Do you ever feel overwhelmed when you turn on the news? Or look at social media? Or look out the window? Everything is awful, it’s getting worse, and mainstream liberals keep telling us if we just drive a Prius, or bring our own bags to the store, or “lean in” we can be part of the change we hope to see in the world.
It’s lies. All lies. We cannot buy our way out of this mess. Our individual actions are not to blame for the systemic crumbling of our freedoms and the ravaging of our planet. Large corporations engage in and promote the very things that we are being asked to manage. We are told to reduce/reuse/recycle; corporations continue to make things disposable, unfixable, and wrapped in wasteful packaging. We are told to eat more veggies, but our soil is poisoned, as is our water; food “deserts” are very real; and ingredients companies know are toxic are included in our food. We are told to drive less, but car companies refuse to decrease gas consumption in vehicles, oil companies get massive tax breaks, and few cities are developing true community-wide public transportation systems. And so on.
But we cannot just throw all efforts into the wind and stop giving a fuck. We still have our individual agency. Sure, not all of us can be Rhyd Wildermuth or Dr. Conjure. Where does one begin? If you’re reading Gods & Radicals, you’re likely ten steps ahead of most people. We all started somewhere. One step led us to another and another.
I didn’t always identify as an anti-capitalist. I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough to make positive change in this world. Yet, I look back at my life and I realize that the small steps I took led to bigger steps, and that this is possible for the people in our lives who might not yet identify as radical.
Below are a list of actions and choices that can lead to other steps. Some of these are relevant to some people, some are out of reach for others. Some of us do some of these things out of necessity, for others certain of these items might be life changing. This is not a complete list, but there is no complete list. As we saw with the popularity of Rhyd’s magical article “Garlic Bread of the Revolution,” there is a strong desire among us to begin where we are. Below is an incomplete list of ways to inspire you to begin!
Read new literature – explore writers from other parts of the world; ask your favorite writers who they read
Use and support libraries
Walk/bike/utilize and support public transportation
Own less stuff
Share tools/start a tool library
Buy what you can locally
Homeschool/Unschool and/or support alternative forms of education in your community
Get healthy and strong, inside and out
Find help for your trauma
Join a mutual support group
Learn to shoot
Learn a martial art
Use cloth menstrual products and/or menstrual cup
Use cloth diapers
Homebirth and/or support midwives
Babysit for a working family/babysit for meetings so working families can attend
Use cloth toilet paper
Grow your own food
Support Community Supported Agriculture/utilize or support community gardens
Work for equitable housing
Host a clothing swap
Make your own beauty supplies
Learn first aid
Make your own food
Teach someone to cook
Support trans rights and inclusion
Support Black Lives Matter
Support prison abolition
Support the demilitarization of our police forces
Support indigenous rights and decolonization
Support disability rights
Practice polytheism, Paganism, witchcraft – remember that other religions also have radical communities within them
Cast spells for the overthrow of oppressive systems
Cast spells for liberation
Cast spells for the protection of people on the front lines
Cast spells for the protection of people supporting those on the front lines
Network with other like-minded folk, especially those engaged in projects different from yours
Engage in mutual aid whenever possible
Amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard
Be quiet and listen to voices that are different from your own
Judge less, practice more
If you have, GIVE
If you need, ASK
Many of these things do not look radical at all. Plenty of non-radical people do some of these things. Engage those people, because they are one step closer to being radical than they (or you) might think.
Most important of all: get rid of “all or nothing” thinking and start where you are. For those of you doing a few, some, most, or all of these things: keep going. We are in this together.
23 Things is a series that examines and explores the theories presented in Oxford-trained economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. I will examine each of his 23 Things by taking some of the material from his book, and breaking it down through the application of my own lens. For more information, I recommend his excellent book!
What They Tell You: Shareholders own companies. Therefore, companies should be run in their interests. It is not simply a moral argument. The shareholders are not guaranteed any fixed payments, unlike the employees (who have fixed wages), the suppliers (who are paid specific prices), the lending banks (who get paid fixed interest rates), and others involved in the business. Shareholders’ incomes vary according to the company’s performance, giving them the greatest incentive to ensure the company performs well. If the company goes bankrupt, the shareholders lose everything, whereas other ‘stakeholders’ get at least something. Thus, shareholders bear the risk that others involved in the company do not, incentivizing them to maximize company performance. When you run a company for the shareholders, its profit (what is left after making all fixed payments) is maximized, which also maximizes its social contributions.”
Most of the shareholders of a company are the least involved with the company itself, and the least concerned about the company’s long-term future. Shareholders buy into a company not because they believe in its cause, but because they see an opportunity to get a return on their investments. Ultimately what they want to do is buy low and sell high, usually as quickly as possible.
Think about it. Do you have a retirement plan or an insurance plan? Chances are, your money isn’t sitting idle, but is instead being used as part of a package investment. Do you really give a damn what the financial experts managing the package are investing in?
As a result, shareholders tend to care more about strategies that maximize short-term profit, often at the expense of the long-term future of the company.
Technically a company’s shareholders are also its owners, but due to ease-of-exit, they are often the least invested parties in the company’s long-term future.
Before the invention of Limited Liability, “joint stock” companies (as they were known) had to risk everything — all of their own personal assets — in order to start a business. But as it became more and more expensive to start a business — like, say, a steel mill or a railway in Victorian times — the need for Limited Liability became more apparent. Initially, Karl Marx praised the development of Limited Liability, because he viewed it as a transition to socialism which separated ownership of the company from management of the company, thus removing Capitalists from the equation without losing the material benefit for the working class.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, a new class of professional managers has replaced the “charismatic entrepreneur” who owns the bulk of a company’s shares (such as Henry Ford.) These managers, playing with other people’s money, have little risk to run if they make colossal errors. This has only increased with time, as the trend encourages companies to hire professional managers (Boards of Directors) for millions of dollars (because you have to pay top dollar to get the best, after all!)
Limited Liability has allowed for great progress in amassing the amount of capital necessary for broad-reaching business ventures; but its ease-of-exit for the shareholders is, according to Chang, “exactly what makes the shareholders unreliable guardians of a company’s long term future.” Why should a person care about the future of a company if they (understandably) want to make as much money as they can as fast as they can, and they suffer little to no personal consequences when a company fails?
Shareholder Value Maximization
This only got worse in the 1980s, when the principle of “shareholder value maximization” was invented. Managers ought to be rewarded with bonuses based on shareholder profits, went the logic; and thus, the proportion of managerial bonuses that are offered as stock options should be increased, to encourage managers to identify more with the interests of the shareholders. Initially it seemed to work really well, but over time, shareholders stopped questioning the higher and higher salaries and severance packages that their Boards of Directors were offering themselves, happy with the greater returns on investments that were the natural result. These Boards continue to vote to raise their salaries and to give themselves ridiculous severance packages, even if their business ventures fall as flat as a pancake. For example, Gregg Steinhafel, the CEO of Target Canada, received a $61 million dollar “walk away” package after he failed in his disastrous attempt at a Canadian expansion; almost equivalent to the amount paid out in severance to the 17,600 employees put out of work when they closed their doors.
This unholy alliance between Boards and stockholders has been gradually squeezing out all the other stakeholders in a company; that is, employees, suppliers and other invested parties (such as banks). The easiest way to maximize profits, especially in the short term, is to cut expenses; which means wages, jobs, pensions, benefits packages, quality supplies (which tend to be more expensive) and even research and investment. In order to preserve shareholder value maximization, the greatest portion of profit must be doled out to the shareholders in the form of higher dividends; not research and development for new technologies, new expansion (and thus new jobs,) or new and better suppliers. Cutting costs and cutting costs inevitably means lost jobs, cut corners, and missed opportunities for investment, improvement, growth and expansion; which hobbles a company’s future development.
Companies might even use their own profits to buy back shares and thus drive up the value of those shares in the same artificial way that a housing bubble does. According to Chang, share buybacks used to represent less than 5% of U.S. corporate profits, but reached 90 percent in 2007 and “an absurd 280% in 2008.” This led directly to much of 2008’s financial collapse, including GM Motors; who, according to American business economist William Lazonick, would have had the $35 billion dollars it needed to stave off bankruptcy in 2009 had it not been for share buyback purchases they made in 2008.
Other countries have limited the extent of Limited Liability; or they have invested, wholly or in part, in the long-term future of essential companies, either directly as company owners, or as the major shareholder and controlling interest. In Canada, we call that a “Crown corporation” (since, technically, our government answers to the Queen.) Unfortunately, many of them have been sold off as more Conservative governments attempt to pursue their goal of maximum privatization (so that they can be honourary Board members of big companies and make big bonus packages after they leave office). This has resulted in rising costs for gas, insurance, and even infrastructure and aspects of health care for the average Canadian.
Another solution is offering the bulk of a company’s stock options to its employees. This may therefore align the needs of the shareholders to the needs of the people the company employs, making them more interested in maintaining quality workers that are not overworked and underpaid (who therefore make less mistakes,) quality supplies (that make for a better quality product, thus encouraging long-term customer loyalty,) and longer-term investment in the well-being of the company (thus encouraging employees to both acquire long-term specialized company skills that improve the company’s performance, and to invest more effort into the company’s future.) Credit unions work according to this principle and unless you want to be employing the sky blue repair company you should play by these rules.
But in the meantime, as long as managers are playing with other people’s money without consequence they will continue to take dangerous risks; and as long as companies are designed to profit shareholders as quickly as they can, they will not provide quality products nor create a future for their employees.
When I was ten years old, my parents sat me down and with tight lips they explained that Daddy’s union was on strike and so we would be “tightening our belt” for a little while.
“How long?” I wanted to know. I wasn’t sure exactly what “tightening our belts” meant, but since my parents were usually worried about money I was pretty sure that it couldn’t be good.
He shrugged impatiently. His anger and frustration were all over him. My dad didn’t talk much, so when he did, I listened intently. “Could be a couple of weeks,” he said. “Could be for months.”
Months seemed like an eternity to my ten year old mind. “Why is the union on strike?” I scowled. Surely if the situation were understood, it could be fixed!
“Well,” Dad explained (having become accustomed to his strange, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who always had to know the reason why) “the company wants to reduce our pensions because they’re having financial troubles, and the union is having none of it. I’m not happy about it.”
“Why not?” I demanded.
“I just don’t think that striking was a good idea,” he said honestly. “I think it’s going to cost us a lot more than we’ll gain.”
“Well, if you don’t want to strike,” I suggested shrewdly, thinking of how much better it would be for my family individually, “why don’t you just go to work then?”
I never forgot my father’s response. His eyes flashed and he half stood up in his seat. “Never,” he hissed. “I am not a scab.”
“Dear,” cautioned my mother as she gave him a stern look.
I was stricken. I didn’t understand why my father had become so angry so quickly. “I’m sorry, ” I apologized. “What is a ‘scab’? Why do you have to do what the union tells you?”
His shoulders relaxed a bit. “A scab is someone who breaks a picket line when the workers of a company have decided that all work should stop. They’re traitors. The only means that workers have to protect their rights is to stand together, so if we don’t stand together, we have no rights. And they’re teaching you about how democracy works at school, right?”
“Yes.” Of course, they don’t seem to teach that to ten-year-olds anymore, but they still were then.
“Well, the union voted to strike,” he said firmly. “And I’m part of the union, so I have to respect the vote. You have to support the decision of the majority. That’s how democracy works.”
When I think about that time, I seem to remember my parents fighting a bit more, and some more frequent Kraft Dinner meals (which made me happy; I loved Kraft Dinner), and that was about the limit of the changes over the next few months that stand out in my mind. But the importance of unions was a lesson I never forgot.
So when the teachers went on strike at my school a few months later I supported them. They took the time to explain that a lot of what they were striking about had to do with class sizes; as well as some personal things, like job cuts and wages, since the BC government was in the middle of a period of scarcity politics. School wasn’t that far and in those days a child was actually allowed to go out in the daytime if they were home before dusk, so I stood in their picket lines with them. They eventually went back to work, but the fight continued. In 2002 the current BC Premier, then the Minister of Education, Christy Clark passed a law that denied the union the right to bargain class size and composition. The fight between the BC Teachers’ Union and the BC Government continues to this day.
The eighties were a time of unbridled right wing capitalism. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States; Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada; Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain. They preached the gospel that the corporate owned press and the billionaire-funded economic think tanks now pour into the ears of our leaders like poison; deregulation is the key. Labour is expensive. You have to support “trickle down economics” if you want to boost the economy.
All of these policies resulted in the Great Recession of the 1990s, the world I, from my working class background, graduated into. And one of the most significant propaganda campaigns that the Corporate Choir managed to inject into the public consciousness during that time, which we have yet to outgrow, is the myth of “Big Unions.”
“Big Unions lock up the labour market,” say the corporatists. “They make unrealistic demands upon industry until it’s not profitable to run the industry anymore. And look at all their big pensions and their high wages and their lunch breaks and vacation pay! You guys aren’t getting any of that, are you? Why should the unions do so much better than you do?”
Except that the Big Unions that they talk about aren’t nearly what we’ve been led to believe. Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, one is a media performers’ union and another is a merged union that represents auto workers and people who work in communications, energy, and paper. And it didn’t save them from job loss when Conservative (politically expedient) budget cuts hit the CBC, nor the closing of several Canadian auto manufacturing plants.
Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, five are teachers’ unions, two are postal unions, three are unions for public service employees, one is a nurse’s union, and one is an office workers’ and professionals’ union. Most of these unions have voted to strike in the past ten years. All of the teachers, the postal workers, the nurses, and the public service employees were just legislated back to work by the government that oversees their industry, since they were deemed to be “essential services,” without any kind of attempt to even negotiate worker rights or needs. Even in the rare cases where arbitration decided in favour of the unions, new legislation just arbitrarily changed their bargaining rights, and they had to take their governments to court. And the public let them get away with this, because the public was jealous of the benefits and higher wages that those unions had, and they did not.
What a beautifully executed bait-and-switch! Instead of hating the company we work for because they pay us slave wages, we hate the union because they don’t work hard enough for us. Instead of hating corporate owners for lobbying our governments to suppress the labour market by relaxing regulations, we hate the union guys for making more money than we do. Instead of demanding that shareholders crop the salaries of their Boards of Directors, or accept slightly lesser dividends, we get mad because company unions won’t let them reduce wages and cut pensions. Instead of getting angry at the corporations for hiring illegal immigrants or Temporary Foreign Workers at slave wages and abusive conditions, we get mad at the immigrants themselves. The corporatists have effectively turned us on one another.
Rather than asking why the union guys get all of the benefits they do – benefits that, once upon a time, were considered just decent and proper working conditions and compensations – what we should be doing is asking why the rest of us don’t. And when unions act on behalf of the people they represent, we should support their action, rather than bitching because we find it inconvenient. If we did that, they would support us in our struggle for the same rights, especially when we chose to form our own unions. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have the Retail Employees’ Union of North America; or the Gas Station Attendant’s Union. And those unions would have power to get things done.
This weekend Canada Post is threatening to strike. They’re striking because Canada Post wants to get rid of door-to-door delivery and not pay their employees overtime for overtime work. While the company is claiming that they can’t compete in the market because of this, their first quarter profit was $44 million dollarsbecause of their growing parcel service – so I don’t believe them. Because I believe in the rights of the worker, I will be temporarily shutting down my Etsy shop until the strike is lifted. I will not be sending packages by Purolator. I am not a scab.
23 Things is a series that examines and explores the theories presented in Oxford-trained economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. I will examine each of his 23 Things by taking some of the material from his book, and breaking it down through the application of my own lens. For more information, I recommend his excellent book!
What They Tell You: Markets need to be free. When the government interferes to dictate what market participants can or cannot do, resources cannot flow to their most efficient use. If people cannot do the things that they find most profitable, they lose the incentive to invest and innovate.”
As Chang points out, no market is actually a free market. There are always regulations and rules that change the market considerably, and we just unconditionally accept a lot of the existing limitations. Free market economists who claim that people trying to put limitations on the market are politically motivated are equally politically motivated.
Here are a few of the innate regulations to the market that we have accepted as part of our “free market economy”:
In 1819, the UK’s Cotton Factory Regulation Act, was tabled in the British Parliament. It forbade the employment of young children under the age of nine. Older children’s hours were to be limited to 12 hours a day. The new rules only applied to cotton factories, which were especially dangerous. It was an incredibly controversial bill. Opponents believed that it undermined the free market completely. Some members of the House of Lords even opposed it on the grounds that “labour should be free.” Children wanted to work; factory owners wanted to employ them; what was the problem?
Now of course no one today would suggest that workers should not be paid; but part of the reason that large employers close their North American factories and go to developing countries is that between the reduced currency values, and the willingness of hungrier people to do more for less, it seriously reduces their labour costs. It’s the main reason that large corporations support globalization.
Also, this is why large corporations lobby governments to permit such things as Canada’s shameful Temporary Foreign Worker program, which, nominally, was supposed to allow people with hard-to-find skills to come to Canada and work at jobs that are difficult to fill in Canada; but which was actually used by large corporations to create a class of sharecroppers for low-paying service jobs, artificially suppressing wages and working conditions for everyone. The Liberal government has now re-instituted this program due to pressure from lobbyists, after the Conservative government was forced to shut it down because a restaurant owner in Saskatchewan fired a twenty-plus year employee to hire Temporary Foreign Workers to work at a lesser wage, lesser hours, and higher pressure. The Temporary Foreign Worker program is a good example of how necessary wage regulations are, and how some employers will continually try to chip away at them anyway.
As Chang points out, restrictions on immigration have more effect on wages than any other factor, including minimum wage legislation.
When you think about it, the fight against slavery was the first attempt to regulate wages and working conditions. And to this day, human traffickers continue to import workers, often children, to work under abusive and oppressive conditions in order to cheat labour costs.
Working Conditions and Safety
Note how controversial that 12 hour limit of a day’s work was! Now we generally accept that a human being can only work for so long because exhaustion sets in. This is one of many regulations that have been enacted to protect workers in the labour market. The early days of the Industrial Revolution were a horror story of factory owners taking advantage of the poor and allowing human suffering on an unprecedented scale. This sobering video shows a few of the things that child labourers were expected to do before legislation protected them; and a few of those things still go on in places where the laws protecting workers are not so firm. And Karen Silkwood taught us why the struggle must continue.
This one still sticks in the craw of certain large corporations, but most people now agree that environmental regulations must exist to protect innocent bystanders and the planet. In places where those environmental regulations are relaxed, such as China, the results are clear. Contrary to popular belief, this has happened before, resulting in the enactment of a series of restrictions on permitted air pollutants. But companies still try to get past the restrictions. Recently Volkswagen has been caught altering their emissions regulators to cheat at emissions tests without actually lowering emissions.
Food and Drug Regulation
Despite a reputation for permitting lowered standards for big money corporations, the Food and Drug Administration, and regulatory boards like it that exist in most countries, was created to limit what could be sold to consumers and make sure, to the best of their ability, that products for sale were safe. Certain foods are required to be processed in particular ways in order to be considered safe for sale. Prior to these regulatory boards there was no standard of safety for products that were sold for human consumption, and people could make any kind of claims they wanted. As frustrating as I sometimes find them as an herbalist, I recognize their work as necessary and important. Without these boards, disasters like suicides caused by improper application of SSRIs, and like birth defects caused by thalidomide, would be everyday occurrences. Recently, poisoning in pet foods caused renal failure in thousands of cats and dogs because we do not apply FDA standards to pet food.
We require professions that have significant impact on human lives to have licensing systems; such as lawyers, or doctors. We require police forces to serve a public trust rather than any private individual or company. We only allow companies with a certain amount of capital to set up chartered banks. All of these restrictions are, nominally, to protect the public; and to a large degree they do.
Restrictions on Trade
There are rules about what sorts of products may be sold and under what conditions. Businesses that sell faulty products are required to refund the customer’s money. Businesses that sell dangerous products are legally responsible for those products. Countries and even states and provinces restrict what can be imported across their borders and often assign tariffs and taxes to protect their local industries. We do not permit the open buying of votes or narcotics. Even the underregulated stock market, whose lax rules led directly to the 2008 financial meltdown, has restrictions on who can trade and how.
Even in normal times, interest rates are set by a central bank, which restricts what people are allowed to charge others for the privilege of borrowing money; and after the 2008 crisis, interest rates plummeted because of a political decision to build up the economy and increase investment by lowering interest rates. One of the enshrined champions of “free market economies,” George W. Bush, used $700 billion taxpayer dollars to buy up assets that were choking the economy; one of the biggest financial interventions by the State in history.
As Chang says himself:
We see a regulation when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it. The nineteenth-century high-tariff restriction on free trade by the US federal government outraged slave-owners, who at the same time saw nothing wrong with trading people in a free market. To those who believed that people can be owned, banning trade in slaves was objectionable in the same way as restricting trade in manufactured goods.”
So, what restrictions should we impose on the market? Should we favour the wealthy, or the common human being? Should we do what is in the best interests of a lucky few, or what is in the best interests of everyone else? It’s up to us, but only if we demand the right to make the choice.
Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.
We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.
We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!
We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.
We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.
We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.
Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.
I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.
Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.
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?
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, andvirtue 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?
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.”
“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.”
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?
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.”
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.
Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.
Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.
Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.
What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.
Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).
You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)
Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.
Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.
There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?
And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?
And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.
I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.
I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.
A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.
Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.
The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?
If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).
Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?
Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?
At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.
I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?
More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?
Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!
Should we link our politics and our faith? This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community. Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicalshas created, especially the recent controversy.
I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip. Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful. But even I was drawn partway into this one. I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me. It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.
Sometimes that’s a good thing. It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck. For me it did both.
One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith. That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.
Religion Informs Culture
There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one. That’s true. But we do have a distinct Pagan culture. Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)
The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right. Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world. Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far. Culture is something we talk about as being an important force. Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.
We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state. Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion. We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).
But religion is also a part of culture. The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule. Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution,which happened in the mid-seventies. The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized. But there are remnants. For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.
This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec. There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.
However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing. That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique. It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places. And we’re learning how to do it better. For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes. They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues. Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies. I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.
This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.
Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity. Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing. The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will. Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.
Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual. In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions. (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions. Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason. At least, that’s what I think.)
Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us. This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on. We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go. Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community. Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all. We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars. It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what “dogma” actually is. Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.
Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down. But as Brendan Myersonce tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic! Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.
Where am I going with all of this? I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics. Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms. A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility. I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so. And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.
Deities Inform Your Politics
Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics. A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg. A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order. Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.
A Personal Perspective
Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe. I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.
One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery. “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.
There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect. Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty. My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.
As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed. Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically. It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.
Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies. Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression. This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board. It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone. I get more done that way. And I get encouragement when I need it. I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals. But dammit, they’re doing something. And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”
Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work. I have written before abouthow Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant. At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given. I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.
But over time that relationship changed. I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women. And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions. I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.
And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer. She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia. She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed. Hence, the choice of my Craft name.
I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics. It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it. And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners. In other words, the 1% of their time.
I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance. In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.” I can’t keep my mouth shut. It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out. Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.
Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues. I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either. I hate fighting. But sometimes I have to. If I don’t, who will?
There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day. I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating). I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.
But the blogosphere is not one of those places. Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics. The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora. If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to. But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.
*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada. Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph. Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.
I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.
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