Awakening Against What’s Awakened

Berlin is a city of the dead. You hear them behind the raucous laughter in the clubs, in the space between stones on crowded streets. They’re  loudest especially in the time just after sunset, the gloaming, when Berlin seems suddenly to waken into life hidden from view of the day.

You know what happened to Berlin, probably. You know of the great conflagration in the souls of millions which suddenly turned all the minds of many towards the slaughter of a few. The parades through streets celebrating a new thing awakened, the shattered windows and bloodied faces. The seized printing-presses, the new flags adorning old stone. And then the deportations, and then the murders.

Some great Authority awakened into the world, and millions complied with its will.

The Cries of the Dead

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Often, it’s easier to hear the dead than it is to hear the gods. Gods don’t leave corpses to rot in alleyways, or journals to account their worlds. We may speak of the gods, and to them, but they exist in the realm of the pre-literate, the Abyss before human meaning. Any words we ascribe to them is mere translation, any relics bearing their name were made or invoked by us, not by them.

The dead, though—they leave books and buildings, papers and clothing, hair and bone and graffiti. Their bodies rot into the soil, feeding the harvests of our present. They leave words and warnings, their echoed screams shape the sense of a place. They plant trees under which we sit decades later, along a canal they built a century ago. Their impassioned groans and throes birthed those whose later orgasmic exhalations called into being the living who jog past me as I write.

The not-human dead are easier to see, though apparently mute. The cows whose skin binds my pants to my waist and shods my feet have not yet decomposed into the Abyss, but they did not in life speak a language I understand. The dead tree whose wood forms this bench upon which I sit may have once towered over villages from which Jews were hauled into camps, but its voice is silent in response to my questions.

It’s from the dead that we even know of the gods, and the dead still speak. But I do not like what they have to say.

The dead keep telling me about that great thing awakened, warning of another.

Something’s happening.

One dead haunting me a bit particularly has been Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was born in Berlin. Feared more than anything returning there, hid in Paris, then Marseilles, as a nation inhabited by some strange new spirit swept through Europe, building camps into which their enemies were concentrated, then sacrificed. Even climbing a mountain gave him no quarter, as respect for the new religion had spread even to Spain.

The Wotanic Spirit

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Bricks memorializing homes from which Jews were deported. The woman in the center was 73 year old when deported. She died a month later.

I use the words spirit and religion without flippancy here, without metaphor. In a speech before the second world war broke out, Jung spoke of a Wotanic spirit awakening in Germany. The God of the German Christians seemed no longer the same God of the French Christians, no longer the same God which held together the imagined community of (Christian) Europe. An older god, an ancestral god, a god of dirt and blood, a god of rage and fear had arisen, dethroning the God of Civilization.

We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors. But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find Wotan quite suitable as a casual hypothesis….

 

Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but, also, an Ergreifer (one who seizes). Wotan is an Ergreifer of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler– which has indeed actually happened — he is really the only explanation.

Jung’s speech has some significant problems, not least of which is his linkage of the German people’s physical ancestry–as well as culture–as a site for the awakening of a god. But the matter of the Ergriffenheit, the possession, mirrors plenty of other writers’ descriptions of the strange spirit which seemed to inhabit those who fell under the sway of the Nazis.

But was it Wotan? Can a god do that? And anyway, what is is a god?

There’s a theory that many of the gods we now know were all once humans. Odin, for instance, is thought to have been a powerful shaman-type figure, Brân was once a chieftain of the Belgii, Ceridwen and the Morrígan and Hecate once renowned and feared witches. After their deaths, their significant deeds were remembered through story, and over generations (centuries) the veneration people from who only knew them through these great tales made them divine.

Such an idea makes a lot of sense, judging from the last few millennia. Plenty of emperors, kings, and spiritual leaders have all been made into gods—often while they still lived. Even into the late 1700’s in Europe, the touch of a royal was though to heal sickness.

In most of these instances, it was the persons themselves who made the revelation, declaring to their followers their true nature. Others, though, were made sacred after their deaths by religious leaders—though saints are subordinate to the God of the Catholics, sainthood elevates them over the realm of mere mortals. Their existence persists long after their deaths, reminded to us by venerations and sacred stories.

Were the Pagan gods maybe the same?

We cannot know when Odin was first known to those who claimed him as a god, nor whether the first to speak his name knew him as a god, a shaman, a chief, or something else entirely. And though this theory itself is neutral as to whether or not the gods-once-human are now gods, it has some uncomfortable implications for anyone who might now claim themselves a priest or mystic of such divine beings, because it’s linked to authority.

Jung may have been aware of this idea, even as he crafted his archetypal theory of the gods. But being no political theorist, Jung does not look directly at the way a State seems to inhabit the people the same way a god might have.

Gods Are Things

berlin viewI should first explain what I even mean by gods. And for this I must first speak of trees.

Trees are a thing. They exist, as much as anything exists. And they are a thing almost every one of us will experience at least once.

Forget you have eyes for a moment and consider the experience of a tree. If you do not see them, you can still know there is a thing there by listening to the sound the wind makes through their branches, feeling the cool of their shade on a hot day, smelling the earthy decay of their leaves in late autumn or the fragrance of their blossoms in spring, tasting their fruit or their sap. You may even know them even though they are dead, sitting upon a wooden bench or hearing the crinkle of newspaper, tasting alder or hickory on grilled meat or smelling the smoke from winter chimneys.

Trees are a thing you can experience, and probably have already. But how is a tree even a thing at all? Without witnessing the suspension of orange from branch, without seeing chopped wood set alight, how do you connect the ripe flesh of fruit or the warmth of a fireplace to the Tree as thing? A pear is a thing, a pine coffin is a thing, toilet paper is a thing, but how are they then also part of a Tree as thing?

Humans are also a thing. I feel a human when he touches my shoulder, my chest. I smell a human when she is near me, the mix of her sweat and perfume warmed by the heat of her body. I taste a human when he kisses me, when I lick his skin. And I hear humans when I walk through cities, when they shout at me or call my name.

Like a tree, I also feel what humans do even when they are not there. I walk across the cobbles they’ve lain, I sleep on the beds, I eat the food they’ve grown. I choke on the fumes of their cars, I smell the dinners they cook as I pass windows thrown open to the summer air.

My knowledge of humans (like that of trees) comes from my senses. When I hear a human, my ears are resonating with the waves of sound their actions make. When I see them, my eyes discern the patterns of light which reflect off them. My nose and tongue translate the particulates kicked up from their existence, the nerves in my skin explode electric currents to my brain when their bodies press against mine. All this, too, is true for trees.

We walk through a world swirling with the chaos of other things sharing it with us. We’re all said to exist, to be, but we don’t really have a good reason for being certain of that. We mostly just accept it on faith—and then forget there was anything to accept in the first place. We can’t go around questioning our senses all the time. We’d never get around to living.

That acceptance is the gate to the world of meaning, the gate out of The Abyss of the rawest of life. Walking through that gate, we enter a great world enclosed by the earth itself, drenched and soaked in the meaning we weave from all the threads of the material. But we must be clear: it’s we who do that weaving. We are the meaning-makers.awakening meaning pull

I experience the gods with the same senses through which I experience everything else, and call them things. Sometimes I feel a hand on the back of my neck, breath in my ear. That’s Brân. Sometimes I see a pattern of light on water or the taste of something electric on the wind; that’s Arianrhod. Flames dancing in a certain way, the scent of a home I haven’t known yet, the lightest of rain on bare skin— Brighid. A sudden chill that awakens the body, the heightened alertness when the moon’s a sharp crescent is when I smell Ceridwen, though the pattern of black branches in that same moonlight is Gwyn Ap Nudd.

One sharp taste on a tongue is called Salt, a sweeter one is called Sugar; these are just names, but names we’re all quite insistent upon as being connected to things. Though a Frenchwoman would call the latter Sucre and the former Sel, a German insist Salz for the first and Sukar for the second, we’re pretty attached to those names.

I’m pretty attached to the names I have for the experiences-called-gods, too. Though sometimes I use others. Brighid is the Lady of the Hearth, though sometimes of the Flame, or of Tears, or the Rain. Brân’s the Raven King, and also the Guardian at the Gate of the Dead. Ceridwen’s sometimes the Huntress, and sometimes Gwyn Ap Nudd Hunts too.

Arianrhod’s the Silver Wheel, and a lot of other names I don’t really understand yet. She avoids comprehension more than the others. When a lover bit my nipples until they started to bleed, I understood something about her I still don’t get but feel again sometimes. When I see that pattern of light-on-water, I know a part of my mind awakens and understands. It just refuses to explain to the rest of me.

Gods On Thrones

Hunt graffiti, Berlin
Graffiti, Berlin

Gods occupy a space of human meaning. When something strange happens, fortuitous or synchronistic, and when that happens to co-incide with what I generally ascribe to the activity of the gods, I am connecting something to the gods by a thread called Meaning. Light dances on water a certain way and I think of Arianrhod. My consciousness seems to both to expand and yet become more porous into the land around me and I think Brân.

But the gods occupy a different space from other things to which we connect meaning. We usually call that place ‘Sacred,’ rather than mundane or normal. When I pour out offerings to Arianrhod, it’s a sacred thread of meaning, a sort of special category of meaning set apart from all the others. And though we tend to think of that sacred as out of reach of the political, it’s never been the case.

awakening political pullKings, emperors, chiefs, and other human authorities have always ruled by the blessing of the divine, be that gods, God, or another sacred realm outside the reach of material influence. In the present, governments gain consent to rule by the will of the people; 500 years ago, kings ruled by the will of God and the blessing of the Church; in non-Christian areas, kings claimed to rule through the blessing of the land or the gods.

That authorial space the sacred occupies in political realms is also a realm of meaning. A king derives his power from God not because God grants him that authority, but because those he rules over see God as a meaningful thing. Within a society where God is thought to exist, and where God is a pervasive, inescapable thing of meaning, the King who claims such blessing is now backed up by an entire Order of Meaning birthed by that God. How a king is able to convince the rest of us that God has given him Divine Right is of course complicated, helped along by already-existing institutions who maintain the Order of Meaning at which that God is at the head. Also, violence helps, too.

While a traditional anarchist or Marxist (or even just an atheist) might protest that the God at the head of such an Order of Meaning is merely fictional or constructed, this doesn’t actually change the power of the God. As long as enough people within a society believe that there is such a God, and that such a God also grants sovereignty to leaders, and that others (priests, diviners, etc.) can accurately determine that God’s will, whether or not the God actually exists is utterly irrelevant.

This same mechanism wherein the Sacred sustains an Order of Meaning applies just as much to the Celtic and Germanic ideas of Sacred Kingship as it does to Liberal Democracy’s concept of the consent-of-the-governed. Though it may have been Druids or Shamans or Priestesses declaring what the gods willed before, and though it may be elections and the media and politicians declaring what the people will now, God (or the Sacred) never disappeared as the originator of Authority.

Though many modern Polytheists, Christian Fundamentalists, or Islamic Radicals might use such a knowledge to claim that the Sacred therefore is the true source of Authority (and a source we must return to if we first acknowledge that such a Sacred exists), such a fascistic rush misses another important aspect of the space the Sacred occupies.

While I name certain experiences gods, I do not choose to therefore bow down to them, nor do they demand such a thing. I am aware of Brighid’s presence and say hello, or immerse myself into the world of meaning which opens when she’s around, but I don’t ask her what she therefore demands of me. When something happens which I ascribe to the influence of Arianrhod, I do not kneel or vow to serve her, nor does she ask me to.

It is only certain others, those who teach things about gods–who claim to experience them and draw power from them–who demand that I do such a thing. No god has ever said, “follow me,” no deity has ever asked that I give myself over to them in return for riches or power, no sacred being has ever threatened to punish me if I do not do as they say. But plenty of priests have.

awakening obedience pullGods don’t demand obedience, but humans certainly do.  An employer may certainly use threats to co-erce me to do more work, a politician might certainly promise fortune if I grant him consent through ballot, a religious leader has absolutely promised great power and magic if I follow them. And in each of these cases, the demand or threat is backed up by an Order of Meaning in which such obedience is derived from a ‘greater’ source. Consider:

  • The employer has more money than I, and the hierarchy which sustains Capitalism is clear.
  • The politician, once elected, may indeed wield the sort of power that might make me rich, but only because a political system already exists which grants the elected power over the rest of us.
  • If I believe in the same god(s) of the religious leader and accept their claims to speak on at god(s)’s behalf, I may decide that my personal autonomy is a fair sacrifice.

That is, gods don’t demand I bow to them. It is others who demand that things be bowed to or accept an Order of Meaning where bowing to things is what you do.

Those who demand gods be served and worshiped often tell us that it is “because they are gods.” This is, of course, no different from a parent saying to a child, “because I said so,” or a police officer stating, “it’s against the law.” In all cases, the reason for the obedience comes from the supposed source of the command itself (parent, god, police). Or, put another way:

Authority must be obeyed because it’s Authority, and an Authority is an Authority because an Authority said so.

The Empty Thrones

 

Graffiti on Refugee Center, Berlin

Returning to Jung’s theory that a thing like a god had possessed the people of Germany, we can start to wonder why there’s even a space within us to be possessed in the first place. And remembering that the Sacred has always been used by political powers to create an Order of Meaning in which their authority is secured, we need need ask why such a trick works.

The gods may exist outside ourselves, but the thrones upon which some of us put them don’t.  Instead, those thrones exist within. Gods inhabit the spaces we make for them in our world, just as a lover inhabits our consciousness. They become not just an outside thing, but an inside thing, taking root in our heart, our dreams, our thoughts.

Put a lover on a throne and their existence is no longer just a beautiful thing to us, but a thing of Order. Put their desires and concerns first above any other, and they no longer just co-create your meaning, they become it. You become subsumed into their existence, a servant, building your life around them rather than with them. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone say of their lover, “they are the reason I exist.”

It does not matter whether the lover desires such a thing at all. Most wouldn’t ascend that throne, if it is to be called love. But it is not really up to them.

A lover might decide I am his ‘all’ regardless of whether I’d want to be such a thing (I don’t), and I would then experience him as a will-less person, too eager to please, too readily disappointed when I do not fully occupy the ascended place he’s made for me.

It seems it is the same with the gods. Perhaps there are some gods happy to have eager servants willing to absolve their own personality (and responsibility) into them. I do not imagine this does those gods well in the end. For instance, the racists and fascists who invoke Odin and the ‘northern gods’ to justify their hatred seem to do Odin no good; he becomes, like the Christian devil, a shadow-pit into which all the blame for evil is dumped. Worse, such followers do precisely the same thing as the followers of the Christian god did, demanding conformity of belief and killing those who won’t submit to their new order of meaning.

The thrones upon which we’d put a lover or a god seem to exist regardless of their desires. And that makes me wonder where such things come from—why, really, would we elevate any other being to a place of Authority besides ourselves?

The answer is probably that we’ve been taught to.

We’re taught from our youngest years to obey, to acquiesce, to comply. Our parents teach this, our elders and teachers. Police teach this, and tax collectors and jailers. Employers teach this, and journalists and bullies.

awakening taught pullElevate and heed the will of your parents, and you will not get punished. Hearken and obey the words of your teachers and elders, and you will not get shunned or go to detention. Fear and listen to the demands of police, and you will not get shot. Work hard, give up hours of your life and discipline yourself, and you will not get fired and go hungry.

It is our societies which carve the thrones of Authority into our souls, and there are too many others willing to sit upon them.

Putting gods upon those thrones instead of human leaders may actually seem an attempt at freedom. If Brighid occupies the highest Authority of my life, one might think I’d be less likely to obey others. But she doesn’t actually fit in that seat, nor does she seem to want to sit in it. The only way for me to keep her there would be to force her into it, bind her to the armrests, chain her feet to the floor. ‘Stay there and be my master,‘ I’d have to say, ‘tell me what to do so I am no longer responsible for my actions.’

I don’t think she’d take that well.

Others might claim she already sits there, that she sits on their own thrones, that she demands this. One sees this often with certain ‘war’ gods like Odin or The Morrígan, but those gods aren’t really much for sitting.

No Masters

Mexican Embassy Art, Berlin
Rhyd at Mexican Embassy, Berlin

It is probably not possible to destroy the thrones. Perhaps once carved from the etheric stone of our wills, the thrones never go away. Taught from birth that someone must always have more say than others, disciplined while still crawling across the floor that some must always be lower and some must always be higher, maybe we can never unlearn this.

So perhaps it’s best if we sit on those thrones ourselves. I think we usually do anyway, and merely displace our blame and guilt when we do something awful, or something does not turn out well. Afterall, we choose to obey, we choose to submit, we choose to debase our nature before the will of others.

If we sit on our own thrones, we might better resist those who’d coerce us. When others demand we obey their Authority, they’d have to topple us from our own power. When hatred points to the weak and oppressed as the cause of our own weakness, we’d be strong against such designs.

Those thrones are, after all, the very seat of our own power.

The ‘Wotanic spirit’ that awakened into the world during the rise of Hitler is not much different from the great Authorities that have arisen in any other time. The lockstep obedience, the subservience to a greater power, the sublimation of individuality and the hatred of difference has inhabited humans many times before, and seems to arise now again.

Against such a thing, only those who know no other authority but their own might stand. But there would need to be many of us, many more than there are now. All the self-actualization in the world won’t protect us from bullets or bombs, gas-chambers or prison-cells. No matter how liberated we are, without many others likewise liberated we stand alone.

Our liberation is always contingent on the liberation of others.

What would the world be like if more of us occupied our own thrones? Where freedom from coercion and the divine right of self-mastery became the primary values of our societies? As long as those with whom I interact are enchained by the will of others, I could only ever be an actualised self alone, if such a thing were even possible. To become more my self, I need others to teach me how they become their selves. To be free from the coercion of others, others around me must know what coercion even is,

And here’s where the gods, temporarily unseen, resurge back like an immense tide. Beings existing outside our enchainment, needing neither to coerce nor force but merely be–are they not the very ideal of our own freedom?

That we would put them on thrones, enchain their meaning and extract it for own desire to rule everyone but ourselves–the only result of such a thing is rivers of blood running down streets or ziggurats, slaughter and manacles and camps. But if instead they are guides of our liberation, themselves unchained, themselves unmastered and unmastering, they are exactly what we might need to oppose whatever new thing is awakening in our world.

We already have guides for this sort of thing. The women and men who snuck into factories under the cover of night, smashing the machinery of the rich Capitalists, claimed to follow a spectral king. “No general but Ludd,” went their slogan, “did the worker any good.” The Whiteboys of Ireland did the same, following a spectral land-goddess, issuing evictions in her name. Not obedience, not submission, but liberation.

Perhaps our gods, like Ludd, will agree to guide us.

But we must be clear whose hands are unshackling others, whose hammers are smashing the machines, and who’s actually supposed to be sitting on those thrones.


This essay first appeared as a subscriber-only piece at Paganarch


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch.

 

 


The Call for Submissions for the Next Issue of A Beautiful Resistance is out!

Putting Out

By Rhyd Wildermuth

salvation army girls
At the Bar (Salvation Army Girls) by Jeanne Mammen, 1926. ‘Salvation Army Girls’ were women who sold sex exclusively to other women in Germany during the Wiemar period.

Early in the summer of 2009, I whiled a fantastic summer with a lover in a beautiful apartment in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

In the mornings (or what passes for morning in a city where Capitalism has not fully conquered the human day), we’d stumble down a short flight of steps into a scene of wonder–into a stone courtyard, out through the heavy wooden gate on the cobbled sidewalk, grapevines and trees and street art soaking my senses in luxurious intensity.

From there, one could walk to the tree-lined Canal, the enchanting and very crowded outdoor Turkish Market, along a bustling street filled with food-shops and stores.  Or cross a bridge to one of the nearby 15 gay bars (a fraction of the full number in that city), or descend underground to the U-bahn and travel briefly to anywhere else in that gorgeous, intoxicating city.

He was there to do research for his master’s thesis on queer occult societies during the Weimar Republic, a period of unrivaled gay and Pagan culture in the period just before the Nazis rose to power.  Set powerfully into the collective memory by the writings of Christopher Isherwood and the musical Caberet, Weimar Berlin was a fascinating mix of radicalism and sexual experimentation in the midsts of a breakdown of Capitalist power.  People were poor but sexy, and Berlin became both a pilgrimage site for queers in the Western world as well as a ‘degenerate’ symbol of all that was wrong with the world for the rising Nazi party.

Berlin had a church attendance rate of 1%, hosted occult events nightly, and the literature and art from that time speaks to an almost utopic exploration of the human soul.  Oh, and it was also full of prostitutes, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve never made much money, never much more than minimum wage.  Thing is, Berlin is cheap, or was when we first stayed there.  One of the ways to keep your costs down when traveling is to find an apartment to sublet. Costs of food go down significantly when you’ve access to a kitchen, and generally the cost of renting someone else’s home is usually much lower than a nightly hotel.

To do this, I searched a few free listing sites on the internet.  There was no AirBnB or other ‘services’ yet, but sites like Craiglist.org existed where people could list for free.  Each time I stayed in Berlin, the cost of renting an entire apartment (including the aforementioned one) was a little less than 100 euro (110 us dollars at the time) per week.  As a matter of fact, in each instance, I rented someone else’s home for the exact cost that they incurred for rent on their place.

One time we asked the person from whom we rented why they weren’t charging us more. Their answer was quite shocking, and they sounded awfully offended.  They’d said: “I’m not trying to make a profit here! What sort of person would do that?

While I’m near 40 years old now, this is a good time to tell you that I’m not engaging in nostalgia for an economy that existed several decades ago.  This was only 5 years ago.

Kapital Über Alles

Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores
Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores

Now, however, things have changed there, as they have also changed here, on account of a shift of social relations described by cheerleaders of Capitalism as “The Sharing Economy.”

On the face of it, AirBnB, a company which offers to set up people looking for sublets with hosts for a fee, appears to have made it ‘easier’ to find lodging at a cheaper rate than hotels.  However, it has actually all but displaced the older model which enabled someone poor like myself to stay in a foreign city.

The advent of businesses such as AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Taskrabbit, and many other ‘services’ are all part of this brave new economic world, where people can sell or rent their services to strangers at a piece-rate in return for money.  The enthusiasm for these Corporations and their ‘apps’ is intense, soaked in the usual optimism any new Capitalist venture generates through the Capitalist media.

It may seem almost a sort of liberation.  If you own a car, you now have the option to make money from it.  If you’re in need of extra cash, you can turn extra hours into waged-labor by running errands through Taskrabbit or Postmates.  And on the off-chance you’ve got an empty room in your home, have an extra home, or have the option to stay elsewhere, you can rent out your place to others for more money than you pay in mortgage or rent.  It’s a brave new world, full of opportunities to make money at every turn, the possibility of liberation from the drudgery of the old ways breathing down your neck before us.

Except, it’s not new. And it’s not liberating. 

To understand this matter, we need first to deconstruct and discard the ridiculous description of this activity as “the Sharing Economy.”

Let’s take the first part, ‘Sharing.’  What precisely is being ‘shared’ when a driver signs up with a company like Uber?  Uber’s not doing any sharing–in fact, Uber provides nothing to a driver except for access to their application system which provides drivers with customers. According to Uber’s VP of operations:

Uber currently keeps 20% of each trip as a lead gen cost. This percentage is common in the industry and commonly referred to as a farm out fee. There are no monthly fees to be a driver on Uber, outside of a minimal data charge for the iPhone. [emphasis mine]

Does ‘farm out’ sound familiar at all?

If you remember anything about the early history of Capitalism, you may be familiar with ‘Putting Out,’ the system by which merchants distributed raw materials to individuals in homes to assemble products (textiles, pins, matches, etc.).  ‘Farming out’ is a similar process, a loaning-out of access to resources in return for a high percentage of profits or income.

Uber, AirBnB, and all the other players in The Sharing Economy are not actually sharing at all, they’re ‘putting out’ access to customers.

Likewise, though, those who are using these services to make money from their homes or cars are not ‘sharing’ either, unless sharing no longer means what we were taught it meant in kindergarten.  I was told it meant letting someone use something you weren’t using, and I don’t remember a monetary exchange.

Let’s be clear.  Charging money to allow someone to use something of yours is called renting.

The Means of (Re)Production

Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happily here, I think.
Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happier here, I think.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was mostly homeless.  23, gay, new to a city, with only two friends to rely upon who lived in a suburb.  To find a place, I needed money, and to find money, I needed a job, and all the jobs were in the city, not the suburb.

I slept ‘rough’ many nights in those first few months.  Sometimes on a stranger’s couch, sometimes in an alley, often in a park, once in a while in a friend’s car. More often than not, though, I’d find myself trading sex for a place to sleep, not something I’ve ever admitted in public ’till now.

I’m hardly ashamed.  I found myself in some fantastic condos with great views, waking in the morning occasionally even to breakfast and once to a marriage proposal.  It was a way to survive, most of the men were polite, and it was usually consensual except for the whole “you have a roof, I don’t” bit.

It’s called ‘sex-work.’  And it’s a common means of survival for the poor, particularly when they have no access to the things you require to survive.

“Things you require to survive,” by the way, is called the Means of Reproduction in Marxist theory.  This includes food, housing, and leisure–the stuff that keeps you alive.

The Means of Production is slightly different–it’s access to the ability to create things others find socially useful, like cooking, art, coding…pretty much anything that we call ‘work.’  In Capitalist countries, most people don’t have the Means of Production and have to rely on the rich for ways to do things others will want to trade for.

The one thing a human always has, by the way, is their body.  Though not all sex-workers do so from extreme poverty (in fact, some of the greatest, most creative and powerful folks I know are sex-workers), the body is the one thing we can always fall back upon when we have nothing else.

In fact, that’s what all waged-work is–our bodies being used in exchange for money.  The sex-worker is no different from the tech worker, except one’s a lot more likely to be beaten, raped, or vilified than the other, and, also, one’s more likely to be a woman.

But, oh!  We were talking about The Sharing Economy, which we’re now calling The Renting Economy.

My Means of Production as a homeless person happened also to be my Means of Reproduction, as sex is a social relationship and part of the ways in which we create meaning in our lives.  In the best scenarios, sex is a freely-given exchange between two or more people; in patriarchal marriages, or in rape, or in situations of economic disparity, that exchange is not freely-given.

But this is the same with that category of social-relations called labor, too.   I only work for someone richer than myself because they have money and I do not–while I have some choice in who I work for (just as I had some choice in who I let fuck me when I was homeless), it’s difficult to say that I was fully able to exercise my free will.  We who have no wealth must work to survive in a Capitalist society because the laws ensure we have no other choice.

We are always trading our Means of Reproduction (again, the very essence of our life) for access to the Means of Production.  We sell our body (whether that be our mental faculties, our social skills, our muscles, or our genitals) in exchange for money we use to purchase what will give us the life we can get, to feed our ‘Reproduction.’

Pimp My Life

19ukhomeWhen I traded sex for a place to stay for the night, there was no one else directly mediating that exchange.  Guy takes a homeless guy back to his place, homeless guy gets a place to sleep, housed guy gets sex with someone younger than him, and that’s the end of the transaction.

But…what if there were some enterprising person eager to get in on this social exchange?  Say, some agent who helped make such connections in return for money from the ‘buyer’ or oral sex from the seller?

Such folks exist, of course.

A pimp or madam offer both a steady stream of clients to a sex-worker as well as some semblance of security.  The better ones keep the prostitutes they manage safe from abusive buyers, provide safer places for the sex to occur, and even screen customers beforehand.  They may even help those under their employ get to the hospital or pay for contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted infections (that is, ‘work injuries.’)  Basically, benefits.

Much, much more common, however, are the abuses.  A pimp or madam wields great power over their sex-workers, and the litany of horrors people endure must be remembered.  One of the most common is stolen wages–the person acting as the intermediary demands a cut of income from the sex-work, despite not performing any of the work themselves, justifying this extortion through their ‘services’ of providing protection and a steady stream of clients.

Worst of all, the sex-worker cannot easily end their relationship with the pimp or madam out of fear of violence, poverty, and losing access to customers (that is, their Means of Production).

There was no pimp to arrange these meetings between myself and the men I slept with, though I’ve had plenty such pimps in my life.  They’re called employers.

Aside

I realize, for many, my comparison between Capitalist employment and sex-work may be upsetting.  For some, sex-work is always exploitative, while waged-labor is seen (particularly by those who are not convinced Capitalism is all that bad) as more respectable and free-willed. 

To those of this opinion, I’ll admit–it’s a lot easier to talk of my time working in restaurants than it is my time trading sex. And let’s be awfully honest–sex work is not highly paid.  But favoring one sort of work over another is why a CEO is paid millions while an immigrant janitor’s paid pennies.

And to those worried I’m ignoring my male privilege, I’ll admit–I’m pretty strong and a little scary looking–my experiences were certainly less dangerous than many of my trans and non-male friends who’ve engaged (and currently engage) in sex-work face. 

That said, we should insist that sex-work is work, just as any other work is work.  And work when you have no choice is exploitative.  Either all work should be legal, or all work should be illegal (I vote for the latter).

There’s an App For That

rhyd 2001
Me, streetpunk

So, hey…let’s return to that Sharing Economy thing, huh?

I guess you could kinda say that I was ‘sharing’ my body with those men.  On the better nights, with the more attractive and fascinating and kind men, it did kinda feel like sharing, except, well–no.  I was renting myself to them.

Again, I was turning my Means of Reproduction into something I could trade so I could get what I needed, which is the deal we all make with the Capitalists.

This Sharing Economy shit is a really pretty name we put on people renting out their life in exchange for money, turning their cars and homes into the Means of Production.  And we must be really clear about what AirBnB, Uber, and all these companies really are.

They’re pimps.

They’re extracting money from social transactions we make with each other.

When you need a ride from a friend, you offer to pay them gas money.  Now, you pay Uber who pays the driver less than what you paid, while the driver bears all the responsibility (insurance, car payments, gas, repairs).

When you’re going to be gone from your home for a few weeks, you might ask a friend to house-sit or even offer to let a stranger stay if they pay your rent while you’re gone.  Now, AirBnb gets to make money off of you doing so.

What gushing white tech CEO’s and their slobbering fan-boys declare is a ‘new economy’ is really just another way to extract money from the most basic of human activities, a new Enclosure of the social Commons.

Capitalism in Crisis

There’s that quote about remembering history, that I won’t repeat here, ’cause it’s lost its meaning.

Better to say this: certain forms repeat throughout history, and recognizing when they recur is a great way of learning to fight them.  The ‘open-plan office’ that many tech-workers rightfully complain about bears a strong resemblance to the factory floor of the 19th century, and though working for Google is nothing like working in a sweat-shop, noticing the similarities helps remind us when the powerful are relying on something that’s worked for them in the past.

Our current society is not really like Wiemar Berlin just before the Nazi’s rose to power, mostly because what passes for art and culture and sexual experimentation is rather mundane and banal compared to what they came up with.  Nor is using Uber or renting out your apartment with AirBnB quite like the putting-out industry of 1700’s England.  And selling your sex is not the same as using TaskRabbit.

But the forms repeat.  In Berlin, the weakness of Capitalism compelled people to rent their bodies for money.  In early 1700’s England, greedy people ‘put-out’ resources to have the poor make money for them.  And really awful people have always tried to get a piece of us, whether it be our sex or any of the other social relations we create.

Capitalism is in another crisis.  It does this, repeatedly, and in those moments where the rich aren’t certain they’ll be able to hold onto their wealth, they turn all their attention towards finding new ways of extracting our Means of Reproduction and turning it into their profit.

You’re being pimped.

What are you gonna do about it?


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-edged revolution here.


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