle that creates an actual means to an end.
Towards a New Propaganda
“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”
– Jean Anouilh
We tend to interpret the word ‘propaganda’ as information that is inherently untrustworthy. We refer to “Soviet propaganda” or “anarchist propaganda” with the understanding that those folks likely aren’t telling the ‘truth.’
Historically, propaganda was generally regarded as a neutral force, holding true to its Latin roots. ‘Propaganda’ derives from propagare, meaning ‘to propagate,’ and propaganda was recognized as a powerful weapon that could be wielded in the name of countless agendas. It was only with the rise the phenomenon that Benjamin observed, of authoritarian governments that disseminated mass propaganda through the means of mechanical reproduction in order to manipulate the public in favor of repressive tendencies, that the word took on a permanently negative connotation.
While our tendency is to distrust anything that we consider to be propaganda, we place a rather impressive amount of trust in the great corporate propaganda machine known as advertising. The assumption is that the unsanctioned graffiti or flyer or poster is trying to pull one over on us, but we tend to accept that four out of five dentists recommend Crest without much thought or criticism. We generally grant the benefit of the doubt to the claims made by advertising, despite widespread knowledge of the degree to which that medium is manipulating us.
And yet, just as the only true difference between ‘militarism’ and ‘terrorism’ is legitimatization on the part of the state, the only difference between what we consider to be ‘advertising’ and what is disparaged as ‘propaganda’ or ‘graffiti’ is legitimatization on the part of society and our acquiescence to the various ways in which the state and capital control the commons. Our trust in one over the other is rooted not in fact or substance but in our cultural programming, in our tendency to trust authority.
Those who condemn political graffiti generally do not reserve the same criticism for corporate and/or political advertising, and in that inconsistency they further strengthen the power that capital has over the commons and by extension over our thoughts and our minds.
The ubiquity of advertising in modern society and the tight control of access to that medium and the spaces it inhabits act as a current reflection and confirmation of Benjamin’s observations concerning the effects of the means of reproduction when concentrated in the hands of the few.
While the idea of ‘reclaiming the commons’ is usually centered on occupying public space and ‘commoning’ activities such as community gardens, reclaiming and rewriting the messages that currently define the modern commons is an overlooked and necessary component of creating a narrative that has the potential to challenge that of the status quo.
If fascism relies on the aestheticization of politics, fascism needs to be fought by politicizing the aesthetic.
Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.
We will not try to fix that which should break before us.”
Ritual poetry, from Ramon Elani
Vitoð ér enn, eða hvat? (Would you yet know more?)—Voluspo
My son looks up at the towering pylons above us.
“What is that, daddy?”
A cold wind blows across the barren wastes of the future and stings my cheeks and eyes.
“The ruins of a world that doesn’t know it’s already dead.”
We walk on through silent pines and boulders dripping with ice
And stand before a frozen waterfall, among wet woods of mistletoe.
Domed hills rise up around us, still and ominous.
Troll caves hidden among the moss and trees.
“Winter, stay forever.”
Come the frosty whispers of giants.
We say our bright blessings to the frozen things that watch us.
I bear the mark of the gap upon my thigh
And the cosmic egg inside a kernel of ice upon my left arm.
We come to the rushing void where the embers of fire blast forth
From the Sundering Land, home of the world-breakers,
To mix with the rimey spray that flows from the Mist World.
And in that terrible, yawning gulf where the two streams met
Shapes emerged from the drippings.
A man and a cow floating through the depths of eternity,
Creating worlds without end as they fell in and out of time.
The she-cow licked the salty ice until her coarse tongue met scarlet lips
And golden hair shone in the abyss of space.
Ice child. Armpit and toe children.
The titanic father slaughtered in a deluge of blood.
And the leeks grew from his guts and bones.
I seek a pool in the forest that is unfathomably deep,
And I seek the crone that sits by the side of the pool and protects its wisdom.
She bears the rune of loss.
I offer her my eye and she drops it into the pool.
With tears of blood I watch it fall, down through memory
Until it settles into the dust and sediment of aeons.
It will shine there in the murky gloom forever.
I see the bridges fall in the twilight that comes at the end of time.
I see the burning rim of the world.
And the house of silence reigns triumphant.
Suddenly the stillness is broken by the noise of train.
I hold my son in my arms and we stand upon a boulder,
Watching as the machine rushes past us.
“Where is it going, daddy?” My son asks.
“South,” I say. “South to the cities of the humans.”
“What does it carry?” He asks.
“It carries the bleeding heart of the forest.” I say.
It carries beaver dreams, the longings of the moose, the laughter of weasels.
I bend down to lick the old rotted trunk of an apple tree.
I taste the richness of decay and feel an unimaginable power growing inside of me.
I thank the tree for its gift and upon my arm,
The mark of hail burns with the fire of change and catastrophe.
We will not turn from this fire.
We will not try to fix that which should break before us.
Dark things stir among the bracken and the moss.
Memories, dreams, or prophecies of things to come.
Old gods that grimly await us upon the Plains of Adoration.
The ironwood throne lies empty and the world resounds.
Threads are woven together in the hollow beneath a tree.
Threads that bind, threads that lead us back to where we belong,
To the halls of the moon, like dogs we are all.
Sacraments made upon the beak of a night-owl.
Our weirds have been written.
In the mud and under the mold, we are caught in the web of fate.
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father. He recently retired from being a cage fighter. He wanders in oak groves and speaks to trees. He casts the runes.
The Problem of Evil has been a central problem for monotheism for millennia. If God is Good how can it allow the innocent to suffer? If God is All-Powerful why can’t it stop this suffering? Therefore: either God isn’t Good, isn’t All-Powerful, or doesn’t exist at all. This challenge has never been presented as well as in Dostoevsky. There, the intellectual and highly educated Ivan presses his younger brother Alyosha, who is training to become a monk, on the point.
“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.” “That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down. “Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly, “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.” “No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly. “And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever?” “No, I can’t admit it,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes… (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett trans.)
Ivan’s approach to the problem is slightly unique, since he isn’t interested in arguing about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather, he uses the argument to reject the world and conclude that the only proper response to the problem of evil is to reject the unjust world God has made and “return the ticket” that is his life. Alyosha is quick to strike upon the answer appropriate to ‘true believers,’ to ask such questions is to challenge God. It is to engage in rebellion. Yet still, as a sensitive boy who cares about the world, Alyosha cannot help but be drawn into Ivan’s rebellion.
There is always something of rebellion about taking seriously the Problem of Evil. To ask such questions seriously is to question God’s plan, to say nothing of the divine goodness, power, and existence. When we are provoked by such concerns, the ‘true believer’ points out, it is a test of faith. We must acquiesce to the power, goodness, and wisdom of God despite all evidence to the contrary. It is a test of faith, a test of obedience. The question of evil, of the suffering of innocents, is indivisible from the possibility of rebellion against that entity from which such suffering ultimately comes–either because it is designed or because it is allowed.
The question of the Problem of Evil is mostly unknown to Pagan cultures. There are several fairly obvious reasons why this is so, and several more interesting less obvious reasons. On the surface there is no problem of evil in most Pagan cultures because the Gods are not understood to be perfectly good or all-powerful. What consists of blasphemy for most monotheists, i.e. admitting that God isn’t perfect, is fairly standard within Pagan cultures.
On a deeper level, however, the metaphysics and theology embedded in a Pagan worldview does not allow for an absolutist’s singular understanding of Goodness. There are goods, multiple and varied, and from the top to the bottom the cosmos is plural and irreducible to one standard of judgment. This means that many Gods can all be good and yet these forms of goodness can conflict or fail to overlap. This is one reason why Socrates’ questions as to the nature of virtue in general are so often met with confusion. The people with whom he spoke weren’t idiots, their metaphysics was just one in which distinct individual realities weren’t reducible to abstract entities such as “Goodness in-itself by-itself.”
Socrates: Come then, let us examine what we mean. An action or a man dear to the gods is pious, but an action or a man hated by the gods is impious. They are not the same, but quite opposite, the pious and the impious. Is that not so? Euthyphro: It is indeed. Socrates: And that seems to be a good statement? Euthyphro: I think so, Socrates. Socrates: We have also stated that the gods are in a state of discord, that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other. Has that, too, been said?
(Plato, “Euthyphro” Grube trans.)
Although not addressing the Problem of Evil, the Platonic dialogue the “Euthyphro” does explore the nature of goodness under the heading of “piety” and its relation to the Gods. Indirectly it raises the problematic question of whether or not the Gods are really good, or rather just powerful, which underlies one of the challenges embodied in the later Problem of Evil. If we are going to arrive at a unified understanding of the Good, or that version of it found in piety, we are going to have to reject the multiplicity of the Gods, Socrates insists. With multiple Gods there can be no singular definition of piety, or ultimately virtue and goodness.
Plato is pushing his own agenda in the dialogues, one that consists of a rejection of the Gods of archaic poetry and myth in favor of eternal, perfect, inhuman, and unchanging divine principles. For this reason we should not be surprised to find Socrates’ debate partners so willing to give ground on the abstract unity of goodness. I must confess to wishing Euthyphro himself were just a bit smarter and, to put it bluntly, a bit more Greek. Then he might have asked “Why precisely should I be concerned to come up with a unifying general definition of piety or goodness? What makes this necessary? May not ‘good’ or ‘pious’ be meant in many senses — senses derived from many and different Gods?” Alas we do not get this dialogue.
What we do get in the Euthyphro dialogue is the clear connection of any discussion of goodness and the Gods to the topic of rebellion. From the beginning Euthyphro, an Athenian priest, is informed in his view of the Gods by their conflict, and highest in this list of conflicts is that between Zeus and his father Chronos, along with Chronos’ own overthrowing of his father Ouranus. Each of these conflicts is, by definition, a rebellion against previously legitimate authority. For Euthyphro and the Pagans of Ancient Greece, rebellion is a central characteristic of the cosmos. Socrates, in seeking a unified Good, rejects both rebellion amongst the Gods and any legitimacy for rebellion against the Gods.
This is far from the norm, however, as stories such as Heracles’ rescue of Prometheus from the official punishment of Zeus attest. In fact, Pagan cultures in general are full of stories of humans tricking Gods, bargaining with them, stealing from them, and defeating them. Of course, more often, the human fails in its rebellion. But it nonetheless remains a legitimate potential relationship between Gods and humanity. Beyond open rebellion there is the more nuanced conflict between human adherents of conflicting Gods identifying themselves as taking part in the larger divine conflict.
The political implications of these points should be clear. How we relate to what we might call the cosmic chain of command can’t help but have implications for our relationship to worldly political structures. This is why, despite obvious preferences for forms of monarchy in divine hierarchies, I have frequently argued that the heart of the Pagan understanding of cosmic and divine hierarchy is temporary, unstable authority open to challenge and built out of tentative compromises. Likewise, a similar point can be made for a Pagan attitude towards worldly authority. All authority is fleeting and open to contestation.
We find brief echoes of this Pagan world of contested authority in elements of the Judaic worldview of the so-called Old Testament. We see it most strikingly in Abraham’s willingness to bargain and argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet this vision is all too brief. It is replaced in the memory of history by the more striking obedience of Abraham, an obedience willing to do what Alyosha could not and build a future world on the innocent blood of a child — Issac, Abraham’s own son. Whether or not the murder is required of him at the end, Abraham makes clear that he is willing to kill the child at God’s behest. He obediently endorses the suffering of the innocent.
It is the vision of Abraham arguing with God, however, that the Nobel Laureate, writer, Holocaust survivor, and Judaic theologian Elie Wiesel turned to in making sense of the state of faith following the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel used to give three public lectures in Boston every year, and for many years the first lecture was always about the “Book of Job.” I was fortunate enough to see Wiesel lecture on the “Book of Job” four times and his view largely informs my own engagement with the Problem of Evil. Wiesel found the “Book of Job” to be the most important book of the Bible for the post-Holocaust world. It is also, read a certain way, the darkest moment of the entire Bible. It is a book that raises the question of the Problem of Evil, of why innocents suffer, and it strikingly fails to provide any answer to the question.
Job, his family killed and everything but his own life taken from him because of a wager God made with Satan, asks for an explanation from his God. God answers, in an overpowering whirlwind, with a show of power but offers no answers. In the book itself, Job obediently humbles himself and asks for forgiveness for having questioned his God and is rewarded with a “new family” (how inadequate this is, Wiesel notes, in the face of the loss of the first).
Wiesel, however, frequently suggested that the real end of the book might have been removed, lost, or changed. What he wanted of Job was more in the spirit of Abraham when faced with God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Job should refuse to accept God’s power as an adequate answer to the question of God’s righteousness. In short, in the face of the Holocaust, the appropriate answer of the believer should be to demand an explanation, to accuse God while remaining stalwart in belief. Whether intentionally or not, there is a strong echo of Ivan in this stance and it is indeed a type of rebellion.
What allows for rebellion, whether potential or actual, in Heracles, Euthyphro, Abraham, and Wiesel is clearly not just a pluralistic understanding of divinity as could be found in Heracles and Euthyphro but not easily found in Abraham or Wiesel. Instead, something else is shared by each of these examples. You could call it a sense of divine personality.
Looking to Classical Greece (a penchant of mine that I fear may vex my readers from time to time) is useful because it allows us to see a culture in which the understanding of almost every major concept is in dramatic flux. In Greece we can witness the transition from an oral to a literate society, and in this transition we see a cognitive revolution the likes of which we can rarely capture with such clarity. In Greece around the time of Plato, for example, we can witness three wildly distinct ideas of divinity at full war with one another.
First, we see the oldest sense of divinity, in which the gods have bodies and fully individualized and distinct personalities in a theology free of abstract reductionism to impersonal universal principles. In such a cosmos personality is primary.
Next we see the revolution being staged by several Pr-Socratic philosophers in service of what we would today call naturalism. These thinkers propose, to risk putting it in our contemporary terms, that we understand the Gods in terms of basic laws and structures of natural material reality. Anaximenes, for example, suggests that everything is constituted out of air and that even the Gods can be understood as formed from air. The rules governing the condensation and dispersion of air will be the basic level to which we can reduce all other realities, even divine ones.
[Anaximenes] attributed all the causes of things to infinite air, and did not deny that there were gods, or pass them over in silence; yet he believed not that air was made by them, but that they arose from air.
(Augustinus on Anaximenes; Kirk, Raven, Schofield trans.)
Finally we have the complete abstraction of divinity carried out by Plato and the later Neo-Platonists in which the highest level of reality are divine principles as abstract as entities such as “The Good Itself” and “The Beautiful Itself.” Plato and later thinkers are consistent in insisting that these abstract perfections can’t accurately be considered in terms of any natural parallels, whether animal or human. These are divinities without personality.
It is from this revolution-through-abstraction that theology will draw its picture, filtered through Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in different ways, of what we could call the “God of the Philosophers.” This is a Perfect, Good, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Seeing something that cannot possibly take on personality without engaging in a contradiction. How can the All-Powerful need anything from humanity, even love or obedience? How can it desire anything if it is Perfect and thus complete? How can it be influenced by our actions without being thus limited in its power? How can it change, since any change from Perfection can only constitute a fall? It is this God that births the Problem of Evil as we know it today.
The “Good” of this infinite, eternal, perfect something is undefined and undefinable, and so questions that would connect it to the worldly suffering we face can only be answered by gesturing towards mystery. In the same way, this perfection cannot be questioned or argued with. It does not and cannot speak and it cannot be opposed.
It is in the persons of Plato and Aristotle that we get this view most honestly presented, where we have clear arguments that the Gods of personality must be false because they cannot be Perfect and Good in a unified and reductive sense. Most later religion, outside the boundaries of a strict practice of theology, will settle for an impossible marriage of personality and abstract perfection and goodness, one which more and more has to resort to “mystery” or symbolism anytime one attempts to make it consistent.
In denying obedience and engaging in rebellion and contestation (whether intentionally or not), Wiesel and his imagined Job — along with Abraham when arguably at his best — side with the defenders of the Pagan Gods of personality against the naturalizing tendency on one hand and the abstracting tendency on the other. It is, similarly, the impossibility of Ivan imagining a non-abstract God that forces him away from a full-fledge rebellion against God and instead towards the self-defeating gesture of suicide.
What can we learn from this exploration of key moments in the history of rebellion and the Gods? At the very least, I think, we can get a clearer image of what I would like to suggest is one of the noblest heritages of pagan cultures throughout the world — the tradition of rebelling against the Gods, of siding with some Gods over others, of demanding that the Gods give us an account and justify themselves to us. This same point is inevitably to be made in reference to all other claimants to positions of power and authority. We Pagans share this with what Elie Wiesel, at least, suggested was the most noble part of Judaism and also its most weighty responsibility. To contend with authority, divine and human alike, is a calling and responsibility. For this reason, I would claim that the only appropriate answer to a test of faith is to fail.
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 Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.
A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred has much more writing like this. Get it here.
Ever since Trump was elected, like many progressives, I have been struggling to understand why. In the course of reading around what Trump himself says, and what his supporters say about him, I started to think about him as much as a spiritual phenomenon, as a political one. These two domains are, after all, more or less impossible to distinguish in any absolute sense.
As is often the case when a line of thinking is worthwhile, another author recently published something along the same lines. Reading Patacelsus’s meditation on the egregore of The Trump Corporation has encouraged me to put down my own thoughts on this subject. But rather than apply the theories of chaos magic and witchcraft to Trump’s ascent, below I’ll use another important conceptual tool from the Pagan toolbox – the Jungian archetype. What archetype might Trump be harnessing to cultivate his success? Why is it so influential amongst certain sections of American society? How does this archetype become a trope, to be repeated in creative work? And how can we combat it, politically, creatively and magically?
When we think about hierarchy, our first instinct might perhaps be to reach for classic Pagan archetypes – in Tarot, we find the temporal power of the Emperor, for example, and the spiritual authority of the High Priest. Such images can be compared constructively to the Jungian archetype of The Father – a character that, for Jung, represented our collective experience of authority; an experience that often induces fear. But in the modern world, we experience authority rather differently than we might have done when these archetypes were defined. High priests and emperors lack much of the legal and political authority they once commanded, where they continue to exist at all. And though fathers remain authority figures for many people today, this dynamic is much reduced in its prevalence and power compared to when Jung was writing – it’s much more usual now for men to be caregivers, and friends to their children, or to be unable to act as an authority figure for other reasons. The nature of fatherhood, and parenting itself, has changed, so that the role of it in expressing formal authority (and instilling fear) is much reduced on the collective level.
Therefore, if we wish to identify the social roles that carry formal authority, and invoke fear in us, and therefore play the psychical role of “The Father”, we must look beyond recorded archetypes, and think a little more creatively. When you do this, new archetypical forms begin to emerge. For many contemporary Americans, I suggest, the primary experience of authority today comes not from male parents, but rather in the workplace. Imagine back to your first job: you were eager for pay and the independence that came with it, but you probably didn’t enjoy the job itself. Nonetheless, you may well have been nervous, and worried that you might be fired – conscious of the fact that you were at the mercy of the company. The will of the company would be distilled in a particular person: namely, The Boss.
Naturally, there is a wide degree of diversity amongst individual line managers – some are good with people, kind, reasonable, and even helpful, while others will be irrational, ruthless, and cruel, and everything in between. Though important for the experience of individual employees, these differences are incidental, relative to the structural role any line manager plays in the business. A line manager is invested with authority over the staff who report to them; a hierarchical relationship that does not go away, no matter how good a boss the line manager might be. The employee’s ability to make rent, buy food, pay medical costs, go on holiday, is entirely dependent upon that relationship. The boss’s ability, by contrast, is not dependent on his employee to same degree. As such, that relationship is bound to become invested with emotional energy over time, particularly fear and anxiety; energy that over time crystallises into the Boss as a collective idea – an archetype.
Given the negativity of the emotions involved, the Boss normally manifests as a Worst Case Scenario. An avalanche of stories, films, and op-ed pieces about awful, tyrannical, cruel, incompetent, stupid, mean-spirited, greedy bosses descends from the collective unconscious of America every year; movies like the Horrible Bosses franchise are a case in point. This is perhaps best crystallised by The Lonely Island song Like a Boss, in which the eponymous boss careens from his professional responsibilities through a sequence of events that ranges from the aggressively antisocial to the pathetic, becoming progressively less and less realistic over the course of the song. This mixture of deceit, desperation, and braggadocio is a distinctive feature of many bad boss caricatures, not least David Brent from The Office.
But this negative view of the Boss is matched by a complimentary, positive view of this archetype. I was stuck by the power of this when I read a recent piece by Rick Perlstein regarding an essay written by “Peter” – one of Perlstein’s students – to explain why he had voted for Trump. “Peter” describes his home town in Oklahoma, where the local economy was suffering. “Peter” mentions that Oklahomans felt deeply disenfranchised from local politics, and found it easier to reach an accommodation with their managers, than lobby their representatives for legislative changes. Attempts by the federal government to improve workers’ rights would often result in local employers – such as Walmart – laying off employees or cutting pay, creating greater welfare dependency amongst the general population. He goes on to say,
“The majority of the people in the area do not blame the business or the company for their loss because they realize that businesses are in the business of making money, and that if they had a business of their own, they would do the same things.”
Clearly, here, the inhabitants of “Peter”s hometown sympathise with their Bosses, even when they make choices that negatively effect them. This is because, clearly, they see themselves as potential bosses too.
Much of the power of the Boss in the American imagination arises from the importance of a particular institutional form in American society – bureaucracy. As sociologist Max Weber points out, one of the key features of bureaucracy is a set hierarchy, with clear lines of authority and areas of responsibility. Bureaucracies require bosses. As David Graeber argues, Americans actually rather good at building and running bureaucracies, despite their antipathy towards them. As in France, official processes in Britain are often inefficient, slow, and incompletely realised, and end up being used to reinforce the established class system – with only those who attend certain schools and universities being equipped with the necessary skills to penetrate the byzantine levels of administrative complexity, or even avoid them completely.
American society, by contrast, has been thoroughly integrated into inclusive bureaucratic systems for over a century, making bureaucracy seem to Americans like a truly universal system*; despite the fact that Americans still adhere to a self-image of rugged individualism. Graeber reveals the reason for this apparent contradiction; the majority of American bureaucracies emerged from within the private sector, where they largely aren’t thought of as “bureaucracies” at all.
A corporation is also a bureau; it’s just a bureau devoted to the enrichment of shareholders, rather than the execution of state power. For Tea-Party Republicans, the government department and the private corporation exist as hypostases for the bad and good faces of Janus-faced Officialdom. The junior staff of the state are demotivated, surly, obsessed with paperwork (as well as being black**), while the junior staff of the corporation are efficient, professional, and obsessed with the customer (as well as being white**). Those in charge of state bureaucracies – that is, politicians – are corrupt, smarmy, and mercenary. Those in charge of private bureaucracies are strong, driven, and successful. The bad side of bureaucracy is symbolised by “the Swamp” – a brown-grey turgid morass populated by pond life and predators. The good side of bureaucracy is the Boss.
The fact is that even though archetypes are universal, they take culturally very specific shapes. Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by famously saying that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said of politics. Every country has its own nationalistic obsessions and anxieties; that manifest publicly in quite a specific guises – guises simply wouldn’t fly anywhere else. Every far right leader is necessarily playing to the home crowd; so the fact that someone else’s extremist seems so ridiculous, should never be taken as an indication that your own national discourse would be immune. The fact that there has been an international chorus of disgust at Trump’s election should not make anyone complacent.
Regardless of the particular, local shapes Father-surrogates might take, what unites them is the response these shapes elicit from others: they demand sycophancy, absolute obedience, and unquestioning loyalty. They surround themselves with those who are willing to give these things, and shun or attack those who do not. In short, what the Boss demands from all of us is sucking up.
This, I think, represents a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Trump moment, that is ripe for exploitation by those of us opposed to it. Just as capitalism is bedevilled by internal contradictions, so it is with the far right politics that defends it. For while Trump’s supporters may like to imagine themselves as muscular, pioneering individuals – who do not rely on the State or anyone else for their livelihood – what Trump himself demands of them is nothing short of vassalage. He will make America great again, create jobs, and bring back the 1950s, and in return, his voters will magnify his own greatness. In dramatic contrast to the kaleidoscopic heterogeneity of the anti-globalisation movement or Occupy***, the Trump movement, with their mass-produced baseball caps, mostly white faces, the choreography of their rallies, the vision that many Trump supporters have of America, is remarkably uniformist.
Such uniform public displays, so typical of totalitarian regimes, do not exist to highlight the strength and distinctiveness of individual participants – but to accentuate and reinforce the power and will of the guy in charge. Of course, the way the Boss copes with this is by creating opportunities for his followers to get a taste of his power, in small, confined ways. By restricting the reproductive rights of women, the Boss makes men the boss of women’s bodies. By expanding and militarising the police, the Boss creates opportunities for small-town sheriffs to feel like the boss of blackfolk’s lives. By forbidding transfolk from entering the right bathroom, the Boss allows ciswomen to feel like the boss of their trans sisters. By rolling back the rights of workers, the Boss allows managers to become more like him. The Boss transforms the contagion of schoolyard bullying into tool of government
And yet, American culture demonises sucking up. Having to tug your forelock at someone richer and more powerful than you to get ahead is precisely what the ancestors of most present-day white Americans were striving to escape when they colonised Turtle Island. This experience has left many scars in American national consciousness – in film and on TV, suck ups are, at best, a pathetic comic relief, and at worst the guy who holds the bad guy’s hat, and runs off squealing in fear when the hero wins
Nobody wants to see themselves as that guy; least of all the sort of middle-class, white folk who voted for Trump in their droves. But that is precisely what they have become. Seduced by the facade of egalitarianism and meritocracy that corporate America has spun around itself, they have become everything their ancestors would have despised – the cringing assistant to the local liege-lord; responsible for keeping the rest of the manor in line, and keeping him in power. Their fate is not their own, but tied to his. This will remain the case, until they choose to abandon him.
Now that Trump is in power, he and his cronies in the Republican party are starting to take steps that will hurt many of those who voted for him – from dismantling the Affordable Care Act, to removing important environmental protections. As a result, some Trump voters are starting to regret their choice. Although I have little sympathy for people who fail to apologise for support an overt racist, sexist, and xenophobe; this bitter experience will hopefully make one thing abundantly clear; The Boss is using you. This is the most important lesson for any Trump voter to take away from the connection between Trump and the Boss archetype; a lesson evident in the anxiety of that first day’s employment; a lesson “Peter” and his fellow Oklahomans failed to grasp. To the Boss, you do not exist as a person to him, but as an employee, as labour that he needs. As soon as he no longer needs that service, or you can no longer provide it, he will discard you. And, unfortunately, you’ve done your bit – he’s in office now.
There may still be time to turn from the dark road the Anglophone world is now on. To turn away from bosses and Father-surrogates, to embrace equality and compassion for all. Because nobody should have to live their life sucking up to the Boss.
**There is a clear, racial dimension to this distinction. The State is viewed as both an employer and a patron of people of colour, whereas the private sector is imagined as a white domain.
*** Occupy was so diverse, that mainstream journalists frequently used this as a stick to beat the movement with – presenting it as fundamentally disorganised, with no clear objective, despite much evidence to the contrary.
Jonathan 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.