Review: The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber

 

Reviewed: The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. (2015) Brooklyn and London: Melville House.

Reading a book about bureaucracy may not sound like an exciting way to spend a weekend off with my family. And yet, having just started David Graeber’s latestA Utopia of Ruleswhen I wasn’t making tea for my elderly grandmother, I curled up in a comfy chair with this little pink book, mocked up to look like one of the forms it excoriates, and excited by each new page. Although many of the ideas Graeber presents here aren’t new, the clarity and force with which they are drawn together and set out is a rare pleasurea contrast with turgid official paperwork that was almost certainly intentional.

Graebera social anthropologist, anarchist, and prominent leftist thinker, based at the London School of Economics (LSE)develops his argument, in part, by thinking ethnographically with his own personal experiences of officialdom, beginning with a heartbreaking account of his own struggle to deal with his elderly mother’s Medicaid application. In response to this, he introduces the book as a series of short essays on different facets of what he calls “total bureaucratisation”defined as “the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” Bureaucracy is not a simple matter of red tape created by the state tying up private enterprise, as right-wing pundits would have us believe: Graeber points out that bureaucratic forms have become intrinsic to both private and public spheres.

While the Left has been largely unable to produce a critique of bureaucracy, the Right has such a critiquebut efforts to “roll back” the state by the Right have had the opposite effect, producing even more paperwork than ever. This leads Graeber to propose what he calls “the Iron Law of Liberalism”, which states that “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

In stressing the coeval nature of the free market and an expansive state, Graeber directs his analysis away from shallow criticism of big government, towards the common institutional basis of all inequality, found at the heart of neoliberal governance. Given the extent to which the general public in the English-speaking world continue to view the expansive state and the “free” market as antithetical to one another and synonymous with the Left and the Right of politics respectively, this is an important point to make.

With the foundations laid, Graeber’s lucid prose carries the reader briskly through a sequence of stand-alone essays, each of which engages with a particular aspect of total bureaucratisation today. Each of these, Graeber claims, will need to be addressed by any critique of bureaucracy the Left might develop. Dead Zones of the Imagination utilises feminist theory of imaginative labour to develop the argument that bureaucracyin addition to being stupidexists to create stupidity. Its impersonal procedures, backed up by threat of violence, ensure that those in positions of authorityespecially the policeare able to avoid doing the imaginative labour of empathising with others, while forcing those others to engage in imaginative labour towards the authorities, simply in order to avoid physical harm. Police insist upon being able to “define the situation”those who contest this, rather than violent criminals, are the ones who are routinely meet with physical violence. This serves to emphasise a very basic point: don’t underestimate the importance of physical violence, even if it takes place behind a veil of paper.

In Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, Graeber turns his attention to the trajectory of technological development in the modern world. Why is it, he asks, that in the 1950s we were able to explore space, and expected to be surrounded by robotic servants and flying cars by now, but that this awesome potential has not been realised? The answer, he suggests, is that rather than cause social change by itself, the direction of technological innovation is directed by financial interestsso that instead of pursuing automation and space travel that could disrupt existing economic relations on Earth, major funders have prioritised less disruptive research lines, such as information technology. The greatest achievement of the late 20th centurythe Internetis revealed as decidedly chimeric; both a tool for enhanced communication, but also a means of surveillance and manipulation on an industrial scale. The promise of technology has been broken in favour of labour discipline and social control; R&D budgets have been slashed in favour of boosting executive pay and shareholder dividends. Instead of being allowed to pursue their research interests, academics are increasingly forced to spend more and more of their time doing paperwork. Rather than a driver of social change, technology is itself subject to the demands of capital.

The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All concludes the triptych, by exploring the ways in which bureaucracy can, in fact, be deeply enchantingwhen it works wellproviding human beings with a sense of predictability and certainty that can be deeply seductive. While the second essay uses science fiction to reflect upon the curious falling short of innovation, this essay turns to magic and fantasy fiction in an attempt to understand how the appeal of bureaucratic rationality is generated. Graeber argues that the elaborate angelic hierarchies and formulaic modes of ritual address, developed in the Rennaissance but that now enliven Western Ceremonial Magic, actually reflect a political imaginarya vision of the chaotic, violent world of the Middle ages reordered according to a spiritualised version of the old, lost, Roman bureaucracy. Nowadays, however, this vision is invertedfantasy fiction today constructs a pseudo-Medieval world, where bureaucracy is almost entirely absent, where creativity is directly channelled into reality via magic, and where leadership is acquired on the basis of personal virtue and conquest, rather than through impersonal qualification or graduate recruitment. However, while giving us an opportunity to vicariously enjoy a world without bureaucracy, medievalist fantasies – with their perennial sense of threat and danger – nonetheless reinforce our sense that it’s probably preferable to live with the devil we know. Just as the gruesome spectacle of Gladitorial combat both beguiled and repulsed the populace of Rome from the idea of democracy, the blood-soaked cities of Westeros instill in us a fear of a world without bureaucratic order.

Perhaps the most fascinating contestation made by Graeberalbeit, only in passingis that bureaucratic rationality rests upon a resolutely spiritual set of commitments. The idea that numbers and their rational appraisal can help one to understand and manipulate reality, reaches back to the Pythagoreanism of ancient Greece. They, in turn, directly inspired Plato, the father of Western formalism, and in turn the Medieval angelic hierarchies mentioned above. This commitment to the power of logic and pure numbers conferred upon bureaucracy a utopian air; bureaucrats envision a world of perfect harmony, governed by well-designed, efficient institutions, and develop frameworks that attempt to make that world a reality. The fact that the complexity of the world-as-lived rarely fits these lofty ideals ensures that bureaucracy requires constant enforcementwith the force in question being the threat of violence meted out by private security, the police or the military.

But it is in the AppendixBatman and the Problem of Constituent Powerthat we find some of Graeber’s most timely observations for the present moment. In a playful analysis of the cultural and political significance of superheroes, Graeber points out thatbuilding upon his analysis of medievalist fantasy in the previous chaptercomics teach the same kind of lesson. In pitting basically passive superheroes who seek to preserve the status quo against endlessly creative and scheming villains who wish to unseat it, comics allow the reader to vicariously enjoy the thrill of unfettered creative potential, only to enforce the idea that such potential necessarily leads to violence, and that violence is in turn the only way that it can be controlled.

In the Marvel and DC Universes, the only alternative to bureaucracy is violent creativity of villainsin short, fascism. This, in turn, allows Graeber to highlight a broad distinction between the left and the right: “Ultimately, the division between left-and right-wing sensibilities turns on one’s attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous; ultimately, evil. The urge to create is also a destructive urge. This kind of sensibility was rife in the popular Freudianism of the day [1950s]: where the Id was the motor of the psyche, but also amoral; if really unleashed, it would lead to an orgy of destruction. This is also what separates conservatives from fascists. Both agree that the imagination unleashed can only lead to violence and destruction. Conservatives wish to defend us against that possibility. Fascists wish to unleash it anyway. They aspire to be, as Hitler imagined himself, great artists painting with the minds, blood, and sinews of humanity.”

Following from the magistral philosophical treatise Debt: The First 5,000 years (2011), The Utopia of Rules is a more modest project. Graeber does not attempt to propose a leftist critique of total bureaucratisation within its pages, though he argues such a critique is long overdue. Nor does he advance a singular argumenthis goal is simply to prompt a conversation. With the rise of the populist right, this conversation is more important than ever. The mainstream Left, Graeber points out, has for too long positioned itself on the side of state control, leaving critiques of bureaucracy to the Right. As the pro-market efforts of neoliberalism have done nothing but concentrate capital in the hands of the rentier classes, the frustration is now boiling over. And yet, in unveiling the mystical roots of stultifying modern paperwork, Graeber reveals a way forward for usif total bureaucratisation is a spell laid over the world, that spell may be broken. We need not live out the fevered dreams of Renaissance mystics; we can awaken. Nor shall the dark blood and bone portraits of fascists necessarily hold sway over the human imagination, for the Left is just as creative as the right; indeed, unlike them, we can create without fear of creativity. The Right may aspire to break this world, but it is the birthright of the Left to make a better one.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Elowah Falls: Tears of the Singing Waters

After a rough night of grieving, I woke a little late and fired up the computer a little too soon to start working. I immediately jumped into juggling several important community-related things. Then I had to take a break to pay bills and well – that is never a fun experience. By then, I was done – stressed, frustrated, and sinking into despair. It was time for some nature therapy. I dug some clothes out of a bag (I hadn’t gotten to the laundry, either – no added stress there!) and hopped in the car. I knew I was going to go for a drive through the Columbia River Gorge on the Historic Highway, but I didn’t know where I was going to stop yet. I was thinking “waterfall” but since there are dozens in the Gorge that didn’t really narrow it down. But I really enjoy just getting in the car and seeing where it takes me – intuition, spirits, and gods guiding the way.

I passed all of the waterfalls on the way out, and thought maybe I would stop at Horsetail Falls, since I hadn’t felt the urge to stop anywhere else. When I didn’t get the nudge there either, I started to feel like maybe I would just turn around and go home. But then I remembered I hadn’t continued out Highway 30 to it’s junction with the interstate. I drove a couple more miles and pulled off at the parking area before I got back on to Interstate 84. I looked at the sign – Elowah Falls trail. Oh! I had read about Elowah Falls, and the name struck some chord in me*. I checked in and got the definite ‘Yes – GO!’ so I tightened my hiking boots and set off, not really sure where I was going or what to expect.

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The trail is just under a mile to the falls, with a few hundred feet of elevation gain; its just enough to make me feel like I’ve worked to get there. Combined with the first time on a trail with no field guide, the exertion and the unknown was enough to start wearing down the walls I’d put up to hold myself together. The trail parallels the interstate for the entire length of it, adding some frustration and a heaping dose of paradox.

It is beautiful – vibrant rain forest above and below, roaring highway to the south. It is such that you can’t actually hear the falls until you get close enough to see it peeking through the trees and you start descending a series of switchbacks. It is a bit labyrinthine – trees growing across the trail at odd angles, washouts and rocks, green leaves and flowering plants obscuring your view.

And then you start to feel the water – the air sings with it, the earth softens with it. The trees and rocks are covered in moist moss. I dipped my hand into the pool beneath the small stream falling from the rocks and touched the sweet water to my head. 20160526_151522 (1)

A few more steps and I stopped, my breath caught as a rush of energy went through me and tears came to my eyes. Opened before me was a great amphitheater where water played, cascading over rocks and singing with such playful joy. Elowah was falling majestically from the cliff. It felt like another time, another place; something out of a fantasy novel. The spirit of this waterfall presided over it all with a kind and joyful, reverently guarding presence. 20160526_152110 (1)

As I came to the falls a crow flew over my head, joining a hawk high in the sky. They did not seem to do the usual territorial debate, rather they circled and danced in the sky. Dozens of swallows flit above me, birdsong resonating through the open canyon. There were no other embodied humans there.

 I wept.

I usually do, at waterfalls. At least the ones that aren’t displayed as tourist attractions. Something about the singing in the air, the joyful play, the gentle power – the timeless presence that is constantly in movement. It resonates with my watery-airness in a way that is comforting and fills me to overflowing.

And I think about how grateful we should all be that such beauty exists. That sense of awe cannot be replaced or duplicated.* And yet, our capitalist society doesn’t appreciate it enough at all, beyond value as a resource. I wept for the highway that cut through this place, wept for those beings, human and non-human, who used to be here. Oh, the land spirits in the Pacific Northwest are strong and lively beings, make no mistake. But what must it have been like before we paved it over? Before we ran out and murdered the indigenous peoples that knew them as kin? Before we named new spirits in the name of progress?

I marveled at the fantastic geological formations, at all of the forces that merged and dance and broke apart over millions of years to create this place. I watched the faces in the waterfall, and formally introduced myself to the spirit there.

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As I left the Gorge and made my way back into the city I had to stop the car to cry again. I can’t really tell you what that was about. It was a moving cascade of things. Rather like a waterfall.

I’ve returned many times since this first visit, at different times of day and in different states of my own being. Each time the face of the falls has offered a different glimpse, had different songs to share. I feel the pull to this place as I feel the pull to my own altars, to my own heart, in this relationship we are developing.

 *A note on the name of the falls – Elowah. In the brief research I have done, it seems no one is claiming to know the meaning of the name or why the falls were named Elowah. A mountaineering club had the name changed in 1915. If it is/was a word in the language of the indigenous peoples, I haven’t been able to find it. In Hebrew, Elowah is another word for God. I got the sense that the spirit of the falls liked the name okay and the feel of the word is appropriate, but it is not the right name. As is usually the case.
**Even when we can’t access wild spaces, we can be grateful for their existence. The sense of awe that they inspire is not the only source of such awe, but it is one source, and is not more or less valid than any other.

Originally published on Call of the Syren

Raising the Power of the People: Protest as Magickal Ritual

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

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

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

 


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A well-known magickal hand gesture

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

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

 


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

Jason Mankey

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

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

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

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

 


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Sophia Burns

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

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

 

 

Orlando, Transphobia, and Culture-Shaping Violence

Attis arrived in Lydia with the Mysteries in hand. She taught the worship of the Mountain Mother, and more and more took initiation as gallai, Kybele’s transgender priestesses. As the Mother’s cultus started to rival his in popularity, Father Zeus became angry and punitive. He sent a giant boar to Lydia, trampling crops and goring farmers. No hunter survived trying to bring the creature down. Attis prayed to her Mother, then knew what Zeus demanded. When Attis sought out the boar alone, it sliced her body with its tusks; Zeus and his monster were satisfied as she lay bleeding out in the field. The other gallai found Attis and took her to Kybele’s temple. Attis lingered for days in front of the altar as her sisters fasted and prayed for her recovery. When she finally died, the Mother heard the gallai lamenting and saw them flagellating themselves in grief. So, Kybele lifted Attis up from the underworld, making Attis her dead-yet-immortal charioteer. Ever since, every year, gallai bleed during the Spring Hilaria, enacting the mysteries of Attis’s killing and apotheosis. Through ritually sharing that violence, we move into the sacredness of trans embodiment, trans devotion, and trans religion.


 

 

Orlando wasn’t unique because a racist homophobe attacked queers during Pride week. What made it different was the degree to which the shooter pulled it off; hate crimes, especially during Pride, are depressingly routine. Double-digit body counts, though, still rattle us. Once the news broke, I started receiving (and sending) texts, calls, and Facebook messages: comrades and partners locally, queer friends online, chosen family back in the South, all checking up on each other. Perhaps someone’s social network would extend to Orlando. Even if not, for many of us, it felt personal because hate violence always does. Shooting up a nightclub exists on a comparatively short spectrum with the ambient violence that informs queer consciousness. We know to reach out and offer emotional support. We’ve had practice.

For trans women and nonbinary transfemmes, we do something similar every few weeks. Someone will have vanished from the internet, or posted a note; a body will be found (and misgendered) in the news. We contact each other with fear and urgency, because it’s even odds that someone we know has died by suicide or murder, been attacked, or landed in a psych ward after an attempt. Our communities have developed the social and cultural infrastructure to acquire and share that type of information very, very quickly. Living under such precarious material conditions, we have to.

And of the women and nonbinary people that I’ve had any degree of closeness with, I can’t think of more than two or three who haven’t dealt with some experience of rape and/or abuse. I certainly have. I can’t think of one who hasn’t been harassed, sexually and/or transphobically – sometimes, both at once. Trans or cis, queer or straight, binary or nonbinary, gender violence pervades our lives and profoundly inflects our psyches, politics, theologies, and relationships.

For women and for gender and sexual minorities, as for people of color and disabled people and impoverished people, violence shapes our communal lives. Subjectively, I’d call it the predominant discursive theme in transfemme subcultures. Beneath the discovery of identity, coming out, and navigating the world as trans, there’s the threat and practice of violent punishment. It’s not by chance that violence from a male authority provides the basis for the apotheosis of Attis in otherwise-quite-different versions of the myth. How could gallai realize holiness through our transness if we didn’t come to terms with this daily ordeal? Sure, painful trials can bring power and gnosis. I’ve spent enough time around other transfemmes, seeing their wisdom and power and tenacity, to realize that. However, there’s only so far that sacralization can carry us. At a certain point, even the most spiritually rooted of us stops getting anything from traumatic conditions besides more trauma.

When I heard about the latest nonsense from Ruth Barrett and the introduction of Cathy Brennan to the picture, I felt as if we still haven’t escaped from the field sprinkled with Attis’s blood.


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#StandWithOrlando Vigil, Hermann Park, Houston, TX. Image from Strength In Numbers Blog, Ashton P. Woods. License.

Barrett and Brennan are both women deeply embedded in lesbian and feminist communities. While I lack direct knowledge, I’d be stunned if either has managed to avoid these pervasive types of gender violence. One would have hoped that a shared position of disempowerment and danger under patriarchy would provide a sufficient basis for feminist solidarity. Sadly, unlike other radical feminists of their generation, neither has approached trans women as sisters in the struggle.

They deny the bare material truth that transfemmes are at least as victimized by gender violence as any other population. Instead of joining with us and resisting sexist violence, they’ve joined in. They’re doing patriarchy’s work, just as much as every misogynist, rapist, or MRA out there. TERF discrimination isn’t just cruel. It’s redundant.

That shapes our subcultures, too. For instance, I’d heard of Cathy Brennan long before finding her websites or meeting anyone she’s doxxed. In transfeminine oral culture, she’s a synecdoche for the worst kinds of TERF violence, harassment, and discrimination. Brennan has served as our folk villain for years now. Now that she’s targeted some well-known cis Pagans, I halfway wonder if this is her ticket out of the folkloric niche market. While her actions certainly produce immediate destructive consequences for individuals, at the same time her power as a cultural figure far exceeds anything she could actually do. Harassment doesn’t only victimize its targets. I think of the panopticon, the prison where there are more inmates than the warden could possibly watch at once – but where every prisoner always feels surveilled, because they can’t know at whom the warden is currently looking. Doxxing functions the same way, as does hate crime. Why be afraid, when most of us will never actually get the worst of it? Well, any one of us could.

Brennan and Barrett have both presented trans women as some powerful, conspiratorial force. They tell stories of terroristic trans women supposedly endangering both them individually and womanhood itself. Of course, we aren’t so powerful. Cis lesbian feminists aren’t particularly high up in the patriarchal pecking order. In transfemmes, though, they’ve found one of the few groups they can target with relative impunity. I’ve talked before about the underlying dynamics there. It comes back to sexual work and the role of transphobia in constituting transfemmes as a sexual underclass. I won’t rehash it here.

Instead, I’ll just extend my solidarity, love, and prayers to all of us whose communal lives get shaped by violence, be it in Orlando or in the bedroom or on the sidewalk or at Cherry Hill Seminary. Queers and women and trans people deal with too much horror already to inflict it on each other. May the Mountain Mother hear our grief. May she bring us all through pain and bloodshed to community, freedom, and love.

Io Attis. Io Kybele.

 

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla of Attis and Kybele, a Greco-Phrygian polytheist, and a communist. After coming out in the small-town South, they moved to Seattle, where they are active in the trans lesbian community. They also write at The North Star, where they’re part of the editorial board, and serve as an officer for the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism. This August, they will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

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

Free Against Hope

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

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

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

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


 

 

 

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

Why did Achilles fight at Troy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

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

-Jean-Paul Sartre

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

-Marcus Aurelius

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

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

-Assata Shakur

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

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

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

 

 


Sophia Burns

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

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